Tag Archives: libraries

Tom’s Letter

Last week I wrote about a recent time when a high school student shadowed me for the day.

Today, I received this letter in the mail from “Tom”, and I’d like to share it with you.

February 19, 2013
Dear Trevor,
I would like to thank you for letting me job shadow you on _____. The experience has helped me solidify my resolve to follow the same career path as you and for that I am very thankful.
I found the day very enjoyable on account of the nature of the job, but also because of the warm and welcoming atmosphere I found there. I would like to thank you for helping provide that feeling of acceptance and would like to also extend my thanks to all the staff that showed me the same kindness throughout the day.
Strangely enough I think my favorite part of that day were the small jobs you gave me. Helping me withdraw books, looking for holds, and sorting through books, all these tasks were enjoyable in their own simple way and I am glad that you gave me the opportunity.
I would like to thank you once more and ask that you pass on my thanks to the rest of the staff for me.
Sincerely (signed)
Tom
p.s. I also appreciated your honest heartfelt advice about “keeping the balance” and getting out there and living life. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

Well, well. That kid’s going to be okay, I think.

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So you want to be a librarian…

“The World is Quiet Here”. Lemony Snicket

Recently, I had a high school student follow me around for the day. We had arranged this a few weeks before, but I didn’t remember until I got a scheduling reminder in my email a couple of days prior.

The day that Tom (let’s call him Tom) made first contact was not a good day. Our computers, both staff and public, had been down for a few hours, I had just called an ambulance for a customer who was having a seizure, and two people had called in sick.

I wasn’t feeling that great myself, and I probably wasn’t putting my best foot forward when Tom approached the desk.

When you work on the information desk, you are profiling all the time as someone approaches. It’s just a natural thing. Sometimes you’re dead wrong, but most of the time you know what you’re going to get, especially with the regulars. We know that when Mrs. F approaches, she’s got a list of Danny Kaye movies that she MUST GET on VHS. When Mr. B shuffles over, he’s looking for paperback Westerns. He calls them “Louies” after Louis L’Amour, but he’ll read anything that’s got a horse on it, apparently.

When Tom approached the desk, I saw this geeky looking, pimply faced kid. You know the kind. The kind that wears big snow boots even indoors, and who won’t think twice about picking his nose unashamedly in public and MAY OR MAY NOT eat it in front of you. He had glasses and uncombed hair. I had him pegged as a sci fi paperbacker, but I was wrong, sort of. (I’ll explain later.)

He seemed  shy and kind of stammered but I could get the gist of what he wanted. He wanted to do a six-hour placement here, as part of his requirements for high school graduation.

He told me he wanted to be a librarian.

I asked him why, and he said he liked to read. Damn. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions of this job. Contrary to popular belief, we DO NOT get any work time to read. I know, it sucks. Every other profession in the world has professional development components (and I’m not saying that we don’t have training and webinars and whatnot) but we don’t have regularly scheduled times where we can just kick back and read (aside from our own time at lunch). I can tell you which author has a new book coming out in April, and I have a working knowledge of the covers of 90% of the new books, but do I ever get a chance to crack the covers? Rarely.

I exhaled and said something like, “Okay, do you want to come in for an hour every week for six weeks or something?” but it turns out it would be better to do it all at once.

“Pull the bandaid off fast, eh? Good call.” And we picked a Saturday a few weeks down the line that worked for both of us. He wanted to know if he should wear anything in particular; if we had a dress code. I looked down at what I was wearing: brown cords that were a shade too short in the legs, a plaid L.L. Bean flannel shirt over a Blue Jays tshirt, hiking boots and grey wool socks (of course).

“Does it LOOK like we have a dress code?” was what I wanted to say. Instead, I said, “Just wear something you’ll be comfortable in, but no sweats or tank tops.” Considering this was February in Canada, it went without saying, really. “Oh, and you’ll want to wear lighter footwear. Those boots look pretty warm”.

That Saturday finally came.

A day or so before I put the word out on Twitter to see if there was anything that I could or should say to this boy that would be inspiring and/or helpful. The usually chatty librarian tweeters were disturbingly quiet that day.

I was on my own.

My plan was to have him get a sense of what working in a mid-sized public library was like, with everything from clearing the book chute to answering questions at the info desk, to helping out with a children’s story time. And also answer any questions he might have.

But six hours? Jesus.

Glenn Gould used to say that for every hour he spent around people, he needed two by himself. I don’t think I’m that bad, but I am aware of when I need to be “on” and when I can just relax and be “myself”. This felt like it was going to be a day where I was “on” the whole time. Give this kid a real show.

The day was here.

Tom showed up on time. We gave him the 25 cent tour and had him shadow the circulation desk for the first hour, and then we had him spend some time over at the information/reference desk. It was too bad that he was here on such a slow day: we didn’t have any children’s programs lined up, and traffic was slow. I asked him if he had any questions. He was concerned about how difficult it was to get into library school. I didn’t know what to tell him. I just applied to a school and I got in. I didn’t do a lot of research ahead of time. This coworker of mine did all the legwork, and decided on a school for himself, and I thought it might be fun to “do it” with someone else, since we were both going to be doing it through “distance ed”, so on a lark I applied and got in. I graduated two years later and a month after that I started working as branch head of the 2nd busiest branch in town. Sometimes life works out. And anyway, Tom is in Grade 12. I tried to give him a little Royal Tenenbaum style advice. “Look, Tom. Don’t take this the wrong way, but your life is just starting.  There’s a whole world out there. You need to get out there and experience it before you decide on your “career” or whatever. Travel, meet girls, do silly and stupid stuff that you will never EVER regret. There will always be time for school.” I don’t know if this was the type of advice he was looking for, but it had to be said.

He asked me what I liked best about my job, and I unexpectedly started to gush. I found myself saying stuff like, “Being a librarian is the best job in the WORLD!” and “I wouldn’t want to do anything else!”. Stuff like that. I went really positive,  and why not? It IS the best job in the world, for me anyway. It may not have the glamour and travel associated with other jobs, and Lord knows I’ll never retire wealthy, but for overall workplace satisfaction, stick me in a library any day of the week. Even if I won the lottery, I would probably volunteer in a library, and if I was ever destitute, I’d be one of those homeless guys shuffling off to the study tables. No matter where I end up on the financial spectrum, libraries will always have a special place in my heart. The library motto in Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is “The World is Quiet Here”. At my last job, as a going-away present, my coworkers made up a poster with that saying on it. I still have it on my bulletin board in my office, right below my David Sedaris and John Hodgman posters, as a reminder that libraries are special, dare I say sacred places. At least to me they are.

By the end of the day, we had Tom shelving materials, pulling holds, and even doing the end of day clean-up routines. I didn’t see him pick his nose once, and he wore sensible runners, (i.e. not winter boots). Tom kind of grew on me throughout the day, even when I kept losing track of where he was and finding him loitering down the science fiction/fantasy aisle on more than one instance. (I was right! He was a science fiction paperbacker! I totally called it on the first day!) I came clean with him and told him that we don’t ever get “reading” time on the job, but that we get to help connect readers with stuff they want to read, and sometimes that’s enough. I stopped short before I actually starting quoting Ranganathan’s five laws of library science. I didn’t want him to think I was some kind of library nerd.

"Every reader his book". Ranganathan

“Every reader his book”. Ranganathan

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Even Better than the Real Thing?

“Information wants to be free.” Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog

A couple of years ago, our library system began offering audiobooks and ebooks for downloads. We contracted with a company called Overdrive, who acts as the “middle man” between publishers and libraries. At no cost to our library users, they can download an ebook or an audiobook to their computer or mobile device (i.e. iPod touch, iPhone, Blackberry, iPad or Android) and also transfer it to most ebook readers (Sony Reader, Kobo, Nook, etc). Kindle is the main hold-out to this for now, although I understand Amazon is doing tests with American libraries, and if Amazon deems it worthwhile for them, they will expand access to Canadian libraries.

“Access” is the key word here.

Downloadable ebooks and audiobooks differ from print books in many ways, but the most important and probably least understood is what you actually get for your troubles. With regards to ebooks, not a whole lot.

With paper books, or what I curmudgeonly refer to as “real” books, thanks to the right of first sale, you can do whatever the hell you want with it once you’ve bought it. You can give it as a gift, resell it, donate it, use it for kindling, or hollow the inside out and keep a nice bottle of Bushmills safe from harm’s way. If it wasn’t for the right of first sale, the wonderful world of musty old used book shops wouldn’t even exist:

"The pay's not great, but the work is hard". Bernard, Black Books.

 

Contrast this with the soulless sensation of downloading a title to your device. You don’t actually own it, even if you think you’ve bought it. You’ve just bought ACCESS to an idea. Just try reselling, or giving away your digital copy of the latest James Patterson. It’s difficult, isn’t it? And don’t even try to store whiskey in there. Welcome to the wonderful world of  Digital Rights Management (DRM). Cory Doctorow’s presentation to Microsoft’s Research Group back in 2004 makes a very compelling case against DRM, and I’ll let his words speak for themselves. Boom!

There have been some strides made in the fight against DRM. Apple’s iTunes Store has sold DRM free music since 2007, although they still attach a watermark on each file containing user account info, and they still have heavy DRM restrictions on movies, ringtones, tv shows and audiobooks.

But for the most part, libraries (right alongside consumers) are held ransom by the whims of publishers. I wrote about Harper Collins’ decision back in March to limit libraries to 26 downloads of any given title. DRM restrictions on audiobooks seem even more random and arbitrary. Telling customers, “Yes, you can put it on an iPod, but no, it won’t work on a Mac. It works on Windows only, but for some reason you can’t put in on an mp3 player. And you’re right, I don’t know why you can burn book 1 of a series to a CD, but books 2 and 3 of the same series won’t” gets really tiring. My shorthand answer for all this is that “Publishers set up the borrowing rules, not us”, and it saves time and breath.

I haven’t even got to the aesthetic differences between holding a physical book in your hands versus an ebook or other device. Perhaps I’ll save my own personal experiences with ebooks for a future post. One faithful member of the fanbase has been toying with the idea of getting an iPad. Perhaps if she does, I will get a chance to try it out for myself. I promise to keep my mind open, even though the system is not.

 

I love the Gonzo aesthetic in the logo. I have a t-shirt.

 

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