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.

Laptop “Sexy Back” Interlude


Last week, for science, I gave up using the internet, and most other media, for a whole week.  You can tell by the speed of my re-entry I didn’t miss it much (and that being on vacation for a week means tons of makeup work to do). 

I do plan a more thorough critical analysis of the experience at some point.  However, to tide you over until I can piece my thoughts and notes together, here’s some footage of a gorgeous laptop that has the potential to bring sexy back to library science:

Make sure your speakers are on, too.  Because nothing says “Hellooo gorgeous new technology!” like a little smooth jazz.  Your normally sanguine alchemist just developed a holiday wish…

The rolltop is the brainchild of Orkin Design; click around a bit and check out some of the other cool things they’ve come up with!

Library Workaholics Anonymous: Notes on Work and Play


“I wake up every day torn between the desire to save the world and to savor the world.  This makes it hard to plan the day.” –E.B. White

My name’s LAV, and I’m a library workaholic.

By this I mean I have a hard time saying no to anything.  I get to work early, I stay late, and I have to be reminded to take my time back.  I struggle to make time for breaks and lunch, and sometimes I’m so involved with what I’m doing, I forget to eat.  I volunteer for things no matter how many things I’ve already volunteered for, and I’ve never met a committee assignment I didn’t like.  Every day I get at least twenty brilliant ideas that are going to inevitably result in more work for myself, so of course I try to do them all at once.  Finally, whenever I try to set boundaries, say no to assignments,  and delegate tasks to other people, I end up caving faster than a master spelunker the first time I meet any resistance. 

Behold, the shadow side of finding your life’s work:  the inability, sometimes, to let it go and get a life. 

I imagine this would trouble me more than it does, except for one thing:  I play just as hard as I work.  And I’m always looking for opportunities to incorporate play into my work.  Let us take, for example, the presentation I gave last week at The School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh:

A quick flip through those slides tells you something about my sense of humor, but also demonstrates my commitment not to take any of this too seriously.  I love our electronic resources, and I want to do a good job, but I want to make sure I keep the work within its proper perspective.

Did you wince at that, just a little?  Me too.  It sounds…sacreligious, almost, the idea that we could take anything we do too seriously.  And yet, there it is in a squirmy nutshell, the need to be devoted and passionate without becoming a monomaniac, the kind of person people avoid at parties because they can’t stop talking about library service for five seconds.

Hence the silence here at Alchemy:  there’s been a lot of other work to do, and I’ve sacrificed library blogging in favor of play.  This year I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month, colloquially known as NaNoWriMo, and I’m having the time of my life. I just crossed the 30K word count over the weekend, and I can’t even begin to tell you how liberating it feels to cast aside the fear of “not being good enough” and just let the words ripple out.

In fact, I feel taller, somehow, and much more confident about my library workload.  After all,  if I can write a 50,000 word novel in a month (albeit a bad one), what else can I do?  Heaven only knows.   And NaNo actually has a whole plan for library programming, so it’s not all that far afield from library work after all – ah, those slippery slopes!

Reading Zen Habits has also proved helpful in my never-ending quest to balance work and play.  If you’re looking for a kinder, gentler productivity blog, try sampling its advice on taking action, cleaning up your workspace, and even the whole workaholic thing at large. It’s even good for a hearty laugh from time to time (of all possible workplace challenges one could face, that one never crossed my mind).  The overriding theme of the blog is achieving more by letting go, which sounds counter-intuitive.  I suggest, though, that you approach this notion the same way you approached the last Library 2.0 innovation you tried – test it out for a month, see how it works, discard if necessary.

How do you know if you’ve got the work-play fulcrum set right for you?  You’ll know.  You’ll know because, in spite of everything, you will feel joyful, even when you are not always happy.  If library work doesn’t make you feel joyful at the core, well…that’s a blog post for another day.

I’ll have a quick update on Friday to announce my next crazy little experiment, and there will also be a poll in which I ask your opinion on a matter of critical import.  Stay tuned.

Dances With Vendors: Confessions of a Clumsy Alchemist


Your alchemist is not the most graceful person on the planet.   Ever since my childhood dance teacher suggested–not unkindly, mind you–that perhaps being a prima ballerina was not in my future, I’ve been a little leery of anything that requires physical coordination.  When I do dance, it’s either in a dark, crowded room where nobody’s really looking at me, or in the privacy of my own apartment, where I can lace up my Doc Martens, crank up something gothtastic on iTunes, and let ‘er rip.

Dancing with vendors is a slightly different proposition, but, I would argue, only slightly.  The same amount of grace and dexterity is required, and there’s certainly plenty of sweat involved.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to pick the best products and services for your library.  This involves setting good boundaries, being able to say no without closing a door to future interactions, should your needs change, communicating your needs clearly, and, from time to time,  letting poor behavior roll off your back.

All things considered, strapping on a pair of pointe shoes again sometimes seems preferable!  That being said, though, I’ve been practicing this particular form of dance for about two years now, and I think I’m starting to get the hang of the basics.  Maybe in a few more years, if this sort of thing continues to be part of my responsibilities, I’ll be able to execute the pas de deux with the best of ‘em (like our former deputy director, who was, arguably, the Martha Graham of database negotiation).

Here are some behaviors that work well for me in the sense of keeping me relatively sane when doing the vendor dance.  I’d also like to offer some suggestions to vendors so that our dances together can be more enjoyable for both of us.

Dance Steps for Librarians

  1. Try scheduling vendor calls.  Your Outlook calendar can be your friend.  If your life is as busy as mine, you can’t always take a call when the vendor wants to talk…and yet, sometimes, you really will be interested in what they have to say.  Offer to schedule a time that’s convenient for you.  This cuts down on random calls, and lets vendors know you’re willing to dance.  If a vendor isn’t willing to work with you on your time, maybe it’s time to rethink that relationship.
  2. Learn to say no.  I know, I know.  If we could all figure this one out, the world would be a magical place full of sunshine and rainbows.  Still, the only way you’re going to get better at this is if you practice.  There are a million ways to say no, and many of them are kind.  “We’re going in a different direction right now” and “This doesn’t seem like the right solution for us at this time” are two examples.  There’s something to be said, as well, for the basic, “No thank you, we’re not interested right now.”  Pick your poison, but pick one (PA residents should feel free to invoke the state budget dilemma)!!
  3. Screen your calls.  This is a sticky wicket for me personally, because I don’t have a personal extension or voice mail.  I hate asking my colleagues to run interference for me and take messages, but the fact of the matter is this:  if you’re the vendor contact, and you take every single call that comes in for you, you will go stark raving mad in short order; in addition, you will never get anything else done.  If you can screen calls, do it!  If you can’t, talk to your boss and colleagues about what a good solution for your office might look like.
  4. Take calls when you can.  Vendors are human beings with a job to do, so you should treat them with the same respect you would ask for yourself.  That means actually taking their calls when you can.  If you aren’t interested in the product, see #2.  If you’re interested, but the timing isn’t right, say so, and suggest you talk again in X number of months, or next year, or next budget cycle. 
  5. Have FAQ information organized and ready.  Vendors often need to know certain things in order to quote us prices accurately.  Often this information includes population served, number of cardholders, city/county population, and/or number of public computers available.  Write these things on an index card and keep it handy.  That way you can make the most of your phone time by being prepared for questions.
  6. Be able to articulate specifically what your users want and need.  By the same token, there are certain things you’re looking for in a product.  Make a list of these and ask about them right away.  If the vendor cannot fulfill your needs, it’s better to find out right up front.  Then you can go straight to #2 for the polite “no.”
  7. Don’t take bad behavior personally.  Selling something for a living–and some folks are solely on commission–can really stink, especially during these economic times.  If you’re working with a vendor who dances clumsily, please try to remember that they did not get up this morning hell-bent on ruining your workday.  A vendor’s job is to sell you things.  That’s just how it is.  If their behavior bugs you, please go find a colleague to vent to, or watch a funny kittens video on YouTube, or make an ice cream run, or whatever will get you through the day.  Just don’t take it personally, because, quite frankly, it isn’t.

Dance Steps for Vendors

Dear library product vendors:  Your job is a tough one, and I know I wouldn’t do it very well, so I appreciate the hard work you do.  Here are some suggestions I would like to make that could improve our relationship all around, and make for better business transactions.

  1. Please don’t send me presents.  I don’t know you very well, and getting a gift from somebody I don’t know is a little awkward and doesn’t feel ethically correct.  On top of that, giving me a present is not likely to influence my purchase decisions, especially if your product isn’t what my patrons need right now.  I’d much rather the money you spent on presents went toward improving your product, and making sure all your employees get a fair wage.
  2. Please don’t call me 3 times in 30 minutes.  If I can’t take your call, it’s because I have another committment.  Working in a large public library is delightfully insane, and it doesn’t make for predictable phone availability.  Repeat calls in a short period of time doesn’t make me enthusiastic about your persistence or your product.  I know you’ve been burned on this one before, but I’d appreciate it if you could trust me.
  3. Please learn to spell and pronounce my name.  It’s a little tricky, I’ll grant you, but it’s not like they call me Chasmodeus Czyrwilmeninczky.  I accept that I’ll probably have to explain it once or twice.  Once we hit three times, however, it just seems like you’re not listening.
  4. Please don’t write me long, friendly e-mails full of chit-chat if we’ve just metIf I’ve contacted you for information, I’d like just that information.  I know that the current business emphasis on making the customer feel valuable has resulted in a lot of friendly gestures designed to make us feel comfortable with you as people.  A good working relationship, however, is built over time.  If I buy your product, and we work together a lot, a level of informality will grow naturally.  Being overly folksy right out of the gate is somewhat off-putting, however. 
  5. Please answer the questions we actually have.  I know you’re really proud of your product, and you want to tell me everything about how it’s going to change my life.  But if I have a question, I’d really like the answer to just that question, and not an explanation of all the other great things.  If I ask about a feature you don’t have, don’t tell me about the other four features you DO have.  If I have questions about those features, I will ask you.
  6. Please don’t take “no” personally.  If your product isn’t right for us, or we have to cancel your product due to budget cuts, or whatever reason we’re saying “no” at this time…it’s not personal.  You didn’t do anything wrong, per se, and you should take our “no” at face value.  Calling repeatedly to find out the “real” reason why we canceled is kind of stalkerish, and doesn’t inspire a change of heart.
  7. If we ask for a trial, please don’t offer us a live demo.  This is especially applicable to vendors who are just now discovering the library market, and don’t know public libraries or their users very well.  We want to get our hands on your product and playtest it against the realities we face every day.  Live demos can be interesting, but there isn’t always time in the day for them.  On top of that, a lot of time can be wasted in a live demo trying to get you to cut to the chase.  I know you’ve worked very hard on your presentation, but there are certain things we look for that only a good playtesting will assess accurately.  If we have questions, or want a live demo, we will ask for them.  Pinky swear.

Now, all of that being said?  I work with some really cool vendors.  I’m Facebook friends with one of our reps, and she’s been insanely helpful in terms of training, answering questions, tech support, etc.  She also understands the boundaries of our professional relationship and doesn’t feel the need to comment on every conversation I have.  There’s another vendor with whom I wish we were doing business (stupid PA budget) because she’s perfected the art of knowing how often to call to see if our situation has changed, and she’s clearly done her homework on public libraries because she knows what’s important to us and what’s not.  Doing the vendor dance doesn’t have to be a hair-pulling, migraine-headache inducing experience; it can be pleasant, cvil, calm, and–dare I say it?–even fun on occasion.   It only works, though, when we all strive to dance well.

As ever, I would like to hear your take on these things, and I’m open to other perspectives.  Do you work with vendors at your library?  How’s that working out for you?  Do you have any tips for an intermediate, still slightly clumsy, alchemist?

Oh, and I wasn’t kidding about the Docs or the dancing.  Might I suggest A Life Less Lived? To see if it would be your cup of tea, here’s a representative sample:

Happy dancing, and I’ll see you next week.

Indeed A Stage: Librarians and Theater


Well, that was fun!  But, all good things must come to an end.  I really enjoyed being on stage again after — yikes! — twelve years.  I suppose it’s less than that, given that I performed at Friday Nite Improvs for a few years. But it’s been more than a decade since I had to memorize a script and put on multiple shows in a weekend.  I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it until I started rehearsing, too.

At this point you might be saying to yourself, “Well, dear, that’s very sweet and all, but shouldn’t you go back to being a grown-up now?”  I suppose I should, rather.  Still, there are plenty of grown-up, sophisticated library bloggers about–I’ve decided that I’d much rather be the holistic type who tries to convince you that things like theater and improv could actually be good for your career.

Consider the reference librarian.  S/he frets and struts an hour or two upon the refdesk, then is no more (presumably s/he’s in a back office somewhere, ordering books, attending meetings, ripping her/his hair out, etc.).  S/he has scheduled entrances and exits, and when s/he’s at the desk, s/he has a role to play.

Occasionally these roles are scripted; more often, they’re improvisational.  You have a situation/location (the reference desk) and a relationship (librarian/patron).  Although there are a number of different shapes the conversation could take (Where’s the bathroom?  Do you have Jane Eyre? Does this reference book make my bag look fat?), you have absolutely no idea what any given person is going to say to you, and you have to be ready to respond in the moment.

One thing I love about improv is its reliance on “Yes, and.”  In the best improv scenes, the partners roll with the reality of the situation no matter how far-fetched it becomes.  “Did you steal a kidney from the transplant truck? ”  “Yes, and I wanted you to see it first–happy anniversary, honey!”  Hopefully nobody is bringing transplant organs to your desk, but they are bringing you a lot of other transactions where “Yes, and” is an appropriate response.  For example:

“Do you have The Castle of Otranto?” Yes, and you might also like The Mysteries of Udolpho, Northanger Abbey, or The Monk!

“Is there a bathroom on this floor?” Yes, and I’d be happy to show you where it is.

“Can I take books out of this section?” Yes, and nearly all of the other books on this floor are available for checkout, too.

“How many items can I take out at a time?” 50, (yes implied) and that total includes 10 DVDs, 10 CDs, etc.

The skeptical among you might be wondering, “Okay Tallulah Bankhead, what about those of us who don’t work in public service?”  Just because you don’t work directly with the public doesn’t mean you’re never going to be asked to give a presentation or, at the very least, speak in a meeting.  In fact, the amount of public service you do seems to be inversely proportionate to the number of meetings you must attend (I’d like a grant to study this — wouldn’t you?).  Why not get over your fears by trying out a few improv games?   At the very least, your next staff meeeting / training will be the one your colleagues will discuss for years to come.  “Remember back in the summer of aught-nine, when Tallulah had us play ‘Freeze’?  Good times!”

One shameless omission from both lists is “Questions,” in which the scene partners can only speak in queries.  This is a lot harder than it sounds, but a great way to break your brain out of its usual channels and stimulate some creative thinking.  And isn’t that something else we Librarians 2.0 are supposed to be doing?

Future posts will, I promise, be more “normal,” but I think the most important thing my return to the stage has taught me is that the boundaries between work and home are a lot more porous than most of us imagine.  After all, it’s not like we completely shed our personalities when we step into our offices–decorum might suggest we keep certain things under wraps, and tact will always be a huge part of professionalism.  Still, we are who we are, quirks, personalities, interests, and all.  I’m in favor of a holistic paradigm of library science, where who we are outside of our offices can feed and nurture the kinds of things we do inside of them.

Just a theory.  What sorts of things do you do in your leisure time that sustain your workday persona?

Back later this week with more whimsical thoughts…

Emerging Victorious


For the win, as the kids say.  I’ve got the certificate and the pin.  I have emerged. 

It’s more like leveling up in an RPG or PVP.  Congratulations elven mage!  You have earned the requisite number of hit points.  Here are  more skill points to spend in the areas you see fit.  Also, have some tokens and gold.

All joking aside, it went well.  I’ve taken video of our poster session on the Flip camera I borrowed from IT.  Now I just have to figure out how to upload it.  That may have to wait until I’ve come home.  I love the Flip, though, and will be saving up for one asap.

The bulk of today’s workshops were spent reflecting on our experience, what we’ve learned, and where we’ll go from here, so I thought I’d touch on those elements briefly.

The EL Project Experience

I deliberately chose a project that was not in an area I normally work in:  marketing.  It’s something I’m very interested in, but don’t get nearly enough of an opportunity to dabble with.  The group’s task was to re-prioritize the marketing plan for LibraryCareers.org .  The original marketing plan was created by a prior Emerging Leaders’ group in 2007; our task was to reassess their work, in light of the time that had passed, and re-rank their priorities.  Of course, being the overachievers that we collectively are, we decided that it would be cool to actually start some of the tasks and try a few things.  You can read all about our work at our project page on the EL wiki.

If you’re cynical, you might be asking yourself, “Er, why are we trying to encourage people to become librarians right now?”  Even I can’t candycoat the notion that, in the short term, things aren’t looking so hot.  I, however, am committed to library science for the long haul.  People will be needed to keep libraries going.  Fewer people, probably, I”ll grant you.  But if that’s the case, then we want the absolute best and brightest.  Anyone who would like to engage in a spirited discussion on those points is cordially invited to comment.  You might want to check out my comments on librarians’ salaries, too, in my report – we have a LONG way to go, and we should NOT stop fighting for better pay  However, we HAVE made progress.  The data is there.  It just needs to be organized and presented in a comparative fashion, so folks can see the gains, however modest.

What I’ve Learned

This is, I think, the part that doesn’t mesh neatly with what the program’s creators intended.

I applied for Emerging Leaders during a very challenging period of my life.  I had just experienced two very personal losses, and my confidence was at ebb tide.  I was engaging in what has been a habitual pattern for me:  trying to compensate for personal difficulties with yet another professional success.  I thought that if I could just Be More Brilliant (patent pending), it wouldn’t matter quite so much that I had failed so miserably in other areas of my life.

This project, while utterly fabulous, turned out to be the assignment that convinced me I had to take better care of myself, or I was going to burn out in a hurry.  Between my normal project workload, the slowly blossoming library budget crisis, and the larger-than-expected enrollment in 23 Things ‘N @, the last thing I needed was one more project. And yet, I had taken it on.

So, basically, I had two choices. I could quit, or I could figure out once and for all how to take better care of myself so that I would have the strength to deliver on all the promises I’d made.

I started with sleep. 8 hours, whether I needed it or not, every night. That was a habit that took a while to build, but I could feel the difference once I’d created it. LAV with adequate sleep is so much more effective than LAV without sleep.

Next, diet and exercise. I’ve been vegetarian for about 1.5 years, and have been cutting back on dairy to see if I can transition to a vegan diet and still be healthy. I made a new rule for myself: I have to either walk TO work or walk home FROM work – no exceptions, no excuses. And I began a yoga practice that began paying off almost immediately, especially since it’s mostly restorative yoga – the last thing I needed was one more activity where I was striving instead of nurturing.

The next step was to add more fun things back into my life, so that I was more than my job. This was really really hard for me. I’m so very much in love with what I do, and it’s really easy for me to take on more and more library work–both paid and volunteer–because it means so much to me. But other things mean a lot to me, too, and I’d been skimping on them to the point that, when I started adding them back, I didn’t realized how much I’d missed them.

So, I’m writing a lot more now. Plays mostly, some poems. I’ve entered some of my work in a short play festival – I’ll let you know how that turns out – and I’ll be starring in a play a friend wrote, to fulfill a theater residency he won. I’ve become seriously artsy-craftsy, both at things I already enjoyed, like needlework and decoupage, and things I’d never tried before, like painting and drawing.

The result of all this personal tinkering is that I’m a lot more interesting to be around, I think. I’m also a much more effective librarian: I’m managing my time better, getting things done more efficiently and effectively, and taking a lot more of the normal daily stress and drama in stride (those of you who miss the dramatic goat farm declarations will be reassured to hear that they haven’t vanished entirely). I feel a million times more confident than I ever have, because I’ve gone a long way toward solving the biggest problem I face: how to balance LAV the fiercely brilliant and creative librarian with LAV the ridiculously lovable, comically flawed human being who, like everyone else on this dotty blue planet, is simply trying to make her way the best she can.

Quo Vadimus?

So, now what?

That’s a good question.  I honestly feel now like I could do absolutely anything.  So what do I want?

I”m pretty happy where I am, doing what I’m doing.  Pittsburgh rocks, Washington press corps snickering aside.  I’d like to stay here for the next 40 years, work my way up the food chain, and get the big gold watch when I finally retire.  It remains to be seen whether or not the economy will support this endeavor.

That being said, what I really want to do, regardless of what titles I may hold or official responsibilities I may have, is to create environments where people can be their best selves.  I want to help people become the best they can be.  I want to help them achieve their goals and then to go beyond those goals to tap potential theydon’t even realize they have.  I want to inspire, motivate, and induce side-splitting laughter when appropriate.  I want to be a good listener, the kind of person a colleague can come to when s/he needs advice.  I want to call shenanigans on bad behavior and take concrete steps to make it better.

Mostly, though, I want to be a good person, ethical and fair, kind and wise and loving.  If you can do that, I reckon, everything else falls into place exactly where it should be.

And with that, having discharged my official conference duties, I”m exercising the right not to blog.  I’m going to visit the exhibits, and see some panels, and attend some meetings, and reunite with classmates and old friends, and talk to random people on shuttles and in coffeeshops in the hopes of making new connections.  I’m going to walk around Chicago and soak up its utter fabulosity, and I’m going to start memorizing my lines for my play.

Mostly, though, I’m going to enjoy having emerged.  I make rather the fetching butterfly, if I do say so myself.

I’ll fight wih that video footage next week.  Take care, and be well.

Yrs, etc.,

the incorrigible alchemist

June Presentation I: Eleventh Stack


Part of the ongoing staff training at CLP consists of peer-to-peer info sessions in which various people give short talks on their areas of expertise, current projects, etc. I was asked to give one of these last Friday, on the Eleventh Stack project, and I was happy to do so. Here are my slides:

The bulk of the presentation was devoted to me tinkering around under the WordPress hood and showing people exactly how we write, post, and keep stats. However, the slides give more information about points I’ve been making since the beginning of this process, namely:

  • A lot of old-school planning went into this process, and HAS to, for such an endeavor to succeed.  This includes reading library research, and continuing to read it.
  • Everything has to go back to the library’s strategic plan, or some other supporting document.  You can’t have shiny for shiny’s sake.
  • The fact that this project does not “belong” to one department, and is not overseen by a manager, gives the team a greater sense of both ownership and accountability.

When I think about the blog’s future, I just keep getting more excited.  Why?

  • Even though our user stats are slightly down for summertime, we still have more than twice as many visits for May and June than we did this time last year.
  • We’ve just added two new writers to the regular rotation, which will increase diversity of appeal.
  • The Facebook possibilities are staggering.  Already we get more comments on the Facebook stream than we do on the actual page, and that’s just me streaming it into my private account.
  • Budgets being what they are, we have a real opportunity to do some grass-roots advocacy.  Congruent with the library’s message, of course.

If somebody were to ask me what I felt my greatest accomplishment as a librarian has been thus far, I’d have to say “organizing this project.”  Every time I log in to check stats and do maintenance, I’m humbled by what a team can create when you set up the proper conditions.  I didn’t want us to just have a blog–I wanted us to have a great blog, and I think we do.

I am, of course, more than a touch biased.  Hence the following poll, in which I hope you’ll participate.  Why do you read Eleventh Stack?

I want to leave this poll up for a while, to make sure I get adequate feedback.   Feel free to share this entry with those who might be interested.

When I return, I’ll talk about the other presentation I gave last Friday.  Yes, they had me back at the library school.  Yes, I was glad to go.  And yes, I plan to be more than a touch philosophical about it.

Booktalks and Boundaries


Welcome back to the wild world of Alchemy!

Yesterday I gave a presentation called “New, Now & Next:  A Road Map for Contemporary Fiction” for Pittsburgh OASIS, the local branch of a national program for seniors with an emphasis on lifelong learning. This was the same presentation I gave at Pitt and CMU, and I stubbornly maintained my position of having no slides or visual aides, save one handout. Nope – I like giving this presentation because it’s good old-fashioned booktalking. Swap out your titles and it’s a whole new ballgame every time.

Titles I booktalked included:

This Is Chick Lit, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, ed.

This Is Not Chick Lit, Elizabeth Merrick, ed.

Tales From the Farm, Jeff Lemire.

Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware.

2666, Roberto Bolano.

You Poor Monster, Michael Kun.

The Icarus Girl, Helen Oyeyemi.

Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris.

The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall.

The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Souljah.

Flash Fiction Forward, James Thomas and Robert Shepard, eds.

And You Invited Me In, Cheryl Moss Tyler.

Kind of all over the map, those picks, but that was part of my point: fiction these days is more exciting and diverse than ever before, and there are many new things to try. The audience was wonderful, chiming in with titles they liked, and observations of their own, so the presentation was free to go in wonderful directions I hadn’t planned for. I rather like that in a presentation!

Goodness knows I had more than enough material as it was, so much so that I deliberately moved some things around – the last time I gave it, for example, we never got to urban fiction, graphic novels, or the GLBT collection, and I definitely wanted to highlight those.  I also made sure to stress that you don’t have to like everything, and invoked Nancy Pearl’s 50-page rule.  Based on the feedback I got from the attendees and the organizers (another fine partnership brought to you by ACLA!), all went well. 

After I agreed to speak for OASIS, I quietly made the decision that it was the last speaking engagement I would accept for 2009. This is not because I wasn’t having a wonderful time – far from it! It’s a privilege to be able to speak to people, and, INFP on the Meyers-Briggs aside, there’s enough of the performance ham left in me that I get a big kick out of public speaking. And yet, a librarian’s got to draw the line somewhere.

What I’d realized was that, somewhere in the flurry of book reviews and other committments, that I’d already promised to do enough library service work above and beyond my regular duties that it will take me the rest of 2009 to fill my committments! Add the Emerging Leaders committee work for 2010/2011, and, well…something had to go.

This is sad, in a way, because of course I’m interested in everything, and I want to do everything. But I would also like to be a person of integrity, who delivers on the things she promises in a timely fashion. If that can be without all-nighters and hair-pulling, so much the better!

So, how do you say no when your plate is full, and the invites keep coming? Here are some strategies that have worked for me.

  • Ask the person if you can get back to them.  Then wait 48 hours and rehearse your no.  Or drop a few other committments so you can say “yes” if you really want to.
  • Explain that you are doing X, Y, and Z, and that to take on Q you will have to drop something.  Then put it back on them to choose what is a higher priority (very effective with bosses, though I think mine is on to me. :) ).
  • Recommend a colleague in your place.  NOTE:  This is not open license to get revenge on a co-worker who has done you dirty.  It is, however, a great way to give other people an opportunity to shine, especially if they are more skilled in the task than you are!  Remember:  you’re marvelous, but nobody loves a praise hog.
  • Negotiate a reduced assignment.  Maybe you can team up with a peer to give the presentation, or write one article instead of two, or get a longer due date/deadline.  Most people who need your help will be more than happy to work with you on a win-win solution.

If all else fails, here are 100 easy ways to say no you can try. Something that could be fun would be to roll a few dice to determine which excuse you should use…or, if you’re feeling confident, you could just set your default to #9. :)

The rest of my week has been the usual, with a nice big scoop of keeping up with 23 Things ‘N@ on top! A lot of the participants are really getting into the spirit of exploration – I’ll be back on Friday with some examples of cool blogs they created this 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…

Twitter, Technology Playground #1, and Tea


Twitter announcement

The mad rapscallions at CLP Main have done it again.  Fifteen of us have teamed up and created a Twitter feed for CLP Main that will, we hope, showcase the good things our library has to offer in a somewhat less annoying fashion than Twitter can often be:  all of the social networking, none of the “I had tuna fish today” irrelevance!

By which I mean, please take a peek at CLPicks and see what we’re all about. One tweet, each weekday, on one fabulous library item (books, movies, Playaways, the whole nine yards). We’re going to try it for a little while and see how it goes. My goal is 100 followers in 3 months – real followers, that is, not spam accounts. Bonus points if it’s not just all my library “family” and friends, too. :)

I think my favorite part of this most recent experiment is the fact that a number of the volunteers are people who, when I started initiating these 2.0 projects a year-point-five ago, did not want to participate. In the interim they have become curious about what we tech-dabblers were doing and slowly warmed up to playing along with us. Web 2.0 technologies won’t solve all of library world’s problems, but it’s great that we’ve apparently built some bridges and convinced folks to try something new. Mission accomplished, there, regardless of how the tweeting itself turns out.

Technology Playground #1

Today at the Whitehall Public Library a handful of ACLA and CLP staff, including Beth M., Kelley B., Ryan H., and the incomparable Amy E., descended en masse and demonstrated emerging technologies to a group of 30 librarians who voluntarily signed up for the presentation. First Beth gave a great presentation on resilience and lifelong learning, and then attendees were free to walk around the room to different stations. These included:

  • gaming
  • blogging
  • social networking
  • downloadable books and movies
  • the Encore catalog interface
  • plus a special appearance from Best Buy’s geek squad!

There will be three more technology playgrounds, and they’re open to all public library workers in Allegheny County, so please leave a comment if you think you’d like to attend one of the future sessions – I’ll get you hooked up. 

These playgrounds are a prelude to the “23 Things” program that Ryan, Kelley, Beth, Mark M. and I have been planning – I’ll be blogging about that a lot in April, so be prepared…

Public Service Announcement (With Tea)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that colleagues who are sick, or feel they might be getting sick, should kindly stay home and not infect the rest of us!  Alas, I think we all have a tendency to feel, at least on occasion, that we are indispensible.  This is, for the most part, not so much true.

In the interests of practicing what I preach, I will be staying home sick tomorrow if the giant lemon-ginger tea I am drinking does not knock the stuffing out of the flu-like symptoms that have been wandering around the building, and apparently settled in my bronchial tubes.  In the meantime, please, please, please, I beg you:  don’t be a martyr.  Take your sick days!  And drink more tea, in general.  It’s good for you.

More later this week, possibly…also, I’m moodling over a post on the so-called dying art of book reviewing.  Stay tuned.

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