Thursday, January 31, 2013

Libraries and Librarians: A Love Letter, by Day Al-Mohamed

Let me open with the fact that I think Jessica Olin is awesome. [Editor’s note: I swear I didn’t pay her to say that.] Let me follow up with the additional statement that we have never met in person. Our communication has always been electronic: Twitter and email and via “Letters to a Young Librarian.” Over time, I’d like to think there has grown a mutual respect. So when she put out a call for guest posts, I was quick to reply. Why? Because one of the most precious and amazing things about the internet is the sharing of information, and having the opportunity to “communicate directly with library science graduate students and new professional librarians” is yet another way to do that.

You can read about me, my experiences, and expertise in my bio, but the thing I want you to know is that I struggled with what to write about. I’ve a love and interest in history; I work in employment; and I have a disability. Any of these would have worked for a topic. However, in the end, after much thought and scribbling, what I ended up with was a personal love letter to libraries and librarians. Rather than tips or advice on the work and information, I thought it might be best to simply speak from the heart, not as a historian or employment policy expert, or even as a person with a disability…but as a grateful patron.

I didn’t have a library growing up on a small island in the Middle East. It wasn’t until seventh grade, when I changed schools, that I discovered what a library was. Before that, knowledge came from the bookstore. In my young mind, that’s where all the books were kept and so I could only gain as much knowledge as I could convince my parents to purchase. Thinking back, I have to laugh at how I badgered them about “Just one more book!” But that first day of walking into the school and into the room that they called the “library” (it really was not very large, perhaps 700 square feet in total), there were so many books, boggled my mind. I could read as many as I wanted. And, best of all, I didn’t have to BUY them.

I remember the librarian explaining to me how to check out books and the rather tall stack I left with that first day. I can’t recall what the books were but I can remember a few things from that era of my life. Memories that are very precious to me: pulling Anne McCaffrey’s White Dragon from the shelf and flipping through the pages, since it was the book that started me down the path of reading and eventually writing my own fantastical stories; reading The Andromeda Strain in the brightly lit space and shivering as I realized how it connected the science from my biology class to science in the real world and its potential terrible impacts; I learned how to bowl and ride a horse from books (true story, I learned enough that after my first riding lesson, I was moved to a more advanced class); I studied French and got a taste for astronomy.

And all of this with a librarian who laughed at my usual large stacks of books every time I went to check out; who stayed open “just a few minutes more,” who would ask how I liked different books, and always, always had suggestions for even more.

This love of the library continued in college. It was my sanctum. Moving from the Middle East and a community and culture I knew, to halfway around the world and a college campus with more than 30,000 students…to say it was culture shock would be an understatement. I went from being a decent enough student who was getting by with adequate grades to one who was struggling with managing my studies, myself, and my vision loss. 

The library is where I went to hide when the world was too much. It was where I polished my computer skills and really learned how to use a screen-reader to access the world via computer (while my guide dog slept comfortably under the desk). Paper and text were mostly out of my reach but with assistive technology and a little bit of help, I could still access it. 

This is this point where librarians shine. Where they show how it isn’t just the books and computers that make the space, but the people. [Editor again: This is another thing I didn’t pay or even ask her to say. *big grin*] The staff helped me to find books I needed and retrieved them for me. Occasionally, I’d feel adventurous and attempt it on my own. Trust me, with a visual impairment, reading one letter at a time is not an effective way to try and find a specific book on a specific shelf. But I loved the fact they respected my need to be independent. I graduated, and went on to law school. I didn’t spend as much time in the campus library, but that was because I had moved to the law school’s library.

I’m speaking about “my” libraries and the experience of one blind student, but it is an experience that I think occurs in a variety of libraries with patrons with a variety of disabilities. I love books. I love having a time and space to enjoy them. I love the access to text given through computers. I love the cultural events and activities. Libraries provide all this. And not just to those who can afford it, but perhaps most importantly, to those who can’t. It is why librarians are so very important. They set the tone and define the space. Otherwise, it’s just a building full of books. They shape the welcome and use their expertise to actively help people grow and thrive.

To this day, I have a fondness for libraries. I love to visit them. I love to browse through the stacks and smell the pages. I love even more perusing their online selections, my iPhone reading off titles to me, and then downloading the latest thriller, or history book, or even romance novel (I never could resist a good happily-ever-after). I love when the librarian eyes my selections and offers suggestions. Libraries have changed with the times, but that key feature, access to knowledge, hasn’t changed. Librarians and their attention to patrons’ interests and desires, hasn’t changed either. And for that I will forever be grateful.

To all librarians and future librarians. Thank you.

Day Al-Mohamed is Senior Policy Advisor with the U.S. Department of Labor, heading up the Add Us In initiative.  She has also worked as a lobbyist and political analyst on issues relating to healthcare, education, employment, and international development. Follow her on Twitter, @DayAlMohamed and read her stuff all around the web.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

I Know That I Don't Know


As I've already mentioned, I'm about to start a new job, and I'm thrilled about it. This really is a dream job for me, for this stage of my career. The institution is exactly the kind of place where I want to be: a small, liberal arts college with a long tradition of serving populations - first generation college students and minority students - with whom I like to work. It's even in the Mid-Atlantic, a part of the country that I've long adored, ever since I got my undergraduate degree at a college about three hours from here. And being the director of the library is exactly what I want to be.

At the risk of sounding sappy, I've been working towards this for my entire career. I didn't see it early on, and if you'd asked me back then I would have told you I never wanted to be a director, but the variety of work experiences and further education/training I've sought have prepared me for this moment. It astonished me when I first realized it, but thing is I do usually know what I'm talking about when it comes to small academic libraries.

Most importantly, though, I have come to realize that as much as I do know, there is still so much that I don't. For instance, I need to learn about the culture and specifics of my new institution. I need to figure out how to adopt my approach - pop culture based, high touch, and relentlessly cheerful/cheerfully relentless - to my new environment. I'm action oriented, and definitely raring to go, but I need to hold that instinct in check long enough to get the lay of the land.

The thing is, I know I'm going to make some mistakes. It's a bit cliché, but if you're not making mistakes then you're not taking risks, and taking risks is how you grow. However, since I don't want to be sitting in the corner with a figurative dunce cap on my head, since I intend to succeed at this new endeavor, I need to make sure that they are smart mistakes and worthwhile risks. The only way I can hope to do that is to admit that I know that I don't know everything.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

When Good Programs Go Bad: Forgetting the Patron Perspective, by John Pappas


How much effort are your patrons willing to expend in order to attend a program? The quick answer: not much, at least not if they don’t think it will be worth it.

You really need to know your audience and their concerns and shouldn’t ask for too much effort for too little reward. Or, to put it another way, if a program requires effort, time, and planning for families or adults to get there, then they will definitely expect something palatable in return. The question remains: “Are you providing enough return for their investment?” Emotional investment. Investment of time. Investment in their children, their education, their future.

For instance, it’s important to remember that families with two bread-winners, in a working class neighborhood, may not be willing, able, or even awake in order to attend weekend family programming. They are also not able to attend the standard early morning storytime. A Saturday becomes sacrosanct in a way that outweighs the possibility of attending library programming. In order to reach them you will need to tip the scale in the library’s direction or you could try the “backdoor”. The “backdoor” may be focusing on daycare centers, day programs, and schools. All are alternatives I’ve employed successfully. But always remember, even if their level of interest is high it may not be enough to gain their time. It is important to respect that element.

Let me give you an idea of what can happen when you ask for too much effort. I was part of a community photo-archiving day. We asked members of our community to bring their old photos to the library so we could scan, label and catalog the photos into our archives. What more could you ask for? We were offering to preserve their memories so others could learn and reflect upon those pictures, and the library was going to get to keep the archives populated with shiny, happy pictures. Recipe for success, right? Erm... no. It flopped, and here is why: Our demographic was an older population. We are asking them to:

1      Crawl into their attics.
2      Find old photos.
3      Lug photos out of the attic.
4      Drive to library.
5      Find PARKING!
6      Lug box of photos into library.
7      Wait in LINE!
8      Scan and then...
9      Lug photos back home, put them in the attic and hopefully take a nap.

Bottom line was that this was a great program with a serious ROI deficiency. And I apologize, gentle reader, for so flippantly tossing out an already overused twerm (twerp + term = twerm. A twerpy term), but ROI is the only way to capture the idea. Through the eyes of the older patron, this little gem of a photo-archiving program was a massive pain in the ass.

After it flopped so resoundingly, we brainstormed a few ways of sweetening the pot for another try. Some possibilities were including a CD ROM of the digital items, having a display of some of our more obscure images in our archives (my personal favorite was a collection of 1950-60s billboards that were really cool - pure retro eye-candy), or move the scanning into the community. Take it on the road! We thought we could find the places where our patrons wanted to be and be there. These increased the return for the patron while decreasing (or holding steady) the investment.

If you’re newish to programming, let me warn you (or remind you, if you’re experienced): please be careful with the incentives. They are a dangerous game to play. Do your attendees expect an external, physical reinforcement? Will they continue to expect it and will it lessen the actual impact or <gasp> quality of the program?

A standard at many a public library is the “Lunch and Learn” (or whatever permutation of “feed them and they will come” chosen). A good rule of thumb is to imagine what would happen if you said “Next month, due to a random occurrence beyond the scope of my ability to fix, there will be no lunch for this program.” Will they show up? Bring lunches? Skip it entirely? How important is the incentive to the buy in? I am confident that the removal of food at our “lunch and learn” would not greatly impact the attendance. Sure, we would lose a couple of attendees to the flirtations of a Hardees value pack and the History Channel but most would still attend because they are getting something out of it. The return is still higher than the investment.

However,  that is not always the case. Our family evening storytimes (complete with a pizza dinner) went in the opposite direction. After realizing that my programming budget would not support the amount of pizza patrons were eating and expecting, we had to cut it. Mind you, this was after having to create rules stating that families could not have pizza until after the storytime or after a number of books were read by the parents with their child.

Either way, the people went away with the pizza.

Bottom line: Before pitching, ditching or revitalizing a program, I try to view it from the perspective of a patron’s time, expectation and investment. Then hope that it balances out. If it doesn’t then perhaps the investment you are asking is too much.

John Pappas is a Branch Director at the Upper Darby Township and Sellers Free Memorial Free Public Library in Upper Darby, PA. This is his second post for this blog; the first was "The Seven Rules of Avoiding Poutreach." Say hi on twitter  @zendustzendirt or on Google +. He writes, raves and rants occasionally on his personal blog Point of Contact.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Letters From a Young Librarian


Normally this blog is all about giving the reader advice. Not this week. This week I'm going to ask you to return the favor. I'm asking you for advice. (Full disclosure: I already asked one of these questions on #libchat, but I thought I'd ask you all as well.)
  1. What management behavior is your biggest pet peeve as an employee? (This could be from the past or present.)
  2. Think about your favorite boss of all time and tell me something that made you enjoy working for him/her?
That's it. Just two questions. And thank you, so much, for any ideas and/or suggestions you have for me.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Modern Book Club (meets in a bar), by Leah L. White


Starting a library sponsored book club in a bar can be a wonderful experience. You connect to your community in ways you just can’t replicate in a library building. I currently run Books on Tap for the Northbrook Public Library, and before that, I helped run LitLounge, a co-sponsored book club between the Morton Grove and Skokie Public Libraries. Here are a few things that I have learned.

Making the Case

If you’re reading this, you are probably already convinced that starting a library book club in a bar is a great idea. But sometimes your manager or administration isn’t as keen on the idea, and if that is the case, you must make a good argument for why the library belongs in this location. The idea of a library run program with booze freaks some people out! So, if you find that you’re getting some resistance (or even if you’re not), you should try writing a proposal. Writing out your reasoning will not only help you formulate your argument, but also gives your manager or administration something to take to the board.

Some things to include in your proposal:
  • The purpose of this book club is to attract and engage residents who may not already be attending library programming and possibly don’t even have library cards yet.
  • These types of programs attract new patrons, of varied ages and backgrounds, and give the library a hip, new image.
  • Make sure to include any area libraries that are already doing this sort of program already.
  • A good library to reference is Oak Park Public Library, who has been running Genre X for over 7 years now without any issues.

Also pay close attention to your wording in the proposal. Sometimes getting people on board is as easy as changing your wording from “book club in a bar” to “book club in a restaurant”. And who doesn’t like restaurants?

20s and 30s?

It is pretty common for libraries to label book clubs like this as being specifically for people in their 20s and 30s, but this is going to vary from community to community. For example, Northbrook doesn’t have a large population of people in their 20s - so my target patrons are working adults between the ages of 25-50. Most of my actual attendees are 40 and up, and I try to keep this in mind when I’m thinking about book selection, advertising, and pretty much everything I do. For example, since most of my attendees are commuters who ride the train to work, I put flyers, and posters at our local commuter train station.

Location, Location, Location

The location of your book club can really make or break you. So do your research. Grab a library buddy and hit the town! Trust me. This part is fun. While out and about, think about whether the space you’re in could actually accommodate a book club. How loud is it? Is there a private room? Are there any large tables? And how is the service? You are going to be working closely with these people, so make sure you actually WANT to work with them.

Once you think you have scouted a location, ask to speak with a manager. This isn’t something you can just pop in and start doing – you absolutely have to communicate with your location. Find out when their slow days are and explain that you could bring 10-20 people on a slow night. That way, this is a good deal for them, too. And this part is super important, so I will bold it…are you ready? Make sure they know you need separate checks. I cannot stress enough how important this is, and remind your server at every meeting that you will all need separate checks, regardless of the number of attendees. If they are cool with it, then you have yourself a location.

Book Selection

Similar to location, book selection can make or break a book club. Put some serious thought into what books you think your target demographic will be interested in reading. What’s fun with this type of book club is you get to pick books you could NEVER pick for your in-library clubs. Think about hip, interesting reads. Honestly, think about what YOU want to read. It probably would be a good fit for your club. Still feel stuck? Try Book Riot, the Bookrageous podcast, or IndieBound. 


Think outside the newsletter box. Don’t get me wrong – you need this in your newsletter. But make some cool posters and put them up all over town. Promote heavily on your library’s Facebook page. And most important, have some sort of presence at the location itself. Get some posters in the bathroom. If they will let you, create a deposit collection and stick your flyers in the books.

Hopefully this will help get you started. This program is so much fun and so very rewarding. And if you do it right, you can start a social outlet for the people in your community.

Leah White is a Reader Services Librarian at the Northbrook Public Library and a 2012 Library Journal Mover and Shaker. You can find her on Twitter, @leahlibrarian, or check out her website:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Turn and Face the Strain)

As you may already know, if you follow me on Twitter or have me circled on Google+, I'm leaving my current position at Hiram College, as the information literacy/instruction librarian, to become the director of the library at Wesley College.

I have to admit I've been feeling a bit topsy turvy with all the changes. Saying goodbye to friends among the faculty and staff has been hard, and saying goodbye to students has been harder. All the while, I keep getting songs like the one from which I took the title of this post stuck in my head.

I don't have a big message of advice for this week, other than to use my experiences as an example. I want to remind you all that there is always an emotional aspect of work. If you work in a place, you get attached to it whether you like it or not. It's normal to feel these feels. I started at this institution with the stated expectation of staying for 3 to 5 years, and 4.5 years later I'm on my way out the door. I'm giving myself room to think about the changes that are happening, and trying really hard not to get too stressed about all the work I'll have waiting for me at the other end. I've got a master to-do list, and I check it every day. I know things will happen, and that I'll manage to take care of all the details. All of these feelings and events are expected and normal, but it doesn't mean it's necessarily easy.

I also know that, at the other end of this major change, I'll have a position that is a dream job for me at this stage of my career. Every time I've started to get a little sad about what I'm leaving behind - amazing professional freedom, supportive colleagues, and students who love what I do - I remind myself of where I'm going. And if that doesn't cheer me up, I pull out the big guns... I picture myself in something like this hat (only, instead of the word "Chief," my version says "Director"):


What about you? How do you handle the emotional part of professional change?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Frenemies in the Stacks: How Relationships Define Library Work, by Morgan Sohl


I graduated from Library School ready to take on the world in my new life as a professional librarian. I got a job 2 ½ months after graduating and I was doing awesome. I was great at my job, patrons and coworkers respected me, my bosses appreciated me, and everything was going according to my master plan. Then reality set in, I was good at my job but I didn’t have the relationships with my coworkers that I thought I had. They respected me but they didn’t really know or trust me.  When I figured this out, I was crushed, but I came realize (after a lot of brooding) that if I didn’t have the trust and faith of my coworkers then I didn’t have anything. If you’re in a similar situation, or know someone who is, here are my tips for fixing your relationships at work even if it’s your own fault.
  1. Figure out what your goals are:
    • Start with 1-2 goals. Any more than that and you are bound to be overwhelmed. Personal change is hard, so let yourself be successful and start small.
    • Focus on yourself: with any personal change, it has to be something you can control. If your goal requires that someone else change their behavior, then it won’t work.
  2. Identify situations where the you can practice your goals:
    • Examples might include meetings, one on one situations, or office drop-bys.
    • Figure out what triggers you. I found out that lack of sleep, stress, busyness, lack of caffeine, and generally not paying attention were the times I messed up.
  3. Apologize and tell people you are trying to change:
    • But first: Never apologize if you don’t mean it. People will pick up on your insincerity. To change you have to mean it.
    • Tell them about your goals and explain you want to have a better relationship.
  4. Gather your allies and request accountability:
    • Find coworkers that you have a good relationship or a trusted supervisor/mentor.
    • Ask them to tell you when you aren’t meeting your goals.
    • Give them permission to be really honest with you and then don’t bite their heads off when they do it.
  5. You will screw up again, and again:
    • Any goal that requires change is hard. Behaviors (good and bad) are built off of life experiences so failure is inevitable.
    • Talk to your allies and try again.
  6. Make new goals and repeat the steps.

Finally, I offer this exchange between James Spader and Jane Lynch from Lynch’s memoir Happy Accidents which helps me on days when I don’t feel particularly like changing:
James Spader and I had some really lovely talks, and I found him to be extremely smart and deeply thoughtful. Though I never saw him be anything but courteous to everyone on that set, I could sense that he was not a man who suffered fools. Almost as if explaining what I was thinking, he offered this: ‘A long time ago I asked myself, do I want to be right or do I want to be kind? I opted for kind.’ This little piece of wisdom reverberated through my occasionally bitchy self. (p. 218)
I have never regretted trying to change, only the times when I didn’t.

Morgan Sohl is the Reference Librarian at the Driftwood Public Library in Lincoln City, Oregon. Say hi on Google +.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Still a Citation Curmudgeon


Back in the early days of this blog, I decided to write about things that I won't do: "Curmudgeon or Experienced? You Be The Judge." In that post, I talked briefly about how I won't teach citation in my librarian role. I got an email asking for me to expand on that idea recently, so I thought I would share my response with a broader audience.

For context, here's an excerpt from the email, somewhat edited to ensure anonymity: 
I'm a new librarian at a [small-ish] Canadian university... Hard data shows that we, a staff of nine, provide walk-in citation support at the reference desk 15% or so of the time (over half of these are under 10 minutes per though a third are 10-20 mins). We also have the requisite handouts and online resources, plus one-on-one meetings with subject librarians and IL sessions, though the bulk of the time spent with one-on-ones and sessions are almost always dedicated to things other than citation. Still, it's there.
So, this is the environment I entered; it's my first library job and so, barring reading or hearing anything to the contrary, I figured that teaching citation style is the done thing for academic librarians. What's your take on a library culture that accepts the responsibility to teach citation style? Frankly, I'd rather not teach it as often as I do though the fussiness sometimes appeals to me but, I don't know, I'm wondering how I might raise the subject here, conversationally.
I understand, and to some extent sympathize with, a lot of the arguments I've heard in favor of librarians teaching citation. It's true that, if nobody else is teaching these skills, someone needs to step up to the plate. Also, traditional undergraduates don't always see the difference between a librarian, a writing tutor, and the person who can help them format a slideshow. Besides, we're here to help them, right? And if we can be helpful with citation, then won't they come to us for other help?

All of this is true, but it's also true that I'm not the person who will be grading the papers nor am I as familiar with any citation style as someone who works within a discipline that ascribes to one style or another. 

Beyond that, my main reason for not teaching citation is because that's not how I see my job. I don't teach students particular skills or interfaces, not really. Instead, I see myself teaching students to teach themselves. When a student comes to me for citation help, I walk him or her over to a public computer and talk about OWL. I explain how the Online Writing Lab has guides for the most popular styles, and then I talk about how citations are kind of like MadLibs in that you fill in the blanks with the right kind of word or phrase. I don't leave them stranded, but neither do I teach them where to place the periods and what to put in italics and so on.

To answer the original question: that's how I talk about it with professors who ask me to teach citation. I talk about how they are more familiar with citation, and about how the person grading it is better suited to helping students fulfill his/her expectations. Finally, I talk about how my time with students is better spent teaching things in which I am an expert - creating search strategies, narrowing topics to a manageable size, dealing with the emotional roller coaster that is tied to academic pursuits, etc. I rephrase it slightly when I'm talking to colleagues or my boss, but the central gist is still the same.

However, having said all that, I should be honest and admit that I've occasionally given in and taught citation. More to the point, I have taught how to use the citation management system to which my institution has a subscription. Why, when I obviously have strong feelings and a solid argument? When "push comes to shove," I err on the side of good customer relations. A professor who has had a good experience with me will likely invite me back, and face time with students is face time with students.

How about the rest of you? Where do you stand on teaching citation?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

First Thursday's Just For Fun: Monty Python, Or, "Mynd you, møøse bites Kan be pretty nasti."

While I was in high school, Monty Python was like a religion for me and my friends. I was only a minor adherent, mind you, but a couple of my friends were practically high priests. A few of them could and would, at the slightest suggestion, preach the litany of Python.

My tastes have changed a lot since the late 1980s, but I've never lost the Monty Python faith. In fact, I'd match my ability to recite scenes from heart against the best of my high school friends. Further, I had a minor Monty Python marathon over the winter break. A couple of movies and then many MANY episodes of "Flying Circus." Of course, not every skit or every bit within the movies is worth revisiting, but there is so much comedy gold that I decided to make it the focus of my "Just For Fun" post for January.

"And now for something [not so] completely different," a smattering of my favorite bits, skits, and moments from the movies and series:

"Mynd you, møøse bites Kan be pretty nasti."

"The llama is a quadruped."

"Toad the Wet Sprocket"

"Cardinal Fang, fetch... THE COMFY CHAIR!"

There are so many others that I love, but if I were to share them all it would take all day. I'd rather leave it at these four and ask about your favorites. So, share away in the comments!