Excuses: An FAQ

And just where have you been, young lady?

I’ve just returned from another one of my mini-staycations.  Notice how nobody died, and nothing caught fire.  My email is a right backlog, though – I’ve spent most of this morning cleaning it up.

Don’t you worry about becoming irrelevant in today’s fast-paced world of digital excitement?

Even we technomages have our limits.  I think it’s very important to spend periods of time away from workmail, workblogs, worktwitter, workfacebook, and, well, work, period.  I’m actually much more concerned at the moment as to whether or not I can use the word “technomage” without J. Michael Straczynski slapping a lawsuit on me.  A quick search of the Trademark Electronic Search Service (TESS) at the USPTO site indicates I’m safe, but I think he should probably call me, just so we can have a good professional discussion and clear that up.

Fair enough.  Now that you’re back at work, can you tell us why there was no August Wilson Leadership Academy post for Feburary?

Er, yes.  That.  I chose to spend my time differently last month.

But it was such a good idea!

I know.

And you promised!

I know!  I hang my head in shame.

So, when will we see the next installment?

When I read something that inspires me.  It’s not looking hopeful.  I’ve been reading a lot of leadership material, and, well…

Well what?

It’s kind of depressing.




Reasons vary.  Some books are heavy on the inspiration, light on the practical implementation.  Others are crammed with bullet points, suggestions and tips to the point where it’s overwhelming.  And don’t even get me started on “management parables.” 

Well, why don’t you talk about that, then?

No can do.  Much like Booklist, Alchemy only gives positive reviews.

Where’s the fun in that?

Hey, nobody tries to write a bad book.  Even Stephanie Meyer had good, albeit sparkly, intentions.

You know where those lead, right?


So, how have you been choosing to spend your time?

Workwise, it’s still all about the databases:  making sure they’re working properly, troubleshooting them when they’re not, promoting/marketing them, gathering statistics, trying to see if all the vendors can deliver said statistics in the new format certain parties want, running trials, giving meetings, taking notes, and trying to stay on top of / manage the ongoing POWER library situation.


Hey, you asked!


It’s not very exciting, I know.   So much library work takes place behind the scenes, and is difficult to talk about in an exciting way.  This is why I usually philosophize rather than talk about what I’m doing.  I’ll gladly change my position on this if I suddenly get an outpouring of comments begging to hear more about the intricacies of einetwork database statistics collection.

Er, pass.  Are you working on anything exciting at the moment?

When I’m not managing the electronic resources, I’m still doing everything else I usually do:  buying books, fussing over Eleventh Stack and CLPicks, staffing virtual reference and — once in a blue moon — working at the physical reference desk. 

What’s your favorite workday responsibility?

Of all the tasks on my to-do list, coordinating Eleventh Stack is still my favorite.  Serving as team leader/editor is fun and educational, and I’m both surprised and pleased that our library’s blog has passed its second birthday without a drop in quality or quantity.  Credit for that goes to my amazing team, of course.

So, you’re not at the reference desk much these days.  How do you feel about that?

Truthfully, I would like more time at the physical reference desk.  However, there will be plenty of time for that when my countywide committee responsibilities end in 2011.  I think it’s really important to try as many things as you can; even if you find out that certain kinds of library work are not to your liking or skill set, you can still learn from them.  And I’m certainly not sorry for the opportunity to get to know my peers out in the county — it’s led to a number of opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had, and I have a better picture of the Pittsburgh’s public library landscape than I did previously.

That’s a lot of p-sounds in a sentence.

That’s technically not a question.

Sorry.  Read any good books lately?

I thought you’d never ask.  Under the umbrella of professional reading, I’m currently swooning over The Late Age of Print, which nimbly vaults over the “print vs. digital” dilemma by examining the print book as a consumer product / cultural artifact. On the religion/spirituality tip, I’ve got Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian (vocabulary and diction geared toward the divinity school set) and Bring Me the Rhinoceros (more layman-friendly).   Fictionwise, I’m in slack-jawed awe of American Salvage, a collection of tight, well-constructed stories about uncomfortable subjects, and Every Last Drop, the fourth installment of the Joe Pitt Chronicles, a series designed expressly for folks who appreciate the hard-boiled qualities of Chandler and Hammett, New York stories, and — are you sensing a theme, here? — non-sparkly vampires.

 I’ve also got Writing and Publishing: The Librarian’s Handbook checked out, but I’m a little nervous about opening it. 

Why?   It sounds great!

It does!  Problem is, I have a feeling it will blow any other excuses I have for not writing into smithereens.

And that’s bad because….?

Because facing up to the truth about yourself, your gifts and abilities, and the way you can best serve the profession, and then getting over your fears and excuses, is one of the scariest things you can do throughout your career.  And it’s not like you do it once and you’re done with the process:  if you’re growing as a professional, you are constantly surveying the landscape, looking at where you are now, as well as where you would like to be.

Where would you like to be?

That’s the kicker:  I thought I knew.  Now everything ‘s up for grabs again.  This is very scary, but also delightful.

In what way?

Well, when you stop growing and learning, you might as well hang it up.  And I’m afraid you lot are stuck with me for quite some time.

All righty then.  Anything else to report?

I’ve just finished and turned in another book review.  Book reviewing knocks me out, and I’d love to do more of it, so I’m currently scouting out more opportunities there. 

I’ve also just been selected for the third cohort of the CLP Leadership Institute, a training program for Carnegie Library staff under the auspices of the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian grant we received.  I’m hoping this means I’ll be exposed to a better quality of leadership literature; it definitely means a lot more meetings and seminars in my future, though, which brings us back to the problem of making more time to write for Alchemy.

So, what are you going to do about that?

I have a few ideas.  I seem to work better with structure and guidelines, so I’m looking for a writing template that will be both on-topic and regular.  Heaven help us all, I also have an idea for a completely separate library blog, and am quietly making my pitch to parties I suspect might be interested in collaborating on it.  If that takes off, it will debut near the end of April, and will serve to complement the kinds of things I like to discuss, but can’t always make time for.  It will also, I hope, fill an as-yet-unfilled niche in library world.

And that is…?

You’ll just have to rest in the mystery a little while longer.

Fair enough.  How are you going to spend the rest of your day?

I have one hour in which to take things that are currently on my desk and do whatever it takes to get them off of my desk and finished.  I will then spend the last two hours of my day on AskHere PA.

Do you like working virtual reference?

I absolutely love it.  Disdained by some, virtual reference is actually a key service these days, primarily because the quality and type of the questions received simply cries out for informed professionals who are skillful at ready-reference, information literacy, bibliographic instruction, and good writing/communication skills.  A healthy dose of compassion certainly doesn’t hurt either. 

Can you send us off with a video?

Ask and get.  Here’s a clip from a British band called The Heavy, whose performance on David Letterman was simply splendid.  If you enjoy old-school soul, but appreciate contemporary twists, you’d do well to watch this clip, and then run — not walk — to pick up The House That Dirt Built.

Woah!  Dancing skeletons!  That’s, er, not very professional.

Probably not in the conventional sense.  Remember, though:  Alchemy’s all about balance and fun along with all those high standards.  See also “not forgetting you’re a human being with human needs” and “regular rock out breaks.”

Well, that was…very Alchemy.

Thanks!  Tune in next time for a little less fun, but a lot more professional philosophy, probably early next week.

Tech Playground Videos. Also, resiliency.

If you’d like to see some of the footage we shot at the Technology Playground program, check out the CLP YouTube channel. The wizards in our Communication and Creative Services department are going to edit footage from these into one longer video, to show our legislators just how much of an impact the library has on Pittsburghers’ lives.

If you’re pressed for time, try just watching this one. It’s my favorite because it’s short and poignant:

In other news, t’s nearly 5 p.m., which is the time of day when I, as a morning person, have long since scaled the top of BrokeBrain Mountain and am once again contemplating goatherding for a living. So I reread Beth M.’s wonderful slideshow on resiliency, and got some much-needed fortification. Honesty forces me to admit that I also got a cup of coffee and a chocolate peanut-butter brownie from our cafe on the ground floor, but you go with what works. :)

But, I digress: I don’t think we can talk about resiliency enough, because–and I fear I’m starting to repeat myself, or enter a recursive loop, or something–public service is hard, hard work. And yet, it’s not something we talk about much in library world. I’m not sure why.

Of course, occasionally people do. In a conversation taking place elsewhere in the blogosphere, concerning librarians who talk smack about their patrons online, a commenter who identifies simply as “Sarah” has this to say:

The actual underlying problem here, the big elephant in the profession is that public service is becoming increasingly more stressful and the divide between those who do it on a regular basis and those who don’t is becoming increasingly wider (just like the wage gap). The profession isn’t dealing with it but instead issues statements, documents, and all sorts of meaningless stuff castigating those who supposedly can’t deal with “change”. People will talk, and vent, period. If they don’t have any constructive help in dealing with the stress, and if there isn’t respectful two-way communication, and if they are crapped on for their public service skills by those who don’t want to realize that there are also INTERNAL customers to be served, then this will just continue. Most people don’t get pats on the back for being “so 2.0″ when they are doing their job, over and over again. How about making sure that public service people have the resources they need to do their jobs – after all, they are customers of library management. Would they take their business elsewhere if they could? So instead of getting all snotty about “negative energy” and customer service, how about cross-training yourselves to ensure that public service people can get off desk and take vacations? How about designing jobs which are 50/50? I’ve had an offer out for 25 years that, if anyone has a problem with my public service skills, they can do my job for a week and I can watch and take notes on how a REAL professional does it. Nobody has yet taken me up on my offer.

I wish Sarah had included an e-mail address, so I could thank her personally for her honesty and bravery. It’s not cool to snark about patrons online, anonymously or otherwise, if only because everybody really is always doing the best they can. However, it is also decidedly not cool for us as professionals to turn on each other during these horribly stressful times when we all need each other more than ever. Librarians should be helping each other out, supporting each other, not taking each other to task in their blogs.

My opinions on this matter are heavily colored by the recent news of Pennsylvania Senate Bill 850, which pretty much ambushes library service in a dark alley, takes its wallet and credit cards, and then beats the living snot out of it. You can read the specifics here, but the paragraph that made me sick to my stomach was this one:

Library programs under S.B. 850 are hit hard. The Public Library Subsidy would be cut 50% to $37 million. The Library Access line (POWER Library, statewide borrowing, interlibrary delivery) would cease operations as this year’s $7 million appropriation would drop to zero. The Electronic Library Catalog (Ask Here PA, Access PA database) would have only $1.7 million next year compared to this year’s total of $3.7 million. Funding for the State Library (50% cut to $2.4 million) and Library Services for the Visually Impaired and Disabled (2% cut to $2.9 million) are the same in both the Governor‘s proposal
and the Senate Republican bill.

Emphasis mine. These are only possibilities, but terrifying ones.

So, resiliency and professional courtesy become more important than ever now. If we do not hang together, well…you know how it goes. Here’s hoping we can all look past our own cares and worries for a few moments and take time to check in on our peers, see if they need a sympathetic ear, a cup of tea, a walk around the building for a private vent session…

Tomorrow and Friday are kind of eaten up with NetLibrary trainings and preparation for a presentation I’m giving next week. I’ve been so busy, I’ve been forced to delegate my next Eleventh Stack post to one of my cats. Those of you who know my cats won’t be too surprised to learn it’s the Smoky grey one who will be doing the guest honors. :)

More next week, probably. Until then, keep the faith…

Alchemy by Numbers

A whimsical twist on the workday chronicles:

Number of library staff countywide registered for 23ThingsN@: 240. Eek! Pass the smelling salts…

Number of Twitter followers as of right now: 92

Number of Eleventh Stack visitors so far today: 114

Number of total visitors since the blog’s creation: 54,003.

Number of people registered for next week’s NetLibrary training sessions: 33

Number of nervous breakdowns I’ve had while planning those sessions: 19.

Number of awesome committee members I serve with who help me whenever I ask: 10 [did I mention we have the best committee in the whole county? :) ]

Number of exciting announcements I hope to be able to make very soon: 1

Number of things remaining on my to-do list: 145

Number of those things that can reasonably be accomplished before I go home today: 5

Number of meetings arranged this week: 2

Number of meetings that had to be arranged with multiple updates because Outlook is a royal pain in the nether quarters: 1

Number of e-mails in my in-box: 31

Number of things I’m avoiding: 1

Number of hours of OTR I need to burn: 11

Number I’ve scheduled: 7.5

Number of books I promised to review: 6

Number of books I’ve actually finished reviewing: 2

Number of questions I’ve tried to answer on VR this shift, but haven’t snapped up fast enough: 4

Number of questions successfully answered on VR today: 1

Number of librarians currently staffing AskHere PA: 34

Number of additional projects I’m considering taking on: 1

Number of people who will be needed to talk me out of it: 7

Number of library blogs to which I subscribe: 12

Number of non-library tech blogs to which I subscribe: 1

Number of reference questions worked on this week: 3

Number of hours invested in those questions so far: 4

Number of questions for which the answer was easily available online, and deliverable within 48 hours: 0

There you have it. If you wrote up your work day in numbers, what would it look like?

Snippets from the A-Team

And by “A-Team,” I mean, of course, Team Alchemy.  I just love it when a plan comes together, though, and many things have blossomed this week.  Here’s a short progress report.

Collection Development

Got a compliment today – it was passed down from the coordinator of collection development, who appreciates the way Bonnie and I have worked out the ordering of pop culture/current events non-fiction. That’s really gratifying to hear, because we spend a lot of time making sure we’re not duplicating orders! Our LibraryThing account helps, and the rest of the staff in both our departments have been gracious about using it.


The question du jour concerned Slavic mythology. Do we have the best career, or what?

Virtual Reference

There’s a lot of rhetoric floating around about best practices and whatnot, so I’ll not dwell on this overmuch. Suffice to say, I think virtual reference is splendid for developing writing skills, and learning to adapt the reference interview to a text-based process is a never-ending course in professional development.

Of course, it’s also subject to Murphy’s Law: if I start conducting a reference interview, the patron asks for just a few quick links. If I start with links, the patron invariably reveals more info that cries for a reference interview. Definitely educational. :)

Eleventh Stack

In March the Eleventh Stack blog earned a record-high number of hits, and so far this year monthly visits are double those from 2008. On March 25th we were featured as one of WordPress’s top 100 growing blogs. Granted, we were only #98, but given how many WordPress blogs there are, I think that’s a pretty cool feat!


As of right now we’re up to 81 followers on Twitter, and our TwitterGrade has risen to 85. Again, not too shabby for a ragtag team of librarians trying something new. A goodish chunk of our followers are local people, too, not just my librarian friends/colleagues. Whew. :)

23 Things

Team Celery Stick (a subsidiary of Team Alchemy) opened up registration yesterday for our “23 Things ‘N ‘At” program – in one day we received 110 registrants countywide, so the bar is up there pretty high! Kelley, Ryan, Beth and I have risen to the occasion by setting up our wiki, creating the official program blog, and putting the final touches on our content.

Databases (CLP)

Working on 1st-quarter stats. Also spent some time doing scenario planning, in case of material budget cuts. It’s better to plan for things and not need them then vice versa, IMHO. And it’s a good exercise in seeing where you’re strong, collectionwise, in what formats.

Databases (countywide)

With much help from the committee, have set up four trainings for our suite of NetLibrary recorded books. They’ve just changed the interface and added iPod-compatible titles (hurray!), so we want to make sure the various libraries’ staffs are up to speed.

There’s more, but I think that’s enough for now. If I told you everything I did all day, you wouldn’t believe me! Although I wish I got more reference desk time, I’m really happy to be part of all the things I do on the daily. I definitely stretched out of my comfort zone with this job, and it’s taken me to places I never imagined I’d go.

From clerking to reader’s advisory librarian to nominal 2.0 person/reference librarian in 7 short years. Who knows what will happen next? It’s pretty exciting…

At any rate, I’ll be back next week with the results of the drawing for Slow Reading. Hope you all had a wonderful National Library Week!

Gratitude. Also, outcomes and other forward movements.

Part I: Gratitude

A thought from John Galsworthy:

We are not living in a private world of our own. Everything we say and think has its effects on everything around us.

It’s been really encouraging to watch the various responses last week’s blogversation on e-mail reference, as initiated by David Lee King. Thanks to everyone who took five seconds out of her/his busy day to visit and read our perspective on the issue. It’s really encouraging to watch people discuss and comment on this. We may not always agree, but we’re talking. Only good can come of this!

Thanks, too, if you found your way here via the discussion of technology and heart. I don’t really know what else to say about this sudden fanfare for the common blog, other than, wow…look what we can do, when we speak truthfully, listen to each other, and then act!  Look what we can do.

Okay, enough sentiment – back to work. :)

Part II: Outcomes

Funny how you don’t realize you need a boost until you get one, sometimes. The reference crew has been having some excellent conversations about e-mail reference and service. It’s inspired me to take the following specific actions:

  • RK has started scheduling some of us for phone and VR at the same time.  I’ve decided that if I get a call while I’m in the middle of a chat, the chat takes priority.  After all, when I’m staffing the chat widget, I’m the lone gunwoman (for the moment).  If I can’t grab a phone call, I have backup.  The chances of getting a call and a chat at once are astronomically small…so of course it happens at least once each shift!  Still, that’s my new priority, and I’m sticking with it.
  • Based on some of the comment threads that discuss cost and staffing re chat services, I’ve decided to research and write a generic flextime/telecommuting proposal, based on observations of CLP reality.  Would it work for us?  There’s only one way to find out…
  • It’s time to take another look at the comment guidelines on Eleventh Stack. All this talk about inclusive language has me wondering if we’re not unintentionally turning people away; I mean, we get comments, but not as many as we’d like. Time to see if we can fix that.  I’m also flirting with the notion of having unmoderated comments.  After all, WP’s spam filter does a pretty good job of keeping out the Cialis ads and other drek.  My theory, though, is that moderating comments forces people to be thoughtful and choose their words carefully.  That could be good, but I’m feeling uneasy about that word “forces.”  Again, one way to find out…

Part III:  Forward Motion

Today’s an exciting day here at CLP because Encore debuted this morning. I can’t wait to work a desk shift today and find out what people actually think of it. Needless to say, I’ve been all over it myself this morning, playtesting it and tagging it. It’s clean, it’s user-friendly, it clears up a lot of things that were previously unclear. We are still offering the classic catalog view for those for whom Encore proves to be Rather Too Much – we’ll see if that fear is justified or groundless, too, I suppose.

Ryan H. worked really hard on putting this together, so I’m calling him out on his quiet toil. Who at your library today has been working hard without a lot of recognition? Maybe you should take him/her to lunch today? Just a thought.

Back to prepping for tomorrow night’s book discussion, and following up on actions from yesterday’s database committee meeting. More thoughts on both later this week.

E-mail reference and teachable moments.

So, the other day, while I was writing about technology and heart, David Lee King took a number of libraries to task for “discriminat[ing] against a certain type of customer,” namely digital natives.

My library was one of them.


I showed Richard, and he joined the discussion on David’s blog (I defer to management in such matters as speaking for the library on the blogs of prominent library bloggers). I have to say, I am not exactly thrilled with the delivery of the message – the word “discriminate” implies, to my mind, a deliberate malice which decidedly does not exist.  Everybody in this organization works their behinds off to deliver the best possible service to all patrons.

Here’s the thing, though:  he kind of has a point about the language as it currently exists on our website.  It’s been up there for eons, and it’s easy to let those sorts of things go in the “boots on the ground,” helter-skelter atmosphere of a normal day at an urban public library.

So I volunteered to rewrite the web copy.   Richard and I have been passing drafts back and forth most of the day, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to get a more user-friendly version up there soon. The goal is to be inviting and welcoming while still pointing out the special circumstances that might affect service levels.

So, the moral here is that sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it.  There are still going to be times when longer turnaround times are needed on an e-mail reference question…but I think we can say it better than that.

ETA, 4:27 p.m. Edits are up. Constructive criticism appreciated.

ETA 1/12, 5:58 PM Thanks to everyone who has visited, commented, or otherwise participated in this blog in the last few days. Much to think about! A very busy day of reference service has prevented me from writing a full update, but I hope to be back with more thoughts and questions soon.

Technology with heart

Thought for the day, from Thich Nhat Hanh’s recent work, The World We Have:

Technology has to be supported by brotherhood, sisterhood, understanding and compassion.

In other words, it’s not necessarily the tools you have, but how you use them.  When you staff virtual reference, are you merely searching for the fastest answer, or are you giving the best possible answer under the circumstances?  How do you handle a question that simply cannot be answered in 5 minutes or less (there are many that can’t)?  If your library has a blog, does it simply have a blog for the sake of having a blog, or does your blog have wit, humor, grace and soul?  If you’re on Facebook, does your Facebook group/page just sit there, or do you update it frequently with content geared toward your fans’ interests?

Your mileage may vary, I suppose.  I would argue, though, that even digital natives are human beings who respond to brotherhood, sisterhood, understanding and compassion.  Technologies should be our tools, not our gods.  Does the shiny tool obstruct our view of the humanity of the person at the other end of it, or do we look beyond that when we practice?

I put it to you, constant reader.  What is the relationship between technology and heart?

Ask Here, Blog There. Also, library lessons from a bookstore.

Busy day here, yesterday. The main event was a press conference, hosted by CLP Main in the International Poetry Room, to praise and highlight Ask Here PA, the Pennsylvania virtual reference service. You can read more about the event in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, or The Wall Street Journal‘s MarketWatch. My colleague, Scott P., was the librarian staffing chat and answering the question, and it was very exciting to watch as the exchange played out on the screen.

Yesterday was also the day for the great blog migration. After a few hitches and complications, we successfully moved Eleventh Stack to the CLP server. If you’re a regular Eleventh Stack reader, you’ll want to update your bookmarks and/or newsreaders to the following URL:


If you normally visit us through the CLP blog page, you won’t need to do anything – it’s already been updated for you. I, however, will be spending quite a bit of time scuttling around cyberspace updating directories, Facebook profiles and whatnot. There are also a few bugs to be worked out – the stats counter, a key component for blog success, is acting, for lack of a better word, “wonky.” Also, the feed is temperamental. But I’m pretty confident we can clean up these tiny issues without too much trouble. She said, and crossed her fingers…

Today began on an interesting note long before I entered the library! Since Tuesdays are my late shift, I try to get normal life chores done before coming to work. Today that meant going to a bookstore to pick up a birthday present for a friend. Much to my surprise, my bookstore experience echoed many of the same complaints some folks have had about libraries:

  • I knew what book I wanted, but didn’t know how the store was organized.
  • I tried looking in four different likely sections, based on my own expertise.
  • When I couldn’t find it, I was hesitant to ask for help (even though I know better than that!)
  • When I did try to find a staff member, I couldn’t find one.
  • When I did find staff members, they were talking, and I didn’t want to interrupt them (even though, again, I know better than that!)
  • Ultimately, I left the store without what I wanted because I wasn’t willing to navigate the system and its rules.

Interesting, no?  I bear the bookstore no ill will, and I will definitely go back there.  However, the experience really made me think about how systems are organized, and conscious of potential barriers.  I’ve been walking around the building today looking at everything with a fresh eye, trying to imagine what it looks like to someone who…

  • Is visiting for the first time
  • Knows what s/he needs, but not how to find it
  • Is in a hurry
  • Feels inferior somehow because of “the system”

More fodder for my Da Vinci notebook….


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