Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Libraries (page 1 of 10)

Refer Madness: Always on call

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

You know how doctors are always on call? Someone has a heart attack on an airplane or chokes at a restaurant, and doctors, nurses, or other care providers jump to the rescue, even if they are off the clock. Even medical students count: I witnessed a friend dash to the aid of a woman who injured herself while dancing during a wedding reception.

Professionals never know when they will be called to duty, librarians included. We might not be setting broken bones or taking vitals, but we info-slingers have a knack for finding opportunities to serve random reference needs.

One day, I was chatting with a neighbor in my apartment building’s laundry room. He’s a counselor, and he had just read about a theory that he wanted to learn more about. Google wasn’t offering much of any depth. He didn’t work for or attend a university, so he didn’t have access to specialized journals and databases. Amid the thrum of tumbling clothes, I told him I would help him check with our local public library to see what they had access to.

It was just that simple. Simple for me, anyway, but not for my neighbor. Familiarity bias makes it easy for librarians to forget that most people do not know everything the library offers, or even think of the library as a potential remedy for a problem. This can limit our fellow citizens’ information epiphanies.

I recently attended a seminar, and while grazing the snack table for coffee and a bagel (the Official Refreshments™ of seminars everywhere), I struck up a conversation with another attendee. He was a newly hired city planner in charge of reaching out to local businesses, and the task was overwhelming him because he was new to the area. I knew that his library was likely to be subscribed to ReferenceUSA or something similar, so I told him how he could use an e-reference tool like this for his project, without costing the city extra money.

Again, this public library pitch required hardly any effort in the moment, but it will likely pay dividends in the future. The actual work lies in the preparation, before the opportunity to share presents itself. The more knowledgeable you are about what libraries offer—and not just your library—the better equipped you will be to save the day. A friend is in the market for a new car? Consumer Reports online. Need a template for a new lease? EBSCO’s Legal Information Reference Center. Want a software refresher before a job interview? Lynda.com.

Whether the unsuspecting patron actually uses the resource is out of your control. But it’s exciting to consider what planting that seed could lead to: maybe that person’s first library visit in years, or a card renewal, or excitement about e-books and museum passes. Or maybe even a word-of-mouth recommendation to a friend, which starts the cycle anew.

I wonder how the woman at the wedding reception would have fared had my friend not been there. Since the spirit of the celebration rendered most of the other guests unhelpful (and telling her to check out MedlinePlus didn’t seem useful in that moment), she no doubt would have been worse off without a professional’s help. Luckily she only ended up suffering a swollen ankle and a bruised ego, but my friend didn’t know that when he jumped to her aid. He just wanted to help.

Refer Madness: Hate the change, love the library

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

A while back, my department’s email received this message:

“What happened to the CLASSIC CATALOG? I am old, I hate change, but love my library. Thanks.”

I had to laugh. Funny but dead serious, succinct and self-aware, this missive captures a very real conundrum: How do we serve people who hate change but love their library?

The “CLASSIC CATALOG” in question was my library’s previous OPAC. We migrated from it a few years ago but still allowed access for those diehards who didn’t want to use the new system. Recently, that access disappeared. Probably 99 percent of our users had already moved to the new catalog, but I’ll bet those bitter-enders really loved the old one.

Soon my library will be migrating to yet another catalog, this time because we are joining a consortium. It’s change for the better, I believe, but it will also be disruptive to the status quo. That means it won’t just be the CLASSIC CATALOG patron who speaks up about it . . .

On the one hand, constant change is the new normal with technology, in libraries and the world at large. The newer and shinier (if not always better) version of whatever you’re using seems ever around the corner. Libraries can try as much as possible to prepare patrons, but at some point, the base expectation for technical competence will rise, and everyone will have to adapt.

On the other hand, I empathize with this patron. Though being tech savvy is part of my job, in my personal life, I’m far from an early adopter. Even products with a fairly strong reputation for reliability and style, like Apple devices, to me aren’t worth the headaches their debuts can create. I prefer to wait out the newest thing. Let beta testers and true believers ride the first few waves of glitches that inevitably pop up—I’ll come in later and enjoy the smoother ride.

Most patrons understand that tech is ever-changing. But for those who don’t, librarians and IT staff can do a lot. We can offer abundant opportunities for instruction, both online, with explainer videos or blog posts, and in person, with classes or one-on-one sessions. We can use whatever power we have to make the new technology as user-friendly as possible. We can try to anticipate questions that any disruptive changes might trigger and smooth out as many potential stumbling blocks as possible.

Above all, we can and must be patient and listen.

If we can do that, I think even the bitter-enders will still be able to love their library.

Go Pack Horse Librarians, Go!

One podcast that survived my recent purge is The Keepers, a series from The Kitchen Sisters and NPR.  The series features:

“stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors and historians. Keepers of the culture and the cultures and collections they keep. Guardians of history, large and small, protectors of the free flow of information and ideas, eccentric individuals who take it upon themselves to preserve some part of our cultural heritage.”

The latest episode is about the “Pack Horse Librarians,” a group of women in 1930s rural Kentucky who brought books to isolated areas. The Depression-era WPA paid their salary of $1 per day; everything else was their responsibility, including renting the horses and collecting donated books and magazines to distribute.

It’s an inspiring, well-told story that shows the value of preserving local history.

How to pay your library back

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library information desk.

A regular came to the desk with the George Carlin Commemorative Collection DVD she was returning.

“Before I return this,” she said, “I’d like to know how much it was for the library to buy because you bought it based on my request but I didn’t like it, so I’d like to pay the library back.”

Well, that was a first.

I reassured her that she didn’t owe the library anything, that we’d be keeping the item regardless, and that someone else will gain enjoyment from it. The library gets a lot of purchase suggestions, most of which we buy. The rare item that we don’t buy is either too expensive, too esoteric, or otherwise not in keeping with our collection policy.

Nevertheless, she persisted. Even if it wasn’t for that item, she wanted to compensate the library in some way. So I thought of some ways she (and everyone) could do so.

How to pay your library back

1. Use it.

Check things out, early and often. Books, movies, music, magazines, WiFi hotspots, ebooks, whatever your library provides. If fines are keeping you away, ask nicely to have them reduced. Seriously, this might work. (Or just bite the bullet and pay them: see #5.)

2. Get your friends and family to use it.

There’s no better publicity than word-of-mouth. Each of your kids should have their own card. Just watch out for the fines…

3. Make suggestions.

Your library doesn’t have an item or service you think they should? Ask them to get it. Think they should go fine-free or set up automatic renewals? Tell them many libraries are doing it. Comments and suggestions from local cardholders are powerful, especially en masse.

4. Volunteer.

Newly retired? In library school looking for work experience? Odds are your library has something for you to do. Volunteers often get hired because of that proverbial foot in the door.

5. Donate.

Your gently used books and tax-deductible donations are always welcome. You’ll get the money back in the improvements the library can make with it. Donate enough and you might get a meeting room named after you.

Refer Madness: The Book Dropper strikes again

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

A few months ago, a coworker and I noticed that every Tuesday, two items appear on the library’s book sale shelves that shouldn’t be there. The library has a system for what gets placed in the book sale, so we know which items are out of place. Given the regularity of these deposits, they are clearly being left intentionally, by someone who knows the library’s donation policy but is choosing to ignore it.

I’ve come to call this library phantom The Book Dropper. The Book Dropper is sneaky, and The Book Dropper is patient. The Book Dropper doesn’t lug in a bag of nasty books hoping the library will accept them. The Book Dropper brings only two at a time, once a week, every week, presumably until there are no more books to surreptitiously drop.

The Book Dropper haunts me.

The Book Dropper’s books are usually in sorry shape, and sometimes downright silly. Decades-old mass market paperbacks, electrical engineering manuals, and a host of other esoteric et cetera in no condition to be sold or added to the library’s collection.

Normally, as soon as we spot the latest evidence of the Book Dropper’s continued ability to evade justice, we recycle them along with the other discarded books. But this week’s evidence was extra special:

That would be a chewed up, dilapidated copy of Everything But Money by Sam Levenson and a Betamax tape of Santa Fe Trail, the 1940 western starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and a suave-looking Ronald Reagan.

*chef’s kiss*

You got me again, Book Dropper. I can’t decide whether to shake my fist dramatically or slow-clap. I’m going to keep Santa Fe Trail on my desk at work as a reminder that this scofflaw is still at large. Perhaps I will watch it only once the Book Dropper has been identified and politely informed of the library’s donations policy.

Summer assignment: visit your local library

Despite their great intentions, those “required reading” lists of books make me cringe. Required reading usually feels like work, whether they’re from a friend, a professor, or a stranger on the internet. Pleasure reading should be based on freedom and empowerment and whim, not compulsion. Use those lists as a resource, sure, but don’t feel obliged to them.

Austin Kleon gets it right by assigning not a specific book, but a way to get one:

  1. Visit your local library and apply for a library card. (Or pay your fines and renew.)
  2. Ask a librarian for a tour of the library building, the online catalog, and the digital holdings. Ask the librarian to show you how to put materials on hold, how to request materials for purchase, and how to use interlibrary loan.
  3. Check out at least one item. (So you have to return.)

My #4: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re not bothering librarians by doing so. It’s why we’re there!

I can’t tell you how beneficial these would be to you and your kids, and how happy this would make your librarians. Summer is the perfect time too; most libraries have summer reading programs for kids and adults, with prizes and fun activities.

Happy reading!

For the records

Dan Cohen ponders why some recent sci-fi films prominently feature libraries, archives, and museums:

Ever since Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor extracted the Death Star plans from a digital repository on the planet Scarif in Rogue One, libraries, archives, and museums have played an important role in tentpole science fiction films. From Luke Skywalker’s library of Jedi wisdom books in The Last Jedi, to Blade Runner 2049’s multiple storage media for DNA sequences, to a fateful scene in an ethnographic museum in Black Panther, the imposing and evocative halls of cultural heritage organizations have been in the foreground of the imagined future. …

… At the same time that these movies portray an imagined future, they are also exploring our current anxiety about the past and how it is stored; how we simultaneously wish to leave the past behind, and how it may also be impossible to shake it. They indicate that we live in an age that has an extremely strained relationship with history itself. These films are processing that anxiety on Hollywood’s big screen at a time when our small screens, social media, and browser histories document and preserve so much of we do and say.

Ready Player One is another recent example. And let’s give some love to the historical society in Back to the Future Part III. Read the rest here.

Do librarians read all day? Should we?

Librarians and library staff have been fighting the incorrect stereotype (among many others) that their jobs consist of reading all day long. And while I still have programs to plan, books to weed, research questions to respond to, and other things to worry about, I wonder if maybe, just maybe, we took a little time to read on the job and model the behavior we want to see, if we just might see our communities a little better for it.

— Abby Hargreaves, “Do librarians read all day? No, but they should”

I love the spirit behind this, especially for youth librarians seeking to model and encourage positive behavior. But since the whole premise of this article is that patrons assume we’re reading a lot anyway, are PDRs (public displays of reading) the best way to bust this particular myth?

If it were up to me, all librarians would be allowed to do some pleasure reading while on the clock. It directly relates to the essence of the job, even if it doesn’t specifically include readers advisory.

But to “model the behavior we want to see” would require us to read while on public service desks, and I think that’s bad customer service.

If we’re engrossed in or even skimming a book, they will think they are bothering us if they ask a question, which is another very common assumption I would love to destroy.

That said, if you can fit reading in with the other aforementioned responsibilities away from the desk, all the better! It’s a shame some managers would frown upon this. As if looking busy in your cubicle is the only metric for what constitutes good work. I find lunch breaks, pre-bedtime, and audiobooks during my commute enough for me to read 70-80 books per year, but your mileage and busyness may vary.

Perhaps a more structured “read-in” event would be another option: “Read With Your Librarian” or a kind of (not so) silent reading party. People reading in libraries is not a novel concept, but people of all ages intentionally reading their own books together with their neighbors is a photo-op waiting to happen.

What’s your favorite library memory?

In honor of National Library Week, I’d like to know your favorite library memories or experiences, distant or recent. And if you don’t have any, why not?

See my libraries tag for more goodness.

Refer Madness: A String of Beeps

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

I was on the phone with a patron when I heard it: that incessant beep the copier makes when something goes wrong.

Once I finished with the patron on the phone, I went over to see what was the matter. This time it was “Insufficient funds”. The coin tower screen showed 25 cents, which was enough for the two copies the patron wanted to make. I cleared the attempted copy job, tried it again, and it printed fine.

I assume copier technology has advanced since the mid-20th century, but you wouldn’t know it based on what’s churning out copies in many libraries.

“I guess it just hates me,” the man said with a smile.

“It’s just old and cranky,” I tell him, which is true.

“Well, I’m old and cranky too,” he said wryly. (A sense of humor goes a long way when dealing with technology—of any age.)

It’s a phenomenon we’re all familiar with: the computer or copier or iDevice malfunctions, but as soon as someone comes to the rescue, it works fine. We made it through this operation painlessly, but it was emblematic of how much of my job is realizing how things get screwed up and how often it’s the machine’s fault.

I can’t tell you how many times a patron brings a device to the desk and says “I feel so dumb” or “This is a dumb question, but…” Sure, sometimes patrons don’t read instructions or signs correctly. But just as often it’s the design of the machine or app that led to the failure. The annoying beeps and popup error messages are just an insulting icing on the cake.

Though the machine is just trying to say:

*BEEP* ERROR

its frustrated victims actually hear:

*BEEP* WRONG
*BEEP* YOU’RE STUPID
*BEEP* SCREW YOU

Counteracting this ought to be the chief quest of good design. It makes everything better: users can actually use things without going insane and devices can be used with minimum intervention from outsiders.

Easier said that designed.

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