Tuesday, May 11, 2010

EQS / Enhancing Quality Staff (VERY LONG POST)

As hinted at earlier, I was involved today (as keynote speaker and session presenter) at EQS: Enhancing Quality Staff. This was the 18th symposium for library paraprofessionals and support staff presented by the University of Minnesota Libraries. My keynote address was entitled "My Life As A Book" and my session (which followed shortly after the keynote) was called "Sherlock Holmes and the Media."

As I mentioned (and promised) during my keynote, the complete text of my address, along with an audio version (for those who'd like to listen rather than read) is being posted here. This may be the longest post I've put up on my blog; I think it will be of interest. This morning I tried to stay away from my notes/outline as much as possible, with the result that it was more spontaneous than the audio file you'll hear here. But the audio file reflects the complete text (I passed over some things this morning in the interest of time), so you'll get the full (if a bit more wooden) flavor of the talk. The audio runs about 30 minutes.

I'd be interested in your feedback to this talk. Please feel free to send along comments.

Here, then, is this morning's EQS keynote address in text form. Click here if you'd like the audio version.

My Life as a Book:
A Few Miscellaneous Ramblings on Books and Technology by a Sometime Bookman

Keynote Talk For
Enhancing Quality Staff in Changing Times
The 18th symposium for library paraprofessionals and support staff
presented by the University of Minnesota Libraries
May 11, 2010

My charge for today is simple, based, I assume, on comments received from past EQS events: "we need to talk more about books." So I'm going to talk about books. But my charge has a little wrinkle in it, based on another comment: "we need to weave in technology into your talk." So I'm going to talk about books and technology--first books, then technology.

To do this I'm going to get personal and maybe a little politically incorrect. Please forgive me in advance if some of what I say is offensive or troublesome. Books are sometimes offensive or troublesome, so I'm going to follow their lead. What you're going to get in the next twenty minutes or so is part autobiography, part vignette, part preaching (to the choir), part questioning and pondering. Maybe by the end we'll have made it from Point A to Point B. We'll see.

I was asked if I needed any equipment (i.e. technology) for my talk. Technology is, in some ways, a crutch. It gets in the way. I need the technology of a microphone so that you all can hear me. But even here, in the old days, that wasn't the case. Folks back when had a better set of lungs and vocal cords. I could do it, but I'll spare you and rely on the mike. The only other crutch I need are a few note cards, to remember quotes and keep me on track. If I was a better storyteller I wouldn't need the cards. They get in the way. Another crutch and signs of a poor memory (or one not exercised enough).

Speaking of crutches, let us begin.

Chapter One
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol opens with these words: "There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate." The same holds true here. "There is no doubt that Johnson didn't like to read. He'd rather play outside then spend time with a book. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate." Its true. I didn't like to read, although I was surrounded by books. My father was a pastor; his study was lined with books. My maternal grandfather, whom I visited on summer vacations in Wadena, had a front porch with shelves lined with the evocative yellow covers of year after year of National Geographic. On a rainy day or "nap time" after lunch you might find me there. Otherwise I was across the street in the playground. I wasn't a reader; I was a nibbler.

Things didn't change much as I got older. One sports season lead to another. If there weren't sports, there was camping or fishing. I read enough in school to get by (or, rather, to get the "A" on my report card that entitled me to a free hamburger at McDonalds).

Maybe I'm not being totally fair, or honest. Books were a part of my life. But it seemed like they just hummed away in the background. My focus wasn't on the books. There was one big book that seemed to underpin everything in our family, one that included these lines: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…." And then there were those weekly trips from the classroom to the school library where I was drawn to books (with, it seems, lots of pictures) by C. B. Colby, or the Hardy Boys mysteries. Or the TAB book orders that came, like Christmas presents, just at the right time. Or the Weekly Reader magazine distributed in class. Or the ever-present National Geographic, or Life magazine. So, books and periodicals gave me pleasure (or something to do when the weather was poor). Later there were other books--the Boy Scout handbook or confirmation texts--that gave me instruction. But I really didn't want to read. It wasn't my "thing." Snapping the ball, or throwing out a runner at second base, or gliding into the corner with a fade-away jumper--those were my things.

A quick aside. There is a very significant landmark from this time. Sometime between the fourth and sixth grades--I can't remember exactly when--I was appointed a student library assistant. I have no memory of how that happened. It may have been as simple as being asked and saying yes. In any event, at the end of the year I was given two books as a thank-you gift from the school librarian: Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes; and The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane. Both are still a cherished part of my library.

Things--in terms of books and reading--didn't get any better in high school. By then I was living in Colorado, so skiing and backpacking and rock climbing (along with basketball and baseball…and later, girls) occupied a lot of my time. McDonalds was still giving out free hamburgers for As on report cards. I ate my share. My grades were good. I was a member of the National Honor Society. I was on my way to college, maybe with a basketball scholarship. Who needed books?

Chapter Two
College was, to some extent, one huge, long "whop up the side of my head." Now books took on a different meaning. They were in my face. I had to buy them. Lots of them. And I had to read them. Lots of them. I ignored them at my peril. In my first year something happened. It was a sea-change. I was playing basketball, but I found that I liked to read, too. It was quite amazing. All of a sudden I was gathering favorite authors and their works around me. I was arguing with books. I was devouring books. Books were my friends. I was making up for all that lost time as a kid and in high school. I hadn't read the "classics." I was behind the times. (I still am.) CB radios were all the rage at the time and my "handle" was "Bookworm." (Later on my family would give me a print of that famous painting by Carl Spitzweg, Der Bücherwurm (1850); it hangs on the wall in our family room today.)

Who and what caught my attention? Top of the list were the Inklings: C. S. Lewis; his brother, Warren; J.R. R. Tolkien and his son, Christopher; Charles Williams, Nevill Coghill and others; Winston Churchill; John LeCarré; Len Deighton; Annie Dillard (Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book I've revisited again and again, as is Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.) By my third year I'd given up basketball for reading and writing. I had no regrets--I'd been playing basketball since the fourth grade; I was worn out, my knee was hurt, and it was time for something different-- although our team went on to win a national championship (the first of five) the following year. One of my prized possessions from those last two years was a gift book from an English professor of mine: How To Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler.

Do you begin to sense something here? That college--for those of us who didn't quite get it in high school--is an amazing and creative time of discovery? Here's where the power begins, where the transformation begins, where the change begins. Maybe, like water flowing over rocks, the transformation began much earlier. Maybe all those earlier days with the Weekly Reader, Tab books, the Hardy Boys, Johnny Tremain, and The Red Badge of Courage were coming to fruition. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…." This is heady stuff! And we, as staff, are in the midst of it! We can see--and be a part of--enormous, earth-shattering, mind blowing change and transformation. Do you get it? Can I get an "Amen?" Not everyone who comes to the desk asking for help is a meathead. Or to quote one of my favorite authors:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

Chapter Three
There's not enough time to talk more about books; I need to squeeze in a little technology. But before leaving the books (we'll be back in the end), let me ask a few questions: who are the authors and what are the books that seem to gather around you? Do you have some literary traditions? (For example, every year between Thanksgiving and New Years I spend those days reading from works by the Inklings.) What book or books have changed your life? Do you identify with certain characters in certain books? (In terms of my own makeup and character I'm probably a little bit Bernard Samson [Len Deighton], a little bit George Smiley [John LeCarré], a little bit Barliman Butterbur [J. R. R. Tolkien], a little bit Elwin Ransom [C. S. Lewis], a little bit.…)

On to technology. If books, for me, have enormous transformative powers then technology represents an invitation to tinker and play and capture and unleash. And in the world that you and I inhabit, that means tinkering and playing and capturing and unleashing the power of word and image and sound and putting such things into the hands of those who need (or want) them. It means linking the power of technology with that transformative, creative tidal wave that is a college student's life.

Technology, in my experience, began with my Dad's radio, record player, and Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder. When President Kennedy was assassinated, and the television coverage was wall-to-wall, my Dad took out his Wollensak recorder, plugged in the microphone, and recorded the proceedings off-the-air. Later on, I watched my Dad put together a stereo amplifier and pre-amp. I wasn't afraid to tinker, and made my own radio and my own recordings. Family moments--sometimes with a hidden mike--made it on to a reel of tape. When my Dad had to attend a meeting, I'd record the baseball game from the radio so he could listen to it later. Later still, I had my own stereo and recorders and turntables and speakers. In high school I learned how to program in BASIC, using a telephone, an acoustic coupler, and a teletype machine that saved my program on paper tape. My final project was a program that allowed you to play eighteen holes of golf and was based on the then-popular 3M game "Thinking Man's Golf." In college I worked for three years in the "Instructional Media" department of the library. Here I had the chance to set up sound systems, run all kinds of audio/visual equipment, learn some basics about theater lighting and sound support, and studio audio recording. None of this technological tinkering and playing had anything to do with books, but it had a lot to do with history. (It also had a lot to do with time-shifting and convenience and capturing and playing and experimentation and creative thinking).

Books and technology met (or collided) in library school. We were still working with punched cards, but eight-inch floppies also made an appearance. The coolest thing was being trained to do Dialog searches. Remember all those blue pages? It was all about precision and recall. What was your search strategy? Did you work it out on paper before spending those expensive minutes online? If you were really good, and maybe had access as a library graduate assistant, you might be allowed to enter some of the other technological holy of holies, guarded as they were by their acronyms: OCLC and RLIN.

At the same time there was another holy of holies that I came in contact with during grad school, that reverential place on the fourth floor of Wilson Library on the West Bank Campus of the University of Minnesota where only the truly elect were allowed: Special Collections & Rare Books, and the James Ford Bell Library. I visited it just a few times, as part of a class. For me, it was a place of mystery and wonder, a sacred preserve. And I wasn't always sure I was welcomed there (something I've tried to change since coming back into that sacred space).

Technology continued to rumble by as I entered the professional world. I installed a computer lab in the small college library that was my place of first employment (and became "technical support" for all the questions and problems that followed). I processed ILL requests and did some (very little) cataloging on OCLC. I instructed doctors on how to do their own DIALOG searches (and ran searches for those who were too busy or too timid). Using a simple and free flat-file program (PCFile) I created databases for photo and archival collections. I migrated, in the land of competitive word-processing, from WordStar to MultiMate to WordPerfect to Word, my own literary landscape littered with now unusable versions of papers and indexes and journals and theses and bibliographies and books and journal articles. My own archive includes floppies of every size, zip disks, CDs, flash drives and every piece of hardware I've owned since my first PC clone. What am I going to do with all that stuff? All my earlier tinkering and playing and capturing and unleashing is, to some extent, held captive by obsolete technologies. Do I keep migrating to new platforms and new applications? Have I got the time and money to do that? These are the kinds of questions that technology raises for me, on a personal level. And it reflects and older, earlier time, one that was dependent on localized machines and storage.

Chapter Four
Where do I find myself now? The short answer: in a bit of a tug of war, and in a computing cloud. On the one hand, I know, and have experienced, the power of the book, in all its glory: its art, its binding, its paper, its words, its structure, its provenance--the many stories of individual lives that are bound up with the work, as producer and reader and steward. On the other hand, I know, and have experienced, the power of technology, maybe not in all its glory (because it seems to be a moving target), but in the way it has transformed my work and being. (As I'm writing this, I'm chatting with someone in Russia about a book in our collection.) Or, another example: a researcher from Hungary can contact me about an article she read on a Walter Library web site about the architectural details of the library--in this case, printers devices found on the lintels above the many doors--and I can go over to Walter, take pictures of those architectural features with my cell phone camera, upload them to my computer, and e-mail her the pictures for use in a presentation. It is a wonder to me to be able to do such a thing. These two forces pull at me every day. And rather than pull me apart, I want to combine them in a new and amazing way. I don't know, exactly, how to do this. But I think it’s a thing that you and I wrestle with every day. I said earlier that technology is, in some ways, a crutch. It gets in the way. But it is also a powerful tool. If my leg is injured I can't walk and get around without a crutch or a cane. And I want to move around.

Now, there are a few bits of the new technology that I'm not crazy about, or don't have the time and energy to learn, and therefore don't use. It’s a matter of priorities. I don't tweet. To me, tweeting is like burping or sneezing or wheezing or breaking wind. I was taught that it was not polite to tweet in public. I'm not a part of social media sites. I'm not much into gaming. I don't do much with online image generators.

But there's actually much more of the new stuff, thanks in part to the "23 Things on a Stick" program that was offered by Minnesota's multitype library systems, that I use and enjoy. Some of these get used more than others, but here's a brief rundown:
• I have a blog, "Special & Rare On A Stick." When we're done here today, you'll find a text version of this talk on my blog.
• I use Google Reader and have RSS feeds set up for the things that matter to me.
• I've got both Flickr and Picasa accounts for uploading and sharing my photographs.
• I've put up a few of my PowerPoint presentations on Slideshare.
• I use the staff wiki and have edited entries on Wikipedia.
• Want to know what I'm reading? Look at my blog or my Shelfari site.
• I have a Meebo account and a chat window on my unit web site.
• I tag using del.icio.us.
• I'm on Facebook and Gather and LinkedIn.
• I'm on YouTube, I watch YouTube, I use YouTube in classes.
• I subscribe and listen to podcasts.
• I create and edit web pages.
• I use RefWorks and EndNote to create bibliographies.
• I use online reference sources and indexes.
• I search online book prices and dealer catalogs.

The list could go on (Audacity, UMCal, iTunes, EAD…) but I'll spare you. The point is that technology has enriched my life, made me more productive, more creative, more expressive, and put me in touch with a lot more people. So where's the rub?

I don't know, except to say that technology has yet to demonstrate the ability to overpower me in the same way as a face-to-face encounter with beautifully printed page, a medieval manuscript, or a handwritten sheet.

Let me end with a story to give you a sense of what I mean by being overpowered. It was in the Spring of 2007. I was giving a tour of the Holmes Collections to a fifteen-year-old, her grandfather and two of her friends. Haley was her name. She lived and breathed Sherlock Holmes. She knew the stories inside and out. She knew the Sherlockian world, its players and its publications. I took them first to our suite and then to the reading room, where we have the miniature replica of the 221B London flat, some Sherlockian figurines, artwork, and reference books. Haley immediately gravitated to the figurines and, camera in hand (and having asked for permission, which was quickly granted) began to take pictures. She then discovered some of the Holmes reference books and coffee table books and, paging through them, told her friends about the significance of this or that item seen on the pages. From there we moved to the 221B miniature, at which point I was becoming more and more impressed with Haley’s knowledge of the stories, and more pictures were taken. I then showed her some of the artwork we’ve scanned for the Digital Collections Unit project on Frederic Dorr Steele (she knew about him and his Collier’s covers) before moving to a cart of material that I had brought up from the collection. It was at this point that the afternoon took a poignant turn and gave me an experience that I have never had before.

One of the first items I took from the cart was one of our copies of the Beeton’s Christmas Annual, the first time a Holmes story appeared in print (1887). Haley knew about the Beeton’s, but she’d never seen one before. She was overwhelmed, but recovered enough to take a few pictures. A few moments later it happened. I took out one of our leaves from The Hound of the Baskervilles manuscript and put it in front of her on the table. She was face-to-face with Doyle’s best-known story, her favorite story, written in his own hand. She started to cry. I got choked up, too, but in my Scandinavian way kept it inside. Her friends, Rebecca and Danielle, who had been teasing her, grew a bit quiet, while asking her “why are you crying?,” and had, I think, a realization that this was something special. From that moment, they all seemed to be “into” Sherlock, even Grandpa Jim. The tour continued down in the caverns. Along the way, Haley asked me about coming back to the collection (she has a standing invitation, as does her Grandpa and friends), how she could work here (come to the U as a student), and told me that she wanted my job. I encouraged her at every turn. Ninety minutes later the tour was at an end. On the way out the door she gave me a big hug and told me I was “her newest best friend.”

I want that feeling every day. I know it can't happen, but that's what I strive for. Books make it happen, and technology, too. You are a huge part of that story. I might have been on the front line that day in May, but it couldn't have happened without you. You help make days like that possible. You keep the lights on and the doors open. You set up the rooms and keep us secure. You answer the questions. You catalog and shelve and repair the books. You file and photograph, bring the mail, push the carts, input and upload. You pay the bills. You plan and meet and process and chat and much, much more. I cannot be who I am without you. We are in this together, just as the books and the technology are in it together.

So let me say "thank you" for all that you do. I do not say it enough. I should. We all should. And let me end where I began, with Charles Dickens and my namesake, who ends A Christmas Carol with these words: "And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!"

(My thanks to Eric Celeste for sharing his notes and thoughts with me from his talk at last year's EQS event, and for his encouragement as I prepared for this year's talk.)

1 comment:

Max Weismann said...

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