If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s this: Moral certainty is easy. Practical action is hard and almost always requires some degree of compromise.
Here are two principles of public librarianship which underlie our work:
- Public libraries have a mandate to provide materials that represent multiple perspectives on a range of issues and subjects, especially to reflect the various viewpoints of members of the library’s community.
- Public libraries are trusted sources of reliable, authoritative information. We vet information sources to be sure we offer good info to our patrons.
What happens when these two principles stand in direct contradiction with each other? What do you do when you can’t fulfill both of these principles?
As Neil Gaiman said, “Google will bring you back … a hundred thousand answers. A librarian will bring you back the right one.” There’s been a great deal of talk these past few years about the role libraries can play in fighting the spread of misinformation and promoting information literacy.
But we have people in our communities who hold to ideas and perspectives that are incorrect, at least when assessed by standards of information literacy and authority. These people expect to come into their library—which their tax dollars help fund—and find materials which reflect their beliefs.
How do you balance that?
Continue reading “Moral Certainty vs. Practical Action”
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about vocational awe. There’s been significant research done on this in multiple fields and it’s a legitimate issue. Our work as librarians is important and worth working hard to deliver. It’s right and good for us to take pride in our commitment. Our desire to serve motivates us to do the best work we can for the sake of others. We can make the world a better place. Our respect for our work, our desire for doing it, empowers us. It gives us deep satisfaction and helps people in our communities. That’s a good thing.
But our desire to serve makes us vulnerable, too. People can leverage it to manipulate us in ways we shouldn’t allow. I’ve been guilt tripped into doing work I shouldn’t have had to do, without sufficient compensation, because I wanted to be helpful. Our desire to do good can be used against us. It happens and it’s a problem. Our work is important but not enough for us to risk our health or well-being. It’s not important enough for us to work so hard for insufficient compensation.
We all deserve appropriate pay for our work, a healthy work-life balance, and safe working conditions. But it can be a challenge for those of us driven by a desire to serve to draw and hold appropriate lines when our communities depend on the services we provide. We should be proud and celebrate what we do! But we shouldn’t get lost in it.
Continue reading “Vocational Awe”
My dad likes to tell a story about a man he knew who was the head of a college. Every summer, this man would take a weekend to go out to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, all by himself, unconnected and alone. He brought along a blank notepad and a pen. On the top of the first page, he’d write, “Five Years.” He’d flip a few pages in and write “Ten Years” at the top of the page, and then “Twenty Years” a few pages later. He’d spend the weekend jotting down everything he could think of that he wanted the college to do in the next five-to-twenty years.
One summer, his weekend came to an end and he looked at his notepad. He had four or five things written on the “Five Years” page, just a couple things written on the “Ten Years” page, and nothing under “Twenty Years.” When he got back home, he tendered his resignation. He believed that if he didn’t have a vision for the organization, then he wasn’t the right person to lead it anymore.
This story worries me.
Continue reading “Visions of Leadership”
People tend to be surprised when I tell them how many 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.
Continue reading “The Connection Between Libraries and Theaters”
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.
Continue reading “Drag Queen Story Times in Public Libraries”
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.
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:
Continue reading “Libraries: Everything to Everyone?”
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.
Continue reading “Libraries and Information Literacy”
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.
Continue reading “The Problem of Confidence in Hiring”
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:
- What a wonderful idea!
- 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.
Continue reading “A Moment of Clarity”
The traditional definition of library neutrality holds that the library is a space where everyone is welcome, where all views are represented, and where everyone has the freedom to explore ideas and make their voices heard.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: This definition doesn’t describe a neutral space. It describes a space where everyone is equal.
Equality is a direct concern of libraries—especially public libraries. We pledge to serve all members of our community equally, without bias or judgement. We commit to making space for all voices, perspectives, and cultural traditions of the communities we serve. Equality is built into our professional values.
Let’s say you have two lines that are unequal in length:
Continue reading “What We Really Talk about When We Talk about Library Neutrality”