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

Sep 29, 2009

The tradeoff of leading

I had a conversation today with a colleague on the reference desk (I am currently doing an internship at a local library. It started last week and they are being just fabulous). She spent some time in administration, even at the assistant director level -- and now she is back to being a regular reference librarian.

I don't recall her precise words, but one comment she made spoke to a conflict I'm still struggling with. She said something to the effect that managers in libraries do very different things, and have very different kinds of contact with patrons, than non-managerial staff.

Eventually, I intend to become a manager, maybe even a director. I want to have the chance to shape policy, to guide the growth and development of a department or even a whole library. I enjoy leading people, and I feel as though if I were in a supervisory position I could foster meaningful growth, both personal and professional, in the people I supervised. I've rarely been one to sit in the backseat. I enjoy guiding, directing, organizing, managing. I don't see myself being a "front-lines" staff member forever.

And yet what draws me to this work is precisely what we do on the "front lines", in direct interaction with the patrons. It's why I could never work in archives -- too much back-room stuff, too little interpersonal contact. It is such a good feeling to see and talk with the people I'm helping, face to face. And I love the problem-solving aspects of reference work, the variety, the fact that I can learn something new and interesting with every reference transaction. I love having my hands physically on the books. I love watching the wide swath of humanity that walks through a public library.

Therein lies the crux. Because it seems to me that it's a rare library director who gets to spend any significant time interacting with patrons other than those who've been referred to the top because they have some sort of problem that the lower echelons can't deal with. But I don't ever want to stop doing reference. Ever. I suppose there are probably library directors out there who carve out some time to do that kind of work. Certainly the director of the library I was at over the summer spends some time every day doing some of the same things as the rest of the staff (although he's never scheduled for desk shifts or anything like that). Maybe a very small system is the answer. Or perhaps a branch library where I could take on a managerial role. Those kinds of situations bring their own stresses, of course. When the director/branch manager is on the desk regularly, it is probably because there's not enough staff for the director/branch manager to do otherwise. And understaffing of course has all sorts of bad consequences.

I suppose I'm jumping the gun a little bit... I have no idea what the timeline is supposed to be to move from entry-level librarian to library director, but I'm sure it's relatively long. (Though I am aware of someone who apparently got a director's job right out of library school! There's an exception to every rule...) And given how much things seem to vary from library to library, this may just be something I have to work out in whatever library I end up in. But being a future-oriented, planning kind of person, it's hard for me to sit back and let it go. So I keep poking at it, wondering where the balance might lie for me.

On the other hand, thinking about it now means I get to pick other people's brains on the topic -- my coworker today being a case in point. Thinking ahead (waaaaaaay ahead) isn't all bad...

Sep 18, 2009

Does "informatics" automatically equal "technology"?

One of the courses I'm taking this semester is the Community Informatics seminar. I'm hoping it will provide me with a theoretical grounding to help me be more effective as a facilitator for community building and enrichment when I get a job in a public library. CI is a specialization here, and I've been on-and-off involved in it since I arrived last year. It's a bit of a frustrating relationship. It draws me, but never seems to actually offer chances to get deeply engaged with what I'm really interested in.

But perhaps I should provide some background. Let's start with the most fundamental question.

What is Community Informatics?

This is a bit tricky to answer since the field itself is very fluid and still emergent. The blurb about the Community Information Corps from the SI website reads as follows:

Information specialists are needed to deal with the complex issues of community building in the emerging "new economy." Globalization, digital information, and evolving definitions of community are changing the ways in which service-minded individuals engage in work and social transformation. In an effort to answer the difficult questions raised by these changes, students, faculty, and partners at the School of Information have created the Community Information Corps -- an interdisciplinary group of information professionals who learn, share, and apply new techniques in the service of public goals.
To my mind, CI is the facilitation of information flow to serve the public good and to meet the needs of a community, in the context of how our world is changing in the age of the Internet. That could mean anything from designing more effective library services to providing smartphones to people in Africa to intelligently tracking disease patterns in poor communities, depending on how far you want to extend the definition.

Unfortunately, what CI actually seems to mean at this school is "using our programming skills to create apps and tools that will help facilitate information flow." That's certainly a part of CI, as far as I'm concerned. But it is not the only part, not by far. I am not a programmer, and I'm not really interested in creating software tools or web apps. Nor am I terribly interested in working on high-level policy, which seems to be what most of the rest of CIC activities here involve. I understand that these things are necessary, and for the people who want to do them, I say go right ahead. But what I'm interested in, on the most basic level, is just how to discover and fill people's information needs -- whatever form that takes. If a web app is the most efficient way to do it, sure, I'm fine with that. But people seem to not remember or recognize that jumping to technology as the first, "obvious" solution is not always the right way to go. Why program software if running a meeting to get people to just talk to one another, or creating a library program, or running an educational campaign, or doing something else non-technological would be more efficient? The non-library folk at SI are so tech-focused that I feel like other things often just get lost in the shuffle. I wish, when CI projects were posted to the list, they were phrased more like "we need to look at x problem and propose some solutions," rather than the inevitable "we need to program this thing to solve x problem." I would love to work on a project, but as someone with no complex coding skills and a desire to really interact with people, I feel like I don't really have a place in most of the projects the CIC asks for help with.

I know that I should make my own opportunities rather than waiting for them to come to me. But I unfortunately just don't have time to get involved with CIC at the depth I think would be necessary to actually effect a change here. I have a lot of other things on my plate that need to take precedence. CI is, for me, an enrichment activity, not a major focus.

That doesn't mean I can't do little things, of course. The seminar seems as though it will be influenced fairly strongly by student interests, and I'm hoping that through my contributions I can steer it a little more toward the social-consciousness side of things and away from the technological side. I know I'm not the only student who is a little distanced by the heavy emphasis on technology, technology, technology, and I hope that together we can find a balance between the theory and social consciousness that I really feel is at the true core of CI and the other interests that revolve around that core, whether they be policy or technology or interpersonal interaction or...

We will see.


The other night, my boyfriend and I watched Be Kind Rewind. It's a comedy movie where Jack Black accidentally becomes magnetized and erases all the VHS tapes in his friend's* video rental store. The pair try to fix it by taping their own versions of each movie. Eventually the copyright people come down and put a stop to it. Meantime, the building that the store is in has been condemned. The bootleg videos have been the source of income that the store's owner was going to use to fix up the building and keep his store; when they are destroyed, the situation seems hopeless. But the community is now behind him. He used to tell fairy-tale type stories of how Fats Waller was born in his building and grew up in the neighborhood; they were false, but now the community decides to come together to make a "documentary" about Fats Waller's life and times as though he had lived in that neighborhood. They hope that they can show it as a fundraiser that will raise enough money to save the building. The last scene is of many people watching this movie together, laughing, enjoying themselves, and feeling proud of their contribution to this group project.

The movie ended and I thought, "That is the essence of Community Informatics." I didn't mean it in the sense that I thought that particular project would have been an exemplary CI project. What resonated with me was the spirit of the whole endeavor. Community members saw that one of their own was in trouble and they came together to help him, in the process growing closer to each other, investing in their community, and gaining community pride. To me, that kind of dynamic and process is the key thing about Community Informatics. It's about what happens, not about how it is made to happen. The people, their growth and interaction, will always be more central to my conception of CI than the technology or any other means used to facilitate that growth.

* It's actually slightly more complicated than that, but it isn't important for our purposes, so I simplify.

Sep 11, 2009

My last EVER year of school is beginning!

I don't know whether to say "finally!" or flip out about having to actually get a real, full-time job. (It's not that I'm not looking forward to a long, fruitful career as a public librarian. I'm really excited about being able to go out and do this stuff in a real-world situation. It's more the finding of a job that is stressful. But that's a topic for another time, anyway.)

Anyway. The job stuff is just beginning to loom on the horizon. Right now what's taking up much more of my time is getting started with school and figuring my classes out. So far there are two classes I'm definitely taking, one I'm almost certainly taking, and two I have to make a decision about. They are as follows:

Cataloging: Definitely taking. I don't plan on being in technical services, but a) it's good to have the skills if I need them, and b) understanding this stuff will make me a better reference librarian and eventually a better manager, should I end up in a management position where I supervise tech services staff. It's going to be a ton of work and a bit of a slog, but I regard it as a thoroughly necessary class. And the professor entertains me (as well as being a good teacher in general).

Information Use in Communities: DEFINITELY taking. This ties directly in to my interests, as it's taught by a professor with a research interest in how public libraries can most effectively and directly serve the communities in which they're embedded. It also was cancelled due to budget cuts, and only reinstated because of student protest, so beyond the fact that I'm really interested in it and think it will be good for developing my thinking in certain domains, I feel a bit obligated to swell the head count this semester (having been one of the protesting students). I absolutely adore the professor; she's this warm fuzzy grandmotherly lady who is just really knowledgable and nurturing and with whom I feel very comfortable, which isn't always the case with me and professors. This is one of two classes that I am most looking forward to.

Community Information Corps seminar: Almost certainly taking. It would be another good one for getting to think about libraries in a community setting. My only real concern is that a lot of it will not be library-centric; Community Informatics tends to draw people from a range of specializations. But that might not be a bad thing. I could use to do a little more thinking about policy and current problems outside of information science.

Design of Complex Websites: Thinking about it. The teacher is awesome, and I could use to improve my programming. It would also probably look fairly good on my resume. However, I question how much I'd really be able to use many of the specific skills from the course in my career.

Theories of Social Influence: Considering it, and yeah, I will probably end up taking it. I could use it in my career! I could use my knowledge of social influence to get people to come to the library, and support it politically, and attend programs! And I'll be a better manager if I understand how to influence people! ...yeah, so I can make arguments like that, but really? The professor seems really nice, and the subject matter is INCREDIBLY COOL. I deserve a "just for fun" class, don't I?

On top of all this, of course, I'm working 10-12 hours a week, performing duties as an officer in the school's ALA student chapter, attending the SI fiber arts group, being with my boyfriend, seeing friends, keeping the apartment clean, starting a job search, and hopefully also getting a public library internship. I foresee a busy semester...

Sep 9, 2009

Where have I been, you ask?

(which is a bit of a silly question, since anyone who actually reads this blog probably knows me and therefore already knows the answer...)

I have been packing up my stuff and flying to California, from whence I have been road-tripping back to good old Ann Arbor, at which point I moved into a new apartment with my wonderful boyfriend. And then school started. Needless to say, I have been busy. And without strict requirements to write blog posts for my internship, this blog may languish. I'm hoping not. I certainly intend to keep writing, especially since classes this semester look interesting. But we shall see what happens...