a separate post – talk about my new job

OpenLibrary front page

I promised to write about this a few days ago and it’s been, quite a week. Short version: starting May 1st I took a job doing user support for Open Library. It’s very part time, very fulfilling and a lot of fun.

Longer story: MetaFilter, my internet home for over a decade and my employer for almost that long, has been going through some challenges. There was a severe financial downturn (the site is nearly 100% advertiser supported, allowing them to have nearly eight full time employees) and staffing was going to have to be reduced. You can read about some of that happened on Search Engine Land or Matt Haughey’s post on Medium because this was basically a weird “I wonder what happened at Google?” situation. We’d been facing decreasing revenue for about eighteen months and things weren’t improving. As the person in charge of running the site but not managing the money aspect of it, the last year and a half had been really bad for morale. Not knowing if your job was going away, getting gloom-and-doom reports from on high, not being able to plan for the future because you don’t know if there will be a future, are just destabilizing and not allowing me to do my job to the best of my ability. I have a longer version of this that I’d be happy to explain over a beer or two, but that was the general gist.

And ultimately, as much as I loved what I’d built–Ask MetaFilter is one of the best Q&A sites around, bar none, the moderation team is the best group of moderators there is, period–my “career goals” such as they are weren’t with website moderation, they were and remain with libraries. So when stuff started getting hairy in late 2012, I decided I needed a non-MetaFilter hobby, one that was library related, and I decided to talk to the Internet Archive about helping out with Open Library. Open Library, if you don’t know, lends ebooks worldwide. Worldwide. It’s a cool project.

I hadn’t known at the time that Open Library was a bit of a ghost ship, being kept alive and online but not really in active development. I put my head down and just started answering emails, reporting bugs, being the change I wanted to see in Open Library. And once the writing was on the wall at MeFi, that I could stay on as the oldest employee but in a work situation that was more “Everyone works all the time” which was no longer something I wanted to do, I talked to the Archive about getting an actual job-job. I made a data-based pitch “Look, I answered 7000 emails last year and rewrote the help pages and FAQ, user support is probably something that either needs more volunteers or a paid staff member” and they agreed to take me on as a part-timer to keep doing what I was doing, and maybe do a little more.

So I still answer emails, but I also attend staff meetings (via Skype) and have the keys to the Twitter and the blog. It’s weird working in a free culture type of place but still working with Adobe’s DRM nearly every day. I made a graceful mod exit from MetaFilter and I still continue to hang out there, because why wouldn’t I?

Long range I’m not sure what my plan is. I’ve got the same adult education job in my small town in Vermont and don’t plan to leave that. I still write a regular column for Computers in Libraries and I’m still on the road doing public speaking stuff about once a month (contact me if you’d like me to come speak at your event) which I may ramp up depending on how this all goes. I still have a lot of Vermont libraries to visit. I’m trying, despite my tendency to overwork, to take the summer at least partly off. And one of the things I want to do, oddly enough, is spend more time on my blog, writing down more of the things I am working on, in a place that’s mine and not MetaFilter’s.

That’s the news. I’m excited to get back to working more with libraries, all kinds of libraries.

my job situation

Hi. This is an update on my work situation. My boss at the high school where I work let me know that they will be discontinuing drop-in time [and the accompanying library support that went along with it] effective, well, now. I know a lot of people haven’t really understood what I did there in the first place, so let me spell it out, in past tense.

I worked super part-time [somewhere between 5-10 hours a week]. I staffed a drop-in lab two afternoons a week where people who needed extra computer assistance could come use a computer or just ask a question. I also did outreach to local libraries who had tech questions. Over the past three years, I worked with maybe nine tiny libraries; a few I worked with regularly. I also, as a separate job, taught evening adult ed technology classes. I may still do that.

Drop-in time was never super popular and on occasion it was empty. The last Summer we didn’t have a lot of attendance and so we were going to not do drop-in time this Summer. I was looking forward to some time off. Instead, the program got cut entirely. Funding is tight all over and even though my total salary there was less than 10K, it’s money that could be spent elsewhere. I’m sure there are some politics involved, but I’m lucky to not be involved with them. My (former) boss is a wonderful person. Her boss is stuck between a rock and a hard place, I suspect. His boss is the school district superintendent.

I’ve often said during my 2.0 talks that we count the wrong things in libraries. That we measure door count more than we look at website traffic. That we pay attention to phone reference more than IM reference. That we ignore certain aspects of outreach and preference “traditional” library services. I kept meticulous stats at this job. I did 105 service hours this semester. I helped 32 people, many of whom were adult ed students needing extra help. Some were high school teachers. Some were librarians. Most were active community members and I could watch their improved skillsets directly impacting the community — the garden club brochure, the choral group’s mailing list, the hospital chaplain’s holiday card list, the vocational training woman’s email address book — in positive ways. I helped older people be less isolated. I helped uncertain people feel more competent.

However, there’s no check box for “improved quality of life” on the reporting forms at the vocational high school. I’m of two minds about all of this. It feels weird to feel sort of fired. On the other hand, I know it’s not personal. I’ve also been ramping up my public speaking and spending more of my time and attention elsewhere and was, in fact, looking at cutting back hours so maybe this is a baby-bird-out-of-nest situation. I need to move on, maybe. This is not about the money, I’m set for money, incidentally. I have other jobs, they pay well.

I am welcome, I am pretty sure, to scare up grant money and continue to work there, they just can’t pay me and no one has enough free time to help me with that. I don’t want to just volunteer and I’m a little frustrated that at this point that’s the only way the program will continue. I do fill-in desk hours occasionally at the local library. One of the other local libraries would like to hire me to do ILL and automation work for them, but I’m waiting for a contract, something more than a “yeah we’d like that.” People still call me with questions and it feels really wrong to say “sorry I’m not on the clock anymore…” I like this small community and have felt useful here, much more than I did when I was a public librarian, much more than I did when I was in Seattle.

I’ve felt, without being too grandstandy here, that I’ve changed lives in exactly that way we say that librarians do that. I’d hate to think that I’m looking at a failure of marketing or “proving my value” but there’s always that nagging feeling when something like this happens. Now I have to find a way to keep “changng lives” that outside of what had become my normal routine. I talk about the digital divide a lot, and this is me and my program falling right into it. The chasm is deep and wide.

Our Work and How We Do It

Rural Library Director's jobs

I went to teach a class in Internet Safety at the Ainsworth Public Library in Williamstown. While I was there, the librarian showed me her chart of all the jobs she does. She sometimes has to go back and forth with her Board of Trustees because they think certain things are her job that aren’t, or they don’t want her to do certain things that really should be part of her job. This is her outline. Every separate color is a different set of responsibilities. You may have to blow it up sort of largeish to read it. This librarian works about 20 hours a week.

A Day in the Life

This post by the Rambling Librarian made me think about what I do, again. Today was a short day actually. I got up, swapped some email with my boss [“Why won’t the sysadmin lady give you speakers for the computers for the evening spanish class?” ” I don’t KNOW, can you help?” “Probably, sure, let’s look at it tomorrow.”] did a bit of work on a library website I’m helping design, and then got in the car.

I drove about 35 miles to one of the libraries I work with. I steppped in and said hi to the librarian who was busy putting book covers on books. She is a solo librarian except for a few hours on Saturday when a volunteer comes in to staff the desk. I go there every other week for two hours and answer computer questions for her. Today she was curious about how to make flyers using Word, how to clear her history on her browser, and she gave me some advice on books to read for my upcoming trip. She was worried she had read my email when she came across my blog in her list of addresses in her address bar of her browser. Teaching moment: what is a blog?

A patron came in and had a document he needed to attach to an email and we all gathered around the pretty new fax/scanner/printer they had bought and learned to use it to scan and save a document. He was sending it to Japan and said he prefers email to fax because if he emails in the middle of the night, it won’t wake people up. He thanked me for my help and helped the librarian change the light bulbs that she couldn’t reach. A girl came in who had to do community service and wanted to know if she could do it at the library. She says she hangs out there all the time because the kids at school are mean to her and trip her in the halls and the library is peaceful and quiet. She asked me about the vocational school I work at and how long it would be before she’d be able to go there [ten months, probably]. She asked if people were mean to me in school, after noticing my deadlocks and nose ring and I said “All the time, but it got better.” She wants to go to Harvard Law School eventually, or run a no-kill animal shelter. I told her there are some good books on bullying and said yes, her grandmother’s advice to “Just ignore them” while well-meant, might not solve her problems. I checked out one book for myself and bought three more from the booksale and headed on.

Another 20 miles got me to the next library where a cheerful volunteer and two librarians asked me to take off my shoes and gave me a set of slippers for the duration of my stay. They showed me around their newly renovated library. They had gotten people in the community to build custom cabinets for their Gates Computers where the four desktop machines share dial-up via a LAN. I asked them if they used WebJunction and they said they though it was hard to use, so they mostly muddled through on their own, or used Google for tech support questions. I showed them how to lay out a three column flyer that they were printing up for new community members. It had information like where the dump is, how to get medical care, and who to talk about the historical society. We scanned a postcard with a picture of the local covered bridge to put on the cover when all the entries are done. I got a library card there too. When I checked out a book, I cannot tell a lie gentle reader, I wrote my name on the library card and handed it to the redheaded librarian.

hi – 01apr

I know that a lot of my postings have been about technology lately, even though I work in a library. I have two things to say about that.

One, I will not be working in a library after next week. My contract is up and I have tentatively been offered a community technology mentor job in the next town over. I’ll let you know more as I know more, but basically it invovles teaching email to older people, which is all I really wanted to do for a while anyhow. It’s an AmeriCorps position which means it barely pays. It’s temporary which means I can still go to Australia next year. And, it’s in the next town which means commuting drops from 180 miles a week to more like 50.

Two, we all know libraries are changing. The library workforce is changing and the nature of the job is changing. The more librarians know the lingo of the new tech world of fee-for-service models instead of you-bought-it-you-own-it models of yore, the better we will be able to advocate for our patrons to provide the best service for them and the best return for their investment in us. You don’t have to live on IM to understand why IM might be a good alternative to 24/7 ref. You don’t have to check your email 100 times a day to know why email is a good way to increase patron contact options. You don’t have to podcast to understand why podcasts are an interesting and homegrown alternative to increasingly centralized and depersonalized audio content.

In the same way we don’t all have to be graphic novel fans to select them and realize their value for our patrons, we don’t all have to become cyborgs to realize the value of technology to our patrons, and the way technology can change lives, whether people access it in libraries or not. I’ll be presenting a lot of ideas librarians should, in my opinion, be learning about not as a way to say “Hey dork, if you don’t know about this you’re falling behind!” or even “All libraries should have this!” but as a way to say “When the time comes for you to decide if your library needs this, and that time will come, here are the things you’ll need to help you make that decision.” Smart librarians make smart choices and I’d like to help all of you get smart, no foolin’.