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Battle of Midway @ Homestead Library

Well, it happened yesterday. And it was great!

Since it was my first program, I was a bit nervous. I mean, I’d helped with lots of programs, and I’d dreamt up a lot of ideas that other people helped execute, but this one was my first time in charge of creating, marketing, and hosting a library event.

I started planning about a month and a half ago. I had just gotten my feet under me at the library, and noticed a lack of adult programming. We were also a library in transition (we hired a new director in October, and lost our interim Children’s Program Coordinator as a result), so it needed to be something relatively easy to do alone. And then I realized – Nanowrimo was a month away.

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How to Give an Elevator Pitch When You’re Still a Student

“Elevator speech” seems to be the buzz word in library school right now. Even the papers we write for our intro class have to be distilled into elevator speeches for our Google Hangout sessions with our TA and classmates. Of course, since we’re required to talk for 3 minutes, we had better be riding the elevator in the US Steel building when we talk. (Even in New York City, the average elevator ride is only 118 seconds – a good minute short of our little spiels.)

But while we can now give elevator speeches on all sorts of information theory (really? I’m going to need this?), no one really tells a library student how to talk about themselves.

Business articles abound on the elevator pitch, which makes sense since it started as a sales tool. But for students, especially MLIS students, that can seem a world away. I mean, what library do you know that has more than, say 10 floors? And that’s for an academic library. Most public libraries are on 1-3 floors. You might not even need elevators.

Obviously, the point is to make your point, and fast. Here are some tips aimed at library students to be ready next time you find yourself face to face with a potential contact (like at a conference).

1) Start open.

Being a student, chances are good that whoever you’re talking to has a lot to offer you besides a job. Listen to them, find out what they do and how they do it. Find out where you can fit in. If you have this kind of time, it’s awesome. This is also the end goal of the whole elevator speech process – a real connection.

2)You’re awesome. Don’t be afraid to say it.

The caveat being, of course, that you need to say why you’re awesome. Are you a genius with metadata? Do you have deep knowledge of databases? Do your children’s programs leave kids anxious for the next one? Are you great at getting the word out about library services?

3) Don’t just say – show.

It’s an old rule for writers, and it stands for elevator speeches too. Sure, you might think that you’re a web genius, but can you cite a web design project you’ve been in on? Do you have a class project that included planning a major library service deployment? Those are hard artifacts that can help you prove your point.

4) Don’t drop the ball.

If you can find something to interest the other person, you might find yourself in a good conversation. They might ask about your skills, and you might be able to ask about their current and future projects. Great.

Offer your business card (you do have a business card, right?), and ask if they have one (they’ll often hand you one as a reflexive response). Then keep track of it. Follow up with them, reminding them of where you met and what you talked about. Continue the conversation.

In the end, you’ll at least end up with a contact who knows your strengths – an invaluable resource to begin with. If you talk to the right person, your strengths might fit their needs, and you might end up with a job lead. Which brings me to…

5) Practice.

Either way, know what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. Practice it, but remember that it’s a conversation as much as a speech – you’ll have to adjust it based on your audience.

And relax, they’ve all been in your shoes. It’s a unique advantage for us – our bosses have been where we’ve been, and they probably want to help us out, even if it’s not with a job.

To Conference or Not to Conference

(Definitely conference)

I recently attended a convention for my state’s library association as a student photographer. It was quite the experience. I got to spend 4 days mingling with the leaders in librarianship, making connections, getting advice, and generally getting to know the real-world state of the profession.

The biggest surprise? That we photographers were the only 3 students at the conference.

I know that conferences can be an expense that just doesn’t seem justifiable when you’re a grad student eating ramen, but they do have value, even if you aren’t presenting.

Speaking of which…

1) If you have something to say, present it.

Poster Session PaLA 2013Whether you have something you think warrants a whole session or if you just want to prep a poster, make it happen. There’s a lot of information in your experience that other people want to know. You can at least ask if the conference organizers will let you (for ALA Annual, you can still apply for poster sessions until January 17, 2014 – look here).

2) If you can provide a service, see if you can trade it.

ALA Display SessionTo get to the Pennsylvania Library Association annual conference, I listened when a little bird told me that they were looking for students to photograph the event. I am, at best, a hobby photographer (I had to borrow my camera from my roommate), but I asked about the requirements, and was brought on board. Just for being willing to ask.

3) Bring business cards. Lots.
And make sure they say you’re a student.

PaLA Bowling This seems like a no-brainer, but I went through 150 in 3 days, and I didn’t get to go to all the networking events I wanted to. And when people saw I was a student, it opened up conversation – “Oh, I went to Pitt!” “When do you graduate?” “What track are you studying?”. I got lots of invitations to visit libraries to see how they do things, and lots of tips and tricks. People feel ok telling a student things they might never tell a colleague. They might even invite you bowling. Go figure.

4) Smile.

Seriously, look like you want to be there. This isn’t a homework assignment – it’s actually kind of fun. There are opportunities to network, sessions to listen to, exhibitors to schmooze… but there are also unexpected moments of fun (check out these snapshots from the Performers’ Showcase at PaLA). Being willing to participate and to have fun can go a long way toward having a positive experience – and making others remember you in a positive light.

Performers Showcase Mickey

Performers Showcase Dancing

Performance Showcase Ill Stylin

LIS 2600: HTML

Programming has always held mystique for me: how do they turn ideas into the concrete pages using nothing but text? I dabbled in it, with the help of cheesy children’s programs, but never really latched onto it. A few years ago, in a job interview, I took (and failed) a programming logic test. I realized I didn’t even know how all the programs I used on a daily basis worked. I started in on an easy language, not even really programming, but markup – HTML.

HTML was great, since so many forums accepted the basic formatting commands I was learning. Inserting pictures, links, and bolded text made me feel like I knew what I was doing.

I still didn’t. I’ll admit, there’s a lot I still don’t know. What with the advent of HTML5, I hardly know where to start.

HTML has a million great tutorials out there- Codecademy was my tutor of choice, and I still recommend it. Learning start tags, end tags, and what to put between them is invaluable.

Where I’ve finally managed to understand the logic of HTML, CSS is still rough for me. It’s hard for me to see where one overrides the other. The basic tags still apply (as well as innumerable tags I have yet to learn), which is helpful.


Muddiest Point: There was no muddiest point for this week. Maybe next week when we get to CSS. 🙂

OPACs in the Age of Google

Complexity has always been a topic in software. Simplicity is better, right? I think most of us would agree with that – to a point.

As far as simplicity goes, Google – with it’s blank page aside from the friendly search bar and engaging Google Doodles, may be the exemplar. Type something in, and Google’s highly developed algorithms will do their best to kick back something useful. Google differentiated itself from other search engines with its simplicity and usefulness, leaving competitors like Yahoo! and Bing in the dust.

But that’s the kicker, isnt’ it? That usefulness part.

I’ve seen a lot of OPACs lately that are very, very simple. They look Google-like. But they just don’t work. All that simplicity belies the truth: that a lot of hard work and complicated programming go into making it look simple. And ILS systems, especially OPACs, just don’t have the soul to match the pretty face.

But back in the day, Google didn’t look all that simple. It went through it’s growing-up phase. Take a look.

Google Then
Google Now

Google’s increasing sophistication behind the scenes has allowed it to achieve this design standard. It didn’t just say – I want to have one thing on my page. It made it so that one search bar was USEFUL. OPACs could learn from that. Most of the OPACs I have seen have tried to achieve that single search bar look, but the results are… less than useful. Only advanced search helps bridge the gap.

But the problem is that the money that makes it worthwhile for Google just isn’t there in libraries. Library systems, accustomed to the relatively low cost of their current ILS systems, are trapped between the “good enough” mentality and their budgets. ILS systems aren’t cutting it. Programming won’t improve unless there’s financial backing. Libraries simply don’t have the financial backing.

Is simplicity worth the extra money? I would say yes, as long as that simplicity is backed by an efficient system. Infrastructure upgrades cost money, and unfortunately people are often less willing to pass a millage for a new library software than a new building. Libraries may need to convince their community that the latter is made infinitely more valuable by having a user-friendly, intelligent, and integrated collections system.

Helpful Rounding

Our reserves librarian just spent half an hour in the stacks trying to find the books for a professor. The faculty member had helpfully filled out his form, listing not only titles and authors, but call numbers for everything we owned.

Unable to find any of the books, the reserves librarian came back to search for them himself. Apparently the call numbers were too complicated for our faculty member, and he rounded up. On each and every call number, he cut it down to a few decimal places on the second line for us.

Sweet. Misguided. But sweet.

Mixing It Up: Diversity in YA Collections

As a kid, I read voraciously. I read everything I could get my hands on. In fact, I read through the entire children’s and teen collection in my small-town public library. Twice.

But when I moved to another (all white, middle class, farm) community, I enrolled in a teen lit class. We can get into how lucky I was to have such an offering in high school, but I really wanted to focus on one thing: Walter Dean Myers.

Myers has been recognized for his novels about African American youth and their experiences, particularly in urban settings. If you haven’t read something by him, you should. My class read Slam!, amidst fantasy novels and novels about drugs and abuse and all sorts of other extremes that shocked my world. But even now, Slam! is what I remember. Slam (the main character) existed in a world full of experiences and struggles that had never even occurred to me.

Fast forward a few years, and I was working at a public library in that same (all white, middle class) small town, feeling rather proud of myself as I helped curate the teen collection in my branch to cover more racial bases. Of course, the same problem arose then as now – the dearth of minority teen literature. We were making lists and sticking “African American” interest on those titles. And they never went out.

Why not? I became convinced that it was precisely because of those stickers. Because my peers had been taught very well that they were not African American, that they would not experience life that way, and wasn’t life confusing enough without trying to understand everyone else too? I began to *sneakily* remove some of the stickers, focusing on making sure some of those titles showed up in every display, and miracle of miracles, they started to go out.

This all came back up because I recently came across a post on tumblr about LGBTQ literature in YA collections. From tumblr user MoreRobots:

So my question is, would people rather have LGBTQ books be tagged? Or in their own section? I know this would create a problem too as some patrons may not want to be seen browsing the LGBTQ shelf or reading a book that’s specifically tagged. Also, what if people pass these books up? Is there a better solution? I just feel that these books (and other diverse books) should be made more accessible /visible to patrons but what is the best way to go about it?

It’s a valid question, and a few plausible responses have been made, but they seem to focus on how to visibly mark or separate them. Check out the thread for specifics.

I’m wondering about the choice to separate them. Personally, I think that will prevent them from entering “normal” circulation, continuing the perception that LGBTQ stories are for a specialized segment of the population, and continuing to normalize straight experiences. For those who want quick access to books like these, I think the pamphlet or master list should be available for ease of access.

The same can be said for any literature that falls outside the norm. While there’s nothing wrong with books about straight white kids, there is something wrong if that is all that is available, or all that teens are encouraged to read. Part of reading, especially as a teen, is to make sure that we aren’t just reifying the normalcy of our own lives. Life is diverse, and diversity is valid, and essential.

From Sarah Ockler’s blog post “Race in YA Lit: Wake up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!

Why is diversity in fiction important? Because diversity in life is important. And when we exclude—intentionally or otherwise—characters of color from our work, we do send a billboard message to readers. We tell them that people of color aren’t there, aren’t important, aren’t worthy of our stories. That they don’t deserve to be part of the conversation of our books. That reading isn’t for them. That they don’t matter. That they don’t even register on our radar.

When we erase the experiences of race, class, sexuality, and other self-identifiers from our YA collections, we tell our teens that those things don’t matter. By separating their literature, we relegate those experiences to those who are already living them.

Once more from Ockler:

I adore teenagers. That’s why I write for them. They’re special and magical and full of life; they’re truly the best of us. As young adult authors, our words have power. The power to entertain. The power to inform. The power to inspire. And most importantly, the power to change the lives of teen readers—to really make a difference. If, as Truby believes, stories express the idea that human beings can become better versions of ourselves, then I want to show YA readers that those better versions look like them, too.


On Things I’ve Read: The Book Thief

This book has been on my reading list for a very long time. I started it once, but had to return it. I decided it would be my pre-semester read for this term. It was worth it.

The book got a lot of attention for its use of Death as a narrator, and rightly so. The portrayal of Death was unique and engaging. True to his form as protagonist, I even rather liked Death. I wanted him to be able to make the choices, rather than being driven to them by humans – and in this case WWII. And I trusted him as a narrator.

But the book was about a little girl named Liesel Meminger, and her life on Himmel Street in a town near Munich. It only takes about 5 years to unfold, but the narrative style, the backdrop against which her story is highlighted, and the depth and complexity of her own story make it seem like an entire lifetime was packed in there. At around 550 pages, The Book Thief was just enough. I neither wanted more nor less, which is rare in a book.

The characters that make up Liesel’s story – lemon-haired Rudy, Papa with the Silver eyes, the ghostlike Ilse Hermann – are given life precisely because of the way that Death and Liesel describe them. They are brilliant and foolish in turn, completely believable, and lovable.

*Spoiler, I suppose*
One warning though – do not expect to make it through the last few chapters of the book without crying. It ends exactly like it should, in my opinion, but wrenches the heart.

Librarianship doesn’t stop at the job description

Shortly after I graduated and left my hometown, voters failed the millage that was keeping the libraries open. Faced with a bare-bones budget, several library branches closed, including the one I had worked for. When the millage passed a year later, those that had been involved in the cuts were hired back, and I was lucky enough to get back in as well. There was a sense of coming home for most of us – we were finally back in a position to do something for our community. As part of the massive factory closures in the auto industry, our area had faced a serious economic downturn. Sure, our libraries could be considered a symptom of that, and everyone was losing their jobs, but there was something different. We wanted to come back so that we could help alleviate the stress for others who had been in our position. We wanted to show that libraries were worth the spending, especially when things got tough.

Miami is a much-publicized, much-observed, and much-criticized situation. On a tight budget, something needs cut, and city commissioners have turned to library system cuts as a way to make up some of that money. Not just cuts though – deep and lasting wounds to the library system, and more widely, the library’s positive impact on the community.

Recently, a Save the Miami-Dade Public Library System tumblr has been started, and this particular post caught my eye. From the introduction:

“After Commissioner Zapata’s cold words to a man who defended his library, “you don’t care about the county, you only care about your job” a library employee felt the co-worker’s pain and wants the public and County Commissioners to know…
We all care about the county and we have proven this through deeds and not just words.

The little that I have done is by no means exceptional and while the details of the extras we do vary from person to person, what I write is largely representative of library staff including that employee who was insulted.”

The open letter goes on to show a few of the examples of overtime worked, contributions made,  and downright self-sacrificing on the part of the library staff. Now, this may not be the case for all library workers, but I know that many of the librarians and library staff I have worked with fit into this picture, right on down to pages.

Most every library worker I know is like this. We like our jobs, sure, and who doesn’t? But we don’t pick this line of work – particularly in public libraries, particularly in cities that have demonstrated at best an apathy toward the library at a governmental level – because we want an easy out.

Library work isn’t an easy out. Passionate people take too-few dollars and turn them into as many services as they can. Libraries are our way of trying to actually create equal opportunity instead of just paying lip service to it. And many of us believe so strongly in that goal that we will give far beyond what our job description asks us to.

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Libraries in Retail Environments

Long ago and far away, I was hired to work in the state’s oldest continuous public library. The building was beautiful, stately, and was the obvious brainchild of someone with a lot of money.

It was also under construction.

As part of a renovation millage, that good old library was getting a facelift and an expansion, forcing the collections to be relocated during the work. The powers that be looked around the neighborhood and settled on a nice space in the local mall, right across from the movie theater.

When I saw this article about Aurora, CO opening a computer center inside their local K-Mart, it drew that concept back to my attention. It makes sense – see the story about the woman who looked up a recipe in the library so she could buy the ingredients in the grocery section – and it’s also part of a growing trend.

Economic realities are often discussed in the library community. Hard-to-find full-time jobs, scant money for programming, scaled-down acquisitions are all fodder for lament. But for those libraries seeking to find a location to serve new sections of the community, partnering with more traditional retail environments can have major advantages.

I currently split my time between working at an academic library and working at a retail store, and the approaches to attracting customers (patrons/users/term-of-the-month) are on opposite ends of the spectrum, certainly. The academic library, a private institution, has strict security and access policies. But the public libraries I used to work at, and those I frequent now as a patron, share a lot of priorities with retail stores. I’ll touch on more of those in a future post, but the big one to me is – who are our target customers?

Certainly, most boutique stores have a target audience. Men’s clothing, women’s jewelry, children’s toys, to name a few generic ones. But what about, say JCPenney or Sears? These retail stores anchor pretty much every mall I’ve been in, and seem to have the same struggle as many public libraries. Who is the target audience?

Answer: Everyone. That’s part of why they still hang in there, in the age of decimated big-box stores. They offer a lot, and have a low cost-of-entry (free!). Quality products, decent service, and ease of access are definite pluses. In general, libraries provide the first two at any location, but ease of access can be harder. New constructions are expensive and polarizing in the community, and renting a normal space can have parking problems as well as watching part of the budget disappear into something the library doesn’t own.

In the case of the Otay Ranch Branch of the Chula Vista Library, the option to put a library branch near the food court of a local high-end mall wasn’t intuitive at first, but the benefits have been obvious:

The library opened in spring 2012. Its high-impact location, coupled with vibrant interiors that spill out onto the food court, garners heavy foot traffic. Parents and kids stop by for a program or materials after shopping. Tagalong spouses make a beeline for the library while their mates shop. Shoppers check their email or download a book while relaxing in the food court. No one goes home empty-handed.

Wheeled stacks, pegboard walls, and excellent sight lines provide flexibility. By matching the mall aesthetics, placing plenty of furniture outside, and offering Wi-Fi to the food court area and beyond, the space draws people in who might not otherwise visit a stand-alone library.

Benefits of the mall location are numerous. Custodial, security, and public relations services are provided by the mall. Partnerships with other tenants, i.e., the Apple Store and Barnes & Noble, provide help with ebook downloading to visitors.

Like this excerpt points out, the library benefits by drawing in customers from the food court and related retailers, which can really improve the library’s exposure and the substantiating statistics. Relationships with surrounding businesses provides benefits for both parties, whether in a mall or downtown setting.

It also reinforces the library as part of the community. Public libraries can run the risk of appearing like the white tower of academia – intimidating and forbidding to outsiders. Allowing the general public to view the library in a context they are more comfortable with can go a long way to alleviate that.

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Amazon, Showrooming, and Discoverability

Photo by Steven Depolo on Flickr

Feature image Creative Commons Steven Depolo

Amazon has been dominating the news lately. I did a quick search on Google News, and came up with this:

Google News search of "Amazon" on 7/22/2013And there were the expected “Amazon vs.” articles: Wal-Mart, Apple, Barnes & Noble, IBM. Still, that’s a lot of vs for a company that has grown, apparently organically, from an online bookseller to a behemoth outlet for ALL THE THINGS. But of course, that kind of growth alarms some and upsets others, so the court cases and high-profile competition isn’t out of line.

The tidbits about the .Amazon domain registry failure was a treat, for me, as was the news that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has funded the recovery of the Apollo 11 engines from the bottom of the Atlantic.

But the top link had me intrigued: Amazon vs. Your Public Library? In a battle that doesn’t seem much like a battle, why is it even a consideration for Fortune magazine to ask: “But could Amazon (AMZN), tech’s behemoth retailer, really be threatened by the neighborhood library — a centuries-old institution known for musty shelves, high school cram sessions, and ‘Shhhhhh. Quiet please?'”

The answer is: it’s hard to say.

At first glance, Amazon seems to be cooperating with libraries for the most part. Through its Affiliate links and related programs, Amazon offers a cut of their sales to libraries that include them on their web page – the article cites NYPL. When holds lists get too long, it can be an attractive option for people to jump ship and just buy the book. With Amazon’s increasing shipping speeds, that option is as good as paying to be moved to the top of the list. E-Media outlets like OverDrive offer the same idea – want a book, but your library doesn’t have a copy available? Hop over to Amazon, BN, or other partnered sites to pick it up. And again, OverDrive gets a cut.

And David Carr pointed out in the New York Times, Amazon needs physical outlets. This has been argued against, and certainly not every customer needs to browse a physical collection before making an online purchase. And unlike brick-and-mortar booksellers, the library doesn’t really suffer from “showrooming” that is, customers coming to a physical location to check out items they plan to buy online. Normally, this would cost retailers essential customer conversions – but does it operate the same way for the library?

If Amazon is bringing people through the library doors to look at a book/DVD/etc, is that such a bad thing? Is “discoverability” part of the library mission, even if it’s not reflected in circulation statistics? Certainly, discoverability IS a part of the library mission, and I would argue that while it may be harder to track, this is exactly the kind of relationship the library needs to strike up with e-retailers, and Amazon is a perfect beginning. After all, booksellers and libraries have successfully served the same population for centuries, without this talk of versus.

If Amazon can find a way to actually support community libraries (and maybe even independent booksellers!) then libraries should be alright with showrooming.


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