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Free Range Librarian K.G. Schneider: Techno-Librarian. Writer. Gadfly. Commentator-at-Large.
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1. The alarming five-year pin

Five-year pinNot long ago I had a back-and-forth with MPOW’s head of HR, who is a great HR head, by the way (and after my spring HR class my admiration for her role deepened–talk about a complex role people take for granted, like, you know, library work). She told me I would be receiving my five-year pin, and I kept insisting it was too early. But in the end I said ok, I will receive my five-year pin, because the day of the ceremony was exactly six months from my five-year anniversary, and also because she wasn’t taking “no” for an answer.

I was startled to get here. Many people have elaborate career plans such as “I’m going to be the dean of an ARL library” or “I’m going to be the interplanetary guru of electronic resources.” My modus operandi has been more along the lines of, “Hey, that looks good,” or “I’m new in town, do you have a job for me?” This baggy approach to personal career management has had spectacularly uneven results, but it did result in my present position, which is an undeniably good fit for me, even, or perhaps especially, on the craziest days.

Everything I said about managerial leadership two years ago still holds, but I continue to have very good lessons-learned, and not all of them learned the hard way. So in the spirit of the ubiquitous listicles on the web, I present my top five:

* Campus relationships are key. Some years back I wrote a “guest response” piece for ACRL that took a position — likely in the minority — questioning the value of faculty status for librarians. I would soften that view today to say, after the manner of Pope Francis, if it works for your institution, who am I to judge? However, I do stick by the point lurking under my piece: faculty status is not a substitute for building and maintaining strong relations with all stakeholders on campus–not just the faculty, but key departments such as advising, tutoring, writing studios, orientation, admissions, campus ministry, and especially, campus services — my library may be hurting for a renovation, but it’s clean and, for its age, well-maintained.

* Sticking around has value. Those relationships don’t happen overnight, so another happy re-discovery is the joy of longevity. If you’ve been in the same library thirty years you and I may have different definitions for that term, but this job rivals only my job managing Librarians’ Internet Index (RIP) for longevity, assuming we allow for my military service being a series of smaller jobs within a larger eight-year job. People have arrived, served the university well, and departed, all on my watch, and I’ve seen a lot of change, as well as some things come full circle. And I’m still here, plugging away at the big things and the small things alike.

* Managerial leadership can be learned (parts of it, anyway). I have learned a lot on the job. Nevertheless, the doctoral program is helping me from many angles. There is the direct classroom experience of highly practical classes on human resources, strategic finance, managing in a political environment, fundraising, and so on. Then there is the scholarly aspect: research, reading, and writing (rinse, repeat). While  there is no substitute for integrity, common sense, optimism, and collegiality, learning how to write a case statement for fundraising is not a bad thing at all.

* The organization comes first. This rule manifests itself in many ways big and small. The boss gotta be the boss.  I prefer to ask “How?” or say “Not now, but let’s find a way to do this,” but sometimes “no” is the correct answer. If a key stakeholder relationship has been damaged, I need to repair it, even if I have to grovel (and trust me, I’ve groveled). If constructive feedback is warranted, I need to provide it (though constant positive feedback is crucial, too). Using Heifetz’ analogy, it’s up to me to clamber up to the balcony every now and then to see what’s happening on the dance floor, and then adjust as needed.

* Do what needs doing. Every institution has its own reality. In our case, I found myself writing an evacuation procedure, purchasing additional emergency response gear in case the lower level was not accessible, and leading the entire library, including student workers, in active-shooter training.  I also ensure we regularly update a small printout of everyone’s non-MPOW phone numbers and email so we can contact one another in emergencies. Was all of that “my” job? Yes, some of it was, but more importantly, it is my job to ensure we are prepared for emergencies, and human safety is non-negotiable.

Make sure you’ve fulfilled the bottom rung of Maslow’s Hierarchy. In addition to improving our emergency response, in the last two years I’ve done what I could to make staff more comfortable and productive. The staff area, carved from a former “processing room,” is aesthetically sad, with worn cubicle panels, ugly tile, and hideous cabinets, but I patiently championed adding overhead fans to the staff area, which has increased staff comfort, and this summer the head of library IT and I built a “seated cost” budget plan to help us ensure staff are adequately equipped for their roles, with scheduled upgrades we can plan and budget for each year. Little things — a full-size fridge, a Keurig, a hydration station for filling water bottles — make a difference.

* Do what you can, and keep trying. As I wrote in 2012, I need to be mercilessly optimistic. Management and leadership have a certain household-laundry quality, with perpetual problems and challenges that mean the last sock is never washed. There are some big things that may not happen on my watch. But I don’t stop developing proposals and plans for improving the library that I share with key stakeholders, and this readiness, plus a variety of creative relationships, have led to improvements to the library, beginning with a refresh of the computers in that aging lab, on to a new reading area, to the first refresh of the furniture on the main level in the library’s 56 years. We’ve also increased our workforce in five years, and for that I can be justly proud, because our services define us.

Have fun with the silly stuff. Several months ago, the library — specifically, I and another librarian — were pulled into an elaborate time-sink of a project to secure permissions for an anthology of prayers and poetry the university will be self-publishing. I am here to tell you that most copyright workshops stop short of the truly practical guidance, which is how to chase down, stalk, wheedle, negotiate, and beg your way to get permissions for material, or even how to go back in a time machine, to when you first got wind of such a project, to insist that submissions be accompanied by little things such as authors, titles, and publishers. But as much as I grumble that this isn’t what I planned to do this summer, the reality is that our efforts are greatly appreciated, our guru-ness in copyright is further solidified, and the end result will be good.

Get (and maintain) a life. I have a loving spouse, two amusing cats, and a variety of interests, and oh yeah, a doctoral program.  I have heard about directors that work from dawn into the wee hours seven days a week, but I don’t know that their libraries are run any better than mine. I definitely put in my dues; I’m always the director, 24×7, and some periods are busier than others. But I’m no good to the institution if I’m frazzled and depleted. This has  also made me very selective with my speaking and conference activities, in part because I don’t want to be an absent boss, and also because catch-up is hell. Every once in a while I dose myself with “vitamin colleague,” checking in with peer directors for a phone call, Skype, or lunch, because there is some stuff I just can’t share with anyone else.

* Be fully present. Above, I referred to things happening “on my watch.” I have observed some directors take a job with their eyes fixed on their future goal (see above, “wanna be an ARL director”). I have seen others turn into what we called in the Air Force ROADies (for Retired On Active Duty). The sweet spot for me is to get in early every day, be present as much as possible, and be actively engaged with my role as library leader.

It’s possible to renew your present-ness. Last fall was a tough time: the second semester of the doctoral program was grueling, and there were other things going on at work that zombified me. I felt, later on, that I had checked out, even if I still got things done. But that was then and this is now. Nearly every day I drive through the gates of the university with a sense of anticipation;  to quote Thelma in Thelma and Louise, “I don’t ever remember feeling this awake.” (And if you’re tempted to make the inevitable “driving off a cliff” comment, remember that Thelma and Louise were choosing a life framed by that level of being present.) I am captaining a ship sailing toward our library’s vision, with my eye on the horizon as well as the decks, and I can feel the engines pulling us toward our future. It feels good.

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2. ALA Annual 2014: Go on, Y’all

So some of you have probably heard I’m receiving the American Library Association Elizabeth Futas Catalyst for Change award, something that simultaneously  embarrasses and pleases me. The Awards Ceremony will be Sunday, June 29, 3:30- 4:00 p.m. – LVCC - N249. I would love to see you there, dear reader, but people have so many places to be at a conference. (Of course, showing up early for the awards means you get a good seat for Lois Lowry!) Your good thoughts are what are most important to me,  after Sandy being there — the most important thing. I am deeply  humbled to get this award and hope to keep honoring it for the rest of my career.

Here’s the rest of my schedule. I’m not on any committees or units until after Annual other than Council and Planning and Budget Assembly.  I’m looking forward to tripping the light fantastic with Sandy at ALA, serving on Council, and catching up with friends. On other fronts: work is good, school is good, life is good. I started my fourth semester at Simmons in late May. Like the third semester, it feels comfortable: a lot of work, but good work, without any confusion or stress.

Events that are a given are marked with an asterisk.

Ask the Experts: Discover key strategies for successful academic library fundraising
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 08:30am – 10:00am
Caesars Palace – Pompeian I

Executive Board Meeting (GLBTRT) – stop in to observe
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 08:30am – 11:30am
Las Vegas Convention Center – N229

ACRL President’s Program: Financial Literacy at Your Library
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 10:30am – 12:00pm
Las Vegas Convention Center – N255/257
Presidents program

Assessment Discussion Group
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 01:00pm – 02:30pm
Las Vegas Convention Center – N110
Discussion/Interest group
Join us for a lively discussion about assessment and its role in academic library success!

* ALA Council/Executive Board/Membership Information Session
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 03:00pm – 04:30pm
Las Vegas Hotel – Paradise North

* LIAL11 Meetup
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 05:00pm – 06:30pm
Firefly, 9560 W Sahara Ave, Las Vegas

* Simmons Reception
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 07:00pm – 08:30pm
LVH – Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, Suite 2983 3000 Paradise Rd.

* Super-secret Dinner Group
Saturday, 06/28/2014 – 07:30pm – 10:00pm

* ALA Council I
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 08:30am – 11:00am
Las Vegas Hotel – Paradise North

* Award Rehearsal
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 11:45am – 12:30pm
LVCC – N249

* ALA Planning & Budget Assembly (PBA)
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 01:00pm – 02:30pm
Las Vegas Hotel – Pavilion 04

* ALA Award Photo Session
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 02:15pm – 03:30pm
LVCC- N263c

* ALA Award Ceremony
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 03:30pm – 04:00pm
LVCC – N249

* ALA President’s Program featuring Lois Lowry
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 04:00pm – 05:30pm
Las Vegas Convention Center – N249

* Awards Reception
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 05:30pm – 07:00pm
Las Vegas Convention Center Room – N263C

* Social (GLBTRT)
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 06:00pm – 08:00pm
The Center, 401 S. Maryland Pkwy, Las Vegas, NV 89101

http://www.thecenterlv.org/

ALA Council Forum I
Sunday, 06/29/2014 – 08:30pm – 10:00pm
Las Vegas Hotel – Ballroom F

* ALA Council II
Monday, 06/30/2014 – 08:30am – 11:30am
Las Vegas Hotel – Paradise North

Stonewall Book Awards Brunch (GLBTRT)
Monday, 06/30/2014 – 10:30am – 02:00pm
Paris – Champagne 1

Speaking About ‘The Speaker’
Monday, 06/30/2014 – 01:00pm – 02:30pm
Las Vegas Convention Center – N253
Program

* Beverage with A.
Monday, 06/30/2014 – 05:30pm – 06:30pm

ALA Council Forum II
Monday, 06/30/2014 – 08:30pm – 10:00pm
Las Vegas Hotel – Ballroom F
Other
This meeting allows councilors an opportunity to discuss issues that they will face during this conference.

* ALA Council III
Tuesday, 07/01/2014 – 07:45am – 09:15am
Las Vegas Hotel – Paradise North
Other
This is a meeting of the governing and policy making body of the association.

 

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3. Next steps for PBA: Thoughts from one of “these people”

I had three sustained comments regarding the survey and analysis conducted this spring on the future of ALA’s Planning and Budget Assembly. The first comment, from an ALA thought leader I deeply respect, was to consider providing recommendations — hence, this post. The second was a thoughtful reflection on the Connect post.

The third comment, from a BARC representative, had me take a deep breath for a month:

“Honestly, I am incredulous that so much effort has been exerted on this issue.  Do these people have nothing more useful to do?”

As I politely explained to Mr. Big Britches, that is precisely the point. As one of “these people,” I do have better things to do than shuffle into a meeting room, spend nearly an hour in “introductions,” and then hear the same high-level budget information I just heard at Council.

In its current incarnation, PBA is intended to  be seen and not heard. This is an assembly that provides the gloss of transparency with none of the pesky mechanisms for meaningful input. As currently structured, PBA is a meeting designed (unintentionally or otherwise) to preclude meaningful analysis, discussion, and input. Requests for even the simplest communication mechanisms are rebuffed: though 97 percent of current PBA members believe a discussion list would be useful, again and again we are given quibbly reasons why it hasn’t been created. The only other communication mechanism provided to PBA is  a Connect group. My goodness, if I established the Tote Bag Roundtable, ALA would give it a list.

PBA meetings are time in my life I’ll never get back again. I am not expendable, and neither are the 85 other people who agree to serve on this assembly.  We don’t need to be condescended to with a sinecure; I look around at PBA meetings, and these are people who are making ALA happen. Equally meaningfully, I do not believe ALA’s budget and planning process would be harmed by more input from informed stakeholders.

Finally, ALA is not in any financial position to hang on to things that aren’t serving the needs of the membership. As I have said in countless keynotes, times of financial hardship offer opportunities for “controlled burns,” where we can kill off anything that isn’t relevant and can’t be coaxed into relevance.  The survey makes clear that PBA needs to improve or die — it’s that simple.

Here are my personal thoughts about the future of PBA. But what do others think? I’d like to hear from current and past PBA members, former treasurers, BARC, and Board members, what they think. Is it time to ask the big question: kill it or improve it?

If PBA is retained, it needs better ROI for its members and for ALA:
  • Establish a discussion list (97% of current PBA members agree ALA should do this
  • Provide new-member orientation
  • Restructure the assembly to create a leadership role
  • Hold PBA “town halls” prior to ALA; save meetings at ALA for real discussion
  •  Provide more, and better, budget input
  • Restructure PBA so it has a leader
If PBA is dissolved:
     There is value to disseminating high-level budget information to the stakeholders described by PBA.  Hold budget and planning “town halls” prior to ALA. Invite the same groups, just don’t call it an assembly, and dispense with any claim that PBA has a role in the budget and planning process.  If an opportunity comes up to engage a broader group of stakeholders, do it on an ad hoc basis.
I am contemplating a resolution for ALA Council to dissolve PBA. The reason I hesitate is I cannot find any positives to state in the “whereas” clauses. Whereas, ALA suffers from a surplus of informed input? Whereas, you are wasting our time?  Ironically, I may not be able to attend PBA, as I’m attending an awards ceremony on Sunday, but of course, there are no repercussions for not attending PBA — which tells you something right there. I’ll definitely be at Council, of course.
Comments? Thoughts? Oh — and big thanks to two other “these people,” Aaron Dobbs and Dr. Karen Downing, for their work on delivering and analyzing the PBA survey. Mr. Big Britches is correct: we all have plenty of other things to do with our time, and it took an extra huff of effort to get this survey analyzed before ALA’s spring meetings. But we care enough about ALA — the institution, and the people it represents — to dig deep and find that slice of time to make this happen.

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4. FYI on PBA at ALA

Liberty Bell - from Wikipedia

Liberty Bell – from Wikipedia

I stayed in Philadelphia past ALA Midwinter for my third-semester doctoral program intensive until today, Sunday, February 2, so I’m just getting around to my post-ALA blogging.  What I’m writing about tonight, on my flight back to SFO, is a bit wonky. But stick with me, because if you’re an ALA member, it matters.

ALA has a unit called the Planning and Budget Assembly. Despite serving three previous terms on Council, I really never gave PBA much thought until last summer when I agreed to run for a position as one of its ALA Council representatives, who are elected by our Council peers. My interest was really piqued when an ALA member I respect greatly took me aside to warn me not to waste my time on PBA. I almost took that advice, but in the end, I’m glad I pressed on anyway.

I was swept into office with a grand 93 votes–hey, you laugh, but I was the top vote-getter. (I recited that from memory while composing this over  sluggish in-flight wifi, and now I am worrying there will be a scandal in which it turns out I actually received 91 votes and will have to go on an Apology Tour.)

The charge to PBA is “To assist the ALA Executive Board and the Budget Analysis and Review Committee (BARC), there shall be a Planning and Budget Assembly which shall consist of one representative of each division, ALA committee, round table, and five councilors-at-large and five councilors from chapters.” There are other fiscal units–besides BARC, a very important fiscal unit is the Finance and Audit Committee of ALA’s Executive Board–but PBA does, after all, exist, at least on paper.

First, I’d like to point out how huge PBA is. At least by headcount, it’s about 80 delegates, not including ALA staff. Additionally, the PBA assembly, taken together, is comprised of some of the best, most seasoned minds in ALA. I am in complete awe of the potential force of this assembly, and in theory, I could learn quite a bit from the questions they ask or the observations they make. Based on both their ALA work and the work they do in their libraries, they are extremely well-positioned to provide commentary and planning advice on ALA’s next steps in light of the fiscal challenges ALA has faced in the past five-plus years of recession and changing information patterns: staffing cutbacks, frozen salaries, creeping workload, sinking revenues.

But PBA’s rather exceptional group of people is not actually empowered to do anything other than be herded into a room twice a year and then read condensed highlights from various reports (reports, no less, that a number of us have already had read to us at Saturday’s Council/Executive Board/Membership Information Session).

It’s diagnostic of PBA’s dilemma that there is no onboarding for PBA, its charge is vague, and there’s no direction for what PBA is to do once it has attended these twice-yearly meetings. For ALA Midwinter, a PBA meeting that everyone knew would attract strong participation, we had a one-hour session in which we were squeezed into a  room for a group half our size, asked to do introductions (which of course took a while), then read to from reports that had been read from at Saturday’s . We had exactly 5 minutes at the end for “discussion.”

Structurally, there’s no way this assembly of close to 100 people can use this format to “assist” other ALA units.  Symbolically, the message is clear: PBA is to be seen and not heard.

Other shenanigans have bordered on silly. PBA members have no easy method for communicating as a group. We are emailed in a couple of reply-all batches. When I asked ALA several weeks back to create a Sympa discussion list for PBA, I encountered pushback.

I get that every new mailing list creates overhead, but PBA is the only governance unit denied such a list, and far more human labor has been spent stonewalling the creation of this discussion list than would have been expended just making it happen. Why, you’d think they were concerned about some activist PBA member stirring the pot and encouraging PBA members to, you know, talk amongst themselves about the future of PBA! I was assured at Midwinter that ALA will in fact create a discussion list, and I’ll let you know if that does or doesn’t happen.

In any event, it’s time to make PBA useful or kill it off. As I wrote on Council list, “I don’t want to speak for everyone on Council, but it seems safe to say that there was general agreement that the Planning and Budget Assembly has untapped potential, and that its present composition and charge and how that charge is interpreted and acted upon are not useful to ALA or to the members of the assembly. In particular, to paraphrase something Mary Ghikas said months back, PBA’s potential role in planning has not been leveraged. To be more blunt, you’re welcome to dismiss me but don’t also waste my time while you’re doing it.

But the good news about PBA is, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, there is a fork in the road, and we plan to take it.

Council has informal sessions it calls Forums. These sessions, which are open meetings, are opportunities to discuss matters before Council in a relaxed, conversational manner, outside the framework of parliamentary procedure. Council Forum II, held Monday night, concluded with an extremely resonant, thoughtful, and engaged conversation about PBA.  Maybe it’s a question of my own personal motivation—I have spent a year asking questions about the ALA budget, starting in January 2013 when I expressed concern about projected revenues from RDA—but I felt really attuned to the conversation that flowed among  former treasurers, Executive Board members, BARC-ers, and new and seasoned Councilors.

I originally thought I would head to Council Forum II with a proposal for a presidential task force on fiscal communication. But I forced myself to spend a few hours reviewing earlier ALA presidential task forces, and I learned something worth heeding: if you want to keep membership at bay on an issue, form a presidential task force. Let them have their meetings, their special sessions, their lovely dinners. Let them spend years crafting their long, carefully-considered reports. The recommendations rarely get implemented. It was disturbing to confirm another Councilor’s observation that one task force we had served on for two years had simply disappeared into an ALA Vortex.

Thinking a presidential task force is going to “fix” an ALA issue is like thinking a dues increase is going to have a significant impact on ALA’s fiscal situation. You do realize that the long-debated dues increase voted in last year will only marginally affect the ebb and tide of ALA’s revenue/expenditure stream? Ah, maybe you only thought dues made a huge difference.  Dues matter, but only to a point, and are eclipsed by other revenue streams. For example, almost half of ALA’s revenue comes from publishing.

Instead, I dialed back to a proposal for a simple resolution specific to PBA to be brought to Council, and that, among many other things, is what will be moving forward. LITA Councilor Aaron Dobbs and I are co-workerbees on this project, and we’ve already begun developing timelines and deliverables. There will be widening circles of engagement and crowdsourcing, from us to PBA to Council and beyond. A rough preliminary goal is to have a resolution ready for BARC and other units to discuss at ALA’s spring meetings in April. In addition to round-robining versions of this resolution, we’re hoping to hold a virtual Council Forum session before then to get additional input.

There are ancillary ideas that may emerge in parallel with this work. For example, I keep floating the idea of holding the Council/Executive Board/Membership Information Session online, at least two weeks prior to ALA. We have the technology to do this, and “flipping” this session would give people a chance to hear, process, think, ask a few questions, and come prepared to have real conversations about ALA.  In the Council Forum discussion, wise librarians of all ages also shared ideas and insights about what they would like to see from fiscal documents, and we were also reminded of the excellent ALA Financial Learning series of short videos.

 Not everyone thinks my focus on PBA and ALA’s fiscal condition is a good idea; I heard as much from one colleague at Midwinter.  But I can tell you that based on the phone calls and email and meetups I have had over the past year with people I truly respect—many of whom have currently or previously held distinguished positions among the ALA membership—engaging with the problem of how members engage with ALA in the budget and planning processes is an honorable investment of effort.

 

 

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5. Conduct Unbecoming (a Library Conference)

Samuel Johnson ponders ALA's Code of Conduct

Samuel Johnson ponders ALA’s Code of Conduct

A passel of librarians just did two very cool things. First they pulled together on their own to synthesize existing American Library Association policies to create a code of conduct “statement” for ALA conferences — an action that makes ALA a safer space for people vulnerable to harassment. Then these librarians worked through the system to get ALA’s Executive Board to approve the statement. Andromeda Yelton, ALA member, was the lead “macher” for the CoC.

For an excellent round-up of current and contextual articles and commentary on the CoC, see Lisa Rabey’s blog post.

Needless to say, once these cool things happened, Complaints Were Voiced. These complaints fell into  three categories:

  • ALA policy should ONLY come through ALA Council
  • A code of conduct is unnecessary
  • A code of conduct conflicts with ALA’s principles of intellectual freedom

Point 1: On statements versus policy

I begin with the first objection, which surfaced on the ALA Council list, only so I can immediately correct the errors of fact. As any number of people have pointed out, the Code of Conduct is not “policy.” It is an amalgamation of existing policy and procedure reinterpreted to apply to conference behavior. ALA has a long tradition of developing interpretations of existing policy and procedures, and it would seriously hobble the work of committees and other ALA units if every interpretation or statement had to be voted on, particularly by a body, such as ALA Council, which meets twice a year and spends far too much time in its own version of Groundhog Day, flogging the same toothless resolutions for hours on end.

There was a sub-objection under the “policy” discussion that the conversation about the CoC should have been brought to Council’s attention.  Another error of fact: Executive Board was aware of this conversation and voted on it to boot, as it votes on many things that need attention between ALA conferences or is otherwise on their agenda. The Executive Board “is” ALA to a great extent; the Executive Director reports to the EB, and Council elects EB to do that work. The “conversation” argument also has poor moral standing because Council does not go to great lengths to make its own deliberations accessible, as I have been pointing out for many years.

In terms of political strategery, I’m divided. On the one hand, bringing more people into the fold on the discussion might have made the CoC less of a bad surprise and reduced the NIH (Not Invented Here) reaction of some Councilors. On the other hand, I have seen Council take something lucid and spot-on and timely and either send the poor thing into indefinite and infernal referral Purgatory or hack it into unintelligible word pudding. (Or both.)

If I got my modified Delorean DMC-12 out of the garage, I would drive back to the moment where the statement was almost ready (which I was oblivious to at that historical moment, having a few months back said “oh yes, such a thing needs to be done,” and then trotting off to other things while Andromeda et al actually DID it). Then I would  encourage Andromeda et al to launch a sotto voce campaign among a broader circle of ALA folk, using those ancient but honorable mechanisms of email and even telephones to share ideas, if only so that some of us would not end up simultaneously absorbing and defending the CoC. But this isn’t a criticism of the CoC, only an observation on building buy-in.

Finally, as I said on the Council list, Andromeda et al. did exactly what ALA members should do: they gathered together to take action on an issue, leveraging both their own group processes and their ability to communicate within ALA’s bureaucracy. They did it in a modern meetup style, coalescing around an idea, creating ad-hoc virtual space, and finishing their project on a timeline that met their other objectives, and that’s how these folk roll.

Note that this form of activity has interesting implications for considering the recruitment and retention of future ALA members. The traditional committee structure has its value, but the maxim that for each and every idea or project there must be an equal and opposite committee should be looked at very closely, particularly as we seek ways to streamline ALA so it can rebuild itself to fighting strength and also to help ALA attract and retain newer librarians. John Chrastka had a fresh mindset during his tenure as head of ALA’s member development and proposed different ways of involvement, but I got the sense he wearied of fighting City Hall.

Point 2: on the necessity of a code of conduct.

Besides, if anyone on Council felt that invested in a conference Code of Conduct, they should have made themselves useful and taken this on a long, a very very very very very VERY VERY VERY!!!!!! long, time ago — this, the governing body that only takes action at ALA’s annual and midwinter conferences. How typical of Council to emulate Samuel Johnson’s view of patrons of the arts: “Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?”

Johnson aside, the initial and subsequent reactions from some pundits explains why this CoC is necessary: because they thought otherwise.

When the CoC was announced, Will Manley posted a blistering renunciation of the Code of Conduct to his blog, which his inner circle of devotees lapped up. No surprise there. I can’t link  to the post, though Lisa Rabey has a cached version, because after the tables began turning, and people used the comment function on his blog post to defend the CoC, Will finally surprised me: he shut down his blog.

Nobody asked Will Manley to shut down his blog.  I’ve been ruminating about his action for some time. What I get from his action, in the end, is that codes of conduct work. They work by pointing out that not all conduct is ok. They work by speaking truth to power. They work by shaking up mindsets. They work by acknowledging historical wrongs. They work by saying, no, this is not your space, it’s OUR space, and we have a right to be safe in that space. We have a right to that space. All of us.  And if you do that thing you know is wrong to do, you are now accountable for your actions. When that is said out loud, there are those who will gather up their toys and go home, and to them I say: don’t let the door hit you in the butt.

You don’t have to know explicit sexual harassment to get what I’m saying about “space.” The sexual action is just a mechanism; aggressive space cooptation takes all forms.  If you’ve ever had to squeeze your female body into a bus or airline seat next to a man who was sitting legs akimbo, jiggling his foot in your face, pressing his elbow into your bosom, you know what I am talking about. If you’ve ever sat on a committee or participated in a discussion list where you had to fight to be heard because men immediately commandeered the airspace (“Yes! Feminism is important! Let me spend the next 20 minutes explaining why…”), you know what I mean. If you’ve ever had the uncomfortable realization on a subway train or bus that the object pressing against your behind was not someone’s flashlight, you are nodding with me.

I have never experienced harassment at a conference other than heckling (which I’ll get to a bit later). But as a woman and a lesbian, I know harassment exists, and I’ve personally experienced it in a variety of settings.

The most blatant harassment I ever experienced happened in the military, when I was a captain stationed overseas at an airbase where the current regime was morally bankrupt. The harassment I experienced was a weirdly indirect “forced viewing,” in which a senior officer would habitually make highly sexualized references about two enlisted women in their, and my, presence, fully confident I wouldn’t talk back to a senior officer. When a new commander took over promising to right a lot of wrongs, I reported this captain’s behavior and requested a move to another unit. The move was granted without comment. Fortunately for the two young women left behind, the captain had orders for another assignment, and quickly left. Within a year he was promoted to major.

My story is hardly unique, and that’s the point: harassment is endemic to our culture. People who harass do so knowing this, and knowing that in many cases, they will not be held accountable. People have been harassed at ALA conferences for being female, transgender, differently-abled, of color — you name it. Andromeda brought this issue to her ALA peers because it had become a crusade in the tech conference world, where women were pushing back on the many ways men had used sexual power to diminish the space for women at conferences and in their profession. It wasn’t even a new issue for library conferences; Code4Lib, for example, had created a CoC a while back. It was just new for ALA conferences.

Point 3: The code of conduct and intellectual freedom

Boy howdy do I love it when men assert their right to pinch women’s behinds and frame it in the context of keeping information free.  This brain-free nattering underscores exactly why codes of conduct are important. If you make the tremendous effort to actually read the 575 words in the Code of Conduct (which I have pasted at the end of this post, copied from my registration form for ALA Annual), you will see that as long as you aren’t a butt-smacking, “flashlight”-poking, sexist-comment-making galoot determined to make restrooms inaccessible for transgender attendees (and yes, that happened at an ALA conference, by a contractor for a conference center), you will be empowered, not limited, by the CoC. If you are such a galoot, guess what: you’re on notice.

Finally, a word about heckling. My first take on the CoC’s statements about heckling were that it too strong. I have been heckled twice at library conferences. Once was during the Internet Filtering Wars, when in a talk I proffered my opinion that filtering computers used by very young children was not a bad idea, which ran up against the “all filtering: BAD” position of ALA’s intellectual freedom establishment. It was helpful to see how strongly these opinions were held (strong enough that a woman stood up, I assume so her lungs could gather enough air to REALLY TELL ME HOW SHE FELT), and frankly, the heckling caused me no damage.

The other heckling incident was at Code4Lib, where a man began shouting at me when I compared open source software to free kittens. He did not yell “Liar!” in the manner of Wilson insulting the President, but he was clearly angry and in disagreement, and felt that his opinion needed to be made available to the (largely white male) crowd, right there at that point in my talk. In the time since that has happened I’ve approached it with a sense of humor, but the farther I get from this incident — and it has stayed with me a long time — the more I wonder why I couldn’t be allowed to finish my keynote before we had a Time of Sharing.

Someone on Facebook (I don’t remember who) commented that the difference was whether the heckler was “punching up.” In the first case, an ALA member with strong feelings shared her opinion. In the second, it’s sometimes hard to say where “up” is, but if you’re one of a handful of women in a room with several hundred men, it probably doesn’t rest with you.

Finally, I know the CoC is important because as soon as it was announced, a man who hadn’t done anything on this project immediately took credit for it. No really — that happened. It happened in a private discussion that shall not be quoted from, and as soon as it happened I did that thing I hate doing, which is how I know it needs to be done, which is to say “No, actually, it happened this way, and these people were involved,” and that of course was enough to nip that in the bud. But hey, the CoC was an idea worth stealing.

ALA’s CoC is not set in stone. Like all interpretations of policy, it can and will change as we and our world change. You don’t have to agree with every word of the CoC to pick up your registration badge and participate in the conference. But the world is just a little better, a little more right, a little more safe, because ALA’s CoC exists.

The ALA Code of Conduct (copied from the ALA Annual online registration form) 

The American Library Association holds professional conferences and meetings to enable its members to receive continuing education, build professional networks, and discover new products and services for professional use. To provide all participants – members and other attendees, speakers, exhibitors, staff and volunteers – the opportunity to benefit from the event, the American Library Association is committed to providing a harassment-free environment for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, physical appearance, ethnicity, religion or other group identity.As an association, ALA is strongly committed to diversity, equity and the free expression of ideas. These values have been repeatedly delineated in ALA policy (for instance: Policy A.1.4 – Core Organizational Values; Policy B.1.1 – Core Values of Librarianship; Policy B.1.2 – Code of Professional Ethics). Taken cumulatively, the values and beliefs delineated within ALA policy describe conduct based on a firm belief in the value of civil discourse and the free exploration of competing ideas and concepts – with a fundamental respect for the rights, dignity and value of all persons.Within the context of ALA policy and the professional practices of librarianship, critical examination of beliefs and viewpoints does not, by itself, constitute hostile conduct or harassment. Similarly, use of sexual imagery or language in the context of a professional discussion might not constitute hostile conduct or harassment.ALA seeks to provide a conference environment in which diverse participants may learn, network and enjoy the company of colleagues in an environment of mutual human respect. We recognize a shared responsibility to create and hold that environment for the benefit of all.

Some behaviors are, therefore, specifically prohibited:
Harassment or intimidation based on race, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, appearance, or other group status.
Sexual harassment or intimidation, including unwelcome sexual attention, stalking (physical or virtual), or unsolicited physical contact.
Yelling at or threatening speakers (verbally or physically).

Speakers are asked to frame discussions as openly and inclusively as possible and to be aware of how language or images may be perceived by others. Participants may – and do – exercise the “law of two feet.” [kgs edit: I added a link, as I was unfamiliar with this concept.] Exhibitors must follow all ALA Exhibits rules and regulations and ALA policies.

All participants are expected to observe these rules and behaviors in all conference venues, including online venues, and conference social events. Participants asked to stop a hostile or harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.

Conference participants seek to learn, network and have fun. Please do so responsibly and with respect for the right of others to do likewise.Please contact Conference Services staff in the ALA Office at conference if you believe you have been harassed or that a harassment problem exists. All such reports will be directed immediately to the Director of Conference Services, who will determine and carry out the appropriate course of action, and who may consult with and engage other ALA staff, leaders and legal counsel as appropriate. Event security and/or local law enforcement may be involved, as appropriate based on the specific circumstances. A follow-up report will be made to individuals who report being harassed.Prior to each ALA Midwinter Meeting and ALA Annual Conference, ALA Conference Services will make the following information available:
Information on how to report incidents of any sort to Conference Management (telephone, room location)
Emergency contact information:
Venue (convention center, hotel) security
Local law enforcement, emergency and non-emergency
Local emergency and non-emergency medical information
Local taxi company(s)
Other local services, e.g. hotlines

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6. Postcards from the underworld: Doctoral program, semester 2

Harry Potter's Marauder's Map

Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map

I was told this, my second semester, would be the hardest, and by gum, they delivered. For a lot of reasons, this was a heck of a time, an overload of schoolwork in the midst of a crisis at work that left me sleepless and scrambling for weeks on end.

But I’m done. When I received my grade on one overwhelming project I expressed relief to one cohort colleague, who replied, “Welcome to the Fraternal Order of Slackers.” Yes, it was not a grade commensurate of my other academic achievements. But I advanced to the next semester and this is my last degree and I’m too old to be grounded, so I just don’t care.

The big lesson I was reminded of for this semester came from a recent grad in our program with a gift for summarizing our experience: “Perseverance through high drama.”  I can dig it! The second big lesson: during this break I am lowering the flame under the kettle, but I’m not turning off the stove. It was wonderful to “have a life” after the first semester, but it’s a doctoral program, not elementary school. I need to keep my brain, and my projects, at a steady simmer, percolating away at various activities, and  ready to kick it up a notch when the third semester begins.  So along with resting and celebrating and whatnot, I’ll do some research and thinking and reading.

The three really big plusses for me for the second semester semester were first, getting into the groove on topics that excited me, second, having a Hail-Mary save on an assignment I had no background for (thank you Kara, amazing stats tutor at Holy Names), and third, having yet another Hail-Mary save just five days before my big assignment was due when I realized — in a flash of insight while driving on the Redwood Highway near Guerneville, an epiphanal moment so deep and striking I had to pull over — that this 45-page article proposal  had major structural flaws and needed to be reorganized from soup to nuts. I could even see how it needed to be reorganized: my brain, in this moment, was my own private Marauder’s Map.

I also traveled deep, deep into the heart of grounded theory, as well as into theories of social influence. Though maybe the most delicious moment came when my research converged with the writings of Rensis Likert, who deserves a better Wikipedia page than the one I linked to.

Once upon a time I learned about Likert scales when I met a consultant, Dr. Alison Head (before her Project Information Literacy days), who helped me develop surveys for the project I managed. She knows far more than I ever will, but I learned a little. It never occurred to me that “Likert” was a real person, and one who on paper, at least, seems like a mensch.

Studying Likert in the context of his era is interesting. I have been delving into the literature of leadership in the context of the LGBT experience, which is a very small body of literature indeed, though that has its advantages.

I became interested in grounded theory when I realized that far too many leadership “theories” felt specious, particularly when viewed by anything other than a “majority” perspective.  These theories either have an innate emptiness — q.v. “resonant leadership,” in which leaders benefit by practicing “mindfulness, hope, and compassion,” a cheerful thought, but one that cannot be reliably traced along an evidentiary path explaining the origins of these three emotional behaviors  – or fluffily prescribe practices such as “Bring more of yourself to work,” which rests on assumptions that are almost laughable when viewed through the lens of race, gender, sexual identity, or other “otherness.”

LGBT status is a “concealable difference” (at least in theory), and a fascinating area to study. (I am fighting the urge to add a footnote or two here.) People who elect to conceal their differences do so for many reasons, but one reason is to present one’s self as the de facto standard, that is, the norm — which proves the power and privilege issues raised by Cecily Walker in an elegant blog post.

Cecily was responding to a blog post written in what I think of as “Should-Speak,” in which someone from the “default” tells others what they “should” do (if a pointing finger is not actually present, I see one in my mind). In this case, the blogger had warned librarians that “if you step outside of the people’s expectations as to how [insert your kind of librarian] should look it’s going to take work to show them that you are a competent professional.”

Andy Woodworth was probably referring to things like unusual hair color or dress choices, but the twist on that statement, however casually or facetiously made,  is what it looks like from other sides of the power struggle. As Cecily argues, in the case of immutable distinctions such as race, “When we place the burden of of being the exception on those who fall outside of the norm, we are furthering an agenda that supports the idea that whiteness is the highest standard, indeed, the only standard that should be used to measure suitability.”

LGBT leadership research is interesting to me for more than just the most obvious reason (I love to research myself, just as I love watching myself on those TV cameras in store lobbies–after a while, Sandy shouts, “Stop watching yourself!”).  It’s also an area of research that inevitably overlaps with many other conversations, such as the one Cecily launched. When you research “otherness,” you open doors into entirely new ways of looking at the world.

One of my favorite discoveries during the research process this fall was a dissertation about openly LGBT university presidents. The investigator, Eric Bullard, had intended to use the lens of Queer Theory for his research, a theoretical approach that is too complex to describe here but includes the idea that sexual identity is constructed. I’ll resist the temptation to comment on the dangerous allure of the poststructuralist sirens to junior researchers, and focus instead on Bullard’s conclusion that “Queer Theory may not have been the best theoretical lens through which to view the experiences of out gay and lesbian higher education presidents.”

Bullard noted that the presidents were heavily invested in being perceived as “just like their heterosexual counterparts.”  I chuckle every time I re-read this, because it makes perfect sense that these smart, striving higher-ed types were invested in being LGBT equivalents of Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver (I recently viewed the first episode of Leave it to Beaver, so I speak with great authority on this matter). It takes a lot of emotional, intellectual, and physical labor to demonstrate that you’re university president material, and it’s even harder to do that when your innate self is not congruent with “people’s expectations.”

That said, major props to the author for even taking on this topic, and for being attuned to the intersectionalities that surfaced in the research process, particularly gender and sexual orientation. It was very moving to hear the stories of university presidents, such as the gay male president who was mocked for “redecorating” after implementing a physical plant improvement early in his administration, and the female president’s conclusion that “sexual orientation is really about gender. It’s misogyny. The problem for [lesbian] women is how can you get along without a man? And for [gay] men the problem is someone is perceived as acting like a woman.”  I know there were many criticisms of Denise Denton, the UC Santa Cruz president who was young, inexperienced, and openly lesbian, but however flawed her leadership may have been — and I have no real insight into the matter — whether or not she outwardly acknowledged it, she was shouldering quite a burden during her tenure.

Twenty years ago, in our field, library science, James Carmichael was soldiering on with research and findings similar to Bullard’s; in a random sampling of male members of ALA, Carmichael found that nearly two-thirds of the 482 respondents agreed that they “recognized a male librarian stereotype which corresponded to the negative female stereotype” and was “effeminate, probably gay.” There’s a whole lot of confirmatory research on the extent to which people confound gender and sexual identity, but it’s impressive that a researcher in my field was working on this problem two decades ago. (Whoops, had that footnote urge again.)

Anyway, my last thought I’ll share via this potluck blog post has more to do on the meta level. It’s so wonderful we have self-publishing avenues such as blogs and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. There’s  a constant slipstream of thinking and discussion that just wasn’t available prior to the Internet. I’ve been blogging for over a decade, and though my blogging is something I now squeeze between semesters, I appreciate the ability to write and be read outside of the “scholarly” canon, and I appreciate the discourse.

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7. Project Info Lit and the “Ginormous” Problem

 

Mastodon (via Wikipedia)

Mastodon (via Wikipedia)

Project Information Literacy has once again dug deep into information behavior, turning some of our assumptions upside down while showing that others have grains of common-sense truth. (Full disclosure: I’m on the PIL Board; my compensation is the ability to say “I’m on the PIL Board.”)

As a librarian, my default approach is that more is always better: more books, more metadata, more databases.  In my doctoral studies, more, for me, is wonderful, and I’m unfazed, indeed delighted, by the sheer width of the river of information I’m fording. Navigating all that stuff is the least of my problems. In fact, looking back at the doctoral program orientation, I recall turning up my nose at a handout listing a few useful but rather obvious databases, because, for heaven’s sake, I know that stuff.

But PIL’s latest study, “Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College,” underscores that more, from the perspective of an incoming freshman, is a complex, scary, and not necessarily good thing. The report notes, “In their words, the college library had a collection that was ‘ginormous’ and there was ‘a ton of stuff,’ including both online and on-site resources.”

The sheer scale of the difference between high school and college is illuminated through students’ own words: “the majority of freshmen used dichotomous pairs of words to describe their  feelings: overwhelming and exciting, overwhelming and amazing, scary and exciting, and  stressful and competitive.”

What can we do better during this critical period? It caught mey attention that “Freshmen said they found campus librarians (29%) and their English composition instructors (29%) were the most helpful individuals on campus with guiding them through college-level research.” We know from earlier PIL studies, quoted in this report, that later in the university experience, librarians rank 17 out of 18 among resources students will turn to for help.  Somewhere in that transition is a lost opportunity.

I particularly admire how the study confirms the “ginormous” problem by comparing the limited array of resources available to high school students to the resources available in universities. Barbara Fister notes that we “already know” that the college experience is much more complex, but we tend to “forget” this fact.

Without data, this exponential increase in complexity is only a truism; but PIL’s research confirms this as an actual problem. A high school library may have a couple of databases; where I work, we trumpet that we have over sixty, and if we were a fancy school, you could multiply that five-fold. Even if high school students wanted to ramp up to college-level work, they don’t have the tools to do so. Furthermore, they have no awareness of the scale of college-level information resources.

It had never occurred to me that when we crow about the bazillion resources we offer, we might be scaring the pants off students, and yet, without any context for all this new stuff, how could it not? This may be even more true in California, where there is no mandate for school libraries in public schools, and funding for school libraries is abysmal.

By the time students get to college, the report notes, students have been strongly acculturated to relying on Google and other non-scholarly resources, a process that they may associate with success — because, after all, they made it to  college. But as we know from instruction and other interactions with students and as this report makes clear, freshmen are ill-equipped to formulate search queries or evaluate information — a situation only exacerbated by rolling out barrels of “stuff” and heralding this as exclusively a good thing.

The report’s chart comparing the resources students have in high school versus college nails this sobering reality and gives us a concrete reminder that those students are complex human beings undergoing a huge, jolting life transformation — one that a one-shot instruction session can only begin to address.

The report also made me reflect on the importance of convincing faculty of the value of information literacy. Students interact with instructors far more than they ever will with librarians, a level of influence we cannot hope to match.

Like most libraries, where I work we are not uniformly successful in persuading instructors of the value of our services. I once tried, unsuccessfully, to convince a particular professor of the value of having a librarian come to his class to share how to find and use information for the assignments (I know, crazy concept, right?). After a few minutes of back-and-forth, the professor said, as if to prove his point that such a session would be useless, “Look, I bring them to the computer classroom and tell them to search for an hour, and at the end of that hour they aren’t any better at searching!” Yet I wasn’t able to convince him to once, just once, embed a librarian’s session in his class to help his students become “better.” Perhaps this report can be a pathway to a new conversation.

There are excellent recommendations in this report, and each one struck a bell. The first recommendation talks about building bridges between high school and college experiences. Our university has an “early admit” program which helps prepare students for the higher-education experience. A couple of years ago, when the program was getting started, I suggested we embed librarians in that process. I’m going to reopen that suggestion–this time, armed with a report that helps me make this case–and see if I can get some traction.

The second recommendation boils down to Patti Ianuzzi’s advice: don’t teach the databases; teach transferable skills. Of course, that means focusing on how librarians teach. Like many library directors in universities where the focus is on student learning, I care deeply about information literacy, and 100% of our instructional librarians have attended the very high-quality “teach the teacher” program, ACRL Immersion (yes, that means all two of them–but still!).

Immersion is not the only path to enhancing instructional skills, but it’s an important one. I’d dearly like to see a regional Immersion in California, and I know a couple more administrators who feel the same way. I’ve tried through a couple of avenues that didn’t quite pan out, but I haven’t given up on the idea; I’ll just keep beating on this problem with a stick. Let me know if you’d like to pick up a stick and join me.

The final recommendations in the report call on us to “reframe … expectations of today’s freshmen.” Thank you, PIL! I wish I had a nickel for every time the phrase “digital native” cropped up in promotional material for universities. You don’t hear librarians using that phrase because we understand how ridiculous it is. Refreshingly, PIL’s report strongly discourages this mindset — “It is incorrect to assume that because most of today’s freshmen grew up with a thriving Internet at their fingertips, they are naturals at college-level research” – and recommends bringing more comprehensive research instruction across the curriculum, asking,”Why not integrate advising and training into the course from librarians?”

Many of us see this as a goal, and we chip away at it, but the assumption that college students do not need early and persistent guidance in the use of information, coupled with a lack of understanding of the value librarians bring to that equation, lies sotto voce under too many practices in higher education.

One of the things I appreciate about working in a teaching university is that, paradoxically enough, the fact that we are not a research institution makes teaching research skills more important; we’ve made inroads with information literacy that might not have been possible in a university where student learning — the presumed end-goal of higher education — was lost in the shuffle.  I just passed my four-year anniversary at my job, and as I watch the renaissance of the library and the impact we have on student learning, I am increasingly convinced that all roads lead to information literacy. If I can’t map a service to student learning, we might as well not be doing it.

At the same time, all of us can do more, particularly with finding methods for embedding librarians in students’ research workflows.  A parishioner said in church this Sunday, “We are very good at being welcoming, but we are not so good at being inviting.” Similarly, for many libraries, the model of support is based on actively reaching out to faculty members through a liaison model for instruction, but research help (aka reference) — the more informal relationship outside of the classroom — frequently has a more passive design.

Even where libraries do everything they can to build relations with the campus community, when it comes to diagnosis and treatment for information “problems” — the hallmark of a profession, so saith Andrew Abbott in The System of Professions — by and large, librarians wait to be approached by students. Yet PIL’s data on the disconnect between librarians and students during the course of a four-year education suggests this model isn’t working for us.

The director of our university’s new, and highly successful, advising center recently spoke to our faculty senate about the relationships they had built and planned to build. The library was on their “to-do” list, which pleased me. As the director talked, I reflected that the center’s existing relationships are based on a model of diagnosis and identification: for example, math and writing problems are referred to math and writing tutors.

After the presentation, I approached the director and commented that the library could come up with methods for clarifying when and how to make a referral to a librarian (an “information tutor”). This idea was well-received, and I brought it up on the ACRL College Library Section email list, where it had more discussion. This is just one small example of how librarians can rethink how we reach out to students grappling with all the challenges the college experience introduces, “ginormous” and otherwise. And we have PIL to thank for providing us robust data and head-turning insights to help us get there.

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8. Lessons Learned from the First Semester

Tater tot

Tater tot

So I’ve been planning a catch-up post following the conclusion of my first semester in the doctoral program. All is well… learning and growing… though there are some lessons learned.

Lesson #1: Have a life between semesters. Before the first semester I “studied” things that ultimately didn’t prove relevant. When the semester ended, I made sure I had my textbooks purchased and articles downloaded for this semester, then shifted my focus to my personal life, where I did everything from museum trips to replacing the little bulbs over the stove to tossing files to making gallon batches of bolognese sauce and three-gallon batches of coconut porter. I bought a car. I read a pile of books. I cleaned carpets, updated my office wardrobe, saw movies in a real theater, and had oysters on the Embarcadero with Sandy. And oh right, got married!  That left plenty of time for a reentry period where I could read assigned materials and reflect about the upcoming semester.

Lesson #2: Find pleasure in the process. My pleasure is a) the relationships with other students and faculty, and b) the relationships with others in the research communities, and c) learning in general. When I read something that strikes a chord, I write the author and thank them, and sometimes that sparks an interesting conversation on its own. (This is why I found it odd when a professor at MPOW told me the process was lonely. Writing is a conversation… a very long conversation at that.)

Lesson #3: Cooperate and graduate. Also known as, “It’s all about the tam.” It’s like Officer Training School: there are many times when mine is not to question why (and attending two military training camps in my life has been useful for that lesson). Either the guidance and direction will prove correct in the long run, or it won’t, but it is what it is.

Lesson #4: Take care of my body. It’s physically challenging to work full-time and be a doctoral student. I did everything I could to carve out time for moderate exercise, even if I felt like a zombie on the treadmill. But being sedentary adds up. Two weeks after my last paper I was 5 pounds lighter, thanks to a brief no-carb regimen and overall more activity, and I felt better overall. I suspect that will be a cycle throughout the program. What can I say? The occasional Tater Tot lightens the darkness.

Lesson #5: Don’t mess with Mother Nature. I’ve had all kinds of advice about when to do schoolwork. I’ve tried getting up early (keep in mind I get to work by 7 am), staying up late (9 pm is late for me!), spending one or two weeknights in a coffee shop… what works for me is to slog through work during the week, ensuring I have a minimum of weekend spillover, and then knuckle down over the weekend. I start early and work until almost-dinner, and then I knock off. My body has its own rhythm, and barring the occasional midweek emergency edit, or a second wind on a Wednesday when I can do a couple hours at Starbucks, that’s that.

Lesson #6: Be forthright about my delicate condition. Early in the semester, a respected colleague at another institution with whom I was collaborating on a work-related project began writing me on Saturday mornings, and it became clear the weekend was his preferred time for working on this project. I finally said, I cannot do this on the weekend; that time is now allotted for doctoral studies. He took it in stride. (I think.) I bring my day-job work home when I have to, including the weekend, and I work a full day and then some, but working-as-a-fun-weekend-hobby has ended for me, if it ever existed.

I also let other people know that I’m more tired and less focused than usual. (My boss says PhD stands for “Pooped, Harried, and Distracted.”) They deserve to know what they’re dealing with.

Lesson #7: Throttle back. I was invited to an event marking the 10-year anniversary of the decision on the Children’s Internet Protection Act. I struggled with complicated feelings and turned to a respected colleague who pointed out that I was asking permission not to go. These conflicts are hard for me; I want to be on the dais making references to all the important work I did back in the day. But I have one body, one job, one family, and only so many hours in a day, and I had been given very good advice to Not Take On Anything New (waving at Candy and Jennifer). In the end, not going ensured I had that extra chunk of time, energy, and focus I needed to get to the finish line my first semester — a little early, in fact.

Lesson #8: Retrieve and organize anything remotely useful. Refworks and Dropbox are my dear, dear, DEAR friends. (Dropbox has been for a while.)  I am already reaping the rewards of this discipline.

Lesson #9: Don’t bop around from topic to topic. This is not my personal advice; this comes from nearly everyone I know who has a PhD, or is a doctoral student. Thank you and so noted.

Lesson #10: Librarians rock. There’s this librarian at Simmons who has offered the most amazing help! I consider myself a reasonably decent searcher, but there are times when I hit a wall or need affirmation that I’m in the right direction.  If you can imagine how much a librarians’ librarian needs to know, that’s the kind of resource she is. Thanks, Linda!

 

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9. Our surfer-dude wedding

So nearly 22 years after we met and almost 9 years to the day our marriage was invalidated, Sandy and I were married on August 30, 2013, at the foot of the surfer dude statue in Santa Cruz, an event officiated by our friend Dinah, witnessed by her spouse Gail, and accompanied by Sandy’s pastor friend David, as people waved and clapped from cars rolling by on West Cliff Drive.

Marriage Dinner

Marriage Dinner

Friends can be forgiven for thinking we were already legally married. We did marry in San Francisco in 2004, but that marriage was invalidated several months later when it was determined that San Francisco can do many things but preempting state law is not one of them. I actually agree with that conclusion in the broader sense. But I also believe we wouldn’t be married today if Gavin Newsom hadn’t taken the law into his own hands. Those 4,000-some licenses are now historic relics, preserved by the city library, though I have ours as well, tucked into a folder.

Some friends wonder why we didn’t marry in 2008 (or assume we did marry), when same-sex marriage was briefly legal in California. We were living in Florida and knew our marriage wouldn’t be recognized by Florida. I didn’t anticipate how quickly things would change at the federal level. I am greatly pleased, but also amused in a devilish way, by the fact that two people can marry in a freedom state such as California and have their marriage recognized federally in their home state, however backward it may be.  If we had to return to a state that thought otherwise, the IRS, the Treasury Department, and the Department of Defense have our back.

People keep asking me if I feel different. I feel the same; it’s you folks who are different. As I wrote in my essay The Outlaw Bride, I never fully recognized the invalidation of our 2004 marriage. I have felt for nine years like a left-wing version of a Sovereign Citizen (except I paid taxes and obeyed laws because I’m prudent that way); I did not intellectually recognize the invalidation of our marriage. But the world caught up with us anyway when all kinds of people, from everyday citizens to Supreme Court justices, allowed themselves to evolve.

We had some discussion about what to call ourselves, and we decided on “spouses.” The term “partner” is one of those weak-coffee terms to use for people who can’t or don’t wish to marry. As for “wife,” we’re in agreement that while we’d like one,  neither of us want to be one. (Those of a certain generation may recall the feminist plaint, “I want a wife.” ) Younger women may be wondering what the fuss is about, but it is just too loaded a term for us. “Spouse,” meanwhile, has lovely foundation that recalls the commitment marriage represents, as the dictionary notes (plus a little celebration to boot):

Middle English, from Anglo-French espus (masculine) &espuse (feminine), from Latin sponsus betrothed man, groom & sponsa betrothed woman, bride, both from sponsus, past participle of spondēre to promise, betroth; akin to Greek spendein to pour a libation, Hittite šipant-

I admit I am a little concerned by the many friends who have wished us well with the caveat that they hope our marriage continues to be legally recognized. It’s my assumption that the engines of change have pushed us too far forward for backsliding to be possible, particularly as most reasonable people realize, if they have not done so before, that two people marrying, regardless of their gender, has absolutely no impact on the quality of their own lives, and that a world with more love and more commitment is better for everyone.  There will be dissenters, with Justice Scalia as flag-bearer, but it is now clear that the reason so many states passed laws against same-sex marriage before it became legal is the fear that once marriage equality became a reality, it would be glaringly obvious what a non-issue this issue has been.

So, we are married. I cannot imagine my life these past 22 years without Sandy, and we are blessed to honor our love not only as a private matter between two people, but as full citizens in the eyes of our state and country.  Yet we have not given up on all outlaw aspects of our marriage. All love is a little bit outlaw in its magic and its extravagance. We love more generously than we think is possible, more powerfully than we realize, with a oceanic depth than can subsume us in grief in its loss. A friend sobbed on the phone to me as his wife lay dying that he didn’t understand why anyone married, because it hurt so much to lose the one you love. I was without words because I could not disagree. Therein lies the paradox of the greatest emotion we are privileged to experience.

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10. All the lonely MOOCers. Where do they all come from?

So about that math MOOC I took earlier this year. It can be easy to focus on the technology aspects of online instruction, since so much  hinges on adequate access to and support for hardware, Internet connections, software, operating systems, and even peripherals, q.v. the widespread chuckling last year over the meltdown of the Coursera class on online learning. Despite careful piloting and design,  the MOOC I was enrolled in had a tough first week, caused by four days of service interruptions for their learning management system, on top of problems related to the course webinar product they were using, which relies on Java. Due to upcropping security issues, Apple blocked Java, later providing an update to the iOS operating system… it was a hot mess.

I largely missed this episode because I was at a conference for most of this ordeal. I don’t know whether this techno-crisis had any impact on student retention, because for the most part, as was true throughout the class, student engagement was almost nonexistent.

Though I sense that enrollment was in the hundreds (based on a math problem posed in an early video), there were fewer than 20 students in the one synchronous online session I attended. Most of the posts to the discussion board were from the initial “introduce yourself” phase. The “Math Assistance” section of the discussion board had 13 posts, the last one, from mid-March, asking, “Any body around?” (There was no response.) Questions from students went unanswered. For most of the class, I was as solitary as when I crammed for the GRE last fall — 7 weeks of manic cramming for the GRE, a period filled with flash cards and study guides and endless exercises. In other words, it was self-study, with videos.

Course Design

The math MOOC I was in offered weekly synchronous sessions through Collaborate and open drop-in hours. The weekly sessions, which were recorded, repeated the concepts offered through a series of smaller videos, homework, and quizzes.

The short videos were competent walk-throughs in which questions were posed and answered. A typical session included a problem, a “Chalk Talk” video where an instructor walks students through the solution, a brief “more info” slide, and a slide with two or three  additional practice equations (though the answers were presented right on the same screen, forcing me to put a hand up while I scribbled the problems on a piece of paper).

Often the Khan Academy video on the topic was included on a separate tab, I assume as a form of alternate reinforcement, although I find that Khan often talks too fast and scribbles too much; I preferred the slower pace of the MOOC instructors and I also found it easier to follow their handwriting.

The homework was similar to the material I used for GRE self-study — stolid, reasonable math problems.However, the 10-question quizzes used to determine eligibility to move to the next math section were sheer frustration. We were given scores, but not results. To quote another student, “It is immensely frustrating and annoying that we are not told which questions we got wrong at the end of each quiz.”

I know this issue has had some press, and in response some have bandied about the idea of peer review or that students don’t need grading or whatnot. Certainly that may work in some settings.  But in a math class, students need clear answers, preferably with some underpinning of what went wrong. One plus one is never going to be “you decide.”

When I wrote the program to express my concern, I was told, “we want you to continue working on the material until you feel you have mastered it.  If we provided that feedback, participants could just guess their way through a quiz.”So in other words, rather than develop a testing structure that enabled students to get real feedback, use the limitations of the system to excuse poor pedagogy.  If I don’t know where I am having problems, how can I work on those areas?

In contrast, the excellent quality of the one real-time online class I intended was instructive. The instructor knew her stuff, both the subject and how to teach it, and when the class ended and I was staring at a problem, pondering its ineffable algebraic logic, the instructor intuited I was not done and asked if I had questions, then spent another 10 minutes clarifying a concept I had struggled with not only in class but in my self-study last year.

But those online classes weren’t built for success. As I found out after I had enrolled, the classes were mostly offered during the day, staggered around the week, and with meetings and such, I was not able to attend another session. I tried watching a session I hadn’t attended, but it was hard to stay tuned to an hour-long recording of a class I hadn’t participated in.

The MOOC offered generous drop-in hours for online tutoring, but no similar drop-in technical assistance. The one time I dropped in, I had a question about submitting the homework, but the tutor knew math, not the MOOC environment, and wasn’t familiar with the course I was in per se, so no luck there.

So after investing dozens of weekend hours to complete 5 modules, what do I think?

First, if we’re going to offer (let alone require) online classes to college students, their technical preparedness needs to be a priority so every student begins the class on an even playing field. Despite all the blather about “digital natives,” what I see every day where I work are students with a wide range of technical abilities and network operating environments. The for-profit MOOCs are looking at higher education and licking their chops. These students should not be at their sacrificial alter.

If you look at successful online programs such as SJSU SLIS or UIUC LEEP, they make no assumptions about the skill levels or equipment capacity of the typical graduate student–well, actually there is an assumption: as a LEEP  page says, “The Instructional Technology and Design Office (ITD) is here to help bridge the gap between the learner and technology in the classroom setting.”

As that sentence explicitly acknowledges,  this gap is real, not theoretical. This gap can be an issue for even reasonably competent students, as I learned from an online LIS graduate (not LEEP) who told me he didn’t participate in class discussions for his last year in school because the audio on his laptop had become misconfigured and he didn’t know how to fix it.

The tech gap was real for everyone my first week of class, and persisted for a while for those of us on Apple platforms, and persisted for me when I had a technical issue that couldn’t be answered when I sought help, and cropped up repeatedly whenever I had technical issues at home or when I traveled. I spent a few hours configuring my mother’s guest wifi network, including time on the phone with her Internet provider, just so I would not miss my homework that weekend–and that presumed a level of expertise and equipment not everyone has. (My mother wasn’t aware she HAD wifi.)

Online engagement takes effort, especially among strangers who have nothing in common other than they are taking a free online math class. Yes, I had a reasonable reasons to drop out of my math MOOC; I had learned pretty much what I needed to know, and I needed to divert time to getting other tasks out of the way before I started school. But beyond sending one email when I took more than a week to return to my studies, there wasn’t a strong effort to keep students going. Sure, it’s self-study, and it’s a massive class, etc… and yet. If this is the future of education, then education has effectively ended.

The instructors at one point commented on the discussion board, in response to student complaints about course design, that this MOOC was designed largely for research purposes, a strange thing to tell students who are supposedly there to learn math, but revealing all the same. When these educators produce their research, as they inevitably will, I hope they conclude that, for example, simply providing a discussion board does not actually create discussion.

It’s not the online-ness of MOOCs that concerns me. I took three online writing courses several years ago through Stanford Continuing Education, and in these small, discussion-focused classes, participation and retention were quite strong. But these were courses led by instructors who understood that there was more to instruction than providing a discussion board and leading a weekly class session, and that they–or their delegates–needed to be an active presence for the duration of these classes. It helped that the subject, writing, is a low bar, technically, and that writers tend to be good at communicating.

It’s not even the “massive” part. I co-managed a very large discussion list for close to two decades, and it’s actually possible to have substantive conversations among 10,000 people, given the right people and effort. It’s also possible to have bad instruction in a much smaller class.

My concerns are that as the MOOC bandwagon has rolled into town, its wheels have kicked up huge clouds of dust that obscure reasonable questions about what constitutes good course design, with an emphasis on student performance and success. It is one thing for a well-educated librarian to sample parts of a math class and conclude she is ready to move on. It is quite another to assume the same environment will work for at-risk and/or digitally tenuous students.

I have struggled for months to pinpoint the crux of the problem, and as is usually the case, I have concluded it has little or nothing to do with technology. Bad online instruction  has the same problem as bad traditional instruction: a serious lack of attention to molecular engagement with the student learner.

In the MOOC I took, had I been a student struggling with technology, I would have been gone the first week. Had I been an at-risk student for other reasons, I would have been easily spun off the course by the combined centrifugal force of the Potemkin village that was the “discussion board,” with its unanswered pleas for assistance; the classes held during daytime hours, when presumably I would be working or, if unemployed, pursuing work; the “tutors” who could not offer technical assistance and were only marginally familiar with the course itself; and the assessment design, which gave me no serious feedback about progress or the lack of it. And of course, no advisers, peer mentors, or other champions for my success. In the end, I was not a student with real needs, struggling to learn; I was somebody’s “research.”

And I am deeply bothered that these students will become even more invisible and even more underserved in the online environment, and that as their faces disappear behind the digital curtain, their needs will take a back seat to everything else — greed, political expediency, the privileging of “research” over education — even as their advocates are pooh-poohed as old-fart Luddites for expressing even the tiniest soupcon of concern on their behalf.

I have tried to wrap up this post for over two months now, but have been in the undertow of my first semester “back to school.” (I have to thank Andy Woodworth for goosing me into wrapping this up.) One of the comparison points I can now offer is that in a five-person cohort, I have been kept busy, engaged, and on track for nearly two months — exactly the experience I didn’t have in my MOOC. Students deserve a real education. Education matters. If it’s not happening, no bells or whistles can make up for its absence.

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11. ALA Annual 2013: My Schedule Can Beat Up Your Schedule

Bolded items are given. The italicized items are maybes. Whew! Hard to refocus on conference administrivia on such a momentous day in history.

Print Archive Network (PAN)
Friday, 06/28/2013 – 09:00am – 12:00pm
Newberry Library
60 W Walton St  Chicago, IL 60610

OCLC Americas Regional Council Member Meeting and Symposium
Friday, 06/28/2013 – 11:00am – 04:00pm
Hyatt Regency McCormick Place – Prairie Room
Exhibitor session

Budget Analysis & Review Committee Meeting
Friday, 06/28/2013 – 12:00pm – 03:00pm
McCormick Place Convention Center – N426c
Committee meeting
FY 2014 budget reviews; review Council referrals.

Opening General Session featuring Steven D. Levitt
Friday, 06/28/2013 – 04:00pm – 05:15pm
McCormick Place Convention Center – Behind Registration, Hall B1

S – Meetup
Friday, 06/28/2013 – 06:30pm – 07:30pm

B – Meetup
Friday, 06/28/2013 – 07:30pm – 08:30pm

ALA Council Orientation Session for New and Reelected Councilors
Saturday, 06/29/2013 – 08:00am – 10:30am
McCormick Place Convention Center – S100c

Nominating Committee for the 2014 ALA Elections Meeting
Saturday, 06/29/2013 – 10:30am – 11:30am
Hyatt Regency McCormick Place – Boardroom 3
Committee meeting

Finance & Audit Committee of the ALA Executive Board Meeting
Saturday, 06/29/2013 – 11:00am – 01:30pm
McCormick Place Convention Center – N426c
Committee meeting
Review and recommend financial items.

Meet with Peter
Saturday, 06/29/2013 – 01:30pm – 02:30pm
Palmer House Hotel Lobby

ALA Council/Executive Board/Membership Information Session
Saturday, 06/29/2013 – 03:00pm – 04:30pm
McCormick Place Convention Center – S100c
Governance/Membership Meeting

MLIP Reception
Saturday, 06/29/2013 – 09:30pm – 11:00pm
Hilton, Conrad Suite, T-4, 29th Floor

ALA Council I
Sunday, 06/30/2013 – 08:30am – 11:00am
McCormick Place Convention Center – S100c
Governance/Membership Meeting
Tis is a meeting of the governing and policy body of the Association.

ALA Planning & Budget Assembly Meeting
Sunday, 06/30/2013 – 01:00pm – 02:30pm
Hyatt Regency McCormick Place – Hyde Park 11AB
Committee meeting
Review financial updates

Top Technology Trends & LITA Awards Presentation
Sunday, 06/30/2013 – 01:00pm – 02:30pm
McCormick Place Convention Center – S105a-c
Program

Cory Doctorow: More than a Book-lined Internet Cafe
Sunday, 06/30/2013 – 03:00pm – 04:00pm
McCormick Place Convention Center – S105a-c
Presidents program, Speaker series

Social (GLBTRT)
Sunday, 06/30/2013 – 06:00pm – 08:00pm
Offsite Location – Off Site
Social event
Come mix with the membership of the GLBT Round Table. $5.00 recommended donation accepted at the door.

Ann Sather 909 W Belmont Ave, Chicago, IL 60657 (773)348-2378

Dinner
Sunday, 06/30/2013 – 07:30pm – 09:30pm
Quartino (http://www.quartinochicago.com/)

ALA Council Forum I
Sunday, 06/30/2013 – 08:30pm – 10:00pm
Hilton Chicago – Astoria Room

Breakfast – LIAL 11 

Hyatt, McCormick Place, Shor

ALA Council II
Monday, 07/01/2013 – 08:30am – 11:30am
McCormick Place Convention Center – S100c
Governance/Membership Meeting

Stonewall Book Awards Brunch (GLBT RT)
Monday, 07/01/2013 – 10:30am – 02:00pm
Hyatt Regency McCormick Place – Hyde Park 11AB
Award Presentation, Ticketed event

Dinner with Z
Monday, 07/01/2013 – 07:00pm – 09:00pm

ALA Council Forum II
Monday, 07/01/2013 – 08:30pm – 10:00pm
Hilton Chicago – Astoria Room
Other

ALA Council III
Tuesday, 07/02/2013 – 07:45am – 09:15am
McCormick Place Convention Center – S100c
Governance/Membership Meeting

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12. Shared print initiatives: Skating to where the puck is going to be

Let's go to the library!

Let’s go to the library!

In 2012, our library completed a major, thorough facility inspection and a consultant-led space planning program (yes, with all kinds of buy-in and focus groups and active sessions… by the end, I was thoroughly tired of being perky). Our next step is to tie this work into an architectural vision of what our library, post-renovation, will be.

In commissioning the building program, I specified to the consultant that I wanted two scenarios: one based on retaining most of the print in the library (excepting those materials that we are culling due to being duplicates, outdated materials, or irrelevant to our mission), and another in which 80% of the materials — those that are very low use — are off-site in shared storage, where they can be retrieved within one or two days.

The latter scenario accomplishes several key objectives.

Points one and two: it’s all about me (and us)

First, in our compact but lovely building, we get much more space for student learning: classrooms, carrels, study rooms, computer stations, ultra-quiet area, etc.  In the end, shared regional storage will be much more reasonable per square foot than new construction (if new construction were even a possibility on our campus). Reusing existing space is the green approach.

And for anyone who has seen our library, if you can look past the ancient furniture and ghastly 1950s linoleum (hey ma, I learned a new phrase! “9 hot, 12 not”), the building itself has a striking Midcentury design that’s worth preserving for at least one more generation if not longer. Milton Pfleuger may have been 50 years ahead of himself in extravagantly daylighting the main level of a campus library, but we’ve caught up to him today. (Unfortunately, so has global warming — with all-time-high usage and no a/c, on warm days it’s a wee fragrant.)

Second, relocating the low-use materials makes our higher-use items far more visible. Every librarian understands that when you weed a collection, circulation goes up. And in case you think that 80% is too sharp, well over 90% of our print collection has not circulated in the last ten years if not longer–a very typical statistic.

In which I digress about the power of a good (e)book

(I have a sidebar regarding circulation that I absolutely must include because it’s so fascinating. We have a small popular-reading ebook collection — the kinds of ebooks you can check out on tablets and phones. Not too many titles, around 500; circ activity looks modest at first glance. I was actually thinking, in the manner of someone who manages the budget and the work effort, should I keep or kill this service? So I looked at our two-year circ behavior yesterday: 60% of that collection has circulated. I can tell you that with every effort to promote materials, less than 5 percent of our standard print collection circulated in the last academic year. I still need to break out our new-book and popular-reading circ, which will be better, but especially with exhausting our book budget by January, which meant no more new books, period, paper or electronic, until, well, next week, that’s pretty interesting. I am sure faculty and staff are driving the ebook circ because our students don’t have tablets, for the most part, reflecting Pew’s recent findings.)

Write this down: shared print is good stewardship

Uh, where was I? Anyhoo: third, for those who understand that not only is not everything “online,” but not everything is ever going to be online, shared regional storage is crucial stewardship for print books. Let me repeat: shared print is good stewardship. Stored print is just a way to house books today, not that I wouldn’t give my eyeteeth for an easy solution to all that “stuff.” Shared print is long-term curation–the stuff of leadership.

Shared print forces us into intentional curation agreements where we understand how many copies of a book are retained, who is retaining them, and under what conditions any one item can be deaccessioned.

Fourth, shared print provides a sharing alternative for scholarly resources. Ebooks are convenient, until they aren’t, and a key reality is they can’t be shared.

Every time I bring up our two-scenario building program with an architect-type, the first thing they ask me is if this shared storage exists. My answer is “Not yet.” This is usually followed by a moment of silence, as if I had specified a library parking pad for flying cars.

Here’s that puck deal, and I don’t really understand sports, let alone ice hockey

But here’s the deal. When I arrived in late 2009, I immediately agreed for us to join a new resource-sharing network, so new it had no members and no name. (A facetious early name was “The Dude,” as in “get it from the Dude”; its final name, an homage to a historic road, is Camino, which has a shared catalog you can actually visit but in our own library is part of the secret sauce of our library discovery.)  That was pretty daring because our library had been circulating online for less than six months, most of its collection had not migrated online, and we essentially had no interlibrary loan service (if by “essentially” you mean anything other than paper forms).

Camino is still, but it’s growing, and it works. Camino provides a significant alternative to the many academic libraries in California that for one reason or another do not have access to Link+. And Camino gave us a premium resource-sharing service to offer our users–the ability to request books from libraries worldwide with a simple click on a button labeled “request.” (Simple to you, dear readers; there are many moving parts that make that happen.)

Plus, providing the logistical framework for making shared print happen is a major reason why, when Rick Burke approached me about Camino, I enthusiastically embraced this idea (and I kind of miss that Karen, the one who was so precipitous, though the new version of me is a much better manager).

Now I am one of many librarians saying shared print initiatives can, should, and will happen.  The main reason I specified an alternative building program, based on the lack of such an initiative, is to make it clear why and when this should happen.  As in, stewardship, and yesterday.

Let’s talk this to death for another twenty years, no please don’t

It doesn’t need to happen in one monolithic manner. There are shared initiatives everywhere. None of the answers we come up with today need to be the answers we use tomorrow. I keep saying that about Camino; the technology isn’t important, what’s essential is the commitment to resource sharing and the muscle-memory we’re gaining about how to cooperate and move materials among libraries that’s super-critical. I could make a cheap joke about the technology, Navigator, not being important to OCLC, either, based on the lugubrious pace of critical updates, but I’d have to exclude our ever-patient and wonderful implementation manager, who is all kinds of awesome.

The one thing I’d really like to avoid is having us hem and haw for twenty years and go around and around and around with the same conversations. Working with some amazing colleagues here in the Golden State, I’m doing everything I can to move us past the “kawfee tawk” phase and into some serious activity. I’m not the only one and I’m not even a major brain behind it all (though our library will be housing a major conversation later this month, so I am at least the food-hotel-and-conference-room brain). My cranium is mostly taken up with the first semester of my doctoral program, and yes thank you, there is some irony in the study of leadership eating up brainpower that could otherwise be deployed in the practice of leadership.  But it’s a worthy investment (yes, all is well, too busy writing to write, etc.), and all of it will happen, more slowly than I wish, but still it will get there — the doctorate, shared print, and our collective future.

 

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13. Life sans banana slicer

Dear somewhat-still-new librarian who did not receive a banana slicer (per a recent realia-based meme in which Some People were anonymously mailed banana slicers), was not anointed as a Mover & Shaker, has not been tapped for Emerging Leader, ran and lost for an association office or didn’t even get nominated in the first place, has been too busy raising a baby/goat/library/career/yurt to blog, tweet, post on Facebook, and publish all over the place, and at times feels a wee bit Uncool:

Banana slicers are hard to clean.

Many, many, many of those chosen over time to be Movers & Shakers are wonderful librarians. But statistically, not all.  (Please, M&Ts, do not read this as Free Range Librarian Is Trashing Movers and Shakers. It’s just a natural law of population density that if you gather enough people in one room, at least one will be a doofus.)

Emerging Leaders: see above, Movers & Shakers. Yes, it’s a wonderful wonderful initiative! Yes, it helps the young’uns grow strong librarian bones twelve ways! But the law of population density is immutable.

Lost an election? Didn’t even get nominated? Dodged that bullet!  (I grin over the fact that I serve on the ALA Nominating Committee… have been elected to ALA Council three times… and yet have never been nominated to run for Councilor at Large.) A colleague told me that Norman Horrocks,  one of the most significant, larger-than-life librarians to have roamed our world, ran and lost for ALA President more than once.

A lot of published library literature is simply terrible, and far too many bloggers are unacquainted with Mr. Apostrophe and Ms. Comma.  When the time comes to publish, you’ll have years of wisdom under your belt and far more patience with fiddly citation rules.

The odds are you’re amazing anyway.

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14. Dropped my MOOC. Picked up a doctoral program.

I’m one of the vast majority of MOOC drop-outs, but in my case my course abandonment had two causes:

1. By the end of the 5th section, I had learned as much math as I need to know for the moment. What I wish for (and it probably exists) is an  app or website that would give me one or two problems per week to solve, so the stuff in my brain doesn’t slide out on the floor. My (mixed) review of life as a MOOC student will appear in a week or two.

2. I’m starting a PhD program in less than two weeks, and it’s already keeping me busy–my brow is still furrowed, just not over math. I feel anxiety going so public with this knowledge (the PhD, not the extent to which book-larnin’ furrows my brow), but eventually people are going to find out anyway.

To combat anxiety, I have been reflecting on some of the more improbable successes of my life. The day in 1985 I was commissioned in the Air Force, one of our leaders remarked that early on she had expected me to wash out. That possibility was on my mind for the entire twelve weeks, but somehow I survived a process in which candidates stronger, better-coordinated, and smarter than I had failed.

I am glad that leader didn’t share her thoughts in the beginning. I do remember the smile on her face the day I finally passed the long jump, my last obstacle to becoming an officer.  Wanting something doesn’t automatically make it happen, but in the words of grandmothers everywhere, “Can’t never could.”  (The story of that long jump is the opening to my food essay “Chow,” published in Gastronomica in 2007.)

So let me repeat: HOORAY! I’m starting a PhD program in two weeks! No, I’m not leaving my job! No, I’m not moving! Yes, I’m doing a PhD while running a small university library! The program has a very very long name! It’s at Simmons! That’s in Boston! That’s a long way from California! I will fly there twice a year and study under erudite scholars and professors of practice while averting my eyes from whatever fires get ignited back at the ranch! My cohort has 5 people, including me!  They’re nice, too! Yes, I won’t have time for literary writing! No, I haven’t mastered APA citation! Yes, I’ll complete the PhD in SIX WEEKS! All right, let’s say hopefully  four to five years, barring Life introducing other obstacles!

I’m surrounded by support — from my institution, from my library team, from Sandy, from my colleagues, even from the cats, who in the last six months became very accustomed to lolling in the sun, snoring gently, while I crammed for the GRE, worked on the application process, and post-GRE, studied math (not required for the PhD, and in fact part of my fallback plan in which I would support my own solo research by learning statistics).

I am also impressed by the extravagant welcome extended by the other cohorts–so much like the “radical hospitality” we strive for where I work. We may all toil in solitude, but we are not alone.

I also know why I am doing this. Of course, in any endeavor, reasons change along the way. But I’m in library leadership in higher education, or things related to it (or similar to it), for the remainder of my career, which will not conclude for a very, very long time. It only took me twenty years to learn the color of my parachute–talk about precocious!  Is a PhD necessary? Of course not. Will I learn from it, grow, and become better at what I do? Absolutely.  When it comes to education, it’s all good.

So, onward. As orientation approaches, I am nervously smoothing my starched pinafore, twiddling with my hair bow, rubbing the toes of my patent-leather shoes on my ankle socks, making sure I have a ruler and compass tucked in my Peechee — and very much looking forward to this next stage in my life. Viva learning!

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15. Marriage Equality, Open Access, and Jury Duty

Equality Sign, by Emily Lloyd

Equality Sign, by Emily Lloyd

I’m sitting in the jury assembly room in San Francisco thinking about two historical moments: today’s DOMA case at the Supreme Court, and the singularly principled action of the editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration, which resigned en masse after concluding that “it is not possible to produce a quality journal under the current licensing terms offered by Taylor & Francis.”

You probably understand the former issue as well or better than I do. You may need more context to understand JLAGate:

  • Scholarly publishing is crucial for rank and tenure in many institutes of higher education.
  • Authors and editors generally produce and peer-review their content for sweat equity–they do the work, their output is published, they get rank and tenure.
  • Publishers charge libraries subscription fees ranging from modest to astronomical, with STEM journals the most breathtaking.
  • Academic libraries, particularly research libraries, acquire some of their prestige from the size and quality of their journal collections — which makes Jenica’s carefully-planned decision to drop ACS all the more courageous.

At least within the last 100 years, the system worked, in an awkward manner. But in the last couple of decades, absurdly spiraling subscription fees have pushed the scholarly communications pyramid scheme into imbalance, forcing libraries to drop other purchases and services in order to maintain their collections.

Within this context, a new model for scholarly publishing, the Open Access movement, has grown from a tiny acorn to — if not a mighty oak — at least a sapling with clear promise. (A quick crash course: Wikipedia’s definition of Open Access; website of a key OA voice, Peter Suber; and Slate article on the potential impact of Aaron Swartz’ death on the OA movement.)

I think there are parallels between today’s history-making SCOTUS case (whatever happens, history has already been made, really) and this particular “crisis moment” in so-called traditional publishing.

Among other issues, those who are arguing on behalf of tradition don’t have as much history behind them as they claim. Until very recently, marriage was not a union of two equals; in the same vein, scholarly publishing as we know it today is a couple-three centuries old at best.

Another parallel is the rapid change in attitude. A decade ago, OA could be safely ignored. But in a very short span of time, attitudes have changed, and every historical moment, such as the death of Aaron Swartz, seems to grow the OA movement, not arithmetically, but geometrically, with key voices lining up behind OA.

That said, the journey to OA is neither linear nor bumpless for many people in higher education, especially those for whom traditional publishing is necessary or at least highly valued (with the caveat that the current model hasn’t been around all that much longer than same-sex marriage, given the longer arc of history). It is not the quality of OA publishing that is at question, it is the perception of its quality in the higher education community, where perception plays a huge role.

Things are changing, and in this blog post for the Chronicle of Higher Education,  Brian Mathews, the would-be editor of the journal issue that atomized the JLA board, struggles out loud with his thoughts.  I give Brian credit for his frankness as he (like Justice Kennedy) struggles openly with a new concept that he clearly is open to (no pun intended) but is still wrapping his head around.

None of us have all the answers in the shift to open access, and for those of us who have published a lot in the traditional model, please excuse our caution. As an essayist who has published a number of essays in well-respected non-OA literary venues, I don’t feel comfortable telling anyone what rights their works should have. (Which is congruent with my views on same-sex marriage, where I champion the right to choose who we marry.) But I do see OA as a tremendously beneficial development that — like gay marriage — has both a rightness and a certain inevitability to it.

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16. ALA Councilor At-Large Recommendations, and some Council Tidbits

If you’re planning to cast your American Library Association ballot this weekend, I offer the following recommendations for Councilor at Large.

The ballot has many people I’d be delighted to serve with. But I am shortlisting the their following candidates for a variety of reasons: I’ve worked with them on Council or other ALA activities,  they have strong, clear positions on ebooks, they contribute to a diverse ALA, and what I can only term “fit.”

Karen Johnson DowningMartin GarnarPatricia M. HoganMaria Taesil Hudson CarpenterRichard HuffineAlys JordanCharles Kratz, Dennis LeLoup, Bernard Margolis, Min Chou, Stephen L Matthews, John PecoraroLauren Pressley, and Larry Romans.

Also, I am emphatically for the five-year dues increase schedule (LJ has a good summary), which gives ALA a modest additional revenue stream they can plan on, gives ALA its first dues increase since 2006, and ensures that ALA doesn’t have to cut farther in the bone than it has in the last seven years. (The previous dues increase happened in 1995.) It amounts to $1 – $4 per year per member, which at the highest level, $130, would mean a total possible rise to $150 by 2017.

But back to Council… 

One Councilor has been raising an issue that can be summarized this way: Council is not effective; Council is ineffective because it is too large; Council is too large because it has too many at-large Councilors.

Having served on Council off and on for nearly 20 years, I would first note that Council has vastly improved since the mid-1990s, when the discussion list was chaotic and it felt like most of Council’s time was spent listening to reports being read out loud in between real-time, agonizing revision of endless GODORT resolutions. Council feels mannerly and focused. It is indeed a big body, and as part of a larger process of discernment, it’s worth asking if Council is too big (however much that evokes the scene from Amadeus where the emperor says, “Too many notes!”).

But if we’re going to look at Council, then let’s look at Council. Here are some facts you might not be aware of.

Council composition: every division and roundtable has Council representation; so ACRL, PLA, GLBRT, etc each have a Councilor. So does every state “chapter.” The very smallest roundtables are represented as a group by one Councilor. There are 100 Councilors at Large, 50 chapter councilors, and approximately 20 councilors representing divisions and roundtables.

State chapters have historically been represented by state library associations. Each state association pays dues, though I was unable to find the dues schedule on the ALA website.

State chapters are independent nonprofit organizations and set their own rules–see ALA Bylaws for more about their relationship with ALA.  As a bit of ALA history that illustrates this independence, the state chapters in the South were only integrated in 1964 when an ALA member, E.J. Josey, authored a resolution that  forbade “Association officers and staff from participating in state associations that deny membership to black librarians.” ALA couldn’t tell the state chapters what to do, but it could tell its own people what it couldn’t do–an adroit use of governance in support of civil rights activism.

State chapter councilors are elected by state chapter members, who are not necessarily ALA members. The state chapter Councilor must of course be an ALA member, but that’s not true of the Councilor’s electorate. I knew this before I began studying Council, as I’ve voted in numerous state chapter elections and have participated in chapter activities off and on between 1992 and 2009, but it didn’t hit home until I began studying Council composition.

Based on its 2012 report to ALA, total membership in the California chapter is under 2,000, placing it barely above the median of chapters that reported membership, even though California is the most populous state by a significant margin. I’ve heard the actual membership is around 3,000, so I’m not sure what to believe. But I’ve been advised that turnout for CLA elections is currently in the 10-20% range, which would be roughly 200 to 600 ballots, depending on the actual membership. Based on known voter behavior, it’s possible even fewer vote for chapter Councilor.

By comparison, the lowest qualifying Councilor at Large in the 2012 ALA election received 1,925 votes, and the highest received over 3,000.

(Sidebar: another thing I never thought about is whether chapters reported to ALA… I just assumed they did. I’m still surprised to see 2012 is the first year of such a report and that little over half the chapters participating in the survey reported their total membership, with close to ten saying they didn’t know how many members they had and a dozen or so more leaving that field blank. Really?)

Though in theory state associations “provide geographic representation” for all librarians, and some state chapters also represent regional ACRL members, many state associations, including CLA, are largely comprised of public librarians and generally focus on issues significant to public libraries.

Locally, this public library focus is evident through CLA’s Board composition, which is largely but not exclusively public librarians, and also through its activities and even its press releases. An announcement on the CLA website that library funding is preserved means really that public library funding has been preserved.

A review of CLA press releases from 2011 underscores this focus. It’s possible that the fate of public university funding has come up for discussion or even vote in CLA, but it would be hard to prove by what’s on the website.

Is it a bad thing that CLA could pretty much be called CPLA?  Like the size of Council, not necessarily. In California, there are separate associations and endeavors, such as CSLA, CARL, and BayNet, that provide regional and statewide services and programs for other types of librarians. CARL has a relationship with ACRL that ensures it has some voice through the ALA ACRL Councilor.

Also, having worked in nearly every type library, I’m aware that public libraries have particular advocacy needs, such as state funding, that fit well within the state association model. So I think of the state library associations I’ve been involved in not so much as a source of regional representation for all types of libraries but as an important structural component for library services and funding largely specific to public libraries.

Right now, the issue of who elects chapter councilors, and the companion issue of regional representation,  is something easy to gloss over. It’s an antiquated model (I wager the state chapter model had a lot to do with the complexity of travel and communication in the early 20th century), but the size of Council, and the many types of Councilors, ensures a diversity of participation.

But if the “solution” to Council were to shrink its at-large Councilor demographic without any other changes, there would be two results that are not healthy for ALA.

First, public librarians would have a disproportionately larger voice in ALA decision-making, assuming at-large Councilors continue to represent a mix of library types while state chapter councilors would continue to generally be public librarians elected by public librarians.

Second, the strength of the ALA voting electorate would be further diluted by the election of councilors by non-ALA members.  One way to reverse that would be if ALA members paid dues to their state associations in order to be eligible to vote for ALA chapter Councilor candidates in state association elections–or for that matter run for the position. Frankly, spending up to $165 for regional representation feels like a poll tax (and a reminder: the highest rate for ALA dues is $130). It is a poll tax I’m willing to overlook in the current structure, given the historical relationship of chapters to the national association, but again — if we’re going to look at Council composition, then this question needs to be addressed as well.

An alternative, found in some associations, would be for state chapters to organize council representation through super-regions and elect fewer Councilors to ALA. If fewer at-large councilors would improve ALA, the same should hold for chapter councilors.  This model is found in a number of professional associations.  I’m unclear this is a good fit for ALA, but it should certainly be on the table.

There are other paths to be considered, such as doing away entirely with chapter councilors and electing regional representatives who are basically at-large candidates running from their home states or regions. I don’t think any of us want that, because we value the historical chapter-ALA relationship. But if we’re opening the door to considering Council composition, then everything needs to be on the table.

But I’d like to move past the issue of Council’s size and at-large representation, and share the  following two recommendations for improving Council.

First, Council should meet four times per year. Right now we are reactive to whatever is “hot” right before the summer and winter solstice. Let’s become an equinox-and-solstice Council.  (Note: if I’m reading the bylaws correctly, this doesn’t require any “legislative” action other than the ALA president calling a meeting.)

The solstice meetings would be the important face-to-face engagement that establishes community among Council itself. The equinox meetings, which could be easily held through technology such as Gotowebinar and balloting products such as BallotBoxOnline, would enable Council to take action quarterly, and would also allow Council actions to be observed by ALA members, whether or not they attend ALA conferences.   (And ALA members who do attend conference often have busy schedules that preclude sitting in on Council proceedings.)

This would also allow items to be referred to other units for additional input without essentially tabling the items for half a year.

I firmly believe if more ALA members saw Council in action, more members would appreciate our work. Watching democracy in action is like watching paint dry, but I can affirm that Council proceedings are well-run, thoughtful, and deliberative.

I also believe that online meetings would enhance the democratic nature of Council by enabling members, regardless of their ability to attend conference, to observe Council proceedings twice a year.  I would even hazard that more members would attend conferences if they had a chance to see ALA governance in action other times of the year.

I furthermore believe that the ability to communicate with Councilors in real-time while issues are being deliberated would strengthen the democratic nature of Council.  I have found that Twitter conversations during Council have helped me reason through issues and ask questions of the “Tweetlectorate.”  Chatting, emailing, tweeting, or otherwise engaging with Councilors during procedures is a good thing.

I know that there are complexities to ALA governance to consider, particularly given the fall/spring meetings of ALA units. But I don’t believe these complexities are insurmountable.

Second, and I have been saying this in one form or another for nearly 20 years, Council’s text transcriptions should be streamed in real time to ALA Connect during Council sessions.

ALA already pays to have proceedings transcribed in real time, so that the text of the discussion is broadcast on two huge screens in Council’s meeting room. That’s the expensive part of this activity–the human transcription. I once called the company that provides this to ask what it would cost to stream the text, and I don’t recall the answer, but it was reasonable.

Why not add text streaming so that even at “solstice Council,” busy members can snack on Council proceedings while they do other things, and members who are not at ALA can observe Council? And of course, the text streaming during Equinox Council would be equally available to the busy multi-tasking body politic.

(Note: for the record, I am not at all concerned that ALA members would decide to forgo ALA conferences because they could watch Council at home. Council is important, but we’re just not that exciting.)

Again, as shared in my last post, Bobbi Newman has done a great job discussing the at-largeness issue. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

 

 

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17. The Cassoulet Saved Their Marriage… The Melting Pot Helped Ours

Today is the publication day for The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage, an anthology of essays about marriage and family edited by Caroline Grant (of Literary Mama fame) and Lisa Catherine Harper (writer and writing teacher extraordinaire, author of A Double Life). This anthology includes a shorter version of my essay, “Still Life on the Half-Shell,” published in Gastronomica several years ago. Whilst cavorting on Facebook and Twitter with the editors and other writers, I suddenly remembered the symbol of my enduring love for Sandy: bad fondue.

Part of the fun of being anthologized is reading the takes on a topic by other writers, and social media amplifies that by creating a loose “anthology tribe” where contributors become, if not life-long bosom buddies, at least riders on the same train. Deborah Copakah Kogan, co-author of the title essay, posted on Facebook today, “My husband, Paul Kogan and I wrote the title essay, about both our annual cassoulet fete and about having been asked to write an essay extolling our allegedly saved marriage while we were busy battling it out in couples therapy.”

I was touched by her transparency, but what Deborah surfaced in me was not the occasional relationship strife (which happens whenever Sandy does not recognize that I am right; I don’t know why she’s so stubborn that way), but the long slow twisted complication that was our life in Florida. We have now been back longer than we were there, and I look forward to the day in 2014 when we will have been in California this time around for longer than I have lived anywhere else in my adult life.

At home, in the kitchen, among our ceremonial glassware (which includes a small shot glass I once stole from my father ‘s glassware because I loved its design so much, and we now call it the Michael Schneider Glass), are two cheap champagne glasses, emblazoned with the logo of the fondue chain The Melting Pot, that represent how much we were in the struggle together. These two glasses are souvenirs for meals that I won’t recap, except to say that we girded our loins in tandem, then afterwards put on torn sweatclothes and stared at each other and laughed.

[INFOMERCIAL ALERT] I haven’t written about The Melting Pot, and may never, but several similarly resonant experiences are included in”Still Life on the Half Shell,” and you would get to experience these moments if you would a) buy the book for yourself, b) buy the book for your library, or c) recommend your library buy the book. (Or read the extended-play version in that issue of Gastronomica.)

That doesn’t mean I have fully evolved to the point where I have resolved my issues with The Melting Pot. Christine Lind Hage, a friend and someone I dearly look up to and love to spend time with, made the mistake of asking if I could meet her at The Melting Pot several ALA conferences ago. “NO!” I shouted. “NO! I DO NOT WANT TO GO TO THE MELTING POT!”  Christine replied very carefully, “Um… ok… no Melting Pot…”

And of course it had nothing to do with overpriced mediocre fondue (a dish I can usually do without in most circumstances), or even with the Melting Pot serving as a  metonym for the sorry state of restaurant dining in the South, but with a ton of stuff that was what we carried on our backs during that era, and I don’t mean just the experience of being somewhere that isn’t a great fit, but all the baggage and stress and sturm und drang, that huge bloated sack of regret, self-examination, 50-50 hind-sight, financial anxiety, forward-facing confusion, and at times real fear. It’s easy to look back and say everything worked out for the best–but when you’re in the situation, you don’t have that forward vista.

(And yet I met some of my all-time very favorite people in Tallahassee, people who were kind and good and supportive and full of hope and acceptance and fun and wisdom.)

The day we started on our journey back to California — largely symbolic for Sandy, who would return to pack the house and meet me several months later, but what’s wrong with symbolism? — it took us close to an hour to get past the city borders. We kept checking the contents of the car trunk, our purses, the glove box, the back seat… did we have this, and did we have that? I would drive perhaps a mile, and then one of us would ask to pull over and we would begin rummaging again. There we were, that huge soggy sack of experience entwined around our wheels.

Then I started the car and we found ourselves rolling past The Melting Pot. We exchanged glances. We kept going. We were quiet. The next time we stopped we were in another state.

 

 

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18. Mellen, Sky River: what a mighty big waste…

I’m up, up, up in the air, flying over the Southwest as I head to Albuquerque and then Santa Fe for a quick visit with my mother. Sandy was able to visit her in January during a business trip, and now I’m the one with the precious combination of time and opportunity.

I would be using this in-flight time for my math homework, but this flight doesn’t have wifi. One of the limitations of anything with the word “online” in it is that for the most part, you need to be online. I suppose I could have downloaded the YouTube versions of the course lectures before I left the house or printed off the homework assignment, but I was having an attack of FirstWorldiness and envisioned myself surrounded by bandwidth from our home to the house at the end of the Turquoise Trail. At SFO, the wifi was too slow for almost everything except Twitter, which serves as a reminder that sheer connectivity isn’t enough; it needs to be a “good-enough” connection for whatever you’re trying to do.

In any event, this gives me a precious window of time to read, write, and stare at my row-mate’s peanuts, this being a flight that is half-full, which I personally ensured by paying extra for Earlybird Check-in. Give me those peanuts, I am thinking. Givvvve me those peanuts.

In between coveting my neighbor’s legumes, I’ve been mulling over matters that fall into my “what a waste” category (if you’re feeling spry, you can dance this to Salt-n-Pepa’s “Whatta Man”). What a waste, what a waste, what a waste, what a mighty big waste…

Edwin Mellen sued a librarian for doing his job. This sketchy publisher saw the potential to exploit Canada’s weaker copyright framework to cast a chilling effect by threatening Dale Askey for simply doing what librarians are supposed to do, which among other things is to call out sketchy publishers on their sketchiness. There wouldn’t be any point to “reader’s advisory” if we could only say positive things (isn’t there  a science fiction short story on that topic..? Something about a town where a young monster had to be praised lest he wreak havoc?).

After a tremendous amount of public pressure (including from ALA and ACRL), Mellen has dropped one of its lawsuits, but the other lawsuit needs to go away, now, and we need to keep this topic on our front burner.

Innovative Interfaces dropped its lawsuit against OCLC. Oh, pardon me: “Sky River” dropped its lawsuit against OCLC. You may think OCLC is a big galumphing behemoth, which was what ran through my mind after they spurned the candidate I nominated for Member Council and then turned around and whined that they needed to extend the election due to low participation. But OCLC is also a member cooperative with an honorable history and some very interesting products and research.

It’s not news to FRL readers that I personally feel about Sky River the way I do about buying CAFO chicken thighs, which is that I could save some money but in the end it’s not worth it. (I in fact talked myself into buying non-righteous chicken thighs last week at CostCo, and now I feel so bad about my momentary lapse I’m going to donate a little extra to the Humane Society, which has done a lot of good work educating people on the issue of humane treatment of the food we eat.) But regardless, that whole business was tacky, and it’s good for III to get beyond that era.

[Note: I didn’t have wifi access for another day, until after I set up my mother’s wireless network, among other daughterly chores. I left this post in the first-person because it felt right. There’s one more issue I have written about in draft, but a part of me almost wants to leave it be.]

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19. The Fall Funnel of Fun

New library in Levin, NZ

New library in Levin, NZ

I took gobs of photos in New Zealand with both my iPhone and my unwieldy quasi-prosumer Kodak (sometimes cantankerous, sometimes great photos). But except for the rare Antipodean posting, only in the last 24 hours have I moved these pictures from devices to cloud storage, and at that, with only the barest metadata and organization. Flickr is yet to come (bar for the one picture included here, from a library in Levin).

New Zealand was wonderful, and all there were amazing. I was treated to astonishing hospitality by absolutely everyone, from the conference organizers and attendees to my open source colleagues at Catalyst, as well as Jane at Booklovers’ B&B (tearing through her final edits on a book even as she tended her brood of B&B’ers). As I was cautioned, there was Much Singing, in fact, at the end of every major presentation the entire conference broke out into song, in Maori no less — an experience at once impressive and touching and sui generis.

I returned to plunge back into a deep work zone–the usual stuff, with an additional helping of Many Focus Groups for our architectural program, and a top-secret project that has involved many hours of research and study, thereby neatly consuming all available “off-time.”

I had to fly to LA six days after I returned for a SCELC board meeting, and I remember nothing of the ensuing weekend, other than sleep.For several weeks after my big-trip-followed-by-little-trip I was tired, time-addled, and haunted by a persistent tummy bug no doubt picked up from “airplane air” on the gruesomely long flights to and fro (though Air New Zealand is a gracious courier). I wanted to sit somewhere for at least a half-day and think about New Zealand, but hurtling as I was through my own private Fall Funnel of Fun,  all I could do was slip my hand into my slowly-dwindling supply of licorice allsorts and have a quiet nibble (once my tummy was again up to having licorice).

Now the licorice is gone, the focus groups are over, I feel the antic nature of the first 2/3 of the semester yield to the quieter pace of November (for the library, anyway), and this morning I have a tiny bit of time because we were asked to close the library and stay away from it this morning while wiring was completed. NO PROBLEM, I said.

So in this brief interlude let me back up a little and provide the highlights of experiences and discoveries:

Licorice is well-regarded in New Zealand. Because of that, turnover is vigorous, which means I had the freshest licorice I have had in my entire life. (I picked up the licorice habit from my dear departed dad–he taught me to like even the serious stuff, that hard Danish licorice with a dash of salt in it.)

Hokey pokey is a flavor.  It seems to mean something like butter brickle, only with a stronger caramel flavor. (Now my NZ friends are asking, “What’s butter brickle?” To which I respond, “it’s like hokey pokey, only milder.”) Hokey pokey is found in ice cream but also as an addition to chocolate.

English is not an official language of New Zealand, which like Oz is a country that appears to have acquired a respect and appreciation for its multicultural heritage. Note: English is spoken universally as far as I can tell, but it’s not a designated official language of NZ.

Wellington is like San Francisco (is like Melbourne, is like all my favorite European-feeling cities…). Hills and gardens and a bustling downtown and a gorgeous waterfront and people with important expressions striding to work in dark clothes and pointy shoes, and good beer in many places.

McDonald’s sells lamburgers.

Cell phone plans are ridiculously expensive–and I don’t mean temporary plans for travelers (see below, connectedness), I mean cell phone coverage, period.

I saw a brand-new library two days before it opened (in Levin, a suburb of Wellington)! Can’t wait to share pics.

Lamingtons are served with an exaggerated wink. The conference fed us nonstop and Lamingtons were featured at one break, and I was told it was on my behalf! Think very upscale Sno Ball (but without marshmallow).

I was able to get by for a week with two wifi-enabled devices and a hodgepodge of free and pay access, but I have become so accustomed to being fully connected that it was disorienting to wayfind through a strange city with static maps. Where was my blue Google Maps dot to guide me? I found myself under- or over-estimating walking time and distances and walking in strange loops (in other words, my pre-device life).

Whitebait fritters, rocket salad, and a Epic beer on draft: oh yeah!

LIANZA has absolutely the best conference banquets, ever: costumes and skits and games and dancing and great food and FUN. I apologize in advance to any NZ librarians who have to attend a library conference banquet out of country and find themselves nodding to sleep over plates of tepid chicken-with-a-pile-o’-rice while dignitaries drone. DISCLAIMER: I am sure some banquets are fun. I speak only from personal experience.

Pavlova! Why don’t we serve that more often in this country? (Hmm, perhaps because Americans are as conflicted about meringue as they are about licorice?)

Palmerston North was its own fine introduction to New Zealand, considering I was tired, jetlagged, and preoccupied with a conference. The conference took place at a racetrack during the off-season, and every morning we were treated to a view of horses being exercised on a racetrack against a backdrop of colossal mountains.

Te Papa is like the Metropolitan Museum: you cannot see it in one, two, or three visits. Amazing and infinite. Thanks again to my Catalyst friends who scored me a private tour.

My first night our conference hosts had us to one of their homes for a home-cooked meal. It was a great way to ease into the trip.

The last meal I had with colleagues was with developers. I had forgotten how endearing they can be.

I’ll do a photo essay before Thanksgiving and talk about what I learned about libraries and librarians (other than we are a magnificent bunch).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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20. The last rose of autumn

O brave rose

O brave rose

This past week we had a visitor in the library who (completely without guile) commented that the library felt very dated and dowdy.  He didn’t use the word “dowdy,” but it hung in the air nonetheless, while I shrank in my seat.

I had just finished bragging about how much space we had opened up by eliminating all the unbolted, unbraced shelving on the main level, and how we had a cool writing studio and a new education curriculum section and some new couches  and easy chairs and rolling whiteboards with trim that match the furniture in the writing studio, plus all the art exhibited around the library, and the scary metal desks on the lower level had been replaced with serviceable hand-me-down wooden desks, and for heaven’s sake, since he last saw the place every wall had been painted…

So I gulped a bit, but had to agree. My spectacles had been re-adjusted to the correct prescription: the library is dated and dowdy. What was a smart-looking library in 1958 became, after more than five decades without a renovation, that house where the realtor keeps reiterating how cute it is, with great potential.

It was as if I had rocketed back in time to my arrival, three years ago, when I thought, my goodness, that library needs help — and no one disagreed with me, and in fact pointed out that it was my job to address this. Because if you have seen attractive, well-updated libraries, you would not place this library in that category.  If pushed, you would agree it has a beautiful arched ceiling and tremendous daylighting, plus a great sense of space on the main level.  And it is clean and well-maintained; in poetic terms, it is no longer quite so Theodore Roethke, and even has a dash of Billy Collins.

But my visitor did me a great favor, as I reflected earlier this afternoon, when the clouds pushed north of our freshly-washed city and brilliant late autumn light bathed our neighborhood. I stood on our deck visiting my six rosebushes, inspecting for damage and enjoying the last buds of autumn.  The storm had pelted many of the buds into sagging brown clumps of matter at the end of rain-lush branches, but several flowers hung in there gamely, doing their best to unfold.

Rather than cut these buds to  bring into the house, I admired them in situ so they would die a natural death and let the bushes form hips, the fruit of the plant. From spring to early fall, the trick to abundant flora is to cut rose blooms early and often enough that hips do not form; but by late fall, a kind and thoughtful gardener allows her roses to consider their work done for the year and go dormant until spring (which around these parts is February–a rather short nap).

The last buds of autumn are not the prettiest flowers. They are smaller, pinched from the cold, and bruised by rain; often — using the delightful language of rosarians — they develop “confused centers,” in which petals and stamens are jumbled together pell-mell rather than whorling outward with that lovely mathematical logic found in flowering plants.

Defending these buds as representative of the best of my garden is pointless. If these wizened gnomes were what roses looked like year-round, I wouldn’t bother. I have grown truly grand roses, in which buds big as a lumberjack’s thumb unfurled with triumph, their immaculate petals sheened with color, the flowers, at full bloom, big as my fully-flexed hand, their fragrance a seductive force-field. I also grow miniature roses, whose proportionate beauty, at their peak, is even more astonishing for their minute scale. These experiences are why I bother growing anything as fussy as a rose in a setting as challenging as a wind-swept deck. (I have bought, grown, and given away roses at least ten times in the last thirty years, always in less-than-desirable locations — too shady, small, cold, hot, windy, humid, or dry.)

My love for the last buds of autumn is strong and deep. In their improbable appearance in the sturm und drang of fall-to-winter, their pluck and their lust for life are inspirational. My challenge — and my responsibility — is to remember what a truly great rose looks like, and to accept that the last buds of autumn, however much I love them, live primarily as commas between the truly grand flowers that came before them, and the amazing flowers yet to be.

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21. Tiptoe through the Tech Trends

Sony Walkman Due to a scheduling conflict I regretfully had to turn down a chance to make an encore appearance at LITA Top Technology Trends at ALA Midwinter 2013, though I was highly flattered to be invited, particularly with an invigorating new single-topic format. At this point my Midwinter schedule is like a set of nesting Russian dolls reflected in mirrors and circumscribed within Venn diagrams.

But the invitation did cause me to stop to think about technology trends — at least, the ones I’ve observed in myself and the people around me, a group that I do not claim represents any specific demographic other than The Republic of Me.

I’m also setting aside the topic of books, except to note my own behavior below, for what that’s worth, and to observe that the concept of shared print monograph repositories is rapidly gaining momentum. Colleagues in SoCal held a summit last month, and I’ll be at the PAN Forum at Midwinter (big thanks to CRL for their national leadership and to Robert Kieft at Oxy for leading the SCELC convos). I’ve also been invited to participate in Subgroup 5 of the Digital Content Working Group, Library Community Education and Outreach. So, you will hear from me.

Anyhoo, the following may strike a few chimes with my readers and their own republics:

Ed Tech and Higher Ed

MOOCs: According to the hype, Massive Open Online Courses are part of the “disruptive” “innovations” that are creating a new “synergy” by “reinventing” higher education. Lubricated by endless conference chatter and initially uncritical coverage from the media, MOOCs enjoyed close to a year of nonreflective enthusiasm, with any number of institutions contemplating how to “get into that space.”

Inevitably, MOOC backlash has already begun, with several articles cautioning that warehousing at-risk college students in online classes may not improve graduation rates. Can the people say DUH? As Carlson and Blumenstyck wrote in that great Chron piece, “Here’s the cruel part: The students from the bottom tier are often the ones who need face-to-face instruction most of all.”  Students are increasingly not ready for traditional college when they get there, both in what they know and in their study skills and habits, and vast online lecture halls aren’t going to close that gap. Like the all-volunteer army, MOOCs are a great solution as long as your own kids aren’t the ones signing up.

MOOCS and other online learning methods do have their place. I have a blog post series in work — MOOC Nation — that will track my progress through two math MOOCs this spring. Stay tuned.

Devices and Distractors

At home, we are assuming that 2013 will be the year we retire my 1993 Honda Civic, which Sandy drives to work, a half-mile from our apartment. This old car, purchased used in 1996, has required very little maintenance in its life, so I didn’t begrudge it a rather expensive repair that will keep it from bursting in flames while Sandy is driving, always a nice touch, particularly where parishioners are involved.

So commenceth a slow, deliberate search which may stretch all year, aided or encumbered (take your pick) by iPad apps, websites, chat rooms, online reviews… but if it’s a car I’m going to sit in up to three hours a day, my rump wants first-hand knowledge. In a Honda showroom, the second or third feature the saleswoman showed me in the Fit, after how to flip the back seats around to make more space for groceries, was the USB charger in the glove box. I suddenly remembered early ads for Palm products, which overwhelmingly featured men — and here was Honda touting the ultimate chick accessory, the all-purpose device charger. (Good location, too: I hide my iPhone in the console of my 2008 Civic where it both recharges and is away from temptation.)

On other fronts, our Comcast TV subscription is on death watch–something we have heard from other friends our age, which portends poorly for the networks if their commercials are any indication, with their well-creased actors imploring us to Ask Our Doctor about the latest geriatric nostrums. We keep planning to deploy an exercise where–armed with Apple TV, Netflix, Apple devices with Airplay, various apps, and a one-month subscription to Hulu Plus–we avoid using the setbox for several weeks to see if we miss it. The networks are wisely gambling on inertia, because we can’t quite cut the cord yet. Interestingly, the preparation for this experiment has already yielded benefits; we can resume our old (and old-fashioned) habit of watching NBC evening news together by streaming its app when I come home.

December 2012 was the month I made my first mobile bank deposit, though I had to “pose” the check a few times to get it right. I waited a day and sure enough, the check showed up in my account. Routine for some of you, but quite a plus for for me and those occasional small checks that show up, consuming gas, parking, and time (though I will miss the crew, and the free cookies, at the Irving Street branch of Wells Fargo).

2012 was the year I shifted as many magazines as possible to tablet apps; we also gave up our paper subscriptions to the New York Times and the SF Chronicle and went digital-only for both. The drivers were comfort, cost, and convenience: my periodicals are always with me now, with excellent backlighting, and most support fonts that are comfortable even when I’m walking fast on a treadmill. Journals that are PDF-accessible but not on tablets get downloaded to Dropbox for tablet access. I only regularly read paper magazines on airplanes, during  takeoffs and landings. I don’t miss filling a recycling bin with discarded paper or stockpiling address labels to shred.

Paper continues to be by far my least favorite format for books, to the point where if I can’t check it out from Overdrive from my library or SFPL, or I can’t buy it in Kindle, it might not get read at all. The one routine exception is for reading on the Muni, for which I pack any small, skinny, interesting book in my purse because I avoid flashing an iPad or iPhone on public transportation. (Hello, Just Plain Data Analysis!)

Apple has me in its grasp fairly tightly — MacBook, iPad, iPhone, Apple TV, Airport Express — but in 2012 I began to feel more provisional about using Apple products, as Apple changed charging adapters, poured more devices on the market, and not only frog-marched iOS users to a defective Maps product but took a while to repent.  My iPhone also isn’t a particularly good phone–and that’s after two phones and two carriers. Furthermore, some of the best, most essential iOS apps come from Google.

That said, the ability to use Airplay to stream almost anything not produced by Apple’s Mortal Enemies (such as Amazon Prime),  Apple’s sheer ease of use, and (here we go again) the induced inertia of owning so many Apple products, gives us reason to stay in the fold a while longer. I have lived through WordStar, Commodore, Sony, Gateway, Palm, Blackberry, and many other companies that ruled the earth until they didn’t; some new idea is always out there, ready to sneak up on us.

On the homebrewing front–brewing being a technology that has been evolving for thousands of years–I didn’t brew from July until December — a planned hiatus, due to New Zealand and the Pythagorean theorem and whatnot. (It is astonishing how useful that theorem is; I even used it to estimate the necessary range of our new wifi router.)

I brewed a small-batch stovetop oatmeal stout at the beginning of our winter break, which I gussied up with organic cocoa nibs and a cold-steeped extract of Philz french roast, and yesterday brewed a cream ale, the homebrew version of American “swill”–though like most things, when you make it at home it tastes so much better.

Each time I was reminded why the young’uns are all about crafts and maker-this-and-that these days: with so much “digital” in my life, it was so refreshing to engage with grain and hops and water and yeast, kettles and spoons and mash tuns, and best of all, my glorious 22″ whisk, which serves as a mash paddle, wort aerator, and personal defense weapon.

My most complex brewing tool by far is my beloved green Thermapen thermometer, which also serves me well when I am grilling or cooking, or even when I want to instantly check the temperature of anything from a wedge of cheese to a room. I now make my yeast starter in a large Erlenmeyer flask, which looks geeky but hails from 1861, if Wikipedia’s somewhat sketchy citations are to be believed. There are all kinds of apps and equipment for brewing, but in the end, the brewer herself is the most important device in the process (returning to the theme that technology can’t solve people problems).

Last musing: a couple of weeks ago, while perambulating through the Embarcadero with Sandy, we saw a well-coiffed woman about my age in exercise gear, carrying a yellow Sony Walkman cassette player, and I almost stopped her to ask her about it. I just didn’t know what to say, other than “I used to have one of those, in the Reagan administration” or “You can skip the CD model and go directly to an iPod shuffle.” If she had been younger and dressed less conservatively I would have assumed it was a playful container for an MP3 player, but it really looked like a working Walkman. I guess it was working for her, but I was fascinated. I wonder what was on the tape!

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22. Rediscovered Management Lessons

This is a smattering of lessons I keep rediscovering in management, which I felt like summarizing as I tick into a new calendar year. A lot of it is obvious, very little of it is new to me (and some of it has been said here before) — but management seems to consist of relearning the same things repeatedly, each time in new ways.

Hire in haste, repent at leisure. As I noted in my American Libraries article on branding, hiring is enough of a chimera anyway; rushing the process will just make things worse.

Every once in a while I find myself the lone defender on an issue. Sometimes I check in with myself and decide that I’m wrong. But other times I remember two examples of a lone holdout. The first is a case study of Donna Dubinsky, who at Apple championed a change in distribution methods. The second is a friend of mine who successfully led a complex political/technical challenge. He remarked recently that at times he was the only person who believed in his direction. But he was clearly right, in retrospect. (Note: sometimes I will be the lone holdout, and I will be wrong. So it goes.)

Eat sensibly and get regular exercise.

“You only get one chance to make a first impression.” The sensemaking that happens when a patron walks into a lobby, the first interaction with service points–these are crucial. I’ve been a member of the UCSF fitness center for several years, and I was startled to discover a poster on the lower level listing the “management team” — I didn’t recognize any of them. But the cool factor is that the level of customer service at the center’s front desk is so exceptionally, consistently high no matter when I visit or how busy it is, and the lobby is so intentionally welcoming, that I sense I know them anyway.

Management often feels like navigating by flashlight. I’m groping just a few feet ahead of myself, trying not to fall into holes, listening for sounds. A slow and methodical footfall helps.

Ultimately you rise and fall by the quality and quantity of your human capital. A small team of really great people can do amazing things.

Every team has limits on what is doable, and it’s a good thing to learn how to delicately communicate that. Nobody outside the library is sitting around asking, “Does the library have enough people to do what needs to get done?”

Message management is key. Much in library work can be delegated… but keep a firm grip on external communications, from signage to interaction with other agencies to who gets to pull the trigger on campus-wide messages.

Speaking of communication, it’s always a work in progress–but a very worthy cause.

You are the metronome. You set the pace.

Much as I disagree with Woody Allen’s life choices, I fully agree with him that “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” This is one of several management jobs in my career where showing up at work and being a presence has been crucial to success. If you think I don’t go to as many conferences as in some previous positions, you’re right.

That said, I’m going to begin working from home at least one day per month (I’ve been saying this for three years, so take it with a grain of salt) because the mindset for being an active presence is not the mindset conducive to editing grant narratives or finishing NCES statistics. Yes, I do take work home (though not obsessively), but even better is having a dedicated, hard-to-interrupt work day dedicated to the task–a nice mixture of urgency (I won’t get another day like this soon!) and luxury (home in my jammies, counting the stats!).

I also make sure I get to just enough conferences, and visit just enough peer directors, to get some Vitamin Colleague.  Your staff can’t be that for you. They need you refreshed, balanced, and with your sense of humor intact–and there are things you shouldn’t share with them, no matter how tempting.

Take care of your boss. Meet deadlines small and large without prompting; don’t force your boss, or his or her staff,  to be your administrative assistant. Be open to ideas. Come prepared to meetings. Cut your boss some slack–he or she puts up with your imperfections, after all.  Remember to thank and praise your boss from time to time–you will never be privy to some of the hardest things they have done. (Yes, I have had bosses it would have been hard to do this for, but I still wish, in retrospect, I had tried harder.)

Show respect for the other departments you work with. I pride myself on a 100% on-time submission of my monthly credit card bill because it is one less thing for the finance department to worry about. If I think I’m going to be late, I tell them in advance. If I am having invoice issues with a vendor, I settle them as promptly as possible. Again, this isn’t about them being likable–though they are a likable bunch–but because it’s the right thing to do, morally and politically.

It’s worth wangling the library into the key discussions on campus — online learning, student success, etc. There is always a library tie-in, even if it’s not self-evident at first. The catch is to remember that the library can’t solve all problems.

One of the most delicate dances is the use of your facility by other agencies. There are no easy answers. It’s a case of balancing finite space with a distinct purpose with the political capital of resource-sharing. But a space once shared can rarely be reclaimed.

Build and maintain a strategic map. You need good relationships everywhere on campus–and not just with the people you feel at ease with.

Student workers do not set library policy. From time to time they will complain that one or more library users Did Something Bad and therefore some new library-wide draconian rule must immediately go into effect, optimally reinforced with a plethora of scolding signs printed on bright orange paper in all-caps Bold Comic Sans — yes, I speak from experience — but see above, message management.

Checklists are your friend. Campus Safety loves that we use opening and closing checklists–and so do I. Despite clear evidence that checklists save lives and improve processes, we may be their only friend, but that too is ok. (Policy and procedure are your friends, too.)

This is easily the fifth job in my life where I’ve implemented a key locker and insisted on key management. As with checklists, life is better when your keys are organized. Plus I find it too weird to work in a LIBRARY that can’t organize keys. (Bully for you if you have access cards, but we ain’t there yet.)

Consistent service is key.  It is tempting to give a different level of service to the patron with the winningest charm. But ethically and strategically, we should provide the same level of service to all users. That doesn’t mean ignoring problem patrons or never being flexible, but for your typical patrons, there should never be a gulf of service between the patrons who are chummy and those who are simply there to get the job done.

In a similar vein, some of your best workers may not be one of the Cool Kids. I remember a conversation several years back about why so-and-so in another library was promoted to Head of Reference over another, sparklier employee. I’m guessing that from the director’s perspective, So-and-So was a reliable worker who showed up, did the job, got the administrivia done, knew how to keep a ship sailing, and (quoting Dr. Johnson) had a bottom of good sense, particularly in dampening the inevitable Library Melodrama.

There is a natural tendency in libraries to lean toward fees and service limits as governors on behavior and methods for mitigating demand on human capital or other resources. But I recall asking a peer library why they charged for a specific service, and their response was they didn’t know why and therefore they were eliminating the fee. Other times a limit can be packaged more attractively — such as asking a user which of the umpty-ump books she has suddenly requested she would like first rather than “no, you can’t request that many books at once.”

Periodically review your successes as a team. Remember the “olden days” and celebrate where you are and where you are going.

Additionally, review your organizational worldview, and if need be recalibrate. I am almost finished reading Tribal Leadership, and one of the “click” moments I had was realizing that though I was good at lifting up our own successes, I was starting to fall into the trap of being too critical of other departments–that nasty Us vs. Them habit that paves the way for siege mentality, pitypottism, and other unprofessional and counterproductive syndromes. Ick! Bad juju!  I will allow myself the luxury of that level of criticism when I am absolutely sure my personal leadership has achieved absolute perfection (in other words, it will never happen).

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23. Word.

The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage

The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage

So, about my writing. I mean my literary-essay writing, not blog posts or journo-style magazine writing or academic writing.

I’ve spent the past year:

  1. Moping over the breakup of my writing group,
  2. Pursuing several professional goals that required intense study of un-fun stuff but were also convenient excuses for not writing, and
  3. Feeling sorry for myself whenever I see another writer’s good fortune posted on Facebook or Twitter, and
  4. Making resolutions about writing that I then fail to follow through on.

On the first point, it’s like a break-up, as a writing colleague told me a few months back. Go ahead and mourn for a little while, but get back in the writing saddle without them and keep on writing. They were a good thing while they lasted, but nothing lasts forever.  After a while, the breakup moves into lame-excuse category.

On the second point, that stuff is done, so no excuses there, either.  I have always had that stuff, and will continue to do so. Besides, for  8 years I managed to have a writing life alongside many other responsibilities.

On the third point, for a writer with a full-time-and-then-some day job, I have a pretty good publishing record. Almost every essay I felt was ready to send out in the last eight years has been published, and by very respectable publications. I’ve had essays republished in commendable anthologies, had an essay nominated for a Pushcart, and am looking forward to “Still Life on the Half-Shell” being republished in 2013 in The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage, edited by Lisa Catherine Harper and Caroline Grant.

Obviously, I can write publishable work. Yet in the last year I have sent out only two essays, to the same publication, and took that editor at face value when he said the essays weren’t worth publishing, lambasting myself for my bad writing. How amateurish of me!

On the fourth point, I know how I write. I schedule the time and announce I am going to write. Then I find a generic coffeeshop (as a writing colleague noted, nothing “too hip”; the Tallahassee Panera still ranks as my perfect writing location), sit down for three hours with Vivaldi or Boccherini pacing my work, and I write, stopping only to divest and replenish herbal tea.

I do not write by sitting in my home office. I can do library work in that home office, but it is not separate enough to do literary writing–yes, not even when I am home alone. And yet for almost a year I claimed I can write in that space, and then I did not write there, and so I did not write.

I do not write by scheduling an hour here or there for writing. An hour is just about time for me to stretch out my writing muscle until I’m truly focused. The real writing happens in the next several hours. The last 15 minutes are spent worrying that my writing session is almost over and watching the baristas wipe off the tables as they close down shop for the night.

I also do not write by taking literary writing time and using it for other, non-literary writing tasks. Allowing that work to encroach on my literary writing has not been good for me. I pursued an MFA because I wanted to go somewhere else with my writing. Some people talk about where a good book takes them: that’s just one planet over from the place my writing takes me.

So attention has been paid. The habit has been resumed. I have a writing evening, a writing place, a pile of manuscripts to dust off, and a few flabby writing muscles to tone up again.  The baristas and I, we are one with the night.

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24. ALA Midwinter 2013: Back in the Saddle Again

I missed ALA Annual 2012, so it was with particular joy I reentered familiar terrain. I juggled the conference activities with a grant we were finishing, which was only possible because I spent four days navigating four square city blocks (my hotel, the Convention Center, meeting rooms in the Sheraton, and nearby restaurants), with only a couple of excursions beyond. I don’t remember Seattle being so deliciously  compact, but it was a boon to this bifurcated traveler. So thereby follows my report… a wee dry.

Friday
8:00am – 9:00am LIAL11 Reunion Breakfast: met with dear colleagues. Collegial idea-share is a great way to kickstart a conference! Note: it is really bad form for a restaurant to have two restaurants with the same name. One of our party spent a while in the “other” restaurant due to this reason.
9:00am – 12:00pm PAN Print Archives Meeting. PAN is the CRL Print Archives Network, and that translates to librarians interested in shared storage for print collections — a very responsible, loving, strategic approach to the future of print books. Librarians packed a very large room; several years ago it was a handful of people around a table. This was mostly an update on local initiatives, but it was validating to see how many deans, executives, and other library leaders were in the room. I wasn’t able to attend any official “top tech” sessions at Midwinter, but I consider this meeting a de facto program in that genre, because shared print is one of THE key tech trends in higher ed.
1:30pm – 3:30pm Committee on the Future of University Libraries Meeting (ACRL ULS). I was curious about the work of this committee. This was a pleasant exchange.
(A little grant-writing…)
6:00 pm LITA Happy Hour. Caught up with colleagues I hadn’t seen in a year, followed by…
Ad hoc dinner with two old friends (a great closing bracket for the day).

Saturday

Saturday was a day of scooting from meeting to meeting, concluding with a solo dinner of Washington oysters and a dessert reception among (mostly-) beloved colleagues. You know how some of you love baseball games — I mean, really, really love baseball games? This was that kind of day for me.

8:00am – 10:30am Council Orientation Session (ALA)
10:30am – 12:00pm Nominating Committee for the 2014 ALA Elections [Closed--I would share details but I'd have to kill you later. Nutshell: this committee recommends nominees for ALA president and Council.]
1:00pm – 2:30pm ALA and E-books: Prospects and Directions for 2013 – Panel talk: publisher, ebook broker, librarian. I need a Jamie LaRue action figure. He was fabulous. One thing I love about Jamie is that regardless of the talking points of the two industry wonks, he stuck to what he had to say about the role of libraries in coming up with our own solutions.
3:00pm – 4:30pm ALA Council / Executive Board / Membership Information Session – Brava, ladies of the dais, well-run.
5:30pm – 7:30pm Working Group on Digital Content and Libraries I (I am a recent appointee to Subgroup 5, so as a  first cousin once removed, I attended to catch up).
8 pm I dined on pitch-perfect oysters at Shuckers, a restaurant in the Fairmont much more elegant than it sounds.
9:00pm – 10:00pm ALA Council Reception — I remember reading a complaint on some social network that ALA only served coffee at these receptions. Folks, the bar is downstairs and nobody cares if you bring a drink. Very nice mingling.

Sunday

It was Sweater Vest Sunday, an initiative to wear sweater vests to show our support for intellectual freedom, and I was feeling sad because my vest wasn’t plaid or cable, which is what I think of when someone says “sweater vest.” But apparently my plush animal print vest fit the bill, as it garnered praise at Council, which ran exceedingly smoothly, though there were two resolutions which would have fared better had they been shared over the Tubes several weeks before Council–I know, a new-fangled idea; call me Judy Jetson. The real trick of this day was spending an hour with one group of friends I only see at ALA and then getting to another, somewhat inconvenient location to see another group of friends I only see at ALA.

8:30am – 11:00am ALA Council I Governance/Membership Meeting
Lunch at the Atheneum, then worked on the grant
6:00pm – 7:00pm Dinner with friends
7:00 pm – 8:00 pm GLBTRT Social

Monday

So to wrap up the next two days, it was business of the association, grant-writing, an amazing Ovaltine latte with one friend, and then a strikingly delicious grilled cheese sandwich with another friend. Tuesday afternoon was yet more grant-writing, a lot of it in the original Starbucks. Did I mention that I realized while people in Washington State wear those knit caps? I should have bought one my first day, because it was damp and chilly the whole time — but sunny inside, where it mattered.

10:00am – 12:15pm ALA Council II
Exhibits, grant-writing, and an Ovaltine latte with dear friend MJ
6:00 pm Awesome grilled cheese sandwich with another dear friend VN
8:30pm – 10:00pm Council Forum II (ALA)

Tuesday
9:30am – 12:30pm ALA Council III

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25. MOOC Nation, Part 1: My So-Called Online Teaching Life

I’m enrolled in a MOOC to prepare me for college math. Go ahead and laugh — then tell me the last time YOU solved a compound inequality problem.  Of course, the other reason I’m in a MOOC is to explore the current state of online learning.

I have copious notes about my experience, in which, I am proud to say, I have advanced to graphing linear equations, and I had originally planned to begin this series with my observations on the class I’m attending. But once I began writing I realized I wanted to provide context for my foray into this wild.

I am not an e-learning newbie. I taught online library science classes a decade back, and even mentored other instructors in the art of managing classroom chat discussions. I’ve taught online workshops as well. I have taken writing classes online, including several from Stanford Continuing Education, and got a lot out of them. In 2011-2012 I also led a campus-wide pilot of Collaborate, Blackboard’s live elearning product, and Team Library recently authored a grant related to lecture capture (actually, I’ve been working on this development project for 18 months, in one version or another). On our library team, three out of five of us graduated within the last decade from a library school now fully online. This is not foreign terrain.

When I stopped teaching online, it was intentional. The most notable reason was that I was planning to go back to graduate school, and teaching full-semester courses on top of being a student as well as working full-time was far more than I could handle.

Still, it was easy to stop teaching. My satisfaction level as an instructor had been declining oh so gradually, but then went into sharp free-fall. Before I proceed, please heed me when I say the program in question changed a lot in the last decade, undergoing two major movements forward in leadership and concomitant transformations, and e-learning technology has improved as well (though not as much as it could).

Like many adjunct instructors, in both programs, I found the parent institution opaque; it was the source of my paychecks, the provider of my students, and the agency that housed my “classroom,” which at first was a small  room with grubby walls so distinct in shape and size I can still see the unimproved windows in the back of the room. In the second program, my classroom became Blackboard. It was easy to teach myself how to twirl the knobs and dials in Blackboard — so easy that I did not ask myself if I fully understood online teaching or how to do it well.

In the new program, I soon learned that at least with the tools available at the time and my inexperience with e-learning, I wasn’t crazy about “asynchronous” instruction, that is, a teaching model without real-time lecture or discussion. I’ve had instructors insist that they are happy teaching this way, and mazel tov to you, but I missed that immediate real-time engagement.

I offered optional lecture sessions through chat and a number of students took me up on it, but overall the class felt too much like a correspondence course poured laboriously (my labor, mind you)  word by word into a learning management system. Human speech, like handwriting, is an amazing efficiency, as you realize if you’ve ever written documentation for anything. Taking all my pedagogy and spelling it out letter by letter consumed a huge amount of time.

In the last class I taught, the class size had doubled from my previous course, and I also had to deal with plagiarism and a no-show. It’s amazing I taught for so long without dealing with any one of those three problems, but when they surfaced in concert, it was a lot to deal with, particularly in the isolated world of the online adjunct instructor.

I did my best with the no-show, but despite concerted efforts on my part, this student, who had shown up briefly at the beginning, only surfaced at the end of the class, wheedling to be given dispensation. According to the school, this was her modus operandi–something I wish I had known at the beginning of the class. I doubt this student understood how much money she was spending (or more likely, debt she was accruing) on not getting an education–a syndrome writ large across our country. E-learning didn’t turn this student into a no-show, but I am convinced it was an enabler.

Even with the challenges, I thrummed with a connection to many of the students. I loved how willingly they embraced my favorite Q&A: What’s the most important library database? The one between your ears. I reveled in how many of them took up the work of the class joyously, and I was rejuvenated by their newbie-librarian zeal. And of course, teaching is learning, and that was very satisfying too. I hear occasionally from my students, and what a rush of warmth to my soul when they reappear to tell me of their lives.

Again, the school has changed quite a bit since then, and tools for early intervention in online education have also improved; I’ll assume that attrition and student learning outcomes are now monitored assiduously. This is certainly not a technology issue as much as it is a program management issue, and online performance can in many ways be easier to monitor. As for the plagiarism — I believe it would have been dealt with much differently today. But all said and done, it was easy to stop teaching.

I tried graduate-level teaching once more. When I was between jobs in early 2007, I responded to a job ad for online adjunct instructors for a library school I had no prior experience with, fully certain they would at least explore the possibility that I would teach for them. Less than 24 hours later I received an email of rejection. I  have to thank them for not leaving me in suspense. I will remain ever-curious why I was so swiftly eliminated from consideration, but I’d like to think part of the reason was that I didn’t have the level of online learning training and experience they were seeking.

A decade later, when online learning is criticized, its docket of concerns includes much of what I encountered the last time I taught:

  • The idea that because a class isn’t limited by physical seats, it can scale without impact on the quality of instruction.
    Students left academically adrift.
  • The human overhead of creating and maintaining online courses.
  • The question of fit: whether the material, the student, or the instructor are “right” for online learning.
  • Teacher — and student — preparation. (On this last point, I know quite well that the school I taught in now has a highly intentional and excellent onboarding program for students — one I would emulate to a tee if I were to establish and lead an online learning program at my institution.)

My colleague Marcus Banks had responded to an earlier post of mine about online learning by stating,

Skepticism is always necessary in the face of the flavor of the month (or year, in the case of 2012 and MOOCs). That said, it’s always easier to defend what’s known than to embrace what’s new. Seems to me that MOOCs can be a democratizing force that reaches those struggling students who may not be able to afford or have any inclination to sit in the traditional lecture hall. Surely we can figure out how to build engaging, responsive and effective learning opportunities that are online only. We may have to regardless, depending on how student preferences evolve.

Marcus and I are actually synoptic in our understanding of major trends and only moderately less than congruent in our assessment of the state of e-learning today or the potential that MOOCs have to offer.  Yes, the sunny side is that online learning can open doors for students. Look at me: as a child I was identified as a student who struggled with math, I’ve largely avoided math my entire life, beyond simple arithmetic and basic spreadsheet formulas, and in my current job I am in no position to seat myself in a traditional classroom for months at a time. Yet I plod along, week at a time, with my slow but steady success, much of it due to the benefits of a well-designed online class.

It’s also too easy to point to spectacular and highly-visible failures, such as the course on the instructional design of online learning so poorly designed it imploded in less than two weeks, or the frustrated professor who stopped teaching a course midstream, as condemnation of online learning or “proof” that we’re in a craze that will soon abate–an argument that reminds me of the librarian who told me in the mid-1990s he was “waiting for this Internet thing to blow over.”  I’m sure many a course going forward will have absorbed many of the lessons-learned in those debacles.

Where Marcus and I part is in his assumption that my concerns about e-learning represent “defend[ing] what’s known” at the expense of “what’s new.” Based on my personal experience as an instructor, I’d prefer to observe that the path to innovation is paved with instructive lessons, and that the more experienced you are, the more likely you are to fold the Book of Fail into the iterative design process.

I know how much intervention goes into ensuring at-risk students succeed, and I also know that we, as a nation, are failing too many of these students. Online learning could be part of the solution, but not without full acceptance of the problems we need to solve and the effort it will take to solve them. And as an advocate for those who have the least and need the most, I’m going to cast a very critical eye any time techno-educrats propose tiered systems, including the model where at-risk students are poured into massive online courses. Without very careful and caring design, without sufficient resources, these run the risk of becoming the higher-ed equivalent of public housing projects.

Absolutely, let’s look for success.  But there are patterns worth observing in e-learning, just as there are in higher education, and we owe it to students to temper our enthusiasm (or our sense of inevitability) with an intentional focus on the design — and significance — of failure.

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