Thursday, March 15, 2018

10 Things I Didn’t Learn in Library School as a Then-Future Cataloger, by Jessica Schomberg

numbers counting down from 10 to 1

I went to library school to be a cataloger. There wasn’t an official cataloging track, but it was pretty easy to design your own. I also went to library school almost 20 years ago, in the midst of a massive shift in how library schools were structured – my first year I attended a Graduate School of Library and Information Science, my second year it was an iSchool! This is a mix of things I wish I’d learned in library school… and some things that I’m glad I learned later.

  1. Diversity and inclusion. My advisor, the wonderful Allyson Carlyle, did introduce us to the work of Sandy Berman. But in general, taking a critical approach to librarianship wasn’t a concept to me at the time. There was no institutional expectation that anyone know anything about cultural issues other than “freedom of information” in a really narrow sense. And by narrow, I mean it didn’t even hint at the history of segregated libraries in the US, nor did it critique library workplace rules that forbid talk of unionizing. Why does this matter for catalogers? Because if we’re creating and applying cataloging standards based on a monocultural approach to the world, we’re inadvertently excluding or harming some of our patrons.
  2. Advocacy skills. We did have some discussions about how to respond to patron advocacy in terms of collection development, but I don’t remember any discussions about how to advocate with external agencies for the library, for library workers, or for patrons. I accidentally wound up at a library with strong unions, and it has overall been an incredibly positive experience for me as a worker. I’ve also been really impressed by the organizing work of librarians including Emily Drabinski. I still wish I’d had some training in how to act as an advocate for myself and others.
  3. Leadership and management. I could have taken a class. I actively didn’t want to supervise anyone at the time, so I deliberately didn’t take it. Looking back, I kind of regret that choice. But it probably would have been framed in a “how to be The Man” sort of way, so maybe it’s just as well that I avoided it. (Those of you who took library management classes, what did you think?) [Editor’s Note: My management class was completely useless.]
  4. Teaching and pedagogy. I was going to be a cataloger, I didn’t need to know how to teach! Insert crying gif here. This was the wrong choice. Real life led to me doing library instruction classes as part of my current job, and some training would have for sure helped. But also, and more importantly, if you’re a cataloger you’re probably going to end up teaching or training others how to catalog stuff at some point. For people who go the academic route, this might be during conference presentations. For people who choose public libraries, you’ll probably end up presenting information to coworkers or supervisors or community groups at some point. Learning how to do this in a classroom setting is far preferable to being dumped in front of people and told to speak.
  5. Technology can make you feel ambivalent. We had access to a range of technology classes -- how to build your own computer, website design, database design, etc. And I took all of these that I could, because they were so practical and because tech was cool. (This was the late ‘90s, people. It was a brave new world.) Anyway, since then I’ve occasionally tried to take coding classes because it seems like something catalogers should do. But frankly, I don’t find the topic interesting on its own. Give me stuff to organize and tell me what tools I need to do the job, and I’ll work through it. But learning tech for its own sake? Meh.
  6. Theory is important. You can get practical, hands-on experience at work, volunteering, internships, but you’re not going to have this kind of opportunity to have guided exposure to theoretical analysis outside the classroom. Your library school doesn’t offer those classes? Depending on your academic background, see if you can take an ethnic studies, disability studies, gender studies, or sociological theory course as an elective. Humans are the most important part of being a librarian, so it’s good to know more about them.
  7. Take statistics. You may not want to do formal quantitative research, but learning statistics is really helpful training for when you have to interpret data, make decisions, and create assessment and budget reports.
  8. Look around at your classmates. Who’s not part of your cohort? Who’s the only one of their kind in your cohort? Maybe you can’t do anything as a student to fill in these gaps, but pay attention -- and start thinking about how this will impact your professional network and professional practice.
  9. Patience. It doesn’t need to all happen right now. It took me several years after library school before I started coming into my own. By the time I figured myself out (thank you, therapy!), I was far outside of the eligibility period for any of those new professional opportunities. We don’t all have to pop out of grad school fully grown. It’s ok to be a slow bloomer.
  10. Reasonable expectations. You won’t learn everything you need to know in library school. This isn’t a bad thing. If all goes well, maybe you’ll be a person who creates new things for students to know in the future!

Jessica Schomberg is currently serving as Library Services Department Chair at Minnesota State University, Mankato, juggling other responsibilities including Media Cataloger and Assessment Coordinator. This is hir FOURTH post for LtaYL. The first was “My (Library) Life with Invisible Disabilities”. The second was “The Power to Name”. Most recently, ze wrote an interview post. Ze tweets as @schomj.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Why I Hate Quantitative Data

We've been talking about assessment a lot at work. More importantly, we're talking about meaningful assessment, which is good because if we were only going to discuss counting things - inputs and outputs - I'd roll my eyes so hard that I could possibly do damage to my ocular nerve. And then I'd pass out from boredom.

I should be honest, though. I don't actually hate quantitative data. It can be useful, especially when you're trying to make staffing decisions, to know when your busy times are. Also, some upper administrators like numbers better than stories. (I still think you need to know why people are coming into the library to understand the meaning of head counts.) Really, what I hate is the supremacy of the count-all-the-things mentality, which frequently rules supreme because people think it's easier. It's not actually easier, if you really want to do it right, but people think it is. Here's a list of things that people don't seem to consider:
  • Counting just to count doesn't accomplish anything, and actually adds to your workload without any kind of meaningful outcome. Counting just to count literally and figuratively is just a waste of time. 
  • You frequently end up gathering information you shouldn't have. I get angry when I think about all the surveys I've taken that want to know my gender or my age that have NOTHING to do with gender or age.
  • You will never have a consistent definition of anything you're counting. Want to know how many books do you have? You have to figure out what do you even mean by books. Titles? Monographs? Physical entities? Want to know how many people come into the library? Are we doing a door counter? Is it actually working? What about people who go out and come back in again? Want to know your circulation numbers? Should renewals be included? What about things that are pulled off the shelf but never checked out? And so on and so on... And this is exacerbated when you are talking about multiple institutions instead of just multiple people. Yes, I'm looking at you, IPEDS.

Instead of gathering numbers because "we've always done it this way" or "we need to give them some data", try thinking about why you want the information. If you're trying to make decisions about staffing levels, numbers are exactly the thing to do. But if you're trying to learn what gaps you have in your collection, you'll need to gather a different kind of information as part of reference interactions. Also try thinking about how you'll use the information. If it's a report that you've sent to the provost every month for years and years, maybe ask your director to check with the provost to see if they find the report useful.

There are so many good places to look for qualitative assessment tools in libraries. The Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) Project is a good place to start if you're new to the idea. I've used a lot of techniques I learned from reading that website and a book that came out of the project, College Libraries and Student Culture: What We Now Know. Also attended a talk given by one of the authors, Andrew Asher, a few years ago. And that's what you should do - look to see what resources you can find at conferences. Do a quick search in an education database for "qualitative assessment and libraries". If you're at an academic library, go talk to people in the sociology department or anthropology department or pretty much any social sciences.

I want to say this again: it's not so much that I hate quantitative data as that I hate our over-reliance on it as some kind of be-all-end-all method of assessment. We need to have more ways of looking at how we're doing than just counting inputs and outputs. I hope I've convinced you of that.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Just For Fun: Elizabeth Bishop


A long time ago (25-ish years) in a Galaxy far, far away (a Boston suburb), my parents gave me The Golden Treasury of Poetry. I think it was for Hanukkah, but it might have been for my birthday. It may sound like hyperbole to say this book changed my life, but it really did. In particular, the poem that is featured above blew my little mind. Up until I read "The Fish" by Elizabeth Bishop, I had no idea that poems didn't have to rhyme. I didn't know poetry could be so visual and symbolic and still feel good as you pronounce the words. Up until then, the poetry I'd read was probably nothing more than doggerel. Lines like "backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil" delighted me endlessly. I should say "delight" instead of "delighted" because "The Fish" is still, to this day, my favorite poem.

It started a small, but definite, obsession with the works of Elizabeth Bishop. Take, for instance, her sestina:
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house 
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.
The rules of a sestina are set and painstakingly particular and exacting. It's using the same words over and over again in a very specific pattern, and is sometimes seen as an intellectual exercise, but Bishop makes the intellectual exercise sing.

Then there's her poem "Casabianca." It is an homage to another poem by the same name, written by Felicia Hemans. The Hemans poem is shmaltzy and the kind of thing people are made to memorize (or at least used to be made to memorize) for public speaking classes. It's a poem about a boy's loyalty and love for his father. But Bishop's homage takes that idea and story to another place and punches me in the gut with its eloquence:
Love's the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite `The boy stood on
the burning deck.' Love's the son
stood stammering elocution
while the poor ship in flames went down.

Love's the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolroom platform, too,
or an excuse to stay
on deck. And love's the burning boy.
I can pick up a collection of her works and open to any page and know I'm going to find something I love. Can't say that about any other poet, except maybe Shakespeare.

So how about you? Do you have a favorite poem? Poet? Please share!