The Day I Spoke to the White House

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A little background: when I was younger and my dad was a technologist, every so often he’d go to Washington DC to go talk to some people about technology stuff. He was always super cryptic about it and we’d joke that he was a CIA informant. To this day I don’t know what he was doing, advising someone about something. Which is just my roundabout way of starting this post about talking to the White House last week.

By “White House” in this case I mean Valerie Green, the Director of Presidential Personnel at the White House. I’m not 100% sure how I wound up talking to her and Amanda Moose, her special assistant, about the incoming Librarian of Congress but I think it went something like this…

I have, as you know, been agitating about the incoming Librarian of Congress, making sure librarians get their voices heard about this appointment. The job is a lifetime position and is often given to late-career historians. James Billington was such a person. While he did some good things for LoC in his tenure, he probably should have retired earlier and there have been legitimate criticisms of some of the things he did and did not do. I made the Librarian of Progress website and wrote an article about this for Medium. The #nextloc hashtag? That one is mine. Medium is one of those online writing platforms. They employ me to do some writing. Other people also write for them who are not employed there, for example Jason Goldman, the White House’s Chief Digital Officer.

Jason wrote an article talking about what he was doing there and I responded. We tweeted back and forth a few times. I sent him a copy of my article when I wrote it. He emailed in early July that I should chat with Valerie Green. I said “Sure, happy to continue the conversation” and then didn’t hear anything until I got an email this past Tuesday asking if I was free for a phone call with Valerie the next day at noon. Noon wasn’t super convenient but when the White House says “Free for a phone call?” the right answer is yes. I have this to say about the White House: of all the people who I have had phone meetings with in the last year or so, they were the most on time and the most prepared. The forty-five minutes I spent talking to Valerie and Amanda were a delight and not just because I felt like I was advancing my cause, both of them were pleasant and smart people who asked great questions and seemed to value my time and their own.

We talked for about 45 minutes about what the job of Librarian of Congress entailed, where Billington didn’t help, what a new person could really do to change things, and why it matters. I felt listened to and they laughed at my jokes. One of the most interesting questions they asked, besides “Has your opinion changed about what the job entails after talking to people about it for a month?” (it has) was about whether I thought people would be really hostile towards basically any appointee in today’s political climate or if there were people who might please everyone (not who were they but just did such people exist). I got to tell them how much I thought certain high profile possible choices were going to be lightning rods (in a mannerly and polite way) and how I was very concerned that media industry people would be trying to stack the deck in favor of their people. I also told them that some people–loud internet people–would probably hate whoever got picked but if they at least felt listened to it would matter a lot. That is, I think a lot of people would be disappointed if the incoming LoC was another older white man, but that could be mitigated somewhat if that person had a serious plan in place for working on LoC’s diversity issues that was front and center of their early communications.

I gave them a long list of people to talk to, primarily people at smaller libraries or representing underrepresented groups in librarianship. They seemed to appreciate that I’d thought about this a lot but also wasn’t a zealot about it. We had a nice and reasonable conversation and I felt upbeat about it afterwards particularly about my biggest fear which was that the job would go to some industry hack who was determined to wrest the Copyright Office from the clutches of the library. All in all, a very good discussion.

We remember: Army special services librarians

Army Hostess and Librarian Service patch

I recently supported a successful Kickstarter campaign by those wonderful folks at Unshelved. They are going to make a series of librarian ranger badges. Fun, right? I think a lot of us are also aware of the Librarian merit badge that you can achieve in scouting.

Here is a badge I did not know about: the Army Special Services librarian badge which refers to the Army Hostess and Librarian Service. Special Services used to be called the Morale Division. As near as I can tell, these jobs were a special subclass of jobs set up by President Truman under the Special Services division of the War Department during WWII at Army posts. During WWI there were similar Special Services programs which created leisure “day rooms” for soldiers that were mainly staffed with American Library Association volunteers. Official organized library services were established by the Army in 1921 and service clubs/hostess houses were authorized by Congress in 1923. Here is a PDF that talks about what services Special Services offered in 1949 noting that they had seventy-seven librarians operating 197 libraries, six bookmobiles and 19 “library depots”. The colors on these patches indicated the nine different branches of the Army showing that the librarians (and hostesses) worked for the entire Army. The uniforms they wore were supposed to be worn at all times and even at home “If more than two guests were present

Here is a photo of veteran Winona Franklin Walker (c. 1945) wearing this badge with her Special Services uniform. and here is an interview with her talking about what the work was like.

The war had just ended. Anyway, we were headed for Paris. So we spent a week in Paris being trained how to set up libraries, and we were told never to complain, that there was going to be scarcity of everything, and if the conditions weren’t to suit us, not to utter a word, that we were there to set up these libraries. And if we didn’t have materials, we’d have to scrounge around and find what we needed, and make do with what we could find. That was it. We had no fine materials or anything like that.

Apparently some early public service reference librarians were also given the title hostess but this appears to have faded away rather quickly. Nowadays in the Army we’re back to the word morale–as part of the general header “family and morale, welfare and recreation”–and the current recreational libraries of the army have this handy history page to fill in some of the gaps.

storytime: hunting a time capsule at NYPL and elsewhere

Thomas Lannon occasionally posts on NYPLs blog. He is the assistant curator of their manuscripts and archives department. He also figures into this Fast Company story about a time capsule created by a group called the Modern Historic Records Association. The time capsule was never found, not exactly, but this story, an early example of the LOCKSS (lots of copies keeps stuff safe) phenomenon does have a happy ending, thanks to some sleuthing and some librarians.

The origin story of Mousercise

It started simply enough. I gave a talk in Missouri and went out for pizza with library school students afterwards and one of them came up to me and said “Hey you mentioned Mousercise in your talk… I know the guy who made that!” He put me in touch and I got to email a bit with Chris Rippel who now works for the Central Kansas Library System and talk a little bit about Mousercise (originally called Mouserobics until Disney found out) , what I think is one of the best sites on the internet. He agreed to answer a few questions for me.

1. Did you make your original Mouserobics/Mousercise as a thing for work? Is it something you used at your job at the library?

When I taught my first basic computer class in Prairie View, Kansas, I lectured on how a computer worked and how to use a mouse. Eyes glazed over. Soon after I made Mousercise.

2. Do you still work at the library?

I still work for the Central Kansas Library System. CKLS has member libraries, not patrons. I was teaching classes in member libraries, not at CKLS.

3. Did you make any other similar tutorials?

Sort of. Here is one about keyboarding. And I played with Word, etc., but none are as successful as Mousercise.

4. What are your go-to sites for people who are looking to teach people computer basics?

I have no one place. Over the years I have made a number of Web sites with links to online tutorials. My first and biggest was a delicious page called Computer Training Tutorials, or something like that. Now I use blogger Web sites to provide links to more training after specific classes, but they don’t get used. Here is one example. I intended to do a Web page for each software, but I didn’t.

I recently gave one of our computer people, Maribeth Turner, my list of Blogger Web sites and she has incorporated the links into a Web site she is creating.

5. What do you think the biggest challenges are in this day and age for teaching technology skills to novice users?


Lecturing too much to novices. Novices understand little of what you say and, therefore, remember less. So, for me, the main lesson of mousercise is more work, less talk, and be there to show students how to correct their mistakes. Teaching people how to correct mistakes is as important, sometimes more important, than teaching how to do something correctly. So, in my classes, I generally hand out exercises and tell them to type this. When needed, I give them one- to three-minute explanations of what to do, then let them do it. When that part is done, we go to the next part, i.e., short explanations followed by lots of work.

Covering too much in each class. We often pack in so many topics that novice students can’t remember and learn them. Covering less and giving students time to absorb a few basic things works better for me. This has an additional advantage for teaching librarians. Having to cover less allows librarians who may not be experts to also teach classes. Librarians knowing how to type a letter in Word know enough to teach a novice class on it even when they don’t know all the ins and outs of this program. When people ask about something you don’t know how to do. Then you have a topic for the next class.

6. Anything else you’d like to add?

I was going by myself with a mobile computer lab out to teach patron classes in libraries. I had no teaching assistant. I am not a good multi-tasker. I can’t run the teaching computer and effectively watch and help students at the same time. So I have one of the students run the teaching computer. I tell the student what to do. This requires me to clearly explain each step and ensures that at least one student is understanding what is being said and can do it. In hundreds of classes, I have only swapped students twice. They were glad to switch.

I suppose most computer teachers would be uneasy having students with unknown skill levels running the teaching computer. So I am not recommending it. However, I would recommend letting the assistant run the teaching computer to free the more knowledgeable teacher to spend more time helping students.

By the way, I am now exploring the idea of building little Web sites around a Webinar by another speaker. Here is my first.