Career growth shouldn’t be traumatic. We need to nurture not haze.

Colman Park, 1950 flickr photo by Seattle Municipal Archives shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Yesterday somebody reminded me of a significant and traumatic episode in my early career. I was fresh out of library school, less than a year into my job as a professional librarian, and in the hustle phase. You know, the phase where you present at any conference that will have you on pretty much any topic that seems plausible because you need to establish yourself? There’s also a bit of “well, everybody does this, right?” So I felt very fortunate that an elder, more experienced librarian wanted to work with me on a presentation. Until we worked on it and did it. It was kind of a disaster because it turns out that person was a flake and not really a collaborator. I learned a lot from the experience, but not what I thought I would have (or wanted). The whole thing stressed me out because I felt like we let everybody down, that I was a failure, and it was going to be hard to recover from. Years later, I can say I don’t think any of that is true but I still wince when people bring up this person’s name and get a faint queasiness that reminds me of how miserable I felt immediately after our session.

This then made me think of all the other experiences like that. A lot of my learning through life has been a case of those in charge throwing me in the deep end, letting me figure it out on my own, and giving me some praise if it turns out OK. The missing piece though is that not only do I get the opportunity to do big things, I also get the pressure of doing big things essentially in isolation with minimal support or oversight. I always felt like if I messed up it would be the end of my career and my library. The stakes were always high and I was a wreck. But I was also able to get through these situations, grow past them, learn some things, and kind of move on.  I mean, yes I was able to physically weed by hand 80,000 items and split the collection for a stack shift/move in 3 weeks while the other librarian was on vacation for 2 of those weeks, but I still have a dead patch on the back of my hand from nerve damage from that as a reminder of how terrible it was.

One of the big lessons I’ve learned is that this is a really terrible way to help people grow professionally. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be given opportunities to tackle big things and do good work. I’m saying if people are given those opportunities they need support and guidance, and a feeling that if things go badly it’s not on them alone. It shouldn’t be an after the fact thing, it should be throughout the project. As I move into “mid career” territory and start mentoring and giving advice and guidance to newer professionals, I am keenly aware that there’s a need to support and give room, but also prevent unnecessarily traumatic events. Just because I was able to not drown doesn’t mean other people need to be treated the same way.

I guess this is extra frustrating when I see librarians eating their own in this way because you’d think since we’re knowledge workers, we’d be better at passing on our knowledge. I guess we are, but only if the new generation suffered the way we did? No thanks.

On memos, details, nuance, and information


Memos have been in the news a lot lately, what with the whole Nunes memo fiasco going on. It’s four pages long, which makes it kind of lengthy. The Democrats’ rebuttal should be released if and when the White House approves it, but apparently it’s longer than Nunes’ memo, which means President Trump probably won’t read it.

Memos have been on my mind a lot lately, even before the Nunes memo bubbled up. They are a huge policy tool used to distill complex information into a digestible chunk that’s easily consumed and oft repeated. It’s like the paper form of an elevator pitch. Of course there should be a long form report and analysis to back up the memo should the need arise, but decision makers (and the public) don’t have the time to go through that. There’s an art to conveying a large body of work and discourse into a one or two page overview and not have it be reductionist. I don’t know when the best time to do this in the research process, but there needs to be time, money and energy allocated to do this. It’s a key step to moving from research to policy and implementation.

The Nunes memo, the whole TL;DR culture, fake news and anti-intellectualism seem tied up. As we as a society focus on hyper productivity and outcomes, it’s assumed there’s no time for reflection and learning. There’s probably a correlation to the lack of sustained funding for longterm research, everything is results driven. And not just results for the future, but results for today and tomorrow. It’s exhausting.

So why do I have a picture of Governor Reagan on this post? Because the “mini-memo” is his legacy (and his longtime advisor William P. Clark). I learned about this while reading Pat Brown’s Reagan and Reality, where Brown spends a page contrasting how much work he put into educating himself before making decisions, compared to Reagan’s reliance on the memos. (Brown was the California Governor before Reagan, lost to him in the 1966 election, and was admittedly biased. If you want to read some early liberal venom toward Reagan, definitely check out Brown’s book.) Here’s a more sympathetic view of Reagan’s use of “mini-memos”:

Reagan frequently came under criticism in the press for seeming to have a shallow understanding of some issues, a result of misstatements at news conferences; his slip-ups appeared to reflect his style of running California, with his tendency to delegate authority to subordinates and rely on the four-paragraph “mini memos” to gather information he used in making decisions. His aides, however, defended his reliance on the mini memos as an effective management tool. “Some people joked about them,” said Caspar Weinberger, who served Reagan as State Director of Finance and was later Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Nixon, “but they were backed up by more information. The Governor sought out more information when he needed it. The memos were a very effective way to take a large problem and present a kind of distillation of it that focused the discussion. Then the Governor would apply his own Judgment to the problem,”

It’s kind of wild to think there was a time when people would actually read the report. I’m not buying it, but I am more aware of the power of a memo.

Adventures in text mining part 1: Getting started

Fishing flickr photo by Homini:) shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Someday I may sit down and write this all out into a good research paper I can shop around to open access academic venues, but I thought it would be cool and possibly helpful to somebody out there to talk about my research as I’m doing it. I decided it’s time to knuckle down and try different types of citation analysis. I will be testing out different tools and methods to come up with a framework for data collection and analysis. I’m starting in the classic tradition of the data rich by going on a fishing expedition.

I’ve been collecting publication data for my institute since 2015 when we had an external academic review. They needed a bibliography from all academic publications from the institute in the last decade, so I brute forced it in Zotero. Coming up with a library of a couple thousand citations. Since then I’ve used Zotero to keep track of our publications. I like using Zotero because it generates a fairly rich data set which has been useful in a number of ways. I know what is the most cited paper of the last decade. I also know about 30% of our publications are through Elsevier, so I need to pay attention to changes in their OA policies. But is there anything else this data can tell me?

This is where I went fishing with the free text analysis platform Voyant. I put in a CSV of all of our publications from FY2015-2016 just to see what I’d get. It was this:

Yeah, I hate word clouds. This is garbage because I didn’t clean the data at all, instead just uploading the raw CSV file. Most of the top words are related to how Zotero organizes things, not the publications themselves. So I went about adding some stop words to mute these results. The default list in Voyant is quite good for text analysis of a literary corpus, which is not how I’m using it. It stands to reason that the stop words would need to be refined to make analysis of this data meaningful. So I nixed words like “storage”, “zotero”, “05”, “http”, “users”, and many other terms that seemed to be more about Zotero and the file systems. Here are the updated results:

This could use some more work, but now research topics are actually visible. Of course transportation is present, and I’m not surprised by “data”, “model”, “traffic”, “systems”, or “time.” Those are all common themes/terms used in our research. The surprise to me was “control” because I didn’t think control theory or control systems factored for that much of our research, though they are fundamental to some areas of autonomous and connected vehicles. I just never realized we published so much about it. Of course this is probably a reflection of the publication rates of different disciplines, but that’s a different fishing trip.

Something…libraries…something:Neutrality is dead.

Sophie Scholl flickr photo by jimforest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

I often lament that I never really use my undergraduate degree in History and German. Only now it seems like my decision to get a degree in what I joked was “Nazi Studies” (modern German history, literature, and culture could be reduced in such a manner) has prepared me for these really chaotic times we are currently living in. It’s why I know the story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose anti-Nazi group. Scholl and many other were executed for their dissent. They are now regarded as heroes, but what about back then?

It’s hard not to think about these things when you have white supremacists openly marching and inciting terror on the streets. I’m talking about Charlottesville, but it could easily be any other city with these “Free Speech” protests or demonstrations around Confederate statues (symbols of this country’s love of racist things). They’re coming here next weekend and I will be there to counter protest. Maybe you’re going to stay home and sheetcake it, whatever you’re comfortable with.

Which gets me to the crux of this post. This week different library groups like ALA, ACRL, and APALA issued statements denouncing the racist violence and domestic terrorism in Charlottesville. I realized yesterday that SLA never made a statement. Hell, there hasn’t even been a discussion about such a statement. Given how much getting statements about the Muslim Ban and against HB2 was like pulling teeth, I’m not surprised by any of this. It’s not to say that individually SLA members don’t care – I’ve noticed on Twitter how many of my fellow SLAers are outraged and mobilized to speak out and stop hate and racism in many different ways. I’ve also noticed that nobody has called for SLA to do anything. Maybe we’ve learned that SLA isn’t that type of organization. That we aren’t there yet, and we don’t feel like opening up any uneasy truce we have with ourselves. That is weak excuse.

I’m not making a big deal about SLA this time around because I’d rather spend my energy working on other things. Combating white supremacy through SLA is not the most effective use of my bandwidth. Combating Nazis when they come to town is. Getting people to actually think about Antifas beyond mainstream media soundbites is. Am I disappointed with SLA’s inaction? Yes. Though if they did anything at this point it would mostly come off as too little too late. I wish SLA had more passion and energy for justice, but it still regards itself a an organization for corporate libraries. And while some corporations are taking stands (finally), many others are still silent.

Would I like SLA to change? Yes. Do I expect it to this week? No. Will I speak up and continue to push them to change? Yes, but only after the Nazis come to town.

If Charlottesville has taught us anything, it’s that the time for neutrality is over. The “both sides” argument is beyond dumb at this point and clearly picking a side. You can’t compare white supremacists and the anarchists. Libraries are figuring this out. I hope SLA speaks up before it’s too late.

A library? What’s that? Nobody knows.

Dennis Schuck flickr photo by Snap Man shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

I don’t know this fellow but I like his glasses and appreciate his style. I also identify with his expression in this photo: cheerful frustration.

This week there’s been a lot to make me question what’s a library these days and why does it matter. Perhaps it’s the inevitable existential dread of a steady stream of (totally valid and inevitable) fear and anger about global politics. It makes sense then, that librarians are trying to figure out where they fit in during this tumultuous time, and question the world around us.

The main thing that has raised my ire is the response to a recent article by Jane Schmidt and Jordan Hale about Little Free Libraries (LFL®). First of all, it’s depressing how many librarians didn’t actually read the article. They just skimmed posts about it, like this one, and got upset at a perceived attack on literacy. (Reading comprehension, what?) Secondly, in this time of heightened anxiety, fear, and fake facts, people are very quick to react emotionally. I think we’re so used to feeling deeply betrayed when we find out people close to us have different, seemingly fundamental views, so that criticising something so seemingly benign as your LFL® seems on par with saying you hate books or kicking puppies. Nevermind that the research was a critique of the LFL® model and its stated goals. I found Schmidt and Hale’s research to be refreshing in that it articulated a lot of misgivings I have about LFL®s in my community, and gave me some ideas for some research of my own.

There was also a post going around this week by Stacie Williams and how it’s impossible for libraries to remain neutral today. Longtime readers of this blog know I have strong feelings on this subject. Go ahead and read some of my old posts about how everything’s political. It’s 2017, we can’t pretend we live in a world where this sort of thing doesn’t matter. Professionally speaking, maybe it doesn’t matter to you but it probably does to your colleague or user, so is it OK to keep on acting like the status quo is OK? Libraries and librarians do need to look at out roles in systems of oppression and ways we can be forces for good, but what that entails will be very different depending on your library.

I’m not going to bury you in links. I’m not going to cite myself or others. I’m not going to prove to you I’ve read a lot and have deep thoughts backs up with critical theory and academic statements on it, because that’s not going to change much. (Seriously, if you need me to prove my credibility on this issue, then you probably wouldn’t care about my opinion… that’s a whole other rant though.)

I have been struggling since I got back from my parental leave with figuring out what my library is supposed to be because I have no idea what libraries are anymore. One thing that stood out from the LFL® controversy is that a lot of people assume a box with free books is a library, which rankles many librarians. They might argue that a box with books and a librarian makes a library. Do you need books or librarians (read: staff) to be a library? I don’t feel comfortable to answer that because it seems to ignore context and on the face of it be a knee-jerk preservation of our profession.

Much of the discussion about libraries I see in the literature (read: Twitter) is focused on public and academic libraries with large, diverse user populations. These libraries try to be all things to all people because they have to be through necessity of function and funding. As our local municipalities cut funding for social services, it often falls to libraries to fill the gap. Is that a good thing? Is it sustainable? Should it be lauded when a library becomes the community’s de facto drop-in shelter for homeless folk because the citizens and government won’t actually fund a proper one? What about academic libraries filling the needs of students because there isn’t enough student support on campus? Is that how to maintain funding long term? (Funny how this all seems to be tied to funding.) So from these definitions, it seems a library is a place that may or may not have books, does have access to material, staff to help navigate that stuff, and space for people to use that stuff or not. It’s not really a satisfying definition.

Of course missing from these discussions are the roles of all the other libraries. We talk about librarians fighting to preserve government data, but what about the librarians in those government agencies? What about librarians working for private corporations? Law librarians at legal firms? Most of these conversations ignore them because it doesn’t fit into the convenient narrative, but also because most people don’t have a direct experience with them so it’s harder to articulate what they are and why they matter. This is also where a lot of the assumed ethical imperatives of the profession get a bit more complicated. If Open Access is an assumed good (read: it should be the default, duh!), where do librarians working publishing companies opposed to true OA fit? What about librarians for defense contractors? Digital Asset Managers for companies where everything locked down? Are they not part of the profession? Do they not work in libraries?  I’m getting sidetracked, but it’s easy when I think about all the constituents I have to work with. If your organization’s function is part of systematic oppression, does that make you less of a librarian? In this capitalist society people need jobs to get by, and unfortunately sometimes you might have to work for the oppressor. That’s just reality.

So what makes MPOW a library? We have books, so I guess there’s that but I give that another 10 years. We want to provide resources and data which requires working with government agencies and private companies and given funding models for transportation, it’s likely it will all be licensed from private sources in the next decade as well. Also given the competition for research funding, I’m not sure how realistic it is to be completely open about things because it’s either giving up a competitive advantage for grants or we’re getting funding from a private company with a requisite NDA. As public funding of public research universities dries up, this is inevitable. I guess it’s that we’re a space of collaboration and exploration, which we have been for decades. They can’t take that away from us, but do we need librarians for that space? I think we’re trained to help mediate that discovery, so yes! Articulating that value is extremely difficult, especially without relying on outdated memories of going to the library as a child.

And those realities are why it makes it hard for me to deal with a lot of the discussions about what libraries are or should be doing, because they frankly have pretty narrow views of the profession. I fully believe libraries need to be as inclusive as possible for all of their populations, but I can also understand why it some libraries don’t put up signs showing how inclusive they are – because it would be out of place or perhaps contrary to their organization’s policies and missions.

So basically, I don’t know what it means to be a librarian or work in a library anymore, or even what a library is, because they are so varied to so many people it’s becoming meaningless. I would say it’s a philosophy or spirit, but I’m not sure that’s true anymore. Is it about the democratization of information? Access? Preservation? Navigation? I’d like to know.