ACPL Library Camp

So yesterday I had the extreme good fortune of keynoting at Allen County Library Camp. There are some slides.There will be video, at least of an interview I did afterward, maybe also of my talk — in the meantime you can watch their series of conversations with previous speakers (which includes a lot of awesome names you will recognize, so believe me, you want to check this out).

But enough about that. Let me talk for a while about their library. Because wow, their library.

First off, everyone I met in Fort Wayne was unfailingly gracious and pleasant, starting with the free cookie in the airport (!) and including hotel and restaurant staff as well as the library. And then, that library.

So it’s the size of multiple football fields. Huge. The main corridor is positively cavernous, but light-soaked and shiny and new. They have a Lincoln collection with thousands of original documents and photographs about the president, including a signed original Emancipation Proclamation. And a lot of the collection is digitized, so you can have fun with that.

They have the first teen department in the country — 1952. Admittedly it was founded not so much as to give the teens a place as to keep them out of everyone else’s way — proto-James-Dean hoodlums, oh no! But now it is huge and welcoming, with space for classes, a collection of teen-centric nonfiction as well as the usual novels and manga, and a sweet living room (for teens only) with big colorful chairs and programmable colorful lighting and sound cones that let a group of you huddle around someone’s iPod playlist without bothering anyone else. And the teens and their librarian clearly had good rapport.

They have the biggest geneaology collection outside of Salt Lake. Remember how I said the building is the size of multiple football fields? The genealogy section has a football field all to itself. They had to run multiple enormous specially-reinforced columns up from the foundations to keep the weight of their passenger lists and filing cabinets from collapsing the building. And the place was packed — they get geneaology tourists — the wonderfully personable young man from the hotel who drove my airport shuttle told me they regularly get people from, say, California, in town to do genealogy. (And the librarians clearly love them back — these are the people who will ask killer reference questions and spend hours thrilled that you have microfiche for them to pore over.)

They have a television studio. A television studio! It’s the local public access cable channel, but they can also use it for library programming (like that conversation series), and internships and helping community members create stuff, and when I say “a television studio” I really meant “multiple studios” with a bewildering array of cameras and lighting options.

They have a theater. It seats 250 and has a stage suitable for drama or (as is immediately apparent) local political debates. This was where I gave my speech, with two cameras trained on me, a giant screen behind me for the slides, a pile of lights, a lavalier.

This library, people. Amazing. All those things we talk about — have unique collections and push hard on what you can do with them? be a place for your community to create stuff? build on your location and its history? Yeah, they do that. Impressively.

And I haven’t even mentioned their wonderland of a children’s room. Or that they make donuts.

(Or the part where the other keynoter was Eli Neiburger. Eli Neiburger! I got to be on the same stage as Eli Neiburger! Who, let me tell you, ups the ante for how good your presentation needs to be, and is a lot of fun to talk to. And whose library is doing some wicked cool gamification stuff.)

So: thank you Sean and Deb and Melissa and Katie and everyone else who made my first Indiana experience completely awesome. I have a list in my head of the libraries one should make pilgrimages to, and yours is now on it.

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my recent talk & publication

I’ve been doing stuff! I mean, besides my job. And my contract thing. And some writing. And…oh, don’t make me think about my schedule.

The talk I gave at TEDxPrincetonLibrary is now online. There’s also a playlist of all the talks — some wonderfully interesting/inspiring/international stuff there; check it out.

Also, the Library Technology Report I cowrote with Marshall Breeding (!!!) is available for purchase. (Or, quite possibly, for reading from your library. Maybe even electronically!) It’s called Librarians’ Assessments of Automation Systems: Survey Results, 2007–2010, and it analyzes Marshall’s survey data on, well, how librarians feel about their software. He discusses the 2010 results on his site (and past years in archives, too), but we go into more depth on the 2010 results, as well as investigating some trends across time.

things I learned from choir

This term, I sang tenor.

I’m an alto. An alto 2, usually. I’ve been singing on and off for a bit over ten years now; before then I played ten or so years of viola. And I realized — that’s twenty-plus years of musical experience in which I’ve always had the same part. Because really, altos and violas do the same thing. And it would seem like I should have this wealth of knowledge about music by now, except I only have this one tiny perspective. How terribly different would the musical world look if I were — say — a bass, and had developed by now some sixth sense for where the root of a chord was?

Well, I can’t (more’s the pity) sing bass. And I’m not all that credible as a soprano, and would blow out my voice if I tried. But I can sing tenor. Well, mostly. I wouldn’t put me as a soloist there or anything, but if the men cover those bottom few notes which aren’t always there for me I’ll cover the top few where some of them struggle and it’ll all work out.

So I’ve been singing tenor. And it turns out — as I lack any formal grounding in music theory whatsoever, I still have no idea how music fits together. I have utterly failed to learn what I set out to here. Not even a glimmer of understanding.

But I have learned. Tremendously. The first day of the season my brain essentially short-circuited from the stress (the wonderful stress!) of trying to keep track of so many things at the same time. As an alto, I can cut corners. I know I’m supposed to do all this vocal technique stuff, but fundamentally nearly all the notes I need are there when I need them and technique makes a difference to the subtler things, and I can’t be good without being always-on but I can be adequate.

As a tenor, that isn’t true. As a tenor there are notes whose presence or absence, or audibility, are vastly affected by this stuff. As a tenor I am jumping between bits of my range that are not both there unless I am paying continous attention to the fundamentals. Vocal placement. Muscles engaged — here — relaxed everywhere else. (Me? Relax?) Where my gaze is pointed. When I breathe. How I breathe. Breathe.

It is very hard to pay attention to that many things, continuously, all at once. When you haven’t internalized a one of them. And there’s still text and notes and rhythms going on. And so you can’t pick just one to focus on and make it work. Even if you could remember to, with so many other things pouring over you constantly…

I have learned more about fundamentals in a few months than, quite possibly, I have learned about them in my entire past decade of choir, combined. Humility, too.

My career will be, I think, a continual alternation between leaving my comfort zone and coming back home. Teaching took me way outside of my comfort zone, outside the realm of pure forms and intellect and into constant full-contact socialization, hammering on areas of weakness in ways where my strengths were relatively less useful. Sometimes, not useful at all. It was glorious and exhausting and it was, eventually, time to go back home. It is my hope that in librarianship I can use those strengthened weaknesses, but in a context where my natural talents are more useful, too.

One of these days I will go back to the alto section. I don’t intend to sing tenor — glorious, exhausting — forever. I’ll never be more than mediocre at it and, for all I’ve benefited from going outside my sphere of expertise and seeing how another section does things (this, too, a metaphor for career advice), it will eventually be time to go home. To be, per Lemony Snicket, “the crucial notes in the countermelody that no one hears”. One of these days I will be an alto again. And I will be far, far better at it.

Our concert is this Saturday, December 4, 8pm, at Sanders Theatre, Harvard. We’ll be singing Haydn. Do come.

“all you have to do is make private schools illegal”: a rant

I just came across this referenced on Twitter (by @karlfisch, in reply to @chadratliff):

“If you wanna fix schools, that’s easy, all you have to do is make private schools illegal” -Warren Buffett. (The attribution of this idea to Buffett, with slightly different phrasing, is confirmed here.)

I try to tie in every post to libraries but now I’m not, because this just bothers me and I want a place to rant.

My experience in public schools ranged from wildly insufficient to hellish. My town was not awash in private schools. There was a quite good one which (disclosure) I attended, and loved, through 6th grade; that was as far as it went. There were a handful of religious schools serving higher grades which were not known for their academics (indeed they were reputed to be academically weaker than my high school; that could have just been my classmates’ bias, but there are objective reasons to believe it). There were no secular private schools above 6th grade (and the private school I attended went out of business not long after).

Buffett’s quote posits, implicitly, a reason for the problems a public school might have: the absence of parents who value education, and their often-bright kids. My public schools were not lacking in these things. I am from a university town, a university with a med school and a law school in a county seat; my school had piles of professors’ and doctors’ and lawyers’ kids, bright children of parents who valued education. I’m one of them. My parents fought for years — years — starting even before I was in the public school system — for me to have the free, appropriate public education that the law, and my IEP, theoretically entitled me to. They and I fought to have our advances (and we did have a few) benefit others, not just me (and they did). My parents stayed involved in the school system after I graduated.

And I still feel that, with the exception of meeting one of my dearest friends, I basically wasted five years of my life.

There are, let’s be clear here, many reasons that a school might be terrible, just as there are many ways that good schools can be good. Lack of advocate parents is one of them. And maybe it’s a bigger deal in wealthier, more heavily urbanized areas than my hometown. (The link above suggests that Buffett may have meant his comments only in the context of urban education, where I think they’re a bit more salient, albeit still calling for my own personal dystopia.) But I’m from a rural state where many places don’t have the population density to support more than a single high school of any stripe, and does that mean that West Virginia is famed nationwide for the excellence of its education? No. No, it does not.

Banning private schools would not be some magic bullet that would lead to all public schools suddenly having all the resources and community support they would need to be magical. Some public schools would gain nothing of the sort. Others might, but that doesn’t solve problems of vision (sorely lacking in my schools) or culture or leadership or curriculum or teacher quality or staff knowledge or staff buy-in. It might drive incremental, useful changes in those things. It might not. It might create an institution that works very well for the median middle- to upper-middle-class kid, and to hell with anyone whom that one size does not fit. It might produce a world where public schools are slower to innovate and adapt, because they exist in a sclerotic top-down bureaucracy and would lack nimbler competitors able to experiment with new models or to present, by their very existence, a critique of the system.

Solutions posit assumptions about the nature of the problem. I do not believe there is only one problem when any school fails, nor, if it were so, that that problem would always and only be the lack of parent advocates who value education, and their children. Were that the case I would not still want to set five years of memories on fire.

operationalizing your inner rockstar: a response to Bohyun Kim

Over at Library Hat, Bohyun asks — if you can’t get involved much as a library school student, “what can you do to increase your chances of getting a job after the MLS?”

I really resonate with her question. In her case, she couldn’t get involved because she was working full-time on top of her courseload; in my case, childcare limitations kept me from getting involved with student organizations (as I’d really wanted to) or applying for part-time library jobs (all of which paid less than childcare cost; no, thanks), but it comes to the same thing. I don’t know how much my advice is worth since (having graduated in May) I’m still looking for that first professional job, but my mantra was: “a constraint, not an excuse”.

Look, I am not going to go to a prospective employer and say “well, I am SECRETLY awesome, I just couldn’t show it because there were these circumstances that prevented me, but you should hire me over these people who are DEMONSTRABLY awesome”. I mean, I would have to laugh myself out of that job interview. So it was important to me to think — given the constraints I have — what can I do to be demonstrably awesome? Because the alternative is really not an option. The way it’s been working for me:

  • Go beyond the minimum on final projects. If at all possible, produce something which has actual users or a world-visible product. DCKX, my topical index of science content in the webcomic xkcd, was my final project for my subject analysis class — but it was also an excuse to solidify my skills from my databases class; work with real users (science professor beta testers); put something online where it demonstrates my technical competences; and, frankly, do something sexy. OK, it was more work than I had to do and it kind of ate my life, but I was going to have to do some kind of final project anyway, and my other class projects were going to survive if I cut corners.
  • Leverage your strengths. Use the time you do have. In my case, regular weekly commitments were hard, but occasional major time commitments were manageable, as was anything I could do on a flexible schedule after my kid’s bedtime. So I dumped the kid on friends and family for a solid weekend and went to ALA Midwinter 2010 (conveniently next door in Boston). And I did a few presentations at the Simmons tech lab — not too daunting since they drew on my teaching background — but boom, CV entries. And I’m good at writing, so I took an idea I was kind of obsessed with and, in two solid weeks of staying up way past my bedtime and writing and researching and coding like a banshee, wrote a paper that won the LITA/Ex Libris student writing award. Whee! (Then I slept. And did two weeks of overdue homework. I stand by my choice of priorities there.)
  • When you can network, do so, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Janie Hermann wants volunteers for Battledecks? Sure, I’ll throw myself on that grenade. (See above about teaching experience. Teaching middle school is pretty good prep for extemporaneous public speaking…) I signed up for Twitter just before Midwinter so I could join that conversation, and used it like mad at Midwinter and Annual to meet people and find good things to do (both sessions and after-hours); I am flabbergasted at how much it has enriched my life. I spend a few days at conferences forgetting I’m an introvert and just try to be as visible as I can. (Another mantra: “If I can’t be employed, at least I can be famous.” Four mentions in ALDirect so far. And tomorrow, the world.)

Maybe this is not your sort of thing. Maybe you’re not into teaching, and finding time for networking is hard. I get that. The point isn’t the specifics of how I do this (which, heck, for all I know won’t even land me a job) — the point is that we all have ways we are secretly (or not-so-secretly) rock stars, and “a constraint, not an excuse” means that you have to find the ways — within the time and budget and schedule you have — to operationalize that rockstardom so everyone can see it. The constraints might mean you have to be a rock star on a smaller stage than you dream of (or can handle). That’s how it goes (for now). Doesn’t mean I have any intention of sitting in the audience, meekly sipping my drink.

We are all library rock stars

So, how about you? How do you work around constraints to be a rock star?

my six-point primer on self-promotion

A friend recently said I’m the best at self-promotion of anyone she knows. This should be taken less as an indication about me as one about our social circle — chiefly, geeky introverts — but is fodder for a blog post nonetheless. Self-promotion doesn’t come naturally to me (I’m a geeky introvert too, after all), which means I had to do some theorizing about it before I could succeed at all.[1] So here are the things I know that I know (stick around to the end and add stuff you know):

  1. It’s harder if you’re an introvert or a woman. And many of you, my readers, are at least one of these. Introverts tend to have moral, even physiological, difficulty tooting their own horns, and gravitate toward situations which feel like meritocracies (hence, where one can maintain the hope that good work will ipso facto be rewarded). My advice for this is (sorry) get over it, or be OK with being passed over. Women have to navigate the ever-shifting line between being assertive and being a bitch, which means in turn positioning themselves vis-a-vis concepts of femininity, leadership, even couture and diction. (I don’t actually have anything useful to say on this one, I’m afraid. It’s hard. Especially if you’re a manager.)
  2. If you’re looking for an opportunity, tell people. Tell everyone. Doesn’t the factoid say that your opportunities are most likely to come from friends-of-friends? So the more people who know what you’re looking for, the more likely it is that someone who can help you will hear about it.
  3. Use your social media. There may well be ways to self-promote without social media, but I’ve been an internet junkie since 1991, so that’s what I know. I was hesitant to get on Twitter because I thought (ironically, in this context) that I’d be uncomfortable being so public, but it turns out to enrich my life immeasurably. Because I reach out to follow people, to comment, to join a conversation, to try to be helpful or kind. Because I ask for help, and the angelic legions of the internet are there. I’m not saying it has to be Twitter — tweet, blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, RSS, whatever works for you. And use the technical aspects as well: find ways to synchronize the content you care about, automate your egosurfing, fall wildly in love with site stats and analytics (and use them to find, and reach out to, your audience).
  4. Say yes to things. Not everything, because that way lies the crazy. But volunteer, or get professionally involved, or turn your class projects into published works, or find things that need doing at your work and do them — something to go beyond the minimum. And when someone interesting asks you to do something relevant that’s maybe a little wild and crazy and outside your comfort zone, don’t think about it long enough for the self-doubt to sink in. Say yes.
  5. Be helpful. Be kind. Look, don’t be that guy who only talks to people when you want something from them. That’s obnoxious. You want people to give you the aforementioned opportunities, be the kind of person they want to give them to.
  6. Be a rock star. I don’t mean trash hotel rooms, rage about brown M&Ms, and sleep with all your librarian groupies. I mean, whatever skills you have that make you unique, embrace them and be confident in that uniqueness, and let that confidence radiate from you. Act confidently. Because fundamentally — and especially in a bad economy — if you’re not a rock star, why should anyone bother with you? And if you don’t think you’re a rock star, why should anybody else?

So talk to me, blogosphere! What do you know about how to (or not to) self-promote? What opportunities are you looking for?

[1] Of course, I’m not sure that I can be said to “succeed” until I have a job. Point number 2 — did I mention I’m looking? If you know anyone who needs a tech- and people-oriented librarian in an academic or special library, or a creative environment using library skills, I’d love to hear. ❤