The People in My Neighborhood

At one point last Friday, I noticed that my work badge had gone AWOL.

Given that staff need this badge to get into the building, and are supposed to wear it at all times per the rules, this was a touch inconvenient.  Expensive, too, as replacement badges cost $25 a pop.  That’s an awful lot of large regular coffees in the LAV world.

To make matters worse, when I went down to get a replacement badge, I discovered that the badge-maker was broken.   While temporarily saving me $25, this meant I would have to spend the rest of the week depending on the kindness of colleagues to swipe me in every morning until the machine was repaired.

At least, that was the case until the phone rang, and the delightful C., from the Penn Hills library, informed me that somehow my badge had ended up at their library.  Apparently, your absent-minded alchemist had used her own badge as a bookmark, forgotten that she’d done so, and then returned the library book with the badge in it.

Double yoi!

Just one more anecdote from library hijinks in America’s most livable city.  I swear, I could copy out daily events in a notebook, type it up in script form, and sell it to HBO as their next big hit.  It would have to be HBO, of course, because of the cussing, although the ideal situation would be to get into a bidding war with HBO and Showtime.   Oh, and Felicity Huffman plays me, or it’s no go.

I must confess, I feel just a teensy bit guilty about the amount of time I spend laughing.  And I wonder if I’m really the only person to whom amusing things happen, or who is surrounded by smart, funny people who say witty things in Sorkinesque patter.  That doesn’t sound quite right, and yet, I don’t really see a lot of evidence that anybody else in library science is having a good time.  And I mean “a good time despite the fact that library world is falling apart” not “la la la I can’t hear you I’m having a good time.”

There is, you see, a diference.  Laughter, happiness, and positive thinking don’t, if you use them correctly, obliterate the fact that libraries are in a world of hurt right now.  They do, however, coat those bitter pills with enough honey so we don’t have to choke on them.  A little sweetness can go a long way toward firing you up to carry on, if you let it.

I get such sweetness here. 

If you’re reading Eleventh Stack, you already know a lot about some of my co-workers, based on what they choose to reveal about themselves in the library blog.  If you’re not yet reading it, click here to read the contributor bios, so you can make up your mind whether or not you want to know them (and, by extension, all of us) a little better.

Starting a blog was one of the smartest things we’ve done recently, not only because it is an excellent way to promote the library, but because it gives the staff a voice, and reveals a human element that is often obscured in a large organization.  That’s not a pejorative; it’s just what happens.  Library directors still skeptical about blogging may want to take note of that.

And they’ve used their voices for good, this team of blogonauts, as they like to call themselves.  They write well, and they make the library look good.  They understand the delicate balance between the personal and the professional.  When it comes to advocacy, they know how to fire people up without ticking them off.  And, occasionally, they make me mist up, as I did while reading Wes’s recent essay, On Babies and Bebop.

There are others in local library land who prefer to keep a lower profile, either because they don’t think they’re good writers (they’re wrong), believe they have nothing to say (also wrong), or simply do not wish to have an internet presence (choose privacy!).  Some of them may be anxiously perched on the edge of their chairs, reading carefully to see whether or not I’m going to “out” them.  Relax, dears – your secrets are safe with me. 

I will say, only, that this space, from the basement to the rafters, is filled with marvelous people who make a difference in so many ways, every day.  Often their work is invisible to the public, as it is with the small army of people who stoop and stretch for hours, pulling holds and trundling them off to where they need to go.  It is not, I assure you, elves that keep the floors clean, the coffee brewing, or the hallways secured.  Nor is it fairies who balance the books and write the grants, though their work, admittedly, often does seem downright magical to me (numbers, alas, frequently do not add up in the LAV world).  Preservation, conservation, transportation, and much more go on here; like instruments in a symphony, each person brings his or her melody to the whole, and the whole sounds like — with apologies to  Julie — awesome.

On top of being great library workers, they’re just plain nice people.  People who see you walking and offer you rides to, or from, work.  People who lend you umbrellas when it’s raining, or buy you lunch without wanting reciprocation.  People who volunteer to be your personal thrift store shopper (seriously).  People who read great books, and recommend them.  People who peel you off the ceiling when you’re freaking out about something, and trust you enough to confide in you in return.  People who rejoice with you, and with whom you rejoice, when things go well.  People who listen patiently while you muse aloud for the fiftieth time about some random philosophical thing on your mind.  People who actually stop typing and turn away from their computer keyboards to give you their full attention.  People who make you baby cockroaches out of book tape (You know you’re jealous and want one.  Admit it.).

It’s not all wine and roses, though, and we’re no angels.  A large, diverse staff means, of necessity, that there are going to be differences of opinion on everything under the sun, mismatches in communication style, and accidental hurt feelings all the darned time.   But we  try to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and we fight fair.  Some of the people I respect and admire most around here are the people who drive me the craziest, because they tell me what they really think instead of what they think I want to hear, and they’re ever-present reminders that there are other ways to look at the world than mine.  They choose the authentic rather than the easy, and they chellenge me to live up to my own personal code of moral/ethical conduct every day.

In fact, I think the only thing that really bums me out about working here is, sometimes, our size.  Unless you’ve got meetings with them, it’s possible to go an entire year without seeing someone who works in a branch.  It frequently takes an extra effort just to see somebody who works on a different floor, which is another excellent reason to use those morning and afternoon breaks for walks around the building.   You really have to be pro-active if you want to get to know people; luckily, my efforts to get to know other people in the system and understand what they do have mostly borne positive fruit.

This brings us back to my peers at Penn Hills, who did me a solid, even though I don’t really know them at all.  Pittsburgh’s pretty transit-friendly, but it’s still not possible to get everywhere just yet.  On top of that, Pittsburgh is very “neighborhoody,” so everything I’ve described above about CLP and Oakland is completely inapplicable to Moon Township, which is itself different from Green Tree, which is different from Oakmont, and so on.  I pick those particular libraries as examples because I”ve actually been fortunate enough to get to know and work with their directors, somewhat; there aren’t a lot of opportunities for that, beside committee work, unless you live in one of those communities.   And yet, somehow, between the countywide listserv, the various committee meetings, and the social bonds we’ve forged both digitally and IRL, we make it all work, somehow.

It takes an awful lot of manure to grow a rose, and if I am at all a librarian  worth knowing, it’s because my character has been molded, shaped, and influenced by the professional company I keep.  I wanted to make sure that at least one entry in my professional blog was dedicated to giving them their due, even at the expense of Constant Reader rolling his/her eyes at The Hokiness.   They deserve more money and more vacation time, but all I can offer them is my love, respect, and cookies.  It will have to suffice.  I suppose it would probably help if I toned down the acerbic wit and rapid-fire snark from time to time, but I can always put that in my goals and objectives for next year.

See?  Loving your fellow man doesn’t have to be all magical unicorns and “Kumabaya.”  What do you love about your library?  Your co-workers?  Do you have people in your professional life who simply rock your library world?  Here’s your chance to brag on them, via the comments.  And if this post inspires you to write your own essay about the library where you work, I would love to see a link.

Reading Today: The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin.   A writer decides she would like to be happier, structures a year-long program to boost her happiness, and offers suggestions on how you can do the same (non-fiction, self-help).

Next up, a pensée, after which we move to the next-most-popular poll topic.  Two topics actually tied for second place, so I will probably flip a coin before choosing my next subject.

Pensée #1: When You Reach Me

Preface to the Pensées

As I started composing my initial reviews, it occurred to me that they weren’t really bona fide reviews per se – more like what Pascal was trying to accomplish with his pensées, albeit in a secular fashion:  musings on things I hold dear, namely, books/reading.

The prospect of going back and writing about all the books I’ve read thus far made me wilt a little.  Okay, a lot.  Besides, I’ve already written about those books briefly at Goodreads, so interested parties may click through at will.

“Pensée” is a fun word to say, too.  It sounds both graceful and gracious, like something in a dancer’s arsenal, and accent marks add a dash of sophistication and whimsy to blog posts!  So let’s start fresh at #1, with random-dancing thoughts about the books I’m finishing this year.

Pensée #1  When You Reach Me

I try to pay attention to what children’s and YA librarians are reading.  After all, their patrons will be my patrons eventually, so I should probably read the books they recommend so I can establish a cultural context and frame of reference for serving children and teens after they become adults.  Right?

Oh, whom are we kidding?  I may reap the professional benefits eventually, but reading kids’ books is also just plain fun.  If you’re ever pining for an excuse to temporarily drop the mantle of grown-up responsibility, chat up the nearest ALSC/YALSA maven and give him/her an RA workout.  They get to talk about books they love, and you get to read something with the potential to take you back to your own halcyon days, before you had a spreadsheet committee task force care in the world.

Because I try to take my own advice,  I pay attention when the YA/children’s mavens in my social set start raving about a book; this is how I discovered Rebecca Stead and her Newbery award-winning novel, When You Reach Me.  And I devoured it in one sitting.  Brilliant!  Wonderful!  Smashing!  An epistolary novel with elements of time travel that’s an homage to A Wrinkle in Time and, in some ways, a gentle lesson in female empowerment?  Sign me up!

And there, in my summary, lies the conundrum:  for the life of me, I don’t know whether I liked When You Reach Me  because it’s a good book for children, or because it pleases me so much as an adult.

For the purposes of literary enjoyment, I suppose it doesn’t matter much.  In terms of readers’ advisory, however, I wonder.  I’ve been sitting here mulling over whether or not to recommend this to my niece, E.  She is ten, loves science, and has both excellent librarians in her hometown and a mom that encourages reading.  Auntie LAV has a bad habit of recommending books to E. that ALAV herself adored as a child, and would like to stop doing that, if at all possible.

There is, too, the pang that comes from reading a children’s book and knowing, in your heart, that you are growing older every day, and that while it has been, on the whole, absolutely marvelous, you will never again see with the fresh eyes and innocent heart of a child…at least, not entirely.  Because I am an adult, for example, I’m wondering  if Stead named her protagonist Miranda as an allusion to The Tempest, and I’m not surprised that I’ve correctly identified “the laughing man” without too much trouble.  I am missing the sense of wonder and excitement a young reader might have at journeying along with Miranda, discovering the mysterious notes directing her to do certain things at certain times; I am, as I read, harboring suspicions that perhaps this is not really a time travel story after all, that there will be a perfectly logical explanation for all this when it is over…and I am somewhat embarrassed when I am proven wrong.  I am thinking about Miranda’s mother, whose career struggle subplot is somewhat more interesting to me than Miranda’s own puzzles, and I am hoping that my concern for the prosaic has not completely quenched my ability to perceive and appreciate the magical.

All that notwithstanding, I try to imagine the kind of child who would enjoy this book:  a reader fond of puzzles and mysteries, open to the fanciful and speculative.  Someone who likes short chapters, and has never lived in a city (though it is a “New York story,” as I like to call them, I suspect the setting may be old hat for today’s precocious urban sophisticates – only in middle America is New York a magical locale these days).  Someone who likes historical novels, since most of today’s youngsters have no context for the 1970s and 1980s.  And with these guidelines and parameters, I could recommend, hit or miss.

But without hesitation, I could say to an adult of a certain age, “Here, read this, you’ll love it.  It will literally take you back in time.”

Twelve-year-old LAV, with her Coke-bottle-thick  eyeglasses and defensive scowl, snorts disdainfully.  She is already full-speed onto hard-core sci-fi and fantasy.  37-year-old LAV smiles gently down a corridor of years at her predecessor, aided by a story about a young woman who clumsily navigates the treacherous waters of  pre-teendom and opens her mind to seemingly unbelievable phenomena.  A wrinkle in time, indeed, allowing me to revisit a period of my life when I, too, was struggling, and perhaps understand it better. 

Bottom line?  Stead’s sweet little novel is, in the hands of the right reader, an instrument of both nostalgia and recaptured wonder.  If that’s you, be sure to say hello to your 12-year-old self, with love from me and mine.

Reading Today:  Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  A policymaker with a long career in education discusses the history of contemporary educational reform, analyzing what worked and what didn’t, and arguing for what should be done now (non-fiction, current events, education).

Cranky Bodhisattva in a Long Black Dress: How I Got Here, Why I Stay (Pt II)

For those of you who missed it, Part I of this series explains how I became a librarian. Part II delves into why I stay, and took me a little longer to write because, as many a Facebook relationship status asserts, “It’s complicated.”

I mean, I can tell you that it took less than six months to make up my mind about the MLIS, a year and a half to get the degree (clerking and adjuncting most of the while), and the biggest stroke of luck in the universe to start a librarian position at CLP shortly after graduation.  That is a whole separate story unto itself, which we’ll get to…eventually.  All I can tell you right now is that with hard work and a little luck, strange things happen.

And boy, did things ever happen.  My MLIS coursework was hard-core, old-fashioned reference all the way, so of course my first professional job was in readers’ advisory.  Thanks to professional literature, a lifetime of reading both trash and treasure, and a flock of amazing coworkers, I got myself up to speed.  Several years later I moved on to the Reference department, not because I was unhappy, but because around here, the Reference staff are like the Yankees:  legendary for depth and breadth of knowledge.  Who doesn’t want to play for the Yankees? 

Don’t answer that, Dodgers fans.  Just trust  me.  It was a move from good to better, and the last three years have been mostly made of win as I’ve learned from the amazing talent all around me.   I know a lot more about technology now than I did, and I’ve had a front-row seat at the ongoing “future of reference” conversations.  Who could ask for anything more?  

But that doesn’t exactly speak to the question of the reasons why I want to spend my life in public libraries.  I mean, getting a PhD was interesting.  Working in corporate America was interesting.  Librarianship is interesting.  But there’s a lot more to it than that.

My reasons are partially explained by my favorite reference transaction thus far.  It took place on a quiet night while I was in library school.  I’d just been promoted to library assistant, and was thrilled to death to get more time at the first floor reference desk.  A young man in a suit walked up to me with a determined look on his face and said the most amazing sentence I’d ever heard:

I need a book that will change my life.

My eyes lit up like Christmas trees.  “Tell me more,” I urged.  And we got into a 20-minute conversation about the kinds of changes he wanted to make, and the kinds of books that had spoken to him in the past.

It goes without saying that our next stop was a trip into the Bs.  I reassured the patron that the kinds of questions he was asking were the same kinds that people had been asking for thousands of years.  As we walked through the tiers of philosophy, religion and self-help, I pulled various tomes from the shelves and booktalked them, demonstrating how many different answers people had found before, and how many different ways there were to answer those questions.  I varied my stops based on his visible and verbal responses to the books I picked, and we finally stopped in front of a shelf that looked interesting to him based on my description of some of the books on it.

I left him alone to browse and went back downstairs to my post.  About 20 minutes later he came back with a shining face and an armful of books, thanked me, and left.  I never saw him again, and I have no idea if he found what he was looking for.

I swear on a stack of the religious texts of your choice, that really happened.  Yes, Virginia, in this crazy world, where we put up with so much ignorance and unpleasantness on the daily, where we see first-hand the extent to which society and culture often fail the sick, the mentally ill, the poor, and the otherwise disenfranchised…sometimes, we connect on a deeper level.  Sometimes, in our library conversations, we reach past not only our polite, professional facades, but also past all the wounds and challenges in which all of us come wrapped, and touch lightning.

That’s not the only time I’ve ever felt lightning at the reference desk, but it was the first time…and you know what they say about your first time:  you never forget.  On days when ignorance and stupidity pile up like landfill debris, I strive to remember that underneath every question somebody asks me — yes, Virginia, including “Where’s the bathroom?” — there’s a more fundamental question that addresses the root of who we are as human beings.

This brings us to the concept of the bodhisattva, the person who deliberately delays enlightenment until everyone else is enlightened, too. That’s a pretty huge concept to wrap one’s brain around, especially if you are not — as I am not — a Buddhist. And yet, for some reason, it resonates with me, especially as described by respected Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in a Nov. 2006 essay for Shambhala Sun:

[T]aking the bodhisattva vow is a real commitment based on the realization of the suffering and confusion of oneself and others. The only way to break the chain reaction of confusion and pain and to work our way outward into the awakened state of mind is to take responsibility ourselves. If we do not deal with this situation of confusion, if we do not do something about it ourselves, nothing will ever happen. We cannot count on others to do it for us. It is our responsibility, and we have the tremendous power to change the course of the world’s karma. So in taking the bodhisattva vow, we are acknowledging that we are not going to be instigators of further chaos and misery in the world, but we are going to be liberators, bodhisattvas, inspired to work on ourselves as well as with other people.

That passage neatly nails on the head why the reference desk at a public library is the perfect place for me. It is a sad, broken, struggling, complex, hair-pulling world. I am often confused and burdened. Every day people come into the library who are frequently more confused and burdened than I am, to the point that I feel guilty about my own confusion and burdens, even though I know that’s silly, and suffering is not a contest.

But every now and again, bang, pow!

Lightning. And, for a moment, we all see clearly, before darkness and ignorance descend again, as descend they must.

Your mileage, obviously, may vary. I certainly don’t expect everybody to see librarianship through my lenses. It would be an awfully boring world if you did, and it would deny you your own unique path through the profession.

Why did you become a librarian? And, more importantly, why do you stay? If you take up that ponderous gauntlet, do link back for me in a comment.

Next time, thoughts on failure.  Possibly with vampires.

October: Projects and Whatnot

The last few weeks have been pretty intense.  The fall semester’s in full swing here in Oakland, and when your library is the peanut-buttery filling between the crusty loaves of Pitt and CMU, you’re kept hopping.  A lot.

I think the best moment, though, was when we had six reference librarians at the desk helping with the elementary school tour group that ended up staying all day, doing research for their History Day projects.  Imagine reference service as a basketball game.  Zone defense, as opposed to person-to-person, of course.  It was awesome, in multiple senses of the term!

Other things October hath wrought:

The database committee met to vote on some renewals, and entertain some suggestions I had.  Most were approved.  Essentially, I want to expand the committee’s charge to include not only the selection of databases, but also the promotion of electronic resources and training both staff and patrons to use them.  This was met with much more support and enthusiasm than I expected, so once again I’m back to the brainstorming board, dreaming dreams and scheming schemes.

LJ and SRRT both sent me new books to review, so I’m knee-deep in reading and note-taking there.  Given that this is an “extra-curricular” kind of thing, it’s challenging to make room for it in a day, especially when there’s so much guilty pleasure reading to be done.  All the same, this is one of those things that, ultimately, falls under “service to one’s peers,” so I’m definitely down with sacrificing a lunch hour or five.

Speaking of school tours, I just gave one this morning to a writing class from Pitt.  The focus was on finding magazines and journals, and also covered how to research publication markets.  Secondhand info from a colleague, who had a friend in the class, relates it was a job well-done.  It’s nice to be able to put one’s pre-librarian teaching experience into service for the institution, and there’s just as much of a need for BI and LI, I think, in the public sector as there is in academe.

The PaLA presentation (dun dun dun!).  My chief concern is making us all look good while still being faithful to the notion that Library 2.0 is going to look different at CLP than it does at other institutions.  Why?  Our patrons have different needs.  The digital divide is a big concern here (see above about BI and LI), and while we’re taking strides in the technological realm, there are still a lot of traditional library services that our patrons need and want.  The key is balance, a middle path.

As I have commented elsewhere this week, moderation is not “sexy,” per se – it does not boost one’s Technorati rating, or vault one into the library blogosphere spotlight.  It does, however, help staff achieve goals and objectives, and helps everyone who works in a library deliver excellent service.  The profession needs dreamers and doers.  I perceive part of my job as negotiating a middle ground between both kinds of folk.

There’s more (there’s always more), but I would like to make a plan for tackling tomrorow’s tasks before I go home.  What are you working on?  I’d love to hear.

LJ feed debuts. Also, Friday miscellanea.

Mission accomplished – LiveJournal users can now click here to add the feed.

This morning, several colleagues who are presenting at this year’s PaLA conference gave us a preview of their presentation, which is about using 2.0 technologies to promote readers’ advisory for teens. Since the teen patrons will someday be adult patrons, it’s really important to keep an eye on how they use technologies, and consider how adult services librarians will have to adapt. The section on podcasting was really useful, because apparently it really is easier than I thought. One more thing to try, in future posts.

Time’s a little short, however, so for now I’ll confine myself to a brief “Friday fun” review of Eric Idle’s The Greedy Bastard Diary. Penned during a three-month comedy tour of North America, Idle’s memoir serves up dry observations on comedy and touring, hilarious descriptions of what can–and does–go wrong on the road, and touching reminiscences of other Python troupe members. These disparate subjects are knitted together in a diary format, with short chapters that read quickly.

 Die-hard Monty Python fans are the target audience here, and readers unfamiliar with the troupe might be startled upon reading “The Philosopher’s Song” or “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” for the first time. However, even complete neophytes will be charmed by passages like Idle’s description of watching the last leg of the Tour de France, or his many fond (yet still amusing) comments about his wife and children. Recommended as light weekend reading for those who don’t expect The Spanish Inquisition. See also PythOnline for more fun and hijinks.

A colleague has graciously agreed to give me a tour and overview of his collection areas, so it’s back into the fray we go.  Have a nice weekend, everybody!


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