Overheard at work

Me: “There’s a publication out there called Peasant Studies Newsletter.

Colleague: “Really?”

Me: “I suppose Peasant Studies Newsletter is appropriate.”

C: “As opposed to?”

Me: “Something grandiloquent like Peasant Studies Journal, or maybe The Annals of Peasant Studies.”

C: “I was thinking Peasant Studies Trade Weekly would be good.”

Other Colleague: “The title fills me with Weltschmerz. With a moment’s effort, they could have entitled it: Serf, Peasant & Villein, or the Periodical Peon, or (my favorite) De Rustici.”

It’s not a contest. But there is a problem. Now with Addendum – no charge.

Apparently, there is an organization out there in the world called “CareerCast” which recently made a point of putting together a list of the “least stressful” jobs.  Setting aside the colossal stupidity of trying to create an ultimate ranking of this type (and that’s a fairly big boulder made of stupid to try to shift), the article was chock-full of misconceptions, myths, and outright falsehoods about a variety of professions.  Two of the professions that made the list were “university professor” and “librarian.”  This list was picked up and run uncritically by at least two news organizations, CNBC and Forbes.

Cue the extensive debunking on Facebook, blogs such as Screwy Decimal, and Twitter.  The last spawned the hashtag #librarianstress.  All well and good – this is a conversation that should be taking place, in my view.  I believe misconceptions about any professions should be debunked in the name of understanding our fellow humans better.

Then cue the small, primly smug chorus of, “Well, [some of] my patrons have it worse, so I will go and do my job and ignore this kerfuffle.”  I find this almost as stupid as the original article.*  The fact that someone has it “worse” doesn’t mean you don’t have any problems.  As I once said to a friend of mine, “The fact that someone else has a migraine doesn’t make my garden-variety headache go away.”  Of COURSE we have patrons who are more stressed, by virtue of the fact that we have “job stress” and they may have no job at all.  And in point of fact, one of the reasons I decided to take this career path is that it is less stressful than my former one.

But the point of this conversation is not to play the victim or define who has it the worst (I would gladly have the “least stressful” job – if I could figure out what that looked like – I suspect it involves slapping together idiotic lists without any research or considered thought to be republished by big media organizations), the point is to address the aforementioned misconceptions, myths, and outright falsehoods that frequently lead to the devaluation of our profession.  That devaluation, by the way, is a pretty nifty stressor right there, for those trying to map this Ouroboros of stupid: one of the major stress factors of our profession is the dismissive reactions we get from people who think that “Google has solved all information-finding problems” and other forehead-smackingly inane sentiments.  We have a PR problem, and most librarians know this – and it’s not a situation that just hurts our feelings.  It impacts budgets, which lead to everything from hard collection decisions to outright closures.  And how did we get here?  Well, at least partly because we kept our heads down and expected the work to speak for itself, for our value to be self-evident.

So fine, just “ignore”* this systemic devaluing and dismissing of our profession.  Just recognize that you’re part of the problem.

*The fact that you’re Twittering about ignoring something, by the way?  Ignoring: you’re doing it wrong.


The Forbes author added an addendum to address the huge outpouring of aggrieved comments from university faculty who outlined their stressors.  She noted the criteria that the original list used to adjudicate who is stressed and who isn’t (things like physical labor).  She fatuously stated, “I think there is value in CareerCast’s list,” without quantifying what exactly that value is supposed to be.  She basically missed the point entirely.  It’s not about the stress levels: it’s about the misconceptions behind the assumption that the stress is low.  It’s about repeating the same old myths and idiocies that equate working among books with not having to deal with or live in the real world.

Preemptive apologies may be necessary for the library neepery.

…..and she breaks her (completely unintentional and oh my goodness how did the time get by me like that?  I know: we’ll blame school) silence.  Lucky you, reader, you get – well, not so much a cabinet of curiosities but a catalog of irritants.  But they’re themed irritants, at least.  They are on the subject of libraries and perception.

Yup – just lost 80% of my librarian and librarian-to-be readers.  We hear this stuff all the time.  We say this stuff all the time.  Well, at least I will have vented my overloaded spleen.

Irritant #1: I recently had a brief conversation (well, okay – it was on Twitter) with an acquaintance.  He moaned about information overload (with the corollary that most of the info he found was crap).  I quipped, “sounds like you need….a LIBRARIAN! (cue triumphant music).”  His response?

“Google is my librarian.”

Let’s back away from that statement for one tiny moment.  Take whatever it is you do for a living – bonus points if you’re passionate about it and think it’s a worthwhile thing to do.  Then, at a cocktail party or on Twitter you find someone who is in need of the services of your profession and they respond that a tool of your profession is your profession.  Just think about that for a moment:

“This pencil is my architect.”

“AutoCAD is my industrial designer.”

“This sledgehammer is my contractor.”

Fill in your own blanks for your own profession.  It somehow manages to miss the point and be rather insulting at the same time, doesn’t it?  Yes, librarians use Google.  They/we use it all the time.  It’s useful in a similar way to Wikipedia – easy, fast, imprecise, with lots of suspect sources.  A pilot trusting to Google’s output for plotting a course might get you to where you’re going efficiently and safely, or they might well be Bugs Bunny: “Dang.  I knew I should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque!”

So, Google: interesting tool?  Yes.  Librarian?  No.

Irritant #2: John and I were recently given a copy of This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All.  I snagged it for train reading (where I really should be doing homework, but that’s a different post).  It is, I have to say, about what I expected.  Even though the writer takes the public and the media to gentle task occasionally for clinging to old stereotypes about the profession, there is a whiff of Margaret Meade or “Wild Kingdom” about the book.  Watch as Bob stalks the librarian in the stacks – note her colorful plumage, achieved with three colors of Manic Panic, a nose ring, and barely-visible tattoo.  This seemingly shy creature can be found in any urban library when she’s not participating in an ALA Book Cart Drill Team.

Fancy that, librarians are individuals too.  Who’da thunk it.

That part really doesn’t irritate me that much, though.  Yes, librarians can be incandescently weird.  So, I am sure, can the members of any profession.  But the weird does make for better reading and I know that I’m not necessarily the prime audience for this book.  For the most part, I am enjoying the picture of the (mostly public) librarians she paints.  She clearly has affection for those of us who are info-geeks.

The irritant was actually a throw-away bit in the second chapter, where the author describes looking for a copy of Easy Travel to Other Planets.  She finds a copy on microfiche and states, “Though it’s a literary novel, Easy Travel had been stashed on a reel with a bunch of science fiction.”

Excuse me?  A book set in the future with extrapolations based on current science being stashed with science fiction?  Call the cataloging police, because we know that if something is “literary” it couldn’t possibly be science fiction.

Color me cautiously intrigued

I was pretty jazzed about the Kindle when it first came out.  Sitting here as a Metro commuter at the halfway point in my second graduate degree, just the idea of not having to lug a bunch of textbooks is enough to get me at least mildly excited about the prospects of e-readers.  However, then there was a bit of disillusionment with how the device’s accounts were handled. And then more with how content was handled, add that to the fact that there’s no native PDF support (a lot of my reading these days is pdf downloads of journal articles), a few other irritations, and… no thanks.

So I’m mildly intrigued by the prospects of Barnes and Noble’s “Nook:”

  • Multi-format support?  Check
  • Native PDF support?  Yep.
  • Ability to lend to other e-reader owners?  Uh-huh.
  • WiFi downloads?  Yessir.
  • Touch-sensitive navigation?  I do love my iPhone.
  • Ability to peruse entire volumes (inside a B&N store, but still)?  Interesting.

All in all, this has me thinking, “Well – sometimes people give me B&N gift certificates for Christmas…”  Because it looks like B&N is actually looking at the behavior of real readers and designing a product that has a lot more potential to accommodate the way they think and behave.

The trouble with academic writing

…the following seems to hold true for library science texts, but may be applicable to other portions of academia as well.  Either the writer devolves into an overly simplistic metaphor (e.g. “information systems are like grocery stores”) or he flits off into a fit of academic navel-gazing that is as astonishing as it is abstract (e.g. “the user comes to the information exchange experiencing a complex set of variables that he must navigate to interact successfully with the information system”).

Hey, I understand: clear writing is difficult.  It takes time and effort and even the best writers and thinkers can either get caught up in a vortex of abstract principles that are fiendish to place in a concrete context or they can get too captivated by their own pet theories or metaphors to examine whether or not they really illuminate the issue at hand.  But those should be first or second draft problems.  Step up your game, academics.

From the rerun file – library edition

Periodically, I post reruns from the old, hard-to-navigate version of WoT.  Today, I was reminded of this post about my experiences as a law school work-study student in our library.  The post dates from from April 2005, and it’s especially appropriate now that I am in library school:


Libraries are where work-study grants go to die, especially at a public university. It seemed that every other student was eligible for a work-study grant at my school, and when you can’t get a job as a research assistant for a professor (or, as in my case, the professor you have your research job with doesn’t have a whole lot of projects for you), you take advantage of your grant working at the library. It’s a pretty good gig – you can drop in for as little as an hour at a time, the work is fairly undemanding, and you can read the papers while you’re attaching them to those long sticks.

The unfortunate thing about the library – at least at Maine – was that random, strange calls tended to land at the circulation desk. Since the circulation desk was generally manned by the shifting mass of students on work-study who were working a 2-hour shift (at the longest), it was a poor choice for those members of the public who might be seeking anyone resembling a clue. On the other hand, since the circ desk students were constantly confounded by the old-fashioned phone (the kind with a row of buttons on the bottom that went “ker-CHUNK” when you pressed them to select a line, put someone on hold, or transfer them to oblivion), it was probably a good way for a harried switchboard operator to get rid of annoying callers.

I was whiling away my time at the circ desk late in my career at U. Maine one spring afternoon when the telephone rang. I answered it, and was greeted by a slow, stentorian voice obviously belonging to an elderly gentleman who was most likely hard of hearing. “I would like to speak to the Law Librarian,” he boomed.

Hmm. There was nobody with that title at the library, to the best of my knowledge, and I had worked there for two years. “Er – sir, do you have a reference question, or would you like to speak to the director of the library? There is nobody with the title of ‘Law Librarian.'”

“I would like to speak to the Law Librarian,” he repeated – as one would with a particularly dim child.

“Sir, as I told you, there is nobody here with that title –”

“I would like to speak to the Law Librarian.”

Fine. It seemed my best choices were a.) the reference librarian, or b.) the director. As I had no more information than that, I selected the director by a semi-random selection method: I liked the reference librarian. He was a very decent chap.  Also, the director had a secretary who was probably better-equipped to handle this than either I or the reference librarian. So I said, “One moment, sir,” and put him into transfer mode, got the secretary on the line, put him through, and went back to replacing pocket-parts or whatever other gripping task the circ desk had for me that day.

About a minute later, the phone rang again and I had a sense of doom. Sure enough, when I answered it, I got, “I WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK TO THE LAW LIBRARIAN.” Either my ancient telephone-fu was weak, or he had gotten confused when he was put on hold and had hung up.

“One moment, sir,” I put him on hold again and called up to the director’s secretary’s office. Now she was not there. Hell.

I took a deep breath and got back on the line with my elderly friend. “Sir, nobody is there at the moment. I would be happy to take a message for you –”

That was when he exploded. He began to yell, ranting about how he needed to speak to the fictitious “law librarian” and how he was retired Maine Supreme Court Justice Hoo-Ha, and on and on. The serials librarian, who had been shelving journals in the open shelves behind the circ desk looked at me as I held the phone’s receiver away from my ear. I felt like one of those cartoons where the noise from the phone actually blows your hair back. Finally, his tirade wound down and he ended by sarcastically asking, “So what do you suggest I do?”

I had a split-second conversation with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, took a deep breath, and said, “Well sir – the way I see it you have two choices. You can leave a message as I suggested at the outset or you can continue to be rude to me. Which will it be?”

The serials librarian in the stacks behind me inhaled audibly and I waited.

“Um. I guess I’ll leave a message then.”

Score one for the work-study student.


Beautiful libraries from around the world.

I’m especially taken with the long-exposure photograph of the Abbey Library St. Gallen, Switzerland, making the patrons look like ghosts.

Amen. Pass it on.

The public library is not just about borrowed books. It is about information — the great currency of our time. And the library has, by default, become the bridge in the digital divide because it offers free access to computers. Can you imagine in this digital day looking for a job, submitting a résumé or a college application, or searching for housing without your computer? For millions of people, the library is their laptop.

Political action

Sorry for the lack of postage lately.   And today’s update isn’t terribly exciting, but I thought some of my readers might want to jump on this particular bandwagon.

I sent this e-mail to my state reps and senator today:

Dear Sirs and Madam:

Citizens are turning to public libraries in record numbers. Library usage data across the state is rising steeply — libraries and their services (job search training, new skills and education services, Internet and computer access, safe and free place for families) are helping citizens survive the economic crisis.

That being the case, please consider the potential impact of the following:

  • Maryland public libraries are currently threatened with a 10% cut in state funds for FY 2010.
  • Funding for the county libraries and the Enoch Pratt Free Library would be cut over three million dollars.
  • The State Library Resource Center would have an additional devastating one million dollar cut —- a cut back to a funding level below FY 2003 that would force reductions in services to every county library in the state.
  • A 10% cut will undermine the ability of public libraries to help citizens survive this crisis.

Strong support of the state’s excellent public library system will have a powerful impact on Maryland’s ability to survive and rebound from the economic crisis.  I ask that you please support increased funding — or at least a rollback of the proposed cuts to help our libraries serve their communities.

I signed off with my name and contact details (a thing one should generally do when sending a letter to representatives, FYI — it both reassures them that you are a real constituent and enables them to get back to you easily if they need/want to follow up).

If you live in Maryland, you can find out who your legislators are and how to contact them here.

Overheard in our car, library nerd edition

Heading to the grocery store, John has some "Top 40 of our misspent teenage years" show on the radio, starring the cryogenically frozen head of Casey Kasem.  Inevitably, REO Speedwagon comes on.

Heard it from a friend who…
Heard it from a friend who…
Heard it from another –

"Well, that sounds like an incredibly reliable chain."

"So, is that an information need?  Does it involve information-seeking behavior?"

"Sounds more like information transmission to me."

"We’re really geeks, aren’t we?"

"Yes, but at least you’ll get a blog post out of it."