Thursday, March 22, 2018

10 Things I Didn't Learn in Archives School, by Sara Allain

1. Papercuts are a job hazard.
And they really, really hurt. And at least once I got blood on the archival material.

2. It can be lonely.
Archival work can be solitary. I don't mean the kind of loneliness that comes from hanging out in a basement vault all day, though that’s part of it. Being physically alone is one thing, but perhaps more difficult was feeling like I was the only one who cared. It was hard to keep the value to future researchers in mind when no one seemed to care about the collection right now. Developing a supportive network of archivist pals (on twitter, for example!) really helped.

3. You have to talk to people.
A lot of people. I didn't get into archival studies because I thought I'd get to be a hermit, but I wasn't prepared for the amount of talking I'd need to do. Even working in a closed university archive without a reading room, I talked to my colleagues and my manager, of course, but also our chief librarian, the head of special collections, and the dean on a regular basis, not to mention the recruitment department, the student newspaper, and the committee in charge of planning anniversary celebrations for the institution. I lost whole days of processing work (on a deadline!) because I had to handhold an administrator through finding appropriately diverse historical photos of celebrations past.

4. You become an obsessive about your piles.
When I worked as a processing (arrangement & description) archivist, I became a neat freak. I've never been a particularly tidy person, but I would be in the middle of sorting a collection of letters when suddenly I realized it was 5pm and I needed to go home. I'd have a conference room-sized table covered in discrete piles of ephemera, peppered with little folded notes to my colleagues: PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH. IF YOU NEED THIS TABLE, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH MY BEAUTIFUL PILES OF STUFF.

5. You don't have to like all of it...
I learned about archiving as a holistic endeavour - arrangement, description, appraisal, conservation, and access as many aspects of one job. In large or well-resourced institutions, this is patently untrue, of course - there are departments for acquisition, appraisal, and description, with staff members who rarely cross over into other areas. Lots of workplaces, though, are small enough that everyone wears multiple hats. I was, for a time, the only archivist, so I got to wear all the hats. It was during this time that I realized a core truth about myself: I hate writing descriptions. Recognizing and being honest about the parts of the job that appealed to me and the parts that didn't gave me a chance to grow as an archivist in productive ways, and it opened a lot of doors to the world outside of our tiny profession.

6. ... and you don't have to live it.
Being an archivist is a job. Fobazi Ettarh's “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: the Lies We Tell Ourselves” applies to archivists too. Some people live their work, at the workplace and outside it, and that's great if it works for them. But I’m not a lesser archivist because I prefer to have a solid work/personal life divide.

7. You have to justify your work.
In my first job as an archivist, I had to have one particular discussion over and over again: why did the archival collections need specific description software? I ran out of ways to say, "Because archival data is different than [library/digital humanities/scholcomm] data" in a way that made a lasting impact. It was frustrating, and it taught me a sobering truth: my colleagues who weren't archivists didn't know much about archives. I learned to be patient. I learned to repeat myself. I learned to stick to my belief that our collections deserved to be properly resourced. And I learned to do it with a smile on my face… most of the time.

8. You can do something else.
The archival world is small, and we're all competing for jobs, and there isn't enough work for the number of archivists who are graduating every year. I lucked into a good job as an archivist, but soon realized that the day-to-day work of a lone arranger just wasn’t for me. I was able to convert my diverse experience into a totally different kind of library job (communications!), and then moved right out of archives altogether and into software development. Look around and you'll find that lots of professions are looking for smart, passionate stuff-organizers.

9. No one has the answers.
Email, social media, digital preservation - we're still figuring it out. I regularly feel lost when it comes to these topics, but I’ve realized over time that it's okay to feel lost because we're all lost, as a profession. It's easy to focus on the small majority of people and institutions that are making headway - they're the folks who present at conferences and write papers and tweet about their amazing work. They’re wonderful! They're truly doing some exceptional work. But it's also okay to be the person who is doing the little things. You want to be ahead of the game on digital preservation? Make sure that your content isn't stored on a hard-drive and you'll be doing more than many. As we continue to push the boundaries of what archiving comprises in the 21st Century, it's okay to take an inch rather than a mile. Positive incremental change can be as powerful as the big leaps.

10. There's this moment.
I've talked to a lot of archivists about The Moment: the first time you realized that you were, as an archivist, responsible for something magnificent. My moment was holding a field book that was owned by Frank Urquhart who, along with his wife Norah and local Mexican guides, discovered where monarch butterflies migrate in winter. It wasn't the most exciting piece of archival content I'd handled, but it had a deep resonance for me, a kid who loved bugs and nature documentaries and was fascinated by the story of monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico. Holding that field guide, I felt connected to the Urquharts, to scientific discovery, to something outside my archive. That moment is the one I think about when I'm downtrodden about lack of funding or bad policy. It's a moment that will always stick with me. And it’s a moment I’ve taken with me, even as I walked away from a traditional archivist role, as a reminder that my work has enduring meaning.

Sara Allain still calls herself an archivist and librarian, even though she decamped from the profession to work for a company that makes free and open source archival software. Spending her days frolicking through METS-XML files, format policies, and the vagaries of the software development lifecycle, she's never been happier. She's on twitter at @archivalistic.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Shame and Reading: Some Thoughts on Popular Reading Materials

I've been thinking a lot about shame and reading lately. I had a conversation recently in which I started to feel a little ashamed of my reading habits, and realized I shouldn't. (This wasn't because of anything the other person said or did. Just fighting habits of years feeling like I was supposed to read "important" literature.) Feeling ashamed can transfer in so many ways, both personally and professionally. Sure, I am the director of library services at a community college that serves 4 different counties, have a deep and wide intellect and curiosity for learning, and seem to have an addiction to attaining advanced degrees. But I'm also a human being who lives in this culture that seems designed to degrade and depress (capitalism is the worst). Why shouldn't I read fun things?

Here are some books that I'm either currently reading or have finished recently (meaning within the last few weeks):
  • Dead Heat by Patricia Briggs. It's in the middle of two intertwined series - "Alpha and Omega" and "Mercy Thompson" - which are these wonderfully written books set in a world with werewolves and vampires and fae and magic, but with politics and history that is ostensibly the same as the United States in which I live. Reading these books is like slipping into a warm bath. They aren't particularly page-turner-y, with suspense and intrigue, but they are comfortable and soothing.
  • Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett. Oh, how I love the "Discworld" series. These books are expertly written parodies of sword & sorcery that still stay true to the tropes and functions of the genre it parodies. This one in particular made fun of Hollywood and popular culture. And I loved it.
  • The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. Part biography, part history of science (evolution), part science, and all rivetingly interesting. Everything from Darwin to a discussion of the arms race going on between bacteria and the makers of antibiotics.
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler. An African-American woman keeps getting pulled back to pre-Civil War Maryland to save a white ancestor of hers. Engrossing commentary on race and politics and capitalism and gender and a bazillion other concepts.
As you can see, my reading ranges from works that are more ephemeral and fluffy to books that some consider part of the American canon. What's more - I checked every single one of these out from a library, which is as it should be. And for those of you who work at public libraries, you're likely nodding your head and thinking, "Of course! How is this even a question? Why are you even writing about it, Jessica?" I'm not really talking to you. 

I'm talking, instead, to the academic libraries that are still holding out from buying popular reading materials. First of all, it is an entirely defensible expense: People are writing academic discourse on Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy and Amy Tan and a bazillion other so called popular authors. In the past, Jane Austen and Shakespeare and Horatio Alger were all popular authors who have been studied again and again in the intervening years. I'm sure you have a popular culture scholar or two on your campus who would add their voice to your argument. Second, even if you are down the street from a public library (which is somewhat rare), why are you passing responsibility ignoring the needs and wants of your community? Third, the ability to sustain attention reading is a transferable skill. 

In my life before academia, I worked in a book store, and I'll never forget a conversation I had with a regular customer. I was talking about some piece of fluff I'd read recently, and then I berated myself for not reading "good" books more often. Her response was, "a 'good' book is the one you enjoy."

I know that we in academic libraries are supposed to support the scholarly record and the curriculum and the research needs of our communities, but shouldn't we also support the other needs of our patrons? Why are we shaming them about their interests in reading by leaving fun books out of our collections? Even if we aren't shaming them on purpose, it is still shaming. Besides, if we're trying to get people to value the library, shouldn't we be providing materials we know they will appreciate? Buy some good books.

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!