Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pushy Polite, by Emily Thompson

Networking is awful. I hate it.

I say this as an introvert who fakes extroversion very well. Maybe it was the moving abroad, but I had to learn to ignore the twisting in my stomach and tame my quavering voice and just go meet the people. After all, the people didn’t know I was sitting alone in my apartment wishing for someone to talk to. They didn’t know I existed.

So I adopted a strategy: be a little bit pushy and a lot polite. I still get nervous, but now at least I only eat lunch alone at conferences when I want to, and I’ve met so many interesting people!

Let me clarify “pushy.” No one likes that person who won’t leave them alone and doesn’t seem to be able to read body signals or tones of voice. It’s more that I feel pushy. It feels like I’m imposing because I’m trying to overcome my natural shyness. My head is saying “Hiyouseemniceimgoingtotalktoyouokbemyfriend?!?” But my actual voice is closer to, “Hey, did I hear you’re on the way to the convention center? I am too. Would you like to share a cab?” Then we can chat (or not) on the way to the convention area.

“Pushy” also means assuming a yes, as in “Sure I’ll share a cab.” After all, most people (especially librarians) try hard to be polite and kind. If your request is reasonable, why wouldn’t they say yes? Assuming a yes was how I got Daniel Handler, Maira Kalman, Stephen Chbosky, and 30 different librarians to talk into my phone for my “Live from ALA” podcast. I just asked with a smile. Not everyone said yes, but most people did. (A few of those who said no just needed a little further convincing that they had something worth listening to.)

This doesn’t just go for in-person events. Twitter is a fantastic way to get attention from people you want to know or work with. 140 characters can start something wonderful, or it can be completely ignored. It’s a low stakes way to make a connection.

On to the other half of this method: be a lot polite. Say thank you for everything. Everything. Be gracious. Be willing to pay back a favor. Negotiate for what you want with what they can give, and then throw in a bonus. I sent a thank you email with a link to every person who gave me a sound bite (except the few I didn’t have cards for, and the one who’s email didn’t work). It all boils down to the idea that you don’t want any of the people who helped you out to regret it. If you get what you want and then ignore them, or are rude, or take the whole credit for something, they will not help you again. And worse, they might not help out the next person who asks.

This won’t work every time. People are busy, they can’t say yes to everything. But it’s worth the stress and the butterflies in your stomach to give it a shot. So deep breath, exhale. Now ask that question.

Emily Thompson is the Learning Technologies Librarian at SUNY Oswego where she spends her time trying to get students and faculty excited about new stuff. She has a weekly podcast you can find here and she tweets @librarianofdoom

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Reference Desk Conundrum

Creative Commons licensed picture, source.

The semester has just barely begun - classes started yesterday - and I'm already confronted with my first conundrum of the academic year. My problem is with the seeming conflict between two things that are, I think, crucial to the success of my library: staying true to our mission (" create an environment that fosters intellectual excellence and encourages lifelong learning.") and providing good customer service.

More specifically, I'm thinking about how I answer reference questions. The analogy I've always used is about teaching someone how to catch fish versus giving them a fish right now. It's rare that I just answer questions at the reference desk, especially when the asker is a student. Instead, I escort the student over to one of our public computers and walk them through the process of figuring it out for themselves. I make them work for it because I believe that working for it means they'll eventually be able to answer questions for themselves.

That is all well and good, but some students seem to avoid the reference desk when I'm there. It might be because they'd rather work with a man (I'm the only woman who staffs the ref desk), but it might be because I insist on teaching them to fish. Don't get me wrong: I make sure every person who comes to me at the desk has an answer, or at least a path to an answer, before we're done. But is this insistence good customer service? 

How would I react if my mechanic said some version of, "I know what's causing that grinding noise when you turn left on hot days, but let's see if you can figure it out for yourself"? Or if the check-out clerk at the grocery store showed me the map and waited patiently for me to discern where they store the pearl barley? I know that I'm in a very different line of work, but I also want the members of my community to like the library and the librarians. I know I'm doing my job when I teach people how to figure it out for themselves, but what impression am I making (even when I do it in as friendly and open a way as possible)?

As I said, I suspect that my tendency towards the side of teaching patrons to fish, of making them work for it, means that some students avoid me when I'm at the reference desk. I've even seen students go to the circulation desk for help with things that I could easily do, and I wonder if that is because of my stance on teaching students to do it for themselves. (I do know that part of it might come from people not knowing who does what, but when it's an upper-classmen asking and it's a returning student behind the circulation desk, I don't think that enters into it. There's no way Patron A thinks that Library Student Worker B is a librarian.)

I'm not sure that, at least in this instance, there is a true conflict. For an academic librarian, particularly one who specializes in instruction, teaching is customer service. But with outreach and building community relationships, perceptions can sink even the best efforts.

My thinking on this is definitely evolving, so I'd love to get your input. For the librarians (degreed or otherwise) in my reading audience, how do you handle it? Further: does your library have an official stance on how to handle reference desk interactions? For the library science students, what have your professors had to say on the subject?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Initiation Pain Level: Zero, by Anthony Helm

About 17 months ago I joined a new community, one that I had only ever imagined myself joining about a dozen times before. But the entrance was barred, I believed, by the lack of a degree. Specifically, I became a part of the library community, and I did it without an MLIS degree. Much to my surprise, I was not alone, though I still refrain from calling myself a “librarian.” Librarians, after all, have earned the title through years of study, practice and/or a combination of both. Nevertheless, I was welcomed to the community and am quite happy to be here. Of course, it helped that the library staff and administration here at Dartmouth College Library made my transition a smooth one.

Before I go into how they managed that, allow me to provide a little background. I have been bouncing, albeit slowly, between technology positions (computers, multimedia) and teaching positions (Japanese, English, technology) for a number of years, ultimately bringing the two together as an academic technologist. I came to Dartmouth four years ago to head up the Arts & Humanities Resource Center (AHRC), which provided technology and teaching support to A&H faculty. During the economic crisis of the past few years, Dartmouth saw a lot of reorganization and the AHRC as it existed was no more. I applied for and was hired as the Head of Digital Media and Library Technologies in the spring of 2011.  That’s how I joined one of the biggest organizations on campus, with close to 150 staff members and probably the largest population of student employees, too. Despite having heard some rumors about the library community here from friends who work there, I still didn’t know what to expect. I have since learned that our library takes “community” very seriously. Here are some of the things we do to promote that:

Two or three times a year we run new employees through a library orientation process. Over the course of six weeks, the group spends up to an hour in each of the library’s departments (e.g. cataloging/metadata, acquisitions, interlibrary loan) and affiliate locations (e.g. special collections library, biomedical library, storage library), getting to know the staff in each location as well as gaining an understanding of the work done there and the role that department plays in the overall library organization. The orientation begins and ends with sessions with library administration. While the immediate benefits seem obvious, there is an additional benefit, too. The group of new hires is itself comprised of staff from around the library, which helps you make personal connections beyond your own department.

Candidate Presentations and Hiring
As you may expect, we do a fair amount of hiring throughout the library. For all professional positions, the candidates are expected to do a presentation. What is unusual is that the presentations are open to the entire library staff. Having gone through the experience myself, you can imagine the surprise on candidate’s faces when they have an audience of 50 people. What’s more, all staff members are invited to weigh in on the candidates through an open online feedback form. You may be a library programmer, but your opinion of the biomedical librarian candidate is just as valued. We’ve talked to candidates who have commented that the audience for the presentation was not only memorable in comparison to other interviews, but also that the diverse audience sent a strong message of library community. Oh, and once hired, there is almost always a welcoming event that is open to all staff.

All-Staff Meetings
Twice a year we have all-staff meetings. But if everyone’s in a meeting, who’s taking care of the Library? On all-staff meeting days, the program is run twice, with a morning session and an afternoon session. This allows staff to come at a time that is most convenient, while still keeping our service desks open. The meetings usually begin with introduction of new staff (sensing a theme here?) before launching into programs that are designed to inform the community of projects or changes, and may also include invited guests from other parts of campus. One all-staff meeting also becomes our annual “Inspiring Ideas Conference.” After opening comments and introductions, a keynote session is followed by break-out sessions where staff present to other staff on activities, tools, and services provided throughout the library. Past sessions have included coping with collection disasters (work, home, community), personal finance tools available through library resources, an insider’s look at the University Press of New England (UPNE), and hardware and software available for personal use through the media center.

Our organization also maintains a social support group known as the Dartmouth College Library Staff Association. You can see on the DCLSA home page  that the purpose of the group is three-fold:
  • Promote communication and cooperation among staff in the library through membership and participation in the DCLSA; 
  • Provide a scholarship fund that offers members partial tuition reimbursement for continuing education courses or programs; 
  • Promote staff morale and social relationships by welcoming new staff, administering staff welfare funds and sponsoring social or educational events

The events throughout the year are well-attended.

Taken altogether, I honestly can say that there is not another department or organization on campus that I’d rather be a part of. I’m glad to be a staff member of the library, and I do feel the initiation pain level was just about zero, without even a spoonful of sugar.

Anthony Helm is the Head of Digital Media and Library Technologies at Dartmouth College. Once in a great while, he tweets @kajiai, but you can contact him more easily by emailing him at

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why Are Academic Libraries Getting the Short End of the Stick? Can We Do Something to Turn Things Around?


I read an article by John J. Regazzi a short while ago, and I can't stop thinking about it. The gist of his piece, "Comparing Academic Library Spending with Public Libraries, Public K-12 Schools, Higher Education Public Institutions, and Public Hospitals Between 1998–2008," is that academic libraries are getting the shortest possible end of the budget stick. Not only are we worse off than we were ten years ago, we're worse off than any other category he considered.

Before I move onto why this article has stuck with me, and what I think we can learn from it, here's the abstract:

"This study compares the overall spending trends and patterns of growth of Academic Libraries with Public Libraries, K-12 schools, higher education institutions, and hospitals in the period of 1998 to 2008. Academic Libraries, while showing a growth of 13% over inflation for the period, far underperformed the growth of the other public institutions in the study. Academic Libraries lost nearly 25% of their share of higher education total spending, suggesting a shift in higher education priorities. Academic and Public Libraries are shown to have very different investment and spending priorities with Academic Libraries as a group reducing staff and investing in their collections, while Public Libraries have expanded their staff and services significantly, but not collections. Patterns of spending and investment differ markedly for Academic Libraries by size of institution, while size of library or community is not a differentiating determinant for staff or services growth."

And here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

  • It's hard not to increase our spending on collections, especially electronic collections, when the suckers keep getting more and more expensive.
  • The fact that our parent institutions (colleges & universities) are growing their overall budgets while ours remain flat or even shrink... well, it hurts.
  • I'm wondering if we should (academic libraries & librarians) stop being such good sports about it all. Should we fight more?
  • I'm also wondering why are we still so focused on products and not services.

Beyond everything else, one thought stands out: we're doing something wrong and we need to make some changes. Refocusing our missions seems a good first step. As an information literacy/instruction librarian, I'm admittedly biased, but I think we should be concentrating on educating our communities instead of on providing more and more content that they may or may not know how to use. More is not always better. I also think we should concentrate more on outreach and marketing to our parent institutions, specifically to the decision makers. Even better, we should recruit our most vocal advocates to go talk for us.

Other than those broad ideas of how to fix this situation, I'll admit I'm somewhat stumped, but I'm not giving up. Libraries are too important to the health of our parent institutions, and to the success of our students and faculty, no matter our size/mission/location. Like I said already, we're obviously doing something wrong. We obviously need to change. But how? 

How about you? What do you think about this disturbing trend in academic library budgets? Do you have any advice about how we can turn things around? 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

So, You Want to Be a Children's Librarian, by Jenn Estepp


In library school, I wasn’t really sure what sort of librarian I wanted to be. I flirted with cataloging, contemplated academia, made googly-eyes at special collections, and dated teen services pretty seriously. But the one thing I was certain I didn’t want to be was a children’s librarian. “I don’t like to sing songs and I hate flannel boards,” I remember responding to the instructor in the one exclusively children’s class I took in library school.  Children’s librarians were important and necessary, but not my tribe. I couldn’t imagine myself as one of them. 

Cut to almost eight years later, and it turns out that I’ve spent my entire professional career as one. What happened? Well, a lot of stuff. The really short version is: I took a job as a children’s librarian right after library school because those were the jobs that were most available, and then I discovered that I loved it.

So, what’s the difference between what I thought being a children’s librarian meant and what being a (good) children’s librarian actually is? And what do I wish someone had told me before I signed on?
  • You have to like kids. This may fall under the category of “things that should go without saying” but, alas, you’d be surprised how many children’s librarians I’ve met who seem to despise children. It makes me sad and angry every single time. I can only imagine what it makes the kids who have to deal with them feel. 
  • You have to master the reference interview. The idea that “most people don’t ask for what they really want” is especially true with children. Frequently, they don’t know what they want. Further, they aren’t always asking of their own volition. They have an assignment. They aren’t sure what their teacher meant or what they really have to do. They heard words wrong or only part of a title. What they do know, they can’t always express. Their skills with language are still developing. That doesn’t mean talk down to them - for goodness sakes, do not talk down to them! - but you may have to do a lot of questioning and clarifying and restating. 
  • You won’t just work with children. Sure, kids will make up the majority of your customers. Their needs and desires are the ones you’re a specialist at knowing and interpreting. But there are an awful lot of adults who are kid-adjacent. Parents, teachers, scout leaders, grad students, writers. Children’s librarianship isn’t a ticket to avoiding grown-up interactions. And, because their needs won’t always be related to kids, you’ll still need to know what’s up in the world of adult literature, news and information.
  • You are an advocate. Like everyone else, you advocate for the library with politicians and decision-makers. When budget time comes around, those pictures of children with homemade signs and heart-wrenching “Please don’t close my library” letters can be awfully effective. Beyond that, however, you’re going to have to advocate for yourself within your library. If you can pull up statistics that show your programs brought hundreds through the door or how juvenile material accounted for over 50% of circulation statistics, it’s going to help maintain your relevancy and your budget. You need to advocate for kids - to your colleagues, to other customers, to their parents. Finally, you have to advocate within the professional community.
  • You have to know children’s books. You need to read them and love them. You have to keep up with publishing trends. You can’t read all the books and you don’t have to like everything you read, but you do need to know and be able to evaluate them. Sometimes it’s really, really fun (handing a book you adore to a voracious reader, knowing that they’ll love it too and having them come in a week later and enthuse about it) and sometimes it’s not (this sentimental picture book makes me cringe but I know parents who will adore it). When it works though - when a child clutches a book you gave them to their chest, rushes in for “more like this one” or actually does a little dance out the door, it’s pretty much the best thing ever.
  • Some of the stereotypes are true. I smile a lot. I cut things out of construction paper. I sing songs and play with puppets and have to be “on,” even when I don’t feel like it. But that’s because some kids are shy. Crafting is good for them - their creativity, their decision making, and their fine motor skills. Those motor skills, along with pre-reading ones, are why we do fingerplays and nursery rhymes and songs in storytime. Puppets are engaging and a kid doesn’t care if you sing off-key or have a headache or need more coffee.

It turns out that there isn’t one “right way” to be a children’s librarian. Everyone has their own style, skills and preferences. Figuring out what works for you and your community is more important than meeting anyone’s pre-conceived notions of how you should be.

Jenn Estepp is the Children's Librarian at the Glendale Community Library, part of the Queens Library system. She spends entirely too much time playing video games, riding public transportation and streaming British TV shows on Netflix Instant.  Hear all about it by following her on twitter @quietjenn.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Connecting With New Faculty, Or, Welcome to Our World


The new academic year is going to start any second now. Okay, it starts in a couple of weeks, but it feels like I've only got seconds left. That means, among many other things, that new faculty are showing up. In some ways, the relationships we develop with faculty are more important than with students. Faculty are here for the long haul, unlike students who are typically only here for four years, so we want to make the best first impression we can.

How do we do that? The first thing we do is to contact them before they even get to campus. Yup. You read that correctly. We get names, addresses, and degree (so we know whether to address someone as Dr. or Ms. or Mr. or whatever) and department information, at the end of the previous Spring semester, and then send them welcome packets. There's a letter from the director, a few information pamphlets, appropriate business cards, and some kind of swag like sticky notes.

We don't stop there, either. We have a guaranteed spot on the agenda for their orientation day - just a half hour or so, but that's all we need for that day. It's more a time to say, "Hi, we're the ones who sent you the nifty sticky notes and letter. We'll be in touch," than anything else.

And then there's the coup de grĂ¢ce: I take each and every one of them on an individual, personalized tour of the library building. Yes, it takes a lot of my time, but it's worth it. I can make sure each person gets the information they need. For instance, I show everyone the curriculum and children's literature collections, but my focus for an education professor (how the curriculum materials are organized and how to request new items) is very different from what I discuss with a new biology professor ("These materials are available for everyone, not just the education department, so feel free to bring any young relatives down here and check out books for them."). Similarly, I show everyone the archives but would make sure the archivist will be in her office at the time if the tour is for a new history professor.

These individualized tours also give me the opportunity to talk up our other services and to learn about the new professors. What was the topic of their dissertation? What kinds of classes will they be teaching? What kinds of electronic resources have they used at other schools? And then there's my favorite thing to do during these walks around the building. Here's a made up example: "Oh, you're going to teach a class about the art of grave stones? Did you know that Professor X teaches a class about death and dying? Also, I think Professor Y wrote her dissertation about memorial monuments. Would you like me to introduce you to either of them?"

As I mentioned above, this does take lots of time. There are actually 16 new people starting this year, so I'm talking about eight to 12 hours of my life over the first month of the semester. Everything else we've tried has been a flop, so I invest this time. Nothing else works quite as well as the personal touch.

How about you? How do you welcome new people to your community?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

You Are Going to Fail (But That's Okay), by Steve Thomas


Luke: I can’t believe it.
Yoda: That is why you fail.

I have news for you: you’re going to fail.

Now, that may be an obvious statement, but mired in the swampy muck of Internet memes, the word “fail” has lost a good chunk of its power. It used to hold a sense of dark gravitas but now it’s a punchline or at best, a hashtag suffix. That’s unfortunate, because failing is no less important now than it was before. The power of failure cannot be stressed enough but it’s not nearly as depressing as it sounds. Failure just shows you which paths you should not travel on your path to success.


 Before I allow myself to get further bogged down in any more metaphors like a man drowning in quicksand (sorry), let me just say that I have failed so many times in my career and my life that I cannot even begin to count the ways. Heck, it took me until I was almost 30 years old before I even figured out that I wanted to be a librarian, and I got fired from my first professional position.

Yeah, that’s right. Fired, let go, downsized, however you want to think about it. Was it a horrible experience? Sure, at the time, I can’t say I wanted to crack a lot of jokes about it. I allowed myself a day to wallow in being depressed but then I picked myself up and went to work finding another job.


I took a few part-time positions along the way, but this experience led me straight out of academia, into public libraries and right into my current job, the best one I’ve ever had, where I feel like I’m really helping people. In fact, even though they didn’t ask in my interview for my current job, I volunteered the information that I was fired from my previous position because I felt like it was best to be honest and own up to my part in what had gone wrong in the job from which I’d been fired.

I haven’t failed as spectacularly since, but I still fail. Outside of my normal job, I do a podcast called Circulating Ideas, where I interview librarians about their work. I did an interview with a couple of librarians and everything went great on that end but when things got to the editing stage, I realized that the audio file containing the interview had become corrupted and I could not recover it. Also, the interviewees weren’t immediately available for a do-over. However, I didn’t allow that setback to impede the progress of the show. I rebooked with the original interviewees for a couple of weeks later and slipped in another quick interview that I was able to get up quickly to take the place of the original, allowing me to keep to my monthly schedule. Even outside this particular incident, Skype will often drop calls which leads to lots of apologizing and editing but by keeping a calm attitude and a determination to make the best of the situation, everything works out.


So, hauling out the metaphors once again, don’t get sucked into a black hole of failure. Instead, accept it for the learning opportunity that it is, and let it make your next great success that much brighter.

Steve Thomas is a public librarian and the host of Circulating Ideas, the librarian interview podcast. He lives in the suburbs of Atlanta with his wife, two kids, and two cats. He likes all three Star Wars movies (he still lives in denial). You can follow him on Twitter @stevelibrarian.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Measure of a Library


There it stands: the library to which I compare all others. Why do I do this? Did that library win some prestigious award? Did some professor of mine hold it up as an example of the perfect library? It might have won an award or been cited as an example, but that's not why I use the Peabody Institute Library in Danvers, Massachusetts as my measure of a good library. It's simpler than that. The Peabody Institute is the library that serves the town where I grew up. Even better, it was close enough that my parents would let me ride my bike there, unsupervised. So I did. A lot.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that it was (and still is) a great library. Here are the things that stand out in my memory:
  • There was always someone there to help. From introducing me to The Island of Blue Dolphins, to making the copier work, to explaining the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature, the library staff were there for me.
  • They always seemed to have what I needed. Although I had moved away from that area for almost a decade, I moved back and ended up getting my MLIS at Simmons College. I don't remember the specific assignment that had me confounded, but I do remember one of the reference librarians suggesting a resource I hadn't considered - a resource that was perfect for my burgeoning librarian needs.
  • Even the building is welcoming. It had (has?) every kind of work space one might need, from reading nooks to meeting rooms and everything in between. 

I'm sure that their building has its problems - don't they all? Leaky roofs, drafty study rooms, limited storage space, etc. But I think about the impression that library made on me as a child and beyond, and I think about how I want my library to make the same impression on people in my community. I want our patrons to know that we are here for them, that we have what they need, and that they are welcome. It's a feeling that goes beyond print versus electronic, beyond services versus collections, beyond most of the things I've written about on this blog. I don't think there's a sure fire way to achieve this goal, but I keep trying anyway.

How about you? Do you have a library to which you compare all others? Why does that library stick with you?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

First Thursday's Just For Fun: I Can Haz Silly Aminal Videos Nao?

Okay. I admit it. I have a fairly intense obsession with silly animal videos. Since I know I'm not alone, I thought I'd take this month's Just For Fun post as an opportunity to share some of my all time and recent favorites.

Here's a polite party crasher:

And some D A N G E R O U S kittens (make sure to have your volume turned up for best results):

A beatboxing cat:

A selfish & curmudgeonly porcupine:

And finally, a video that makes me wonder if anyone has ever seen Tom Waits and Cookie Monster in the same place at the same time. I know Cookie Monster isn't technically an animal, but this video fits in my mind:

Now it's your turn: share one (or more) of your favorite silly online videos in the comments.