The Connection Between Libraries and Theaters

People tend to be shocked when I tell them how many theater former theater people end up going into libraries as a second career. But it’s true—I know several former costumers and stage managers, even a sound guy and a dramaturg or two, who left theater to pursue new careers as librarians or archivists. I estimate fully one third of my class in my Masters of Library and Information Science program were former theater people.

(Interestingly, I don’t personally know any actors, designers, or directors who left theater for libraries. None of the creative side, just us backstage folk.)

Thing is, theaters and libraries are a natural fit.

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Drag Queen Story Times in Public Libraries

NOTE: Everything on this blog is an expression of my personal opinions and not those of my employer. It’s especially important to keep this in mind for this post.

Drag Queen Story Times in public libraries are causing quite a lot of controversy lately. The most important thing for me is to state as clearly as I can:

I am an ally.

I do not believe it’s legitimate to cancel these programs because of the prejudices of some members of a community. It’s discriminatory. Public libraries have an obligation to represent all members of our community, which includes LGBTQIA+ folk.

It also includes representing those people who are offended by the drag queen story times. But when you cancel one at the behest of the other, you’re de facto showing preference for the people who are offended.

Some people argue this the other way around: if you go through with a drag queen story time, are you not de facto showing preference for the queens over those who are offended by them?

For me, the answer lies in who’s doing harm.

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Libraries: Everything to Everyone?

Or Jack of All Trades but Master of None?

Justin Hoenke recently voiced the argument that public librarians need to be “everything to every community member.” This argument unleashed a lot of push back from librarians. Stephanie Chase posted a tweet thread in response to the push back and it’s worth reading.

Her essential argument responds to librarians who, as she perceives, don’t want libraries to be different than what they were in our romanticized youths.

She states:

HARD FACTS TIME: THE LIBRARY OF YOUR YOUTH DOESN’T EXIST ANYMORE.

I agree with this 100%. There are librarians who resist change because they don’t want the library to evolve. That’s a real problem. She also links to a recent LitHub article, “Stop. The library isn’t your private, childhood memory palace.” I love this article and I agree with it 100%. I tweeted it out myself when it was first posted online.

I came to libraries because they’re so adaptable. Because I’m excited to serve my community in a time of tremendous change. Because I relish the challenge of figuring out how to respond to changing needs and demographics. In his book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Wayne Wiegand points out public libraries have always adapted to changing needs and circumstances. There’s always been resistance to change, both internal and external. This is all to be expected.

Libraries should never be static entities—we need to be adaptable. The core of what we do is timeless—access, information, self-directed learning, self-directed entertainment—but of course our communities’ needs will change, and even the timeless needs will manifest differently, and technology will continue to alter how we access and consume information, sometimes in radical ways. This is good and healthy and exciting.

But I can’t completely agree that librarians need to be all things for all people. It’s not for the reasons Ms. Chase thinks. It starts with the following statement from her tweet thread:

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Libraries and Information Literacy

I have a friend who’s currently in school to earn an MLIS. They asked me recently if my library offers “information literacy guidance to your patrons? Like any sort of program to help gauge legit info from ‘fake news?'”

My answer turned out to be a bit more involved than I expected. Turns out, I have thoughts about this. I can’t say my thoughts are particularly well sorted at this point but I think they’re worth sharing. Here’s a slightly edited and expanded version of the answer I sent my friend:

My library doesn’t currently do any dedicated programming on this kind of information literacy, although we help guide people when they come to us with questions. We provide access to resources that teach information literacy skills and direct patrons to these resources when we see a need. I know a lot of libraries are exploring different ways to handle this issue and some are offering programming. My library is talking about the idea.

My personal perspective on it: It’s turning out to be more complex than I thought upon first glance.

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The Problem of Confidence in Hiring

I’ve gotten to sit on a handful of hiring committees in the past few years. I’ve noticed I tend to pay attention to candidates’ confidence. Confidence matters to me.

But I’ve also realized confidence is a problematic metric when it comes to evaluating potential hires.

I believe confidence is important. Especially for library staff who work with patrons—for anyone who works in a customer service position: you need to be confident in your ability to handle whatever comes up. You need to have the confidence to remain calm and effective in high stress environments. An air of confidence creates a good atmosphere for our patrons. So I look for confidence in interviews. I’m struck when candidates display confidence and poise and I note when they seem nervous or hesitant.

But there all kinds of ways confidence is a poor metric.

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A Moment of Clarity

The American Library Association recently tweeted an article about an outreach program the Chicago Public Library is doing.

Literacy at the Laundromat” by Joseph P. Williams. Published by U.S. News & World Report, December 25, 2018.

CPL is offering story times in laundromats. I had two thoughts immediately upon reading this:

  1. What a wonderful idea!
  2. I would never come up with an idea like this.

I’m not a creative person. I love ideas but I’m not someone who dreams them up very well. I’m not much of a visionary in that sense.

This offered a moment of clarity for me. It helps me articulate what I really want to accomplish in my career.

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The Challenge of Fairness

I struggle with the idea of fairness. Fairness is important to me. It bothers me, deeply, when I see things that are unfair. As a kid, I hated it when people would say, “The world isn’t always fair!” It was always just a transparent excuse for people treat others unfairly. Just because the world isn’t fair doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be.

Most libraries have a Patron Code of Conduct: a document laying out behavioral and usage expectations for people who use the library. Fairness is essential when it comes to these codes of conduct and especially when it comes to disciplinary actions in response to infractions.

Fairness requires us to apply our codes of conduct equally to all patrons. That seems obvious, right?

Maybe not.

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