Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Things Small Town Library does well

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago about ways in which libraries could do a better job of living up to their own values and I illustrated some points with examples from Downtown Library and Small Town Library. I don't want you to get the idea that either of those places are bad, or even below average, compared to other libraries, so today I want to tell you about some of the things that make me proud or happy to work at those places. I wrote one about Downtown Library already. Downtown Library was easier because it's part of a big system that, like most big public library systems, tends to conform well to the American Library Association's Code of Ethics. The strengths of libraries like Small Town Library are significant, but ideological purity isn't its strong suit (nor, I suspect, is it the strong suit of most small-town libraries). When you have limited resources and different demands from your community, it doesn't tend to be a priority.

That said, here are some ways in which Small Town Library practices what it preaches:
  • Items on the self-serve hold shelf are covered with white paper so that other patrons can't easily see what their neighbors have on hold.
  • The library offers study rooms in which patrons can have private conversations, and which library staff could conceivably use for confidential reference interviews (Downtown Library, to my constant annoyance, has cubicle-style study rooms that are roofless and not private at all).
  • Privacy screens are offered by default at all public computers for adults.
  • The library has held on to Fifty Shades of Grey and similar materials despite patron complaints about the 'inappropriateness' of those titles for a public library.
  • Despite an overall chatty atmosphere, staff members very rarely share what a patron was looking for with a coworker unless it's specifically to help meet that patron's needs.
  • The library has refused to place rating-based restrictions on what DVDs kids can check out, despite patron requests to do so.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A book detection victory

At Small Town Library this morning:

Patron: Sorry in advance, this is a stupid question.
Me: Believe me, it's fine. There are no stupid...
Patron: Is there a way to look up a book if you remember things about it, but not the title or the author?
Me: My first suggestion would be to find a librarian and tell them everything you remember and we'll see if we can find it.
Patron: Okay. It was from a dog's point of view and I think the guy is a repo man and he stumbles across a mystery and then has to solve it.
Me: I have a few ideas! It could be one of a few books by W. Bruce Cameron. He has a series about a repo man who has a dog, the dog isn't the narrator but he's definitely a character in the story, and then he has some other books from dogs' points of view. It also might be this mystery series that is definitely written from the dog's point of view, they're by Spencer Quinn and I think the most famous one is called "Dog On It"...
Patron: I think that first one sounds familiar!
It was The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man by W. Bruce Cameron, and I looked like a wizard to the patron. I ruined the mystique a little bit by confessing that I'd listened to the book within the last year, but I couldn't help it because that book is soooo good* and I couldn't stand giving up a chance to tell someone how excellent it is.

*If you're going to listen to the audio like I did, I actually suggest you listen to the sequel, Repo Madness, because I personally thought the narrator was much better, but if you're going to read it they are both excellent.

Things Downtown Library does well

I wrote a post last week about ways in which libraries could do a better job of living up to their own values and I illustrated some points with examples from Downtown Library and Small Town Library, the two places where I currently work. I don't want you to get the idea that either of those places are bad, or even below average, compared to other libraries, so today I want to tell you about some of the things that make me proud or happy to work at those places. I'm starting with Downtown Library, since that's where I am today. These aren't the only things I like about Downtown, but they are the ones most related to last week's post.

  • Items on hold for people to pick up are shelved spine downward, and are labeled with a code (first three letters of your last name, first three letters of your first name, last four letters of your library card number) instead of your name.
  • Our IT department does a really good job scrubbing internet history, created files, etc. between each user's computer sessions.
  • Our catalog computers and print stations are set up to time out if they are left untouched for a while so that people who forget to sign out still have their privacy protected, even if on a delay.
  • We have a patron elevator for our two-story building, and a process for taking patrons through the staff areas to use the freight elevator if the patron elevator is broken so that they can still get where they need to go.
  • We have library card brochures and applications in four different languages (including English).
  • I am pretty confident that all public areas are passable by electric wheelchair (you might think this would be an Americans With Disabilities Act requirement, but actually it isn't).
  • We have many members of staff who practice extreme patience with, and have great empathy toward, patrons with intellectual or mental disabilities. It's a pleasure to listen to our circulation staff chat with some of our regulars who have limited capabilities--they not only make them feel welcome, they always make sure to keep them in the loop about any library changes that might affect them.
Copyright thoughtfulness:
  • The system of which Downtown Library is a part is the only one where I have ever worked where I have had first-hand evidence of the library paying for stock photos instead of just borrowing photographers' work and using it without compensation to the creator.
  • The existence of colorful sign templates that are used system-wide discourages people from pulling any old file off the internet in order to create signage.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

To do list

Today I found a list with the heading "Library" in the recycling bin next to the printer. Here's what was on it:
  • Budget
  • Golden Corral locations
  • Touchless car wash
  • First pass on photos
  • Backup to HD

Saturday, May 20, 2017


Things patrons have told me lately that have made me (at least briefly) angry:
  • That I don't understand what Microsoft Silverlight is
  • That I was "just making excuses" for the local history librarian's failure to immediately return a phone call
  • That I'm racist
  • That they don't understand how many copies of pornographic trash (i.e., the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy) the library has to buy with taxpayer money
  • That the library should be open until 9 p.m. on Fridays because "some people have to work"
  • That I let other patrons be too loud in the library
  • That a picture book about gender identity isn't appropriate for children
  • That, no matter what I may claim to the contrary, they were just speaking to me on the phone

Finally some funny things

I know this blog has been all serious lately (it's been a serious week, sorry), so I thought I'd point those of you looking for funny reference interactions to this LibraryThing thread about them. My favorite is probably the patron who wanted to renew his books and phrased that need as "I want to make the fining stop."


Today there was an incident where I was accused of being racist, and it made me feel good rather than bad. Let me explain:

I think I'd like to be a department head or maybe even a library director someday. Knowing this, I keep an eye out for things that happen at work that would tell me if it am suited for the work and would help make me more qualified. So today was sort of a weird experience.

A woman was having trouble with a website in one of our PCs. At first she was cursing and mumbling to herself but it started to get louder and I thought it might bother other patrons. Instead of starting us off on bad foot by having my first interaction with her be a complaint, I went over near her and said "Do you need some help with the computer?" to which she responded something like "No! I need you to get out of my space and I need your mother f***king computer to work! So you can just go back and get away from me." So I did. Soon after that I went to help a white woman sitting a few chairs down whose web browser had frozen. That was a normal nice patron interaction where no one was mad at anyone and we fixed the problem and I left again. 

After a bit the first woman started cursing again so this time I went up and said "Ma'am, I'm sorry, but you can't use language like that in here. I know you're frustrated but it violates our code of conduct. If it happens again I will have to ask you to leave the library." While I was saying this she was simultaneously talking to me about how I needed to get out of her space (I was about 5 feet away from her chair) and how she would leave if we asked her to and she had her own car and we could call the police if we wanted. So I left again.

Unsurprisingly, the cursing didn't stop, but as I got up to go over to tell her she needed to leave the security guard approached (my colleague had heard our last interaction and called her on the radio, anticipating what would happen next). The security guard escorted her out while she continued to curse and make complaints about me getting in her space and being racist (she said she was being kicked out because she was black and that I had been rude to her but nicer to the white woman I helped with her web browser). Since I grew up in a culture with institutionalized racism, I am sure I have some racist feelings and beliefs at a subconscious level, but I know I didn't make this woman leave because of the color of her skin and I am confident that I would have treated a white person who was behaving the same way in a very similar respect.

Both of my colleagues on the floor came over to say how mean that woman was and how I had been perfectly reasonable with her. Even a patron came up to basically say the same thing. I know they were trying to help me feel better, and I appreciated it, but actually...I didn't need help. I was feeling pretty good about myself. One of the things I worry about disqualifying me from management is not being emotionally tough enough to be the person who tells patrons they have to leave, or to stand up to people who are being verbally abusive. I did have the safety net of the security guard to fall back on, but I still felt like the confrontation I had today was an indication that I was getting better at it and would eventually be able to do it well. I dreaded the conversations I had with her a little, but I still had them, and had them confidently without getting emotional myself.

So that was a victory for me, in a weird way.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

My First Book Challenge

There are a lot of things that library school didn't teach me, but one thing they did prepare me for was book challenges, that is, when someone points out an item in the library's collection that they don't feel should be there. Going by how library school treated book challenges, I expected them to happen all the time, not for it to take three years past my degree to get my first one.

Yesterday at Small Town Library a patron came up to the desk and said "I need to talk to someone about this book that I borrowed from another library." Small Town Library is part of a consortium that does interlibrary lending, so this seemed routine. I was ready to direct her to the circulation desk, thinking that she had damaged the book or that it was overdue or that it had arrived for her in bad condition, but then she said "I don't think it is appropriate for children."

It was a picture book called Who Are You?: A Kid's Guide to Gender Identity by Brook Pessin-Whedbee. It's really worth taking a look at the website, which shows the wheel a kid can use to identify their body (sex), identity, and gender expression. It seems like a well-done, thoughtfully presented book and it got positive reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal, which are standard sources that we used to buy books for our own collection. If I were the selector I'd be prepared to go to bat for it.

Fortunately, I didn't have to. The patron understood that it wasn't our library that had bought the book, and just wanted us to give her insight into the process of making a complaint. I explained that libraries generally have a collection development policy that professionals use, along with their trained judgment, to buy books for the library collection, but that they also generally have a process for addressing objections to items in their collection. I told the patron that she could go to the library that owned the book and they would probably ask her to fill out a form that would ask for more information about the book and about her views on it, and that that would start a review process for whether or not they wanted to keep the book in their collection, and either way would allow her to have a conversation with staff about her concerns.

I think I handled it pretty much by the book, but honestly it made me feel kind of slimy. I really wanted to say what poor Other Library's selector is probably eventually going to say: "This is a well-respected book about an important topic and we will be keeping it in our collection. If you are concerned about your own children seeing this book, remember that a child can't get a library card without a parent's permission and that you are more than welcome to monitor what your child looks at in the library and to set your own rules. Also, you're bigoted and I disagree with the grounds of your objection."

Hopefully she won't say that last sentence aloud, only in her head.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Sometime in May

Longtime readers will know that I especially like working with older patrons (maybe I will be a decent Senior Services Librarian someday) in part because they tend to be in less of a rush, but mainly because I think they are hilarious. A lot of older couples come into Small Town Library and I love eavesdropping on both their reactions to the renovations we are doing and just general conversation.

Today a couple came in and were marveling at how different things looked. The man stopped to check in with the clerk at the circulation desk, as our patrons often do, and then asked her "If we don't come back in half an hour, will you send a search party out?" Fortunately they did return. After checking out their books and movies, they left the library. I could hear the woman ask the man "What day is it today?" and he responded "Oh, sometime in May."

Being good advocates

Between the U.S. presidential election in November and Donald Trump's inauguration in January, both of my favorite funny library blogs, Love the Liberry and I Work at a Public Library, have stopped posting. I suspect it's the result of disappointment and frustration on the part of the people who run them. As is probably not a surprise, library workers tend to lean liberal in the first place, and the policies of the current Republican administration are hostile to library values by historical standards.

For example, the White House wants to:

1. Completely eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which is the primary source of federal funding for public libraries.

2. Revise the FCC's pro-net neutrality stance, allowing internet service providers to discriminate among different internet content providers by delivering their product at different speeds.

3. Move the Copyright Office out of the Library of Congress and create a separate agency under the executive branch.

And this doesn't address all of the issues that indirectly affect libraries, library staff, and library patrons such as the proposed travel ban from Muslim countries, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, etc.

Since the election, librarians and other library workers have become open and vocal about their antagonism with the president to an unprecedented degree. People are looking at ways to get involved externally by lobbying Congress, attending protests, etc., but the political climate has also encouraged people to look more critically within their own libraries and see how they could do better at being accessible, inclusive, and open. The latter is what I'm more interested in because I think there is more scope for action. Not that political action on the national stage isn't important, but as far as making immediate changes that are within our power, investing in improving ourselves internally could pay quick and significant dividends.

Specifically, I'd like the places I work to be less vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy than we currently are. If we want to present ourselves as models of socially just, intellectually free places, most of us have a ways to go. Here are a few things I would like to see at the libraries where I work that I know are possible (because other libraries have implemented them):

1. Preferred name: Right now the library card "applications" at both my libraries let you check M or F for gender. I see no reason why we need to collect this information. We don't use it for research purposes, so I assume it's used as a clue for how to address a patron. I know some libraries have patrons indicate their preferred pronouns instead, which is cool, but I do think knowing how someone wants to be addressed is valuable, and there are no gender-neutral honorifics (like Mr. or Ms.) so what I'd really like to see is a field in the patron record for preferred name.  If your driver's license says your name is Adam Ant, I want to know whether to call you Mr. Ant, Adam, or Ada (I've talked to one or two trans people who have their birth name on their IDs but don't use it), or whatever.

2. Less copyright infringement: I shudder to think how little would be left if someone looked through my libraries' websites and print marketing materials and took down everything that included an unlicensed use of an image. It's common practice for staff to search Google Images and pull the first thing they like for a display sign, event photo, etc. This despite the fact that Google Images offers a simple search filter for reusable images. If we want to be advocates for reasonable intellectual property law, maybe we could start by following existing law or, if not that, by formally and intelligently articulating why we don't and sticking to those principles, instead of violating it out of convenience.

3. Taking privacy more seriously: Most librarians are privacy advocates, and we certainly do a better job that private businesses, but we have a long way to go. I know I for one am guilty of sharing information about patrons' questions with colleagues when there is no need for that colleague to know, and coworkers do this too ("Can you guess what Ms. Opp wanted today?"). We could do better in a lot of small ways as far as equipment and technology, too. For instance, Small Town Library has a privacy screen on every public PC, but at Downtown Library they keep a couple behind the desk and patrons must request them. To be evenhanded, I should also say that Small Town Library doesn't do a very good job getting rid of patrons' files and internet history after their public computer session ends, but even Downtown Library could do better, for example by using the Tor browser or at least having the mainstream web browsers they offer default to in-private browsing on startup.

 Whether you are a library worker or a library user, what do you think libraries could do better in this respect? What would you add to this list?

(I think soon I'll do post about some good practices at both of my libraries, because I don't want you to only hear the failures.)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Copier magician

One of the Downtown library regulars needed to copy some papers today. Our copier is very finicky and user-unfriendly. After we had done some teamwork to get the first thing done, he looked at me and said "And now, for my next trick..." as a way of introducing the other thing he needed help with.

He and I don't always get along because he is a real technophobe more generally whereas I, as the comedian Eddie Izzard would say, have techno-joy, so it was nice to have him as this week's patron of the week!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Oh dear

An older patron stopped by to make sure his library card was still valid. I told him that his card was good until January of 2019 and he said "I hope I live that long!"

Friday, May 5, 2017

Friday reference questions

A man in an electric wheelchair was stuck waiting for his chair to recharge. I asked him if there was anything I could do for him and he said, "Could you maybe bring me something to read? Except I don't know what." Then he spotted the picture books in the children's section across the room. He wasn't going to be waiting long so he said, "Could you bring me one of those kid's books? What do you recommend?" So now he is over by the plug reading The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle.

A different man is really mad that he left his umbrella in the library and how he can't find it. Security tape shows that actually he didn't have it when he entered the library. Helpful information, but awkward.

I offer to help a couple in the Fiction section find what they are looking for, but it turns out they have a whole book devoted to lists of books they want to read. The wife knows how to use the catalog and she looks up the call numbers and adds them to each entry. Then she crosses them off after she checks them out. How cool!

Mr. Timmons stops by, says "My homegirl Emma!" and gives me a lollipop. I give him a fistbump and (after he is gone of course) guiltily throw the lollipop away.

A patron complains that he has hundred dollar bills and no stores will take them. We'll take them! But un/fortunately he has no fines. He does give his daughter a dollar to print some things out, though.

I help a patron with the self-check machine and then neither of us can find her library card for like 5 minutes. It turns out it's... right on the pad where you are supposed to scan it, disguised as the dummy library card that is supposed to show you where to put your card and how to orient it. Not my best work.

Help a patron print. I have it down to, I kid you not, a word for word spiel. In case your library has Envisionware (Are you at a U.S. public library? If so the odds are extremely good.) and you want to use it, it goes: "So now we are going to go over to the print release station, which is the computer right next to the printer over there. You can actually do a couple of things from this computer, so the first thing you want to do is tell it that you want to release a print job. Now go ahead and enter your library card number. That's how it tells which printouts are yours. If you want to print everything just hit this "select all" button right here. It will tell you your total cost up in the right hand corner here. Okay, go ahead and put your money in the machine. It takes coins, ones, and fives and it does make change. Now all you need to do is hit the 'print' button up here on the left and here are your print jobs. If you're printing something private, just make sure you hit this 'exit' button when you are done so no one could print another copy of your documents." Self service, my left foot!

A man turns in his DVDs to me.

A woman wants to get on the computer but has too many fines. She's looking for a job so I put her on one of our guest PCs with more than the allotted 20 minutes.

Help with wifi. Ugh.

A member of the IT staff comes to take a look at a weird thing my laptop has been doing lately, but of course when he's there it behaves perfectly normally.

We moved a couple of things post-renovation after finding that they weren't where patrons expected them to be or weren't where it was most convenient for patrons. For example, we had grouped all of our new items together, but that meant that new movies were on a completely different floor from all the rest of the movies, so we brought our new movies back near the main movie collection. Apparently people had just figured that out, because while last week I was constantly being asked near the main movies "where are the new movies?" now I am at the desk that's near the other new items and I'm constantly being asked "where did you move the new movies!?"

I help a sweet kid with the self-check machine, then put a book on hold for her to come back and check out later because she's reached her card limit.

Excuse me, it says I have a hold available but I can't find it on the shelf.

Do you have, like, a guide for all the summer activities?

A woman is mad because her trial-and-error approach to using the copier has been kind of expensive. If I could wave a magic wand and change anything about the library, it would be how often people wait until they are already angry before asking for help.

Can I pay my library bill by credit card over the phone?

Phone number lookup for a lovely lady who says "Always a pleasure to talk to our library"!

Today's Ms. Opp rant is about legal advice.

Why do people keep giving me things to check in?

I talk for 10 minutes by phone to a patron who is mad because her mom keeps checking out movies on her account so she's at her 10-movie limit. She insists her mom isn't borrowing the physical library card but that's the only possible explanation. My head hurts.

Can you help me find the customer service phone number for Delta Airlines? They charged me for my bag and I don't think they should have.

Mrs. Opp has reached her limit of 5 calls/day and is cut off. I really hope I won't have to be the one to tell her.

Someone wants to check out but can't because both cards she tries to use have too many fines on them.

I screw up 3 circ transactions in a row. Bingo!

Worst bingo ever.

Feeling legit

Several weeks ago, I was promoted from assistant to librarian at Downtown Library. What with the renovation, which meant big changes on our service model as well as physical changes, training me hasn't been a big priority for the powers that be. That means that it's taken me a while to get any new responsibilities to go along with my new position. However, I've long been the self-appointed advocate for our non-English collections, and I seem to have been somewhat legitimized in that role by my promotion. Today one of my colleagues, who has been kind of a role model for me since I started at Downtown, stuck his head into my cubicle and held out a "Learn English" DVD. He said "Me and John were wondering if you had the authority to move this to ESL and if you thought it was a good idea. It isn't going out in its current location."

There is nothing like being asked for help by people you respect to make you feel useful and valuable. This was the highlight of my week!