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.

What’s A Library Without Women? Closed.

Miss Shirley Robbins works at a library reference desk, January 8, 1952 flickr photo by North Carolina Digital Heritage Center shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Today is International Women’s Day, and there’s the Day Without Women Strike. General strikes aren’t that common now, but it’s important to remember that the origin of IWD is in the socialist worker’s movement – go read about it.

I came to work today after lots of deliberation. Had I not just gotten back from parental leave, and would it not mean closing the library, it would have been a simple “I’m staying home”. But as it stands, I am still catching up on work and have some deadlines. Of course, I’ll probably still have to close the library early due to limited staffing today and childcare. Which pretty much illustrates the role of women in libraries.

Librarians are a classic pink collar profession that still is predominantly female. In my library, every person working here is a woman (all 4 of us!). I’m the only one working today and I will leave early to make sure I can pick my kid up from daycare, a very gendered act (or a reflection of crazy Bay Area commutes – my partner’s is a 2 hour commute). If lots of librarians were participating in the Day Without Women, several libraries would be closed or have severely reduced services. Some colleagues are talking about it, though not as much publicly as I had hoped. Some of this is uneasiness with being overtly political at work, especially with the current administration. I share those fears.

I think a bigger, and much easier to overcome, problem though is moderate apathy and a need for comfort and convenience. You might argue that you can’t strike because you don’t want to limit service or close the library, but what’s a better demonstration of a day without women? I mean, that’s basically the point of the strike. A real day without women would pretty much mean a day without most libraries. Striking or not is a personal choice, but should be part of a conversation that goes beyond performance. Public apologias with excuses for not striking are kind of meaningless if they aren’t accompanied with smaller, actionable changes that can be done. Revolution isn’t for everybody, but if we actually want to change the status quo, we need to overcome inertia and actually do something. Thinking about change is a great first step, but going beyond normal comfort levels has to be the next. If that’s striking today, having a public dialog about the role of women in the profession, ways our services can be more accessible to the whole community, whatever else you got, there has to be some action. I recognize politics are very personal for a lot of people, there’s privilege in making political acts, and that some people really just don’t care. I don’t have time for the apathy, just like I don’t have much time for excuses.

So my actions today, other than angst: Join the campus walk out in a few minutes. Wearing the most red shirt that fits today. Working the circ desk. Closing early so I can pick up my kid from daycare. Discuss the role of women in libraries and society with anybody in earshot. Urge people to think about small ways they can do something to bring about change they want beyond public apologies for why they can’t.


Librarians, libraries, and politics: When governments gets irrational

Travel Ban Protest Rally Boston flickr photo by Kristin “Shoe” Shoemaker shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

I’ve been trying not to think about work much while I was out on parental leave, but it’s hard given how much I love my job and how the new administration has really made for interesting times. This blog has been quiet for a while because my job was really consuming in the run up to my leave, and then I had this kid, #babymoonbeam, and he’s kind of time consuming.

But given the near insanity of President Trump’s first month in office, I don’t really want to see what the next 40 will bring. This has been enough chaos. I remember the transition from Bush to Obama, and while there was some uncertainty it was all pretty measured. Nobody seems to know what’s going on right now and it seems like we’re all resigned to being on edge and a life of chaos. This story about the state of the State Department is a bleak example. You also have the Internet Archive preserving websites and moving servers to Canada just in case. Then there are the efforts to preserve government data from being wiped. For many of us, our jobs are caught in a political quagmire made worse by the uncertainty. (We’ll not even deal with the headache of balancing state and federal mandates when your state is openly defying the federal government, basically saying “COME AT US”. )*

This situation sucks.

I do take some heart that many of my colleagues are engaged in helping. Of course the cynical radical in me has some thoughts along the lines of “oh, now you’re paying attention…”, over all it’s been pretty positive. I think that action is a kind of self-care. Doing something gives us agency as we wait for things to shake out. Instead of rolling my eyes at my colleagues explaining how the government works and how to research government info to me, I’ll give them a thumbs up. (Though OK, come on – please have some self awareness that maybe you’re not the first librarian to dip their toes into legislative waters and researching this sort of thing. I can see how many ALA/ACRL members might not realize there are people who have been doing this their whole careers, but we’re supposed to be good at research!)

The thing that spurred me to start post was about SLA’s lack of response about travel ban executive order. It was too political. You know I firmly believe we’re political by the very nature of our jobs, and this year has not only affirmed that to me but really hardened that belief. I know I need to figure out my personal boundaries between personal and professional politics, but I’m not going to pretend that the very act of preserving publicly funded research isn’t considered political in this climate. Anybody (and this is pretty much all librarians) who works with government information now has to be vigilant and cynical. It’s a sorry state of affairs and might take time to adjust, especially if this isn’t your natural outlook. (Growing up in Sacramento and being obsessed with then dysfunctional state politics as a kid has served me well!)

Let’s continue the fight.

*Background on the history of Governor Moonbeam.

Libraries are political and so are librarians.

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

This post has been stewing in my head for a while, but I feel like it’s time to finally push it out because the main theme keeps coming up.

Today I saw some colleagues share this post about Storytime Underground tweeting about librarians having opinions (particularly about Black Lives Matter). I have nothing to add other than a “right on!” to them and a “duh!” to anybody who might be surprised. It has a pretty public library slant, but they make the point that our community (patrons and colleagues) needs to encompass everybody, but particularly those who have the least power.

Libraries can’t pretend to be neutral because we’ll just prop up the power structures that are already silencing, alienating, and hurting our communities. If we’re really going to carry out or mission, then we need to focus on serving everybody even if that makes some people uncomfortable. There are (mostly public) libraries all over working in this area. During the unrest in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown, the Ferguson Public Library was a rallying point and a safe place for the community as it was going through turmoil. Ferguson librarian Scott Bonner was rightfully heaped with lots of praise and support from the library community. There’s also good stuff happening at San Francisco Public Library where they have a social worker based in the library to help its homeless users. These are just two examples, and there are many more. There are people doing good work through the hashtags #radlib and #critlib (though I kind of think #critlib skews very heavy on academic theory which can be a barrier). Let’s not forget librarians speaking out against bad legislation and policies like TPP or PIPA and SOPA.

As much as some people want to act like it’s not the case, libraries are inherently political and by extension so are librarians. You might not have been attracted to the protection through a sense of activism or political freedom, but it’s an intrinsic quality to our work. To deny that is really limiting the impact of your work. I would even go so far to say it potential perverts the mission of a library as well, but that might be my sense of outrage taking it a step too far. (But maybe we need to go there?) It’s why I really believe it’s our professional obligation to support radical changes to publishing models, such as Open Access and Creative Commons, to make information (and therefore knowledge) more accessible for everybody. Just because you work for a place that can pay for access doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for more equal access for those around the world. Current models benefit the monied establishment, academics and publishers, leaving out those without (the public).

Any long time reader of this blog knows I frequently wade into political, radical waters here. That’s part of the reason I was attracted to libraries – preserving and ensuring access to all. I’m fortunate to be working for public university where I am able to keep a mission of making public research accessible for all. I’m doing my small part to be a good steward for our institute despite resource limitations, and I advocate for better practices from the rest of the community. Lots of people do this as well. They get it.

What I am tired of is the belief that librarians don’t belong in these spheres. When there was discussion about SLA moving its 2018 conference out of North Carolina because of the heinous, transphobic HB2 “bathroom bill”, I was really disappointed by the response from my colleagues. I don’t expect everybody to share my views, but to dismiss extremely valid concerns from fellow SLA members about transphobia was disheartening to say the least. Some felt it was a political stand and that SLA shouldn’t be in politics, it’s not like ALA (which is apparently a good thing). It seemed to them these issues were hard, painful, and divisive and it was easier to just ignore it and maintain the status quo. These are librarians who just do their job and then live their lives, like normal people, not questioning the power structure. Totally human behavior. It’s also frustrating to confront.

Also frustrating are those who get angry when things get really bad – like the recent Orlando shooting at a gay nightclub during latinx night, or the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Or maybe even when a software platform buys another, or some previously open source hardware becomes proprietary (like the Raspberry Pi). To these folk who have periodic outrage, I have to ask “are you paying attention? or only when it gets really bad?” One thing that keeps pushing in working for justice and equality professionally and personally is a constant sense of anger about the world with some optimism. I think we can do better and should work for better, but I also recognize this is a horrible place, with lots of injustice, and lots of reasons not to trust people, companies, or governments. That’s why it’s imperative the libraries and librarians work to keep this world from being closed minded and proprietary in many forms. It’s why I love the Library War manga series, where librarians are actually fighting battles to preserve freedom. I’m not saying we need to take up actual arms, but we need to metaphorically get into the street and make sure every transaction is a conscious one.

ABC – Always be curious. On discovery and ethics.

flickr photo shared by Ape Lad under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

Last night I attended a joint SLA Silicon Valley/SLA SF chapter event which was dinner and an engaging talk from Brewster Kahle. He talked about the mission of the Internet Archive, which through many facets can be distilled down to “Universal access.” It’s a huge goal, a paradigm shift, but also something I really hope they achieve. Society will be much better for it.

The evening started with a personal anecdote of somebody using the Wayback Machine to find a ship’s manifest with a great grandparent’s arrival to America. Pretty touching stuff. We all use it for hunting down lost tech reports (thanks public agencies) or for vanity nostalgia (have you seen this horrible old site I made long, long ago?). But of course the Internet Archive is way more than the Wayback Machine, and I was mildly surprised many people in the room didn’t know about that. Most were familiar with Open Library, but it seemed like the audio, video, and software archives were less of a thing. In all honesty it is hard to keep up with everything they do, but it’s also worthwhile to explore all of the services.

Of course I would say this as somebody who loves digging through obscurity. When I curated that set for the Open Textbooks presentation, I spent considerable time lost in the 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings collection. It was easy to get sidetracked by my fondness for yodelling. There’s also the whole Over The Edge Radio archive, which was Negativeland’s radio show (got it’s start on KALX!). If you’re at all interested in the history of remixing and love artists like Girl Talk, you need to have some familiarity with the work and legacy of Negativeland.

For the videos, there’s just so much there. I love the AV Geeks collection of old traffic safety films – they’re a great glimpse into past attitudes and safety measures. But then, there’s also my favourite film on the site: Let’s Make A Sandwich, which is delightfully gross. (I’m sorry, “tuna rarebit” sounds disgusting.) There are also the wonderful Prelinger Archives.

There’s a lot there, and you should give yourself an hour to browse around it and find something that interests you. This sort of exploration and curiosity is important to keep us librarians fresh. Some of it might be directly relevant to your work, but exploration just for its sake is a valuable muscle to flex.

There was one question from the floor at the end of the night that really stuck out to me. One person asked Kahle, “Do you work with the Copyright Clearance Center?” After a small moment of silence, Kahle answered, “No, do you?” Which the asker affirmed they did. I almost let out a nervous laugh, but it was clear that the librarian who asked the question didn’t know that many, particularly librarians, have issues with the CCC. We should all be aware of the ongoing lawsuit Cambridge University Press v. Patton, in which three scholarly publishers sued Georgia State University for copyright infringement through its e-reserves system. The CCC helped fund the plaintiffs. Some librarians have started discussing ditching CCC because they are advocating more a more extensive reach for copyright, which will limit access. Aren’t we as a profession about access?

I cringed inside when the person asked the question, not just because I personally dislike the CCC and efforts to restrict access (usually for profit). I cringed because it’s 2016 and I really expect my colleagues to be aware of these issues and the players involved. Even if you love the CCC and use their services, you should know lots of people take issue with the state of copyright. You should know Creative Commons. You should understand the layers of Open Access. You should also be familiar with Fair Use. I don’t expect all librarians to be legal experts on these matters of scholarly communication and intellectual property, but at least to have a familiarity of what the common issues are and where to go to get answers. It’s incumbent to our job in finding information from lots of different services and critical to being stewards of access. Too often I think many of our colleagues don’t look up from their desk and just outsource the thinking to others, like the CCC, and so we’re stuck with their interests which might not really align with our mission of access. I often think it’s a combination of fatigue and fear, but it’s still frustrating to watch.

It reminds me of something that happened last week – where publisher’s tried to assert that the piracy of Sci-Hub is librarians fault for making stuff inaccessible. Yeah… It’s our fault… and no doubt there might be a librarian who read this article in Science and thought, “yeah! we make it difficult! for shame!” But of course that’s ignoring the power and role of publishers in this equation. Poor publishers. It just affirms my stance towards piracy: Piracy will continue to thrive as long as it’s cheaper and more convenient than legal means. So don’t encourage the systems to improve, support the status quo and punish the people who optimize access (for them). (And yes, I know it’s not legal and I don’t advocate breaking the law, but it’s also kind of human nature at this point.)

So my point to this long post is basically this: Librarians need to always be curious. We need to keep our ears and eyes open, evaluating new things, and questioning everything. We also need to be aware of ethical issues and implications of policies we might be advocating. Too many librarians (particularly in SLA) brush this off, but if we actually care about access to information, then we need to be looking at information ethics. It might go beyond our desks and our jobs. We owe it to ourselves, the profession, and society.