Libraries are political and so are librarians.

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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.

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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.

Degrees don’t make librarians – but neither do books.

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Things have been ranty on library Twitter this week. Yesterday was that racist and idiotic column in a LIS journal about librarian stereotypes that illustrated failures of editorial oversight. Today, I saw something from from the esteemed John Fink about MLIS vs. not argument. Turns out it’s from this post by Michelle Anne Schingler on Book Riot, “In Praise Of Non Degreed Librarians”. It touches upon so many of my pet peeves with the profession that make me want to scream, but (as long time readers of this blog know), I just rant here.

My main issues with the post are:

  1. An MLIS doesn’t make a librarian. Doing librarian work (whatever that is) does.
  2. Libraries are collections of books.

Schingler’s post starts with her confessing to a vendor that she doesn’t have an MLIS, so she can’t speak as a librarian. She then goes on to describe the dichotomy of the degree vs. not at her library, generalizing it to the wider profession. This conflict is old hat and is something we need to sort out. I have an MLIS and I think it was a valuable use of my time to earn it. I also knew that if I wanted to perform the kind of library work I’d like, then I’d need the degree to get those jobs. Does the degree make the professional? Well, kind of but not necessarily. I think you can be a librarian through other means, but it really depends on the system. I don’t know the author’s situation or what kind of position she has, but it could be that the MLIS would be nice but not necessary.

This sort of reminds me of a recent position we hired for at MPOW. We had 70 applicants for a library assistant (para-pro) position. Half of them had/were working towards an MLIS and most of those I didn’t look at twice. Why? They didn’t have the experience we needed – circulation and technical processing. They don’t teach you that in library school, but they are crucial functions to the operation of a library. There’s an art to circulation and item records that I don’t think enough people appreciate and I don’t think and MLIS makes you better at it. There are lots of other functions in libraries that don’t necessitate the degree that are hugely valuable. The thing we need to do collectively is recognize that for libraries to operate, it takes respect and support for all kinds of functions. Our new LA will be handling a lot of the library’s operations so I can focus on research projects and launching new initiatives. I’m thankful to have somebody I can trust with those tasks and respect their professionalism.

When people who talk about the divide of those with the MLIS or not, I hear hurt feelings and friction in their workplace. I will say, experience can teach you a lot but there’s also value in learning the philosophy and theory of practice. There’s not one single solution to being a good librarian/library worker/information professional/whatever.

Schingler’s post really lost me though with this passage:

You’re there for the love of it—that’s what patrons sense; that is the essence of the work. But that statement–the idea that librarians can be driven primarily by a love of books–is also a surefire way to draw ire from (some) MLSes.

She’s clearly working in a public library that has a lot of the traditional perceptions of libraries and librarians that are tied to warm feelings and a love of books. This is where she lost me and where I think an MLIS might be kind of valuable – librarie’s are way more than books and any LIS school worth anything these days is teaching people that.

I don’t really love books and I’m trying to figure out how to make our library completely digital because I think that will better serve our user community. Does that mean I’m a crummy librarian? The passion I bring to the table when talking to my colleagues isn’t a devotion to the container, it’s concern for accessibility and preservation. I want people to be able to use our collection (whatever it is) and find the resources they need to do their work. I don’t think that mission is different for public libraries, academic libraries, or special libraries (or wherever you fit on the spectrum) – we’re here to serve a community and often that means fostering and building that community. Libraries aren’t the collection, but the use of the collection. I don’t think my MLIS taught me that because I know this isn’t a universally held belief, but I think it helped me on the way to figuring that out. My library isn’t about books – it’s about access to journals and data. That’s what our researchers want.

So in closing, I don’t think an MLIS make a librarian and we need to value all library employees. I have no issues with people using the term “librarian” for all library professionals, but I also recognize the MLIS opens some doors that would otherwise be shut. I do think everybody should be open to learning and growing as professionals, and some of that is shaking loose old notions of libraries and librarians. One of the biggest things holding us all back (just as much as funding issues) is defining ourselves by the collection and focusing on books. We’re more than that. We’re better than that. It’s also a very old school, narrow view of the profession and I want to move beyond that.

Library day in the life – can I get a moment?

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I guess this is the week where we do the “library day in the life” thing where we blog about what we do during the day. It’s meant to highlight the diverse work libraries do and how we’re all busy doing a million things. I was going to blog on Monday, but I was too busy. Yesterday was equally harried. Today… a little calmer and I’m writing this as I quickly eat my sad work salad at my desk. I keep saying I’ll leave my office for lunch, but it hasn’t happened this week and it might not. I’ve resigned to that. This is my normal as a solo librarian right now. (See the previous post for more on that.)

The one thing that has been really apparent this week is the real struggle to compartmentalize and prioritize. Thing I need to get done in the moment and trumping things I want to get done. I would love to focus on cool, important project but I also don’t want to tell some confused and eager undergrad, “Sorry, I can’t help you request those books from storage because it’s not important to me.” That would be crossing a horrible line and we’re not there yet.

I can quantify my week

  • correspondence – lots of small urgent emails
  • processing – copy cataloging and indexing
  • meetings – conference calls abound
  • service – people still have research questions
  • circulation – our student employees help, but they can’t do it all

Projects are hard to carve out. I spent most of Monday afternoon trying to install and configure a wiki for a committee. That was frustrating and fun. There’s some other stuff I owe people, but in a few minutes I need to go be in the library and well… it’s hard to get much done beyond short tasks.

I feel like the cat in this picture.

That’s my life.

I’m on an Island: Thoughts on solo and subject librarianship

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This post started off with my reaction from Erin White’s great insights about why she’s stayed at VCU. Then it was spurred on by Chris Zammarelli’s post about his personal brand following a brief Twitter rant of mine. So here we are.

I am using this picture of some guy named Don because I often joke that I look like a certain kind of guy from the 60s. Ernie Douglas, Jack Nitzsche, Hank Marvin, Pets Sounds era Brian Wilson, and this guy. I tend to get fixated on things and then try to go as deep and obscure as possible. It’s my approach in life. Don, he captures my mood today.

I’ve been a solo librarian at MPOW for a month now. It’s been a very hectic, overwhelming, and stressful month, but it’s also kind of exciting. I’m not writing this blog post for sympathy or pity, but I also think a lot of my colleagues have no idea what it’s like staying at a library until it gets to this point. I also think a lot of my colleagues who are use to larger organizations don’t understand the kind of politics we play in small, subject specialty libraries in organizations where libraries are not the main focus. We’ll just call them special libraries.

I hope my colleagues who read this understand why their well intentioned advice misses the mark. Why I won’t just move on to move up, and why I am focusing my energy on this narrow field (transportation librarianship), even if it means less money and security.

White makes the excellent point that she’s grown her career not by moving on to move up, but by investing in her institution and going deep into the work. I’m also plagued by negative thoughts that maybe I should have moved on from here by now. I started working here in 2005, but my job has drastically changed in the last decade. I still affirm that as long as the position and the work evolves, I will stay. From student worker, to circulation manager, to head of public services, and to now acting director, I’ve grown as the library shrank. When I started we had a staff of 8 and 10 students. Now it’s me and 2 students, but we’re hiring so it won’t be so bad.

I love being able to have a hand in much of what the library does. Cataloging? Yeah, I get it. Circ? I’m on that, too. Research services? It’s just me. Collection development? Me again. I am the website. In planning for this period as a solo librarian, I mentioned to my new supervisor about balancing my time with keeping the library open – they didn’t realize those fundamental questions were on the table. Now everything’s on the table as we figure out the future, and I think it’s going to be a really bright one. At the same time, the weight I feel on my shoulders to keep this ship afloat is real. If I call in sick, the library will be closed and service will be nil. I would love to take the time to focus on some projects, but I also know I need to be here with the door open so that students, faculty, and staff can use the library. Despite the great proclamations, not everything is online.

And this is where I’m frustrated with my colleagues. Coverage – there is none. It’s not that if I’m out a day stuff piles up and I have a backlog, though that’s true. It’s that when I’m not here, the library is closed. Our hours are pretty minimal as it is due to staffing cutbacks, I’m feel a strong obligation to be there for our community because the collection and the space are still used. I need to be here for it to be. My presence is required until we hire another staff person in the library. So all my big dreams and goals are being pushed off and chipped away slowly while we stabilize things. Some of it is saying no and letting go, but we need to do an inventory first.

For a lot of special libraries, this isn’t that special – it’s just reality. I’m telling my story because I don’t think a lot of librarians recognize it. If I worked in a big, sprawling academic library I probably wouldn’t either. But I don’t, I work here and things are tight. There’s also politics. Politics here are different than a large academic library. It’s a small community and everybody knows each other despite being spread out across the country. I can’t do anything without thinking about how others will perceive it and how it might affect funding and future funding.

So why am I still here? Well, I don’t want to bail on this place. This library has long legacy of supporting transportation research and I don’t see that ending. It’s evolving like we all are, but the need hasn’t gone away. Though it’s hard work to pivot the library, it’s also exciting and rewarding. I feel like my work’s not done. I don’t want my personal legacy here to be just downsizing, I want to grow this place. It’s going to happen and this is the inflection point.  I also can’t quit the field. Transportation is an important convergence of many different things and all of it matters. There’s a direct tangible benefit to the work we do and I’ve grown to care very deeply about solving transportation issues. I believe in the mission of MPOW. There also aren’t many opportunities to work in transportation libraries, so I don’t want to jump too soon. By now my knowledge of the field is pretty deep and I understand the system pretty well. If I move to a more traditional library, this kind of policy understanding won’t matter as much, and that’s just not as exciting to me.

So I’m not the type to move on, and really I’m not looking for a directorship even though I fell into one for now through attrition. I am interested in trying new things, doing good work, and solving problems. I have a lot of opportunity to do that here right now. If I wanted glory and fame, I wouldn’t be here. Recognition is great, but I’d rather work to help my direct colleagues highlight their work better and get all the praise and accolades they deserve.

So right now I’m on an island and that’s a lot of pressure, but I knew it would be and that’s life. For many librarians, this is the nature of our jobs. I’m special but not that special. I just don’t think a lot of librarians realize what it’s like when you’re it.