Read, Research, and Be Spooky

Our intrepid librarian braves the world of witches to deliver the magic of information

Our intrepid librarian braves the world of witches to deliver the magic of information

Our library is filled with staff and students ready to get their fill of treats for Halloween.  Luckily no tricks, the joy of living in a fairly rural and polite region of the country.  Earlier today I was at the administration building for a meeting and the children from the child care center came through.  The halls were filled with laughter and talk, something unusual for a more serious and business-like building.  There were dinosaurs, Iron Men, Spider Men, princesses, she-devils, chickens, construction workers and the like.  There were rushes on candy and a lot of smiling faces.  Everyone looks forward to their Halloween visit.  I was glad to be there. I worked at a somewhat rural community college library as a reference librarian, and there was a period of about three years where the questions on October 31st took a decidedly macabre turn.  I think it may have been the same group of young men trying to overset the librarians.  Having grown up with three exuberant brothers and other prankster male relatives, I could handle that stuff without flinching.  The questions weren’t that weird, but definitely a little off the usual research questions.  “Did Mary Shelley do weird stuff with cats?” and the history of the electric chair were two of them as I recall.  Our library celebrates this holiday very creatively.   We use it as a fundraiser for our social events.  It’s always been fun and creative.  This year we had a department vs. department decorating contest.  For my department, the librarian action figure emerged from her sabbatical to, as the picture demonstrates, to deliver information to the witchy and wicked.  I would share their questions but that would violate their privacy and I would have to turn you into a frog.

Who needs a house to fall on you when there's a copy machine.  Don't kill the trees or this could happen to you.

Who needs a house to fall on you when there’s a copy machine. Don’t kill the trees or this could happen to you.

Alas, we did not win the contest, but we had a great deal of fun decorating, laughing, and touring other departments.  And of course we had a party with lots of good food.  Happy Halloween.

Libraries are Nice Quiet Places

libraries are nice quiet places It is the first day of spring break and I am staffing the reference desk this afternoon.  It is believable, today, that libraries are nice quiet places.  All I see is chairs, desks, and cubicles waiting for students to park their bottoms in order to study alone or study together.  All I hear is the annoying hum of the printing station  and people walking through to their offices.  It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the 21st century academic library is still a nice quiet place with librarians on hand, just waiting to shush help you!

That is far from the case here most days.  There is a tumult of activity for the students, faculty, and community using the library and for the staff.  In our library, we have other campus offices, a very busy and wonderful cafe,  computer labs, multimedia labs and a merged technology help center and library circulation desk.  The first place anyone goes for help on campus is the library — in the ideal — as evidenced by the noise, traffic, and activity.  People come to us angry, lost, fearful, happy, exuberant, and full of trepidation.  They may be studying together or seeking a quiet place.  They may need something or just want to be alone.  We try to provide it all.

The assumption and stereotype remain that libraries are bastions of scholarly quiet and intensity.  They are but libraries are also more.  In particular, public libraries most often experience, first-hand, the charms and ills of a free society.  Libraries with their warmth, openness, and free access to information and computers attract people seeking a place to sit, sleep, and learn.  Often times, people will leave their responsibilities in the library.  From babysitting their children to guardians looking for a place to put a special needs adult, librarians are often surprised (unpleasantly) by the things/people left in the library.  Libraries are not exempt from the ills of our society, though in our imagination we would like to dream of them of a place of soulful retreat.  Academic libraries tend to be more insulated that public libraries but in my experiences we’ve had more than our fair share of dealing with crime, criminals, the mentally ill, the scary, the quirky, and the weird.  Sometimes it’s a fraternity bet (“Go pee in a library trashcan) to a transgendered person denied her right to use the lady’s room.

There is some dissonance, this difference between our romantic dreams and the varying reality of libraries.  As an insider, it is both fun and irritating to encounter the stereotypes and assumptions about my work and my profession.  By the same token, it is a great profession with where change is embraced and the past is preserved.  If you think you are confused, those of us in libraries are also confused.

Where did the picture come from?  I am not sure.  I’ve had it since the 1980s when my job was to go through old magazines and newspapers for the ephemeral file.  It’s the cover of a magazine, I think The Atlantic Monthly.  I couldn’t find a citation or reference to it after a rather cursory google search.  I thought at the time (and still do) it was a perfect picture to convey the difference between expectation and reality of day to day working and living la vida library!

My Reverse Bucket List

Never want to do againMy career as a librarian and library administrator has been characterized as “mature,” which I think means that it has lasted more than two decades.  It’s really been nearly four decades as a librarian, longer if you count that fact that I worked in a library during high school and all through my undergraduate and graduate years.  When I first graduated from library school, I had a list of things that they never taught me.  I though the library school should give me a rebate each time I had to deal with something for which I had been inadequately trained.  A short list includes:

  • Smelly employees and smelly library users
  • Helping people adapt to change
  • Working with difficult people
  • Building issues such as heat, no heat, air conditioning, no air conditioning, curtains/no curtains, fire inspections, trash, and the like
  • undergraduate and library hijinks of all sorts
  • Getting people out to the building
  • Porn vs. sexual materials and having it in the library
  • Dumpsters
  • Unions, non-unions, and the so-called open door policy
  • Getting people into the building
  • Etc, etc, etc

Yes, the primary “soft” skill set needed to be a librarian is creativity, adaptability and flexibility.  Libraries have always innovated and people have always had a range of reactions to it.  Libraries are a community of workers serving a community of users; and those communities bring their strengths, weaknesses, joys, and ills with them.  They do not get left at the door when people come inside.  They act out, suppress, let loose, and sit down with all their history and future.  Our job is to help them find the resources they need to cope with those histories and help them find ways to walk into their future.  It may be entertainment, health information, legal information, or some information they need to get by.

There’s also a mystique and romance about libraries that most people have and expect to be acted out for them when they enter the library.  People become disappointed when they come to the library and expect whatever they expect and don’t get it.  They may expect a nice, quiet place and find that the library is full of lively students studying and talking together.  That there’s food, and coffee, and the gentle hum of computers, printers, and cell phones.  Or that they expect instant answers to all their questions, only to find that there’s a process and perhaps a waiting period.

And through all that tumult of expectations and reaction, the librarian helps people manage their expectations and their research needs.  It’s a juggling act.

Recently I was at a conference, talking to some peers, and I said that I used to have a list of things they didn’t teach us in library school.  Now I have a list of things that I won’t miss when I retire.  My colleague said, “Oh a Reverse Bucket List.”  And so it is.  A few of the things I won’t miss are:

  • Worrying about safety and security of the people, materials, and building
  • Helping people manage change
  • Parking lot wars
  • Leaking roofs, bug and rodent infestations, and user hijinks of all sorts
  • Dumpsters, trash, bathroom ick, smelly people
  • Budgets, spreadsheets, and making difficult choices
  • Hearing, “I really miss the card catalog”
  • Hearing, “I’d love to work in your library because libraries are nice, quiet places.”
  • Dealing with unions
  • Emergency responses, or lack thereof
  • Hearing, “I wish I could work in a library so I could read all day like you.”

Working in a library often strips away the mystique and romance of a library.  We know so much about the inner workings of a library, the pain and suffering that goes into making things a simple as possible for the user, and our own inability to get out of our own way that we lose sight of why we wanted to be a librarian in the first place.

Most of all, I hope the reverse bucket list will restore and revitalize my vision of the library as one of the things in our society that truly envisions and embodies the democratic ideal of freedom of thought, the pursuit of knowledge, and the right to read and reflect on knowledge without censure, judgment, or comment.  Libraries are the place where your rights as a reader and pursuer of knowledge are passionately defended and your tastes and needs are met regardless of what others might think of the format or the  content.


Libraries Have Always Been a Little Bit Steampunk

source for th image:

source for th image:

Steampunk is very chic and stylish these days.  It’s actually been around for a while as a subgenre of science fiction.  It has started to make its way into the mainstream through movies, tv shows, and fashion.  Many people don’t know that what they are looking at when they watch Warehouse 13 or Alice in Wonderland is that they are looking at some Steampunk vision.

Steampunk is a genre of science fiction that has its roots in the work of Jules Verne and others.  The early adventure penny novels in the U.S., evoking entertainment, and gadget-based solutions or rescue are early precursers to the genre.

The steampunk universe is one of the infernal machine, where the clockwork universe lies uneasily between the pseudo-Victorian mindset and the speculations of the infernal machine, gadgetry and progress.  The philosophy in the early days of the genre was cynical and rebellious, rarely offering solutions to the problems it portrayed.

There’s no denying the steampunk look is stylish, idiosyncratic, and funky.  It evokes bygone days, gaslight romance, and adventure.

So why a steampunk librarian.  Do I wear the look?  I wish. It’s because the present day college library operates in the borderlands between the 19th century foundational ideals (and sometimes buildings) and the 21st century gadgetry, technology, whiz-bang stuff.  It’s all changing and it’s all changing us.  And yet there are things that remain the same.  What remains is an individual, idiosyncratic look of how information changes us and how we learn and grow wise from it.  Libraries tend to be in the center of this maelstrom of iconic traditional vision and current change and transformation.  We’ve been punked.   It is an exciting time to be in the information biz.