Library Day in the Life: Round 5 Starts Monday

Every year I say to myself, “Man, I have to do this thing.”  And every year I don’t, primarily because I am running about like a chicken sans tête, trying to make a difference in people’s lives.

However, I grow more and more convinced every day that the documentation, the witnessing, if you will, is just as important as the library work.  After all, so much of the work is invisible, and that doesn’t help us, as a rule, when it’s time to prove our worth.

So, I’m going to document a week of my library life.  Good timing, too, because the week after that, I’ll be on vacation.  So I’ll be trying to work ahead in the interests of vanishing with a clear conscience.  I’ll probably just blog it, with pics if I can find a USB cord for my camera over the weekend.  I figure I’ll keep a draft window open all day and post the whole when my shift is over.

I’d love to see what you’re up to next week, so if you decide to participate, leave a comment and let me know.  And thanks to Bobbi Newman for creating a fun and useful project.

Interlude: Library Instruction

You know you’re a hopeless library nerd when you willingly spend a Friday evening talking to library school students about what it’s like to work in a public library.  It’s a good kind of hopeless, though, the kind that reaffirms what you’re doing and why.

Because it was a library instruction class, I spent a goodish chunk of time talking about instruction in a public library — much of which is impromptu, on-the-fly, and tailored to individual needs, requiring great flexibility and versatility on the staff’s part.  I expressed this, of course, as “making it up as you go along,” because that’s what you do.  Being able to do this, though, requires excellent public speaking skills and a broad knowledge base.  Training as an improv comic, if you can get it, certainly doesn’t hurt either.

But I talked about a lot of other things, too, under the broad heading of “a day in the life of a public librarian.”  I took the radical step of nixing PowerPoint, handouts, and canned remarks.  Instead, I spent most of this week quietly seeking inner guidance about what the right things to say might be, and spoke off the cuff, trusting that the words I would need would show up when I needed them.

[If that sounded scary to you, keep in mind that I've been performing in public since I was five years old.  With experience, you get more comfortable winging stuff.]

The most important thing I’ve learned about any kind of speaking, formal or otherwise, is that to have maximum impact, it should be done with love.  It can be tough love, but the love’s got to be there.  Otherwise you’re just a noisy gong, a tinkling cymbal.  That is, I’ve heard.  I’ve had plenty of opportunities this week to think about loving and non-loving speech, to practice one and to apologize for the other.  All of this, I think, contributed to the presentation going well tonight.

Because I’m not a complete maverick, I did scribble down a short list of things I wanted to make sure I said, under the umbrella of “Positive aspects of public library work.”  I wanted to make sure that they knew it was worth it:  the jobhunting, and the subpar salaries, and the budget crises, and the “paying your dues” phase.  Here’s what I came up with:

You learn something new every day.  I’m sure that’s true in other kinds of libraries as well.  However, the serendipity quotient goes up in a public libraries because you never know what the lesson will be, or what guise it will come in.  Sometimes it’s a book title or random fact; sometimes it’s a lesson in patience or kindness.

The dress code is made of awesome.  I can, and do, look “nice” most of the time.  However, I’m deeply grateful that “nice” for me can run the gamut from business casual to capris/t-shirt/cardigan to Victorian goth.  It’s also nice to have that flexibility when, say, water starts pouring down from the ceiling, and you have to help move a whole lot of reference books very fast. 

Performance feedback is frequent and somewhat more relaxed.  I don’t live in dread of my performance appraisal because I get continuous feedback and when I feel I want more, I’m comfortable asking for it.  Also, given that so much of my work is visible, I usually get immediate results.  If something is working or not working, you’ve got empirical evidence to keep going or, conversely, stop.  See also, no tenure file.  If I pursue certain kinds of projects and opportunities, it’s because I think they’re interesting, not because they will make or break my chances of success.

Every day you get a chance to prove that not everything’s on the internet.  The digital divide is real.  The need for, and love of, print materials are real.  The shortcomings of e-books and databases are real, especially when it comes to pre-1990s journal articles (to say nothing of the architecture journals from 1919 sitting in phase boxes down on first stack).  Preservation and conservation concerns are real.  Microfilm still has a viable role to play. Every day in public libraries, we write that book.  Would that the conventional wisdom-mongers were listening.

There are more opportunities to be flexible and implement new ideas.  This is more of a theory based on heresay, but when I listen to some of the complaints my academic peers have, I thank my lucky stars I work somewhere where nobody’s ever going to disrespect me because I don’t have a longer string of letters after my name.  There are fewer boundaries between kinds of workers, and people are less attached to titles and more attached to what you can actually produce.  That makes for a lot less emphasis on things like “personal branding” and a lot more emphasis on authentic personality (which is good, because brands are for cattle, et c’est tout.).

And last, but certainly not least:

When you screw up on the job in a public library, gallons of oil don’t go gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.  This is, of course, my flippant way of pointing out that public library work contributes, on the whole, positive things to the world.  We don’t crank out useless products or generate pollution; instead, we are repositories of learning, wisdom, values, hope and, sometimes, good old-fashioned fun.   That is, quite frankly, the best thing ever, and I wouldn’t trade it for all the little gold statuettes in the world, Oscar fantasies notwithstanding.

So, yeah, I’m a public library nerd, card-carrying, cardigan-wearing, shall-not-be-shushed, world without end, amen.  But it’s me and my kind who will carry the day, in the long run.  For three things last always:  library faith, library hope, and library love.  And that last one’s the greatest.

Or so I’ve heard.  Do you feel the public library love?  Have I gone past denial now, straight on to delusion?   Or am I just coming down from “speaker’s high”?

Holla back.

Reading Today:  The Thyroid Solution, Ridha Arem, M.D. One in ten women have thyroid disorders and don’t realize it; could you be one of them?  A comprehensive primer overview of the mental and physical aspects of thyroid disease and its various treatment options.

Interlude: Chapman’s Homer

It’s been a long short week, hasn’t it? Perhaps that’s just my projection, but it sure feels like it.

One lovely library moment I’ve had lately popped up while I researched Pensée #4.  Searching for Juvenal led me, eventually, to Homer’s Batrachomyomachia – and the reason I link, specifically, to our catalog record this time is so that you can get a load of the named author/editor and the date.  Go on, click.  I’ll wait.

I nearly broke both legs on my way up to eighth stack to get my hands on the book.  The date is certainly reason enough alone, but if you’re wondering about the author, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump in the associative chain to Keats.

For those of you who didn’t spend more years than is sensible studying literature, I’ll summarize:  Keats never really “got” Homer, mostly because he found the translations boring.  He had a special beef with Pope’s translation, an opinion that irked fellow poet Lord Byron to no end.  And yet, when Keats and his friend got their hands on Chapman’s translation, the recently film-ified Homer-hater finally “got it.”  In fact, he got it so strongly that he stayed up all night writing a poem about it.

[My next question, of course, was, do we actually have "Chapman's Homer" in its entirety?  Answer =  yes.  "Replicate Keats's reading experience" is now at the top of my to-do list.]

Clearly Keats was not having the greatest “user experience” with Homer.  Then Chapman came along, and it was like a whole new world for him.  That knocks me out, because it sounds so much like what still goes on in our libraries today.  A hurried businessperson feels s/he “doesn’t have time to read,” but s/he loves using the Playaways.   Or maybe a non-native English speaker doesn’t feel ready for the fiction section just yet, but loves the graphic novels.   See also instructional DVDs, databases, and books on CD, and the uses thereof.

Have you had a Keats experience lately, either as a librarian or as a library user?  What book, movie, CD, work of art, etc. clarified something for you so that you “got it”?  In what sort of materials/services are your “user experiences” primarily based?

[I have to confess, I'm rather fond of the crumbly books and the ideas that have stood the test of time.  I wonder, occasionally, what will last, what precious 21st-century artifacts future librarians will break both legs to look at, and cradle lovingly in their hands.  Any guesses?]

Reading Today: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky. Lipsky has an extensive heart-to-heart with David Foster Wallace, and LAV finally understands the magnitude of just what we’ve lost.

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.


Life here at Alchemy isn’t all vampires and snark.  It is, however, rather bookish.

I’m somewhat startled by how infrequently I talk about books in my professional librarian blog.  Then again, my writing about books would be much like asking fish to philosophize about water (especially since fish can’t talk).  Print books, to me, are not so much objects to be fussed over as they are critical elements of survival that I take for granted.  The sun will rise in the morning, the water that comes out of my tap will be potable, and there will always, always be something for me to read.  You will step between me and my books at your peril, and you will pry their papery goodness from my cold, dead hands.

All that being said, I’ve decided we don’t talk about books nearly enough at Alchemy, and that this must change.  Given that I am still my department’s emerging technologies librarian, we will still grumble talk a lot about technology.  Because I’m now officially in the leadership training cohort, we’ll still be talking about leadership.  And because I remain your cynical romantic, we will definitely still philosophize.  There are, however, one or two little cosmetic tweaks we’ll make going forward.

For starters, at the end of every post, I’ll link to the book I’m reading that day.  Given that I am usually reading 50 library books at any given time, and have 50 more on order, this should not prove difficult.  In all fairness, I am usually reading more than one book per day (one for the bus, one for each room in the house, one for my lunch break, etc.), but to keep the literary insufferability to a minimum, we’ll stick to one per post.

Finishing books tends to be an issue for me.  I take Nancy Pearl’s 50-page rule very seriously; it breaks my heart that, at the end of my life, I still won’t have read all the books on earth, so I want to make sure I don’t spend too much time with clunkers.  50 pages is more than enough to be able to file it away in my brain for readers’ advisory.

Still, I’d like to finish more books than I do, which is why I signed up for two reading challenges this year, a 50-book challenge at GoodReads, and a 100 book challenge at Every Girl Blog. That’s technically 150 books to finish this year (doubling up seems like cheating), and I’m going to keep track of them right here at Alchemy, just to save time.  You will find my 2010 reading log thus far in the left-hand sidebar, or you can visit it here.

You’d think we would be all booked up right now, but you’d be so very wrong!  Just to up the ante, starting with the next book I finish, I’m going to review it here at Alchemy.  I love writing book reviews, and would like to get both more exposure and more practice.  The 175-word fiction reviews I produce for Library Journal are definitely fun, and keep me sharp, but I find that, much like the opium addicts of old, it takes more and more of the stuff to satisfy my critical appetite.  Since it would be selfish to sign up to review all the books at LJ, I’ll simply have to branch out.

What else is in it for you, Constant Reader?  Well, those ARCs have to go somewhere when I’m done with them, and I’d prefer it not be the recycling pile.  The sensible, responsible thing to do seems to be passing them on to a fellow information professional.  Ergo, each time I’m done with an LJ ARC, I’ll offer it up for grabs on Alchemy.

As luck would have it, I actually have one for you today – everybody who comments on this entry between now and Wednesday April 28th will have the opportunity to win the somewhat-battered copy of the book I’ve just reviewed.  Today’s mystery ARC is the third novel from a literary mystery author, and if you’re in the mood for a solid whodunit with a number of quirky literary style choices and a meta-fiction vibe, you should put your hat in the ring for it.

In a token nod to technology, I’ve updated my blogroll to indicate which library blogs I’m actually reading right now.  I don’t read many blogs, sad to say; this is not because I don’t love you madly, but because I loathe squinting at a tiny screen.  Because printing out posts is neither time-efficient nor environmentally sound, I limit my blog reading only to those authors who make it consistently worth my while.   Paradoxically, however, I am always on the lookout for blogs I haven’t yet discovered, and it seems sensible that I should start with you.  Ergo, if you are blogging, please include your link so that I can repay your kindness to me by checking out your thoughts as well.

Last, but certainly not least, a feature for the comment-shy:  WordPress has just initiated a delightful new star rating system, allowing you to indicate how much you liked a particular post without having to leave a comment.  I’ve enabled this feature, and you will now see it at the top of every post.  The only way I’m going to get better at this is if you give me feedback, so please, for the sake of quality control, make your (dis)pleasure known ad astra if you’re not feeling chatty.

Poll results indicate the bulk of you are interested in hearing about My Year of No, a project that began on Facebook.  When I come back from my “nobody should work on their birthday” mini-holiday, I’ll tell you all about it…at least, all about the professional aspect.

Happy reading!

Reading Today: This is for the Mara Salvatrucha, Samuel Logan.  A gang member turned informant spills the beans on the MS-13, one of America’s most notorious street gangs (non-fiction, true crime).

Title Fail (Insert Vampire Metaphor Here): Library Failure, Pt. III

Here we are again, leading by example, coming up for air to talk a little more about failure.  Like, for example, my failure to keep a straight face yesterday at the reference desk when a patron’s cell phone rang.

Though I’m no Lady GaGa, I’m pretty good with the public service poker face when the occasion warrants.  Yesterday, however, I couldn’t remain composed when the cellphone ringing started.  You see, Constant Reader, the sound that played at intervals without ceasing was…

…a crowing rooster.  Sort of like this, only without the heavy metal riffing in the background.

Put yourself in my place for a moment.  In the peace and splendor of a steady, yet quiet, tour of reference desk duty, your composure is marred by


Every 30 seconds.  With the patron showing no signs of having heard the sound, or wanting to do anything about it.  And you, enforcer of the policy which clearly states that cellphones should be taken out into the hallway, cannot enforce it, becuase you have your head tucked into your hand, suppressing violent giggles.  Other patrons are looking at you, waiting for you to take charge of the situation, because you are the arbiter of order.  And yet, there you sit, turning purple from suppressed mirth.

Rooster.  Ringtone.  Professional.  Response.  Fail.

How my desk partner managed to get through it with a straight face, I’ll never know.  Perhaps he’ll consent to giving me lessons in future?  Or, perhaps, I should heed my own advice and see what science has to say about outsmarting my brain, so that I, too, can remain calmer in the face of mayhem?


 There’s no dearth of recent books ready to help you tame your amygdala.  Many of them cite the same scientific sources, so here, pulled at random, is a capsule description of what happens in your brain when the amygdala freaks out:

The Fear Response stimulates the amygdala-hippocampus complex (AHC), your emotional response center and the primitive part of the brain, often called the “lizard brain.” The lizard brain directs the emotions or behaviors that are responsible for survival of the species, such as fear and aggression. The lizard brain also stores the memory of any given negative experience or threat so that you can react even faster to it in the future.

Stimulation of the lizard brain triggers a cascade of events, culminating in the production of hormones and peptides, such as cortisol and adrenaline, that cause physical changes in the body. At the same time, changes occur in the brain that prevent you from doing any complex problem solving–you actually revert to a more primitive being whose main goal is physical self-preservation.

The Love Response, Eva M, Selhub, pg. 5

So, a chemical process that once might have saved you from being saber-toothed tiger chow now has the potential to trip you up by spurring you into fear-driven actions and responses that have the potential to become a negative feedback loop. What’s a librarian to do?

In a word, laugh.

There’s virtually no end to the veritable flood of information out there about the science of laughter. Robert Provine, a key scholar in the field, has generated a great deal of research on the topic, including a lengthy essay in American Scientist.  The bottom line appears to be that laughter is adaptive, is good for us, makes us healthier overall.  Which means that my giggle-fit “fail” at the reference desk yesterday wasn’t so much a “fail” as it was the best possible response to a fairly ludicrous situation.

That lets me off the hook quite nicely!  You, however, may be skeptical.  You would be perfectly within your rights to scowl at your screen, cross your arms and say, “Listen girlfiend, you’re not here, and you don’t know.”  Your library, you may reckon, is no laughing matter.  No amount of snicker-inducing shenanigans could possibly improve your current working conditions, could they?

Well, allow me to retort.  In part IV, I will attempt to sidestep the logical part of your brain and appeal to those parts of it that respond best to myth and symbol, via the figure of Abraham Lincoln.  And, of course, those pesky vampires.

I’ll try to wrap this up on Friday, but it could drag on until next week.  In the meantime, if you have any hilarious cellphone stories, please share in a comment.  Aside from the rooster, the best ringtone I’ve heard at the library was the refrain to The Scorpions’ 80s hair-band hit, Rock You Like a Hurricane. Can you top that, Constant Readers?

Title Fail (Insert Vampire Metaphor Here): Library Failure, Pt. I

Last week, while helping a really cute patron, I made a wee blunder at the end of a transaction.  When he thanked me for my assistance, I looked him right in the eye, gave him my most dazzling customer service smile and said, “You’re wonderful” instead of “You’re welcome.”


The patron grinned.  I blushed about seventy-five different shades of scarlet and apologized.  He was very gracious about it.  Did I mention he was also very, very cute?  Cute as in “Hardly anybody that cute walks in here” cute?


If you’ve never done anything like that during a reference transaction, just you wait.  Interspersed with all the inspirational moments where you change somebody’s life there will be inevitable episodes of mistaking babies’ genders, much to the outrage of their parents; mispronouncing names; bumping into people; tripping over laptop cords; forgetting to bring someone’s chases over to their work table (usually when you’re trying to help seven people at once), and deleting print jobs from the queue instead of releasing them.

It gets worse.  You will, at some point in your career, screw your courage to the sticking place and propose a new initiative that will be roundly dismissed by the powers that be as unfeasible due to circumstances of which you were not aware when you crafted your cunning plan.  What’s worse, at least one of your projects will fail miserably and die quietly while your peers politely ignore the stench of dead woodchuck under the porch of your career.  You will accidentally send an e-mail intended just for one person to the entire countywide listserv and, along the same lines, intentionally send an e-mail to the countywide listserv only to discover that your missive has incorrect information, a typo, or both.  You will completely misunderstand something a patron wants and, for example, send her/his books back to the warehouse when what s/he really wanted was for you to keep them a little longer.

Quite possibly, your mistakes will be even larger.  If you’re not careful, you will sign up for far more committees and special projects than you can reasonably handle, then freak out when the workload gets to be too much. You will then refuse to drop or quit anything because you want to prove that you’re hard-core, and can run with the big dog librarians.  You also won’t want your boss — or his/her bosses, for that matter — thinking you’re a wuss who can’t take the heat.

Luckily, you will survive all of this, and more.  Someday, you will even laugh about it.

“Failure,” in the context of library work, is an amusing intellectual concept because, even on our very worst days nobody dies (usually) and nothing gets set on fire (normally).  Those of us who work in urban public libraries frequently have more harrowing stories to tell; these, however, have less to do with personal failures or mistakes than they do with gaping holes in the larger social fabric.  For the moment, we will put those aside and concentrate on those individual moments of epic fail that stop us in our tracks and make us wonder if we took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

Discussing Library Failure

In June of 2009 the estimable Walt Crawford wrote a blog post called Learning From Failure for what is know known as the Library Leadership Network.  Your alchemist prescribes a cup of tea and a slow, careful reading of this post, but for those of you already caught up in a frazzly workweek, here’s the money quote that goes a long way toward explaining why we don’t talk much about our professional failures:

Failure isn’t sexy.

Librarians are by no means immune to the desire to be admired, respected, thought well of.  The extent to which each individual wants personal “library fame” varies widely:  some people want to be on the cover of LJ; others would simply like a job.  But all of us want to be regarded in a positive professional light.

This is, I assure you, perfectly normal.  Where we goof it up, I’ve found, is in the pressure we put on ourselves to be likeable.  We are, I think, harder on ourselves than any employer or colleague would ever be.  Just a theory…but let’s test it out, shall we?

Let’s say, for example, your boss sends you an e-mail.  Somehow said e-mail gets buried in the crush of daily e-mails you receive, and you don’t see it.  For a whole year.  Which you then realize about 48 hours before said item really should be acted upon.

At this point, you probably need to be peeled off the ceiling because your mental chatter sounds something like this:

OMG I am such an idiot!  I can’t believe I let an e-mail sit in my inbox for an entire year without doing anything!  My boss is going to kill me.  Worse, before s/he kills me, s/he’s going to give me THAT LOOK, the one that makes me want to curl up and die of shame because it reminds me of the way my swimming teacher looked at me when I refused to jump off the high dive in 4th grade PE.  Maybe Boss will yell, or maybe s/he’ll give me the silent treatment, but either way, this blunder is going to go down in my PERMANENT LIBRARY RECORD, and I will never get another good assignment, promotion, or raise ever again.  Then my boss will tell HER/HIS boss, who will start treating me as if I’m somewhat feeble.  Word will spread.  I’ll stop getting invited to the GOOD meetings, the ones with DOUGHNUTS.  People will avoid me in the halls and stop talking whenever I walk into a room, and it will be because they were discussing ME and ALL THE WAYS IN WHICH I AM AN EPIC FAILURE.  Nobody will eat lunch with me anymore because they won’t want to be associated with the fail-cloud hanging over my head, and eventually I will have to wear a scarlet letter F on my oufit.  At my next evaluation I’ll be let go because of “budget reasons,” and I’ll never get another library job again, and some snarky library blogger will write a post using me as an example of What Not to Do.  I’ll end up working at Dunkin Donuts and LIVING IN A VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER!  My life is OVER!

Well, am I right?

If that sounds even remotely familiar to you, welcome to your amygdala, the lizard part of your brain that manages to turn your failures and mistakes into heinous crimes the likes of which would make Jack the Ripper himself blush with shame to be seated next to you in whatever punitive dimensions exist beyond this one. Though your cerebral cortex will try to have its way, the only way to counter-attack the amygdala is with myth, symbol, and other constructs that speak to the emotions.

This brings us, quite naturally, to vampires.  But, ironically, not right now!  What I’d hoped could be one long moment of library blog brilliance has turned, by necessity of between-patron typing and editing, into a two-parter.  Nothing like leading by example, eh?  Part Two will discuss vampires as a metaphor for failure, using the curious paradox of Fictional Abraham Lincoln, who has a bit of an identity problem for us to resolve.  We’ll also talk about ways you can outsmart your amygdala…and I promise you that to make myself publicly accountable for doing the research on that.  After all, I wouldn’t want to fail you, Constant Reader.

Live well, laugh often, talk soon!

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.

Soylent Green (day in the life, part II)

Fables of the Reconstruction

The problem with part I of this “day in the life” recap is that, despite my best efforts, it still doesn’t capture what passes for normal around here. Monday was very tech-heavy, which could lead to the mistaken impression that I get to play with cool 2.0 stuff all day long while my colleagues are sweating away at the refdesk. Not so.

A normal day around here also usually involves a lot more walk-and-talks. This is a term used to describe the state of affairs when one is conducting business while walking around, as seen on Sports Night and The West Wing. Teamwork and collaboration are the order of the day around here, and while there are many thngs I do independently, like buy books in my subject area and tot up those darned database stats, there are also a lot of things that only come together when my compatriots and I team up and form Voltron.  I also get more phone calls these days, and my presence is required at more meetings.

On top of that, I’m forever charging into people’s offices with a crazy idea, philosophical question, or shameless request (how do you think I got an intern? Ask and get!). The two people I consult regularly — my boss and one of the other senior librarians — are great models for leadership because no matter how many times I go in to talk to them, they stop whatever they’re doing and give me their full attention. They do this for everyone else on staff, too, and I’ve tried to emulate this behavior because I think it’s a valuable one.

Another dimension of the new normal around here is the ongoing advocacy effort. There’s a staff blog and wiki where everyone can contribute their ideas and ask questions, and I log in to read these and contribute whenever I can. It’s comforting to me to see the organization use emerging technologies for the common good, to keep everyone on the same page, spread accurate information, etc., and no matter how our particular situation turns out, at least we’re using all the tools at our disposal.  This morning, in particular, it was amazing to log in to the advocacy wiki and see all the great ideas coming from people all over the system. 

In other words, library service is people!  It’s all people!  Whether the service benefits a peer or a patron, everything I do on a so-called normal day revolves around helping a real person.  And that’s often chaotic, messy, and hard to pin down.

Zone defense

I’d hoped to type up my refdesk observations from the other day, but, life happens.  I know they’re on my desk somewhere.  Problem is, so are a lot of other things.  Like small press catalogs, to-do lists, piles of books, spreadsheet printouts, booklists, newspapers, etc.  The rest of my time this week has been occupied with totting up 2nd quarter database stats – I’m about 3/4 done – and preparing for the meeting we had around 1 p.m. today.  It went well, I think.  I’m getting more comfortable with planning and running meetings, and actual work is getting done, which is the goal.  There’s almost nothing worse than a meeting that’s a waste of everybody’s time.

So, that was a day – literally and philosophcially – in my library life.  It’s crawling chaos.  It’s madcap zany.  It’s headache-inducing, spirit-lifting, skippy-dancing, goat-farm-dreaming, puzzle-pondering goodness.  I feel very fortunate to be here, and I wouldn’t change a single thing…except, maybe, to have one whole wall in my office that was nothing but whiteboard.  That would be pretty cool.

Things I want to talk about if I ever get 5 seconds:

  • Having an intern
  • Book reviewing
  • Why Walt Crawford is awesome
  • Gen X leadership

The reach must exceed the grasp.  Isn’t that what library blogs are for?

I’ll be on staycation next week, though.  The play I’m in goes up Friday and Saturday, so I’ll be focusing on delivery and diction rather than databases and desk work.  I maybe might chime in with some of the more abstract, bigger-picture ruminations I normally don’t have time for, but that’s a longshot-darkhorse prospect.

Sorkinesque (a day in the life, part I)

Yes, it really did take me that long to finish and post those meeting minutes!  The reasons why will become apparent shortly.  But first, some backstory.

Last week various colleagues posted the news in various forums that another one of those “day in the library life” blogging events was going to take place.  I love those things.  I never sign up for them, though, because, realistically, if I stopped to write down everything I was doing in a given moment, I’d never get anything done.  And then I thought, well, what better way to demonstrate that a normal day in my life is very much like an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night than to take a crack at it?

[Those of you who don't know from Sports Night are cordially invited to check out the DVD and see what all the fuss is about - even though starting with anything other than the pilot might seem counterintuitive, I highly recommend starting with "Dear Louise," "Shoe Money Tonight," and "Small Town" to get a feel for the characters, their workplace, and their relationship to each other. It's a wonderful show about a close-knit group of professionals who are extremely passionate about what they do, to the point of appearing like complete ciphers to folks who don't work in their field. Sound like any other professional folks you know? :)]

So, without further ado, here is a reconstruction, based on my frantically scribbled notes, of everything that took place in my library life on Monday, July 27, 2009.

Library Alchemy: A Day in the Life

Part I – Off-desk

9:30:  Check the desk schedule, add my desk shifts to my Outlook calendar.  Exchange witty banter with colleagues.  Laugh self into pancreatic pain.

9:40:  Finish up ALA expense report and bring it to my boss.  Chat with boss about database stuff, which segues into a philosophical discussion of future staffing models for the reference department.  Return to office.  Field questions from colleague about the exact same stuff was just discussing with boss.  More philosophy ensues.

10:00 Open up e-mail.  Answer the time-sensitive stuff.  Answer flurry of questions about Twitter and HootSuite.  Get another chunk of the Twitter gang signed up with HootSuite accounts and schedule trainings for those who want it.  Discover the “most popular Tweets” feature in HootSuite and squee over it.  Put aside a whack of database reference cards to give to a branch colleague at the Friday meeting.  More e-mail with various blog staffers in an attempt to coordinate some guest posts for September. Decline to take a call from a vendor and proceed to feel guilty about it.

A colleague drops by to check in with me about the school tour I’m giving this afternoon.  The group  has changed its mind several times on whether or not it wants catalog and database training.  The colleague and I decide that asking them what they want is the best solution.  Photocopy catalog and database training handouts for tour group.  Run over training in my head while at the photocopier.  A colleague walks by, greeting me with the mysterious phrase, “PEANUT SAUCE!”  I respond with the countersign, “SCALLIONS!”  Tamp down nervousness about giving catalog and database training, which never seems to go away no matter how many tours and trainings I do.  Accept that fear is normal.  Recite the Litany Against Fear anyway.

11:00 Break time. Decide to take a walk around the building. Ask colleague how her Friday evening presentation went. Ask another colleague about bloggish things. Say hello and good morning to countless other colleagues. Receive a lovely gift: an inspirational photo of a dandelion with the phrase “I release all that does not serve me” written on it. Hang photo on bulletin board.

11:15 Head over to book order. Discover that all of the non-fiction books mentioned in the 7/26 New York Times Book Review have either already been purchased, or are on order. Do vague skippy victory dance. Dive into the other ordering tools with gusto.  Decide that I should probably call back the vendor whose call I dodged and just tell her “thanks, no thanks” right up front. Get vendor’s voice mail. Quietly rejoice. Deliver polite, professional message and hang up, feeling 100s of pounds lighter.

12:00 Lunch. Chat with colleague in lunchroom about violins and music librarianship. Consume leftover peanut noodles with zest and start reading Work the System. Approve wholeheartedly of its emphasis on systems thinking and personal responsibility. Speculate on how its principles could be applied to my work life. Finish peanut noodles and head to the post office to mail a package to my mom. Study lines for the play I’m currently acting in while stuck in line at the post office.

1:00  Log into Eleventh Stack. Clean out spam filter, look at stats. Start rearranging widgets in sidebar based on a conversation taking place on the blog team distribution list. Start draft of next week’s blog post. Proofread a few scheduled posts. Read the post du jour and marvel again at how many awesome, creative people I’m surrounded with.

Log into the library’s Twitter account. Check for new followers. Block spam followers. Read followers’ tweets. Make mental note to remind everybody to use #pittsburgh in their tweets. Ping the rest of the Twitter team about HootSuite signup and training.

2:00 Meet the school tour group in the teen department. Immediately lose all normal vision when contact lens slides off center. Attempt several times to correct this subtly. Fail miserably. Start tour anyway, blind. Ignore rude noises produced by high school males and charitably assume that they are involuntary. Give tour of first and second floors, with special emphasis on Job and Career Center, based on group leader’s interests.

Ask about catalog and database training. Teacher says, “Whatever you think is best.” Decide to give the best catalog and database training ever and lead students to computer lab. Turn on projector. Wait. Fiddle with projector, silently coaxing it to cooperate. Decide projector has developed selective deafness. Give training without projector, using the computer at the lab attendant’s desk. Give thanks once again for theater and improv training.

3:00 Reassure long line of patrons waiting outside computer lab that yes, they can use the computers now. Check e-mail and discover that the wireless is down. Discover, also, that there are questions about my ALA reimbursement form. Silently consider starting a goat farm.

Start planning for Friday’s database committee meeting. Finish writing up June EREC meeting minutes, send to group, and post to ACLA wiki. Skim newsreader. Read an article that makes my heart sink and e-mail it to pertinent (and impertinent) parties. Skim “kept as new” items and decide to keep them marked because someday I will pay them the full attention they deserve, really!

Run downstairs to get coffee. Run into teen patron at coffeeshop. Engage in casual, stealth readers’ advisory with said teen. Run into hard-to-schedule colleague and set up a training time that is technically after my regular work hours, but is the only thing that will fit her schedule. Run back upstairs to my office.

Make list of tasks for my intern to work on on Tuesday. Walk down the hall to resolve the questions about my ALA reimbursement. Notice that the hallway smells strongly of french fries. Observe to colleague that, if the library were a musical, it would be at this point that we all burst into song about the joy of french fries. Stand still with colleague for a few seconds and imagine what this would sound like. Clear up questions about ALA reimbursement. Walk back to my office, inhaling deeply and smiling to self.

See? And we haven’t even made it to the reference desk yet! That deserves its own special installment, which I hope to deliver on Friday. Stay tuned!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 148 other followers