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To A Brand New Librarian, On the Occasion of Starting Their First Librarian Job

To A Brand New Librarian, On the Occasion of Starting Their First Librarian Job

Hello, there! Welcome to Librarianship! Congratulations on finishing your degree, and on landing your very first librarian gig. That’s no small feat, and you should be very proud of yourself.

We’re happy to meet you, and we’re looking forward to learning and growing with you. Year one on the job is a wild ride, and you’re going to feel new for a long time. We know this job can be tricky sometimes, and we know you can’t do it perfectly out of the gate. Heck, we’ve been at it for years and we’re still trying to figure out how to do it perfectly. Forget perfect! Let’s just aim high, do our best, keep pushing ourselves, and have fun with it. Librarianship has a lot of scope for creativity, and the more experimental you get, the more ideas you pour in, the more fun you’re going to have and the more creative you’re going to be. Dive in! Take a risk!

This job is going to teach you a lot, challenge you a lot, and change you; you’re going to have the same effect on your colleagues. We’re happy to be here to teach you, guide you, support you, learn from you, and be transformed by you and what you discover along the way. We’re looking forward to it!

Our work is important, and we are passionate about it, but it doesn’t deserve your tears. You’re new to this wild wooly world of ours, and so far you don’t yet know what’s normal or acceptable to suffer through as a librarian.

We all make mistakes, and we will talk about them. It will be hard sometimes; hard on the ego, hard on the self-confidence, hard on the feet sometimes, too. We will face failure with all the humility we can muster and learn from it. It hurts us to fail because we strive so hard to be good at what we do, but we’re human beings and we will get things wrong. That hurts sometimes. That is normal and acceptable. The pain of reaching for something and missing it is what makes us grow.

If anyone says something to you that hits you in your soul and leaves you feeling sad, hurt, heavy, demoralized, disrespected, humiliated, and lost, that is not normal or acceptable. That is not learning, it’s not growth, and it’s not okay. You are not expected to suffer through abusive, bullying behaviour in librarianship. It won’t be your job to buck up and deal with it; if someone makes you feel low and small like that, talk to someone you trust. Your supervisor, hopefully; if not, someone else in the leadership hierarchy, or a colleague who can hear you and help you. If that feels weird or dangerous but you’re really struggling with something that’s happened, talk to someone outside of your library system for a fresh perspective.

Talking to other professionals about serious challenges you don’t know how to deal with is not gossiping or telling tales. It’s is good professional practice to get advice on how to solve a problem that’s dragging you down, and it’s important. You’re new to this profession; you can’t always gauge what’s normal or what’s way out of line without touching base with someone else.

Sometimes it hurts because being new hurts, or receiving constructive feedback hurts, or getting something wrong hurts. Sometimes it’s genuinely hard to tell the difference, especially when you’re new and learning.  If you hurt, you need some help, and you should get it. That’s what we’re here for. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad librarian. It might mean you’re learning; it might be that someone else is behaving in a counterproductive way. One day it will be easy to spot the difference, but until it is, reach out for help.

I’m not telling you this because I think there are bullies around every corner and you should beware. I’m pretty sure you won’t experience anything like that here in our library, but I’m not prepared to risk your experience on my sense of certainty. It doesn’t matter what I think about our organizational culture; I’m in a different place in it. No matter what I think your experience will be, you still need to hear this from me. I’m telling you because every new librarian should hear this from someone in a position of leadership in their organization. They should know that you have permission to talk about these things. Talking about them is the only way through them.

Bullying make us less creative, less open to risk, less productive, less collaborative, and less happy. An organization that ignores bullying behaviour isn’t able to perform at its best. We want you to be happy, creative, and kicking butt. That’s how we meet our goals! When you feel respected by your colleagues and confident in your skin, we all benefit.

We are lucky that you chose to join us. We’re very much looking forward to working with you and growing with you. You are going to be amazing, and I can’t wait to watch you bloom!

Lanes and Meadows

Lanes and Meadows

A post shared by Rochelle Mazar (@rmazar) on

I’ve been in my role at Rochester for just over two years now, and the nature of my portfolio has altered pretty significantly in that time. Initially the team comprised of the department heads for the Humanities and Social Science Librarians (and head of Outreach), the Science and Engineering Libraries, the Art/Music Library, and our public services unit. Now add to that the Directors of the Digital Scholarship Lab, Assessment, Research Initiatives, a terrific data analyst, and I have a connection to the Director of the iZone. It’s a pretty big group with a lot going on, but working with this particular mix of people gives me an opportunity to dive head first into developing and maintaining organizational harmony. Organizational gardening, as it were.

In the first few months of looking at where the obstacles and pain points were within this group, what emerged first was a need to understand lanes. A lane is a scope, where responsibility lies, where the organization is expecting your leadership and innovation. It also helps to define where you’re a consultant, collaborator or partner, a participant, or observer. Understanding your lane, and the lanes of your peers, means you have a good sense of where you can drive your creativity and innovation with wild abandon. It’s the space in which you can always expect to hear “yes”, the space where others will defer to your judgment, because it’s your responsibility and you know it best.

A shared understanding of lanes is critical to good collaboration. Everyone has to have a lane, even when they’re next to each other or merge a little here and there. If someone doesn’t have a lane, how do they understand their role in the organization? How do they derive a sense of the value they’re bringing? How do they know when they should jump in with both feet, or when they should proceed with some caution? How do they know when they’ve done what’s expected of them? How do they deploy their creativity in ways that they, and we, can all celebrate? And how do your collaborators know how to call on you if no one fully understands what lane you’re in?

And critically: if I as the AD for the portfolio don’t know how to articulate the lane someone’s in and how that lane intersects with others in the organization, am I not failing as a leader? Should I have a department or an individual in my portfolio if I don’t understand their lane?

So the first thing we did was look at job descriptions and talk about expectations, roles, and our relationships to each other. How do different units interact? How do we lead a cross-departmental project, how do lanes merge, and what do we do when that happens? How do we communicate across projects and departments? And we keep having those conversations as new projects and complications emerge, departments shift and grow, or as the departmental connections develop and change. What’s been super interesting is seeing how lanes that seemed very far from each other suddenly join up; Art and Data, for instance: data visualization as art is a theme we’re going to be following this year that I am so excited about. Metadata and faculty support, another spectacular one. Entrepreneurship and library service design. Getting good at making unexpected connections is critical for building flexible, responsive services and support to the university population. We need to know how to face ambiguity with confidence, and this is one of the ways we’re learning how to do that.

I wonder if my lanes conversation would be easier if everyone in the portfolio had an exactly equivalent role. We are a mix of department heads, service coordinators, functional experts, and new initiative leaders. Oftentimes, a project leader is directing the work of teams with several different direct supervisors. If everyone were a department head with direct reports, would it be simpler? Is this a situation demanding a re-org to make the lines of work clearer and simpler?

A post shared by Rochelle Mazar (@rmazar) on

As much as you want to tend your organization to French topiary perfection, you’re pretty much always in the middle of a meadow full of wildflowers and former pet bunny rabbits instead. At a certain point messiness is probably a sign that something isn’t working, but I’m not sure all messiness is that sign. You can tidy the organization up to the point that each unit is completely autonomous and is completely clear about exactly what it needs to do, never needing to negotiate with another group or leader, but is that ideal? It’s cleaner for us, certainly, less confusing, but aren’t we missing some creative friction? If something is less confusing for us, is it more confusing for our patrons?

True collaboration is messy, and defies lanes and boundaries in the end, as it should. But I think you need both. You need a solid understanding of your lane to give you confidence and clarity in your work, to define your voice and your role, and I think you need the possibility of messiness to allow for growth, change, ambiguity, and something new.

👍👍

A post shared by Rochelle Mazar (@rmazar) on

The Legible Librarian

The Legible Librarian

 

One of the challenges I find myself facing is the push and pull between a traditional library hierarchy and the role of the functional expert. Most of my career to date has been in the latter category, which may account for the warmth I feel towards those roles, but I now find myself in the former category, and I can see how decisions at the AUL/AD level can either make the walls close in around a functional expert, or can help them to soar.

It is the role of upper level leadership to ensure that a librarian in a functional expert role (aka “coordinator”) is legible to the rest of the organization.

A functional expert can be utterly amazing in all that they do, with endless potential and skill, but if their peers and the rest of the library don’t see their work slotted into the overall work of the library, if they see them as other or external in some way, there will be an a hard limit on how much they can accomplish.

The usual model for functional expertise, as well as ambiguous, new or rapidly-shifting portfolios (technology librarians of all stripes, assessment librarians, data librarians, digital humanities librarians, entrepreneurship, schol comm too, I presume) is often framed in what I think of as a retainer model: we hire the expertise, and anyone in the organization can call on them when needed. The result more often than not is a supremely qualified and able librarian sitting in their office twiddling their thumbs, or constructing a magnificent portfolio of work driven by their own hands that the rest of the library may admire, but don’t see as related to themselves.

Making a functional expert legible often falls to the functional experts themselves. After being on both sides of this equation, I’ve come to the realization that this is impossible. The functional expert may be as eloquent as they come, but it’s all talk if the organization isn’t shifting to adjust and accept their work. Carving out the paths that allow new expertise to fully join the organization has to be the work of library leadership.

How do you make this happen? We have to accept that it’s not just one conversation, and it’s not just an announcement. We have to address these issues step by step and project by project.

I think the first structural piece is understanding that coordinators/functional experts are peers of department heads, but different from them in important ways. In my experience, it is critical to form a permanent team that includes both. It’s true that department heads have radically different work and issues to face. But to function well, department heads and functional experts need to understand each other as partners and collaborators as well as peers.

We can’t just code a functional expert as an independent department head of a department of one. That’s very isolating and archaic, and I think this is where we tend to get this wrong. If the expectation is that a technology librarian, or data librarian, or schol comm librarian is going to bring expertise that will touch the entire campus, for instance, then they need to team up with the department head(s) for liaison/outreach to bring that expertise into the hands on, on-the-ground work. They can’t recreate a liaison network on their own (well, they can, but that’s just creating internal competition and losing valuable opportunities for the liaison librarians, as well as lessening their own potential impact). If we don’t use the structures we already have, we might as well hand the functional expertise off to another unit altogether, because the effect is about the same.

I know the immediate response to the suggestion that functional experts become leaders in partnership with liaison department heads: liaison librarians are already overwhelmed, too busy, too many projects as it is, etc. We can’t have more bosses, it’s too much, it’s too confusing! Rather than give up in the face of this outcry, we need to reorient how we’re viewing the work of the functional expert, and understand that there are many ways to be a leader.

It’s not separate work, it’s not on top of everything else work; it’s got to be integrated into the work of a department. A department head is focused on the vision, on implementation of work and goals, and on monitoring performance; a functional expert has their eyes on one impactful realm of knowledge. Together, they create the work going forward. As a team, they are dynamite.

But a functional expert will struggle to launch if they aren’t understood by the department heads as a partner rather than a competitor or just as another, disconnected peer. So the AUL/AD needs to be clear about the relationships and dependencies between them so that they can see each other as they are and work together to support the work of the library.

Often, it’s the liaison librarians on whom this kind of campus impact work fundamentally depends. A functional expert might have a key understanding of what faculty need to know/do/think about in order to move forward and meet needs in an area, but it’s the department head who is best placed to shape that idea into real and doable work that supports the mission of the department, and it’s the liaison librarians who make those connections and get it done. That’s how a functional expert can end up leading entire departments and having massive impact fast; with the support of the department heads, who understand how to construct a project that supports the existing mission and work of the department. The department heads continue to monitor performance and shape work even if a functional expert designed the project. They are stronger for working together.

But the task of making a functional expert legible doesn’t end there; it’s also the role of the AUL/AD to ensure that their own peers understand how a new or changing portfolio affects their departments as well, when it does. The amazing thing about a coordinator role is that it’s unhooked from a specific department and can creep into work all over the place; that’s only a good experience if everyone involves sees it coming, understands its purpose, and respects it when it comes. It’s important not to expect a functional expert to be able to carve that path themselves. No matter how good they are, this is beyond their scope.

At the AUL/AD level, we can see where the crossover is about to happen, and that’s when we need to provide the context required for a potential collaborator to be prepared to welcome it.  Project by project, ambiguity by ambiguity, these conversations need to happen not just once, but many times, as they appear, to translate the goals of the functional expert at the earliest stage so that they have the support and collaboration that will make them successful.

I have seen many discussions in the profession about coordinator roles and how hopeless they are; I have been struggling to understand this perspective. In light of that, I have become very aware of day to day work I find myself doing to ensure that the functional experts in my portfolio are able to do their work well and successfully, fully and joyfully integrated into the daily life of the libraries. The skills they are building by designing and implementing projects in their areas of expertise, collaborating closely with department heads and adjusting their ideas to the goals and strengths of the department, pitching ideas and gaining support, leading staff without directly supervising them; these are some of the most valuable and necessary skills for future leadership, and I think it would be a tragedy to have fewer of these opportunities available in the profession because AULs/ADs don’t know how to manage them well.

My goal is to know how. I’m learning.

#workatRCL

#workatRCL

#workatRCL

Until recently, I hadn’t had much need to think about recruiting. Suddenly, it’s critically important that I know how to do it well.

One of the things I’ve picked up is that often, particularly for leadership positions, the applicant you want won’t necessarily be looking at job ads or necessarily thinking about taking a step up on the career ladder. A person may be willing to make a move for the right opportunity, but in their day to day, they’re doing well, getting on with their jobs and their lives, and not spending their evenings cruising job boards. If you’ve got a role to fill, you have to go out and find the people you need.

So how do you do that? Pull a group of canny staff together to comb your networks and figure out who we know, dig into conference proceedings for rising stars, search Twitter for opinionated superheroes? (Done it; it was fun!) Cold call? (Hi there, you don’t know me, but WHY NOT WORK HERE, MY TALENTED FRIEND? HELLO? HELLO?)

What else can you?

I’m in the very interesting position of trying to recruit across sectors. I’m looking for a public librarian to potentially fill an academic position. How does someone deeply entrenched in the academic sector break out of a silo and get their job ad in front of a public librarian looking for a leadership opportunity? I can’t use our usual channels. I can’t just relax on this.

How about Twitter?

My colleague Lindsay Cronk (Mover and Shaker) and I hatched a plan; we’ll do what others before us have done: Twitter chat! Ask us anything! Let us tell you about our jobs! We’re hoping that answering questions on Twitter will help us find the people who might want to join us.

This is all a grand experiment for us. We haven’t really been active recruiters before. But we have some great jobs, and we’re looking for some great librarians. And we live in a great town that we love. And we have big, big plans to change the world, starting here, and we need co-conspirators.

So here we go: Monday, Sept 11, noon to 2pm EST, we’re hoping we can get the attention of some folks who might be interested in our jobs, or might know some people who might be interested in our jobs. Or might just want prod at us and help us understand how to be better recruiters. Which all of us are going to need to be.

See you there?

Leadership, Authority, Hierarchy, and Supervision

Leadership, Authority, Hierarchy, and Supervision

This is what I’ve learned: either you think library leadership roles must always come with direct supervisory responsibilities in order to be successful, or you think these two pieces can be disentangled. I fall into the latter category. I have recently encountered a number of people in the former category, and I am dismayed.

The general feeling seems to be that any “coordinator”-type role without a bunch of direct reports is a sign of bad management and the role is doomed to failure.

I suppose, if you imagine that a leader can only influence, direct, or lead the people they supervise, then sure, a role where a lot of leadership is expected but no dedicated staff might seem like it’s set up for failure. But that’s a very traditional view of library structure and library work, and I think we’ve moved past that. That doesn’t describe every workplace. I believe what must be missing from this picture is an understanding of how a project-based environment works.

In an organization that functions in projects, work is organized not around a supervisor and their team, but by cross-departmental, short-term projects with specific, time-limited goals. The leader of a project team doesn’t need to approve vacation time in order to function as a fully-fledged leader.

It’s true that, without the power of hierarchical authority, convincing your peers and others outside your department that your idea is good can be hard. It’s hard for a reason. Our peers have good ideas of their own, and experiences to drawn on, history with the subject matter, and judgement; if your ideas doesn’t have the legs to convince intelligent library staff to get on board, do you want the weight of authoritarian power to be there for you to silence objections? That feels good, but is it a good idea? Isn’t it healthier to hear the skepticism, take the feedback, and make the idea better? Isn’t that a better way to learn to be a leader? To learn to take feedback, to be collaborative, to develop good, functional ideas?

Leaders who rely on the power of their roles rather than the strength of their vision and their ideas concern me. If you don’t have the skills to manage work without that power, are you really a leader?

What does it mean for the profession if we link up hierarchical, supervisory power with leadership in this way? What kinds of opportunities do new professionals get to even discover if leadership is of interest to them? How do we give staff a safe, lower-risk opportunity in which to learn how to lead, where failure is absolutely an option to learn from?

There are only so many supervisory roles to go around, and not everyone gets one. But everyone in a library can be a leader. I feel strongly about this; why can’t we open up this black box and give other people a chance to put their fingerprint on the organization? This is what it comes down to for me. If we can’t decouple leadership and supervision, we shut down a lot of learning and opportunity. Giving staff project-based leadership is great training and frankly great, fun, effective and sustainable work. The risk is low and the reward is huge.

To me, the real skill-building in leadership is being a leader among your peers, a leader without the power of the performance review to fall back on. Can you construct a viable idea? Can you get buy in? Can you take on feedback make your idea better? Can you get a project off the ground, through planning, through implementation, and into something sustainable? This isn’t easy work, but it doesn’t require anyone to be a supervisor. And it is work you can learn over time. It’s forgiving work that lets you try, fail, and try again.

Project-based work lets you break down silos of your organization. It lets you bring together skills and talent that don’t sit right next to each other. It lets staff have a chance to spread their wings and try something new. It gives hungry staff real, valuable opportunities to show their stuff. How do you know if you want to take a supervisory role if you’ve never had a real chance to lead?

A project-based environment asks a lot of an organization. It requires libraries to give staff the opportunity to be on a diverse project team, to get to know staff they don’t work with every day, to see a idea take form and participate in its formation, to see things go wrong in a safe place that anticipates things going wrong. It gives staff a chance to chair a meeting without their supervisor in the room, to have a deadline and a responsibility of their own, to have their own team. Any member of staff can be the one who updates library leadership on the status of a project. Project-based work is a forgiving structure in which staff at any level can have the opportunity to learn how to lead.

As someone who writes job ads and chairs search committees, I think it’s important that we learn to recognize leadership outside of direct supervision and respect it for what it is. It’s not only the department heads who lead.

This is particularly important to me because I leapt into senior leadership without ever having been a department head. There are other paths, and if we don’t provide these opportunities, and understand what this kind of leadership means on a CV, we’re going to overlook people with really great skills who can be an asset to our organizations.

At my library, a position with leadership but no staff means a position that will lead all staff at one point or another. It means a project-based role that works with the hierarchy to set expectations for the entire organization. It means collaborating with supervisors and partnering with them in managing staff. It means leading across the organization. It means breaking barriers and doing conference-worthy work, and finding talent where we didn’t know it existed. It means experimentation and taking chances.

I think we need this. I think it’s important. Non-supervisory leadership is also leadership, and it has value.

Librarians and Code

Librarians and Code

New librarians, or librarians still in school, often ask me how they can get a job like mine. I think this is probably a question all librarians get, but mine comes with an extra question: “should I learn to code?”

My answer to this has always been something along the lines of: “Well, no.” I know many people would say the opposite.

I don’t think code is important to my job because I do not write code. I shouldn’t write code, actually…I have colleagues who are responsible for any code that might come near me. Code is not my territory. So no: you don’t need to code to be a librarian who works in tech. Content management systems handle the HTML. You won’t be the one messing around with CSS, probably. If you work in larger library, in any case. Librarians are usually not the best qualified people to tweak stylesheets or write software. Those things are halmarks of a whole other profession, actually. If you learned a tiny bit of code, the truth is, you’d be a terrible coder anyway.

But still: there’s something there. Lots of folks in my shoes would say the opposite: yes! Dear god, yes, please learn to code! I genuinely have no idea who’s right and who’s wrong here.

My feeling on this is that librarians who picked up code learned a lot by doing so, and think that others will learn the same things if they too pick up code. And that might be true. But in the end, the code isn’t the thing. The code is a catalyst for the thing that’s really valuable for a librarian. Somehow the process of learning even a tiny bit of code might be the easiest way to understand the basics of how the internet works, and that understanding helps you to ask better questions, form better plans, make more realistic requests, and integrate your services and your collection more thoughtfully into the wider digital world. But the code isn’t what does it: the code is just the catalyst. Right?

My fear, I suppose, is that in this drive to learn code, someone will actually just focus on the code and will miss the catalytic moment. Because we’re not being very clear about what we actually need you to learn. We haven’t specified. I’m not even sure I know how to articulate it all even now. We need you to understand what’s possible, and what’s impossible. How data travels and is taken up into new places. You need to know that it’s not magic, it’s just content drawn out and drawn upon. You need to really understand what “database-driven” means, and be able to apply that knowledge. You will probably get that from learning some code. But I think it might be more efficient to be clear about the kinds of lessons we need you to learn from it.

And I suspect it’s possible to learn those things without code specifically. I think learning by doing, by figuring things out, is probably going to work for most people, but what are you figuring out? It’s a set of problem-solving skills, it’s not a skill at coding, necessarily. And some people get that understanding it other ways altogether. I know several outstanding library leaders who never learned code at all, but can make rational, thoughtful decisions around tech. I think they just listen to the people they hire, to be honest. They trust the people who understand it better than they do.

But I suspect code will get the majority of folks where they need to be. I suspect that’s true. But it might be the hard way. I’m not sure. Either way, it’s true they need to get there, one way or another.

Maybe I’ve been giving bad advice all along. Or good advice. I have no idea.

Reading, Paper, and e-readers

Reading, Paper, and e-readers

I’m frustrated by the current state of research that claims that we read better and retain more from paper than from an ereader, and that this is because of the form, that somehow we need the permanency of paper in order to form memories of the plot of a novel. This makes zero sense to me, but I’ve heard this argument enough times at this point. Fortunately Spark did an episode that investigated this, and came to a better conclusion.

If you gave someone a short story and told them to read it in an empty library, you’d probably get a better result than taking someone to an empty carnival and telling them to read a short story there. Not because the empty library is quieter than the empty carnival, or because libraries are just naturally better places for reading. It would be because the person walking into a carnival isn’t prepared and primed for reading while the person walking into the library is. We already know this is true; this is why they tell you not to bring your computer to bed with you to finish up some work, because if you do work in bed on a regular basis, when you go to bed your head will be primed for work rather than sleep.

So I have doubts that these experiments with ereaders and books are telling anyone which form is better for the reading experience per se. It’s only telling us that people are currently primed to think of computers/tablets/screens as things to watch movies on, or play games on, or browse the internet on. Most people are not primed to consider a screen a reading surface.

But some people are. Some people read on screens all the time, for academic work or for fun. For books that don’t and won’t exist in paper, there are audiences who have already made the switch. They must have other cues that prime them for reading from the same screen they use for other tasks. Of course, readers of online books are always sitting in the bookstore as they read. If they don’t like the turn a story takes, I suspect they will back-button out quicker than a paper-book reader will give up on a book they’ve borrowed or purchased. With online novels, there is always a universe of other stories waiting if the current one doesn’t suit.

I would be interested to see studies like this done with more context. How do those who read fiction on a screen all the time fare against people who don’t? As ereaders get into the hands of more and more people and reading ebooks becomes just as common as reading any other kind of book, do the results change? If a person starts reading an ebook and has poorer comprehension results, do those results improve after a month of reading ebooks? A year?

I remember in the late nineties there was some discussion about how to talk about interaction with the internet. Browse won, but I remember someone on the news talking about “looking at the internet,” or “watching the internet.” As someone who was already far beyond “watching” or merely “looking” at digital material, I cringed. You can watch things online, that presenter wasn’t wrong. You do look at stuff on the internet. That guy saw a screen that looked a lot like a tv, and transferred the language and the modes of thinking to it. He was a passive viewer of internet content, and that’s how he framed his experience.

Ipads are not about being looked at, they’re about being interacted with. An ipad in particular is the first device to fit into that strange niche between smartphone and computer, a device driven entirely without a proxy roller ball or mouse or stylus or keyboard. You touch the content and it reacts. It’s an engagement device, not a device to be looked at or watched (though you can look at and watch things on ipads, too). It doesn’t really surprise me that giving a bunch of people ipads or ereaders doesn’t yet prime people to sink into deep contemplative thought. People are still primed to look at how their physical touch is interacting with digital activity.

Likewise, I wonder if anyone’s done any experiments on audiobooks. Read a page, hear a page: is one better than the other? I suspect it’s what you’re used to.

For many years I’ve been painfully aware of the anti-ebook league who are extremely keen to point out how inferior ebooks are. I know there was a similar group who objected to the written word in the first place (“if you don’t need to memorize it, everyone will become a gibbering idiot!”), and then to the printing press (“Bad! Cheap! Sloppy!”). While I still have a too-steady stream of paper books coming into my house, I’m glad books are going digital. To me, the story, the information, the content is the most important thing. Digital text isn’t limited by its font size. It can be read aloud by a screenreader. It can be translated by a braille display. I can twist it, add more notes to it than it contains in the first place. Like Dickens did it, it can be delivered serially. Digital text might mean more text, and to me that’s a plus.

Fear and Metaphors

Fear and Metaphors

Being the odd sort of academic librarian that I am, with no real connection to books, I end up spending perhaps more time than most thinking about what academic librarianship is at its core. I don’t have a lot to take for granted as markers of my librarianship (reference, collection development, instruction, for instance, none of those), but you can find the roots of the profession in what I’m doing nonetheless…as long as you’re prepared to let go of the obvious, and consider what the obvious actually means.

Early on I learned that academic librarians are, more often than not, the layer between the patron and the complicated, ever-changing tools and resources they have to wrestle with in order to get their work done. We stood as the interface for scholarship for a long time, the door through which any academic or student would need to pass through in order to find and use scholarly literature. We made it easier to sift though. We gave advice about sources and materials. We connected patrons with a need with the resource that would fill (or overflow!) it. When computing arrived on the scene, we were often the layer between the patron and the technology, too. Libraries (academic and public) have long been a sure place where patrons can get access to new technologies and get help using it.

I think that’s a really powerful way to view librarianship, and one that I find personally very inspiring. Librarianship if often the liquid that fills up the spaces between two things that need to fit together but often don’t quite do so as intended.

As a librarian who works exclusively with online tools as opposed to publishers or physical media, I’ve taken that idea to heart. Not only do I see myself as a kind of gateway between the wild world of collaborative and communication technologies and the faculty who need them, but I also see it as my role to give patrons the tools they need to approach that world and put its innovations to good use in their teaching and their research.

The natural answer to this problem is to provide training, but that’s not where I think this work starts. Jumping to training and writing instructions is skipping two fundamental steps along the way. If it’s my job to be the layer between online technologies and patrons who need them, to communicate between one and the other in the languages they both understand, I need to prepare both sides for each other, and I need to invent a language to help them understand each other. I need to create the circumstances that will foster effective innovation and meaningful change.

Is that training? Knowledge? To some degree, sure. But as I say, I think we’re making too many assumptions when we jump straight to training and skill-building, as if that’s the gap to fill.

The first real hurdle to overcome isn’t a lack of knowledge. It’s fear.

Tools designed to be used by the general population are, in general, not all that complicated. Anything can be difficult before you understand how it works, but none of it is really that hard, and i think everyone knows that. The difficulty of using tools isn’t the thing that prevents innovation and change. Fear is.

Fear of what? Of getting it wrong; of looking stupid; of making a mistake that breaks everything; of not knowing all the answers; of being embarrassed in front of colleagues, TAs, students; of not know how to help students use the tool you’ve asked them to use; of creating too much work for yourself; of failing to think through all the consequences of using a tool, and having to scrap months and months or work because you dug yourself into an impossible hole; of having to do it all over again; or it vanishing, crashing, falling off a table and bursting into flames. All kinds of things. This is low-level fear, a niggling kind of fear that, if spoken aloud, is often easily dismissed. But it doesn’t get spoken aloud, and instead it festers and prevents patrons from taking risks. We don’t talk about fear in the context of library services, and we don’t tend to think of ourselves as alleviating fear. Sometimes we do the work of fear reduction quite by accident, without realizing that that was the great value we offered. But other times we don’t address the fear at all, and often we make that fear worse.

There are any number of ways to reduce fear. What I’ve found in my own work is that if I demonstrate my competence with the tools in question (often just by seeming knowledgeable, or passing on information, or being helpful), by showing interest in and respect for their skills and knowledge, by not being judgmental, and then make sure patrons know that I am here to help them no matter what, that’s a good start. I tell them what they need to know when they need to know it instead of waiting for them to hit a bump in the road. I put up the signposts and draw them maps so they always feel sure when they put their feet down on the ground. And should the worst happen in spite of all our best efforts, I will personally dig them out of whatever kind of hole they manage to fall into. Knowing all this, and seeing that it’s all true,patrons will take risks. They will innovate, they will experiment. If they know the ground beneath their feet is solid, they will start to run.

I didn’t know I was in the fear reduction business until I started to really look hard at what was happening in my daily work. Where innovation is occurring on my watch, it isn’t always because the instructor now has better tech skills or more technical knowledge. But they certainly have more confidence in using the tools available. They are more willing stretch.

Reducing fear is critical; but the other piece of being the layer between the patron and the big complicated thing (whatever it is) is coming up with a language so that the patron can make sense of it. It’s a matter of making the affordances of a system or tool or technology plain. Again, the standard answer to this is often training and skill-building, but I’d hesitate. You can’t jump right to training, that’s not enough. I think the answer starts in metaphor.

If you don’t know what a tool thinks it is, you won’t know how to use it. Email is as successful as it is, I would argue, in large part because of it’s watertight metaphor. It’s just system messages sent to a particular registered user, but once you call it mail, everyone who’s ever seen a mailbox full of letters and newspapers knows what it does. You send it and receive it; you open it, you read it, you store it or throw it out. You can get packages that contain things. Your mailbox is only so big and can only fit so much stuff in it. Calling it mail provides an insight into the affordances of email, and helps everyone understand what it is and use it. I think this is why many people who are afraid of online technologies usually have no fear of their email. They tend to use their email for everything. You’ve met those folks who send themselves email as a kind of task list, right? They “read” each message when the task done. The people I know who do this don’t tend to be hugely tech savvy, but they understand how this one tool works, they get its metaphor, and they’re ready to twist it into any shape to suit their needs. That’s good innovation! But it only happens if the metaphor is solid.

Many of the tools and systems our patrons need to use don’t come along with such helpful metaphors. So part of the work of being the layer between them is to come up with the language for them so that patrons understand them and innovate their practice using them.

It’s like a giant whiteboard. It’s like a file folder. It’s like a rolodex. It’s a blank piece of paper you can pass around the room. What’s going to make sense to these people, in this place, with the backgrounds that they have? Librarianship has the capacity to be an incredibly creative profession if you take it as read that metaphor construction is a key part of the job. Our role is to help our patrons see the affordances of new tools, to help them find a way to be creative using them, and very often that requires a good, solid, relatable metaphor. If you know that a wiki is a blank note book anyone can write in, it’s much easier to imagine what you might use it for.

We used to be the layer that connected patrons with resources that would be impossible for them to find otherwise. Now we can be the layer that provides the metaphorical scaffolding that unlocks functionality for our patrons and allows them to be creative. While we used to hold the literal keys to resources, we can now unlock resources that are already available by housing them in a metaphorical framework that will make sense to our community. And by reassuring them that we’ve got their back.

360: Being Your Own Patron

360: Being Your Own Patron

As I’m easing back into daily work, I’m becoming increasingly conscious about looking at everything from both sides. It’s very easy to see work, services, decisions, all of that, from my own perspective as a librarian, a service provider, a troubleshooter and tech consultant. What would be easiest for me, what resonates with me, what falls in line with other decisions I’ve made? What processes can I put in place to make my life easier? I know I’m usually starting from there when I’m at work. A me-centred approach. I think most of us do that. It’s pretty natural.

But lately I’ve been thinking about my own process of doing a 360 whenever I’m making decisions. What does it feel like to be my own patron? I think about this a lot, and it’s occurred to me recently that that might not be as common as I thought it was.

The first time I was aware that this way of thinking might be a bit unusual was back in library school. I wrote a paper for a cataloguing class about the history of a classification decision, and what the changes in that classification would have meant for the patron browsing the shelves. This seemed like a natural leap to me, but the comment on my paper when I got it back especially lauded me for thinking about shelves and the patron experience. I couldn’t quite fathom what other way there was to think about it, frankly. I mean, that’s what classification is for in the end, isn’t it? Arranging information for a patron? So a patron can interact with it in a logical way? It’s hard for me to imagine losing sight of that.

But I keep being confronted with experiences where that 360 clearly didn’t happen. I filled out a form the other day, and got a receipt via email that started, “If you typed in your email, you’ll receive a message…” Well, yes. I did type in my email, obviously. And am reading a message. Since the system has just emailed me this one. I wondered if anyone thought about what it would be like to receive that email. It’s not a natural way of thinking, perhaps. Maybe it’s what happens once you get into a groove in your job, when you do things because that’s how they’re done. It must obscure the obvious question about what it would be like to experience from the other side as someone who has no idea what’s commonly done, let alone why, and hasn’t spent a second considering it.

In my spare time, I write fiction. It’s a hobby, I enjoy it. Usually I think this particular hobby has no real bearing on my life as a librarian (in spite of the fact that most people think librarians think about/read fiction all day). But as I’ve been thinking about this 360 process as part of my own decision-making, I’ve realized that it’s one area where fiction and my work life collide.

When I’m writing fiction, I work hard to think about the story as it appears to every character, not just the protagonist. I want every character to be a protagonist in their own unwritten story, with their own goals and perspectives present under the surface. I want every character to feel like a real person who sees the world through their own twisted lens, and thus naturally misunderstand things or make bad decisions from time to time. I want the reader to get the sense, as they run up against these various characters, that there are worlds inside them that we aren’t entering into. As if this story could be written from any one of their perspectives and be just as interesting, yet radically different. Every villain is a hero when they’re the one telling the story, right?

Thinking about being my own patron feels a bit similar to me. I want to stop seeing the world as I see it, and see it from the perspective of a student, or an instructor, or an exhausted sessional. What am I doing because it’s easier for me, or more natural to me, or because it’s always been that way, that would look mystifyingly inexplicable to those people? What would they look at and say, why are you making me do this? Why is this happening to me? When they get that email like I did, does it make sense? Does it tell them anything they care about? Does it seem as though I haven’t thought about what it will feel like for them?

I think this might be the actual definition of a bureaucracy: when we’ve spent all our time thinking about what we need from a patron in order to process a request successfully, we’ve created a service that will feel like an ordeal the patron has to survive rather than a service. You want a book/computer/access? Go over to that terminal, log in with this information, go over here, get this code, write it on a piece of paper, come back to me, and then I help you. We do this a lot. It’s good for our process, I suppose. it feels efficient, but not so fantastic for the patron, who becomes a momentary cog in a process they don’t understand. We insist that they become a minor character in the library’s story when we do that. It must feel like we’re asking them to support the machine we created. The patron knows for sure that whatever’s going on, it’s not them in the heart of it. I suppose sometimes that’s completely appropriate. But it’s the last kind of experience I want to create.

I consider librarianship a service profession. I know that’s a bit controversial in some places, because some consider service to be servile. I don’t feel that way. I think, at it’s very heart, librarianship is about the provision of information, tools, space, and support to patrons, and in that, it seems to be naturally rooted in the most altruistic of services. That’s my favourite part about librarianship, actually. I like helping people meet their goals. I like being part of their successes. I like making sure their successes are easier to achieve, and I absolutely love it when people can accomplish things they thought wouldn’t be possible through a little help and guidance from me. In order to provide a truly great service, I feel like it’s a requirement that I’m constantly questioning who the protagonist is in each interaction I engage in. I want the patron to be the protagonist. I want them to walk away feeling like what just happened was all about them.

What this results in, for me, is what we call paying the pickle man. Sometimes I will bend over backwards to do things that might seem trivial, but if I do those things, I know the patron experience will be effortless. For instance: if I know for a fact that every instructor on campus will need to, say, make their course available to students between Monday and Wednesday of the week after Labour Day, I could just wait for them to forget, and then have to call me to ask how to do it. Or I could just reach out and tell them how to do it before they realize they have to ask. I know their storyline, at least a little bit. I know where it needs a nudge. I’m don’t mind being a minor character if it means they don’t make a mistake or forget something.

This is something I wish I’d been taught in library school. I wish we’d had even just one lecture on it. What do you think you look like to your patrons? What do you want them to think when they’re interacting with you? I think everyone’s answer to this might be very different. Sometimes I think every controversy, every argument, every difference of opinion in librarianship comes down to conflicting answers to this question: what do you want the patron to feel when they’re dealing with you? To me, the answer to this question in any given situation is what dictates my decisions. And because what I want the patron to feel is heard, and understood, and important, 9 times out of 10 the solution that makes my life easier just won’t be good enough.

The Power of Data Visualization

The Power of Data Visualization

Today the UK officially observed Remembrance Day. As a Canadian, I’m very familiar with Remembrance Day. The ceremony itself is pretty much the same in the Commonwealth countries as it is here. As a Guelphite (Guelph being the birthplace of Lt. Col. John McCrae), I know In Flanders Fields off by heart, and have been part of an eery choir reciting it in unison. I’ve even once held a rifle on my shoulder pointed up into the air and fired it three times as part of a Remembrance Day ceremony when I was an army cadet (don’t ask, long story). I felt like I’d seen Remembrance Day from every possible angle.

Except for one.

Remembrance Day is all about veterans past and present. That I understand: I’ve always understood it that way. War is hell. I get it in that way that you do when you hope you never really get it, if you know what I mean. Canada lost 45,000 young lives to WWII alone. Worthy of noting, certainly. Worthy of the ceremony, I think. I understand why the UK and the rest of the Commonwealth mark Remembrance Day with so much solemnity.

But for Canada, the loss of those soldiers’ lives is the biggest and most devastating element of the World Wars. Not to say that life in Canada wasn’t impacted by the wars in many other ways, but by and large, honouring military personnel once a year to remember the wars makes sense. London had a very different experience.

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 4.25.20 PMThis is a map of London with a red pin marking the site of every bomb dropped on it during the Blitz.  I’m familiar with the history of World War II, of course. I knew London was bombed in a concerted manner over an extended period of time. It’s one thing to have that knowledge; it’s quite another, I find, to see it mapped out like this. It’s one thing to know exactly how many bombs were dropped on London, and know how many days of constant bombing there were, and quite another to see it like this.

I honestly find it strange to observe Remembrance Day in London without any mention the suffering this city endured. Not just civilian loss of life, though that’s hardly insignificant, but what was certainly civilian terror night after night, the loss of neighbourhoods, and the loss of a tremendous amount architectural history. On this map I discovered that a bomb landed across the street from me. (That, I assume, explains the one 1950s structure across the road in a sea of Victorian terraces.) It’s so close it would have shattered all our windows, at least. My bedroom window overlooks where that bomb must have fallen. I can’t imagine the terror of waiting, night after night, to see if a bomb is going to fall on your house, or your neighbours’. And you look at that map and realize that everyone in London would have had the experience of a hearing a bomb that was heading for them. It would be hard to not being within close proximity of the spot where one (or more) fell. I have now learned that I even on a very slow and lazy day, I pass at least 6 different bomb sites just walking to a tube station or sauntering down the street. But there’s no mention of that trauma in the ceremonies. “Stiff upper lip,” they tell me. “The soldiers had it worse.” Okay. Sure. Maybe. It’s not a zero sum game, though. Look at that map. There are so many pins in that map you can’t even tell what you’re looking at.

This is the power of data visualization. It allows a human brain to make sense of information in a very human way. In a very personal way, sometimes, as I’m experiencing it.

I’m finding it challenging to be in this city, and love this city as I am increasingly doing, and not have strong feelings about how terribly it’s suffered in the recent past. It suffered before that, of course. There’s the conquests, the plagues, the fires that intermittently burned the whole place down. It was abandoned at one point in it’s history, then later reclaimed and rebuilt. But there’s also this damage, the Blitz, mapped out and modern, inarguable. I’m having a retroactive emotional reaction to the Blitz, is what. As if it just happened. All because of well-presented information.

This image is a screenshot of a completely fascinating project called Bomb Sight. It merges the 1940-1941 bomb census held at the National Archives with geographical information in public view. It’s amazing how bringing streams of publicly available data together seems to add a whole other dimension; it’s as if there’s something new being stated, even though the components are all well-known. I’m not sure how to characterize that new dimension, exactly; in some ways it seems like well-illustrated context, but there’s got to be more to it than that. Maybe it’s just the act of letting you hold a large amount of information in your head at the same time, letting you get a bird’s eye view of it in a way you can’t without the help of an accurate visualization. A table of dates and locations wouldn’t explain itself as well as this map does. It lets you see the forest in spite of the trees. It lets you make sense of it all in a very visceral way. I can work with this information, I can apply it and use that knowledge immediately; maybe that’s the extra dimension. It’s allowing me to take the next step without as much labour. It makes the reality of that data easier to see.

This is a plug for big data, for providing access not just to streams of information, but to the tools that allow people to combine them and work with that data in ways that make sense, without having to be an expert on the systems. It’s also an acknowledgement that data can change the way you understand a place, or an idea, or a ceremony, in a very heartfelt and immediate way.

You are indomitable, London. We won’t forget that, either.