Remembering Rockstar Librarians Of History

First Los Angeles County Librarian, Celia Gleason

First Los Angeles County Librarian Celia Gleason established 165 branch libraries between 1912-1917! All while wearing a big hat. (source)

How many librarians of the past can you name? I’m not talking about Casanova or Benjamin Franklin (not a librarian, btw), I’m talking about real actual working librarians — the leaders of library service in your state or country. Sure, most librarians know of Melvil Dewey or S. R. Ranganathan (see: Five Laws of Library Science), but do you know the founder of your library system? Do you know State Librarians of decades past? How about the pioneers who established library service in your community? Do you have library heroes that are no longer alive? Librarians of old who inspire you in what you do today? Do you read about these icons of our profession and let their work teach you? Sure there are rockstar librarians today, but they weren’t the first. It’s time we began establishing an online and, more importantly, an in-mind presence for the heroes of librarianship.

Certainly the unstoppable flow of current events gives today’s librarians plenty to discuss and dispute, but I for one find much of this “dialogue” stuck solidly in the analytic mode of the shallow present. A historical context is vital to presenting issues with depth and clarity; upon diving into library literature of the ten, twenty, sixty years ago, I am frequently surprised by just how much it mirrors what is being said today. Are we not learning from the past? Apparently not. More to the point, are we not moving beyond the plateau of previous ideas and concepts? It’s a sad fact that long-term thinking (both into the past and the future) is not a strength of librarianship and human nature in general. As a consequence, not only are we constantly repeating ourselves, but we haven’t a clue that we’re doing so.

I realize that I am sounding like the requisite introductory lecture in high school history class and so will continue in that vain by repeating philosopher George Santayana’s oft-cited quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Indeed, the harm of solely focusing on the near-past and present lies not simply in recycling former faults but also in the precious time wasted in re-doing someone else’s thinking. The problem is akin to re-discovering pasteurization over and over again as if you had no more pressing problems to solve! If we are truly a library science then we should, like the hard sciences, stand on the shoulders of our professional ancestors instead of walking mindlessly by, unintentionally snubbing their achievements.

And so I call on my colleagues to include on your current smorgasbord of inspiration and professional reading a steady diet of past library leaders and (dare I say it?) rockstar librarians. Let’s give our profession a proper heritage, but more to the bone, let’s use the scholarship that brings about that heritage to inform the work we do today. Never should the giants that built our libraries, the services those libraries provide, and the concepts on which those services rest be made irrelevant.

p.s. – Here are a few links to get you started:
California Library Hall of Fame
Library History Buff Blog
– Past ALA and PLA Presidents (with very little in the way of biography, alas)
Information & Culture: A Journal of History

If you have any links to add, feel free to post in the comments or email me using the addy above.

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On Quiet in the Library

rebel yell by plasticrevolver via Flickr
There have been plenty of articles like this one from Salon about the need for quiet in the library as well as pieces like this from the Wall Street Journal about libraries doing loud and unusual programs. My feeling about silence in the library points directly to moderation. There are many factors involved in keeping a place quiet that are beyond a librarian’s control; buildings can’t be redesigned on a whim, babies/children/teens can’t simply be muffled, staff members can’t very well ignore patrons who require us to speak louder because they are hard-of-hearing, and most of all, how exactly can we keep people’s cell phones from ringing? It’s impossible to anticipate every occurrence and/or make hard-and-fast rules about noise level because what is bothersome is so subjective; I’ve had patrons go ballistic because the people next to them were whispering to each other — the irony was, of course, the volume of their complaint. In the case of noise, there is simply no way of pleasing everyone.

With that in mind, I advocate for a modicum of regulation that allows the library to maintain a comfortable environment for as many people as possible, or “Do the most good, for the greatest amount of people.” That means that though in public libraries with a large open space with plenty of movement silence is unlikely, quiet is possible. Maintaining that atmosphere means quickly addressing any obvious issues like disruptive phone or in-person conversations, shuffling or other movements, and my personal pet peeve: loud headphones. The key is not to hesitate in walking over and taking care of business. If disturbances are dealt with appropriately, a calm and peaceful environment will prevail.

Practical matters aside, I do believe that the library should be a relatively quiet place, though not in opposition to other loud places. It’ll always be a losing battle to argue with naysayers who spout things like “It’s so noisy at the supermarket, and the disco, and the stadium, and my house…And now the library too!!!” These people will continue to gripe, especially because in the library they frequently complain after the fact — when solving their becomes impossible. But don’t let my feelings about these egoists fool you, I strongly believe that library staff are stewards of their building and should keep things running smoothly even if it involves distasteful confrontation. Personally, I don’t care if I’m called a “shushing librarian,” but one must admit that the title is akin to being called a lying lawyer: not so complimentary. So when the aforementioned Salon article uses the headline “Bring back shushing librarians” does the writer think that the shushing librarians will jump at the chance to be brought back? No one likes ornery old stereotypes, so perhaps the people who want the library to be a quieter place should stop equating librarians with hall monitors; in the real world, telling people to shut up will only remain a fairly small part of any self-respecting librarian’s job. Referrals to shops with ear plugs, however, will be happily given.

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Summer Reading 2013

Gates of November cover

Crying of Lot 49 cover

Major Operation cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve usually posted reading lists days to months after the season, but this summer, it’s time for a change. As mentioned in the Spring 2013 list, “I’ve put together a list of 13 books that help alleviate some of the above backlogs while still proceeding with other reading.” Indeed, I’m a little bit excited about this whole “pre-planning” thing. I’ve considered my reading habits and have included 3 non-fiction, 8 fiction, a book of poetry, and a play as leading actors in my summer reading extravaganza. Considering book length and type, I have every reason to believe that this is perfectly doable during the 13 or so weeks between June 21st and September 21st. I expect that I’ll be updating this post regularly as the summer progresses. Keep an eye out. Here are the books:

Digital_Humanities by Peter Lunenfeld, Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp
An enthusiastic and inspiring introduction to the possibilities of Digital Humanities that, for some reason, does not motivate me to drop everything and meld digital tools with close reading.

Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity by Etienne Wenger
I read through a selected sample of roughly 40% of this book on how groups of people interact and learn together and found that though it had its moments, I was getting frustrated by Wenger’s constant hedging on words and meanings. Frankly, I read “By so-and-so, I mean so-and-so and not so-and-so” one too many times.

Kagan’s Superfecta: And Other Stories by Allen Hoffman
These stories had entertaining New York Jew personality and humor. Occasionally, they were so entertaining that the plot dragged and they became tedious. Recommended for those who enjoy Isaac Singer, but the contemporary version whose jokes occasionally misfire.

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
A Künstlerroman that has all the appeals of other Potok novels with addition of an artist protagonist. Enjoyable but a bit repetitive since I just recently finished Davita’s Harp.

Major Operation by James White
A hospital for aliens? Exploring, from a medical perspective, a new planet tentatively called “Meatball”? Yes and yes, in this fast-paced, occasionally abrupt (some would say staccato) collection of interrelated short stories. Recommended for science fiction fans, though perhaps not beyond.

Lyrical Ballads (1798 edition) by William Wordsworth & Samuel Coleridge
A classic, though upon re-reading it straight through I see how inconsistent the poems are. “Tintern Abbey”, “We Are Seven”, “Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew Tree”, “Old Man Travelling…” and a few others are still great, while a lot of the character studies are trite in hindsight.

The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
I’ve been slowly pushing my way through the dense dialectic presented in this book. But I think I’m going to put it down. This is one to read with a class, or at least a group, and be discussed while it is being read.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
Stoppard is smart, that is obvious. His plays on character and time are masterful, though I admit that some of it went right over my head.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (au) by Haruki Murakami
Thoughtful exploration of consciousness that was marred by dull characters and disappointing climax.

The Age of Innocence (au) by Edith Wharton
Started listening to the Brilliance Audio production, but just could not get into a story that rested on the foibles of New York society life. Like previous Wharton books, the quarter of this one that I read was not to my taste.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon gives his meta-mystery a noir feel, like mixing the character of Nathanael West with the depth of Neal Stephenson. I understand the following this book has, but couldn’t help feeling that the time deciphering the intricacies of this book beyond a first reading would not be time well spent.

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols
[In Progress. Moved to Fall 2013.]

Gates of November by Chaim Potok
Didn’t get to this one.

The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics by Paul O. Williams
A lucid collection of essays discussing various aspects of haiku writing and community from a moderate/conservative view of the form.

So out of the 13 books I had set out for myself this summer, I ended up getting all the way through nine. That’s less then one book a week! A big come-down from my past productivity. Two major reasons for this: 1) I’ve been driving Ashley’s Bug or taking the bus to work, the former doesn’t have a CD player and the latter has moved me more towards podcasts, so my audiobook listening, which has contributed heavily to me booklists in the past, has been on hiatus. 2) I gave a few books on the list, Communities of Practice and Society of the Spectacle a lot of time before putting them aside. In general, I’ve had less long reading sessions over the summer. Not sure if that’s because I’ve been busy, or for other reasons. I know that some time has been spent watching All Creatures Great and Small and 30 Rock on Netflix. In any case, looking over the books I had actually read, there is in my mind a lull. Probably my favorite of the summer was My Name is Asher Lev, but I also enjoyed The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics and Murakami’s book to a certain extent. Hopefully my Fall Reading list will inspire more excitement. Currently getting through The Milagro Beanfield War which is solid and witty, but a little slow-going.

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Spring Reading 2013

Spring went from March 20th to June 20th this year, which amounts to about 13 weeks. During that time I read 8 books, a much smaller quantity then usual partially because I wasn’t listening to audiobooks in lieu of several podcasts and radio stations and a two-week stint in Japan, where little reading was done other than maps, pictures in restaurant menus, and travel guides. Still, it was a good time. Death in Midsummer and Other Stories, Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired, The Making Of, and Davita’s Harp are favorites without disparaging everything else I read. Here’s the breakdown:

No Swank by Sherwood Anderson
A hit-and-miss collection of essays by Sherwood Anderson which make clear why he was America’s top writer in the 1920s and at the same time (though not in the same essays) why he was out of the mainstream by his death in 1941.

Death in Midsummer and Other Stories by Yukio Mishima
A brilliant collection of stories with the through-line of tension between individuality and social protocols.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
The plot is enjoyable, and certainly a commentary on society, but Dick is unable to justify his fabulations with a plausible explanation. The end of this book comes quickly and is ultimately unsatisfying. The rest is worthwhile, though.

The Bodhi Tree Grows in L.A.: Tales of a Buddhist Monk in America by Bhante Walpola Piyananda
Interesting anecdotes laced with Buddhist teachings. Would’ve liked more story without less Buddhist teachings.

Burning Chrome (au) by William Gibson
If anything provides an introduction to cyberpunk in relatively short bursts, this is it. Gibson (and co-authors) demonstrate their ability to create compelling settings, characters, and plots quickly.

Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired by Till Roenneberg
Taught me about the study of and results from experiments about sleep and chronotypes that made me want to be a scientist.

The Making Of by Brecht Evens
Everything I’ve come to expect from Brecht Evens: Cool illustrations and a expressive, slightly downbeat storyline. Looking forward to more Evens in English when it comes.

Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok
Young Ilana Davita searches for her identity under the influence of the various viewpoints around her. This is a story in every sense of the word, carrying with it recurrent images like a small door harp, poetic prose, and a plot full of emotional depth that is difficult to shake off. This is the type of novel that show us why we read fiction.

So that’s the list for the Spring. I’ve been thinking over the past few days about how to plan my reading a little bit better. It’s not a necessary change, but considering I have shelves of books at home and a Goodreads to-read list a mile long, plus an American authors list that I’ve been ignoring, a little detailed forethought wouldn’t hurt. After pondering the issue, I’ve decided to do two things. First, because summer is approximately 13 weeks and I’m pretty comfortable with one book a week, I’ve put together a list of 13 books that help alleviate some of the above backlogs while still proceeding with other reading. Of course, I know that I may not be able to restrain my impulses when it comes to exciting books of all sorts, so I won’t be too hard on myself if I engage in, shall we say, extracurricular activities. When I put it up, the list will Link from here.

The second way I’m thinking of working on my reading is to occasionally “live” blog some of my reading in this space. I noticed how Trevor over at The Mookse and the Gripes is reviewing Sherwood Anderson’s Collected Stories one-by-one and thought that might be a good idea. But he’s already doing Anderson, so maybe I’ll do someone else. Or maybe I’ll do Anderson as well? Who knows. Suggestions welcome.

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Winter Reading 2013

Winter 2013 began on Saturday, December 21 and ended on Wednesday, March 19. During that time I read 12 books, which equals just under one book a week, about half a book lower than my average. It was a good cycle for reading in that I got through a few big, important books for me. In particular When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone has been on my shelf at home for a while and I’m glad I read it. The book was a true learning experience for me since my parents rarely talk about the circumstances that led to my family being let out of the Soviet Union. It was fascinating to learn about the people and events behind the several decades worth of struggle that finally made it happen. Another type of learning experience were Bruce Boyer’s Elegance: A Guide to Quality in Menswear and The Social Animal by David Brooks. While the former did very well to teach me about style with humor and poise, the latter brought together mountains of research to show personal and societal development from numerous angles. All three of these books inspired me in their own way.

The Nordstrom Way to Customer Service Excellence: The Handbook for Becoming the “Nordstrom” of Your Industry The Nordstrom Way to Customer Service Excellence: The Handbook for Becoming the “Nordstrom” of Your Industry by Robert Spektor
Though the advice in The Nordstrom Way is good and the anecdotes fit the bill, the book blew the same note one too many times.

Life Itself (au) by Roger Ebert
An enjoyable biography by the patron saint of movie critics. Ebert is intelligent, witty, and tells good stories.

When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry by Gal Beckerman
Comprehensive history of the trans-atlantic movement that fought to allow Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union. An important book for me, since my family was at the tail-end of said immigration.

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis
Though I liked Lewis’s style and some elements of his story (particularly, the literature he discussed), I found his tendency to over-intellectualize annoying. Still, the only folks I would truly caution to avoid Lewis are those with an anti-Christian bias.

Elegance: A Guide to Quality in Menswear by Bruce Boyer
A classic introduction to Anglo-American-by-way-of-Europe style. Easily a must-read for fans of enduring taste over fashion.

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks
So interesting were Brooks’s insights on how the society of one and many is constructed that I went through this one twice. A nice balance to the left-leaning theories one gets in school.

Ready Player One (au) by Ernest Cline
Even though this book is rife with 80s pop-culture references that were beyond me, the page-turner plot was such an enjoyable adventure that I took the CDs home because my commute never felt long enough.

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan
All the men in the world except one die of a mysterious plague — a promising start. Though volume one didn’t hold me, I’ll probably be trying a few of the others to see if things improve.

Sherwood Anderson by Irving Howe
A good biography of Sherwood Anderson, though better in its literary criticism then proper biographical research. Not that I agree with all of the former. See my Goodreads review for a my full thoughts.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
A short, poetic remembrance of a tumultuous affair in the life of the young, attractive, and closeted protagonist. An essential read for fans of LGBT literature that led to a good discussion at West Hollywood Library’s Lambda Lit Book Club.

Main Street (au) by Sinclair Lewis
Lewis does the small-town equivalent of Babbitt in capturing the local color of time and place, except here his main character, Carol Kennicott, could not carry the show. Hopefully Lewis’s Arrowsmith is better.

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (au) by Leonard Mlodinow
Covers a lot of the same ground as similar books on the topic, but if you’re looking for a neat, easy-to-understand survey of the science of the unconscious mind, Dr. Mlodinow’s book is the way to go. As an added bonus, there’s even some professor humor.

Since winter ended, I’ve kept about the same pace in my reading taking in streams of Buddhism, science fiction, and a few topical non-fiction books (about chronotypes, ancient civilizations, Benjamin Franklin). Just finished Chaim Potok’s Davita’s Harp and have moved on to Digital_Humanities, an overview of digital methodologies in humanities research.

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That Bird Thing — Running a Successful Library Twitter Account

Deck/audio for a Pecha Kucha style (20 slides x 20 seconds) video presentation I did for a new librarian’s training that took place on February 27th, 2013.

The West Hollywood Library twitter account can be seen at @WeHoLibrary.

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Fall Reading 2012

Fall 2012 went from September 22 to December 20, 2012, during that time I feel like I made up for a somewhat lackluster reading period during the summer, where I read some really fine and memorable books like Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, (more from obligation than to my taste) Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama which turned out much better than I figured Clarke to be. Not be outdone, Fall’s reads were surprisingly good. Out of the 19 books I read (that comes out to around 1.5 books a week), I gave seven of them 4/5 stars on goodreads. As predicted in my previous reading list, I read a Stuart Townsend’s Sherwood Anderson biography and Tar by Anderson, as well as Thornton Wilder and Nathanael West off of my “American Authors(early/mid 20th Century)” list. Add to that Flannery O’Conner and some top-notch sci-fi and you have a satisfying season of reading. See for yourself:

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (au) by Jeremy Scahill
An eye-opening report on the present state of the mercenary-industrial complex and its relation to warmongering in the United States.

Sherwood Anderson: A Biography by Stuart Townsend
The essential biography of Sherwood Anderson. More biographical than Howe’s, more moderately detailed than Rideouts two volumes. Notwithstanding Townsend’s posthumous psychoanalysis of Anderson, this is a must-read for fans of the writer.

Water for Elephants (au) by Sara Gruen
A decent plot hampered by a the dead weight of a framing story. If not for the appeal of the setting, the shallow characters would have put me off this book completely.

Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker (au) by Kevin D. Mitnick
The rollicking adventure of the world’s most wanted hacker on the run from the FBI. This book goes from young Mitnick’s entertaining feats to his showdown with the FBI, who finally close in and catch him using their own brand of shrewd ethics.

Tar: A Midwest Childhood by Sherwood Anderson
If anyone considers Sherwood Anderson a one-hit wonder, they should read the wonderful episodes in this book. Everything that’s beautiful about Winesburg, Ohio is here as well.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (au) by David Sedaris
Sure it’s funny, but in a way that makes a well-adjusted person uncomfortable. The humor is raw and mean; these animals would give Beatrix Potter a heart attack.

Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter by Ed Lawler
Not a customer service classic, but definitely a worthwhile read for anyone in a public facing role. Talented customer service folks will read this book and nod at every page.

Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
Its an achievement on the part of Nathanael West that he captured the denizens of Hollywood then and now so well. If only they weren’t so pathetic!

Voices (au) by Ursula K. Le Guin
This book had a few positives that got lost in a plot that didn’t know what to do with itself set in an inconsistent world.

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle
Not only did I learn a lot from this book, it was also a head above Delisle’s book about North Korea because there were also plenty of interesting little mini-plots.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
Though there’s some high-quality descriptive writing here, I was underwhelmed by Wilder’s slow plot and unremarkable characters. Yes, there’s plenty to analyze here, but in my case I was mostly just glad to cross it off my list.

Darkness at Noon (au) by Arthur Koestler
A well-crafted character portrait under the guise of the interrogation and conviction of a Communist party operative. Theoretical and psychological – Koestler handled the plot beautifully.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (au) by Flannery O’Conner
A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories is not a book readers who dislike being slammed in the face with difficult plots. More specifically, happy endings. It’s depressing stuff. Flannery O’Connor is certainly an essential regional author if not more.

Inferno by Eileen Myles
A heartfelt bildungsroman written in an occasionally annoying stream-of-consciousness style that picked up and dropped narratives at will. That said, Myles purpose with this book was clear and she achieved it admirably.

Childhood’s End (au) by Arthur C. Clarke
One of the best science fiction books ever published with a plot that gripped me and ideas that are instructive as well as entertaining.

The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West by Steve Sheinkin
Class Jewish tales adapted to the wild west and drawn so the reader can be sympathetic to all the characters, even the baddies. Too bad its less than thirty minutes of reading.

Pirate Cinema (au) by Cory Doctorow
For a book that has many of the appeals of Doctorow’s earlier Little Brother this one lacks the taut plot so essential to make books written for young adults go.

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
Intricate and precise, combining narratives both big and small, Stephenson creates a world and launches it like a piece of software. This book is an achievement for fans of dense sci-fi/literary fiction if not others.

Hector and the Search for Happiness (au) by François Lelord
I would dislike this book intensely if I didn’t expect the story to be shallow and the characters exceedingly flat. But hey, it’s nice little foam of inspiration, so why not?

It is towards the end of January, about halfway through the winter season which ends in the middle of March and so making big plans for these next two months may be going overboard. Still, a little forward thinking won’t hurt anything (my thoughts could use the organization). I think, with some effort I can continue making headway into my American Authors list by listening to an audiobook of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (already ordered from Los Angeles Public), and finally give James Dickey a try – Deliverance is sitting on the shelf of my library waiting for me to snatch and read. Will see about finally reading Irving Howe’s Sherwood Anderson biography and maybe another book by the master himself. If anything, A Storyteller’s Story shall be next. I scooped up a first edition of it at the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood (the 2nd Anderson 1st I found at that magnificent establishment). Probably many more in addition to the above will be read by the time March rolls around. A reading life is a good life.

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Library Patrons Don’t Know What They Want

Every so often some very talented visionary will echo the statement that they don’t listen to focus groups or conduct market research because people don’t know what they want. I think that this idea can be applied on the ground as much as in far-off visions of very smart people. One doesn’t have to be ahead of his time to realize that non-experts or amateurs are often totally clueless and/or grossly misinformed about a given subject or occupation. Many times, these folks will even overestimate their competence or knowledge of the item under consideration.

The famous zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few,” and most people see this as a way of boosting the beginner. But it is not necessarily so; when going to a doctor, for example, you will give her your symptoms and she will narrow down the possibilities using her medical training, compare this to a layman who may accidentally hit on the right condition using a scatter-shot style — which is more efficient? The information-seeking behavior of some patrons is similar except that very often the beginner’s mind has no possibilities while the librarian has a few.

Take this a step further and talk to a group of randomly selected people about libraries and the role of librarians. You will likely get something about books, something about access, a little about education, and how everyone is welcome. No surprise here, these are qualities that libraries have had for generations. Naturally, everything else that happens at libraries, even if it has been happening for decades (read: online catalogs, programming, DVDs, and yes, ebooks), is reported on with shock and awe. Why are librarians so peeved about this? The reporters who make a living writing articles about numerous topics in a week’s period are not library experts. Why would they have any sense of how libraries have changed from year to year? It’s not like they spend the time before their deadline re-reading past articles that in a crazy twist of fate will resemble their own yet unwritten piece. These reporters don’t know what they want from a library and neither do the patrons! Mark these few examples:

Rarely do patrons approach the desk asking for reading recommendations, and thus Readers’ Advisory is usually done on one’s own initiative by asking the patron, “Would you like me to show you more books like that one?” Yes, they didn’t know they wanted a recommendation, but most are sure glad to receive them.

No one asked for the Twitter class I put on last week at my library because they didn’t know that it was even a possibility. But people showed up, and they liked it, and we’re doing another one. We also offer Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint classes. Before we offered them, people only asked for basic computer classes, and yet now that our excellent IT guy is doing the others, he’s developed a nice following.

How many patrons ask you to show them your article databases? My guess is a very small percentage if not zero. Do they even know that it is possible to ask the library to subscribe to others? That it is a service the library has been offering for years and years? When was the last time a mainstream press article mentioned library databases?

Even something as simple as self check-out machines would likely have no part in a focus group discussion regarding future libraries. And yet we have them at my library and they comprise 85-90% of our check-outs.

Maybe when I write that patrons don’t know what they want you think I’m being disparaging about the people we serve. Not so! A lawyer’s clients aren’t expected to intimately know the law, nor are they expected to have the knowledge to prognosticate about the future of the legal profession. So why do we expect laypeople to divine the future of libraries and understand exactly what we do when we’re “off the desk”? Why do we expect them to “get” libraries the way librarians who have devoted their lives to the institution understand them? It’s silly, isn’t it? It’s obvious that many patrons don’t know what they want, after all, the reference interview exists to figure out what a patron is looking for whether he can articulate it or not.

The whole purpose of writing this is to say that the people outside of the library department, the City, County, District officials (elected, appointed, or hired) shouldn’t be expected to know the intricacies of what we do. It shouldn’t be beyond belief that they don’t understand why Main Street Library needs another librarian. An emotional reaction is natural when someone does not see your worth (or how hard you work proving that worth), but its also necessary to quickly move beyond it. Instead of steaming, we must cool down and gather data: statistics, press clippings, and testimonials to name a few possibilities, and practice calmly getting officials up to speed on what we’ve been so busy doing and why it’s wonderful for the community. Once they’re up to speed it’s time for the important part: Tell them the magnificent things we will do with another librarian. Tell them what Awesome Library in the next town over is doing. Tell them what they want. How else would they know?

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4 More Best Practices for Working the Reference Desk

A little while ago, I wrote a blog post titled “5 Best Practices for Working the Reference Desk“. In that post I described “what I consider necessary elements of top-notch public service”. I received some positive feedback about that post, so I came up with four more best practices that every reference librarian should keep in mind.

1. Be alert
Though it may appear that being alert is more important in a library where there are more behavioral issues among the patron population, I would disagree. Just as in any place where a certain environment is to be maintained, staff members should always have a sense of what’s going on in their building. In a speech delivered to LA County Library staff during our training day, the Black Belt Librarian mentioned how a good librarian (or security guard) can intuit when something is off. I know that “tingle” very well from working at variety of “problem” branches. Just a few months ago I visited a branch where I used to work before coming to LA County and as soon as I came in, I knew that something was wrong; there was a vibe that didn’t sit right with me. Lo and behold, 20 minutes later two patrons got into a brawl in the middle of the reading room.

It seems like an intangible feeling, but it’s not. It’s just a matter of paying attention to the ambiance using all of your senses; for me, hearing is vital in this regard. Sharp sounds notwithstanding, it is typically not very difficult to tell that *something* is going on by listening for unusual vocal patterns, shuffling, and other patterns of sounds. They don’t have to be loud or sudden, they just have to be different. It’s the same for the other four senses as well. The bottom line? Whether it’s walking the floor, turning in your seat, or monitoring video, always be aware of what’s going on around you.

2. Know your patrons
Some consider this uncomfortable, luckily it’s difficult to avoid knowing your regulars at most libraries. My policy is that if I see a patron in the library more than a few times, I try to learn his name, or at the very least, establish some sort of communication with him. This may be as basic as nodding at the patron in passing, though I have had occasion to strike up conversations. I do this for several reasons: 1) I like to know who’s hanging out where I hang out, 2) If I know a patron, I can better help him, 3) In case there is a security incident involving the patron in question, I know his name, description, and usual state-of-mind, 4) In the same vein, during the incident having a rapport with the troublemaker makes handling it easier, 5) Patrons you know are easier to recruit as volunteers, members of the friends’ group, or advocacy initiative, they are more likely to become active members of the library community if they know someone who works there, 6) How do you guarantee attendance at your programs? That’s right, invite patrons that you know.

3. Do not argue with patrons
Superior customer service professionals know that arguing with the people they serve is a bad idea. To be sure, it’s not because you aren’t right and they aren’t wrong, to be sure, the customer is very frequently wrong, but how constructive is it to spend loads of time trying to prove the unprovable to someone who won’t listen anyway? It can’t always be avoided, but if at all possible treat patron complaints using this handy acronym that barista and customer service extraordinaire, Sarah (who works at the coffee shop at the ground floor of my library) taught me: LACT: Listen, Acknowledge (and/or Apologize), Correct, Thank. Here is this method in action:

Patron: I can’t believe this! The book that I placed on hold has been sent back! This is terrible, I need it for the play my Ladies’ Fly-Fishing Club is putting on!! I was never notified that it arrived!!!1

Librarian: I see what happened here, the book arrived and you didn’t know it was here, that’s why you couldn’t pick it up.

Patron: Exactly! What happened!? Why wasn’t I notified that it was here?

Librarian: I apologize, sometimes our notification system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. Just in case, let’s verify the information on your library card to make sure it’s correct.

(Take a few minutes to go over her phone number, home address, and email.)

Patron: Everything is correct. But how are we going to put on the play without this book? I’m really worried and upset about this.

Librarian: I understand. Let’s see how we can get this book back here to you ASAP.

(Proceed to track down other copies of the book and have them sent in/check other library systems/find a dirt-cheap copy on Amazon that she could buy/etc.)

I know what you’re thinking, there’s nothing wrong with the notification system, is there. This lady just doesn’t know how to work her answering machine so she missed the message and hence couldn’t pick up her book. Sure, why not? But why would you argue with her about this? The fact that she didn’t receive the message (for whatever reason) is not a personal attack on you; the lady is upset and angry that she doesn’t have her book! Acknowledge the problem, accept the blame, and solve her problem. Many times it is possible to shift the blame to the patron and leave it at that, but then you’ve got a negative situation on your hands. In a service profession like librarianship, it was often wiser to quickly move past the blame game and simply do your darndest to get the lady her book, put the guy on the next-available computer, or for pete’s sake, clear the 30 cent fine. No one’s saying be a doormat, there are some patrons who require a flat “No,” but most don’t. Rise above arguing with them when you can avoid it.

4. Take ownership of problems and solve them
The previous idea dovetails perfectly with our final Best Practice, solve problems. Remember that lady from above? Well, you’ve masterfly moved past the tension, now what? Now you show why you get paid the big bucks. You know how your system works and how other libraries work so work the system for her. No need to explain in detail. Just use your magic to get her the book by the time she needs it. She will go from angry and upset to appreciative in a flash. But wait! Maybe she needs it by tomorrow, getting it to her would be impossible! Be creative, get her a book on the same subject, print a list of libraries where it’s available and perhaps she can drive there, use your super-sleuth web searching skills. Take care of it!

Before you do, though, here’s a very powerful statement to use when you want to make someone feel comfortable, you say “I’m going to take care of this for you.” By saying that, you take the responsibility off of her shoulders and silently declaim “The buck stops here!” I frequently use a variant of this statement when – by no fault of their own – patrons have trouble with our computers or printers. I say “I know you’ve had a lot of trouble with this, but we’re going to get you onto a computer,” or “The printer can be difficult, but I will make sure you get your prints.” Librarians often think this, but they rarely say it. Well, I’m advising you to do just say it. Let patrons know that you are a human being who is on their team, not another faceless bureaucratic slug. If you take ownership of a patron’s problem and solve it, they will love you (in a friendly, non-creepy way) and that is what we want.

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Rule #1: Don’t be an A**hole


First, let me start off by saying that I am a customer service person by nature. I enjoy figuring out what someone needs and making it happen. This is true in my current job as a public librarian, but it was also true when I was making beautiful foot-longs at Subway and when I was running the house for a theatre company. It’s easy for me, I think, because contrary to some service people (you know who they are), I am fond of the people I serve. In my role as a librarian this means all of the people who come through the doors of my library. Sure, we complain about them sometimes, but in the end, they’re the reason I love my job. Being invested this way is why it upsets – no, that’s the wrong word – why it disappoints me so much when they act like fools. Today, two regular patrons at my library caused a ruckus and these two, of all people, should have known better. That is why I feel that is it so important to explicitly state Rule #1 of dealing with customer service people: Don’t Be an Asshole.

This goes double for regular patrons. People who we see several times a week, sometimes even everyday. When a person is a stranger at the library, it’s not so bad for me to have to kick him out on his third warning. But a regular, I know I’m going to have to see you tomorrow and trust me, that rapport that we had is gone. And it’s such a shame too. It’s so simple to stay in good with me;

All you have to do is not be an asshole. You don’t have to be charismatic or entertaining. Most of our regular patrons aren’t. Trust me, I’m probably not nice to you because you’ve charmed me, I’m nice to you because that’s my normal demeanor. I don’t have ulterior motives or some sort of angle, what I do have is a line you don’t want to cross. And I’m patient so getting on my bad side is an accomplishment, unless of course, you do one or more of the few things that take you over that magical threshold real quick…

…Things like lying to me about things that matter…LIKE YOUR NAME! When you lie to me you take me for an idiot because you think I won’t find out. But chances are I will. Now, it may not happen right away, but between talking with my co-workers, looking you up in our system, and being observant, you will be caught. Especially because, be realistic, I. See. You. Every. Day. Still, you should know in advance that just because I found out that you lied to me I won’t be staring daggers at you when you pass. I am a professional and will probably treat you like everyone else. You’re welcome for that because if I treated you in kind you would have a pretty difficult time at the library.

Speaking of difficult times, another thing you should avoid doing whenever possible is being an rude to other staff. The reason for this is extremely basic and it is along the lines of: All that stuff I said above about liking my patrons? That goes double for my co-workers – I really like them – so if I find out – worse yet, if I witness – you being unkind to them my face will go dark and the hellish fires that are usually warming my soul will suddenly, dragon-like, be directed at you. Being mean to my co-workers makes you a persona non grata; it signifies that you do not deserve respect. Oh, I’ll be civil, but all those advantages you once had? POOF! GONE!

And there are surely advantages to being a regular patron at the library (a regular anywhere, for that matter). If I know you, there is a much better chance I will exempt you (just this once) from our regular policy. But that’s small beans; I go out of my way for all of my patrons, it’s my M.O., I think it’s the right way to do things. However, if you’re one of the regulars and you’re decent, you can kick “go out of my way” up a notch. Don’t go mistaking this as synonymous with being a pushover, like every good public servant I know when (and how) to say no. What it does mean is that if you’re request is reasonable, I will astound you.

The problem is when you, the patron I’ve astounded on numerous occasions, refuses to play by the rules when asked, demands more privileges, or writes a bullshit letter of complaint. There, you bite the hand that feeds you, and all those fuzzies I had are replaced by ice-cold formality. It’s hard to fathom that you felt so comfortable with me, a person you see practically every day, that you managed to get into your mind that it is alright to be disrespectful. It’s not. It is my choice to do an outstanding job for you, and when you fail to appreciate that, it is also my choice to shut you down which brings me to the ultimate asshole move: Disrupting the library as a whole.

I am sometimes surprised by the selfishness people display in a public place, especially people in mid-to-high income, high-stress areas. I’m not just talking about loud cell phone conversations or being rude, I’m talking about when you cut in front of everyone who is patiently waiting to be helped and brazenly insist on service. Double that when I am on the phone or in the middle of a word. Triple that when I am on the reference desk by myself. Don’t worry, I will calmly tell you to wait your turn or ignore you at first, but if you persist, I reserve the right to send you packing. It’s not that I’m less patient when I have a large line, I can(read: have many times) work a busy desk all day, it’s that you’re creating a negative environment for everyone around you.

See, that’s the big thing here: You can be rude and rail at me to a point; dealing with assholes like you is why I’m paid the big bucks, but the moment you start ruining other people’s library experience is the moment my patience vanishes. Part of my job, the indirect customer service part that I feel is vital, is making sure all of my patrons – even the ones that never approach the desk – are comfortable. And if you think it’s weird that I say “my” patrons, you’ll think it’s even more weird when I tell you, after you’ve ignored repeated warnings to stop doing X [where X=disruptive action], to leave my library.

Yeah, I take ownership of where I work just like I take ownership of my living room. I don’t have to point to rule #17(a) to kick you out of my house and luckily my library administration feels the same way; if you’re being disruptive you get the umpire treatment. Don’t worry though, even if you do get booted today, you can still come back tomorrow because we’re the public library and we’re realistic. We accept that sometimes you have a bad day and throw a tantrum in public. It happens. If you do decide to come back the next day, or the next week, an apology is not unwise, but certainly not necessary. I won’t hold a grudge, in fact, I will do everything I can to serve you just so long as you repeat at regular intervals in your mind, the oh-so-important Rule #1.

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