Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Reference Question of the Day

"Who decided that chickens would still run around once their heads were cut off?"

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I’m here. I’m a librarian. Get used to it.

I've been meaning to post this for a while, as I wrote it before Thanksgiving, but then I, well, forgot. As I've mentioned before, I have a friend in library school. She asked me for some "quick responses" to questions about librarian stereotypes; I of course, am incapable of writing quick responses, particularly to such questions.

As a preface, I would like to note that when I first started telling people I was going to become a librarian one of the most common responses I got was, "But you're kinda loud." 'Cause, you know, the ability to speak in soft tones is pretty much the only requirement of the job.

1. Do you think there are librarian stereotypes?
Of course there are librarian stereotypes. There are stereotypes for almost any profession. And you would think that librarians—who, more than almost any other group of people, embody the inclination to group and categorize information—would understand the impulse people have to stereotype groups of people. Stereotypes are a shorthand that we use to try to make sense of the world. So librarians are stereotyped as tight-lipped, mousy, control freaks. And lawyers are assholes. And investment bankers are heartless bastards. And so on. If you think about it, we come out looking pretty good, professional stereotype-wise.

What I do think sets us apart (and I’m going to talk about it even though it’s only tangentially related to your question, ‘cause it’s a pet peeve of mine) is the amount of worrying and hand-wringing we do about how we’re stereotyped. I can’t 100% guarantee it, but I’m pretty certain that there aren’t any classes in law school where they talk about lawyer stereotypes and how to overcome them. And I understand that--given that we work with the public directly--how we’re perceived may matter more. But I’m tired of the “how do we change our image?” melodrama. You can’t force people to have a different perception of you. These stereotypes came from somewhere—a lot of people grew up going to libraries that were staffed by tight-lipped, mousy control freak librarians who shushed them. Many members of newer generations of librarians are not like that, so when this younger generation grows up they will likely have a different impression of librarians. But you can’t just tell people you’re different; you have to show them. Stop spending so much time talking about how libraries are new, different, dynamic places, and just work on being new, different, dynamic places. People will figure it out. But it won’t happen overnight, so we may just need to chill the fuck out.

2. Do you think they are valid?
I think I kind of addressed this above, but I’ll elaborate. They are valid in that they came from somewhere. No one started a smear campaign about librarians. I think the profession does attract people who are generally more introverted, and I think it’s fair to say that people who devote their professional lives to organizing and accessing information may have some control issues. I wish we would stop being ashamed of these characteristics. Yes, we value space for introspection, and intellectual pursuits, and an organized world. These are not bad things.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that while many people probably have a stereotypical image of librarians as a group, they feel differently about their librarian. I get variations of “you’re not like other librarians” all the time. And I think this speaks to what I was talking about above—we change our collective image by our individual actions.

I’m going to use a potentially bizarre analogy here. Leaders in the gay rights movement urge closeted gays to come out because it’s been shown time and again that knowing an out gay person changes a person’s view of gays more effectively than any public service announcement ever could. “I don’t like gay people—but you’re okay” is generally how the sentiment goes. And the more gay people that person knows, the more their overall image of gay people changes. So the more librarians who don’t fit the old stereotype a person meets, the more their stereotype of librarians in general changes. I’m here. I’m a librarian. Get used to it.

3. Do you think they are harmful?
I think what’s harmful is getting caught up in trying to change, en masse, everyone’s opinion of every librarian. It makes us lose focus. But I do see the point of people who worry about librarian stereotypes—people who have negative stereotypes of librarians are less likely to come into libraries. However--as the recent economic unpleasantness has shown--when people need libraries, they will come. And that’s when we have a chance to change their perceptions going forward.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Because if there weren't a citation, how would I *know* it gets soggy in milk

There seem to be two general schools of thought on Wikipedia--it is either the root of all evil, or the greatest thing since sliced Internet. I'm fairly confident that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I get asked pretty regularly--by both teachers and students--if I think Wikipedia is a good thing. After explaining that for a full answer we would need several hours, a few graphs, a flipchart, a laser pointer, and an elephant, I shorthand my answer by saying, simply, "yes and no."

I'm not going to go in to all the good and bad parts of Wikipedia--as I have neither several hours or an elephant handy--but I have been thinking and talking about Wikipedia this week, as we spent a day talking about it in the class I'm teaching. I think Wikipedia does a great job of encompassing a number of the Web 2.0-related issues I wanted to talk about--participatory media, trust, authority, etc. (etc., in this case, being an abbreviation for "I know there's other things I want to mention, but I am functionally brain dead and can't think of them).

The one point I do want to make about Wikipedia, which I don't see made nearly often enough, is that we send a really awful message to students when we say it's "untrustworthy" because, "anyone can edit it--even you."

Why not, instead, teach students that their voice is a valuable part of the conversation? Why not tell students that the work and research they're doing has some relevancy, and that instead of vandalizing Wikipedia they could contribute to the world's largest encyclopedia? But no, instead many teachers emphasize vandalism and denigrate their students' voices. By "teaching" Wikipedia in this way we basically tell students, "go ahead and vandalize Wikipedia, 'cause there's no way you could add something of value to it." No wonder many students think most school work is pointless, when we tell them that their voice has no place in the conversation.

Sure, Wikipedia has articles like this table of vampire traits, (and thank you, Joelle, for pointing it out) which is rather silly and, it could be argued, "pointless", and probably prone to vandalism and error. But check out Count Chocula's weaknesses. And then check out the citation for it. I dare you to find an academic source that takes citation nearly that seriously.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Two completely unrelated things

But I haven't posted anything in a while, so making two separate posts at once might upset the balance of the universe. Cats and dogs, living together. Mass hysteria. You get the idea.

1) For the past week or so (which has lasted at least three months), I've been teaching an intensive course on Web 2.0 (a term I continue to dislike, but which continues to be a convenient and often--though not always--understood shorthand. Though the people who don't understand the term "Web 2.0" are unlikely to understand any other term I use either). It's going well, but it's exhausting, as we meet all day, and I meet with them two nights a week, in addition to having to create assignments for them the other two nights. In addition to finding time to do my, you know, full-time librarian job (ordering and processing books, managing ILLs and subscriptions, writing my budget, a grant application, continuing to convert paperbacks to mp3s. . . you know, the kinds of tasks it's totally easy to accomplish having gotten little to no sleep for over a week. I should also mention that I've been fighting some sort of nasty bronchial infection that is making sleeping and breathing at the same time tricky at best. Also, the meds I'm taking to help are made of the stuff they use to make meth. My sleep patterns are, to say the least, erratic, which may explain why I feel a bit brain dead. All of this was way too much for a parenthetical aside, but it's too late to turn back now).

As I was saying, the class is going well, but it's one of those things that makes me feel totally inadequate. I always feel like there's a million tools out there that I'm not using and not promoting and not taking advantage of. For every blog or wiki I help a teacher create, there's a Glogster or an Animoto that I'm not even familiar with. I find all this so overwhelming. But the weird thing is that even though I feel totally uninformed, most of my colleagues think this stuff (which I think of as "basic") is cutting edge. Which, in some ways, it is. Not the tools themselves, necessarily, but using them in the classroom. It's not unusually noteworthy, but it's definitely not the standard (yet). I think this is one of the problems of trying to stay professionally current--often there's just enough time to find out all the things you don't know, but not enough to actually learn about them.

2) I desperately want a Smartboard in my library. But I have no place to put one, as I have no walls. Lots of great windows, but no walls. I don't have space to hang a poster, let alone a Smartboard. I was talking to a vendor on the phone on Monday, and he was giving me options, but seemed unable to comprehend that I do not have wall space--which is a reasonable thing to be incredulous about. He asked about putting a piece of plywood on one side of a shelf and mounting it there, but a) I don't have enough shelving as it is and b) none of my shelves are situated in such a way that the board would even be visible if that were a possibility (that is a grammarfuck of a sentence, but I lack the wherewithal to fix it. Sorry).

During my first year I met the architect who designed the renovation of my library. He said to me, directly, "Well, no one uses the library anyway." Which probably explains why the space is so unusable.