This month I almost forgot to renew my BC Library Association (BCLA) membership. I originally got membership as a student for free but now that I’m a totally legitimate professional, it costs money, so it’s something I can easily let slip through the cracks. But letting my membership lapse would be kind of awkward and weird at this point since I’m now officially a co-chair of BCLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) with David Waddell. Woo!
In his “passing the baton” email to the BCLA and IFC lists the outgoing chair, Jon Scop, commented on how it’s kind of interesting to have an intellectual freedom leadership position going from one male children’s librarian to two male children’s librarians. To me it seems obvious that children’s librarians would be big intellectual freedom advocates.
This was banned books week in the states, and it’s totally commonplace at this point to note how many challenged books are kids’ books like Captain Underpants. Minors are a chunk of our society with very little power and there’s a huge swathe of society that wants to protect kids from ideas adults don’t want them to have. I see my role as a children’s librarian as serving kids, not their parents or teachers, which is quite fundamentally anti-elitist and subversive (one of the things I love about librarianship).
Saying “I can’t let you see that” to a segment of community members just because they don’t have a bunch of legal rights (to vote or drink or go to war or whatever) is kind of anathema to the librarian ideal. While teens are fierce defenders of their own intellectual freedom, librarians are natural adult allies, especially since we don’t have any real power over them (I suppose we can kick them out of the library), just expertise to offer. As a children’s librarian, part of my job is to take seriously what kids are interested in pursuing when they are looking for help, and not saying “Ugh, more Fairies/Pokemon/Sparkly Vampires?”
One of my formative kidbrarian experiences happened on my first day working a refdesk (which I blogged at the time). I’m still proud of my instincts to bring the 12-year-old kid over to the shelf where we kept Mein Kampf. In one of my post-MLIS job interviews I was asked what I’d do with an 11-year-old girl asking about Fifty Shades of Grey. In that interview I fucked up. I tried to make myself more hireable by waffling a bit and adding some more questions to my reference interview to make sure the kid knew it wasn’t a book for kids. Seriously, I hate that I did that and I totally blame the whole job-search process for making me less than confident in my ideals and whether someone would actually hire a kids librarian who wouldn’t blink at giving an 11-year-old steamy fanfic. That’s the kidbrarian I want and try to be.
Yesterday I was in a middle school talking to a bunch of 8th graders about the library and why we’re relevant to them. This was one of the things I stressed to them. In the eyes of our library, once they’re 13 they have adult cards and we won’t tell anyone what they’re borrowing. I told them that we don’t care if they want to read Pokemon comics (or other materials “below their level”) or Anais Nin. If we find something for them and it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. That’s the whole point.
Anyway, all that is to say that youth librarians make total sense as intellectual freedom defenders (but I won’t subject you to my theories of why it makes sense there’d be a confluence of male children’s librarians doing this stuff, because I wouldn’t want to paint any other librarians with my weird gender-role identity issues). I’m looking forward to working with BCLA’s IFC on these issues, but as always whatever I say is just me talking, not official views on anything unless I clearly mark it as such. You can read our blog and follow us on Twitter.
A few weeks ago, a library member asked me to help her sign up for Facebook to find her kid. This is something I’m never entirely sure if I’m supposed to be doing. I mean, technically this takes up a bunch of time, and it’s not directly connected with our library resources. But really, for a lot of people who use our public internet computers I’m the public equivalent to the family member who can reset grandma’s VCR (which was not my job in our family – thank goodness for actually techy cousins). So I help with this kind of thing fairly often.
This particular instance was kind of interesting because the library member wanted to get rid of her Hotmail address before getting back into Facebook. For people who don’t use these tools all the time there’s a lot more disposability to these identities, which I find interesting. I mean, I wouldn’t trash an email address just because I forgot my Facebook password, but people do it.
I talked to her about how she didn’t need to delete her Hotmail account just to get onto Facebook again, but she was adamant, so I helped her do it. But before doing that I did manage to explain how we should set up a separate email address first. The idea of having two email addresses to be able to authenticate each other is a stumbling block I run into a lot with our library members especially because so many of them don’t have phones to get texts for authentication codes modern web authentication likes to use.
I asked her if she wanted a different Hotmail address and she didn’t. I suggested setting up a Gmail account and she had this visceral reaction against Google. I didn’t press on about it, but am interested in why this non-technologist grandmother really didn’t want to be associated with Google. Because of that reaction though, and because I’d gathered she didn’t use her email very often and basically just needed it to get on Facebook, I suggested setting her up with a Lavabit account, and she was fine with that.
So Lavabit was a very secure email provider (the one that Edward Snowden used) but they had a small free account option, which would work for this member’s purposes. We got her set up and then used it as her Facebook login, and I was pleased to be able to teach someone a bit about email and how it works.
Now, you probably know this already but I have to use the past tense talking about Lavabit, because that Snowden association got Lavabit shut down. They were going to have to comply with US government requests they felt were counter to their values so they shuttered up and are now involved in a big legal fight. And I have kind of created more problems for this library member who I haven’t seen recently if she wants to actually check her email. But she should still be able to get on Facebook, which was all she really wanted.
I don’t know if there’s a moral to this story that I actually want to draw from it. I mean, the obvious lesson is that I should only help people set things up with major corporations’ products because there’s much less chance they’ll disappear. But especially when those corporations are helping to spy on people I feel like I shouldn’t be just handing them naive users. Providing options and alternatives is something I feel strongly about. But most people want something that just works not an education in information policy and privacy, so I should probably be going with simpler tools than better ones?
Bah. I don’t know. If I get the chance I’ll help that member with setting up something to replace her now disabled Lavabit email address and hope my advice didn’t sour her completely on using the tools of the 21st century.
I haven’t written about specific reference interactions I have with library members as much as I used to in this job. A big part of that is a privacy concern because the library I work at now is the only library in a small town and I’m more conscious here that a lot of locals wouldn’t need names to identify people I mention. It’s kind of sad, because people tend to ask about interesting things, and telling stories about cool funny things that happen at the refdesk is a lot of fun.
So I totally wish I’d written this post Andy from Agnostic Maybe did about helping a library member use the internet. The gentleman who asks a lot of questions while he’s learning about word processing on the computer says “You are the first person who doesn’t laugh at me when I ask these kinds of questions.” It is enough to melt a librarian’s heart. Here’s some of Andy’s reaction:
It’s impossible to be actually nice all the time, so we do have to fake it to make it through sometimes. But his generous statement was a reminder of the importance of what I do in the lives of the people I serve. So much so that I’m starting to wonder if knowledge and information is just a secondary role in the lives of librarians. Yes, answers are important, but as I travel along my career path, I’m not always sure that’s what people are looking for when they come to the library. Empathy, kindness, and acceptance may be the larger underlying factors here.
In asking a question, it can present a vulnerability in which a person acknowledges a intellectual lacuna. In this fleeting moment, they don’t want to be judged, ridiculed, or otherwise embarrassed by a reaction to the content of their inquiry. They want to know they are safe with a person they can trust. The reference transaction isn’t simply about connecting someone to their answer, but how they feel about it along the way and after they leave.
One of the phrases that Andy uses in response to the person he’s helping is “that’s what I’m here for,” which is something I totally say every day. It’s funny how people apologize for asking me questions when I’m on desk, when that is totally why I’m there. “I don’t want to interrupt,” they say even though anything I’m doing out there is just filling the time between questions.
Yesterday I got to do one of those really fun reference interviews, where the library member and I were bouncing between the shelves and the computer looking for everything we could find about salamanders and how they regrow bits of themselves and if that has anything to do with the symbolism of mythological salamanders. We didn’t need to find anything super in-depth, just enough to satisfy his curiosity. In terms of pure informational transfer, I’m not sure how much real use he got out of it (I learned a bunch of good bits for possible trivia nights). But in terms of how he felt about the interaction, I know he was excited that I was excited to help him look this stuff up.
Anyway, I just thought that Agnostic, Maybe post was a good important one about how empathy matters.
The best part of my job isn’t telling stories to preschoolers, surprisingly. It’s sitting at the information desk for people to ask me questions. As I see it my job is out on the desk, and anything that isn’t directly helping people find what they’re looking for is just killing time till the next question.
Helping people find books we have or placing holds on books that are at a different branch is the quick stuff. I also place Inter Library Loan requests when our branches don’t have items. That’s when people have specific books they’re looking for.
Sometimes people have questions about more specific things that we don’t have books about, like “How do I make a fire the way First Nations people used to?” or “What should I look for in an HDTV?” For those kinds of things I get to be a bit more of a librarian superhero and find a decent website or use our databases to find and print off an article from some magazine. Most of our patrons are not used to the modern research process so I get to do the balance between finding things for people and teaching them how to use resources a bit more efficiently. And after a few months in this job there are members who come by to chat because we’ve used the internet to figure out the bus schedules in Prince George and Powell River together.
Plus, the info desk is where I get to be the resident technology wizard. I spend 20 minutes helping members set up their Kobos to work with the library’s ebooks. I help people with the arcane ridiculous process to print documents and show people alternate ways to share NFL videos when the Email button stops working.
These are the tasks I missed the hell out of when I was in library school and not working a refdesk. And I’m glad I get to do them now, rather than being locked away in an office. Even now I spend about 20% of my work week in the office and it makes me itch. There’s a bit of a perception, in our branch at least, that when it’s quiet or you’re in the office you can get some work done. In my head that’s not the work I’m a librarian to do.
Now, I like doing programs, and programming is what employers want (in public libraries at least). If program planning (including storytimes) was cut out of my job I’d be disappointed. If my on-desk time was excised I’d have to find a new job. This is just too much of what being a librarian is to me. Eventually this may prove to be my undoing career-wise since it seems like on-desk time is the first thing you lose when you get promoted in libraryland.
But I’ll deal with that if it comes. For now I’ll be helping answer questions like I was born to do.
When I taught English in China, I wasn’t a very good teacher. I did it though. It was a good experience, doing something I knew I was bad at, trying to get better, but not really knowing how. Me blundering along through failure for a couple of years was great for everyone. Except my students. And my self-esteem. Erm.
The thing is that when I got back to Canada and especially when I started working at a library reference desk I realized I’m not too shabby at one-on-one/small group instruction, especially when everyone is speaking the same language. It was teaching people to talk I was terrible at. But I still didn’t have a good handle on how to teach better or how to develop a lesson plan or anything like that.
So for me, my hands-down most useful class in my MLIS has been LIBR535: The Instructional Role of the Information Professional. The past couple of weeks we’ve been doing our short lessons and with actual guidance on how to do this stuff (simple guidance like “plan your lesson backwards from its objectives” and “making people physically do stuff is good because…”) I felt really good about it. And man oh man does it ever help when you’re teaching something you find interesting.
A heartwarming tale of good old Section 22 by my friend Mary. Thanks for letting me post this. It reminds me of doing my time.
A customer told us there was a woman passed out on the floor in the washroom, so two staff from the desk hurried off with the cordless phone. What with the recent high on god knows what kids and my poor overdosed suicide attempt patron, people have expectations now.
She was in a cubicle (ewww) and not exactly on the floor, but her legs, said one of my coworkers, were stretched out as if she were perhaps sliding down on the way to passing out. She called security rather than explore on her own without gloves.
Two security guards arrived a few minutes later (it takes the security head several tries to detach himself from his chair but as you will see that turned out to be a good thing for washroom person) with those big green rubber gloves that you notice even before his stomach. They were mostly expecting to find one of the regulars and the smell of alcohol.
They didn’t. Turns out my coworkers can’t count. There were four legs – not two. Half female and half male. Clothing optional. And that explains the two kids who hurtled out of the stacks and down the stairs a few moments before Security showed up at the desk.
WPL – truly the living room of the community.
Library school is going well. We’re over halfway through the term and I’ve done a few assignments and they’ve gone okay. I’m taking the “what I’ve learned is more important than the mark” approach so as not to stress out about things too badly, and it’s working out pretty well.
So far, I’ve done a news article review thingy about how Google Instant is an inconsistent censor (PDF link), an observation of reference interviews (PDF link), a seminar on censorship based on assigned readings (PDF link), a faceted classification of the performing arts (PDF link), and a PowerPoint presentation about nerd games. (I’m sorry if that last link doesn’t work for you; We had to do them in Office 2010. Here’s the page full of everyone’s not really library related presentations, if that makes it up to you.)
This weekend is going to be spent doing a bunch more stuff, but if you’re interested in what first-term MLIS assignments look like, there you go.
Also, in school related things, I’m the co-secretary of the UBC student chapter of Librarians Without Borders. Next week we’ve got a speaker coming in talking about a Library Initiative in Afghanistan, sponsored by the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee and we’ve had speakers talking about open access to data as well as building education centres in Nicaragua. I think it’s neat stuff.
I’m no longer a library employee, just a librarian wannabe. Going by actual qualifications I mean. Beginning of September I’ll be off to school and be a student, but for now I’m in a fun kind of limbo. Off travelling for a while, earning that librarianaut title.
My last shift today was very low key. There was cake and well-wishing. A couple of Circ coworkers weren’t aware I was leaving, but that’s to be expected at our branch. It used to be that Circulation and Reference barely spoke to each other at all. When other people came in to work shifts they commented on it. When I came back after the reorganization everyone had a bit more camaraderie. Thanks to the administration’s condescension throughout the reorganization process, making us band together against the powers that be who didn’t display an ounce of giving a shit about their workers? Possibly.
Anyway. A fine last day.
Though Thursday would have been a good one too, just for the fact that Beard Lady came in that afternoon. “So this is where they’re keeping you!” she cackled. Someone downtown had phoned earlier looking for the DVD Highlander: Endgame. This is one of Beard Lady’s favourites as it plays into her immortality fixations, so I was not surprised to be putting it aside under her name. Then she came down, wandered, photocopied some of the Yellow Pages and got me to send the DVD downtown so she could watch it there (she doesn’t have a library card you see).
The other person who was in on Thursday? A small boy who remains a little wild! He was running around all excited (he wasn’t yelling at the top of his lungs, so that’s cool) and skidded to a top at the desk. He tilted his whole torso back to look up at me, grinning. “What can I do for you?” I asked, and he ran off laughing.
Now that I’m thinking of it, that’s how I should have left tonight, with a mad cackle in the rain.
Some days you have very pleasant people come into the library. Like today, when a young woman wanted to catch up on some classics. We had a good chat and I got to recommend Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which I never get to do. She was interested in the idea of paradox being at the centre of a novel, and I had difficulties deciphering what she meant by that. So it was intellectually stimulating and fun all around. The fact that I completely took over the referencing from my coworker who was slower on the draw only dampened my enjoyment a little bit.
And some days you have very unpleasant people come into the library. Like today, when a man was using the computers with grunts and groans of distress before finally coming to the Info Desk to ask my coworker what was wrong with his computer. Now, I was working with a couple of people tonight. One of them is new(ish) and we’re trying to force him into handling more things on his own. I could tell from the patron’s tone of voice that expecting the patron to be patient was not feasible, so I leapt into the breach.
“I’m trying to open an Excel file. The simplest kind of file in the world and this stupid computer won’t let me. This always happens! These computers are horrible! I’ve been on the phone with the guys down town and got them to change things five times, but whenever I come here or to [a nearby branch] they’re all pieces of crap!”
While the patron is loudly complaining about his lot in life being solely to have his will to live tested by the computers of our branch, I test the file. There is an error message coming up when we try to open the file, so I save it to a temporary directory and attempt to open it a different way, explaining as I go. He’s not really listening but it works and I have his file up on the screen. “Is this the right file?” I ask.
“Yes it is, but why couldn’t it open up like that the first time?”
“I’m not sure, sometimes we have prob-”
“It’s all fine for you to come in and do your secret little ways, but I have a bad back and don’t have time for this! When I click on it it should just open up, shouldn’t it?”
“Well, in a perfect wor-”
“Yes or no?” He’s kind of getting in my face at this point.
“That’s what I keep on telling them downtown! Why haven’t they upgraded these computers?!”
“I really don’t know. I’m sorry. But your file is there now.”
“But it’s too big! I need to zoom out or something.”
“There are options to change the view if you’d like…” and he’s muscled me away.
I head back to the desk and he gives me a sullen “Thanks.” When he was done with the computer he left and did apologize for getting so angry, so that was all right.
And the rest of the evening was dominated by the third kind of people: the silent ones, who are very easy to deal with.
A guy comes into our branch fairly regularly with a monkey or something that has a cheap electronic squealing laugh. He sets it off and leaves it at the circulation desk. Today after having his fun little interaction with them, he came to our desk holding a book about Humane Pressure Point Self Defense.
“I’d like to suggest this.”
“Suggest or donate?” I was a touch confused, since he handed me the book as he spoke.
“I don’t know. I think your library should have this book. It’s important.” He looked insistently at my female coworker. “So you can go to the grocery store and not have to worry about walking home with your hands full.”
“Okay,” I said tapping away at the keyboard. “So are you giving it to us? Because it looks like it’s not in our system so I can’t just add it.”
“I just want you here at this library to get this book without some bureaucrat in City Hall with a belly out to here who’s never done a day of work in his life having to make a decision three months from now.” The intensity had built as he spoke but then it fell off a cliff for his next bit. “But I want to let my neighbour’s daughter read it before I give it to you.
“Oh. Okay,” I said. “I’ll fill out the suggestion form then.” I got his library card and he extolled the virtues of this book and being safe to my coworker.
As I handed back his card, having made the request, he leaned in conspiratorially. “And here’s something you should know. You’ve got to keep this quiet but I’m telling you because the library taught me. You know that book on Columbine? That’s where I learned this.”
I smiled quizzically.
“This isn’t funny. It’ll save your life. The other day there was a guy standing with his boot on the neck of another guy and he was holding a pipe and his buddies were coming to beat the shit out of him and I called 911 and you know how to get the cops there fast? With no bullshit?”
I shook my head.
“Just say ‘Shots fired’ and hang up. They’ll be there faster than anything. Now you can’t tell anyone this but remember. It’ll save your life and I learned it from the library.”
Then he picked out some books and left. My coworker’s only comment was “That man, he has some problems.”