The Libraries of DC and Baltimore

This is just a wrap-up of the libraries that I went to when I was in the DC/Baltimore area.

  • DC Public – which I already wrote about some. Highlights were free wireless and a really interesting looking building downtown. Downsides were most everything else.
  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum Library – where my friend Ron works as a systems/reference librarian. They got new compact shelving that he got to show off and are in the middle of some pretty big deals to expand their digital collection. Very exciting. This library is a hidden treasure in the downtown DC area, if you’re at all interested in the subject area, drop in for a visit.
  • Peabody Library – I can safely say that short of the Library of Congress, I have never seen a library this fancy, but maybe I don’t get out much. Right in Baltimore, sort of unassuming from the outside, it’s completely knockout inside.
  • Enoch Pratt Free Library – right up the road from the Peabody, this library has a totally different vibe. Welcoming and bustling with the most fun pamphlet file ever, I had a wonderful time here and took a lot of pictures.
  • Waverly Branch, EPFL – my friend’s local library, just stopped in to take a peek.
  • The People’s Library – did not go in. My friend who lives up the road says he has never gone in either.

DC Public

I’ll put up some pictures later but I’m using the wifi in DC Public before heading out to hang out with my pal Chris from Libraryola. Yesterday I went to a tasty and fun lunch with Dorothea and then had a great chat with Ron (who I met on MetaFilter) who works at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Library. After the conference I also got to hang out with my friend Tom Hyry who was on the SAA Program Committee who is the reason I was in DC in the first place. I’ve got a list of libraries I’d like to hit in Baltimore and then I have to find a place to stock up on books for the trip home.

I have this to say about DC Public: it’s all true. I had been reading about the sorry state of the library system here for a while but I don’t think I’d ever been to the big downtown branch. It’s hot here, and dirty here. One bank of elevators isn’t working and I have yet to see a staff person who isn’t reading a book or idly surfing the web. There are a lot of people here, though they tend towards the middle-aged men demographic. There are no families, no older people that I’ve seen, and no people my age. This place is the place that time forgot. I had to go through a metal detector and empty my pockets before I could even come inside. I like being able to use the wifi but I only discovered it because I opened up my laptop, not because it’s advertised or publicized in any way. I’m the only person here using a laptop, I think in the entire library but I won’t be using it much longer because there is barely any air conditioning and the sweat is affecting my typing accuracy. The lobby smells like diapers and disinfectant. Everyone I have talked to that lives in DC doesn’t use the library, they either buy books or find a way to use the suburban libraries or ones at the local schools. This is a big problem, and it’s still unclear what is being done to straighten it out.

San Francisco Libraries, public and non

I’m heading home from San Francisco tomorrow. Here is a short list of the libraries I saw while I was here. Since this was a vacation in the true sense of the word, I was a little more lax in my library visiting than usual, but I did see some beauts. You may have read about my visit to the San Franscico Public library’s downtown branch which is a lovely building with some great art, but regrettably FULL of books. Full like there’s no more room. This isn’t news, but it’s sad nonetheless. Here are the other libraries I went to:

  • The Western Addition Branch. When I hear that name out loud I always think Western Edition but that’s just me being weird. This is a tiny branch in a busy neighborhood with people from a lot of different backgrounds. The library is full of books in Russian and Japanese and other languages that I can’t read at all. For a tiny space, they manage to do a lot with it, there’s a large chidlren’s area, a YA section, a place for adult new readers and a few, very few, public access computers. I sat and read here for an hour while I was waiting for a friend and it was a nice calm place in the middle of a busy city. My photos of the Western Addition Branch are here.
  • The Helen Crocker Russell Horticultural Library, which is part of the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Another incredible oasis. My friend Jane works there and took me on a tour of the grounds and I noodled around in the stacks some. The head librarian there (who just won an award) indexes the articles in a lot of the teeny periodicals they receive, making their catalog a very rich resource. My photos of the Helen Crocker Russell Horticultural Library are here but more interesting are my photos of the San Francisco Botanical Garden including a nesting hbummingbird and some random quail walking around.
  • I had a rendezvous with friends at the Prelinger Library but didn’t do as much of a tour as I did last time. I’m still in awe of the sheer interestingness of their project as well as the general grace and charm of the Prelingers in person. Every librarian should make this collection a “must see” if you’re in the Bay Area. In the meantime, you can always read the Prelinger Library blog.

SFPL and the idea of network

I wasn’t sure what to do yesterday afternoon in San Francisco, so I went to the library. The downtown San Francisco Public Library has a number of interesting exhibits

  • Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing the American Photo Album – Featuring Personal Albums Documenting the 1906 Earthquake and Fire
  • The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966: 40th Anniversary Commemorative Exhibit
  • Kalligraphia 2006: An Exhibition by Members of the Friends of Calligraphy

You can see a few of my pictures on Flickr with the SFPL tag. While I was there, I ran into a few people I sort of knew and made some plans and hung around.

Today I went to brunch with a few of my favorite librarian pals and then I went for a long walk. I left my camera and laptop at home. Since I don’t have a cell phone, this meant I was totally untethered to any of the devices I often have around me to connect me to my larger network. Sure, I had a list of phone numbers in my pocket and I’ve long since memorized my calling card number, but in general I was on my own. In Vermont I’m on my own a lot, but I’m often tethered. I have a camera, laptop, Internet, loaner computer, whatever. When I’m on the network I chat with friends, answer reference-type questions, respond to work emails, consolidate and aggregate and clean data, take notes, look at pictures, share pictures, contribute to Wikipedia, write presentations, coordinate projects, make plans.

I’m also often with Greg, and when we’re together, we co-experience many things in that “Look at this neat rock I found” sort of way. I realized today as I was walking alone with no particular destination on a lovely sunny day in a beautiful city that even while I was on vacation from the many things that I do when I’m connected, there was a sense in which I missed being in the network because I feel so darned useful when I’m there. Not that I’m not useful to the person on the street corner trying to figure out where Trader Joe’s is, or that I’m not useful to ME by getting sun and exercise. However, there is a sense of being part of something larger, of flow that I get when I’m connecting with people and information that I just started to realize I get now when I’m online as well as when I’m interacting with people in real life. Social software is, as many have said “software that gets you laid” — or, put more broadly “making it easy for people to do other things that make them happy: meeting, communicating, and hooking up.” In the same way I noticed when I started communicating more with friends who had email than those who didn’t, I now notice that I’m making more last-minute plans based on blogs and IM and chance meetings with plugged-in people who say “Yes let’s hang out” than the “Well I’ll see if I’m free next Thursday, let me call you back” crowd. I’m not saying this is admirable, I’m just observing that this is true.

This has to do with libraries for a few disparate reasons

  1. if the Pew Digital Divisions Report is to be believed, having broadband access is now a stronger predictor of online behavior than level of experience. Meaning, loosely translated, that people who have faster network connections do more online than people who have more (but slower) experience online. Libraries provide that access, librarians (can, could) provide guidance and know-how for those people who are diving into fast network all at once.
  2. When I was at the library yesterday, a librarian I’d met briefly while giving a talk months before invited me to his house for dinner, on the spot. I hung around after work, got a backroom tour of SFPL, went over to his house, met some nice people, ate some great food. Without network, befriending friends-of-friends and some degree of trust of strangers, I would have missed out on a great time. It’s not quite “getting laid” sure, but I’m 37 and fairly settled down. Think of what 20 year olds can do with this kind of power.
  3. On the way in to San Francisco, from the airport, I told the cab driver that I taught email to older people. He said he was having trouble with his email and I suggested going to the free classes that SFPL gives. He didn’t know they had them and said he’d stop in, that sounded like a great idea to him. Before I got out of the cab, he gave me his band’s MySpace URL.

Houston, wrap up

I went to several libraries when I was in Houston. Continuing with the visit06 list, here are the libraries I visited:

  • Houston Public Library, Central Branch, closed for two years as of two weeks before TLA. Damn.
  • Houston Public Library, Downtown Express branch, oddly enough in the old library building which is lovely but looks a little sparse and triage-y for a library that is going to be the main downtown branch for two years.
  • Holocaust Museum Library, quiet and clean with a lot of things to look at.
  • MFAH Hirsch Library where I met a really nice woman, a UNT student, who took me on a quickie tour of the stacks and told me all about working in a special art library.

I have nothing but high praise for the smoothly-running machine that is TLA. It’s the second largest library conference in the country — second only to ALA — and I might argue it runs even better. All of my arrangements were made, checked and double-checked well ahead of time. I hear the “speaker handlers” have a thick manual filled with checklists and procedures. There were friendly tech guys in every room making sure the IT/AV was functional. When I had a last minute schedule change and needed to stay an extra day at the hotel, it was handled literally within minutes. Minutes!

Speakers got adorable goodie bags, rides from the airport, and general good treatment. The only way I could even think to improve the experience would be 1) maybe a few fewer emails (we swapped maybe 40-50 in the months before the event) and 2) maybe some smaller gifts for speakers who are travelling distances. I hate to be ungrateful, and the purple coffee mugs really are actually attractive and functional, but they put me over my carry-on limit causing me to have to engage in a bit of subterfuge to bring them on the airplane. You know how we librarians hate subterfuge. My mother would always offer to mail me my Christmas presents, when I came home to Massachusetts from Seattle for the holidays; this was always a great part of the gift. Also big thanks to Karen Coombs and her husband Michael for coming to fetch me and putting me up in their lovely house for my last night in town. I’m always torn when I travel for work between staying at friends’ houses and staying walking distance from the Convention Center and usually wind up splitting time in some awkward way. This time it worked out well and mazel tov to Wandering Eyre on her wedding that happened that same weekend.

Now I’m on the plane and notice there is a network available called Free Public WiFi. What are the chances, do you think? This is a total tangent, but one of the skills that I think is important to being a good librarian in a technologically complex world, is being able to play the probabilities off of the possibilities and say, in this case “What are the chances that there is free public wifi on this plane?” When a patron needs to know if something in their email from CitiBank is legit, or whether downloading a shareware application will give them “a virus” we need to not just say “Well, maybe….” Sometimes the right answer isn’t a yes or a no or an encyclopedia article, but an explanation of a context, an introduction to a culture, a range of likelihoods. This goes against the typical librarian here’s-your-resource grain, but as we go from a post-industrial culture towards a pure information culture, just saying “No that email isn’t really from an eBay user.” doesn’t really solve the problem. We should be solving the problem.

OPACs old and new, Ms. Jessamyn goes to Washington

I’m at the Calef Library in Washington today doing some computer maintenance and just all around tech chit-chat with the librarian. She’s involved in a discussion with the board of trustees about whether she can get health insurance this year and it’s not going particularly well. Her husband is a farmer, he doesn’t have health insurance either. It’s ineresting how many librarians in my region have farmer husbands. The library here is open 19 hours a week and she works ten of them, the other nine are staffed by a volunteer. You’ve probably seen the pictures of this library on Flickr, it’s a really lovely space. The librarian is a real can-do gal. She’s working with a nice space, a teeny budget, and a moderately supportive board. Her and I talk about technology and the things I explain to her stick with her.

We were talking about wireless today — the library has broadband on two computers via cable modem, the librarian shares her computer with the public when it’s busy — and she said “You just buy some hardware and set it up and you’re done?” I said yes, mostly. Next thing you know, we bought a wireless router with a wireless PCMCIA card for under $30, delivered. Next week when it arrives I’ll show her how to set it up, help her make some configuration handouts for her patrons, and we’re done. It will be the first wireless hotspot in Washington Vermont and probably the only one within 10-15 miles. When we were through talking about wireless, the Town Clerk called, she was having trouble with her email and couldn’t get the librarian’s report from her email in order to put in the town report. I walked over there and showed her how to enter her username and password into her dial-up configuration, and also how to use Word’s “recover text from any document” feature to get the librarian’s Word Perfect report into the clerk’s Word document. I got back to the library and tol the librarian she didn’t have to retype the report and this made her pretty happy.

I’ve been talking to the librarian here about getting her catalog online. ILS software is sort of expensive, though she could probably get the funding. For a library that for all intents and purposes is going to stay small, major feature-rich ILSes are not as important as things such as an easy interface and a simple and cheap data input mechanism. I’d been talking to Timothy over at LibraryThing about whether he’d consider rolling out a version of his super software for teeny libraries. His encouraging answer was “not yet” but we’ve been talking about it.

This brings me to my next topic, sparked by Jenny Levine’s TechSource post about Library 2.0 in the Real World and my new pal Casey who maybe you’ve heard of. Casey Bisson built an OPAC prototype that runs on WordPress. No, seriously, look. It will run with any vendor’s ILS. He talked about it at ALA well before I got there, and people were buzzing about it all week. Not only is it a clever hack, it’s clean, simple, unbranded and highly functional in ways that seem pretty obvious to bloghappy me. I’d love to see a prototype running publicly so that he could get some feedback from folks who maybe don’t come from the born-with-the-chip generation.

In my neck of the woods, small ILS vendors are charging $1500 for this level of functionality, the ability to put an OPAC on the web. Non-tech savvy librarians who don’t have the ability to code these features themselves find ways to pay it. And, bringing this post full-circle, then they find other ways to get health insurance for the year. I think you know the moral of this story. I’m happy to have some good news to report from here in the hinterlands.

San Antonio Public Library

I took some pictures of the San Antonio Public Library yesterday and had an odd story to relate after going to the basement to check out the booksale.

Vermont Libraries I have known, the visiting continues

I am linking alll the libraries I visit this year under the visit06 tag. Here are two more.

The Hartness Library System at Vermont technical College – I am a frequent user of this library. It has the best collection of any of the libraries for the stuff I like to read — wonky non-fiction mostly — and it’s right by the pool where I swim. There have been few times that I’ve had to do something at the circulation desk where I wasn’t greeted by the puzzled face of a desk worker trying unsuccessfully to do something. I’m not sure what OPAC they use, but it seems to be complicated. They have no overdue fees which means when I’m not at the pool I sometimes keep books late. The last time I brought a book back quite late, I asked if I could renew it even though it was over a month overdue. The librarian — who had been called out to help with the OPAC because the nice lady at the desk couldn’t figure out how to check the book back in and then check it out again — asked me, while holding the book, “Well, how long do you think you’ll need it?” A legit question I guess, but I was really just asking about the renewal policy, I’m sure they had a policy. However, since it’s a small-town library, social concerns like how long I needed the book came into play. This is the good news and the bad news. I said I didn’t know, it was just a pleasure book anyhow, and decided just to put the book back on the shelf and come back for it another day. When I came back the next day, I checked the tag in the back – no one had checked the book out in six years besides me.

Tunbridge Public Library – I help this library out with computer things as part of my job. They have no web site. When I asked if they’d like me to make them a web site they said no, not really. They use dial-up and have a network so that four computers in the library can share it. There is no broadband service available in their town except for satellite which is prohibitively expensive. I sat around and we talked about teaching some basic email, digital pictures, and shopping online classes in the Spring. The librarian wanted some help with her email, she’d been getting email from Amazon about her account and it was confusing her. We looked at the email — a phishing scam which was what I suspected — and I showed her how to look at the web address in an email, and then mouseover it to see if it matched the web address in the browser status bar. I then showed her how to read a web address backwards, to start with the top-level domain to see where an email is really from, like checking caller ID to see what state someone is calling from. This was met with appreciative and happy exclamations and I got to drive home feeling like I’d really helped someone, just by telling them what i know about computers.

a final list of the libraries I’ve been to this week

We’ve been stopping by any library that seemed open as we’ve been on our civil rights tour of Central Alabama. Here is a final list of where I’ve been. I’ll update this to call it a complete list once my trip is over.

Pelham Public Library, Pelham, AL
Hoover Public Library, Hoover AL
Richard M. Scrushy Library, Vestavia Hills AL
Birmingham Public Library Central Branch , Birmingham AL
Southside Branch Library, Birmingham, AL
Mervyn H. Sterne Library, UAB, Birmingham AL
Lister Hill library of the Health Sciences, UAB, Birmingham AL
Reynolds Historical Library, UAB, Birmingham AL
Rufus A. Lewis Regional Library, Montgomery AL
Selma Dallas County Library, Selma, AL
Tuscaloosa Public Library, Tuscaloosa, AL
Gorgas Library, UAT, Tuscaloosa, AL
Hoole Special Collections Library, UAT, Tuscaloosa, AL
Rodgers Library for Science and Engineering, UAT, Tuscaloosa, AL
Bounds Law Library, UAT, Tuscaloosa, AL