what you learn in library school, what’s in a name

library of congress advanced search boxes

I use my library school education in odd ways. I barely knew library school was a thing before I went to library school. So I’m not entirely surprised when other people don’t know that many, if not most, librarians have some sort of professional-level education. Library education is a curious mix of what I think of as trade-school work–learning to do repetitive tasks efficiently and within the scope of an existing protocol–and professional work–thinking about big picture ideas like intellectual freedom and how to determine what a book is really “about.” In the work I do nowadays, I am more likely to use my decades of experience than I am to use things I specifically learned in school, but there are a few exceptions. Doing research to write Wikipedia articles uses a lot of my library school learning.

Doesn’t need to be Wikipedia, certainly, but I’m often writing articles there about people who aren’t super-famous, or were well-known maybe a long time ago. They’re often women, married women. Which means, especially for historical women, they’d have a married name and a maiden name. A decent chunk of the women I write about have been married more than once. So they might have multiple versions of their names. And, of course, historically the woman might just be known as Mrs. MANSNAME, even for her professional work.

Google’s gotten us all pretty comfortable with just tossing a hash of basically-accurate letters into a search box and having it come back with more or less what you’re looking for. Using other, generally worse, search engines can often require doing things like “bound phrase” searching (see what I did there?) where the only way you’re going to come back with anything remotely accurate is to say that you’re looking for a bunch of specific words in a specific order. In library school, I took a class that taught you how to search in databases. This was back when you would pay BY THE QUERY to look things up, and it wasn’t cheap. Being able to write good queries was a money-saving skill, not just a time-saving one. So we’d do fun exercises where we were given a set of records to try to find, and then we’d write and run queries to see how we’d do in terms of recall (did we get all the stuff that matched) and relevance (did we get a bunch of extra junk too). One of the assignments involved looking for information on an indigenous language that was transliterated as Athabaskan or Athapaskan or Athapascan or Athabascan. So you’d need to make sure your query used Atha?as?an, and you’d need to know how to do that within the query language of the given database.

So nowadays, when I am searching Loc.gov, or Newspapers.com, or within various random databases or websites, I need to figure out how they deal with queries, peeking at the advanced search if there even is one, to determine how many different ways I need to search for someone’s name. Within a library catalog, searching for an author, there would be authority control so you’d mostly need to just know what version of the person’s name the catalog uses and then you’d know that all their books would be under that one name. Not so with other databases.

As an example, I wrote an article about Mary C. Alexander, an early female pilot who lived in the DC area. She was married twice. Here are many of the different ways her name might be found:

M. White
Mary White
Mary C. White
Mary Charlotte White
M. Alexander
Mrs. Alexander
Miss. Alexander
Mary Alexander
Mary C. Alexander
Mary Charlotte Alexander
Mrs. John Ira Alexander
M. Held
Mary Held
Mary C. Held
Mary C. A. Held
Mary Alexander Held
Mary C. Alexander Held
Mrs. Mary Held
Mrs. Mary Alexander Held
Mrs. Emil Charles Held
Mrs. Mary Charlotte Alexander Held

Looking for information about her, distributed among many different places with their own quirky search mechanisms, most of which aren’t surfaced in Google, has been a fun chance to flex the query-building muscles that I don’t get to use that often nowadays in my regular library work.

Ask A Librarian: Prison furniture?

image of a sturdy library tabl that was built by iowa prison industries.

We have discussed whether it is ok to contract with [prisons] — is it possible that it means people who are incarcerated are learning actual useful skills that they can use to get decently paid work when they get out? Or are we kidding ourselves? Do you have any idea? I’m wondering how I might find out if it actually translates like that. I guess I could try and get in touch with someone at the Department of Corrections. What do you think?

The prison furniture thing is really a pickle. I see it as “of a kind” with discussions about library pay rates. Some libraries are just so small that they can’t pay reasonable wages and if it’s between that and being closed more hours, I think it’s important to make the decision that is best for the community. At the same time, the prison labor situation is… a problem and it’s worth trying to not contribute, but I am also cognizant of the fact that yes, building nice furniture is actually a job skill and a real one, as opposed to, say, making license plates.

So I often think, for myself since I am not in a decision-making capacity, how could I still serve my community but also make the world more just? So thinking about ways in which the library could try to balance the situation either by doing something like making a donation to people who are trying to address inequality or incarceration issues (I realize this is not necessarily simple for a library) or maybe finding a way to Zoom with some of the people who made the library’s furniture, either currently incarcerated people or people who have gotten released to let people know how the situation really works. Alternately, working with restorative justice organizations within communities to try to keep people out of prison, or getting a subscription to Prison Legal News for the library. Or working with the prison that makes the furniture to see what their prison library (if any) is like and how you could help. I know Johnny Flood at Vermont Humanities has been doing some of this work.


Obviously it’s a difficult choice, but I’m not sure it’s entirely practical for libraries to entirely eschew prison labor. But they can assure if they do engage with the prison industrial complex I think there are ways to do it mindfully and acknowledging that any time you engage with the capitalistic system–as we have to!–there are ways to mitigate damage, a little.

How To: Adding fair use images to people’s Wikipedia pages

collage of photographs of 41 librarians of color ranging from old black and white ones to much newer color photographs.
I’ve always got some nerdy Wikipedia project going. I think improving Wikipedia’s coverage of marginalized voices is worthwhile work, even as I understand and agree with many of the criticisms of the place. My most recent project was to look at the list of African American librarians (108 in total) and try to add as many photographs as I could (41, many articles already had images) to articles that didn’t have one. This is tricky work, because you can usually only add images that have free licenses–either public domain, or certain Creative Commons licenses. These can be hard to find.

However, there is a very useful loophole which is that if you are adding an image to Wikipedia–and not Wikimedia Commons where most image uploads happen–you can take a copyrighted image, shrink it to a small, low-resolution size, and use it to illustrate a page of someone who is deceased. Here’s a page that explains it but it’s a lot of reading. There are similar fair use exemptions for logos, cover art, and a few other categories; this is just about images of people. Here’s a short explainer. Continue reading “How To: Adding fair use images to people’s Wikipedia pages”

Vermont Libraries in the Time of COVID

Cover slide for this talk which says "Public librariesin the time of COVID" with a little cartoon library beneath it and the URL of the talk

I’ve had my head down and have been staying home for the most part, no news here. A pleasant surprise is that there’s been work, talks to give, things to write about. Also: a lot of Wikipedia work. I did a presentation for the Vermont Humanities Council, an organization which I love but will also love to be cycling off of the Board of Directors of, about what Vermont libraries have been up to this past… year. I’ve excerpted it for an upcoming Computers in Libraries article, but as I was updating my talks page, I thought I should maybe mention it special here. If you’d like to read it or watch me giving it, you can go to this page here: Public Libraries in the time of COVID.

2020 reading list and commentary

the cover of a box of postcards that is called BIBLIOPHILE and the postcard on the cover is a stack of books

Here was the twitter thread of what I read last year. It was, as you might expect, a weird year. And I read LESS than the year before. Not sure if this is because I had less access to graphic novels, or because I had less time on airplanes, or something else. I started 110 books and finished 109 of them.

Here are stats for the books I finished and I’m adding one more: ebook vs. print book. Obviously they’re both books, but I think it would be nice to track how much I am reading digitally versus in print.

Here are stats for the books that I finished.

average read per month: 9.1
average read per week: 2.1
number read in worst month: 6 (October)
number read in best month: 15 (September)
number unfinished: 1
percentage by male authors: 52%
percentage by female authors: 48%
percentage of authors of color/non-Western: 14%
fiction as percentage of total: 64%
non-fiction as percentage of total: 36%
(many comics compilations in there which are a mix of both)
percentage of total liked: 89%
percentage of total ambivalent: 11%
percentage of total disliked: less than 1%
ebook to book ratio: 1:1

Previous librarian.net summaries: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004. The always-updated booklist, going back to 1997, lives at jessamyn.info/booklist and it has its own RSS feed.