library mgmt tech anguish

we need to have a talk about “censorship”

It’s not news at this point that Midwest Tape (MWT), parent company of digital library resource aggregator hoopla, has a major content problem. Back in February, Library Freedom Project (LFP) and Library Futures wrote a Medium post demanding accountability for the company’s platforming of white supremacist, fascist, homophobic, and disinformation-filled invective (for samples of the titles in question, see the #VendorSlurry hashtag on Twitter). Vice Motherboard, LibraryJournal, and WGBH covered the situation, and a group of public library directors put pressure on Midwest Tape for a meeting with leadership at the Public Library Association (PLA) 2022 conference in Portland, Oregon. At the Massachusetts Library Association (MLA) 2022 conference held just a few weeks ago, company leadership was back to speak at a one-hour session hosted by MLA’s Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility Committee (IF/SRC). I wasn’t at PLA, but I was able to attend the MLA talk, and let’s say I was not impressed by what I heard.

Before I get to what happened at MLA, some additional background: LFP members not only worked on the Medium statement that went out into the world and spoke to media about the problems but also sent letters directly to MWT/hoopla CEO Jeff Jankowski. We received no response, but found that library directors who initiated conversations with the company about potentially unsubscribing did; this isn’t really surprising, given they aren’t missing out on money from people like me (wrong market) and LFP as an organization. The directors who spoke to company reps were disappointed by what they heard. It seems like it’s been a hodgepodge of hoopla folks falling back on their position that they must be “neutral” and work in accordance with the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, a bunch of promises for functionality that both have no timeline for implementation and don’t address underlying concerns, and an oft-repeated desire to provide as much content as is possible for the platform to do. What was presented at MLA was all of this, plus a weighty tone of defensiveness that managed to make things even more off-putting.

At MLA, we heard from two customer relations types about the discovery of this content on the platform from their perspective and then a whole lot of half-explained statements about how they might fix the problem. This took up 2/3 of the allotted time in the session, which was a failure in and of itself as the room clearly wanted far more time for Q&A. I can’t recap everything that was said verbatim, but I did snag this photo of one of the slides in their deck:

This says “As a partner to public libraries, we aim for neutrality,” showing a screencap of the aforementioned Library Bill of Rights. On the one hand, this shows an impressive lack of understanding of current professional discourse; on the other, we need to have a serious chat as a field about whether or not we want to keep this document in its present form. In particular, we need to talk about these bits regarding “views”:

  • Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
  • Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.
  • A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
  • Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations (views) of individuals or groups requesting their use.

Applying this inclusion of “all views,” as hoopla insists they do, means you get books in their collection on Holocaust denialism (Debating the Holocaust), COVID denialism (Fight COVID with Melatonin), conversion therapy (Attack on the Family), and defenses of the alt-right in their own words (A Fair Hearing). They acted to remove at least some of the Holocaust denialism texts from their platform, but hundreds if not thousands of titles in these other categories of xenophobia and disinformation are still on there, and they seem to believe it is the responsibility of individual libraries to report these books when they see them. That said, there are very limited collection management tools for library staff to use to actually deal with this trash – the default is for it to be included in hoopla’s library – and in the words of the hoopla reps at MLA, over 20,000 new titles are being added to the platform every month.

Saying “we need to present all views” is a close relative of the old chestnut “I don’t agree with everything on the shelf in my library!” which I heard a panelist announce at another MLA presentation last month. Both show a woefully facile understanding of the relationship between intellectual freedom and social responsibility, something that underscores the ineffectual and performative nature of diversity, equity, and inclusion statements and commitments to anti-racism that suddenly appeared for the first time in the summer of 2020. It makes me seethe when I hear librarians defending shelf space for this propaganda and hate speech while they also prattle on about their buildings being welcoming and accessible to all. Some of them – and hoopla is also along for this ride – will also go on about how we need to keep this stuff somewhere for a mythical public library patron who needs it for “research.” Yes, there are disinformation researchers in academia; no, they do not rely on hoopla’s collection targeted at public libraries (and in many cases, targeted at K-12 schoolchildren, as they depend on public library resources where school libraries have ceased to exist). Next door to this, you also get the librarians accusing each other of censorship by removing titles like the #VendorSlurry from their collections; I’ve been told I’m a censor for weeding, and how we need to keep weeding as “bias-free” as possible. Well, frankly, fuck that, because I am biased against xenophobic lies. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: if that makes me a censor, I’m happy to be one.

Zooming back out, the Midwest Tape folks talked about a few of the actions they’re taking in response to their content crisis, in particular the establishment of a content review board and the improvement of their “algorithm” (in particular, it sounded like adjusting how relevancy ranking works). I have to say, it’s always remarkable to me when I see tech companies operating in 2022 like they have paid absolutely no attention to the ever-growing body of research and recommendations coming out of critical technology/data studies, or even just what’s happening in the industry in general. (I feel like MWT would deny they are a tech company, even as they are acting an awful lot like the toxic bros of surveillance capitalism.) Facebook has a content review board that is famously a useless front. Our presenters informed us that 40% of the board would be made up of library-adjacent people – not even actual librarians, per se, but people who have had some sort of experience in the field, whether it be taking one class or working at another library vendor. The other 60% sounded like a random assortment of people at Midwest Tape. When pressed for details, like whether we could know who is on the board, we were told probably not because hoopla is concerned for their “safety.” This is quite the sidestep. Even if one assumes that means safety from fascists (and not safety from librarian activists, which is honestly what I think they mean), they are putting librarians making content decisions in the line of fire as they are public servants whose identity is necessarily and unavoidably known.

So, this leaves us with the technical fixes they did a whole bunch of hand-waving about. hoopla loves telling everyone about how their content selection happens via a mix of “human and automated processes,” but will never give anyone a lick of detail about what either the human or the automated processes in question look like. Now, one could argue this is the result of some NDA enforcement, but if that is the case – if we truly cannot know what these processes look like – that means libraries should not be using them. Just as you wouldn’t let the patron who got their umbrella stuck in the book drop suddenly take over your Ingram ordering, libraries cannot rely on random unknown actors, whether they are “human” or “automated,” to do collection development. hoopla should understand and respect the need for transparency on how these processes work; a library’s collection development policy and the staff resources spent on selecting and deselecting are core to the operations of the institution, and some might say a library isn’t a library (and is instead just a meaningless collection of junk, which is also what adding 20,000 titles per month to a digital library will get you) without those things in place. Until they can wrap their heads around this and stop with the “we’re improving our processes” crap by muttering some sweet nothings about search ranking, there’s nothing to be done here. And, guess what, guys – we aren’t concerned about whether Debating the Holocaust is number #2 in the results or number #2000. What we’re concerned about is why the shit it’s on the platform in the first place.

The MWT/hoopla situation is awful, no doubt, and Library Freedom Project, MLA IF/SRC, and our various allies are going to keep the pressure on. But librarianship has got to have a reckoning about this whole censorship/intellectual freedom/neutrality debacle. If our colleagues are defending hoopla’s selection of A New Nobility of Blood and Soil by a literal former SS Captain, a book not even sold on Amazon, in their obsessive quest for free speech absolutism, where do they draw the line? Books that encourage pedophilia, rape, suicide? I’m not sure I even want to know, considering how disappointed I am in this field already. But if they say they want all views, hey, well, those are views, too. 🤢

library mgmt navel gazing tech anguish

why does everyone think they know more about libraries than the people who work in them do?

That is the question, my friends. I’m writing this not in response to one particular instance, but rather the seemingly uncountable number of times Library Twitter has found itself ensnared in the typical social media outrage cycle lately. I’m not writing to shame people who engage with trolls, nor am I saying I took the high road when I called some guy a poopface a couple nights ago; rather, I’m trying to identify some patterns and propose some explanations.

First, let’s talk about patterns. (Note: I’m going to keep this anecdatal for now, based on what I’ve seen out there; this is not empirical in any way.) There seem to be patterns of library-related topics that come up, and there seem to be patterns of people asking them. The former is more easily identifiable than the latter; the big four topics that readily come to mind include:

  1. Libraries/library workers are destroying knowledge/promoting censorship/failing at their core duties if they weed/discard books or decline to buy/accept books that don’t fit their collection policies.
  2. Libraries/library workers are no longer needed in the age of Google/Amazon/Starbucks/Netflix/Craigslist, etc. See also, no one goes to libraries anymore (this is semi-related to libraries are ruined because they aren’t dead silent anymore).
  3. An unimaginable cartel of library mafiosi often known as “Big Library” (I picture The Consortium from The X-Files) is destroying publishing.
  4. Libraries/library workers should take on, without exception, every duty suggested to them to make up for a country with no social infrastructure. If they don’t want to do this or express discontent on/about the job, they are not just bad people, but people who want others to die.

In terms of the patterns of people who’ve started in on Library Twitter about these things, they tend to be journalists, people in knowledge-related tech jobs, people in publishing, and small authors/self-publishers. In my experience, I’ve seen lots of middle-aged white men with self-published works, or one or more other things they believe they should have more notoriety for. These are certainly not the only categories, but the one thing they definitely have in common is that they’re not library workers.

Now we know what people are starting shit with library workers about, and we know a tiny bit about the usual suspects. So, why are people so convinced they know all about the work that happens in libraries and feel they must not only share an opinion about it, but then refuse to listen to actual workers who respond? Well, we’ve got to take a step back to the question before that: “How does this person feel about libraries, period?”

At the end of the day, having seen enough of these interactions to theorize about them, I think you’ve got two options – either they dislike libraries/library workers/particular people they’ve encountered at a library, or they don’t think of library workers as people. In the first version, library workers are all stereotyped; in the second version, library workers are non-player characters. Start with that and we’ve immediately got some bad faith a-cookin’. Someone who dislikes a whole field or doesn’t see its workers as having personhood is not going to speak to those workers with positive intent, or intent to listen at all.

Before we move to why these library-hating non-librarians have decided their tweet-sized takes are more valid and important than those of the responses of the people who actually do work in libraries, I want to say it loud and clear: the people who bait Library Twitter are people who dislike or stereotype libraries/library workers. They aren’t fans. We will never know why, whether it’s because of the conventional crappy grade school cronebrarian that shushed them and their friends one too many times (#lifegoals) or if they had a bad breakup with a tattooed MLIS student, but we can surmise they’re not down with libraries or the people who work in them.

And that brings us to why these people are weighing in on library things – they think that because library workers suck so bad and/or are mindless drones, non-librarian opinions must be more valid. Their distaste for the field probably didn’t do much to inform them about the disciplinary nature of LIS, so you can assume they have no idea that library workers are trained in any specific manner and instead believe them to be making arbitrary decisions. (They also probably assume library school consists of drinking tea, knitting, and putting your pronouns in your bio.)

This is hardly unique to Library Twitter and applies just the same in other feminized care labor “Twitters” – nursing, teaching, etc. – and reflects the larger-scale dismissal of the importance or legitimacy of that work. Within libraries, it reflects reality in far more places than just on social media. Librarians are often not seen as educators and LIS as a discipline is largely illegible in academia. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen countless articles in mainstream media about libraries that avoid speaking to any workers. It is also true that Library Twitter has developed a reputation for pile-ons in response to bad takes, and part of the reason why the posters of this content do what they do is absolutely for the guaranteed engagement. Most of the people who engage in the baiting have very high numbers of followers. And it can be especially easy to bait exhausted, underpaid, and underappreciated people.

At this point, we could ask ourselves, “Why don’t they listen when library workers disagree or try to enlighten them?” Do we really need to, though? They don’t want to listen. They don’t like library people and they come into it already thinking they know better. There’s no there there.

Another piece of this worth examining is the tendency of bystanders to leap in and trash-talk library workers. I’ve noticed a few patterns with these incidents; you tend to get the “pronouns in bio” crew, comments on appearance, or “all library workers are just bad people”-type comments. Often, they’re not directly related to whatever the OP said; they’re just random insults. Some other tertiary reactions I’ve seen recently were especially disheartening. A researcher working on social media and bullying chimed in on a recent Library Twitter pile-on, saying library workers missed “context” about the original posts, but never acknowledged that the library workers’ own context – their knowledge of the very jobs they go to every day – even existed.

The word “context” is getting used in some interesting ways online these days. A Library Twitter tussler, one who came under fire for unnecessarily criticizing libraries for closing during a snow emergency instead of opening as a warming shelter because of dangerous road conditions, recently posted Fobazi Ettarh’s iconic paper on vocational awe without understanding the central argument, but with a whole lot of insults for the library workers attempting to explain it to her. She told them they didn’t understand “the context;” a few people leaped in from the sidelines to shame the librarians without “reading comprehension skills.” It was truly something to see, an attempt to transform the misreading of an important paper in the field of LIS–one many librarians have thought about and discussed for years–into yet another thing library workers just don’t understand.

If the last couple of years are any indication, we will be seeing a lot more of this library baiting and hating on Twitter (and undoubtedly other social media platforms I spend less time on).* Given that, I’d say do what thou wilt, o menace that is Library Twitter. I’ll never post things negating your desire to make fun of these dipshits because they do deserve it, and heaven knows I’m not gonna stop dragging these fartknockers. But it seems wise to keep in mind that in all kinds of insidious little opaque ways, Twitter is temping us to act like that. I’m not scolding or telling anyone to stop anything; just encouraging a certain mindfulness to try to counter the social media brain-warp effects. As long as engagement is rewarded in this way, we’re stuck with these assholes. I guess we could try to get comfortable and accept it for what it is.

P.S. That book warehouse guy is a supermassive transphobic asshole.

* The original language here before I edited it: While I doubt even I will hold myself to this because of the gross Internet-brain drive for getting in scuffles with these people, I do think the best thing for all of us is to stop engaging with it in the way they want. I will never, ever shame anyone for feeding the trolls; I do it myself often enough. But looking at this with the question of “Why do they hate us so much?” in mind, I worry that if we continue to pounce, we’ll keep giving them reasons to dislike and resent us, and there will be a vicious cycle of these garbage takes from an ever-increasing number of tools who think you can judge a whole swath of humanity based off one anonymous interaction. I’m not saying that’s a valid reaction from them; I’m just always wondering about the ways our brains are getting warped by these websites attempting to “normalize” communication (particularly during a pandemic, where communication is degrading faster than you can say “hey, can you see my slides?”).

library mgmt

director disorientation

I’ve been debating whether or not to share this for a few days, but ultimately I’m going to in the spirit of library disorientation. This is a story about your credentials and experience being devalued, and outright ignored, to make someone else feel better about their actions.

After a recruiter contacted me to invite me to apply to an open director job, I went through a few rounds of an interview process with a library that will go unnamed here. I mostly applied not because I’m looking to change jobs, but because I had never been headhunted like this before. It’s a very flattering experience. Long story short, though, I did not make it to the final round. The municipality in question, of course, did not inform me of this outcome, but I heard what happened through the grapevine.

I was very surprised, then, to receive a call from a trustee one morning this past week. This trustee informed me that they had moved ahead with other candidates and assumed I had heard this news from HR – nope. They proceeded to see if I would be interested in the job soon to be vacated by the finalist, so they could “soften the blow” for that person’s current boss (at another nearby public library) by offering me up as a potential replacement. The job in question did not make any sense for me at this point in my career. And yet, the trustee said I needed more experience managing “a bigger town library” and that I would “make a great director one day.”

I *am* a director right now. Today. And for almost three years, I was the assistant director for the largest town library in Massachusetts, with three times the buildings and three times the staff as the library this trustee represents. I attempted to explain this, but it was clear that the trustee was not expecting my response and did not want to hear it.

Now, I could go on about my interpretations and feelings here, but this is a public blog, so I’m going to leave you with what I’ve already said. I am relieved this trustee will not be my boss and I’m fine with the outcome, but the only way we will move on from trash behavior in the field is if we call this stuff out when it happens.

library mgmt

on the #blossom2021 debacle

If you’re a Library Twitter person, you probably saw a good amount of stuff today about the closing panel at the BLOSSOM conference, which I mentioned in my last post. Alex Brown wrote an excellent piece on their blog that should catch you up to speed if you want more details than what I’ll share here, but the gist of it is that I was on this panel and Alex and I swore a few times. Instead of choosing to interact with us privately or directly, the conference organizer, Bobbi Newman, elected to write a blog post condescending and criticizing our language choice and when called out on it proceeded to block me and at least a handful of other supportive folks.

I wanted to share a few things from my perspective, not because mine is the one that should in any way be centered during this, but because it will be cathartic for me. On Friday afternoon, for two hours almost right before the panel started, I attended a memorial service for one of my students who unexpectedly died on March 14; he and I had grown close this semester. In a year already pockmarked by tragedy and loss, this has broken our little community, and less than an hour before I was scheduled to speak at BLOSSOM, I was on a Zoom call grieving with my colleagues. I could have stepped down from the panel given the timing, but I decided not to because it was a challenge to pull it together in the first place. Bobbi asked me to be on the panel almost two months ago and I loved the sound of it, but I did not want the panel to be majority white voices. I reached out for help to a colleague who initially intended to be on the panel and recruited Alex, but this person ultimately had to step down due to medical needs. I asked Ray Pun, who I know from Library Freedom Project, to join us as well, and he found our fourth panelist, Nicollette Davis. All in all, it took about a month and a half to get the panel pulled together. Ray was instrumental in writing our questions, and as Alex notes, we discussed other logistics like Alex’s preference for not speaking first. Bobbi was minimally involved in this planning, and she did not even add the description we came up with for our panel to the conference website (and before the recording of our talk was taken down at our request, the page it was embedded on only contained the title of the talk and a content warning).

By the time 4:35 rolled around on Friday and we got to the final question on the panel, I was exhausted and ready to blow off some steam. Alex had said two swears and I decided to validate their ability to do that, thinking there’s strength in numbers (and I hold privileges that they do not). Did I say “fuck” and “shit” a couple times each? Yes. Did I do it because I thought I was in a safe space where I could speak honestly? Yes. Did I do it because I was exhausted from grief and nerves? Yes. Was it intentional? Yes, because I felt as the sole white person on the panel that I should try to absorb potential criticism, and because I wanted to release some of my feelings. Were these things we could have talked about with Bobbi like colleagues instead of stumbling across the equivalent of a post-it note from a roommate indirectly telling you to put the dishes away? Yes. Did she give us an opportunity to do that? No.

I didn’t find out about Bobbi’s post until I saw an email from Alex about it. In the post, she writes about a separate instance of fatphobic comments made by another presenter but – intentionally or not – winds up likening that with the swear words used during our panel. She also makes a few comments that dismiss the expertise of me and my fellow panelists, and goes on to deny that she could possibly be engaging in tone policing despite how others might hear her message. After consulting some friends early this morning, I decided to reply to Bobbi’s tweet about the post to try to shed some light on how she was manipulating the truth: “I really appreciated all of your work last week & standing up about the fat talk–I was cheering for you. But re: swearing, I’m disappointed you made this public in your post and didn’t reach out to me and the members of the panel first with your concerns. We are all pretty hurt.” It wasn’t exactly guns-ablazin’, but I still didn’t get a response.

As the day went on, the other presenters and I decided to write a joint statement:

On Friday, March 26, we spoke on a panel at the BLOSSOM symposium titled Reframing Library Work: A Discussion on Centering Staff Agency, Advocacy and Well Being. While we were impressed by and appreciative of many of the other talks offered during the event, we were deeply dismayed to see yesterday’s blog post by conference organizer Bobbi Newman, On moments of courage and the lack thereof.

In the post, Bobbi likens the use of profanity (specifically the “s-word” and “f-word”) during our panel to the use of fatphobic language used during another talk earlier in the week. Instead of speaking to us privately, Bobbi decided to air her concerns about our panel publicly and implies in her post that she spoke to us about her concerns. This did not happen; she had a chance to speak to us privately after the panel and congratulated us, leaving us with no impression that we had done something “wrong.” She also writes, “[the swearing] wasn’t used to make a point, it was used because the presenter felt they could.” Both of the panelists who swore did so intentionally, which is something that could have been discussed during a conversation between colleagues, but we were not given the chance.

While we are appreciative of our many fellow panelists and speakers during the event, Bobbi’s words feel very underhanded and hurtful, undermining the community vibe that BLOSSOM had seemed to so successfully knit together. We understand that this was posted in Bobbi’s own personal blog and although we acknowledge that she has a right to share what she feels on her own page, we disagree with how this situation was handled. As a result, we have asked that the recording of our panel be removed from the conference website. We apologize to folks who were looking forward to catching it later, but we felt this was our only choice given how things were handled.

Not long after this was posted, I found myself blocked by Bobbi. I have to say I was surprised and disappointed by this, too – I’ve worked with her twice in the past, most recently jumping on a panel at the ER&L conference she was moderating at the last minute. I would not expect this kind of behavior from her or anyone else I’ve worked with on multiple occasions. As Alex writes, “To discover Bobbi’s post by chance was hurtful and frustrating to me personally. If we’re going to talk about professionalism in the field, then this is a good example of what not to do.” Blocking me and other folks who backed us up is another shining example of what not to do.

While I was driving home from campus on Friday evening, I remember thinking “wow, that felt so great; I hope we can do this again next year and I can be involved again somehow.” It was so affirming to go to a conference where being frustrated about the administrative failures of our field and unreasonable expectations for each other and ourselves were being aired out in such a frank, solidarity-building way. Now, though, I feel like I was tricked into believing this event to be a safe space where if I did legitimately step on a rake, someone would talk to me about it and try to understand my perspective before passive-aggressively taking me to task on a blog post I may not have even seen if it weren’t for my co-panelists.

Today, I spent most of my waking hours being stressed out and anxious about the ramifications of all of this, having already experienced potentially devastating tone policing in the form of a letter written to my employer last summer. I also had to do my job, and right now that includes consoling grieving students and helping them deal with the last slog of an academic year that has felt like traversing the circles of hell. It was kind of a classic situation of the sort I at least thought we were trying to steer away from at an event like BLOSSOM. I thought we were focusing on the whole self, preventing over-extension, fostering empathy and clear communication, and recovering from the trauma we’ve all experienced since the pandemic began. But thanks to this unnecessary kerfuffle, I did not have a day where my morale, outlook, or well-being were in anything resembling a good place. We have a long fucking way to go if we can’t even make good on these things during the confines of a conference.

library mgmt

normalize accountability

I went to two conferences I very much enjoyed this month – the Conference on Academic Library Management and BLOSSOM (Building Life-long Opportunities for Strength, Self-care, Outlook, Morale, and Mindfulness). Both of them had a ton of great information and ideas to unpack around being a better manager with a more holistic, empathetic approach. Both had sessions that dealt with how “burnout” narratives are framed – i.e., usually the blame for them falls on the individual rather than underlying concerns, power imbalances, or other systems that lead to worker struggle. I learned a ton and I am eager to rewatch the sessions that were recorded when I have the time. We had a great time commiserating about the myriad failings of our top administrators. But I couldn’t help but notice there was something that didn’t really get covered: what do we do with problematic colleagues or reports?

I bring this up because we have a serious toxicity problem in libraries. There’s a Green Book that exists for BIPOC library workers to help them avoid the most racist workplaces. I’ve been in several conversations lately where folks have said we need a whitelist of places that aren’t miserable, filled with drama, or under-resourced to the point of constant crisis. I am all about treating every staff person as a whole human being deserving of dignity and safety, but we need to talk about what we do with the individuals that actively add to the toxicity, whether that’s in the form of the -isms, chronically shirking responsibilities (and therefore sticking more work on the plates of their already overworked colleagues; a surefire way to get that resentment going), or being socially destructive, manipulative, etc.

Early this morning, because–to be frank–I am stressed out about work to the point where it’s interfering with my ability to sleep, I posted some semi-related thoughts on Twitter; I’m going to gently reword them here.

I think some of us library folk put up with dysfunctional, if not toxic, situations because we care so much about our patrons. And certain…architects of dysfunction know this and take advantage of it. This can go for caring about your colleagues, too. I’d say it’s not even intentionally malicious from the powers that be at times, and I’d expand this dynamic beyond libraries and to education as a whole. I think the blame for this is not on individual “carers,” but on patterns of neglect (lacking accountability for problematic colleagues, deficit logic, devalued work/life balance, lack of direction & vision, failure to acknowledge the importance of the library or congratulate its accomplishments, and territorial or siloed behavior). This is something different than vocational awe, although it’s a compounding factor. It’s maybe more like vocational exploitation: it’s not only our vision of ourselves as carers or helpers but the ways that makes us vulnerable (in a way that’s not our fault) to dysfunction.

So what I’m saying here is because I am able to self-motivate with things that are relatively consistent and separate from institutional whims that may or may not have my best interest in mind, I can get pretty far on the energy and reward I get out of helping students. Most of the time, that’s enough to take my mind off the underlying issues, but is that how we should be handling this? Should we continually be running down the lists of pros and cons in our heads and trying to find ways to justify sticking around when things are bordering on or crossing over into toxicity? There are situations where that may legitimately be the best option, like when you’re unable or unwilling to leave a job and need to actively compartmentalize things, but can we even measure how much energy that sucks up?

It pains me to try to write this because there is nuance beyond what my brain is capable of right at the moment, but if we’re going to deal with how rampant toxicity has become in this profession, I think we need to balance whole-self management with accountability. There are unfortunately people in this field who reproduce poisonous, outdated, and/or hateful ideology. They can be malicious; they can thrive on drama and undermining their colleagues instead of what keeps many of the rest of us going (helping patrons). We should not be trying to open the hearts and minds of absolutely everyone we work with, particularly if they’re xenophobes, but also if we’ve tried to do that for a long damn time and gotten exactly nowhere with it. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as “the boss” in the last almost-two-years is that management is a two-way street. The person being managed has to, on some level, want to be managed. If that’s not the case, I feel like it’s a Top Chef/Project Runway situation where they sometimes let people go when they don’t feel like they can impart any new knowledge or mentorship to them.

It’s an incredibly delicate balance to strike. I want people to not lose their jobs and livelihood, but I also don’t want them to stay working in places where they are miserable and shittily taking it out on other people. And it’s clear that the toxicity is out of control. In no way do I fault CALM or BLOSSOM for not covering this – they were excellent experiences, and both were free. But I’d like to see a lot more discussions about this, because the situation has got to change.

library mgmt

review: “Resolving Liberal vs. Conservative Conflict in the Workplace” webinar, 1/14/21

In Season 4 of the early 2000s HBO series Six Feet Under, one of the protagonists, David, is carjacked by an unassuming hitchhiker who winds up exploiting David’s generosity and tortures him before covering him with gas and leaving him beaten and bruised in a Long Beach alley. A few episodes later, David, suffering from PTSD, goes to church and watches a sermon encouraging the congregation to forgive and love their enemies. He imagines the reverend being brutally assaulted by the carjacker, thrown to the ground and a gun pointed to his head, and David leaps up to help before things snap back to reality.

I happened to watch that chain of episodes this week right after I saw the astonishingly bad “Resolving Liberal vs. Conservative Conflict in the Workplace: Lessons from the Rwandan Genocide” webinar sponsored by I’d seen the concept of it getting dragged on Twitter some weeks back, and signed up to watch it because I felt it was important to catch what looked like a trainwreck unfolding on a library education platform that has a good deal of influence. Ryan Dowd’s “Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness” has swept the profession in the past few years, mostly with the best of intentions and in some cases with positive results. But there’s also been a significant amount of criticism of Dowd’s approach, including alarmingly sexist language in some of his recommendations. I hope that library leaders take the time to consider the other ideas and advice he’s peddling on his platform, especially after the jaw-droppingly bad session this week.

Dowd wasn’t the main speaker at the talk, but he did share a good amount of the spotlight with the presenter, Carl Wilkens. Wilkens was a missionary working in Rwanda during the genocide and authored a book about being the only American who stayed in the country during it. I don’t want to belittle Wilkens’s pain and trauma, both made very clear in his introduction to the talk, but he should have spent more time interrogating his positionality and privilege before deciding to sell his particular experience as a learning opportunity for others. He kept encouraging us to take a look at what we could learn from Rwandans about forgiveness, but proceeded to talk only about how he leveraged his secure status as a white male American to establish a relationship with some of the most powerful leaders committing genocide. The only Rwandans we heard anything substantial about were the people doing the killing.

Wilkens went whole hog with this idea of reaching out to and forgiving your enemies, presumably even if those people happen to brutally murder your family members. Throughout the talk, he (and Dowd) not only encouraged finding empathy for abusers and murderers, but also telling victims that the onus is on them to re-establish relationships with those that have hurt them (“the victim does well to examine gratitude and cynicism”). Wilkens talked about considering the relationship between God and a man who had murdered multiple people during the genocide, musing about the importance of considering what the murderer was going through. I asked a question that was answered live on air about how safe it is to advise a room full of public servants to “reach across the aisle” or “sit at the table” with violent people, and Dowd informed us that violence is overblown by the media and we shouldn’t be as worried about it as we are. This would have been a tough hang even if it hadn’t happened a week after January 6 and we didn’t currently have National Guard troops sleeping on the floors of the Capitol, but this kind of dismissal coming when it did was shocking.

There were several times when wearing a MAGA hat and having a BLM pin or “being antifa” were equated with one another. There was a lot of “good people on all sides” talk – the whole “there are no good guys and no bad guys” sort of thing. Wilkens and Dowd, two white men, agreed it’s cynical to say someone is a racist, and apparently that all of us who are distancing ourselves from harmful, hateful people (especially if they’ve directly hurt us) are “cynics.” Dowd said the words “it’s not okay if you yell at people; it’s not okay if you commit genocide” while he was describing why we should separate our judgment of a person’s “goodness or badness” from their behavior. At one point, Wilkens suggested we engage in a service project outside the workplace with colleagues we disagree with. As a friend quipped, “oh great, an MLK service day with your racist co-workers.”

Wilkens had a multi-step methodology he was trying to explain during the webinar, but it was exceedingly difficult to pay attention to it given the constant gaslighting, victim blaming, and white privilege. We got “sent home” with a booklet that advises us to stop being so cynical, journal about our emotions, avoid defining people with the one thing we don’t like about them (even if it’s that they murder people or want to destabilize the government), find the good in everyone, focus on shared goals, and “find the deeper why.” This was targeted at resolving workplace conflict among colleagues and some of it is fine within that limited context–considering the most significant workplace conflicts at libraries are often not the ones between coworkers–but why was it wrapped up in the Rwandan genocide? Why was the graphic for this a jacked up blue donkey and a ripped red elephant threatening fisticuffs?

Some of the audience members were eating it up, if the Q&A was any indication. One person quipped that their friends and colleagues “seem to take pleasure in popping people for racist or insensitive remarks.” A handful of participants kept saying we needed to show this training to everyone in the U.S. government. The organizers turned off the chat on Zoom, but people were still using the Q&A function to express this appreciation.

I felt exhausted and ashamed to be in the field after I watched this. Some folks on Twitter called it “peak male whiteness in the library” and I’ll say it probably was, and I’m only saying probably because there’s enough of this baseline logic, plus rapid reproduction of shitty ideas, in our profession that there may well be something worse out there. If anything comes out of this “training,” I hope it’s what I said before, that libraries look a little harder at what Ryan Dowd is selling before they buy it. Turning the other cheek no matter what seems like a good way to eventually get shot in the face.

library mgmt

building solid ground for constant change

I mentioned in my last post that I’m working on condensing the ideas of the book into a 5-minute lightning talk for the Blank consortium. The slides and a pretty-much-final script of my talk are below. It was interesting to target this beyond just libraryland–I hope the ideas resonate with other educators as well.

Btw, if you’re thinking this all sounds an awful lot like strategic planning, that’s because it is. 🙂 On one hand, I’m trying to make the idea sexier for people who roll their eyes at the term; on the other, the process I’m describing will make for a great strategic plan.

You might be asking yourself, “Okay, why is a librarian talking to me about change?” Well, does anyone know where this is?

old boston public library johnson building

That’s the Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library, and this photo was taken in 2010 or so.

This is the same area of the library today. You can orient yourself with the dome-shaped windows.

boston public library children's room

This kind of huge transformation has been happening in libraries all around the world. Libraries don’t just change their look and feel–they also have been keeping up with changes in technology and their communities, which have grown increasingly rapid in the last 30 years.

Libraries that have succeeded in adapting to change have one thing in common: they are continuously asking and seeking answers to these three questions, all while keeping their communities at the heart of the process:

what do we aspire to do and be? what do we value? how do we make it happen?

This can help in many contexts: in classrooms, businesses, and for individual use as well. I want to note that I am saying the word “user” as a catch-all for community members, students, co-workers – all the kinds of people we do things with and for.

What do we value and aspire to be? This is high-level, conceptual stuff – your vision and mission. What do you care about and why? This isn’t just a time to praise yourself. What are you not doing? What’s not working and how can you fix it? Social infrastructure, to be welcoming & safe, and to be inclusive & do outreach are library examples; I would guess some of these resonate with you as fellow educators as well.

What do our users want? Where are you putting your energy–does it connect to what they want? In libraries, people want our help accessing information, community space, and creativity and learning opportunities. Even if we think we know what our users want, we still need to ask them.

How do we make stuff happen? The following steps are what I’d tell librarians to do, but I’d be willing to bet the same advice would work in many other types of situations. As I mentioned, we need to ask our users what they want, and we need to involve them in the process of creating and embarking on our goals. We stop doing more with less, meaning we figure out what we value, who we are, and what our users want, and use that to allocate our resources more appropriately. Last but not least, we need to view this process as continual – it’s not linear, it’s circular.

With self-awareness, we know how, where, and what to change. Even if we don’t know what will come next, or know what the long-term impacts of the current change and uncertainty we’re in right now will be, we can figure out who we are, what our users want, and what we mutually value.

library mgmt

a few thoughts on change stuff

I’m giving a talk for the consortium in a couple weeks, and it’s a lightning/ignite style presentation: just five minutes to pack in an introduction to a concept or idea. I’ve been working on trying to dump the key lessons of the recently published book I co-authored, Responding to Rapid Change in Libraries: A User Experience Approach, into this five minute chunk. I’m also trying to retool the content for non-librarians. It’s been tricky, but ultimately it’s helping me see the stripped down version of the book’s thesis, which I think is encouraging people in the field (and beyond) to ask themselves the following questions:

  1. What do we aspire to be?
  2. What do we value?
  3. How do we make it happen?

Can a thesis be questions? Probably not, so maybe it’s more like what’s at the core of what we’re prompting people to try to do. Change is inevitable, but if we can get ourselves to a place where we can answer those questions without racking our brains, we’re going to do a good job responding to it.

1. What do we aspire to be?

This question comes first so the answer to #2 (hopefully) doesn’t reshape it. Here’s where you don’t just recite the ALA Code of Ethics or buy into the general “libraries are and have always been emblems of democracy” self-praise. You think about what you’re not doing. You think about what’s not working and how you can fix it. If you’re saying you’re a welcoming safe space that’s free and inclusive to all, are you really providing that, or is it only an aspiration at this stage? #2 and #3 will help you make it real.

2. What do we value?

What are you spending time and money on? How does that relate to what you identified as what you’re aspiring to above? Libraries are continually being asked to “do more with less,” but it’s time to stop doing some things and start doing other things strategically (see #3). Now’s your chance to think about the Library Bill of Rights, intellectual freedom, and social responsibility. Which of these ethics and positions help us advance what we say we’re aspiring to do? As hinted at in describing #1 above, this isn’t a time for self-celebration; this is a time to think critically and deliberately about what is important to us and why.

3. How do we make things happen?

You need a strategy. How do you get one? Co-design with community feedback. Surveys and focus groups. Post-it notes. Bulletin boards. Get community experts on staff, or foster a culture of creating that expertise. That isn’t to say “keep everyone forever;” rather, hire and train people who connect with your aspirations and values and want to stick around long enough to help you get there. If you think you don’t have time to make your aspirations happen, unpack why that is. You can likely find things you can stop doing. Don’t think of it as sacrifice if you stop doing something because the feedback says you should be doing something else.

I’m just starting to explore this perspective, but I think I’ll get there. The bottom line is we need a mission, and we need self-awareness, if we’re going to endure change.

library mgmt

weeding thoughts, part 3

(Continued from parts 1 and 2.)

OK, so, I’m ready to stop writing about this, not least of why being that I scanned over 3,000 items for removal yesterday and my hand kind of doesn’t work right now…? But yeah, I was able to remove about 6,000 items from the collection in the last two and a half months. Unfortunately, it wasn’t before we did our ILS migration (which means we had to pay to migrate items over that wound up getting deleted a couple months later…womp womp). There was no way I could have done that much if we were regularly open, though.

So I mentioned at the end of Part 2 that I’d talk about how I got through this stuff so quickly. The number one way was that we weren’t open to patrons this semester, and there wasn’t much else for me to do on the days I was on campus other than paging for delivery. I initially had been trying to do things pretty conventionally, to pull things off the shelf that looked sus and scan them into a spreadsheet that would identify if it had circulated in the past 4-5 years or not. Given that no weeding happened in this library for the first 20 years of its existence, though, that wound up being a ton of stuff – just scads of things that would never be consulted in paper form anymore, and books that probably seemed like they had five years of shelf life back in 2003. To save myself time, I flipped the script a bit.

I started pulling lists of books that had actually circed in the last 4-5 years (we don’t have data for any earlier than that) and placed them on carts flagged for keeping, while clearing off the contents of the shelves that we weren’t keeping on separate carts. This required a crapton of carts; I had 16 at my disposal. It helped me speed up selection for weeding as well as shifting, and helped me get a good idea of how much space the newly decreased collection would take up on the shelves. Another benefit of doing it this way was being able to figure out which classes were just overwhelming non-circulators and could be eliminated more or less entirely. These aligned with subjects we don’t teach (army/naval history, agriculture and forestry, etc), but might have been most useful in the most popular classes where we really needed to do some culling (computer science and physics, in particular).

The biggest problem that came out of this was how quickly the carts filled up with discards. I saw a couple different ways to handle this, but ultimately wound up cycling through a process of filling up carts, scanning everything on them, and emptying them onto tables (and eventually the floor) so student workers could come in and take the final steps (crossing out barcodes and boxing them up for Better World Books donation).

I want to stop here to point out how much physical work it is to do this kind of weeding. I’ve had to take epsom salt baths, use a massage pillow, and get extra liberal with the Advil to be able to do this. I’ve thrown my back out more than once, one time badly enough that I could hardly use stairs for a couple days. My scanner arm/hand is still kind of weirdly numb over a day after I stopped my marathon yesterday. Be careful out there if you’re doing this, especially when getting massages and chiropracting might not be on your covid activities list.

This might seem like too much for some libraries, and that’s probably true. But the fact is, our circulation rate of books was so low that even if I wound up getting rid of things people still want – and I’m sure there’s no way that didn’t happen, considering over 6,000 of them got weeded – it will be very easy for me to replace them. I think a collection of well under 10,000 print volumes makes sense for a library serving a student body of 330, and in our strategic planning, we asked about how space should be allocated in the future. Students overwhelmingly asked for fewer books (not none!) and more study and group work space, and that’s what they will get…once I can buy new furniture to remove the shelving we’re getting rid of. I also changed our shelf ranges from having five overstuffed rows that looked messy and uncared for to three nice and neat rows that leave ample room for adding titles, and will make browsing and paging easier.

This week, I decided to hire a few more student workers to help lighten the load – we were trying to get by with just one before. There’s a few too many steps for one person doing it to be able to do it all that quickly, so now we have people working assembly line-style: specifically on building boxes, crossing out barcodes, packing boxes, and moving them to the pickup location. I’ve been passing them into this production line as soon as I’m done scanning them, and I finished scanning yesterday, which means I can let the students do their thing with minimal supervision. This frees me up for my time on campus, so I’ll be working in the archives next, and while it’s going to be a dumpster fire of a different variety, I’m so excited to have something else to focus on.

I wish I’d taken more photos to document all of this, but I think we had about 21,000 items at our peak last summer and now we’re down to about 9,500. A bunch of shelving on both floors is gone now and we don’t have any shelves that are full of so much crap that you can’t easily browse through it, and we don’t have anything so close to the floor that you have to get on your hands and knees to grab it. Back when we did our strategic plan survey last fall, someone described the library as having “old man garage sale vibes.” I really hope we’ve moved beyond that now, lol.

library mgmt

weeding thoughts, part 2

(Continued from part 1.)

Alright, so let’s talk about moving the art, design, and photography books first. I mentioned last time that the photography books moved to the quiet reading room (at one time called the “photography room”) and while I still am not sure I am completely on board with an engineering college having nearly one thousand photography books, it’s a pretty awesome collection, so given how many garbage books about globalization and outdated ones about internet culture from 2002 I also had to contend with, I more or less left this stuff alone. We got the photography shift done right before students were sent home in March and we had to start working remotely. I’m still trying to play around with different ideas for shelving it a little more sustainably and in a way that’s browsing friendly, but this has been tough because another issue I inherited is that the shelves in that room are just long, expensive pieces of wood. They look nice, but they also mean it’s dominoes time if you don’t divvy up the collection with bookends.

When we were moving the photography books and when we initially got the art books downstairs, I still had student workers to help me, but that didn’t last long (I only have two working physically on campus this semester for various reasons, mostly having to do with safety and staffing). One of my student workers did an amazing job reshelving the Ns in a place where they’ll be far more browsable, and she played around with shelf heights and facing to make an appealing display. This was so much better than their previous relegation to rickety ersatz moveable shelves where they barely fit and couldn’t be even so much as thumbed through without creating an enormous headache. But when I started coming in regularly again back in September, I had the NAs, NBs, NCs, NDs, NKs, and NXs awaiting me, as well as a bunch of music scores that are not the most appropriate element of our collection but also not a hill worth dying on at the moment.

With our print periodicals collection culled between my efforts in the past year and the obvious money-saving choice to cancel those while we’re closed to foot traffic, I wound up with a periodicals shelf that lent itself very well to smushing a ton of music scores in a relatively small space. I put a handful of well-known composers’ works on the display side (the part that lifts up so you could see back issues of magazines, if that’s what we were using it for). On the other side of the shelf, I moved the contemporary music scores and started the NAs in the next range over. The other Ns are on the shelf across from this one; there’s a large work table in between these shelves, and our workroom (pseudo-makerspace) is right next to the place where the NBs through NXs now reside. I like the thought of the art books being right next to the art space. The design books in TS will ultimately wind up close to that room as well, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

I didn’t get rid of a ton of the Ns for reasons similar to the photography books – there’s just so much more elsewhere in the stacks that needs to go before we target these, and I think putting them in a more sensible and patron-friendly space will increase their usage for sure. I did weed some that were in crappy condition or didn’t fit in the space I had allocated for each of the N subclasses. I also did my best to split things up so it’s much easier to know when NA ends and NB starts, for instance. This was not how things were shelved before.

There’s a temptation when you’re shifting to just cram things in where they’ll fit, because you’re forever worrying about running out of space as you keep going. Resist that temptation and think about the person who is going to be browsing and searching these shelves – that includes you. You will save yourself and patrons so much time if you can shelve books in a way that helps you easily know where QA76.76 starts and ends and QA76.9 begins, etc. If you have a job where you’re not routinely working in the stacks or pulling or finding books, which was how my previous job was, you still really should take the time to figure out where everything is, and I swear you’ll find that simpler if you don’t have shelves crammed to their limits and starting willy-nilly with classes and cutter numbers. If you’re worried about space, weed more stuff, or depending on your space considerations, consider getting more shelves instead of jamming things in wherever they’ll fit.

Now, most people who’ve done shifts before know that when you start moving things around, you tend to trigger a chain reaction of other things that need to move, too. In the case of moving the Ms and Ns to the two shelves I mentioned, this meant dealing with the tail end of the collection because of the bizarre way the stacks had been arranged before. On the lower level of the library, there is a built-in shelf along one of the longest walls in the space, and then the free-standing shelves are lined up in parallel lines starting from across from the built-in shelf and extending to the opposite end of the library. The now-home of the Ms and Ns is across from two of the long rows of shelves in this parallel line area. (I’ll put a floor map in this post at some point, since this is tough to explain verbally.) So they’re not after the other shelves; they’re lined up with what now houses P through T. Anyway, the main point here is that the books displaced by the Ms and Ns were the back half of the TKs (electrical engineering, a large collection for us), TLs (motor vehicles and astronautics, another large collection), TNs (mining and metallurgy; we only have a handful), TXs (cookbooks, mostly), U (military science), V (naval science), and good ol’ Z (library science).

I moved all of these books onto trucks so I could get the Ms and Ns where I wanted them to go, and I let them sit for a while as I moved alphabetically through the classes, but I got sick of people from other libraries requesting random stuff from the TKs, so I wanted to get that stuff out of the collection as quickly as possible. I figured it was a good time to prioritize what to target next, since that initial push of getting stuff downstairs was behind me. So, I turned to good ol’ Sierra’s Create Lists reporting function. I knew from our previous ILS that we had 14,000+ items that had never circed. The circ data did make its way over in the form of “total checkouts” in Sierra, so I was able to run a report to show me only the things that had circed (we’re talking about a collection of about 16,000 items, so that was between 2-3,000). I used Excel to arrange the circed items by classes and figure out which had circed the most, and which items in particular, and used the lists to do the following:

  1. determine which classes should be targeted for extreme weeding
  2. determine which classes could/should get by with less weeding
  3. separate the wheat from the chaff and keep only the books that had circed in the last 4 years, which is what I have data for

This seems like a good place to end for today, but next time I’ll talk about how looking at things from this angle vs. the more traditional “cull things with zero circs” angle is saving my sanity and helping me move through the rest of the collection in warp speed. Ciao!