"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

May 29, 2009

Reflection on my second week at BPL

My second week has come to an end. I became a lot more proactive at the reference desk this week -- having gotten my bearings with basic information about the library, I felt better about starting to take patron questions. In another week or so I start being one of two instead of a third observer of the two people "officially" on desk! I'm excited to get the "official" responsibility for reference, but I'm also very appreciative of the slow introduction my supervisor has provided for me. I was expecting to just get thrown in and have to sink or swim, but having a graduated experience where I could just observe first and then ease my way into practice really made me feel more confident.

Today was actually interesting because I took a patron question when the other two reference librarians were busy and ended up spending about 45 minutes with her (and we weren't done; it was just the end of my shift and I had realized that if I didn't leave then I wouldn't leave until the library closed). Afterward I learned she is a "regular." One of the librarians and I had a good talk about how to end a reference transaction when it is really going on for too long. I didn't mind spending a long time with this patron because we were finding things that were useful to her, but had I been one of two staff members on desk instead of one of three, I almost certainly couldn't have spent that kind of time with her -- the other librarian would have been swamped. On the one hand I'm a little disappointed that things have to be that way; I suppose I'm still clinging to the theoretical ideal and having a bit of trouble adjusting to the realities of practice.

Speaking of theory vs. practice -- I have to apologize to my wonderful professors, but I have definitely become a "pointer" in certain situations. When the patron seems competent and the desk is busy, there is just no way I can walk every person out to the stacks. I do always tell patrons to come back if they can't find what they need; I figure that this is a happy medium, and if someone can't find something, I definitely will help them go look for it.

This week I also continued with some shelf reading and shifting Government Documents materials. In addition, I learned how to use the CD/DVD buffer to clean scratched AV materials (it is kind of fun and surprisingly effective!) and I got started on another big project. The library has a manuscripts collection which is in some semblance of order, but there is no good finding aid available. Since I have an archives background, I've been asked to get the collection in usable shape. Right now I'm just familiarizing myself with what's there. Some of it is pretty interesting -- there are a lot of essays about and personal reminiscences of Brookline in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Parts of it are physically not in the greatest shape in the world, but it is mostly intact, and they've made some basic preservation efforts (putting everything in acid-free boxes and folders, and for the most part also encasing everything in Mylar covers, which is perhaps excessive but certainly not a bad thing). I'm probably going to reorganize it slightly, and I'm thinking about the best way to create a finding aid or finding aids. I probably will do a "traditional" archival finding aid by folder, but since this is for public library use I will also probably create some sort of subject-based finding aid. My supervisor said she was looking at Library of Congress finding aids and really liked those. I haven't seen them yet, but I'll also look at those for models.

May 24, 2009

Imperfect iterations

I'm catching up on my professional reading this summer -- ALA materials come to my home (my parents' house), not my school address, so I had a 3" stack of magazines when I got back. Which is why I was reading the January/February 2009 American Libraries just a few days ago.

The article "Working in Beta: LibraryWeb Labs Let Users Shape Service" caught my eye. My personal philosophy of library work includes an emphasis on user participation as a way of increasing patron involvement with and investment in other aspects of the library, so I liked this article. Not only would I expect these kinds of online "labs" where libraries test new web services to help participating users feel greater ownership in the library, but it helps the libraries to make sure that their services really do respond to user needs.*

But what I found most interesting was the article's opening:
"Something libraries have not been great at historically is experimenting in public," Ken Varnum, web systems manager at the University of Michigan Libraries,** told American Libraries, noting the urge to make services 'perfect' before release.
I suppose my first question is: is this assertion correct? I quite frankly don't have the experience to know yet. We hear so much about innovations by this or that library these days, and I never thought to pay much attention to whether the staff and management/administration had invented these innovations in a back room and planned them out in detail before implementation or whether they had, to borrow Mr. Varnum's phrase, experimented in public -- invited and encouraged patrons' feedback during the process, listened, changed things mid-course. Of course I don't mean to draw the dichotomy that that sounds like. I would hope any innovation would spring at some level from observation of patrons' needs and wants. But for me, "experimenting in public" means something more than just being aware of what patrons want, and perhaps making small changes in response to feedback post-implementation. Experimentation involves a much more uncontrolled process. You think you know what will happen if you do something, certainly, but fundamentally experimentation is a process of discovery. A library experimenting in public is one that has plans, but permits flexibility in new programming or services to shift rapidly in response to patron feedback and staff and administration/management observations of the effects and effectiveness of the program/service. When you experiment you find out what's really the right thing to do as you go along. You make mistakes. To make mistakes in public is a brave thing to do -- especially when half of your profession seems to be suffering a crisis of identity/relevance.

* Of course this has to be taken with a grain of salt, since the specter of representative sampling rears its head here. But as long as the feedback through these labs isn't considered the be all and end all of patron input, I imagine it could be quite useful.

** (woohoo!)

May 22, 2009

First week of the internship is over -- I'm EXHAUSTED! (but happy)

My first week was definitely an orientation week. Two people who are in charge of projects I'll be doing are on vacation, so I couldn't get started on those. I spent a lot of time moving books -- shelf reading in the local history room, shifting the Government Documents collection about ten feet to the right (current shelving is too crowded and they need to move things around), and pulling books from the YA shelves for weeding. I have become thoroughly convinced of the value of shelving and shelf reading for knowing the collection -- I feel much more confident in my awareness of the contents of the areas of the collection I've been physically working with this week.

I've also been spending time observing and sometimes helping out on the reference and information desks. Mostly observing right now, but that's fine because there's a lot I don't know about the library systems and resources, and that means right now it's hard for me to answer many questions effectively. I have taken some reference questions, mostly directional things or things where I could just take the patron to the catalog and help him/her out there. It's a lot of fun to help someone find just what they were looking for. :) And if I start flailing it's nice to know that I can always direct the patron to the librarian sitting right next to me! (I will never be allowed to sit on a desk alone this summer, due to union rules. I actually appreciate that, though -- it takes a lot of pressure off of me to know that I have help right there if I need it, and my colleagues seem happy to let me take questions.)

During downtime on the desk, I've been talking a lot to the other librarians. I've been introduced to the Millennium internal library system (though I haven't used it myself yet) and to basic procedures within the system like searching, looking up information in records, placing holds, etc. I've also learned a bunch about my colleagues' paths to librarianship, library policies and procedure, the good and bad of membership in a consortium, and a lot of other miscellaneous but interesting and useful things. Some people are more talkative than others, but everyone has been very helpful and responsive when I have questions or express interest in something. All in all, it's a pretty cool bunch of people to hang out with. I'm looking forward to what this summer will bring!

May 18, 2009

A good start!

Today I finally began my internship at the Brookline Public Library in Brookline, MA!

I sort of got plunged right into the middle of things. After a library tour (I got introduced to about 20 people and don't remember any of their names! >.< ), I spent two hours shadowing my supervisor and then another librarian on the reference desk. I inaugurated what is sure to be a grand reference career by that most traditional of reference librarian activities: directing a patron to the restroom. After a lunch break, I was told that Steve Kluger, author of My Most Excellent Year, was about to give a talk for librarians on extended families in literature. I got to skip out on "actual" work to listen to Mr. Kluger talk for two hours about his family life growing up and as it stands now, and how it ties into his writing. It was funny and touching and extremely interesting, and I now feel compelled to go read all three of his books.

By the time all that was over with, it was getting close to time for me to leave. To fill the last 45 minutes, my supervisor asked me to help with shelving, since I hadn't been started on my projects yet and they were behind on shelving (are libraries ever _not_ behind on shelving?). That was a nice, relaxing way to end the day.

The highlight of the day, beyond just being able to finally START this internship, was definitely Mr. Kluger's talk. Second to that, I have to admit... is that I discovered a yarn store (which won "Best of Boston") directly on the route between the subway and the library. Unluckily for me (luckily for my wallet and my mother, who was waiting to pick me up), it was closed when I found it!