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

Nov 9, 2011

Public libraries = education? Yeah, that works for me (more or less)

On November 4, I attended the New Hampshire Library Association fall conference. I'm not sure I appreciated before how useful it can be to take a little while away from the day-to-day reality of my job to meet with colleagues from many different libraries and talk about our successes, challenges, and ideas. It's so easy to get focused on the nitty gritty of what needs to happen each day that I sometimes find it hard to step back and think about the bigger picture (part of why posting on this blog has been so scarce, I think). So I left the conference feeling refreshed and excited to get back to work, with some new "big picture" things to think about!

In this post, I'll talk about the first session of the day, which was probably the most thought-provoking and potentially controversial. This session consisted of a webinar led by Valerie Gross, the president and CEO of the Howard County Library System in Maryland, called "Transforming Our Image." If Ms. Gross' name sounds familiar, it may be because you read her article, "Transforming Our Image Through Words That Work", in the Sept/Oct 2009 issue of Public Libraries. I recall reading the article at the time and being intrigued but not totally on board. After the webinar, I felt that her ideas make much more sense to me, although I still have some quibbles.

The presentation had three main sections: first, Ms. Gross made the argument for re-branding libraries as educational institutions like schools; second, she explored how we can accomplish this re-branding through simple changes in the terms we use to describe our libraries and what we do; and third, she spoke about the logistics of implementing this kind of change.

Ms. Gross began by stating that by choosing our language carefully, we can control our image and the values that other people assign to us. She noted that in this economy, funding is proportional to the value placed on an organization, and quoted a number of unfortunate statements by various government officials that characterized libraries as discretionary or nonessential services.* Ms. Gross noted that librarians have to constantly make the argument for libraries' importance, whereas schools, for instance, don't. She argued that we have to use words that people understand and that convey our value in an incontrovertible fashion - and that strongly aligning ourselves with education can put us in the same "safer" category as the schools when it comes to budget time. In other words, if we say that we are education or education is our role rather than that we play an educational role or we support education, we will position ourselves to be well-funded instead of having to fear more budget cuts.

How should we accomplish this re-positioning or re-branding? Ms. Gross argued that it's actually relatively straightforward. Simply changing how we describe what we do, moving from "library lingo" to terms that are more meaningful to the average person and more clearly connected to education, will encourage people to start thinking of libraries as, and therefore treating libraries as, educational institutions more like schools than discretionary social services. A large segment of the webinar was devoted to discussing ways to rephrase what we do. Often, this involved taking a term that can have a broad meaning or a variety of meanings, and/or that often connotes something quite different to librarians than it does to the average person, and finding a more specific and immediately understandable way to say it.

Some of my favorite suggestions for rewording: changing programs to events and classes (I always feel like I'm going to get misunderstood when I say I'm in charge of "adult programming" at my library -- people tend to think "computers"!), changing reference to research and reference interview to research needs assessment, changing information to education, changing database to specialized online research tool (how many people could tell you what a database is, in the context of a library?), changing "free" to no charge or no admission after all, as we have to emphasize, library programs aren't free -- the funding just doesn't come directly from attendees!), and circulation clerk to customer service specialist.

(There were a few suggestions I didn't agree with. A reference librarian is just not an "instructor", for instance, as far as I'm concerned. I don't teach people on the reference desk. Nor do I "instruct" when I organize and lead programs -- oops, "classes and events" -- I am usually in the background, doing logistics but not presentation. "Research specialist" is perhaps better but I still don't think it quite covers what we do. I'd rather stick with "librarian" and re-educate the public about what that job actually entails!)

Ms. Gross closed by talking about how to implement her ideas in our own libraries. This section of the talk was largely aimed at management and was fairly common-sense -- make sure to involve staff and external constituencies, change the way you present yourself to funding authorities by changing your statistics and budget headings, etc.

My thoughts? Largely, I think Ms. Gross' arguments make sense. Point by point:

Libraries are absolutely in a place where we need to find a way to legitimize ourselves in the eyes of many funding authorities. Is rebranding ourselves as "education" the right way to go? I was skeptical coming in, but after the webinar, I'm on board with the idea of rebranding libraries as educational institutions. I think that the connection of libraries to education is pretty obvious, and I thought that the idea made some sense even before the webinar. Initially, I had some reservations because I thought that some of what we do doesn't, in fact, qualify as education. Where is there room for leisure reading, recreation, crafts, and other "less serious" things that libraries promote under the umbrella of education? This is probably a common concern, and Ms. Gross addressed it directly by noting that education includes "instructive and enlightening experiences", which would encompass the various "community-center" roles that libraries are beginning to fill as well as recreational reading and activities. I think one does have to make the explicit argument for this being relevant in order for people to see it, but it does make sense. People can educate themselves in ways that are totally irrelevant to what we might think of as formal schooling, just because it enriches their lives. I think a lot of things that libraries do that aren't easy to directly connect to education could fit in under this idea that life-enriching activities and learning are also legitimately education.

Will simply changing what we say make a difference? I think so. Word choice definitely influences what people think -- that's practically the whole idea behind branding and marketing. I also agree that some elements of "library lingo" are not meaningful to our patrons. Words that we use all the time and that are transparent to us signify very little to many people walking through our doors. And even if experienced library users do know what "circulation" (e.g.) means, shouldn't we aim to be comprehensible to anyone who comes through our doors or encounters us online, without having to educate them about basic vocabulary before they can interact with us effectively?

What about the specific word choices? I listed my favorite suggestions for rewording "library lingo" above, as well as my major objection (i.e. replacing "librarian" with "instructor"). Overall, I think most of the suggestions in the webinar were good. However, I also think this is an area where individual libraries may need to tailor their choices to their patrons. And I am concerned that doing too much rewording could create an environment that is buzzword-y and just as jargony as some libraries currently are. For instance, while "programs and services" is kind of vague, I think that the suggested alternative of "curriculum" is going to be just as confusing to many people who think of a curriculum as a planned series of lessons that make up a coherent course of study -- which is not really what you find at a library. (How about just "what we do" or "what we offer"? I think that would actually work in most cases where we're saying "programs and services".) If we aren't careful in choosing alternative ways of saying things, we could come off as pretentious or just trying to hop on the latest bandwagon to sound "cool", like that executive who always talks about "synergy" but clearly has no clue as to what the word really means.


* As an interesting and semi-related aside, my library does not close for (e.g.) severe weather unless the entire town government closes. (Employees are encouraged to only come in if they can do so safely, however; and we have had days with only a few staff actually in the building.) My director's reasoning for this is that essential services do not close for weather, and if we want to be perceived as an essential service at budget time we need to behave like one in other circumstances.

Oct 21, 2011

Read Something! PSYCHIATRIC TALES (Darryl Cunningham)

Psychiatric Tales
Graphic Novel, Nonfiction, Essays


Based on his work as a psychiatric nurse, Cunningham wrote the eleven graphic (as in "told in pictures", not as in "explicit") essays collected in this book. The essays discuss specific mental illnesses, work on a psychiatric ward, suicide, and the author's own mental-health struggles, with an aim toward fostering understanding of and destigmatizing mental illness.

Appeal Characteristics
  • Pacing: Very short "chapters" -- each one is probably readable in 20 minutes, maximum
  • Pacing: The text generally consists of declarative/factual statements or quick dialogue; sentences are short
  • Characterization: The reader often just gets quick anecdotes about people and is not really told their broader story or what happened to them. (The exception to this is Cunningham himself, who opens up about his mental health in one of the essays.)
  • Frame: The stories are pretty much self-contained; there is little continuity other than that they usually have the same setting and narrator
  • Visuals: 6 panels per page, with the text usually at the top of each panel
  • Visuals: Dramatic use of black and white: often white figures on a black background, or showing the same or similar images twice with black and white reversed
  • The book touches on suicide and on the author's own struggles with anxiety and depression, so it may be triggering for some people.
  • Girl, Interrupted? (I have only ever seen the movie, and that quite some time ago.) -- similar subject matter and setting, both from the perspective of a person who has been within a mental institution (though one as a patient, one as a nurse)
  • Broadly, I'd recommend this to psychology students, especially those with an interest in abnormal psychology.

Sep 18, 2011

It's amazing how long it takes you to fall into a rhythm once you graduate from school and get a job.

At least, how long it's taken me.

In the past year I got hired, moved to a new apartment, bought a car and some furniture, started my job, weathered a 75-mile commute in ridiculous winter weather, moved again (to a much brighter, quieter, and more pleasant apartment, I'm glad to say), bought more furniture, and here I am. Life is just starting to fall into a routine and we still aren't 100% unpacked. No wonder blogging has gone by the wayside.

But here I am. Still kicking, and smack in the middle of my library's community read programming (10 events in 6 weeks, all of which I'm responsible for organizing though thank goodness I don't have to be in attendance at every one). Busy busy busy busy busy. Ran two recruitment drives to sign local college students up for cards last week, and I have a program to do Monday night.

Almost a year in, and I'm still greatly enjoying myself. I'm hitting my stride, getting my routines firmly in place. I'm starting to feel like I have a handle on the rhythm of the year. I've made some changes in the way certain aspects of my job are done, introduced a few new ideas, and have a couple of other things on the back burner. Mostly it's small stuff. More forms, new policies, different procedures, little things that help us keep records and help me to stay organized. For instance, we're now asking patrons who attend programs to fill out an evaluation. We've never collected that kind of data before. Part of the form asks where they heard about the program and in six months I hope to use that information to streamline my publicity workflow. We're asking volunteers to sign yearly agreements with us to confirm their contact information and so that we have actual records of who is still with us and what they're doing. (Trying to wrangle a list of the volunteers for last year's statistics was a real adventure -- seemed like my predecessor had had most of it in her head!)

Now that I'm finding my feet in my personal and professional lives again, I hope I'll be posting here more often. (Famous blogger's last words.)

Aug 23, 2011

Read Something! _The American Heiress_ (Daisy Goodwin)

The American Heiress
Historical Fiction, Romance


Cora Cash is the wealthiest of Gilded Age New York's eligible young ladies, and her mother is determined to secure for Cora through marriage the one thing money can't buy: an aristocratic title. True to expectations, Cora makes an enviable match to an English duke. But the straightforward American heiress soon finds that English society is rife with unspoken social codes, secret alliances, and duplicitous betrayals. Set adrift in an unexpectedly unwelcoming new life, Cora must mature from a spoiled rich girl to a woman capable of making her own way in society.

Appeal Characteristics
  • Characterization: multiple strong female characters
  • Characterization/Frame: dark, brooding, mysterious love interest
  • Frame: sex mentioned but not really shown
  • Frame: lots of historical detail
  • Frame: some parts are from the points of view of servants instead of the socially elite main characters
  • Frame: some parts are briefly from the point of view of minor characters who we never see again
  • Frame: excellent descriptions make it easy to visualize characters and setting
  • Plot/Frame: love triangles
  • Plot/Frame: lots of politicking/characters trying to one-up each other for social standing
  • Plot/Frame: the state of affairs is pretty clear to the reader early on; we watch the main character figure it out
  • Plot: the "right" people are together at the end; a happy ending
  • Plot/Characterization: book is more focused on plot than on developing finely drawn characters
  • Pacing: midlength chapters broken into somewhat shorter sections
  •  The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton? - Wharton is suggested as a readalike on the jacket copy. Age is much more serious, a social novel rather than romantic fluff, but both books center on a love story, contain lots of historical detail from the same time period, and address the differences between European and American Gilded Age societies by throwing a person primarily from one society into the other
  • Regency romances - This book is only slightly less fluffy than a romance, and is perhaps slightly more about Cora herself than about her romantic relationships... but barely. Julia Quinn (the only romance author I read) is perhaps not a great match except that both she and this book have strong women and lots of period detail; American Heiress seems a little less unabashedly light-hearted than Quinn.
  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles? - I haven't read it but it just came across my desk as a new book and it could be a match. It's a historical novel (albeit set in the 1930s) featuring a plucky girl who needs to find her own way in a wealthy society with which she is unfamiliar, as well as navigating a romance (and possibly, like Cora, being torn between two men).

Jul 30, 2011

Where on earth have I been?

Short answer: Apartment hunting, then simultaneously moving to a new apartment, visiting relatives (both mine and my partner's), and entertaining my mother-in-law for three weeks; also seeing some friends, trying to tidy up our new living quarters, reading, attempting to get some knitting done, spending time with my partner.

And on the work side - planning our ten-event, six-week Community Read program; trying to wrangle a current list of our volunteers and subsequently revamping our entire volunteer program to improve recordkeeping and bring us in line with Department of Labor guidelines, including writing a volunteer policy and creating a bunch of forms; trying to keep up with graphic novel ordering; fielding a bazillion calls/e-mails/in-person requests from people who want to do programs here (on this count I'm actually lucky, I think - I never have to scrounge for presenters/program ideas); running programs, including a book discussion for which I read The Age of Innocence three times; running most of the logistical stuff for an art show at the library; etc. etc. etc. ...

So, I've been busy, and thus not posting at all. Hopefully that will change as my life gets just a bit saner.

Apr 12, 2011

Read Something! _Black Hole_ (Charles Burns)

Black Hole
Graphic Novel, Literary Fiction


The Seattle suburbs; the 1970s. A sexually transmitted disease called "the bug" is sweeping through the high school population. Those infected are physically transformed, in unique and often grotesque fashion. Chris is the girl that all the boys want. Keith is one of her admirers. When they each encounter "the bug" and the group of infected outcasts living in the woods, the resulting events will take them from home and profoundly alter their lives.

Appeal characteristics

  • Plot: Positive ending (if not 100% happy)
  • Plot: Open-ended conclusion; though the plot threads are wrapped up, the characters' stories don't feel totally finished
  • Plot: At least three intersecting plot threads, one of which is not really obvious as a plot thread until its climax and conclusion
  • Plot/Frame?: Coming of age story
  • Frame?: Bizarre dream sequences (but outside of dreams, things feel "real" and logical)
  • Frame?: Strong and frequent use of visual symbolism and repeated images
  • Characterization: Teenage/high school characters
  • Art: Grotesque imagery
  • Art: Usually 4-6 regular-sized panels per page
  • Art: Mostly black backgrounds with white figures; heavy shading
Other notes
  • ???

Mar 15, 2011

Read Something! _The Secret Speech_ (Tom Rob Smith)

The Secret Speech
407 pp.
Thriller/Suspense, Historical Fiction
Sequel to Child 44


Having solved the serial murders of 44 children, Leo Demidov has been put in charge of a secret, newly created department to investigate homicides. But life is not easy. Leo struggles to win the affection of his two adopted daughters, in whose parents' death he played a role. Then a secret speech given by Khrushchev, Stalin's successor, is distributed to the entire nation. The speech portrays Stalin's regime as tyrannical, casts blame on those who supported it, and promises change.

At the same time, someone starts killing off former officers and collaborators from Stalin's regime. And the culprit has a particular interest in Leo, and in what he might be forced to do -- or to endure -- for the sake of a daughter who hates him.

Appeal characteristics

  • Frame: Lots of historical/period detail; clearly thoroughly researched
  • Characterization: Relationships between characters are very important/emphasized
  • Characterization: Strong female characters
  • Plot: Some subplots/parallel plots, but they tend to tie back in to the main plot somehow
  • Plot: Elaborate plot with lots of twists and turns
  • Pacing: Fast-paced; short chapters/sections
Other notes
  • There is violence, but it is not extremely graphic
  • My Noting: Books entry on The Secret Speech: http://notingbooks.com/users/hbackman/readings/6199-The-Secret-Speech
  • ???

Jan 28, 2011

Read Something! _Rainbows End_ (Vernor Vinge)

Rainbows End
381 pp.
Science Fiction


In the not-too-distant future, wearable computers enable people to be constantly hooked in to the Internet, even to overlay different "realities" upon the world around them. Alzheimer's, and many other maladies of old age, have been cured. And mass terrorism is a threat to civilization on a scale never before imagined.

When hints surface suggesting that someone in the United States may be on the verge of discovering a feasible method of mind control, the other world powers know that they must investigate - but covertly. With the help of a juvenile hacker of uncertain identity, they assemble a ring of unwitting accomplices to breach one of the most heavily secured biolabs in the United States.

But they cannot predict the chaotic effect of their independent-minded hired hacker on their operation. Nor do they know that one of their own is trying to sabotage the investigation...

Appeal characteristics

  • Frame: Extensive worldbuilding
  • Frame: Near-future setting that seems a plausible outgrowth of today's trends and technologies
  • ??: World/plot focused (vs. character-focused)
  • Plot: Elements of intrigue/spy thrillers
  • Plot: Many loose ends are not tied up at the end; the book just sort of stops
  • Pacing: Longish chapters
  • Pacing: Slow through the first couple hundred pages, picks up when the major plot event occurs, then slows down again
  • Characterization: Major character is (deliberately) distinctly unlikeable for the opening part of the story but undergoes a change
  • Characterization: A variety of characters of different ages, races, stations in life, etc.

Other notes

  • My Noting: Books entry for this book is here.


  • ???