unfashionable libraries

kate spade ipone case

For $40 you can have a iphone case that looks like it was taken from a library that doesn’t believe in patron privacy. As much as I adore the idea that someone would be checking out a Shakespeare book nearly weekly (in 2013! It’s free on the internet) and personally love the iconography of these cards, it’s always amusing to see them in the wild appropriated as something fashionable. Kate Spade has a bunch of new library-themed items which must mean that at least somewhere, libraries are seen as something that are worth money. Fun fact, the signatures on the library card–the ones that make my librarian heart agitated–are names of Kate Spade employees. Hester Sunshine is a Kate Spade blogger. Erin Graves works in marketing, as does Noura Barnes and Sophia Smith and Wendy Chan. Julie Ly is in PR and Suzanne Schloot works in social media marketing. Other folks have signatures that are too obscure (smart move) or names that are too general to track down.

So hey, this is nice and a bunch of people have sent it to me. At the same time, it sort of fetishizes the library (and makes money for the creators) without really passing on any of that whuffie to the library itself (especially in New York with its sets of beleaguered library systems). I have similar feelings about the Little Free Libraries. I like them. They are a fun and neat idea for people to get other people interested in reading and the community-building power of books. I am all for both of those things. But because they are called libraries, people look to me and my library worker friends and say “Hey what do you think? Do you wish you’d thought of this?” and my response, which I try to keep from sounding crabby, is that I love these things but I’m not sure why they call them libraries instead of, you know, community bookshelves which is actually what they are.

Except I know why. Because the word library is evocative of a whole bunch of things, from now stretching deep into the past. It has gravitas and comes with a bunch of associations that you can sort of get for free by linking your thing to libraries. Except libraries aren’t free. And the work that goes into keeping them running (which is a lot more than keeping a bookshelf stocked) is complicated, sometimes thankless and under attack from people who think somehow that libraries are not fashionable enough, not hip or current enough, that our day has passed. So please feel free to quit sending me this iphone case, as much as I love it, and think about why New York loves this sort of thing and is trying to sell off their library real estate in New York City and gut the stacks.

on casual research and a 2012 wrap-up

Happy New Year! (LOC)

My year-end 2012 was pretty mellow. I’ve been doing the same technology instruction and teaching at the vocational high school and the occasional local library fill-in shift. I’ve gotten more active in VLA and in the new Rural Librarians Unite group. I had a very busy April-June speaking season which I enjoyed and didn’t do any solo talks after June. I’m upping my rates for 2013 which may seem counterintuitive. I’d like to continue to do public speaking but do fewer events (or more local events that I do for free or cheap) for the same general income. The end of the year was a quiet time to reflect on the value of the work that I do and the work that others do in getting the word out about library technology and technology culture. And there were many people having discussions about the value of libraries, and whether we (or the media) are even asking the right questions. I read these posts with interest.

A lot of questions at the end of 2012 and we’re working towards answers. I have a more hopeful feeling at this year end than I’ve had in a while. One of the things I’ve been doing a lot of these past few months is online research types of things. I was elected a local Justice of the Peace and started a “What is a Justice of the Peace” type of blog called For Great Justice and I posted daily from the time I got elected until January first. Turns out that this JP business isn’t that fascinating and so I had to dig deep into archives and/or special collections to find stuff that was notable and would interest me as well as modern-day Tumblr readers. And it was difficult, really difficult.

It sounds funny, but if there was ever a time that I was wishing for a Digital Public Library of America, these past few months have been it. Not so much because of all the other good reasons but because I would love some standardization of query languages, results formatting, rights statements and just general user experience when I am trying to find something in an online archive. I am aware that asking people to just do things differently does not work and is a crazy thing to request. I am not asking for that. But I am aware, more than usual, that leadership is needed if we want to make the United States’ cultural content accessible in some sort of aggregated fashion.

I am also aware that these archives have evolved organically and most of the time the people involved made mindful decisions about how they wanted things to work. Other times it’s clear that the archives had purchased off-the-shelf archiving software and made the barest of adjustments. People and libraries don’t have a lot of money or time and I get that. At the same time, trying to do a basic set of things

– search for the bound phrase “justice of the peace” (the individual words return too many non-relevant results)
– return results in a way that allow me to sort by relevance or other options
– at a speed where I could browse results and easily check out 10-15 results in 10-15 minutes (or more quickly, optimally)
– in a way that let me know the format of the items in my search results (jpg, pdf, text) and optimally limit by those formats
– in a way that I could know if the item I had searched for was available to be viewed or not
– with sufficient help files that if these things were possible, I could determine it on my own

These things were things I could almost never do. I wound up doing more searching in places like Google Books and Flickr Commons than in library archives even though the library archives often had more relevant content simply because I had limited time and a limited frustration level and I had to make some choice. I am a power searcher. If this is what I am doing, knowing it’s sub-optimal, what are our less power-searcher users doing?

So I’m back to wood shedding, reading and learning more about the digital divide and about how people learn technology and bringing forward my experiences with searching and not-finding to see if I can make something out of the experience that is helpful to other people. I wish everyone peace and joy in this bright new year.

2012 in libraries

I tracked the libraries that I visited this year. I have also done this in 2011, 2010 and 2009.

I went to thirty-five different libraries in eleven states for fifty-four visits total. I’m sure I have forgotten some. Here’s the short annotated list of what I was doing in libraries last year. Foursquare really helped me keep this list up to date. Top three libraries are the same as last year.

  • Kimball Library, Randolph VT – this is the library where I work as an on-call part timer since I live up the street, and also where I check out books
  • Hartness Library, VTC, Randolph VT – this is the good college library nearby me where anyone in the state can get a library card. I’ve got renewed interest in it since I started watching TV series on my ipad when at the gym.
  • Westport, MA – the library in the town where my father lived and where I still spend a good amount of time. Great booksale.
  • Lawrenceburg, IN – was here for a conference, stopped at the library twice, lovely place
  • Kilton Library, Lebanon NH – saying hi to Virgil again
  • Cranston, RI – hung out with Ed Garcia and got to see his cool library
  • Keene State, Keene NH – got a tour from the library director after a talk there
  • Carthage, MO – stopped by on my way cross-country
  • Nashville TN – stopped in en route to the TN Library association conference, really nice place, amazing renovations
  • Knoxville Public, TN – a library in need of some serious renovations, stark contrast to Nashville
  • NYPL/SIBL, NY – always a favorite, sorry it’s going away
  • Worcester PL, MA – checked the place out after a conference, a really well designed place
  • Ellis (Mizzou), Columbia MO – one of those wacky places with an old and a new part that don’t quite line up. Enjoyed my tour.
  • S. Boone County, Columbia MO – a nice newish library
  • Cranston, Hall Branch, RI – a fancier cousin to the main Cranston library, neat basement
  • AVA South Studio Library, NH – attached to an art gallery, a nice selection of books
  • East Providence, RI – waited here before meeting someone at a nearby comedy club when it was raining, nice staff
  • Hudson, MA – an old funky building, terrific hang out spot
  • Midstate, Berlin VT – we had an unconference here which was a great time
  • Watertown, MA – a neat new and old library with huge collection and a lot of neat places to hang out
  • Chelmsford, MA – saying hi to Brian
  • Mendik/NYLS, NY – chilling out after a busy conference, a neat basement library
  • Cambridge, MA – hanging out waiting for Jim to get out from his colonoscopy, thumbs up!
  • Pasadena, CA – an odd old building only sort of repurposed for modern uses
  • Hartland VT – my friend Mary doesn’t work here anymore!
  • Keene Public, NH – scooted by here on my way out of town
  • Fall River, MA – lovely old building
  • Chelsea, VT – saying hi to my friend Virgil
  • Howe/Hanover NH – stopping by en route to meeting some friends in from out of town, playable piano out front
  • St Louis – Machacek – this library did not have wifi, I was stunned
  • Berlin MA – such a cute small and awesome library
  • Blount County/Maryville TN – a neat middle-of noplace branch, super well designed and hoppin’
  • Rochester, VT – doing a lot with not very much
  • CUNY, NY – in an old department store building, fun tour
  • Charlotte, NC – an amazing bustling city library with some weird old empty parts to it

How not to write about libraries – some guidelines for reporters


We get it. Times are tough. The public sphere is shrinking in the US and elsewhere. Libraries are around and open, doing stuff. Their funding cycle is cyclical and short and up to the whims of various people, sometimes mysterious. The public library system belongs to everyone. There is a lot to talk about; a lot of things happen there. Many people have strong opinions about how public spaces are used and public money is spent and about the library in specific. You have a 24 hour news cycle, with pages or screens to fill. That’s terrific. We’re often happy for the attention.

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At the same time, there are a few tropes that do none of us any favors. You look like people who haven’t done your research or who go for the easy cliche and we look like people who can’t take a well-meaning joke (which we’ve heard for the thousandth time). Let’s get to a place where we’re all feeling good about the whole endeavor. Here are some suggestions. Hope this list, patterned off of How Not To Write Comics Criticism, is helpful. It’s called

How Not To Write About Libraries

1. Your library joke is tired, even if it’s new to you

It is almost impossible for you to make a library play on words that has not been done a million times before, even something that sounds contemporary like riffing off of “adult graphic novels”. You’re probably annoyed that you got the job writing about the library funding crisis but don’t take it out on us. Notify the headline writer also, please. We know you’re doing your best but we should never see “turns the page” or “starts a new chapter” when a new building is built or a librarian gets a new job, retires, or dies, or any sort of bun/shush/dewey/cat pun again ever. That “Overdue book returned years late” story? Heard it. Thank you.

2. Quit it with the wardrobe policing

You try working nights and weekends in a landmark building with a heating and cooling system that dates back to Carnegie times. Dressing in wool and layers is practical and smart, as is keeping your hair out of your face when you might have to crawl under a desk to fuss with a computer. Sixty-four percent of Americans wear eyeglasses, that number jumps to 90% after age 49. We’re not absurdly myopic from all that reading, we’re normal. Saying “OMG they can be sexy too!” is not actually a good response to this; as professions go we’ve always been pretty anti-censorship and sex positive.

3. We’re not all women, not even close

In 2008 the gender split among new grads was 80% female, 20% male. Last year it was more like 78% to 22% and the female/male gap is shrinking. We come from many ethnic backgrounds and we speak many languages. We date and marry people of many genders. A good number of us are just out of library school and share the characteristics of other people in our cohort: tattoos, body jewelry, a penchant for cocktails. Many of us are not just out of library school and enjoy the same things. Nothing unusual. Diversity of all kinds is important in any sort of public service position when you work for the entire public; please try to respect and represent the diversity of our population as it exists in the actual world not as it existed in the movies thirty or even fifty years ago.

4. Many different people work in a library building

This frequently comes up when there is a crime or another scandal at a library and someone gets interviewed who is invariably called “a librarian” and is later revealed to be a page, a volunteer, or maybe just an interested and chatty patron. Librarians (usually) work in libraries, but not everyone who works in a library is a librarian. There are many schools of thought on the importance of these distinctions and while we don’t expect you understand the subtle nuances of the differences between a reference librarian and a cataloger, or a circulation clerk and a shelver, it’s simply important to know that there are many different jobs within the library and not all of them are “librarian” and if you are not sure what the job title is of the person you spoke with, you should ask them. Many professional librarians, though not all, have Master’s degrees from accredited institutions. People call this level of graduate education “library school” and graduates have degrees ranging from MLib. (mine) to MSIS to MLS to MLIS.

5. There are some amazing things hidden in special collections

…and your chances of getting to see them diminish if you continually represent library archives as dusty, musty, smelly, unkempt, or populated entirely with hobbits and wizard-beings, strange and unknowable creatures unschooled in human customs. Introduce yourself and spend some time there and you’re likely to see some amazing things and learn some nifty things about your location, your neighbors or your academic institution.

6. No one with any credibility thinks “It’s all on the internet” and there are reasons why it isn’t

This is an untrue straw man argument, so you don’t have to keep bringing it up. There is a strong case to be made that the push for increasing digitization will be a net good for a society that is increasingly looking to satisfy their information needs online. However we are far from that point now, the digital divide is real and formidable. The vendor-based silos of information which are inaccessible without a payment or a password vex us as much as, if not more than, they vex you. We are trying to help people access the information they want and need. We’re sorry that the shift to digital content is causing trouble for some businesses’ bottom line, but we’ve always been publishers’ best customers and that will change only if they force it to. We would prefer that digital rights management were less onerous too. We would be happy to talk with you at length about why it’s easier to buy something from Amazon.com for personal use than it is to borrow it from the library on your Kindle. Blame copyright and capitalism, not the library.

7. The money thing is complicated, take some time to understand it

Libraries are funded differently from state to state and sometimes from county to county. Reporting on a funding “crisis” when it’s just a possible budget adjustment does us all a disservice with the “sky is falling” approach. Giving people real information about what is happening with and to the budget, and why, would be a great service. More information less doomsaying please. And, as always, if you need the numbers we’ll be happy to give them to you. They’re public. Public libraries have regular meetings of the library board that are open to the public and worth attending if this sort of thing piques your interest.

8. Not all libraries are public libraries

I work in a public library and so I fall into this trap myself. The public library system in the US is a sort of amazing decentralized mutual aid sort of creation, but it’s not the only library system in the US. School libraries and academic (college and university) libraries and law libraries and medical/hospital libraries and other special libraries all have their own systems and procedures and governing bylaws and mission statements and professional associations. Make sure that you are not reporting on one and ascribing it the values and traditions of another entirely different type of library.

9. The entire public is welcome in the public library

…including types of people you may dislike or find distasteful. And possibly including people who find you distasteful. With few exceptions people who are spending entire days or weeks in the library or who are looking at things on their computer screen that people might feel they should be viewing in private are doing so because they lack better or more genuine options. This is a larger societal problem and we are trying to help, making the best of a difficult situation within the structure of our mission statement and policies and procedures. The situation is complicated and deserves a better treatment than the usual “Porn in the library!” headline-grabbers.

10. Libraries are full of joyful noise

Not always, but often enough to say goodbye to the tut-tutting and the shushing and the QUIET PLEASE canards. While we try to have spaces that can accommodate quiet reading as well as rambunctious storytimes and group projects, libraries’ approaches to this are as varied as our buildings. Libraries are more popular than ever by most measures of library popularity and are still tremendously well-loved cultural institutions that are available to and for every single person. The reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated, especially on the internet.

However it is true that most of us like cats and mostly do not hate Wikipedia.

Here are some more pointers to places to get good, factual information about libraries in the US.

ALA’s Library Bill of Rights
ALA Library LibGuides
ALA’s research and statistics section including the Library ROI bibliography
IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) reports
ALA’s State of American Libraries report
Library Journal’s Placement and Salaries Survey

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All images come from the Library of Congress’s Prints & Photographs Online Catalog and have no known restrictions on publication. Article specifically inspired by this tweet. Thanks to Andy Woodworth for reading the draft. Made a few small edits in response to recent feedback.

Making it Happen – Iowa City Public Library licenses local music for patrons

File this one under “why I still read press releases even though 95% of them are junk” Got a nice email from John Hiett of Iowa City Public Library letting me know about their local music project which is launching today. Hiett explains: “We’re offering local cardholders free, DRM-less downloads of records by local musicians. We’ve leased the rights for a two year period at $100 per record. We launch this beast June 8 at music.icpl.org. We have over 30 albums locked down, but the list is growing and we expect to top out at around 50. This includes most of the best known Iowa City bands over the last couple decades.”

I thought this was a pretty cool sounding project and one that I’m surprised more libraries haven’t already been doing for years. I emailed John back to ask him a few questions about it.

1. You say in your FAQ that you think this is a replicable model for other libraries. What would you suggest for other libraries who want to try something like this?

You’d need a budget, some web expertise and some authentication software to keep it local, none of which should be too much of a barrier. Feel free to adopt our contract, available at http://music.icpl.org/music_licensing_agreement.pdf

Just get bands signed up, collect W-9 forms for tax purposes, rip the disc, scan the cover, post, and let people know.

2. What was the most challenging part of this project?

Apparently, nobody starts a band to fill out paperwork. While musicians almost unanimously responded enthusiastically to our initial pitch, getting them to actually sign the contract often took quite a bit of follow-up. I tried not to beg, but in a few cases . . .

Having a good team makes a big difference. When I took this idea to our director, Susan Craig, I asked for enough money to lease 20 albums at $50 each. She said to get 50 and offer $100. Our webmaster James Clark’s work recalls that old Arthur C. Clarke quote, ” Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Mara Cole’s artwork moves me in ways that commercial art shouldn’t. Other people have coordinated publicity, kept track of the financial details, and done original cataloging.

The challenging part may be yet to come. If we don’t generate some threshold of downloads, it’s only been a fun experiment. Also, I’m already hearing from musicians who want to be included, tho the money’s gone for now. Letting them down gently might be hard.

3. What inspired you to decide to do the legwork on a project like this instead of going with one of the off-the-shelf music options?

I was watching Dave Zollo play late one night (definitely a Talent Deserving Wider Recognition) and wondered why we sent all our music money out of town, when he was as good as anyone we bought (and he uses our library). I may have had a few at that point, but emailed myself. The more I thought about it, the more I saw how it could work. Plus, it gave me a chance to meet some cool people.