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.