Category Archives: Libraries

Refer Madness: Making Converts

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

One of the best things about having a digital media lab in my library is introducing eager patrons to what it provides. Since ours opened two years ago, the most popular feature by far is the converting software that transfers analog media to digital, like cassette tapes, photo slides, LPs, and VHS tapes.

One couple came to the desk and said they’d heard we could digitize their VHS home videos. I brought them to the room, got them set up with the software, and popped in their tape to test it.

“Oh my God!” the mother said as the video played on screen. She explained it was footage of their son’s first birthday party from the late 1980s. “We haven’t seen this since that day! He is going to medical school now!” They didn’t know what was on the tapes, so the look of surprised delight on their faces was their genuine reaction to being suddenly sent back in time.

Much of the equipment library staff have to deal with every day lose their luster quickly. (Just ask a librarian about 3D printers.) But because, as Arthur C. Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” it’s good to be reminded sometimes that technology can be damn near magical if we’re able to see it with fresh eyes.

The Bomb Librarian

Lots of great bits in this Atlas Obscura story about the Manhattan Project‘s librarian. J. Robert Oppenheimer selected Charlotte Serber, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, statistician, and freelance journalist to organize and lead the scientific library at Los Alamos not because of her library experience (she had none), but because “he wanted someone who would be willing to bend the rules of cataloguing.”

At one point Oppenheimer sends Serber and her husband to Santa Fe and personally spread false information about Los Alamos to dispel any true rumors:

The Serbers entered a local bar with the express intent of telling residents that the Los Alamos scientists were building “an electric rocket,” rather than a bomb. But no one seemed to care. At one point, Charlotte danced with a local man, all the while pestering him about Los Alamos. “What’s your guess about what cooks up there?” she asked. “Beats me,” he said. “Don’t care. May I have another dance later?”

In fact the secrets almost did get out. The Santa Fe Library sent out routine letters to library card holders, which reached scientists at Los Alamos:

A small crisis ensued. The security teams demanded to know how the Santa Fe Library had obtained the names of so many Los Alamos scientists. As a result, “a dark and cryptic gentleman appeared to find out how this flood of mail happened to be sent them and where All Those Names were obtained.”

Turned out, many scientists, impatient with the long wait for books, had gone into Santa Fe and checked them out themselves, under their real names—a major security violation.

When the Santa Fe librarians explained this, the man left. “If a strange character with a long cigar and his hat over his eyes tailed the staff members, they were not aware of it and feel that he could rarely have had a duller assignment,” the library later wrote.

Read the whole story here.

Norman Doors & More: Notes on ALA 2017

I went to the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago two weeks ago. Got to meet up with old colleagues, collect some sweet pens, and hear some interesting speakers, including the godfather of Hamilton, Ron Chernow. But most enriching were the sessions I attended. Here are some notes from the ones that enlightened me the most.

The Intentional Library: Creating A Better User Experience With Service Design And Design Thinking

Presenters: Joe Marquez, Annie Downey, Julka Almquist, Juliana Culbert

This session got me thinking about how to look at our library space as if I were a tourist seeing it for the first time. Would our service design make sense to them? If we aren’t intentionally seeking feedback from patrons and staff about how we can meet people’s needs and eliminate patrons’ “pain points”, then we’re not serving our patrons well.

Another key takeaway was that from a patron’s perspective, everyone who works in the library is a librarian; they don’t understand the professional distinctions. So regardless of job title, all staff should understand the library as a whole and be ready to serve the patron with good customer service skills.

Notes:

  • “If the point of contact between the product and people becomes a point of friction, the designer has failed.” -Henry Dreyfuss
  • If seeking to implement new design, follow the process: empathize → define → ideate → prototype → test → implement
  • need fresh eyes on space and processes, like a tourist
  • there are differences between what people say, do, think, and feel
  • discover people’s needs and pain-points, and create solutions to those so users can get what they want
  • educate colleagues on user experience (UX) and what it looks like to put into practice
  • questions to consider:
    • what is the audience?
    • what is the goal, call to action for users?
    • what is the timeline?
  • mindset to have:
    • everyone is a designer
    • embrace failure
    • people are at the center
  • prototyping builds confidence and saves money
  • Inherited ecology: older things and systems that haven’t changed but should, need new eyes
  • libraries are “tightly coupled” system, so changes affect everyone
  • from patron’s perspective, everyone is a librarian; all staff should know library as a whole
  • understand needs and expectations of patrons: these are often unexpressed
  • everything is a service
  • establish reasonable duration and tempo for patron services
  • accessibility: a range of behaviors are available to patrons
  • ask patrons: what problems do libraries solve? why are we important?

Resources:

What Do You Need to Know? Learning and Knowing and Libraries in the Age of the Internet

Daniel Russell is Google’s Über Tech Lead for Search Quality and User Happiness and he studies “how groups of people think about, understand, and use the technology of information.” He expanded on the concept of informacy, or the literacy of information, which requires a deep knowledge of information as a domain and knowing how to work well within it. Three things he said librarians ought to know were: 1) what’s possible to find online, 2) what search capabilities allow you to find them, and 3) what do you need to know to be able to do this? Pairing these skills with curiosity and a skeptical eye will help librarians make the shift in mindset from things that used to be impossible to find to what’s now expected to be provided instantaneously.

Notes:

  • Russell is a software engineer, research scientist, and a self-described “cyber-tribal-techno-cognitive-anthropologist” who studies “how groups of people think about, understand, and use the technology of information”
  • literacy: the ability to read and write in a symbol system and assumed, associated body of knowledge; defined with regard to a cultural group
  • “Pear Republic” hoax on Snopes is an example of the “false authority” fallacy
  • Need to perceive knowledge gap
    • skills of how to look things up
    • attitude of curiosity
  • Things librarians ought to know:
    • What’s possible to find online
    • What search capabilities allow you to find them
    • What do you need to know to be able to do this?
  • example of finding location of a photo using EXIF metadata (EXIF Metadata Viewer) and Google Maps
  • intuition/understanding of what and how often you do something is unreliable
  • informacy (like numeracy): the literacy of information
    • deeply knowledgeable about information as a domain, and knowing how to use and interact with it
  • Ctrl-F not used by 90% computer users: why?
  • Examples of untrustworthy sources on the internet:
    • fake author “Lambert Surhone” on Amazon
    • Clonezone
    • Italian Wikipedia article for Leonardo da Vinci much longer than English one: which one is better?
  • need to shift thinking from impossible to instantaneous
  • how to convert attitude from complaining to seeking out answers?
  • Social metacognition strategy of using “contact list intelligence”: know people who know things you don’t
  • “When in doubt, search it out”
  • “knowledge exists outside of yourself”
  • Three keys:
    • learn how to ask questions
    • know who can answer questions
    • know what tools are out there

Better Service than Amazon and Nordstrom: Secrets to How It’s Done

Presenters: Jane Martel, Linda Speas, Caroline Heinselman

This was presented by staff from the Arapahoe Library in Colorado, which gets very high marks in customer service rankings, even compared to popular companies like Amazon and Apple. I gathered there were 3 aspects of their customer service success. One was creating “exceptional experiences” for patrons that “surprise and delight” them and turn what would otherwise have been a good but standard library experience into great ones that they might tell their non-library-using friends about. Another was finding ways to “say yes” and avoid saying no in customer service situations, and documenting the times you have to “say no” so that you can pinpoint problems and get to yes. Another was rigorously training and supporting staff, not only in how to provide great customer service but also by allowing staff to feel fulfilled in their jobs by gathering positive stories of staff successes.

Notes:

  • poor customer service acts as a barrier to access
  • library being essential vs. “nice to have”
  • what can we offer to bring in more non-users? Nothing to convince them to come.
  • who are we at our best?
  • get users to “tell a friend” via word of mouth; create exceptional experiences they will want to tell about — ”surprise & delight”
  • specifically ask people to tell their friends/family about good library experiences
  • find ways to say yes and avoid saying no
  • hire for people skills over library skills: harder to teach
  • train and support staff: CS training for all
  • Process: greet warmly and smile, introduce yourself, have good small talk, offer assistance in “let’s find out” attitude, say thank you, make known they aren’t interrupting
  • have someone intentionally look at birds-eye view of CS
  • have staff submit positive stories: recognition/morale, training examples, board (Desk Tracker or Google Form?)
  • new hires: welcome bag, lunch, etc.
  • October 3 Customer Experience Day cxday.org
  • Tips for improving CS:
    • No log or Sorry/Thanks log to chart when have to say no and spot pain points
    • annual CS survey for patrons: look for things that either can be solved or are repeated
    • online anonymous comment form
  • staff see much more than patrons do

Desegregating Public Libraries: The Tougaloo Nine

Presenters: Michael Crowell, Geraldine Edwards Hollis, Susan Brown

This session was less about modern library practices and more about how past ones have failed patrons. Geraldine Edwards Hollis was one of the Tougaloo Nine, a group of students in Mississippi who did a “study-in” at their local segregated library and were arrested. Hollis told the story of the experience, which I’d never heard about until then. The session was a good opportunity to consider potential blind spots we have in current library services and honor those who risked their livelihoods to challenge them in the past.

Notes:

  • Hollis: a voracious reader
  • During this session was the first time Hollis had seen footage of the study-in and her arrest since it happened
  • Hollis: they didn’t want to just do lunch counter sit-ins or something mediocre: they did a library because libraries and reading mattered
  • Group started with 50 students interested, but once possibility of beatings, jailing, or even death was made clear, only 16 remained interested
    • many had parents who worked for state and schools, so those who remained had the least at stake
    • 16 total involved: 9 in the library, the rest on lookout
  • parents didn’t know until a few hours before
  • Hollis made her own clothes, was very meticulous; “I made sure I was well padded” for jail with lots of layers
  • Hollis: we were told all their lives we didn’t belong, but what what we were showing was “we belong where we want to be”
  • Read more: Wayne Wiegand’s Desegregating Libraries in the American South and the new journal Libraries: Culture, History & Society

Asking for a Friend: Tough Questions (and Honest Answers) about Organizational Culture

Presenters: Susan Brown, Richard Kong, Megan Egbert, Christopher Warren

This panel was comprised of one middle manager and three library directors, all of whom had taken over from long-serving directors and embarked on an overhaul of their organizational structure and culture. It was largely Q&A, with librarians voicing a variety of frustrations with their management, office politics, and other challenges that can pop up in the library environment. Key takeaways include: managers need to remember that some people view change as loss, and creating change means accountability combined with compassion.

Notes:

  • organizational culture is something you can hope will change, or be intentional about it
  • moving people to different offices was “worst thing ever” (Kong)
  • can’t reshape OC alone: need evangelists
  • OC defined by worst behavior that manager allows
  • counter toxic culture with emphasis on serving patrons
  • accountability + compassion to create change
  • communicate a lot, but also hold people accountable to consuming it and responding; if there are complaints of communication lack, look for what’s underneath
  • find ways to help people contribute to positive culture
  • trust: say you’ll do something, then do it — performance tied to trust
  • directors/managers should give time to allow feedback, but once decision is made staff should follow it; everyone gets a voice, but not a vote
  • re: siloing, Kong resists designating one authority figure or chain: wants people and departments to talk to each other
  • mixed departments on project teams and interviews
  • “what’s broken, what’s the rumor” at meetings
  • Junior Librarian program to mentor high schoolers and get non-traditional people in LIS
  • technical change vs. adaptive change (mindset)
  • some view change as loss

Top Shelf Madness

Almost two years ago I started writing about strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk, in a series I call Refer Madness

My latest one, titled “Finding Angels,” is debuting over at Booklist, as part of the latest issue of “Top Shelf Reference” newsletter. This latest one is about a patron who came in looking for a book about angels, but actually desired something else. 

I’ll continue Refer Madness here, but hope to keep them going in Top Shelf semi-regularly. Thanks to Rebecca at Booklist for the opportunity! 

La La Librarians

Lots of great anecdotes from the New Yorker story “Scenes from the Oscar Night Implosion“, including this one on the Academy librarians planted in the corner of the press room:

In the back corner was my favorite part of the press room: the librarians’ table, where the Academy librarians are on hand to answer questions. Under a sign that said “Reference,” a librarian named Lucia Schultz had a thick binder of Oscar history and another of credits for the nominated films. Reporters came by to ask questions. Had there previously been two African-American acting winners in the same year? (Yes, in 2002, 2005, and 2007.) If Lin-Manuel Miranda won Best Original Song, would he be the youngest-ever “EGOT”? (Depends on whether you count noncompetitive awards. Barbra Streisand was younger, but she won a Special Tony Award.) Was Mahershala Ali the first Muslim to win an Oscar? (They couldn’t say, because the Academy doesn’t keep records on winners’ religious affiliations.) After Colleen Atwood won for Best Costume Design, a Metro.co.uk reporter rushed up to Schultz and asked if any other British people had won four Oscars. “Yes, but Colleen Atwood is from Washington State,” Schultz said.

Later on, as the Best Picture snafu was happening, Schultz had what we could call a run on the reference desk:

On the monitors, a guy in a headset was onstage, and the “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz was saying, “This is not a joke. ‘Moonlight’ has won Best Picture.” When the camera zoomed in on the envelope, the press room collectively screamed. A reporter ran up to Schultz and asked, “Has anything like this ever happened before?” Schultz, who had not prepared for this scenario, was frantically searching her records. “I cannot think of a case where this has happened,” she said. “There are times when people thought it happened.” More reporters lined up with the same question—it was the most attention Schultz had got all night. She remembered something about Quincy Jones and Sharon Stone forgetting the envelope for Best Original Score, in 1996, but no other precedent came to mind. (In fact, Sammy Davis, Jr., once read from the wrong envelope, in 1964.)

Time to update those reference materials.

Fun New Things

Some fun stuff I’ve been enjoying lately:

“This Machine Kills Fascists” Pencils

From Frog & Toad Press in Rhode Island, which has several other colorfully messaged pencils and other goodies available.

Library Extension for Chrome

Not sure where I found out about this, but I’ve been digging it thus far not only with my personal browsing but for work as well. The wizards behind this extension, which will show you if a book you’re browsing on Goodreads or Amazon is in your local library catalog, were very quick to fix an error I pointed out, and seem to be fast overall with adding new libraries by request. I asked them if functionality with CDs and DVDs could be added, and they said it’s possible in a future release.

Library Life sticker pack for iPhone Messages (via TILT)

I mean, when isn’t it appropriate to use emojis like these?

The Book Thieves

As I read Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance, I kept thinking of Sean Connery’s line from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

16003163_10100110251327897_8529990701762044984_n.jpg

All this book burning by the Nazis entailed looting a continent’s worth of libraries and archives, specifically to root out so-called subversive literature (i.e. anything Jewish). They were also abetted by a very willing populace, including (sad face) librarians:

Wolfgang Herrmann, a librarian who had involved himself with right-wing extremist student groups as early as the 1920s, had been working for several years on a list of literature “worthy of being burned.” The first draft only listed 12 names, but this was soon expanded to 131 writers, subdivided into various categories.

Well, that’s one way to weed your collection… But, as Rydell points out, the Nazis weren’t just about burning books:

The image of burning books has been altogether too tempting, too effective, and too symbolic not to be used and applied in the writing of history. But the burning of books became so powerful a metaphor for cultural annihilation that it overshadowed another more unpleasant narrative, namely how the Nazis did a great deal more than simply destroy books—they were also driven by a fanatical obsession to collect them.

There is a tendency to view the Nazis as unhinged destroyers of knowledge. It is also true that many libraries and archives were lost while under the control of the regime, either through systematic destruction or indirectly as a consequence of war. Despite this, a question that needs to be asked in the shadow of Himmler’s library is the following: What is more frightening, a totalitarian regime’s destruction of knowledge or its hankering for it?

It’s less hankering and more hoarding. Whatever the Nazis didn’t destroy they were perfectly willing to keep for themselves as treasures of conquest. But whether they destroyed undesirable knowledge or stole it and kept it for themselves, their mission was perfectly in sync with the human holocaust that was happening at the same time.

We can say it won’t happen again because books are so much more plentiful and we have the internet as a new means of free expression, but that would be too pat, wouldn’t it? We are never quite as safe from the slippery slope as we think we are.

Refer Madness: Thanks, Man

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Coming out of a recent concert at the library, an elderly man asked if we had a calendar of events he could take home. I showed him where they were on the shelf, and as I was about to return to the desk, he started talking.

“You have a great facility here,” he said. He’d been a longtime library lover, longtime supporter. He remembered that when his home library was doing some major renovations, one of his neighbors was peeved about the cost:

“She said, ‘Why are they doing that? They’re using my money!’ And I said, ‘You don’t like that?’ She said no. So I told her, ‘Well, they need to keep adding new things and making sure people have the opportunity to learn and grow and get educated. You don’t want that?’ And she said no, that it’s not necessary and a waste of money. So I asked if she had any grandchildren and she said yeah. I said ‘Well, you don’t want those things, but what about them? You want to deny them a good library and good services just because [he leans in and says in sotto voce] you’re a tight-ass?’ No way, I said.”

I thanked him for his kind words and support and he went on his way. Often librarians at the public desk hear from people like the man’s neighbor, who rail against the use of taxpayer money for public services they don’t like. It’s a rare treat, then, to hear such unprompted, unabashed praise and support from someone who had nothing to gain by sharing it.

Refer Madness: Playing Favorites

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Every librarian has favorite patrons. Like parents we aren’t supposed to admit it, but it’s true. My favorites have developed because of how nice they are, for their interesting requests, or for their particular outlook on life. One of my favorites is an older woman, a regular, who is delightfully candid about the books she reads and, I’m discovering, shares my taste in reading.

She had Ann Patchett’s new book Commonwealth in hand to check out, and I said I heard it was good. “Yeah, I don’t know, we’ll see,” she said. She wasn’t fond of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell: “The baby in the womb? How dumb was that!” Her favorites this year have been When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, and Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, which we bonded over. “So much people read is just trash,” she told me. “It’s nice to be on the same wavelength with someone.” I agreed and wished her luck with Commonwealth.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for patrons like her.