Categories
books/readings

surreal estate

I just read two great books that I guess you could call…spiritual? Metaphysical? Introspective? They don’t fit neatly within genre, but I find that what I’m liking best these days rarely does. First came the novel Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, then I picked up Her Body and Other Parties, a short story collection by Carmen Maria Machado. At the end of Emezi’s book, they talk about a writer’s workshop where their fellow people of color said they couldn’t do what Nabokov does. This kind of stuck with me, not because of the relative Nabokov-iness of either one of these books but because of how silly it is to try to box these writers in comparisons with their forebears. I rarely assess things from that point of view anyway, but still, there was so much going on in these two books that to bog down a reaction to them by trying to find past commonalities seems pointless.

Earlier this year, I read Aimee Bender’s The Butterfly Lampshade and liked it for its similar vibes. All of these works are surreal, introspective, and haunting, but to link them by saying there’s a common theme of troubled protagonists is also too reductive. In The Butterfly Lampshade, Francie worries about peering into otherworldliness because of the genetic legacy she may or may not have inherited from her schizophrenic mother. In Freshwater, Ada is contending with her/their brain being divided up and fought over by gods as she/they attempt to enter adulthood. In Machado’s stories, the mostly unnamed first-person narrators are bound by mysterious magical ribbons and try to truck through global catastrophes; in the most powerful story of the collection, “The Resident,” the protagonist finds herself torn between past and present, wandering too closely to a darkness in herself that she winds up having to destroy, even though it’s part of her and the inspiration for her art.

As a person who has struggled with mental illness throughout my life, and has engaged in… lifestyle choices that may or may not have exascerbated it, these tales all felt close to the bone, “The Resident” perhaps most of all. In the story, the narrator goes on a writer’s retreat to an unnamed mountain range north of Philadelphia that starts with P. It turns out to be very close to a Girl Scouts camp she frequented in her childhood (aside: I went to a Girl Scouts camp in the Poconos) and the novel she’s working on involves a character inspired by the childhood traumas she winds up reliving as an adult. There’s a repeated idea in it that the point of the retreat is to allow your brain space and time to make random connections and dig up memories you didn’t know you still had. This is intended to be positive (and may be a comment on how complicated and insensitive this prompt would be for many people), but as the narrator leans into that, she’s only met with horror after horror, both physical and mental, and her traumas meld together in a way that transcends time.

I think this story resonated with me in particular because I don’t feel as besieged with emotions (and, let’s be honest, possessing of creativity) as I used to. And while part of that is due to better lifestyle choices and stability, part of it is due to having shuttered that section of myself off in many ways. And the reason for that shuttering is explored well in The Butterfly Lampshade – it’s a defense against following threads too far into a version of the world (and yourself) you might not be able to come back from. Freshwater differs in how its inevitability is clear from the start; Ada is mostly along for a ride she/they adapted to in order to survive. I have been fortunate to live with some semblance of control over my situation, but I also feel like a large part of me has been excised in return for it.

There was a time when a blank page or a blinking cursor in an empty document was never a match for the downpour of words flowing out of me, when I could sit composing music and tweaking lyrics for hours. But now I’m eating, sleeping, and making money, and I’m afraid of removing any of the load-bearing walls I’ve assembled to keep moving forward. Or maybe it’s not a matter of load-bearing, as Machado puts it at the end of “The Resident,” but a thing some of us find we must do:

Thus far in your jury deliberations, have you encountered any others who have truly met themselves? Some, I’m sure, but not many. I have known many people in my lifetime, and rarely do I find any who have been taken down to the quick, pruned so that their branches might grow back healthier than before.

– Carmen Maria Machado, “The Resident”

Categories
library mgmt

weeding thoughts, part 3

(Continued from parts 1 and 2.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
library mgmt

weeding thoughts, part 2

(Continued from part 1.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
library mgmt

weeding thoughts, part 1

Oh, hello there. I have been very bad about doing this whole NaBloWriMo thing, but I came home so bodily exhausted last night (and so in need of finishing Aiden Thomas’s Cemetery Boys) that I just didn’t even bother. I’m still worn and stressed out af, but I figure I can hack an entry here while I’m half-watching the Leonard Betts episode of The X-Files. Mulder and Scully have some excellent face shields on as they’re poking through Leonard’s vacated morgue locker.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how training and knowledge transfer in libraries is utter garbage and how this impacts new managers/directors. I almost added “most of all” to the end of that sentence, but I don’t think that’s really true. I think the way it impacts people in leadership positions a little differently than folks in other positions is that there is a greater assumption that managers/directors will know how to do “everything” the minute they show up. That’s not to say that assumption doesn’t exist for new staff members at other levels; it’s just to a different degree. This is a big challenge for new leaders who are trying to establish their trustworthiness and competence with colleagues. While I’d say the most ideal situation is one in which the new manager can ask the existing staffers for help and training without negative consequences, that’s not always how it shakes out. In those cases, the manager has some other options for getting the knowledge they need–consulting peers in the field, professional development, personal research, etc. I’ve done all of these things, but what I probably default to more often than not is just winging an approach together based on my own instincts and trial and error.

Before coming to mcpow, I only had cursory experience with weeding when I was trying to scrunch a collection into a renovated building with reduced shelving, and I had to do my best at getting rid of old Russian romance novels for a couple days. But one of the most obvious things that needed to be done in my new library was maaaaassive weeding. We decided to switch ILSes a few months after I arrived and the collection has never been weeded in the 20 years it’s existed. There is a boggling amount of outdated technology and education books from 2000-2005, and because of…interesting choices made by leadership, not much was added between 2015-2019. As I started to evaluate the collection even without easy access to custom reports and data (part of the reason why we switched ILSes), I saw so many wtf choices on the shelves – 45 books on origami, two dozen on ancient art in China, at least a hundred about teaching online (all from before 2008). Looking at a report of the 14,000+ items that hadn’t circed in over three years, it became clear we had a huge task in front of us, and we decided to start with low-hanging fruit.

The first thing to go was our thousand-odd CDs that had been crammed into the two lower ranges of a bookcase housing a DVD and…shudder…VHS collection. Now, keep in mind, our students all receive a school-issued laptop, and it’s been several years since it was a model that had a disk drive. This stuff was worthless – not findable and not usable. We went ahead and removed everything from our collection and then invited the community to come and take what they wanted (obviously we didn’t get many takers, since our community is mostly people born in the early 2000s). I offered up the remains first to a few local libraries that expressed interest, then sent the rest off to the amazing godsend business that calls itself Better World Books.

Around this time, it became clear that we needed to shift the collection to better suit the way our space is used. When I arrived, we had about ten shelves on casters stuffed with books on the first floor. The idea was that they could be moved around to accommodate flexible space use, but they were full of art. photography, and design books – y’know, big, oversized, chonky coffee table books. That means they weighed hundreds and hundreds of pounds and required multiple people to shove around. This infuriated me right away, and it didn’t make sense to me to have the stacks as fractured as they were (Ns and some Ts upstairs with all other nonfiction books on the lower level). Our highest-circulating collection is fiction, even at an engineering college, so I decided to move the fiction from downstairs in a weird random corner to the first floor and to shift all of the art and design books downstairs. The photography books shifted over into our quiet reading room, which I just found out is where they originally were before there was an attempt to interfile the oversized books of all classes in that room.

Bringing the art and design books downstairs meant that if they were going to be shelved in a way that was appealing for browsing and not just more of the same claustrophobic mess from upstairs, everything else was going to have to move, too, and we were going to need a hell of a lot less of it. But how to get started on evaluating dozens of subjects I didn’t know the first thing about? I’ll talk about that next time in this exciting series that I promise not to forget about.

Categories
navel gazing

benefit of the doubt

Hey! I’m bad at this, but hopefully you’ll forgive me for not being in a place to sit down and write this past weekend. Friday was still in “how long is this going to drag on for” mode, then Saturday came along and we heard about Four Seasons Total Landscaping and the dancing and drumming in the streets began. Things are, probably naively, starting to seem kind of normal today, and I wanted to take some time to reflect on the emotional experience of this past week and the month leading up to/surrounding it.

First, I saw a bunch of exchanges on Twitter about people being too happy, going back to brunch, celebrating imperialism, showcasing respectability politics, etc. etc. I even got ensnared in a few of these myself. At the risk of people thinking I must be infectious white lib lady waste, I really don’t think we should be saying people are complacent if they’re experiencing positive emotions for the first time in what has been 7+ months of a neverending onslaught of shit for most of us. Most of the people “giving up the fight” were never in it in the first place. A friend asked how fellow folks on the left can want a broad movement for everyone, but yet carry such a cynical view of the people. That’s my question, too – it’s not a matter of denying to see why people are angry, hurt, gaslit, and exhausted, or having some sort of Pollyanna-ish view of a person we don’t even like. It’s a matter of looking at how awful 2020 has been for just about all of us and saying, yes, I can take this female Gritty hula-hooping in the street at face value and smile at that, not because I love Joe Biden but because I fucking forgot what it was like to laugh with strangers in public.

I think the left can be dangerously humorless at times and we need to celebrate battles when they’re won – and there was a huge outpouring of activism that made this possible. Getting Trump out was no small feat, and we shouldn’t forget that. The people dancing in the streets were, yes, white middle class people, but they were also people of color, trans people, BLM activists, socialists, and working class folks. I’m not going to tell you to not grieve and be angry. You can even flip out at people who popped champagne on Saturday. But maybe don’t assume they’ve never lifted a finger to advocate for change in their lives, just because they sashayed through some confetti and blew bubbles for 12 hours and then in all likelihood got right back to work. This is where the cynicism comes in – the assumption that everyone who partied is a spoiled trust fund kid who can just hang up political engagement whenever because nothing’s on the line for them. I think we need to be careful with throwing buzz phrases around like “respectability politics” when what we’re talking about is just “not being a dick.” And I’m sorry, but you’re a dick if you assume I have been sitting on my ass eating bonbons since March just because I shouted on my porch on Saturday morning.

As a person who manages other people in a predominantly white and vocationally liberal institution, I can say that a (presumed) Biden victory will positively impact staff morale at a critical time, as we look down the barrel at spiking covid cases, pressure to reopen, and layoffs on the horizon. If the alternative had happened, trying to lift people’s spirits would have felt insurmountable. You can chalk some of this up to naivete or Pollyanna-ism, or white liberal complacency – people may well be overselling Biden to themselves right now – but the fact is, it would have been another crushing blow to folks who have been struggling for well over half a year. I’ll take it, I tell you what. Trying to keep people’s spirits up has been the hardest part of this “new normal” since the spring.

And, look, I’m not going to deny that I’m a little defensive of my relative happiness right now. A little less than three weeks ago, mpow announced its plans to reorganize the college, ask people to separate voluntarily, and most likely engage in layoffs from now until the end of the fiscal year. I’ve been marinating in the stress of others and myself ever since, and right as that news came out, we started to see the covid numbers spike again while conversations about reopening plans for next semester began to ramp up. On the Friday before the election, my darling boy Avey, as mentioned in my last post on here, almost died after a random complication at the vet and I spent two days glued to the phone for updates, unable to focus on anything except last year’s GBBO (ugh, so good). From that frying pan of anxiety, we jumped right into the fire of our fascist president declaring he’d won the election and the early maps looking to back that up. So, when I had a chance to bike around Boston and see people screaming and jumping and clapping and singing on a freakishly beautiful November day, I was eager to take it.

It’s important to make sure we don’t fret too much about other people’s reactions to, well, anything – they are rarely intended to be a personal indictment of any one of us. Everyone is entitled to their emotions, which are not “right” or “wrong.” Everyone is walking their own road. But while the “we need to heal” by hugging Trump supporters bullshit is just a major “fuck no,” I do think it wouldn’t hurt for those of us on the left to let each other hurt, and let each other be happy, and not write people off because they do one or the other when we’re doing the opposite.

Categories
navel gazing

kitties

Last Friday, I brought my cat Avey to his vet for a routine dental cleaning and they somehow managed to almost kill him. He had a massive asthma attack and a bad reaction to the long-term painkillers they gave him, and he had to go to the emergency vet for the whole weekend so they could get him breathing comfortably again. Against all the 2020 odds, he pulled through and is doing great now, but it was an awful couple of days. I was really upset because this came out of nowhere–he has never had any known medical issues–and while I’m sure I’ll be devastated when I actually do lose my cats, I hope I’ll at least have a chance to see it coming.

I’ve had Avey and his sister Panda since they were six weeks old. They came to live with me in Boston about two weeks before I started my MLIS and they had little kitty colds that my ex’s dad, a renowned upstate NY vet, readily helped us cure. In retrospect, they were probably too young when I got them, but their clumsy, fuzzy stage was wonderful to behold. The two of them, a good 25+ pounds of cat today, used to fit on my 13″ laptop and Avey was fond of sleeping in my shoe.

2-ish-month-old Avey in a shoe

They’re 10 1/2 now, and both of them have now had near-death experiences, so I’m hoping we just coast comfortably for the rest of their lives now. I was a bit re-traumatized by having to take Avey to the same emergency vet that butchered Panda four years ago, but that place didn’t disappoint this time. A former roommate of mine slammed Panda in a drawer and broke her leg, and somehow was able to commit to a multi-thousand-dollar procedure to put an “extraskeletal fixator” on my cat instead of putting her leg in a goddamn cast. Four months and thousands of dollars later, after her contraption got stuck in the side of her kennel and she mangled herself even worse than before, I wound up taking Panda six hours west to my hometown smalltown vet. Dr. Corcoran laughed at the overthinking of her big-city counterparts (“we always say if you put a cat’s bones in the same room, they’ll heal”) and put a (leopard print!) cast on Panda’s leg. We brought her back for an x-ray in a couple weeks, and… she was fine.

Panda in her misery cone in her misery cage

So, both of these baby beasts are doing just fine today, but almost having to say goodbye to a cat that has slept on my head or under the covers with me every night for a decade was not something I wanted to add to the anxiety docket in 2020. I have a hard time not thinking of my cats as my chlidren, and if you think that’s nuts, I guess cool for you(?). Avey’s licked the tears off my face, man. I’m not sorry for loving his tiny butt.

I’ve lived with cats since I was three years old. The first cat we had was Shadow, a chubby gray lady who started hanging out at my house when she found a generous friend in the form of my mother. She was always kind of a mystery. We don’t know where she came from, but doctors told us she’d had kittens by the time she wound up with us. Next up came Data and Figaro, the first cats that were really mine. I loved the crap out of those boys, a perfect gray tabby and a ragdoll that couldn’t have had less in common. Shadow died in my senior year of high school; Data and Figaro passed the year I graduated from college.

Lionel, a fluffy orange fellow, showed up when I was in seventh grade and my best friend and I wanted to name him Axl, but my mom was having none of that. He used to be called “Buddy” and lived with a pair of Pomeranians, and his owner left him behind on our street after coming over and yelling at my mom about taking care of him one night. Lionel lived a long life; he passed only a couple years ago. There was also Graeme, a very Nermal-to-Lionel’s-Garfield character who became our cat and vanished without a trace in the duration of the summer between high school and college.

The most tragic of the cats my mom and I owned was Serena, the beautiful Maine Coon tabby with a heart of gold who showed up at my dilapidated apartment in West Utica when I was in college. When I moved in to a weird Tudor in the nice part of town with a couple of Boomer-aged roommates, I had to give Serena to my mom. She lived happily with her for a few years until she met a horrific end in the front yard of my childhood home when a pitbull off its leash from a few streets over mortally wounded her before she could find a way to disappear. My mom called me to tell me about it when I was working late one night at the MBLC. I cried and cried alone in those cubicles and then walked over to Modern Pastry and ate three slices of tiramisu and cried some more. I’d seen Serena a week before when I was in town for Thanksgiving. That same year, my grandma died in the spring and I got divorced at the end of summer.

My mom now has three cats, two orange and one black – Patsy, a rare female orange tabby with one tiny piece of white on one foot; Fox, a long-haired creamsicle boy, and Salem, a slinky black cat who loves everybody. Patsy and Salem were shelter cats and Fox was a stray who appeared a couple years ago when I was in town for Thanksgiving, and seemed like he didn’t have the street smarts to stay warm for the winter. I inherited my adoration for our four-legged, nine-lived friends from my mom without a question. Maybe I’m a crazy cat lady, but I’m okay with being an apple that didn’t fall far from that particular tree.

Avey and Panda will always mean so much to me. They were the first cats I had as a fully-formed adult human (I’m not counting Serena because she only lived with me for a few months). They became a part of my life when I was about to shift into a very different chunk of it, not just pursuing my MLIS but delving into my brief semi-serious dalliance with being a musician. I lived alone for the first time with them; I moved to Oregon and back with them; they’ve followed me to progressively less shitty Boston-area apartments. Though I love them both, Avey is practically my familiar, my daemon. As much as everything sucks right now, every time I see him in one of his usual sleepy places, I’m awash with gratitude that he came home safe and sound on Sunday.

Avey in his cave, beneath the covers
Categories
library mgmt navel gazing

wat

Okay, so I am trying to write something in an attempt at doing NaBloWriMo, which is a thing I think I invented but am guessing if I put it in ye olde search bar I’ll find I am not nearly so clever as I’d like to feel–ugh, I couldn’t resist. Yep. Well, no matter who can lay claim to the concept, I’m going to try to write in this here blog instead of banging my head against the wall attempting to write a novel, for which I have two ideas that both suck and are way too much about my dumb romantic travails.

I’m not sure that I actually have anything more to say in the form of blogging, but I probably should given the amount of turmoil at pretty much all levels of life at the moment. A week and a half ago, I heard there will be a reorganization and layoffs starting very soon at work, and it’s still quite unclear how that’s all gonna go down. This past weekend, our beloved cat Avey brushed up against death from complications after a teeth cleaning (because they anesthetize cats for that) and we spent the entirety of it, and a whole bucketload of cash, on making sure he’s OK (he is, thank fuck). Now, we’re onto night two of election anxiety, though things are looking relatively promising for Biden at this point. Massachusetts is finally putting some restrictions in place for trying to reverse the huge spike in covid cases, though what Charlie’s suggesting doesn’t seem like enough when you consider the number of cases is up almost 300% since Labor Day.

This is ostensibly a library blog, so I guess I’ll write about library stuff, though to be honest I’ve had my head down in my own library for so long that I don’t feel qualified to comment on others. We had some drama in the state association last month after it spilled onto Twitter, and I was super irritated to be dragged into it in part because I guess I’ve developed some kind of “controversial figure” reputation. It’s sad that advocating for workers’ safety and dignity is controversial, but whaddaya gonna do. Anyway, between that and uncertainty regarding the whole being able to keep a roof over my head thing, I’m mostly not raging against the library machine for the time being (or if I am, I’m not being publicly vocal about it).

It’s been really tough to be a manager through the duration of covid, which is not a thing I am saying to diminish the toughness faced by anyone else out there. I should say it’s at least tough if you’re trying to do the right things and keep your staff safe and relatively sane. I have been trying to do that, and trying to make decisions with empathy and integrity at the center, not some meaningless obsession with productivity or vocational awe (“these students just NEED us to be in the building for them!!”). But wow. Trying to bolster people’s spirits when your own morale is circling multiple drains and has been for eight months is not easy to do. Given our situation, I’m not sure how to help people going without giving them false hope, but if I don’t keep them going, things are going to get unsustainable very quickly.

I’ve got plenty of work to do so I’m not that concerned about staying focused on my various distractions right now. Since we’ve been back in the building, I’ve gotten another thousand books or so weeded and have shifted a huge chunk of the collection. I taught myself how to put protective jackets on books (we mostly have GOBI do that, but it’s handy for these emergency Bookshop and BWB buys). I rearranged a good chunk of the lower level, relocating the 3D printers back to the shops where there is proper lighting and ventilation and making space for our fleet of sewing machines. While I’m at home, I’ve been wrapping my head around the ins and outs of Sierra, using Create Lists to generate reports that Tind always made too goddamn impossible (we did an ILS migration over the summer). I spent a good chunk of time analyzing our database use in the past few months and trying to improve upon our methods for gathering stats. We’ve got a new digital repository up and running. I wrote about our progress on our Spring ’20/Fall ’20 action plan in the school newspaper.

I guess I’m saying all of this because it’s nice to reaffirm for myself how much I’m getting done, even if it mostly goes unnoticed. I also want other people to know that they, too, can succeed on projects like these, even when the world is a flaming pile of garbage and your predecessor left you with an effervescing volcano of bullshit you need to fix. So here’s the motivational speech I couldn’t muster in person this week: if you have maladaptive coping mechanisms that tend towards workaholism, you’re not alone. Alright, that wasn’t all that motivational.

This wasn’t much of a post, but I’m whipped and I’m going to bed and I think you should, too. Unclench your jaw and stuff.

Categories
librev

Woburned

I’ve been trying to explain the situation in Woburn to folks who are outside the Massachusetts library world and it’s getting tough to do so succinctly, but here’s an attempt at pulling together what’s happening. tl;dr: A library director with a questionable past is trying to union-bust and furlough 17 of her employees not for budgetary reasons but because, in her words, “many skills of library staff do not translate to the digital world of the pandemic” and an increasing number of people both in the city and in the wider library community are begging to differ.

This is quite a story, and I want to stress a few things before we get started:
1) I do not represent the views or speak as a representative of my employer here or in any other context online, aside from the necessary stuff like having my CV and LinkedIn up to date. If you take issue with the contents of this post, I am solely responsible for them. Please DO NOT contact my employer right now; they are busily contending with anti-student ICE shenanigans and safely reopening the campus for the fall. Send me an email at callan.bignoli AT gmail DOT com
2) The sources I refer to throughout are people that I do not wish to identify here for fear that they’ll be retaliated against, as I already was during the weekend of July 4 (more on that later).
3) I am not deliberately spreading dis- or misinformation. Everything I am reporting here I have heard from multiple reliable sources. But it is also all second hand knowledge, and therefore I am prefacing all of this by saying the following post is made up of credible allegations. That being said, I acknowledge that I misstated information regarding the circulation desk at Dedham Public Library in a recent letter to the editor of the Woburn Daily Times. The desk there was not destroyed, but was allegedly unexpectedly moved to a different location in the library, making it difficult for staff to do their work. Multiple sources say that parts of the circulation desk in Woburn were also removed, some found in the dumpster. This was an unintended misunderstanding on my part.

Before coming to Woburn, Bonnie Roalsen, a 2007 LibraryJournal Mover & Shaker, was director at another Boston-area library, Dedham. I don’t know all of the details, but staff report many issues with her managerial style, particularly around miscommunication. There was also an investigation about her conducted by the town which still may be ongoing. If you look through the Dedham Trustees minutes from Ms. Roalsen’s time as director (the end of 2016 to Spring 2019), you’ll immediately see eyebrow-raising things like staff being silenced at meetings and the police being called on staff members. More on those trustees later.

As is often the way of the library world, that didn’t prevent Ms. Roalsen from getting the Woburn job. According to staff from Dedham and Woburn, once she got there, she created a new assistant director-level job for a fellow named John Walsh who went to library school with her and worked with her in Dedham. This was instead of a head of the understaffed reference department, which only has two people in a city of over 40,000 (at similarly sized nearby libraries, this number is more like 6-10; on the whole, Woburn is woefully understaffed compared to peer libraries). I’m bringing this up because what Ms. Roalsen and, presumably, Mr. Walsh call an innovative focus on technology and digital services appears to be impacting the value, or lack thereof, they place on staff.

Folks at Dedham and Woburn have both said Ms. Roalsen and Mr. Walsh want to replace staff with machines, and it seems plausible–after all, nothing says “I want to replace my staff with robots” quite like “having bad relationships with staff, furloughing them, then giving a talk at Computers in Libraries about replacing staff with robots” –but that’s not the only thing they’re replacing them with. Fast forward to the last few months.

The Woburn Public Library, along with countless others throughout the state and nation, sensibly closed its doors to both the public and staff as COVID-19 took its first pass at Massachusetts in March. Unlike their neighboring libraries, though, for some amount of time during the building closure, they’ve been using volunteers to do home delivery of books and many other tasks while claiming there is no work for library staff to do.

The following screenshots show library staff attempting to help from home, being told there was nothing to do, and being removed from contributing to the library’s Facebook page.

One volunteer group that worked with the library is Social Capital, Inc., a well-known org in Woburn that helps provide opportunities for at-risk youth. According to multiple sources close to the situation, they previously had a long-standing positive relationship with the library, but retracted the volunteers they had sent to the library when they found out they were working in lieu of staff instead of in support of them. In other words, when they found out they were doing this work instead of staff employed by the library, they said no thanks.

Speaking of long-standing community partnerships, sources say that library administration put enough pressure on the Library’s 24-year-old Friends group for them to begin the process of dissolution in June. Considering the impacts of this, it’s a cruel attack on the city’s residents, particularly its children. The loss of support for museum passes, the Teddy Bear Picnic, Woburn Reads, and other Friends-sponsored events leaves a hole in the community that robots seem pretty unlikely to fill. (I’ll note that the trustees have said that the museum pass program will continue but now funded by city money. This seems like a poor allocation of resources, given the amount of financial turmoil the trustees point to elsewhere.)

Around the same time came the announcement of the furlough of 17 of the library’s non-administrative employees, despite a documented increase of the library’s FY21 budget. The following is a screenshot of the library’s union lawyer explaining exactly what was proposed by the city:

According to the union and library staff, none of the city’s other departments are being targeted for layoffs or furloughs. The thing I want to draw attention to in the above, though, is the idea that this furlough needs to happen “until such time as there is more work available at the library.” Here’s what’s going on at fellow Minuteman Library Network libraries in the area:

This chart was sourced from a member of the Support Woburn Librarians Facebook group and may have some inaccuracies in the hours of operation columns. It is intended to contrast Woburn’s service offerings with those of their peers in Minuteman.
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“Yesterday saw our 2nd highest Encore (online catalog) page view count for the past year (shown above), falling just shy of September 3rd. So this activity spike we’ve been seeing is real. We also saw just over 12,000 holds placed, which is the highest single day total since I’ve been collecting these numbers (going back to 2/12/20). Though as a reference point I looked up transactions for September 3rd 2019 (day after labor day) and there were only 10,627 holds placed then.” – Minuteman Data Curation Librarian Jeremy Goldstein in an email sent to the network staff on June 30

In a widely distributed email, the executive director of Minuteman, Phil McNulty, said, “I just think that collectively we are not in any shape to meet this demand level without deploying very extensive pickup hours… I think we can make a very compelling case that there is very strong patron demand and that we can meet it – if we have the staffing levels and organization to do so. As to that organization, it is becoming clear that page is the fundamentally most important job in the library now and we are all going to have to be pages and that circulation is our world this summer and we will all have to be circulation librarians.”

Everyone I know working in libraries around Boston is telling me about days where they can’t keep up with circulation traffic, phones ringing off the hook, and email and chat reference questions piling up by the dozens. When they aren’t all being circulation staff, they’re still offering hours of programming and activities for all ages from home each week. Saying there’s not enough work to do at the library right now is, simply put, a lie. It’s also frankly insulting to our colleagues who are scrambling, with slashed budgets and furloughs they tried as hard as they could to avoid, to keep up with patron demand.

As the union and city continue to find a path forward, an advocacy group on Facebook, Support Woburn Librarians, has drawn over 1,700 members both from the city and beyond, including many library workers like me who are standing in solidarity with Woburn’s staff. Numerous Woburn residents have been trying to get in touch with Ms. Roalsen, who is not returning phone calls and emails. The trustees decided to not meet for their scheduled July 7 board meeting or in August, and a kerfuffle around the June meeting’s Zoom password not being made publicly available prevented members of the community from attending. Instead, Ms. Roalsen and a handful of Woburn trustees have taken to accusing the members of the Facebook group of engaging in a “deliberate campaign of misinformation,” being “unhinged from any reality,” and “threatening” and “slandering” in the Woburn Daily Times.

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“I saw that Ms. Roalsen and Ms. Seitz (library trustee) both said in editorials that many of the public’s concerns are based on misinformation, and I would welcome any responses or information they can provide,” reads one letter to the mayor, director, and trustees shared in the Support Woburn Librarians group. “Unfortunately, those same editorials fail to identify or respond to any specific pieces of misinformation beyond some controversy around the circulation desk. The op-eds are mostly vague generalities and empty rhetoric while the more egregious questions and concerns are left unaddressed. Until the community members get the answers they seek, they have a right to keep asking important questions and voicing their concerns, and the library administration, board of trustees and city officials have a responsibility to address them.”

A letter jointly written by a number of library workers in the area specifically focused on Ms. Roalsen’s insistence that “many skills of library staff do not translate to the digital world of the pandemic:”

Library employees in neighboring towns like Winchester and Burlington were providing remote reference help, Zoom storytimes, book clubs, and activities for tweens and teens. These libraries had no trouble translating to the digital world. We have questions for Ms. Roalsen to “set straight.” Why do you hold your employees in such low esteem? Why, unlike fellow directors, did you decide they were incapable of doing work in the “digital world” without giving them any chance? And why are you not standing up for them now?

The availability of subscription products from for-profit, private companies that many libraries also subscribe to is not all that library patrons expect and deserve for their community. Providing streaming video or ebooks is not “groundbreaking” when most fellow Minuteman libraries have been on that “cutting edge” for a decade. Ms. Roalsen is again using a narrative of “innovation” to shift focus away from leaving her staff unemployed during a pandemic.

Concerned library workers in the Woburn area

One would think that with a newly created assistant director for technology position and what looks like an organizational dedication to providing innovative new services, the staff would have the resources and empowerment to be trained and ready for whatever this “digital world of the pandemic” has in store. As a person who helped a staff of 100 beef up their tech skills in the years before we found ourselves in this current moment, I can tell you it’s possible to get just about every library worker prepped, ready, and comfortable for the “digital world.” Am I saying 100% of them will be pumping out professional videos and web guides? Of course not, and it’s never going to be like that anywhere. But I would have worked with them to figure it out, using a list like this one plugged in LibraryJournal of tasks for public library workers to do from home. And now, with libraries in Massachusetts reopened for curbside pickup, there is no excuse.

Not only do we have accusations of spreading misinformation and no lines of communication with the decision makers, and not only do we have a library director who’s selling her own staff short, we also have the work and voices of advocates being threatened. Just after we created a Change.org petition in support of the library’s workers, we found out that Ms. Roalsen requested all of her staff’s email address passwords be changed, locking them all out of their inboxes and contact lists. While there may not be a connection, it comes off like more union-busting behavior, cutting off staff from their main means of communication with each other, the city, and the union.

And, circling back to the Dedham Board of Library Trustees, they weren’t too happy with my involvement in the business up in Woburn, so they sent this to the brand-new president of my employer on or around July 4:

I am currently on the Board of Library Trustees in Dedham, an elected position I have held for the past seven years. I am writing to you today because I am extremely distressed by Olin College’s decision to insert themselves in matters related to the Dedham Public Library, as represented by their Library Director, Callan Bignoli. Ms. Bignoli, not only serves as the Library Director of Olin College but, as you might be aware, is the head of #LIBREV(olution) a protect and pay library workers group. Ms. Bignoli has been using her platform as Library Director for Olin College to push out through social media outlets, discussion groups, Change.org petitions and letters, fabricated accusations regarding Dedham Public Library’s former director, now the Woburn Public Library Director. In addition, Ms. Bignoli has ignited a smear campaign against the Woburn Director and also the Dedham Library Trustees by encouraging and then amplifying these accusations that have been officially proven untrue. It is unclear to me why Olin College, through their Library Director, is taking this action.

In March, 2020, the Dedham Public Library Trustees fought to ensure their employees would be paid their full salary when the library’s doors closed due to the COVID19 pandemic. When they returned to the library to work one day a week on June 15, 2020, they continued to be paid fully. Not all libraries or municipalities have been as fortunate as ours and furloughs have taken place. However, it is abundantly clear that most people in this country have been effected financially by this pandemic. For Olin College, through their Library Director, to harass and bully public libraries that find themselves unable to sustain their budget is disgraceful. As an elected official, I understand I have little recourse, but I urge you, as you are represented through your Library Director, to stop engaging in this less than professional manner. 

Nameless (to me, at least) member of the Dedham Board of Library Trustees

That was a great time! Luckily, my boss could see through the gaslighting here as my personal web presence has nothing to do with my position at Olin. I also can’t help but point out the absurdity of calling me a harasser and bully of libraries that can’t sustain their budget when the Woburn Public Library received a budgetary increase, yet is still pursuing these furloughs. But I was nowhere near standing alone. This week, the Minuteman Library Network’s executive board issued a stern warning to the Woburn trustees, mayor, and Ms. Roalsen explaining their concerns about the library’s administrative behavior and future as a network member:

The majority or the entirety of Woburn’s non-management staff is in the process of being furloughed or laid off as of July 17, 2020 for reasons other than lack of budgeted funds. It is the considered opinion of the Board of Directors of the Minuteman Library Network that these staff members are knowledgeable, capable and dedicated librarians and library assistants…

The Board of Directors will bring before the Minuteman Membership as a whole the question of whether the Woburn Public Library is continuing to act as a viable member eligible for continued membership.

Letter from the Minuteman Library Network Board of Directors

Before long, the Woburn trustees were denouncing the MLN Board, a group of nearly a dozen library directors and administrators who represent some of the busiest and most well-loved libraries in New England, for spreading misinformation:

So that’s where we’re at! The union was supposed to meet with the city again today, but that was postponed. I’ll leave you with the words of another member of the advocacy group, urging us to now focus on the irresponsibility and negligence of the mayor, director, and trustees regarding the questions and requests for information from community members:

By characterizing concerned community members as “unhinged,” [the trustees and director] are showing the lack of respect they have for the community they are supposed to serve. By characterizing the staff as incapable of adjusting or disgruntled, they are really revealing the director’s lack of leadership and inability to connect with caring people who have served the Woburn community long before she showed up. By continually describing community discourse as a campaign of misinformation, the Trustees are actually revealing the lack of transparency and back-channel dealings that have been in since the current director was hired; not to mention a coordinated plan to gaslight the citizens of Woburn and turn attention away from the real issue.

Member of the Support Woburn Librarians Facebook group

I don’t know about you, but I’m a whole heck of a lot more concerned about this failure of democracy than I am about cancel culture. As we’re seeing protestors jailed and injured for exercising their rights and we’re watching the impacts of doublespeak when it comes from the highest office in the country unfold in the form of stoked racial violence and unnecessary sickness and death, we need to be on high alert when we see the word “misinformation” tossed around when citizens are merely asking questions. We also need to remember that our elected officials have an obligation to their constituents and need to hold them to it. That includes listening, and not calling them disgruntled and unhinged when they’re just looking for answers.

Want to take action? You can…

Categories
books/readings tech anguish

Book Report: The Charisma Machine

What kind of blog will this be? Idk yet; right now it’s just a thing I occasionally remember exists and I dump text into it now and again. One of my goals with this when I started it was to collect what I’m reading in a more tangible way somehow, and I don’t want to review books and I don’t want to deal with Goodreads or whatever, so I’m gonna do this instead: a book report. I will definitely evince an opinion about whether or not I like something, but no star ratings or any of that.

So, anyway, onto the book at hand: The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop Per Child by Morgan Ames. This was an incredible work that I think should be required reading for just about anyone in engineering, computer science, entrepreneurship, or any of the various allied disciplines and the overlapping stuff in between. It’s an in-depth exploration, articulated through hefty research, field work, and understanding of tech rhetoric and educational theory, of technological imperialism. It exposes the lies and gaps that the snake oil sages on stages never want to spend a minute of their TED talks on, revealing both the victims of their false promises and the hidden labor of the people who believe enough to try to make them come true.

One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, still exists in some difficult-to-understand form today, but for folks unfamiliar, it was an MIT Media Lab spinoff project run by a group of…wait for it, privileged white American men with the intention of deploying millions of cheap laptops to young children in developing nations around the world. It was co-directed by Nicholas Negroponte, Media Lab co-founder and guy who has seriously said things like the following: “We’ll take tablets and drop them out of helicopters into villages that have no electricity and school, then go back a year later and see if the kids can read.” Now, the Media Lab has been on an accelerated fall from grace in the back half of 2019, so it’s probably not especially surprising that Jeffrey Epstein pals like Marvin Minsky were in on some of the foundational thinking that led to this, but there’s still many lessons to be learned here.

The project was rife with problems from its start around 2005 with manufacturing costs being much higher than expected and the leaders’ fixation with what Ames calls “nostalgic design,” an obsession that resulted in machines with far less computing power and storage space than equivalent laptops of the time. Key features, like the hand crank that was initially dreamed up in hopes of powering computers in areas where there was no electricity available, proved impossible to build and never came to fruition. Even with a rugged exterior that Negroponte notoriously threw across the stage at some circle-jerk presentation or other, the machines still broke in large numbers, especially their screens and trackpads. It also was immediately clear to participating nations that the tablet-dropping helicopter wasn’t really a viable solution. In countries like Paraguay where Ames situated her fieldwork, massive infrastructural upgrades and assistance, including NGOs to do enormous amounts of work on integrating the laptops in school curricula, were necessary to do anything at all with these machines.

Ames describes what she is tactful enough to not call a total clusterfuck. In one class she visits, a teacher asks students to pull out their laptops and open a program so they can complete an assignment with the computer. A handful of students don’t have their laptops at all (they’ve broken irreparably or been lost), and at least half of the remaining group doesn’t have the program installed. Because the developers wanted children to “hack” their laptops and have the complete ownership over them they thought was part and parcel to their tech-utopian ideal, the kids often deleted boring programs like the one in question so they could make room for downloaded music and videos. The teachers, already overworked and underpaid with minimal resources, generally didn’t take to this new pedagogical model. As a result, the NGO supporting this rollout recruited trainers to support the use of the laptops in class and develop the pedagogy. But unless teachers had a natural proclivity for the machines or a special interest in them, this didn’t stick. Same went for the children, though for them the interest level definitely cleaved along class and gender divides, as well as the type of environments they had at home:

“[F]ully two-thirds of children hardly ever used their laptops. Some nonuse was due to breakage, which occurred along gendered and socioeconomic lines, complicating some of the benefits the project was supposed to provide… [Each] student [that used their laptops in the way OLPC intended] had a constellation of resources that encouraged them along this path: families that steered them toward creative and critical thinking, a focus on the importance of education, and in many cases another computer at home.”

I think what amazed me most about this story was the number of people who wanted it to be true and who put a ton of work into filling in the gaps and figuring out the Ames calls the “messy world” parts. It’s not surprising that Negroponte and his Media Lab bros would buy into their own rhetoric, but it bothers me deeply that their colleagues at MIT and the folks at the NGOs created to support OLPC seemed to eat it up, too. Maybe it was a product of its time; shortly before the dawn of social media/”Web 2.0,” there was an explosion of educational technology books, research, and prosthelytizing. Maybe the directors of the project were in such an echo chamber of other tech utopians and mystified journalists that they were never in a position of being called on the pretty boldfaced “imperialist notion that technology simply flows from the Global North to passive and graceful recipients in the Global South. Or maybe it was the power of charisma and the “social imaginaries” Ames teases apart in the book: the experiences, opinions, and ideas of OLPC’s developers became the only vision they could see, the glorious triumph of the “technically precocious boy” over his machine, leading to his discovery of identity, sense of belonging, and success in society. In other words, just because the Media Lab bros were empowered by their mastery of technology, little boys the world over could be, too.

“[C]harisma is ultimately a conservative social force. Even when charismatic technologies promise to quickly and painlessly transform our lives for the better, they appeal precisely because they echo existing stereotypes, confirm the value of existing power relations, and reinforce existing ideologies. Meanwhile, they may divert attention and resources from more complicated, expensive, or politically charged reforms that do not promise a quick fix and are thus less charismatic.”

So, right now as we’re sitting here living through history, we need to stay on the lookout for the charismatic “solutions” that will surface in the hopes of quickly and painlessly getting us back to “normal.” They’re already coming in the form of health monitoring snake oil and educational disruption from everyone’s favorite surveillance capitalist, and there will be plenty more to come. The Charisma Machine shows what happens when folks that benefit from existing power relations try to impose their ideologies on people who don’t. There’s no innovation there, just a tool allegedly built for liberation that, once exposed to the messy world, instantly falls apart.

Categories
librev navel gazing

The view from the ivory tower

The first time anyone ever accused me of being “Ivory Tower” happened in the last 24 hours, and I was leaving MPOW when I saw this statement for the first time. I had just stopped by to check on our book drop because I knew a lot of seniors were coming back to town to move their stuff out of the dorms and I had reminded them about dropping their library items off while they were around for that. I also got some measurements and mental models in my head for the sake of coming up with a concrete plan for social distancing, and practiced running between my office and the downstairs workroom, knowing it may well be part of my job to be vigilant on two floors very soon. Thing is, I have only two staff members, may have no student workers in the fall, and the library is one of the most well-loved and well-used places on our little campus.

I initially only got through the first few paragraphs of this post, a rebuttal to my LibraryJournal piece from earlier this week, and as I biked back to Boston, this is the part that stuck with me:

“The Ivory Tower mentality of privilege is blowing my mind. The emotional argument of ‘librarian as sacred being’ will come back to haunt us…No one else is in government work is exempt from doing that.”

There are two reasons why it stuck: one is that positioning a nationwide campaign to advocate for library workers’ safety in this moment as an “emotional argument of ‘librarian as sacred being'” is misleading, unfair, and wrong. As Donna Lanclos said more eloquently than I can right now, “#VocationalAwe is not a “double edged sword,” it is a description of the constructs used to oppress library workers when they attempt to assert that they have rights. ‘Don’t you care for your community??’ when library workers shelter at home is straight-up [vocational awe].” This accusatory language of “librarian (notice not ‘library worker’) as sacred being” is more of the same construct. And lest you think think this is a quote taken out of context, or that I didn’t read the rest of it when I got home, the post goes on to say, “There is a heavy and heartbreaking dose of privilege that comes with librarians expressing they are too precious to roll up their sleeves and get to work.” Is this what we are saying, or are we saying that library workers deserve basic dignity, rights, and safety before they roll up said sleeves? Is it fair to say that in advocating for ourselves, we’re ignoring every other type of worker out there? Or is this another fence drawn around cutting us off from broader labor solidarity?

The other sticking point is that to accuse me of being Ivory Tower is just absurd. I’m a fucking millennial daughter of the Rust Belt with crooked teeth and tattoos, not some pant-suited dean who hasn’t been on the front lines in 20 years. I empty the book drop, open the mail, and help my students with every single thing they come to me with, whether or not it’s “library-related.” Did I mention I have two staff members? I’ve used my position, privilege in being a director and at an institution where we’re expected to stay home, and connections to the Massachusetts library community to try to affect some kind of meaningful protection for my colleagues for the last two months. It’s defined many of my weeks, I’ve given it every brain cell I didn’t allocate for my day-to-day job, and it still seems like it’s been a drop in the bucket against the rapid pressure to reopen right this second. This image of me kicking up my (sneaker) heels and saying “nah, I’m too precious for this shit” is offensive, so belittling and dismissive of how I approach my work, and the path I’ve taken to get to this current job (though my LinkedIn profile is, intriguingly, linked to in the post).

But I wonder if there’s something more to this, something that even goes beyond the fixation of me as an academic library director up in my ivory tower, when we get to this part:

And why should people listen to “people who are no longer working making declarations about how we should direct our energy in the first place?” Because we just may have a clarity of vision about what it is really like, on the other side, to use the services libraries are providing their communities.

To me this sounds at best like, “We have decided who has privilege and voice in this current system and it is not you, o young academic library director who is putting uncomfortable pressure on those of us already in power,” and at worst like, “Oh honey, someday you’ll understand.” I have been in this game long enough to see this pattern of certain female-identifying directors worshiping the ground walked on by young male-identifying directors, but treating young female-identifying directors as if they are problematic trash that should be disposed of forthwith. I know this when I see it, just as I know the public vs. academic crap when I see it.

I was on the other side of the public vs. academic line not long ago, and I will readily confess that my perception of academic library life was way off base. Maybe I also believed in this ivory tower, but didn’t call it as such; I thought academic librarians had a work experience at a distance from their patrons and didn’t form relationships like we did with them at the public library I worked for at the time. I thought that there was a privilege and stability in academia that blanketed over all of the myriad realities of staff and students. I was wrong. I have developed deep relationships with my patrons now that go far and beyond what I experienced in the public world. And I am out on the floor in sensible shoes, not only emptying the book drop and opening the mail but reshelving the books, weeding, ordering, cataloging, working with student groups both in “traditional” instructional services and in the role of a community organizer, of sorts–we read books about systemic oppression’s influence on technology, and have long meandering conversations about the better world we dream of. I challenge students to fight their way through the anodyne trappings of engineering education and embrace activism. And you know what? I had no idea this kind of work was possible as an academic library director until I saw the need and found myself doing it.

My point here is, I get the divisiveness between public/academic, but SHUT. UP. Have you seen the common refrain on library Twitter that we need a national union like, a thousand times over by yesterday? While I’m not going to be the person to provide that, I can say that if we’re going to be pitting publics vs. academics, we’re getting nowhere fast – certainly not to the “disrupted, innovative” future. This past week, everyone’s favorite grievance bot had some juicy posts about the notion of vocational awe being a mechanism for academic librarians to oppress and criticize their public counterparts from positions of relative safety. Guess what? No matter what your thoughts are about the application of that term, you’re fundamentally undermining the future of your field by making unsubstantiated, intentionally polarizing claims like it’s an academics vs publics thing. And similarly, to claim that you are interested in innovation for libraries right now but do not want to produce this in alignment with worker needs, you are not acting in the best interest of your field! Like, I’m sorry that you’ve worked with people who have been “resistant to change,” but as a wise librarian once said on Twitter,

“I resist changes that are done to me, for me, in spite of me. I am usually a reliable booster of change done with me, alongside me.”

I’ve had employees who’ve refused to meet baseline expectations, too, but no matter how much they pissed me off on a day-to-day, I would NEVER want them on the frontlines with no protection and no cohesive guidelines for safe operation. The argument I can’t help but hear in this post isn’t so very different from the GOP ghouls who think it’s okay to sacrifice COVID-prone folks for the good of the economy. Wouldn’t it be convenient for some directors to get rid of the workers “who want to do a job that doesn’t exist any more, if it ever really did?” And the thought that haunts me through all of this is one Ruha Benjamin quotes in Race After Technology:

“[To] take the place of progress, ‘innovation,’ a smaller, and morally neutral, concept arose. Innovation provided a way to celebrate the accomplishments of a high-tech age without expecting…too much in the way of moral & social improvement.”

We’re in the same boat if we keep lionizing these stories of perseverance with no context about the jobs, health, and emotional and financial stability lost. But do go on about me being up here in the ivory tower. If we can’t band together behind the acknowledgment that 6,000-10,000 layoffs and furloughs is a professional crisis, all of our realities are about to get a whoooooooole lot more miserable.