Arts Design Libraries

Films Galore and other groovy ’70s library brochures

Digging around my library’s local history collection, I found a stack of trifold brochures promoting the services of the old North Suburban Library System (now RAILS) my library is part of. I’m guessing they’re from the 1970s since NSLS started in the late ’60s. Look at all these groovy logos and colors:

And then there’s the one that summarizes all the services:

All reference desks should have a “Just Ask” sign on them to encourage shy patrons. Maybe I’ll turn it into a button.

I’d love to talk to whoever designed these. Were the icons specially made for these brochures or did they come from somewhere else? Perhaps they could be repurposed for a digital marketing campaign, or at least a cool collage project.

Libraries Refer Madness

Refer Madness: A Patron Mount Rushmore

Originally published at Booklist

In the office one day, my colleagues got to discussing who our library’s Mount Rushmore of patrons would be. Not necessarily the nicest ones but the ones who have become iconic among staff largely because of the mystery that surrounds them.

I thought of a few candidates right away. The man with the quiet, husky voice who calls our small, suburban Illinois library for phone numbers in California. Or the woman who calls looking for information on a website, the same one every time, whose calls are so predictable they could follow a script.

And then there’s the man who calls occasionally with a request: for us to print out the Google Maps Street View of certain intersections, all four corners of them. Sometimes it’s a specific one, but other times he just names a landmark or a city and will accept any street-view pictures of it.

He’s also into appraisal. If we’re not on Google Maps for him, we’re looking up the value of certain artifacts and printing screenshots of similar items on eBay. Previous examples include a Star Wars novelty coin, a book about the First Cavalry Division in the Korean War, an 1853 French coin, and a John Lennon and Yoko Ono “Let Them Stay In” button.

All of this begs so many questions. Where does he get these artifacts? Is he a collector or just trying to make a buck? How amazing is his coin collection? Why the fascination with intersections? (I heard a rumor he asks for the street views because he’s unable to travel and uses the pictures to do so vicariously.)

Whatever the truth is, it’s not my business to ask. I’m very curious about the lives of certain patrons; curiosity is an occupational asset in librarianship. But I’m also very cognizant about not breaking the confidence of people who trust the library enough to bring us their personal requests, however odd or seemingly simple they might be.

So I’m fine with not knowing everything about who’s on the other end of the line. Like the real Mount Rushmore, whose presidential likenesses are famously unfinished but iconic nevertheless, the incompleteness of patrons’ stories is instrumental to their mysteries. And if there’s anything desk librarians should enjoy, it’s chasing down a mystery.


Libraries = Internet IRL but better

American Libraries magazine’s “Ten Reasons Libraries Are Still Better Than the Internet”  is some grade-A, top choice librarian bait. Excerpts:

Libraries are safer spaces. The internet brings people together, often in enjoyable and productive ways, such as over shared interests (pop culture blogs, fanfic sites) or common challenges (online support groups). But cyberbullying and trolling can leave people reluctant to engage with folks they disagree with or to share their ideas in the first place. Libraries are places where people can gather constructively and all are welcome.

Libraries respect history. Web pages are ephemeral, and link rot is a real problem. The content of library collections is much more stable. Printed materials are generally published on acid-free paper, which will not disintegrate. And librarians are leading the way to bring similar stability to the web through services like the Internet Archive and

Librarians do not track your reading or search history to sell you things.  Amazon’s book purchase recommendation feature is useful for learning about new books. But this usefulness comes at the expense of your privacy because your reading data is valuable business intelligence for Amazon. The same is true for your web searching history, which is why you often see ads for a product for weeks after searching for it just once. Librarians value and protect your privacy.

The last one is my personal favorite. Though modern library catalogs provide the option to record your checkout history, it is opt-in and the data it collects isn’t sold to anyone.

If I could add one more to the original list:

Libraries are local. Though most libraries are in a consortium or resource-sharing system of some kind and have a lot of the same materials, no one library is the same, and each is the product of its community. I marvel at how true this is when someone asks in a listserv about how other libraries do something and each response is something different.

History Libraries Presidents

A Hopey Changey Library

Somehow I missed this story on how the forthcoming Obama Center (above) will be challenging the “scam” of presidential libraries. The author, who wrote a book on the topic, lays out how:

The National Archives and Records Administration—which operates presidential library-museums for every president from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush—won’t be operating either for Obama. His private Obama Foundation, not the government, will own and operate the museum. And there really won’t be a presidential library. The Obama Foundation will pay for NARA to digitize unclassified records and release them to the public as they become available, but the center’s “Library,” which may or may not house a local branch of the Chicago Public Library, will not contain or control presidential papers and artifacts, digital or otherwise. Instead, according to a NARA press release that called the museum “a new model for the preservation and accessibility of presidential records,” those records will be stored in “existing NARA facilities”—meaning one or more of the agency’s research or records centers across the country.

Is this good or bad?

The notion that a federal presidential library would contain no papers, and not actually be federally operated, is astonishing. But to those like myself who have advocated for years—without much success—that it’s time to reform the broken presidential library system, it’s also an important positive development, and one that could be revolutionary.


Though I’ve been to several presidential museums, I don’t think I’ve ever been in the library portions of them. I wonder how this will play among scholars who actually need access to the records. Will it be more convenient or less convenient for them to be separated from the “flashy, partisan temples touting huckster history” (LOL)? We’ll see, I guess.

I do like the idea of including a branch of the Chicago Public Library. That won’t assuage all the other local concerns about the Obama Library, but it would go a long way to keep what can easily become an isolated, self-contained operation connected with the community that feeds it. All the better it will be for the former Reader in Chief.

Not sure if any of the other modern presidential libraries incorporate public libraries, but that would be a mutually beneficial new trend.

Books Education Libraries Life

Want to Read (∞): on becoming a good reader


I’ve officially become a Reader. Reading books is built into my life, to the point where if I haven’t read anything for a while (a while being a few days) I feel anxious.

It didn’t used to be this way. Regularly reading for fun outside of schoolwork wasn’t a concept I grokked until the end of college, which is also when I started keeping track of my reading. In my post-undergrad phase from 2010 to 2012 I read 16 to 18 books per year. In 2013, when I finished grad school, had a long reading-friendly train commute to a summer internship, and weathered a few months of unemployment, I shot up to 49 books. The number continued to rise once I started working in libraries in 2014: 66 that year, 53 in 2015, and my peak of 80 in 2016. I’ll be close to that again this year.

But I’ll be OK with not one-upping myself, because recently I realized I am trying to one-up myself. Totally separate from the psychic nourishment reading provides me is the equally powerful desire to collect more and more books on my Read shelf, almost for its own sake. Accumulating information and knowledge and units (books in this case) is a key part of my personality—Input, Context, and Learner are three of my top five StrengthsFinder characteristics—so this makes sense. But it can also become counterproductive if collecting-for-collecting’s-sake crowds out the deeper benefits of reading, which are many.

What good is reading a lot if I don’t remember a lot of what I read? I’m one of those nerds who takes notes of quotes and interesting factoids as I read, usually in nonfiction books. But there are several books I’ve read, even within the last year, that I remember very little of, if at all, except a general sense of whether I liked it or not. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who read 100+ books a year: do they have amazing memories? are they skimming a lot of them? do they do anything else?

I suppose it’s the nature of memory when you’re not a savant to filter out certain memories and solidify others. To say it was a waste of time reading those forgotten books wouldn’t be true because I enjoyed them in the moment, and perhaps they filtered down into my subconscious in a way I don’t understand.

But still, I’ve resolved to slow down a little bit, to not feel the need to rush through every book, and to allow time between books to let them settle and to let myself do other things with my time except read.

I know I’m gonna die one day and there’s just not enough time to read everything and that kinda pisses me off. But I’m willing to fail to hit whatever my ideal number of books is, as the benefits of such an arbitrary, artificial, and unsustainable quest will be far fewer than the benefits of quality reading.

Libraries Refer Madness

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.


  • “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?


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.


  • 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.


  • 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
  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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
Libraries Refer Madness Writing

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! 

Film Libraries

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 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.