Wordshore

Writing in the long form
August 13th, 2014

True Librarian

Phil Bradley, library advocate and activist, writes about libraries and Internet things (he’s particular good on search engines). He’s on the ball, open-minded, and tends to – sensibly – avoid many of the zero-win library arguments on social media. His website.

His latest post, A response to “This Librarian Is Not Impressed With Your Digital, No-Books Library”, is worth a read. I’ve posted a comment, though I can’t help but think I’ve written the same before in various places, about public libraries and librarians. Several times. Diminishing returns. Maybe it’s time to reluctantly acknowledge there will always be entrenched, opinionated, media elitists who favor one type of information container over another, or over all others. And leave them to their book sniffing, or techno-lust.

I’ve repeated the reply below as Typepad and me don’t get on, the reply lost the external links, and the grammar (I so need an editor) is a bit better.

+ + + + +

Yes; a thousand times yes. The grocer that sells only apples, even the finest quality apples, is soon a bankrupt grocer.

The extremists on both wings of the information access spectrum are just that; extreme, and selfish, and lacking in empathy. The “book sniffer” who only reads print, fetishes paper, and looks down with false superiority on those who use the library computers as being of a lesser, less intellectual and intelligent mind. The “techno bore” who parrots the lie that “everything is online”, ignores the many millions with no IT skills or experience, and looks down on those who read print as feeble, old-fashioned and just old (as they too will one day be).

There’s snobbery on both wings, and both weaken the standing of libraries and librarians with their intolerant, narrow and narrow-minded “I find information this way, therefore everyone else should” agenda.

This is particularly pertinent this week. Everyone has heard of the death of Robin Williams. Depression, mental illness and suicide are being debated and commented in varying degrees of enlightenment across print and digital media. Many on social media, in real life, are choosing this time to declare past and previous problems, battles in the mind. These are not rare, and easily remedied, conditions; these are common, but complex and individual conditions.

But where does a person who wants, or needs, quality information on these issues go? And go to, right now? Friends and relatives often give worse than useless opinions, masked as advice. “Pull yourself together”, “You’ll get over it”, You have a job; count yourself lucky”, “Get a job”, “Go and have a drink”. Does this advice work? If not, where else does someone go?

The A and E hospital department? Overwhelmed with people in stages of trauma, and frightening. The CAB? Again, busy and overwhelmed, and it doesn’t solve but sends the person elsewhere. The police station? Frightened of being sectioned or detained. The council’s social services? Overstretched, underfunded, and the paradox of requiring a tenacity to navigate that is often missing in those who need it. The GP? Again, needing the tenacity to get an appointment, wait, get seen too, maybe get mysterious medications, maybe get onto a mental health waiting list. With a heavy emphasis on waiting – and what does he or she do while they wait?

Which leads to: what if you need that information now? If the thoughts going through the mind aren’t good ones, and aren’t abated by hearing “The earliest initial appointment is in three weeks”. Or if it’s difficult, as many with mental health issues find, to deal with people and agencies, in appointment or on the telephone? People who want, or need, reassuring privacy to absorb information in their own way and at their own pace. What options are left? Often, only two are apparent, public, obvious and there.

…either, the pub. Alcohol is cheap, oblivion comes soon, and pubs are inviting; they want your money. Go in a few at opening times and find the many who chose, or had to choose, this easiest but non-solving and worsening of options. The cheap, chain bar became the default 21st century “Care in the Community”.

…or, the public library. Possibly. Print? There can be useful books there, which you can borrow and read, at your speed, in the privacy of your home. Online? There’s computers to get you to websites, some with up to date information, more information, and contact details. A library that provides both the analog and the digital maximizes the chances of providing essential and accessible information to those who really need it.

So long as there is the third component: the skilled and experienced librarian, who respects privacy and does not have a bias towards a particular media; who knows how to help and nudge people with complex needs in the right direction and into the appropriate media. Not the volunteer, well-meaning but lacking information and media skills, who may be judgmental, or not respect privacy, or not have the experience of encountering people with complex needs. But the true librarian, who can encounter an inarticulate, possibly frightened, probably emotional person, figure out what information they need, and help them to get it using the array of media in that same building. Who knows where an appropriate book is, or how to get it on loan; who knows how to get to an appropriate website.

True librarians, with their many information skills and experiences, can and do help, improve, and even save, lives. But they need, in their libraries, the diversity of information media – print, digital, book, online – to do so. The elitism and snobbery, the favoritism of a pet media to the exclusion of others, helps neither librarians, nor the patrons and members of the community and society, they serve.

June 27th, 2012

Don’t shush me, I’m tweeting the speaker

(The title is a play on librarian cliches and stereotypes, and on the worst book title in the field of games in education)

A better title is Dealing with Bunheads.

Twitter has been around for over six years. Other forms of social media have been around longer. Phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices where you can type while sitting at a presentation, seminar, workshop, conference or other event, have been around for many years, decades. And emails, mailing lists, usenet news groups, and other digital textual forms of presentation have been around for longer than quite a lot of the population, possibly some of the readers of this post.

And yet, at library and librarian conferences, there’s still reports of people in the audience asking, or telling, other people not to tweet. Seriously. I can’t believe I’m typing this in mid-2012.

It seems to happen on a regular basis at UK library events, less so – but not unknown – at US ones. Here’s a tweet from a conference earlier this week:

Tweeting problem

Here’s a comment by Jo the librarian on a post by Phil Bradley, from 2010 about a regional library organisation AGM from earlier that year. The whole comment included to give some context:

Ciliplondon

At the same event, another tweeter was also intercepted by a dinosaur who had some kind of objection to her ‘blackberry’. Lots of comments on this one. And lo, another post by someone else at the same event.

This hasn’t just happened, in the UK, at CILIP events:

biall

This has also happened in the USA, at the American Library Association annual conference this week past, where it happened to Kate and she posted about it on the ALA Think Tank Facebook group (a recommended thing to join):

ala

Kate adds some info on who and why the tweetophobe said what they did:

kate2

There are variations on this type of objection. For example, Sophie writes:

sophie1

There are far worse things than someone next to me using a smartphone, laptop or other device, at a library conference. These, ALL of which I’ve experienced at library conferences in the UK, include:

  1. The agent orange. Ridiculous amounts of aftershave or perfume, creating a natural ‘killzone’ around the wearer. Perhaps they are on ‘the pull’. Or perhaps they are too lazy to shower, and it’s to mask…
  2. The hobo. Bad body odor. Not the kind you get for running for the train that morning, but from seriously deficient personal habits.
  3. The muncher. Crunching their way through tube after tube of polo mints. Or some other bag or container of rustling sweets, due to an inability to wait until the break for refreshment.
  4. The slurper. People who have a cup or mug of coffee or tea, and loudly slurp. Every. Single. Damned. Mouthful.
  5. The stirrer. Usually the same person as the last one; people who stir their tea or coffee, in a mug, noisily using a metal spoon for several minutes. This is the only time (I think?) I have physically threatened someone with actual violence at a library conference. He left, suddenly, probably as a better option than having the metal spoon surgically removed later in the day. I’m a little unnerved by how close this came to violence, and I retrospectively apologise to everyone who overheard. Even if I was provoked.
  6. The yakker. People who talk through the whole session with the person next to them, on stuff that has nothing to do with the presentation. I mean, why the hell did you bother to turn up?
  7. The sniffer, who sniffs every five seconds, as regular as clockwork. Closely related to the throat-clearer.
  8. The crotch fiddler, as you’re aware of it, and as it is repeated, you’re not sure how innocent it is and whether you should move far away.
  9. The frakker. So called because they are their own personal gas drill well, emitting – sometimes loudly – gaseous material into the near locality. This seems to be prevalent amongst men of a certain age at UK library events. Or maybe I get repeatedly unlucky about who I sit next to.
  10. The tutter. He or she tuts at nearly every comment the speaker makes.

Suggestion to ‘The tutter’. If you want a wider audience, join twitter and tweet about what’s wrong with everything the speaker is saying.

If you can articulate your displeasure.

If.

Okay, I’m turning into Jerry Seinfeld. But, whatever. All of those are far worse than someone silently, without offensive odor, typing away on a device. People don’t publicly object to any of those ten, saying “Sir, you smell worse than the rear end of a dead horse!” or “Madam, if you suck those boiled sweets any louder, windows will shatter and dogs scatter!” Perhaps they should? But some people will complain about tweeting, despite tweeting being a positive and useful thing:

  • More people – many, many more – get to hear what the speaker is on about. That’s not disrespect; that’s amplifying. Tweeters are doing the speaker, and the event organisers, a huge favor.
  • The event itself is promoted more.
  • The speaker is critiqued. This is good. And from the many, many events I’ve followed on twitter, it doesn’t turn into an anti-speaker mob; at worse, there’s snark instead of vitriol. At best, there’s praise.
  • Extra information; links, context, additions, corrections, are added by the event twitterati to the speakers presentation. Good for him or her to review afterwards.
  • People tweeting, like note takers, will retain, remember, more information about the speaker.
  • Tweeting is good. It shows that at least some in the profession are comfortable with information flows through all media. Or, to put it more shortly, that they are information professionals.
  • Actively blocking tweeting is bad; contributing to the death knell of the profession. It’s off-putting to many people to join and gives ammunition to anti-library organisations that librarians are stuck in the past and irrelevant.

The objections to tweeting appear to fall into three categories:

  1. “You may be showing disrespect to the speaker.” I have a tiny bit of sympathy here, as the twitterophobe possibly has good intentions, but is just utterly in a different – previous – world as to how things work at events. Some education is required.
  2. “I don’t like technology, and therefore I’m going to make up ridiculous reasons why you shouldn’t tweet.” No sympathy here, and the twitterophobe shouldn’t be at Information Professional events. Or, arguably, in the profession.
  3. “I hate change. And I hate you, because I’m not young any more, and you are, with your virility and technology. This is my organisation, because I’ve been in it for decades and you haven’t. And there’s nothing you can do about it, because myself and like-minded people run it, and others in the organisation are too frightened to say anything in case we leave and stop paying our fees.” Again, no sympathy. Every elephant his graveyard, every dinosaur his tar pit.

What to do if someone tells to you stop tweeting, or typing, or messaging. There’s a few approaches that don’t involve violence or the threat of same:

michael

Or tell them you aren’t stopping and they are in the wrong. It’s important that you stand your ground as you are not in the wrong. Or, stay sitting on your slightly wobbly conference seat. Inform them that they can move to somewhere where they won’t encounter people tweeting, if it upsets them so much. Perhaps suggest North Korea, if you want to get flippant.

And then ignore them and tweet about them (which is even funnier if they are looking at your screen). Any decent conference or session organiser will pick up on this, and possibly intervene with dealing with the tweetophobe.

Alternately, if it is someone on a power-trip or being passive aggressive, take a picture of them and twitpic it. Let’s see the bunhead.

Concluding how this started; I’m still finding it hard to believe that this goes on in mid-2012. Not in huge amounts. But it does.

August 12th, 2009

Orland Public Library, Indiana

Library Open

If you love books and libraries, and you are travelling around America, this is the library to visit; the Joyce library, in Orland, up in the north east corner of Indiana. I’d heard recommendations about it from other librarians in the county, especially about the old library upstairs, so it became a bit of a must-see.

It didn’t disappoint.

The library is open80

The library is open for three days a week, four hours on each day. Called the Joyce Public Library, it’s named after the person who created it, back in 1903. Orland itself has a population of just 400. So it isn’t a big place, though it has pretty houses, and a famous diner (Chubby’s) where the portion sizes are threatening and cost a pittance is next door to the library.

Walking inside, you find yourself in a single, long room with (very) neatly arranged cases, shelves and books. There isn’t a single thing out of place and, probably, not a spec of dust in the place. I’ve never seen a library kept in this pristine and neat condition. Ever. Near the main desk, where patrons discussed the plots of the books they were returning, was the catalogue. Not PC-based, but a traditional card catalogue; a rummage through showed every card typed out in the same careful style. Entries for of my favourite books in the library came up in it (probably quicker than by using a PC-based catalogue, if one had been available).

Main collection

I got chatting to the staff who, like all the other librarians encountered in rural Indiana, were friendly and keen to speak to folk (especially folk with English accents). They gave a history of the place and offered what I was hoping for, a tour of the rooms not normally open to the public.

And so, the upstairs were a complete revelation. Larger than the downstairs, the restoration and materials spread across three rooms. The first one was the old library proper, complete with bell, the original card cataloguing case, and numerous books.

Old library room

The historical books can be browsed (but not taken out of the library) …

Books in the old library

… while the other rooms contained materials included a newspaper collection dating back to the 1880s, school desks and textbooks, cuttings, pictures of the town baseball team through the last century, team clothing and tables and cupboards filled with other historical ephemera. I particularly liked the newspaper front cover detailing the massacre at Custer’s last stand, with sub-headings of “What will Congress do about it?” and “Shall this be the beginning of the end?”.

It would have taken a good few days to have had a good look through what was there, and it was obvious that there was a substantial operation underway to preserve and archive the materials. It turned out that most was donated by local families, when clearing out rooms and attics and coming across items collected, or just forgotten about, by ancestors.

Historical archiving room

Wandering downstairs, the restored pictures around the top of the walls in the public library were distracting. These were the annual school photo displays, restored and displayed in chronological order. Going back well over a century, these were fun to move along, seeing how fashion (as photographed) changed, from stern, well-buttoned turn of the (1900) century outfits …

Class of 1907

… to the formality of the WW2 years, and the more adventurous hairstyles of the 1960s. If you watch Mad Men, then the dress and personal grooming sense of the 1960s pictures are very recognisable.

Class of 1963

There was more to look at in the public library. 26 alphabet tote bags, each containing fun stuff for young kids associated with a single letter of the alphabet. The surprisingly varied public book collection itself. The wedding dress display in the front window.

So how is this, one of the nicest library and library museums I’ve ever seen, funded? Especially their library museum, which has a collection far in excess of my home town (which is several hundred years older and has a population 60 times the size). It looks like a library. It functions like a library. But it isn’t integrated into the state or county network of official public libraries because (?) there are no qualified librarians who work here. That also means it doesn’t appear on some lists of public libraries in Indiana or the USA.

Okay; get this. The annual budget of this library – including the historical rooms upstairs? $16,000. Or, in UK money, £9,400. Per year. Some of this comes from town funding; a small amount also came from out of township membership fees of $10 a year (“We could charge more, but we don’t want to.”). Some monies come from catering and meals cooked by the library staff, such as the annual firemens dinner (attendance of roughly 100 in a town of 400 residents); the staff apply for any relevant grants which they hear about.

Considering it’s a building with several floors, taxes, electricity, upkeep and maintenance, there’s a substantial historical archiving initiative going on upstairs, and that they introduce 20 or so new books to the collection every month, that’s peanuts.

Historical collection

How is this possible? Volunteer effort. It’s staffed by a handful of – unpaid – local residents, who also do the archiving and maintenance. The library board, of five people, meet once a year. And that’s about it in terms of bureacracy. People in the town come in and help with things, or donate materials or hardware. “Why do you do this?” I asked the senior who gave the guided tour, and had done much of the historical archiving. “Because we can, and if we didn’t then this would be lost, and the town wouldn’t have a library.” “Do you get many out of town visitors here, or to the upstairs library?” “Not really.” This didn’t seem to bother her; she wasn’t doing it for funding, or for public glory. She just did it for quiet personal satisfaction, and because she lived in Orland.

I dropped off 10 dollars. Inexplicably, the library doesn’t have a donation jar, the staff didn’t charge for the tour, and they seemed surprised and grateful for the donation. Unlike a few other libraries visited over the years, there was no overt revenue-generating operation; exactly the opposite. Orland public library isn’t a financial model that would work in most places. Without the considerable volunteer effort of a few locals, the support of the whole town, and the canny accumulation and use of funding, the library would become unviable immediately.

One last thing. On leaving, turning the corner outside reveals a mural on the side of the library building:

Mural

Considering the size of the archiving operation, how well materials have been ordered and preserved, the miniscule budget and the number of people working there – with the support of the town – Orland public library seems a more heroic, worthy, complete and (above all) personal effort than more well-known libraries and museums such as the Bodleian, National Library of Scotland or the Smithsonian.

So that was my trip to Orland public library; a deeply satisfying way of ending a summer in the heat of midwest America.

August 11th, 2009

Conversations with librarians

Three months wandering around the Midwest of the USA come to an end in a few days, when I get on the plane from Chicago to London. It turned into a bit of a road trip in the end; during which I’ve met some fun people, expanded the social circle and contact network, eaten a spectacular range of finest American cuisine, explored cities e.g. Detroit, Ann Arbour and Toledo, wandered into Canada, swam in two of the Great Lakes (Michigan and Ontario), watched several baseball matches, seen numerous firework displays, got up close and personal with buffalo, travelled by road, plane, Greyhound bus and Amtrak train, started geocaching, and explored parts of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. And also got some work done.

All of that was enjoyable, every last baseball observed and calorie consumed. But the most fun was visiting rural libraries in Indiana and speaking to the librarians who direct, run and staff them.

Fremont was my first experience of a rural Indiana library. It wasn’t what I was expecting. The building was large, roomy, cool and quiet. Furniture was tasteful; electricity sockets were everywhere; the wifi was free. There were areas to do historical research and to generally sit down in a group. As with every library I visited, at least one large American flag would be prominent in the building:

Comfy seating area

The computer labs would be the envy of public libraries in Britain (as well as possibly a few schools and university departments). Several banks of – new – PCs were complimented by several areas of – new – Macs with large screens:

Mac Lab

I chatted with a male librarian, who seemed pretty friendly. He, and I quote, “real enjoyed” working there and enjoyed helping out the patrons who came in.

Topeka was a small town – basically a crossroads with a few building either side – deep in Amish country. Their library building was opened in March 2009, and like many of the newer buildings was well lit, cool, and roomy:

Topeka library

The friendly librarian chatted for a while. She ran various teen programs, such as movie nights, which helped bring kids in from a wide area around. It helped that the building had a community room (free for non-profits, a small fee for businesses) which was kitted out with various media kit, plus a piano. Topeka libraries serves a rural area of some 25 mile radius – and rural it is, with the town surrounded by corn fields and much of the traffic being Amish buggies. The Amish made up a sizeable proportion of the patrons of the library, and while we were chatting several came in and borrowed books.

Angola public library was also in a new building. Actually, the old library – restored and used as the reference centre – was also inside the new building, which also included the fountain that also used to be outside. It’s not everyday you see a fountain inside a public library, but there you go:

Angola library

One of the library staff was happy to give a guided tour, then introduced the director. She explained the (horribly complicated) way in which libraries in Indiana were funded – basically a combination of property taxes, donations, fines, and fees for out of township residents. I think – the system of funding, and who was eligible to use the library, seems complicated and differs between libraries, even in the same county. For example, a town and a township are not the same thing. From what I understand, villages, towns and cities are inside townships, which are inside counties, which are inside states. And each level has its own criteria (stop press: just been told that some can be incorporated – which adds another complication).

Angola library itself received most of its funding from local property taxes, as well as some clever auctions of items and services donated by local businesses:

Angola library

The collection itself was interesting, with ‘weeding’ being a counter-productive aspect. The Amish bishop instructed the children not to read any books published after 1975 or 1980, which meant that Amish children finding a book on the mobile library would first of all flip to the date of publication before checking out the book further.

LaGrange public library was inside a cramped building. It looked nice from the outside, near the centre of the town and opposite an Amish farmers market where I bought some jam and sausage bread. Inside, it became very obvious that this is a library that needed to move to a larger building. Desperately. Signs on the road coming into town indicated (as confirmed by a librarian) that the move/upgrade was the focus of some local controversy:

LaGrange library controversy

Inside, the staff were struggling moving around a building clearly not designed for either a growing collection of the current size, or people unable to use the many flights of stairs. Like the old library in Angola, the one in LaGrange was a Carnegie Library, one of many funded partially by a Scots philanthropist during the development of many rural American towns.

Stacks

Despite the small size of the rooms in the building, like the other public libraries on this tour there were several newish PCs for free Internet access, plus a whole pile of community information. LaGrange had several churches offering community meals, as advertised through the library and other places in the town. On the bannister of the stairs in the library porch was a stream of cards where residents could advertise, and request, services and goods from others. Sort of like a localised Saturday Swap Shop.

Community swap

All these public libraries were interesting and staffed by friendly, helpful people. But my favourite public library – not just in this corner of rural Indiana, but of the hundreds I’ve visited across America and Europe – deserves a posting to itself. Next.