but they didn’t teach me that in library school!

If you haven’t participated in — or at least read — a “things they didn’t teach you in library school” thread on a listserv or a discussion board or in the FriendFeed LSW room or somewhere, I am concerned that you have not spent nearly enough time mucking around on the internet.

Such threads are ubiquitous: every few months, someone clearly feels the need to explain that they never learned how to troubleshoot laser printers in library school. Other frequent items include

  • dealing with difficult patrons (especially if they’re intoxicated and/or asleep)
  • “project management” (I have no idea what this is, but everyone seems to think it’s a skill librarians need and one they should have been taught in school)
  • management anything
  • ditto leadership
  • budgeting
  • technology (just name one)
  • web design
  • graphic design

As these threads go on, they tend toward the absurd (“how to stamp books” “Chinese”), and at the end, you’re left with this baffling list of stuff that’s sort of all over the map, most of which will never get incorporated into any library school curriculum anywhere, for reasons of bureaucracy and intransigence and in some cases sheer impracticality.

Aaron Schmidt and Micheal Stephens have a piece in this month’s Library Journal that throws user experience (or UX, if you’re hip) into the mix. They’d like to see library school students learn to interpret and employ user research, to conduct usability testing and run focus groups, to design effective library buildings and graphics.

Now I am pretty down with that whole list. Every building I’ve worked in has major design flaws, and far too many of them have had terrible signage and brochures full of bad font choices. And of course I’m a big fan of usability testing. It all sounds good to me. Good, but unlikely.

I get a little irked with these lists of “things that should be taught” because they strike me as both useless and whiny. My how to improve library school plan has always been short and sweet: Admit smarter people and teach them more stuff. It doesn’t really matter to me what you teach them — if you get the first part of that equation right, they’ll end up learning stuff regardless.

And I guess that gets me to my real point. We’re lucky enough to be in a profession that encourages learning and that is full of helpful people who want to teach you things. If you’re in library school and you’re not learning stuff, then go out and find some things to learn on your own. (Trust me, your coursework will not really suffer, and nobody in later years is going to care what kind of grades you got anyway.)

You can teach yourself to do all sorts of things. You can read blogs and books and articles. You can talk to people. And you can realize that you actually already know a lot of stuff because of other things you’ve done.

Expecting library school to teach you everything you will ever need to know about being a librarian is somewhat akin to expecting your parents to have taught you everything you’ll ever need to know about life by age 18. It’s just not going to happen. And in libraries, as in life, sometimes you just have to learn the hard way.


my take on the swartz situation

I’ve been responding here and there on FriendFeed with my thoughts on the whole Aaron Swartz situation, but I’ve got enough of them that they merit their own blog post.

As I’ve noted before, I am not a lawyer, and I have no thoughts whatsoever on the probably legality or illegality of what Swartz has been accused of doing. And as Nancy Sims has clearly documented, his legal case is not a copyright case — and I am in no sense a copyright expert.

But the Swartz case fascinates me nonetheless, because it is puzzling and because it poses huge, potentially revolutionary questions about scholarship, ownership, and access.

But let’s start with the puzzling:

  • Aaron Swartz is a fellow at Harvard and thus presumably has access to JSTOR there. He decided, however, to do his data scraping via guest access at MIT.
  • JSTOR does allow for special use cases if you need to get a whole bunch of stuff, but he did not ask them about this project. (I’m unclear on whether their special use would extend to 4 million articles, of course.)
  • The prosecution claims that Swartz was going to release these 4 million articles publicly, but there’s no evidence of that. Swartz has done big data-mining things for scholarly articles before, but there’s no evidence that he was or was not going to do something similar with these articles.
  • Swartz himself hasn’t released any statements about his intentions.

So, puzzling indeed.

Then there are the possibly revolutionary questions that I, at least, think his action raises — or makes more visible. These questions have been around for years, and, as Barbara Fister notes, librarians have done just about everything but set themselves on fire in an attempt to get other people to notice.

  • For whom is scholarship intended?
  • Who owns — or more properly, who should own — scholarship?
  • What constitutes fair and reasonable access to scholarship, and how does the computer age change that?

I’ll continue to follow Swartz’s case because, hey, I love a good internet scandal. But what I really hope will happen as a result it is that more people will focus on those questions — and that more things will change.

oh, you mean organizing skills!: activism as management metaphor

Long before I ever imagined becoming a librarian, I was an activist, and being an activist, as it turns out, has taught me how to be a librarian — or more precisely, perhaps, how to be a manager librarian.

Like many people, I had to take a required management class in library school. I loathed this class. I loathed it from day one, when the adjunct professor started talking about Dilbert and reading Peter Drucker to us. I did not go into librarianship in order to make a profit. I did not go into librarianship in order to talk about Who Moved My Cheese?. I did not go into librarianship in order to bandy about terms like “human resources.” (I quote the great Utah Phillips: “You’re about to be told one more time that you are America’s most valuable natural resource. Don’t ever let anyone call you a valuable natural resource? Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources in this country? Have you seen a strip mine? Have you seen a clearcut in the forest? Have you seen a polluted river?”)

They stuff they teach in management courses doesn’t resonate with me. It makes me ill. And I’m guessing I’m not alone. I think a lot of us went into librarianship because we didn’t want to participate in the market economy (and then, of course, we discovered database licensing and realized we were screwed on that point, but that’s another matter for another time). We may have made our peace with the fact that we do have to buy and process things in order to share them with our communities, but damned if we’re going to start saying utilize for use or making everyone read Good to Great or idolizing the Starbucks corporate model.

I talk about the reader’s advisory approach to life a lot (to the point that I was sure I’d written a blog post about it, but apparently I haven’t). If you do any reader’s advisory, you know that the first premise is that “x is a great book!” is a very unhelpful way to help people figure out what to read next. You have to figure out what they’re looking for in a book, what appeals to them, and try to find things that line up with that. It’s a refreshing approach to literature if you’re coming out of academia (and particularly out of a writing program). I try, then, to extend that idea as much as possible to the rest of life. If one set of metaphors doesn’t work for me, or one activity, can I find something that will?

And that’s when I hit on it: every skill I needed as a library manager was something that I’d actually learned as an activist and organizer.

I attended my first political meeting at age fourteen, in August of 1990. Saddam Hussein had invaded a country called Kuwait, which I’d known until then only as one of those tiny places in the Middle East — a place the New York Times described as “a family-owned oil company with a flag.” The United States was pondering intervention, and I was opposed to the idea, so when my friend called and said there was a meeting about it at the university that night, and did I want to go, I said sure.

In high school I protested a war, I helped defend an abortion clinic, I marched against the Ku Klux Klan. I wrote letters to editors and Congressmen. I sat at tables and sold buttons, and I stood on street corners and handed out leaflets. I worked as a marshal at marches, wearing a white armband and walking along the edge of the crowd to help keep things moving and to help prevent fights with hecklers. I went to lectures and read newspaper articles. I watched the vote to authorize the use of force in the Gulf on my friend’s television on January 15, 1991, and I listened to Neal Conan reporting about the start of the ground war on my Walkman while at a meeting at Schaeffer Hall a month later. And I went to a lot of meetings.

I went to tiny meetings like that first one, eight or so people in a room trying to take an amorphous idea, a feeling, and turn it into a movement with a name and a purpose. I went to bigger meetings where we argued about points of unity. I went to meetings where we made signs (the cement floor of North Hall, the sound of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and  the scent of permanent markers will be forever wedded in my memory). I went to meetings where we planned teach-ins and meetings where we planned actions.

I’m 35 years old now, and off and on for twenty years I’ve been spending part of my time this way — as an antiwar activist and later as an anti-sweatshop and labor rights activist. That activism has taught me skills — how to plan an event, how to write a press release, how to engage people, how to speak in public, how to listen to people and how to talk to them — and it’s given me lifelong friends, and it has, perhaps more than anything I’ve ever done, made me who I am.

There are, I suppose, other ways to learn to deal with disappointment and rejection and failure. There are other ways to learn to find your voice, other ways to learn to wade through bureaucracy (getting money into and out of the UI Students Against Sweatshops student business office account at the University makes any budget cycle irregularity I have dealt with since seem simple), other ways to figure out how to inspire people to join a cause or to work together. But I learned all these things — all of which are crucial to my day-to-day work — not from any management guru, but from my comrades.

When I hear people talking about leadership and project management and teamwork, I often think I have no clue what they mean, and that these are skills I totally lack. Then I start to think about it, and I realize oh no, I do know. They mean organizing. And that? That I do know how to do.

So when people ask for my favorite management book, I say Rules for Radicals. When they want to know where I look for examples and inspiration, I say the Civil Rights Movement (and I mean the real stories, not just the Rosa Parks sat on a bus and Martin Luther King had a dream and now everything’s hunky-dory version — read the accounts of organizing the Montgomery bus boycott, and you’ll learn a lot about working with other people).

technology football

Back when I first moved to Wyoming, my friend Jim was attempting to teach me to talk about sports. Largely this is because he thought it would be very entertaining if I were to walk into the Wea Market some morning and say to the guys, “Wow, the Patriots just ran right over the Bills last night.”

I never did it, because, among other things, I’d have had to pay attention to the names of the teams playing and who won,* and because the only other cliches I could remember were “the penalties are just killing them!” (for football) and “they’re not lettin’ ’em play!” (for basketball), but I was always convinced I’d get them mixed up, and God knows I hate more than anything to sound like a fool.

I’ve been thinking about these sports cliches, though, and about the nature of sports commentary in general, which seems, on television at least, to involve largely meaningless statements made by guys in poorly-fitting suits, when I was listening watching the commentary on Google+ roll by over the past couple of weeks.

You could set yourself up as a tech commentator about as easily as I could set myself up as a sports commentator. Just memorize a few key phrases — “______ killer,” “privacy concerns,” “the new Facebook,” “if Microsoft/Apple designed a ______” — and you’re set to go. Since you’ll probably be doing this all from the comfort of your computer, you don’t even have to wear a suit (or anything at all, for that matter).

As I’ve never been a sports fan, I’ve always found the talk inane. I suspect I’m wrong at least in part — I’m sure that out there, if you look, and if you care, there are people saying intelligent things about sports, just as, if you look hard enough, there are people saying intelligent things about technology. But the fact is that most people who are interested in one or the other aren’t necessarily looking for great wisdom — they’re looking for a chance to shoot the shit. The guys hanging out at the Wea Market the morning after a game talk about it in part because it’s a nice way to avoid starting the workday for a bit longer, but mostly they do it because they like talking about it, the way one likes repeating one’s favorite bits of movie dialogue.

I can complain all I want about the idiocy of tech talk, but that didn’t prevent me from getting a Google+ account the minute I got a chance.

This is turning into less an interesting post about an idea and more into a moralistic post about tolerance — but I do think it’s worth thinking about. It’s maddening to me that people make a living from saying “Nexus S is the iPhone killer,” but, in point of fact, I recently got a smartphone and spent a long time considering which one I wanted. We can complain all we want about the inanity of tech talk, but until we ourselves stop using the tech, it’s bound to be a bit hypocritical.

*And, indeed, I would not have had an example for this post were it not for Steve Lawson.