Wednesday, December 26, 2012

30th Year Reflections/29: Naughty or Nice?

“Schools nationwide are rethinking how to provide students with resources, said Susan Ballard, president of the American Association of School Librarians. It's much easier to forgo physical books if…each student has a laptop and access to physical books at home or in other places.”—Pam Louwagie, “Stack of books are history at Benilde library,” Minneapolis Star Tribune

I might not have seen the article were it not for a day-after-Christmas dentist appointment. (Who schedules a dentist appointment the day after Christmas? I guess I do.) But there it was, staring me in the face. What initially caught my attention was the fact that the article on the Benilde-St. Margaret junior and senior high school library was on the front page. It is not everyday that a library story makes the front page. (Sorry, I can’t remember if it was above or below the fold.) But then again, it was the day after Christmas and perhaps the news cycle was a bit slow.

We’ve seen stories like this before. The school library, nearly empty of books, has been transformed into a “learning commons.” Novels and a few magazines are the sole print survivors, sitting forlornly in a forgotten corner in case a student needs a change of pace. All the rest of the books and periodicals are gone, picked off by interested faculty for classroom shelves or boxed and shipped to someone with a greater need, often in a distant land.

However, what really grabbed my attention—and reading between the lines—was the interconnectedness of this private school library with other libraries—public and private—in the metropolitan area and how the relationships between this library and its students were about to change. According to the article “Leaders at the school…decided against trying to duplicate what area public libraries offer. Instead, they will emphasize teaching the school's 1,200 students to find reliable information electronically.” Teaching information literacy is important and I commend the school for focusing on these skills. But I wonder what staff at public libraries serving these students think of the decision. Will they see an uptick in circulation? Will their reference staff field more questions related to homework assignments? Will other demands be placed on public libraries that were not present before Benilde made its decision? Did Benilde administrators consult with their counterparts in the public library systems?

I’m an academic librarian so perhaps some of these questions are naïve. And I’m not publicly reprimanding the folks at Benilde. Consider it, instead, a case study that raises interesting questions. I know that public libraries face their own challenges with funding; the pool of money municipalities and counties make available for public library services is steady state at best. (Remember, we’re only days away from the “fiscal cliff.”) I live in and enjoy one of the best public library systems in the country, Hennepin County. I take advantage of their collections for personal and professional use. I’m also plugged in with the good folks at Minitex and the Electronic Library for Minnesota (ELM). Did the folks at Benilde talk to Hennepin County or Minitex as they contemplated the switch? Benilde, according to the article, did not make the decision based on budgetary reasons. It was a gradual decision and followed an earlier weeding of their collection. Evidence existed that students already used public libraries for their research projects. Professional groups such as the American Association of School Librarians were “rethinking how to provide students with resources.” So it sounds like a lot of thought went into the decision at Benilde.

But I still wonder about the underlying assumptions, e.g. that each student “has a laptop and access to physical books at home or in other places.” All of which leads me to a number of “what if” questions. What if those assumptions prove false, that not everyone has that kind of access to computers or books? And what if funding for public libraries shrinks (or continues to shrink)? Or what if a relationship with an e-book vendor sours? What will the school do then? And will I suddenly see a new crop of students at my door, wanting assistance with their school assignments? How will I fit their needs into the spectrum of needs that already exist for the students and faculty at my institution? What will schools like Benilde do then? I don’t have answers to these questions. At this point I’m simply raising them. I do think that some of the underlying assumptions in decisions like these are not always valid or not fully explored or thought through. I’m just hoping that next year students (or teachers) like those at Benilde won’t find a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

30th Year Reflections/28: Heartbroken

“I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight.”—President Barak Obama

Since Friday, when news came to me of the soul-wrenching event at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I’ve wrestled with what to write in this space. It has been a trivial pursuit compared to what families, first responders, and the community of Newtown are dealing with. And yet, there is a need to respond, to put into words, however poor, whatever wisdom my profession might offer at a time like this.

Librarians are not first responders, but they may be in the next line of response. We need to remember our colleagues at Sandy Hook and think of creative ways to support them as they work through this tragedy. The Library Media Center at Sandy Hook is staffed by four individuals. I make bold to name them so that we might keep them in our thoughts and prayers: Yvonne Cech, Library Media Specialist; Nancy Duffy, Library Teacher; Mary Ann Jacob, Library Clerk; and Cindy Carlson, Library Educational Assistant. Beyond keeping their names before us perhaps some of my colleagues will send them a card or note of support; perhaps some already have.

Some of you might also have resources in mind that you can share with them. Librarians are excellent at finding material and connecting sources with those in need. Now may be the perfect time to offer up your expertise to these colleagues. Perhaps a book or article was particularly useful to you in a similar time. Or maybe you know the perfect book to suggest for those in their care—the students who will again come to them looking for answers. For myself, I’ll note a group that was made available to me in a time of need, following the death of my fifteen-year-old niece: GriefShare. Our parish nurse coordinated this program and I found it immensely helpful as I walked through my own grief. Other faith-based or community groups may offer similar programs. I encourage my colleagues at Sandy Hook to look for such opportunities. You are not alone. You need not walk this path alone.

Finally, I’ll end with a story I heard last Sunday. It is, perhaps, well known to you. For me it was a new story that carried with it a sense of hope. The gist of the story can be found in Wikipedia, from which I borrow here. During the American Civil War Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s oldest son joined the Union army, without his father’s blessing. His son was wounded in battle and this, together with the recent death of his wife, prompted Longfellow to write “Christmas Bells.” It was set to music in the 1870s, a carol familiar to many. A few of the verses, it seems to me, speak to those in Newtown and to us:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day | Their old, familiar carols play, | and wild and sweet | The words repeat | Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent | The hearth-stones of a continent, | And made forlorn | The households born | Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head; | "There is no peace on earth," I said; | "For hate is strong, | And mocks the song | Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: | "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; | The Wrong shall fail, | The Right prevail, | With peace on the earth, good-will to men."

Grace and peace to my colleagues at Sandy Hook.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

30th Year Reflections/27: Accreditation

“The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that in all four of the cases, accreditation by the American Library Association did not, and could not, guarantee the survival of library education programs on campuses where administrators had determined to eliminate them.” — Marion Paris, Library School Closings: Four Case Studies (1988)

As noted previously, I’m writing a book about the closing of the University of Minnesota library school. The school closed in 1985, three years after I graduated from the program. The framework for my narrative is provided by Marion Paris’s book, specifically her case study of the Minnesota closing. I’m now writing the last major chapter, with the goal of having the book finished and ready for some publisher (as yet unidentified) by the end of January.

One of the issues I’ve been wrestling with in my research and writing is the role accreditation played (or didn’t play, as the case may be) in closing the school. All of my findings line up behind Paris’s original observation: accreditation did not guarantee the survival of the school. Just yesterday, I found a most remarkable letter written by the director of the school, Wesley Simonton, to Elinor Yungmeyer, accreditation officer for the ALA Committee on Accreditation. Here’s one section of the letter that caught my eye:

As the same time I must convey to you my express regret that the faculty of our College of Liberal Arts is unwilling to recognize the importance of accreditation….Unfortunately, our Liberal Arts Dean has told me that the liberal arts faculty generally, being unfamiliar with the accreditation process, tend to assign little weight to its findings. Future events may indicate how University officials “up the line” view the results of accreditation, but knowing something of the resistance of University officials to the many accreditation agencies on their doorstep, I cannot be optimistic. And so I end with the disturbing thought that universities are not sensitive to the accreditation process. This is undoubtedly “old hat” to you, but at least you now have new evidence on the subject. You have a difficult job in explaining the process—its details and its integrity—to university presidents and other high-ranking officers.

The letter is disturbing and makes me wonder what the current state of affairs is with the ALA and its Committee on Accreditation (COA). Are they still fighting these same battles with university administrators? Why do we accredit programs? What utility is there in the process?

I have, in some ways, been involved with the accreditation process. As a student at Minnesota, I observed a COA visiting team and met with them during their visit. While working in Illinois I was a member of an accrediting team, not for a library school, but for a private high school. As an adjunct faculty member of the MLIS program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul I participated with the school in providing feedback for its self-study report, met with visiting team members during a site visit, and saw the process develop into the eventual accreditation of the St. Kate’s program. The accreditation process is hard work. I discovered, while working on my book, how much work the faculty and administration of the U of M school went through for two self-studies and site visits. A year or more was spent working on each self-study. Enormous energy was spent by the visiting team preparing for the visit, making the visit, and then writing a report of their findings. All of which then went up the line to the COA for its evaluation and processing. At every step great amounts of time and careful attention were paid to the process.

Yet I am still left with the question: to what end? I understand the need of accreditation to insure the quality of individual library/information science programs. I’ve seen how this process helps guide a school and its parent institution towards avenues of improvement. I know and understand how the process, in the end, provides the profession with a cadre of new and competent practitioners. But if the parent institution doesn’t grasp the process, if administrators and faculty from other disciplines can hold the process in such contempt, where does that leave us? I’ll admit, I’m not up to speed on what’s happening on this front today; I’m reflecting my findings from three decades ago. But it does make me wonder and want to find out where the matter stands today.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Primary Sourcery

Just a quick note to let you know about a new blog called "Primary Sourcery" produced by the folks in the Archives and Special Collections department of the University of Minnesota Libraries. The introductory post (and link) may be found here. I invite you to subscribe or otherwise follow along as we offer weekly postings on things of interest here at the Elmer L. Andersen Library.  I'm looking forward to seeing these posts from my friends here in the library and discovering new things about the amazing collections under our stewardship. No doubt you'll hear from me now and then as I join with my colleagues in posting something of interest.  I hope you enjoy what we have to share!

30th Year Reflections/26: Desire

“Two hearts fading, like a flower. | And all this waiting, for the power. | For some answer, to this fire. | Sinking slowly. The water’s higher. | Desire.” — Ryan Adams, “Desire”

I’m pretty sure the lyrics to Ryan Adams’ song, “Desire,” have nothing to do with writing or authorship, but they came to mind all the same as I was thinking about this week’s post. I like to write, and I’m finding the practice of writing—on this blog and elsewhere—an enjoyable experience. I want to do more of it; I desire to write.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing over the last three months and have come to the conclusion—surprising in some ways to me—that I’m in the process of writing a book. I’m writing a book about the closing of the University of Minnesota library school. The project started out in late August as an article. I was reading a book by Marion Paris about the closing of four library schools. Each school was described in a case study, made anonymous to protect the identities of the schools and those interviewed. As I read one of her case studies I realized that she was describing my school—the U of M—and that it was the 30th anniversary of the decision to close the school. I never received a satisfactory answer from anyone at Minnesota as to why they closed my school and so, after reading the Paris case study and realizing the significance of the date, I decided to write about the closing and to take the case study out of its anonymous wraps and put names and faces and actions to the events I lived through thirty years ago. I thought I could do this in an article-length piece, but as the research and writing progressed I quickly burst the bounds of a standard length article. I’m now at about 120 pages of writing (160 pages total if you include my notes for unwritten sections and the 20 pages of endnotes); a total of over 70,000 words. I still have one chapter to write and so the final product will probably be at least 150 pages and perhaps somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 words. I never imaged such a thing could happen, but it has. And, as painful as it has been to write some of those words, and describe some of those scenes, I’m finding it a useful, cathartic, and enjoyable experience.

Perhaps the most surprising thing that has happened as I’ve moved through the process is how consuming the practice of researching and writing can be. There are days when I think of almost nothing else, sometimes to the detriment of my regular work. And yet, as a library professional I am expected to research and publish in service to the profession. So there is no guilt here, no desire to run away from something that has become almost an obsession. But it does mean that I need to be careful with my time and make sure that other things in the office are getting done, the necessary things to keep the unit functioning and on track. Admittedly, it has been a struggle. But the end of the book is in sight. I hope to have the last part of the draft completed by no later than January. Then it will be a matter of finding someone who might be interested in publishing it. I’m still not sure who might want to read it. The audience that has developed in my mind as I’ve worked on the piece is a combination of library educators, those involved with professional accreditation, and folks with an interest in higher education. We’ll see if it goes anywhere.

I’ve been obsessed about projects before. I combed through all the sources I could find many years ago when working on a bibliography of the published and unpublished writings of a friend of mine for a festschrift in his honor. (I think the final product of my bibliography resulted in some 78 pages of published text.) I dove into boxes and files when working on a chapter for a book on Swedes in Chicago. Other projects had the same flavor. All of it was fun. Some of it was hard work. The end result was rewarding.

The flip side, which I also discovered this fall, is that one can come to a point of seeming exhaustion. I was “all written out.” That realization came to me just a few weeks ago, which perhaps explains the somewhat sporadic appearance of the last few blog postings. What has saved me, and what prompts me to soldier on with something I desire, is the discipline I’ve also imposed on myself of writing each day, and posting each week. It has been a valuable lesson, one I’m sure has application in other parts of my work. If the discipline is there, coupled with desire and commitment, it will carry you through the rough patches, when everything seems exhausted and “written out.”

Monday, November 26, 2012

30th Year Reflections/25: In the Woods

“For sounds in winter nights, and often in winter days, I heard the forlorn but melodious note of a hooting owl indefinitely far; such a sound as the frozen earth would yield if struck with a suitable plectrum, the very lingua vernacula of Walden Wood, and quite familiar to me at last, though I never saw the bird while it was making it.”— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I am not worried about catching up on a blog entry if, perhaps, I miss a week or two. I figure everything will even out in the end. All the same, I missed a spot a couple of weeks ago and now have time to fill in the blank. I do so with some slight hesitancy as my absence—which I’ll speak of in a moment—was due to the pleasure of an avocation, one probably not enjoyed by a large number of librarians. I was in the woods hunting white-tailed deer.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot in the library literature about professional hobbies or avocations. A casual search turned up just a few articles, one directing me to a list of websites with interesting titles. Anything having to do with hobbies, so the literature has me believe, also has to do with our “image.” Frankly, I’m tired of discussions about librarians’ image. They don’t do anything for me and I think do very little for the profession—except to confirm that we have an image problem or suffer low self-esteem. Following along with the stereotype I’m sure many folks believe librarians’ hobbies include (or are limited to) reading and gardening and cookery. And they might be right. Librarians like to read and garden and cook. I like to read. I like to garden. I like to cook. But I also like to hunt. Other librarians like to do other things in their free time. We’re not all cut from the same cloth.

I like to be out in the woods before the break of day, to sit quietly and watch the world come alive, to find myself moving from darkness to light as the indistinguishable gains shape and form with the coming of the sun. I am pleased by a skill, gained over many years, of sitting still—absolutely still—to the point at which I am confused for a tree or the stump of a tree, as a chickadee lands on the barrel of my gun, mistaking it for a branch. I am thrilled to sit in such silence, senses on edge to movement and echo and smell, as the sound of wind under wings swooshes above me or the crackling twig or rustling leaf announces a new arrival in the woods. I have heard Thoreau’s owl in the distance and the dawn. Sometimes such sounds announce my quarry, the steady crunch over ice-glazed snow or dried leaves coming nearer. Most of the time, in such circumstances, I meet with success and in so doing experience a holy moment know mostly to those native to this land. It is a moment of respect and of thankfulness. There is no joy in a blood sport but rather a testimony to the woods themselves and those who created them, to a circle of life.

There is something mystical or divine here and perhaps hard to explain to a non-hunter. Those few days I have in the woods are the most restorative of the year. Plunk me down on a stump or stone in the middle of a wood, give me two or three quiet days, and once back in the office I’m good to go for another year. I have been a hunter since the age of fourteen or fifteen; I started fishing when I was three. Much of this time has been spent in the company of my father. Now into his ninth decade, he’s put hunting to the side; my sons and daughter fill the vacuum. It is a tradition passed on from generation to generation. It is a time bursting with memories.

Part of this, frankly, involves research—something librarians are good at. You need to know your prey, know your woods, know your limits. For the past fifteen years I’ve hunted on private land with family and friends. I knew the land; scouted it; walked its paths, watering holes, and resting beds. This year I hunted on public land, in one of the many wildlife management areas operated by our state department of natural resources. Before I headed into the woods I studied maps and aerial photographs. I knew where trails led, what the terrain offered, what vegetation I would encounter. It was a new adventure, in a new place, but linked in so many ways to memories and places past. This new experience allowed me to take a well-developed skill set and apply it in a new way, in a new time and place.

In the end I saw few deer; there is no new venison in my freezer. But the sound that greeted me mid-morning of the first day, a thunderous romp that materialized from the west into three large does bounding majestically through the woods is a sight and sound that will stay with me to the end of my days—and get me through those times in the office when I can only dream of the woods.

Friday, November 23, 2012

30th Year Reflections/24: Giving Thanks

On a day set aside long ago to give thanks, it is good to pause and do this very thing. We do not take enough time, I believe, to say thank you. We need to find more time, to be intentional in our thanks, for gifts large and small, for those with whom we work who show us daily kindness, who make our work pleasant, who toil behind the scenes, never seeking public praise for their labors. And so, allow me this time, on this special day, to offer words of thanks. These come in no particular order but as the spirit moves within my mind and memory and being. I give thanks:

-- For work itself, for the joy and security that comes with the job, in a time when so many are out of work or underemployed.
-- For a meaningful profession that puts me in daily contact with amazing people from all walks of life, who come to me seeking assistance, to find that hidden treasure or much-needed book.
-- For the long days when life and work never seem to end, when tired bones and aching feet remind me of my own mortality, and yet whisper to me that life is good even in my exhaustion.
-- For curious minds and creative souls who produce new things, discover or ponder new ideas, who wrestle with the unknown knowing that just beyond their grasp is some new thing that might change our lives for the better.
-- For volunteers and friends who give of their time, above and beyond what we might expect, and in doing so help us along the way as we both move through time and space.
-- For those more knowledgeable than I who, in their patient teaching, mentoring, or supervision smooth the rough spots, allow us to peek into their own areas of expertise, and in so doing impart a bit of wisdom and insight.
-- For music and those who write it, perform it, broadcast it, or in other ways bring another dimension to our lives; for tunes and melodies and lyrics that speak to us in ways words alone will never do, that lift our spirits when all around seems dim and hopeless.
-- For the wisdom of generations and joys of family; in seeing a younger generation come of age, find their own voice, discover their own gifts and talents; to see the hope of ages in the playful young and the spark of love in the tender eyes of a newborn grandchild.
-- For the joy of service, in doing a job well, in sharing knowledge and expertise with others that moves the whole enterprise of life and work forward.
-- For patience when things seem to come to a full stop, when barriers seem insurmountable, when confusion reigns and all seems lost; for the still, small voice that cuts through the foggy mist of existence, that calms the soul, and says in unmistakable terms that all will be well.
-- For the whoop and holler of delight, the fist-pumping joy that comes when all turns out well, when excellence is attained, when there is no doubt that we “nailed it” and in so doing we bring joy, a sense of completeness, or a new little insight to ourselves and those around us.
-- For those who make it possible for us to do what we do, in freedom, while they find themselves in dangerous situations, on the far side of the world, far from family, friends, and the homeland they love.
-- For the freedom to speak out, write, or in other ways communicate our pleasure or displeasure to those in power with any idea, policy, proposal, or tactic that betters or threatens the common good and to do so without threat of punishment or reprisal.
-- For those things unnamed or forgotten that yet steer us toward the light.
-- For memory, a recollection of both the good and the bad, the ability to share those memories with others, and in the sharing a realization that we are not alone, that many have walked this or a similar path before.
-- For thanksgiving itself, the good and many gifts that come from those simple words: thank you.

Best wishes to you during this season of Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

30th Year Reflections/23: The Day After

“The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work. And we citizens also have to rise to the occasion.” — Governor Mitt Romney

"I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.” — President Barack Obama

I am predisposed, perhaps even biased. There are times when it is appropriate to state this up front. Today is one of those days. I cut my teeth on politics in Chicago. I am a member of the Democratic Party. I stayed up until three this morning (Wednesday) celebrating that predisposition, slept for two hours, and awoke to a new day. With the dawn came a fist-pumping joy, but also a sense of caution, a deep respect for the democratic process, a patriot’s love of country, and a desire to keep any impulse to gloat as far away from my being as possible.

My caution and desire to keep the crowing at bay is rooted, in part, in my professional identity. A few months ago I wrote about professional ethics and the ALA code. Allow me to refresh our collective memories with a few key statements from the code:

…In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations…

VI. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.

VII. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.
We are, indeed, at a critical point in the history of our country and we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions. It is the day after the election and regardless of whether we won or lost it is time to put the common good front and center. We need to call up the best within our being—individually and collectively—to work to improve the life that flows around and through us. We, as librarians and keepers of the social transcript, need to do everything in our power to assist our fellow citizens and provide them with the full range and unfettered access to all the information, thought, opinions, and ideas under our care. We need to inform ourselves, as professionals, of all the issues that influence our abilities to do our jobs and to do them well. We need to advocate for positions that bolster the common good, make us all better citizens, and move us forward as a country.

Along the way we will, no doubt, disagree with others on what constitutes the common good or makes us a better profession. We will need to constantly interrogate our own thoughts and ideas, to make sure we find the correct balance and distinction between our personal convictions and professional duties. If we do these things with respect, with a continuing ear to the minority voice even as we stand in the majority, if we treat others as we would treat ourselves, if we look and work hard in times of conflict for that common ground and spirit of consensus, we will do great things. I am hopeful for our country. I am proud of my profession. I have faith in those ancient words that still ring true today:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

30th Year Reflections/22: Before "Sandy"

“News coverage and reports from state libraries offered little information about damage to public and academic libraries in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Atlantic Coast five miles southwest of Atlantic City, New Jersey, on the evening of October 29….An unconfirmed report from a staff member at the Queens Library in New York City suggests that three branches on the Rockaway peninsula of Long Island were flooded.” — American Libraries

Libraries and librarians will probably live through at least one storm in the course of their career. For me the storm to end all storms occurred in Chicago over the course of a couple of days in the summer of 1987. I was new to the job, having been on site for less than two months. I did not have a firm grasp of all the collections under my care, but knew where they were housed, including a storeroom and hall lockers, both in the basement. I also knew a bit about the building in which everything was kept. Most of the collection was on the second floor, high above any potential danger from flooding or water damage. The building, which I shared with a graduate program, had a history of basement flooding given its close location to the north branch of the Chicago River and the presence of floor drains on the lower level connected to the city storm sewers.

And so it was a matter of some concern when the skies opened late on a midsummer day and continued to rain into the night. I lived a short distance from my office and so late in the evening went over to investigate the state of affairs. Everything was still dry. But the rains continued overnight and the next morning I was up early, back to a building that scared me. On arriving, I had reason to be frightened. The tiles on the basement floor were weeping water around the grout lines. There was no standing water on the floor and nothing near the floor drains, but I was concerned all the same. I went immediately to the basement storeroom and started to move things off the floor and from the lower shelves. I did not finish the job in time.

The building housing my collections had another feature, one that came into play an hour after I arrived: it was connected to other buildings on campus by steam tunnels that delivered hot water/steam heat to the building. Unbeknownst to me these tunnels were flooding and by 8:30 in the morning they were nearly full. The water had no where to go except through the breaks in the foundation walls where the steam pipes entered the building. It was as if someone turned on a fire hose as water streamed into the basement hallway from the tunnel.

Overnight, because of the constant rain, the river rose. It was nearly over its banks by morning. This compounded the issue because in other places of the city the river was already over its banks and—combined with the rain—overwhelming the storm sewers. This change in hydro-dynamic pressure soon was apparent as the floor drains in the basement, along with the basement stools and urinals in the two bathrooms, began to bubble up like fountains. Water came in through every available opening. In a matter of minutes the water rose to the level of the first step on the basement stairs and continued rising throughout the morning. Ankle deep in contaminated water, with no real protection or adequate boots, I went back to the storeroom and continued moving materials to higher shelves. Items left on the floor and in the hallway lockers were a lost cause, the moisture wicking up through stacks of books and periodicals. Thankfully, I knew enough about the collections to recognize that most of this material was duplicate and could be sacrificed. It was the stuff I didn’t know about that caused the most concern.

By midday—still waiting for large pumps to evacuate the water from the basement—I was wrapping damp materials in brown craft paper and trucking it over to a walk-in freezer made available to me by the campus food service. Later, with my director’s permission, I bought another freezer off the Sears showroom floor and had it delivered, set-up, and available for more materials. It would take weeks and months to work through the aftermath of the flood. Other buildings were damaged, some more important that mine to the overall operations of the campus. It was, in many ways, a baptism by fire (or more appropriate, flood) and one that came with many lessons I’ve retained and used again over the years. Thankfully, I’ve never lived through another storm like that, but I have some empathy with what is now happening on the East Coast.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

30th Year Reflections/21: Interviews

“In most cases, the best strategy for a job interview is to be fairly honest, because the worst thing that can happen is that you won't get the job and will spend the rest of your life foraging for food in the wilderness and seeking shelter underneath a tree or the awning of a bowling alley that has gone out of business.” — Lemony Snicket

Thirty years ago this month I started my first professional position. That recollection got me to thinking about all the interviews I’ve participated in over my career. By many standards I’ve probably held fewer positions over a lifetime than most workers. According to a 2010 article in The Wall Street Journal the magic number is at least seven career changes and possibly twice that number before retirement. Over my three decades I’ve worked for four different institutions in five different jobs: instructional services/reference librarian, library director, medical librarian, director of archives, and curator of special collections and rare books. If all goes well and according to plan that number will not change, or change very little before I retire.

This means there have not been many interviews over those thirty years. If I add the number of interviews for which I was not successful to those in which I was the total is still under ten. So I may not have much to say to those who will shift jobs and interview more than I have. On the other hand, I have been on the other side of the process more times than in “the hot seat.” What words of wisdom, if any, might I offer about the interview process? Three phrases come immediately to mind: be yourself, be accurate/truthful, and know your stuff.

I don’t know how helpful it might be to expand on those three phrases in this short space except to invite some contemplation. Individuals or committees looking over a resume or cover letter are fairly skilled, in my experience, when it comes to matching a paper trail with a flesh-and-blood person. They spot inconsistencies, they sense artificiality, they are rigorous in trying to find out who you are as an applicant and whether or not you are a good match for the position, especially in a day of shrinking dollars and a tight job market. Cover letters can be both deadly and comical to a hiring authority when the same descriptive phrases show up again and again. Just type “tired resume phrases” into your favorite search engine and you’ll get an idea of what to avoid.

A few other thoughts come to mind when I think of interviews. The first—which I’ve done myself—is to look at an interview as a means toward sharpening skills. At least one time in my career I realized that it had been some time since I’d put myself through the interview process; it is not something you can really practice on your own or with a friend. And so I applied for positions of interest, updated my vita, and ultimately got an interview. I was a finalist for a position and although I wasn’t hired the experience was invaluable for the next—successful—time. Second (and this, perhaps, from the perspective of an employer)—look at the hiring process as a way to invigorate and diversify a staff. New blood in an organization is important. As I’ve been researching and writing my article/book on the closing of the U of M library school I discovered how important it was to the university for the school to look across the profession, beyond the bounds of the upper Midwest, when filling new faculty positions. Hiring from within, or from a small, provincial pool of applicants can be deadly to an organization.

Finally, it really is important to be yourself. The interview for my present position was an all-day affair, starting at 8 in the morning and ending at 7 in the evening. I had just returned from a trip to Israel; my mind and body were in another time zone. In the middle of my public presentation that afternoon my mind froze. (It didn’t help that a gentleman in the front row fell asleep early on; I found out later that he fell asleep at every event.) For what seemed like an eternity (to me) I stood silently at the podium, my mind racing with questions: Where am I? What am I doing here? What did I just say? I caught myself and continued with my talk. Afterwards I confided the episode to a friend in the audience. His comment: “It just looked like a dramatic pause.” I didn’t lose my cool, I knew my stuff, I carried on, I was myself. Perhaps I was fortunate. In any event, I was prepared…even for a mid-afternoon brain freeze.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

30th Year Reflections/20: The Seminarium

“But that time is not lost which is employed in providing tools for future operation: more especially as in this case the books put into the hands of the youth for this purpose may be such as will at the same time impress their minds with useful facts and good principles.”— Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

Where is the seed-bed, the nursery, the seminarium for nurturing an informed citizenry? Some might think it is found in the debating halls most recently on display or in the post-debate spin rooms of punditry. Others might look for it on the editorial pages of our great national newspapers. Some, more corrupt in their thinking, might believe it is found in that great wasteland known as talk radio. And still others might think, with some small hope, that the source lies within the classrooms of our distinguished colleges and universities. The latter might be closest to the truth, but for me the hope for an informed citizenry is found in the hearts and minds of our youngest children, their teachers, and—should our children be so fortunate—school librarians and media specialists. It is here, in the earliest grades, that the greatest public good will be found “in providing tools for future operation.”

Primary teachers and librarians are on the front lines of the Republic. Unfortunately—at least for our librarians—they are some of the first—along with teachers of art or music—to be sacrificed when school districts face faltering public support, a shrinking tax base, economic constrictions, or indifferent communities. I found myself wondering, as I watched last night’s presidential debate (and the inevitable commentary, tweets, and memes that followed)—where did these folks go to school? Where did they learn their manners? Is discourtesy or insolence the new norm? Did they ever, in their youth, experience the guiding light of a school librarian or social studies teacher, one who impressed “their minds with useful facts and good principles?” If last night was any indication, then the lesson has been lost and we have nothing but grief to look forward to.

If this is a bit of a rant, so be it. What I’m looking for—what should be planted at an early age—is the capacity to sort through multiple channels of information, the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, the patience to let ideas and thoughts stew and simmer for a bit, before any pronouncements or assertions are made. What I’m looking for is a civic exegesis, hermeneutic, or midrash that gives us the freedom to arrive at informed opinions without the press of incessant cultural chatter that demands immediate answers and instant gratification. Or, if truly pressed for time, I’m looking for a citizen quick on their feet and nimble of mind. I’m looking for slow-cooked ideas, robust in character, able to stand up to any fast-food thought that attempts to pass for informed conversation and debate. I want a young mind, nurtured by caring teachers and librarians, to see and understand the progression of thought from information to knowledge to understanding and, finally, wisdom.

Long ago I was introduced to the wisdom of the ages by a school librarian. I have been searching my memory for her name (and asked for help from the school district, hoping they would prompt my cloudy recollections, alas to no avail). Let me call her, for the moment, “Mrs. L.” Even in her anonymity she remains one of my heroes. I was somewhere between the fourth and sixth grades when she asked me to be a student assistant. My job was to help check out books, shelve those books that were returned, keep the school library neat and tidy, and help out in any other way needed. In the course of time I was introduced to a number of authors. I was not a voracious reader but rather a nibbler. I gravitated towards the picture books and mysteries. Every now and then I picked up a work of non-fiction or a biography. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of this—along with the Tab books and Weekly Readers that came to the classroom—created a civil atmosphere, a respect for learning, and fuel for my curiosity. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if “Mrs. L.” had not crossed my path, if the school library did not exist, if the world of ideas was diminished or hidden because my school district could not afford such “luxuries.” Our school librarians deserve all the support we can give them. Remember that when you go into the voting booth in November, especially if an initiative is present on the ballot that impacts public education in your community. We need to provide the tools for future operation.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

30th Year Reflections/19: Politics

“While library directors use statistics to document the excellence of their services, [Anne] Coriston suggests that in politics stories work better: pols may forget the numbers, but they won't forget the child who confides that the librarian is her best friend; they may forget that annual library attendance in New York City is 40 million, but they won't forget that that is higher than attendance at all the city's cultural institutions and sports team events combined.”— Library Journal, March 15, 2003

Last week Sherlock Holmes trumped everything else, but I did promise to talk about politics. So, unlike many of our politicians, I’ll keep that promise. I don’t see myself as a political animal in the sense that I’m not terribly fond of spending time with professional politicians. I’ve been to just a couple of caucuses, rarely put a political campaign sign on my lawn, never staffed a campaign phone bank, donated to a campaign, or gone door to door looking for votes. I’ve run for political office just once, as a neighborhood representative to a local school council in Chicago. I lost. I have been a political appointee (by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress, a position I gladly served for six years). But for the most part the political arena is not an environment I’m familiar with or comfortable in. I’m just not cut out for all the glad-handing and back slapping that seems to come with politics.

On the other hand, I rarely miss a chance to write, e-mail, or phone one of my representatives when an issue concerns me. I know my local city council member, and I know who are my state and federal representatives. I have taken part in lobbying for library efforts, both on the state and national level. But I haven’t been active enough. And perhaps this is the greatest “takeaway” from this week’s post. We have to become knowledgeable about and engaged with the political process. We need to gather stories (and sometimes statistics) to share with our political leaders. We need to have conversations with friends and colleagues. We need to debate the issues. We need to make our legislators (and members of the executive branch) know where we stand on an issue, both as individuals and as a profession. I may not be comfortable with the political arena, may not like the back slaps, but I better get over it, and get over it soon. Our future—professionally and nationally—depends on it.

Long ago I carried on a correspondence with my representative in Congress. It had nothing to do with libraries and everything to do with what we were doing in Nicaragua (this at about the time of the Iran-Contra affair). In the course of my correspondence with the congressman I suggested a number of books he might read to better inform himself on the issue. At one point in our conversations things became a bit heated on my end, something I don’t recommend. Passion is fine, but stepping over into anger becomes counterproductive when communicating with a member of Congress. As it happened, I was in Washington a short time later with ALA colleagues lobbying for library issues. One of our appointments was with my representative. As we entered his office and introduced ourselves I saw a sudden spark of recognition in his eyes when I stated my name. At almost the same time I spied a pile of books on the credenza behind his desk. Many of the titles dealt with Nicaragua, including some of the books I had suggested. My message, it seemed, had been heard. I don’t know how much, if any, I influenced the congressman’s position on either Nicaragua or libraries, but I walked away with the sense that I was a participant, that all of this mattered, that I needed to stay informed and involved. We need to get into the political arena. We need to make our voices heard, now more than ever.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

30th Year Reflections/18: Elementary

“There is complete confidence between my husband and me on all matters save one. That one is politics. On this his lips are sealed. He tells me nothing.”— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Second Stain”

At the moment I’m listening to the first presidential debate of the campaign season, coming live from Denver. I thought I might use this week’s note to discuss the relationship between the library profession and the political process. But I’ve changed my mind. Politics can wait for another week (although I just heard Governor Romney proposing to end government support for public broadcasting—not a very smart proposition to my way of thinking; but I digress). It occurred to me that I’ve said very little in these first posts about Sherlock Holmes, someone intimately connected with my current work as curator of the world’s largest collection of Sherlockiana. And since the first episode of a new television series appeared last week dealing specifically with Holmes—“Elementary” on CBS—its seems that there’s no better time than now to bring the world’s most famous consulting detective to the fore. Here Holmes trumps politics.

I’ll say it right near the top: I enjoyed the pilot episode of “Elementary.” I’m intrigued with the casting of Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson; I think there’s enormous potential in this pairing. I’ll be very interested to see how the characters are developed over the course of the series. (And remember, in 1941 mystery writer Rex Stout proposed a theory that Watson was a woman at a gathering of the Baker Street Irregulars so the idea is not a new one.) I enjoy the creative work of writers and directors (and all the other folks associated with putting together a series such as this) and the attempt to place Holmes and Watson in the present. I would say the same for the BBC production, “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. I’m actually more inclined to “Sherlock” and think that CBS stole a good idea, but that’s secondary to my joy of “the more the merrier” and that both of these programs will, I hope, drive people back to the original 56 short stories and four novels. And I hope these shows will also cause folks—especially students and faculty—to discover our amazing collections. Although I understand their position, I cannot join the traditionalists who object to any attempt to introduce the Sherlockian characters into a modern setting. They’re happy to see Holmes and Watson stay in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I'm happy with them there, too, but also enjoy their company on the 21st century streets of London and New York.

I should also note here that I did not grow up a Sherlockian. I watched the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films on Saturday afternoons and read the stories as a kid. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, I was not a reader in my younger days. It was not until I entered college that I became hooked on books. And even then Holmes was not on my radar. It was not until PBS broadcast the new Holmes series featuring Jeremy Brett in the 1980s and ‘90s that I was drawn back into the fold. Since that time I’ve re-read and enjoyed all the stories, used them in classes, and taken pleasure in many of the parodies and pastiches. I’m sure that many among the true believers still do not consider me a Sherlockian. And they may, to some extent, be correct. My life is defined by more than Holmes. Even when I applied for my present position it was not the Holmes Collections that drew me to Minnesota; it was the spectacular collection of Swedish-Americana assembled by the late Swedish journalist Tell G. Dahllöf. But the local Holmes friends got their hooks into me early, shortly after I started at Minnesota fifteen years ago. And I’m glad they did. Since then I’ve been in marvelous company, surrounded by a group of very interesting and stimulating people, together drawn to the inventive mind of Sir Arthur and his creation. It is, in the end, elementary.  And as for the lips are sealed.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

30th Year Reflections/17: Weight Limits

“It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” — Indiana Jones

I went to bed sore and I woke up sore. It has been one of those weeks. And it got me to thinking about all the material I’ve moved over my career: whole libraries and archives (starting with an architecture library when I was in graduate school) and collections by the truck load. After a while all that physical activity takes a toll, no matter how hard you try to use your legs and “lift carefully.” I’m sure many of us have seen the following in job postings/descriptions: “Must be able to regularly lift up to 40 pounds.” I’m fairly certain that every once in a while I’ve seen a fifty pound requirement for an archival or library position, but that is about as high as it goes; that is our professional outer limit. (I’ve lifted heavier bags of cement or sand, but that’s another story for a different time.)

Of course some of us don’t want to lift anything, or don’t have to. Here I’ll admit to a bit of professional prejudice: I’m not particularly fond of folks who don’t have to lift anything for a living. In my mind these folks are wimps. They need to have some skin in the game to truly qualify as a professional. Now some of these people might counter that they’re just smarter than the rest of us, that they’re on a higher plain of existence, that in the world of higher education or the profession they were born to be administrators and not worker bees. They are queen of the hive. There is no need to worry about the heavy lifting. They have people to do that for them.

Which was exactly the response I received a long time ago…at a conference far, far away…from a colleague of mine. I was attending a meeting on the East coast, on the campus of one of our earliest and most elite institutions of higher learning. In the middle of the afternoon we were at a transition point; the tables and chairs in the room needed to be reconfigured for the next event. I dove right in, in my Midwestern way, and started moving some furniture about when I was halted in my tracks by a member of the host staff. She looked down her nose at me and said “you don’t need to worry about doing anything. We have people for that.” And, indeed, they did. Before too long a squadron of laborers entered the room, dressed in coveralls and work clothes, and finished the work that I and others had started. It was at that moment I realized that some of my colleagues lived in a different world than I did. I could never enjoy their world, being waited on hand and foot by underlings. It was not the world I grew up in or one I enjoyed.

There is a value to getting your hands dirty and I rejoice every time I see one of my colleagues laboring away at another pile of boxes; it has been one of the best ways for me to engage with a collection and to start to know it intimately. I’m not content to wait until some minion has done all the dirty work. I want to dive in right away.

Granted, this egalitarian eagerness has come at a cost. I have four compressed discs, occasional lower back spasms, and what has been diagnosed as degenerative disc disease. I have bad mornings and stressed evenings. But I wouldn’t give it up for the world. It is my badge of honor, a sign that I’ve been in the trenches hustling for that next collection or teaching three sessions straight without a rest and eager for more.

One of my doctors once told me that I could throw my back into spasm by coughing or sneezing (I have) or picking up a tissue from the floor (I haven’t). It is all in the movement. I’d like to think that most of mine have been both careful and graceful.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

30th Year Reflections/16: Gone Fishing

“Gone fishing” — a time-honored sign found in shop windows when the proprietor is absent and unavailable to conduct business

At the moment I’m doing exactly what the sign says…or at least for a portion of the week. Since Sunday I have been in the north woods of Minnesota enjoying a week of vacation I was unable to schedule during the summer months—and getting some fishing in when the weather allows. Yesterday we pulled two four-pound northern pike into the boat. The filets are now in the freezer.

Idiomatic phrases intrigue me. Some, like the example above, can have multiple meanings. In this case it might also refer “to someone who is completely unaware of all that is going on in his or her immediate surroundings. The person described in this manner has checked out from reality and may be daydreaming or just simply ignorant of the people and things in the vicinity.” I have another idiom for this second definition: “out to lunch.” Such are the joys of the English language.

But even on vacation I have not been out to lunch or on the lake the entire time. One of the realities that sometimes comes with a profession—any profession—is the need to take care of business away from the office and outside the “normal” constraints of a forty hour work week. I once asked a colleague what the institutional expectation was in terms of a professional librarian’s schedule. Was it the 40 hours per week indicated in my letter of appointment or something else? She answered by saying that sometimes one needed to work until the work was done, whatever it took. I haven’t always agreed with that assessment, but now and then there’s not much of a choice. You do what you have to do. It is both a blessing and a curse, enhanced for good or ill by today’s technology. Thus, I find myself at a remote resort where I have mobile phone and internet access and the ability to complete some unfinished work—even if the wireless signal is sometimes interrupted by the screens on our cabin, forcing me to work outside on the picnic table.

I am reluctant to take work with me on vacation; it defeats the purpose of getting away, decompressing, and forgetting about work for a few days. But in this case—here my Sherlockian readers should take note—I needed to complete some details related to an upcoming auction that includes a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript of note (and one that we would like to acquire for our collection). If you’re reading this on the day I post it the auction will be underway and I’ll be tracking results from the north woods. From the moment I arrived at the cabin time was spent corresponding with friends across the country and colleagues at work to get administrative approval, remotely inspect the lot, gather additional information from those able to personally inspect the item of interest, strategize on a bid, collect necessary financial information, review terms and conditions, register with the auction house, and submit a bid. Such consultation and activity would have been more difficult—if not impossible—in an earlier age restricted to land line telephone calls and long distance bills. Now, from the comfort of my picnic table or the overstuffed chair by the fire—if the wireless signal is strong enough—I can write these words, post them to my blog, update colleagues and friends, figuratively bait a line, and see what bites.

Normally I set my blog to automatically post my next entry at 1am local time Thursday. In this case I waited until after “our” lot in the auction went under the hammer and the result was known. In this case “the big one” got away. We didn’t have enough bait on the line and were outbid by a Doylean angler with more tackle and deeper pockets—much deeper pockets. In this instance “gone fishing” was full of meaning, intent and hope, done with a group of friends I cherish, and an experience I’ll long remember. We weren’t successful at the auction but it was a great fishing trip all the same. Perhaps next time we’ll hook a big one and bring it home.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

30th Year Reflections/15: Questions About Time

“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” – Carl Sandburg

 I am at a certain point in my career—and life—where I find myself attending more funerals than weddings (or anniversaries or class reunions). At such occasions I find myself thinking about time, a dimension that seems to pass by with increasing speed. How do we manage our time? It is a question I have wrestled with my entire career. The pace associated with each new technology (and remember, I started in the teletype, punched cards, and acoustic coupler age) creates additional pressures and expectations. I now live and work in an age when the general expectation is such that if I do not answer a question or attend to a task immediately—regardless of where that question or task originates—dissatisfaction from the questioning or tasking party grows with each passing minute. I find myself fighting—rightly, I think—against such expectations of immediate gratification. In my less professional moments when faced with a request—especially from those outside my place of employment—I am tempted to utter a response I might later regret. So how do we manage not only time but expectations? Where do we find the time for more contemplative (and critical) analysis and thinking? Does the age of smart phones and tablets—equipped with more computing power than Apollo missions to the moon—imply that we are continually forced to think on our feet? Where is the time, to borrow from another profession, when the old will dream dreams and the young see visions?

Early in my career my supervisor sent me to a time management seminar. Smart person that she was—and is—she probably saw that I was struggling to manage my time and get projects done “in a timely manner.” That seminar—along with the typing class I took in high school—was probably the most useful and productive learning experience I ever had. Last time I checked (which was this week) I type upwards of eighty words a minute with few or no errors. My calendar is now the prime weapon in the organization of my time, tasks, and assignments. Work is prioritized, schedules created, and expectations—for the most part—met. But I still have a problem with my “external clients” who do not understand why they should be put in a queue and have to wait. An almost daily test comes with interlibrary loan requests. Our local agency has an expectation of a twenty-four turn-around time. Most, but not all of the time, we meet that expectation. But when faced with half a dozen ILL requests it means that something else has to wait; another e-mail or phone call goes unanswered while we’re in the stacks hunting down items to copy. It is the unexpected request, the walk-in researcher, the question from right field that can throw the day’s plan out the window.

In which case you pick yourself up, regroup, and get ready, i.e. plan for the next day. You can’t spend time fretting. A swift kick in the pants (figuratively speaking as such self-admonition is anatomically impossible) and a chant of the Nike slogan “just do it” usually gets me back on the rails. But then there are those times when you feel—and really are—underwater. That’s when you call for help. I have this Scandinavian predisposition (some might call it “Minnesota Nice”) towards “an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation.” Sometimes that genetic makeup gets in my way. When the need for help arises it is time to almost literally crawl out of my skin, confound my ethnicity, and ask for a helping hand. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in asking for help. Sandburg, a Swedish-American, had it almost right. Sometimes someone else—a trusted friend or colleague—will help you spend time wisely and pull you above water.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mr. Holmes Comes to Minnesota

While working through some archival files for my research on the closing of the U of M library school I came across a small Sherlockian tidbit that is worth sharing. I found it in the May 3, 1974 minutes of the library school council, a governing body made up of faculty and graduate students. The meeting, as the minutes report, opened at 9:30 that morning with some preliminary comments and reports. The third report came from Dr. Edward Stanford, formerly the University Librarian and now serving on the faculty. The minutes read: "Dr. Stanford reported that the University had purchased a private collection of materials related to Sherlock Holmes. The collection had been designated the Errett Weir McDiarmid Collection in honor of Dr. McDiarmid, leader of the Norwegian Explorers (Baker St. Irregulars)."

This was the beginning of what is now the largest assemblage of Sherlockian materials in the world. The collection the University acquired was that of James Iraldi, a book collector from New York and member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the primary Sherlockian literary society in North America. The Norwegian Explorers was founded in 1948 as a scion society of the Irregulars and is still active today. E. W. McDiarmid, also a former University Librarian and member of the library school faculty, was a founding member of the Explorers and known in his leadership role of the group as "Sigerson." That name, along with the name of the group, was taken from the Holmes story "The Adventure of the Empty House."

Sherlockians are fond of saying "I hear of Sherlock everywhere." Now we can add that his name resonates even through the archives of library school faculty minutes.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

30th Year Reflections/14: Librarians of Congress and the Minnesota Connection

“According to the best American and European tradition, the librarians that have left the most enduring marks have not been technical librarians….The danger of the technical librarian is that he over-emphasizes the collection and classification of books—the merely mechanical side of the library—and fails to see the library as the gateway to the development of culture.” — Justice Felix Frankfurter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on choosing a new Librarian of Congress

I like to read library history. One of the fascinating things to me as I read this history is how the profession expresses itself whenever the President of the United States fills a vacancy for the post of Librarian of Congress. Only one such vacancy has occurred during my professional life, in 1987 when the current Librarian, James Billington, was nominated by President Reagan. The Library of Congress web site lists all the previous Librarians. George Herbert Putnam, according to the site, was Librarian of the Minneapolis Athenaeum (1884-87), the Minneapolis Public Library (1887-91), the Boston Public Library (1895-99) and “the first experienced librarian to hold the post of Librarian of Congress.” By my count there have been two professional librarians in the post, the second being L. Quincy Mumford (1954-1974).

To me the most interesting squabble was over the nomination of Archibald MacLeish as the Ninth Librarian in 1939. Justice Frankfurter had more to say to Roosevelt on the matter:

What is wanted in the directing head of a great library are imaginative energy and vision. He should be a man who knows books, loves books and makes books. If he has these three qualities the craftsmanship of the librarian’s calling is an easily acquired quality. But only a scholarly man of letters can make a great national library a general place of habitation for scholars, because he alone really understands the wants of scholars.

The American Library Association “vigorously opposed” the nomination. 1,400 librarians signed a petition, sent by the ALA to Washington, declaring that “confirmation of Archibald MacLeish as Librarian of Congress would be a calamity.” McReynolds and Robbins, in their book The Librarian Spies, observed that librarians “would have been wounded by the dichotomy that Roosevelt and Frankfurter saw between ‘technical’ librarians and visionaries….To a great extent, however, librarians had themselves to blame for the apparent distinction since they had labored since the Melvil Dewey era to be businesslike, scientific, and efficient.” So the question in some ways comes back to professional identity and the curricula present in library schools of the day. Has the situation changed? I don’t think so.

There is another interesting tidbit in the historical record, this time related to filling the post after MacLeish. One name that appears in letters between Roosevelt and MacLeish as they discussed the latter’s successor was University of Minnesota historian Theodore Blegen. By some accounts FDR was prepared to name Blegen as the next Librarian before he, Roosevelt, died. Truman wanted to act on the Librarian post shortly after taking office. Working outside the ALA structure a number of other librarians including Keyes Metcalf at Harvard and E. W. McDiarmid at Minnesota lobbied Truman for the Blegen appointment. Carl Vitz, head of the Minneapolis Public Library and ALA president, was also brought into the effort. But it was not to be; Luther Evans was nominated for the post. It is interesting to contemplate what would have happened if Blegen received the appointment and what it might have meant to the citizens of Minnesota.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

30th Year Reflections/13: Ethics

“As members of the American Library Association, we recognize the importance of codifying and making known to the profession and to the general public the ethical principles that guide the work of librarians, other professionals providing information services, library trustees and library staffs.” — Code of Ethics of the American Library Association

I have to admit that it has been some time since I’ve reviewed the ALA Code of Ethics. This is not good professional practice; it is a document that should be reexamined annually (if not consulted more often, pinned to a bulletin board, or taped on a wall or window near our desk, always at hand). Perhaps we should build such a review into the performance evaluation process we go through each year at our place of employment. It is not the kind of professional statement we should ignore or tuck away in a desk drawer and forget about until faced with a crisis.

So now, having confessed my professional sin, I am faced with a question: why did I ignore the code? Was it because I was so certain, given my years of experience that the code automatically coursed through my being? Was it an act of pride or a belief that I knew what was expected of me in any given situation? Was it because I have been freed from ethical conflicts and therefore had no need to consult the code? Or was it (more likely) a case of professional sloth? And if so, what can be done to remedy the situation?

There may be at least one mitigating circumstance that I can point to that in some way gives truth to the statement that the code did, indeed, run through my veins. (For a brief history of the code I suggest some additional reading.) That truth is rooted in the teaching, understanding, and wisdom that I experienced at the feet of David K. Berninghausen (1916-2001) in classes taken from him while at Minnesota’s library school. Berninghausen was the founder and long-time chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. His book The Flight From Reason (ALA, 1975) is a must read for any professional. He was seen by some of his contemporaries as “a young turk” and “more radical than many of the established leaders” of the profession. Yet, as Elliott Kanner observed in an October 2002 tribute in American Libraries:

Despite being the consummate idealist and perfectionist in his work, Berninghausen was always warm and humane. "Love, compassion, empathy, consideration for others, brotherhood, all these will help men to live together with other men," he said. "But man's survival and welfare are contingent upon his preservation of the principle of intellectual freedom.” I owe him so much, as do we all.

As do we all. This is why I need to keep the ALA Code of Ethics in front of me at all times. One can still hear echoes of Berninghausen in the current code:

We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.

Ethical concerns come our way almost every day. DKB was a mentor. It is good to hear his voice again. And wiser still to pay attention to a set of principles that mean so much to the profession.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

30th Year Reflections/12: Identity Crisis

“The identity crisis for librarians has undoubtedly had a subtle but important influence on the collapse of library schools….In most institutions of higher learning, library schools have suffered greatly not only from how they perceive themselves but also from how they are perceived by other parts of the institution. They apparently have been easy prey.” 

— Larry J. Ostler, Therrin C. Dahlin, and J. D. Willardson, The Closing of American Library Schools: Problems and Opportunities (1995)

For the past couple of weeks I have been engaged (primarily during lunch, on the bus, and during any other free time I can carve out) in some basic background reading and research as I start to flesh out the story of the demise of my graduate professional school. By 1982 the University of Minnesota library school was in a coma and would linger on life support for three more years before it expired. An earlier post made passing reference to the time I spent—along with other students, many more active than I—fighting to keep the school alive. Obviously, we lost the fight. Now, in retrospect, what strikes me as I review the literature from the time—yet does not surprise me—is how much energy the library profession spent (and continues to spend) on questions of professional education and identity.

Education and identity issues are too complex to address in a short post such as this. But let me lay down a few contemplative markers (in no particular order):

1. Early library education was rooted in a philosophy that stressed technical proficiency. This philosophy dominated library education for at least a century. Is this still the case?

2. A dissenting and minority voice called for liberally educated students and a greater emphasis on theory (as opposed to practice). Is this voice still in the minority?

3. We are identified by some (outside and inside) the profession as service providers. We are also identified primarily as a female profession, comparable in some ways to nursing or teaching. What difference, if any, do these distinctions make?

4. According to some within the profession it is difficult, if not impossible, to build professional theories around a notion of service.

5. At some point in the past there was a split in the profession between public and academic practitioners. Is the profession, in terms of areas of practice (and theory), even more fragmented today? If so, is this detrimental to both issues of education and identity?

6. The profession is seen by some as a second career option, possibly a fallback position if original career trajectories are stymied. On a related note, the profession has opened itself to “feral” candidates who do not possess the traditional master’s library degree. What impact, if any, does this have on professional education and identity?

7. At its core is the profession “reactive” or “proactive” in relation to external forces such as the economy, higher education, technology, or government policy?

Shortly before the University of Minnesota library school entered its final slide toward death it was diagnosed by a number of groups. The American Library Association’s Committee on Accreditation gave the school a clean bill of health. University administrators, internal review panels using outside experts, and faculty outside the school were less charitable. The school, they said, was isolated, unproductive, and behind the times. Was this a smokescreen created by administrators to hide behind while they dealt with real financial pressures facing the university? Was the school “easy prey”? Who provided the more accurate diagnosis?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

30th Year Reflections/11: Always a Student

“The safest thing for a patient is to be in the hands of a man involved in teaching medicine. In order to be a teacher of medicine the doctor must always be a student.” — Charles H. Mayo

 I started this post thinking I would use a well-worn quote from George Bernard Shaw’s “Maxims for Revolutionists” (found within his Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy (Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co., 1903, page 230): “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” But the quote has been so abused and misconstrued—with teachers unjustly bearing the brunt of the criticism—that I settled on this quote from Mayo (although its origin is perhaps even more clouded in mystery) that gets to the heart of this week’s reflection: we must always be a student. The day we think we know it all is the day we’re done—finished, kaput—as a professional. Hubris is deadly. Wisdom comes cloaked in humility.

If we’re fortunate in successfully navigating our way through even one small portion of the continuum of knowing—from information to knowledge to understanding and, finally, wisdom—without an “Icarus moment,” then perhaps at the end of a day (or a career) others might pronounce our work good, our learning sound. Ultimately, it is not for us to decide the quality of our own work, no matter how well we think of ourselves or our efforts.

Early in my career I thought it would be a good idea to weed the library collection. More than a few of the books were outdated, my dean—anticipating an upcoming accreditation visit—also thought it was a good idea, and the professional literature provided plenty of guidance. And so, with the proper criteria established, our small staff began to weed. It was more than we bargained for and as we got deeper and deeper into the project it became clear that I had not thought through the whole process, regardless of how well the literature guided me. I forgot to factor in human aspects such as fatigue and “buy-in.” My staff nearly mutinied. At the start I thought I knew it all. Midway through, I knew better. We collectively took a time out, mapped a new course, and completed the project. It took a little longer to mend fences with my staff. At least one member quit, distressed—justifiably so—by what I put her through.

Earlier this week, at the tail end of a meeting, the discussion moved to the recent passing of the American writer Gore Vidal. Knowing that one of our number was a Vidal collector, I watched and listened in amazement as he shared his passion for the writer: outlined his biography; commented on his historical fiction, essays, and other writings; contextualized his life within contemporary society, etc. It was a virtuoso performance offered without condescension from a deep well of lifelong reading and appreciation. At its conclusion I wanted to wrap my hands around a collection of Vidal essays and share in the excitement. I wanted to learn more.

Each day should be like that. There is always more to study and learn. One might counter such desire with a cliché: “So many books, so little time.” Or one might take a biblical route: “Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” I’ll put these sentiments aside in favor of those who, like the patient in the beginning quote, will benefit from the expanding expertise and experience of the librarian or archivist who serves them. The focus should be on those served and not the server. What we as professionals get out of the process is an added benefit to ourselves and our employer—the ability (and the responsibility) to teach others what we’ve learned along the way and to make our own workplace more vibrant.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

30th Year Reflections/10: Service and Stewardship--The Right Stuff

“NASA's most advanced Mars rover, Curiosity, has landed on the Red Planet. The one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars early Monday EDT to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation.”

— National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) web site, August 6, 2012

Late Sunday night and into the wee hours of Monday morning, glued to my computer and the NASA web site, I watched a most extraordinary event: the entry, descent, and landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. My vigil began at 22:30 hours (10:30 p.m. Central Daylight Time in our “normal” reckoning of the clock), the telemetric commentary and anticipation building with each minute. I followed the folks in the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, cheering with them at each stage of the “seven minutes of terror”: entry interface, peak heating and deceleration, hypersonic aero-manuevering, center of gravity offset elimination, parachute deploy, heat shield separation, landing engine throttle-up, powered approach, rover separation, sky crane maneuvers, touchdown, bridle and umbilical cord cut, descent stage flyaway and impact. On touchdown I screamed and clapped with unrestrained delight, not caring if I woke any family members sleeping a floor above. It was a stellar moment—a galactic, gold medal Olympic moment—for United States space flight and exploration. John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology tweeted “There's a one-ton piece of American ingenuity and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now.” It was a great night!

I’m a big fan of space flight—since I was a small boy watching the rockets go up from my front yard in Florida—but what, you might ask, does this have to do with librarianship and my thirty years in the profession? The short answer might be “attitude”—that “can-do,” “right stuff,” “maintain an even strain,” “pushing the envelope” way of thinking and behaving. At the same time, while “maintaining an even strain,” our professional demeanor—stripped of complexity and jargon—is at its core about service and stewardship.

Curious about how this plays out within the context of NASA library operations, I wrote to their headquarters library in Washington, D.C. and received a prompt reply.

“Most of the NASA Centers support a library focusing on the particular needs of their facility….The Headquarters Library…serves as the agency’s ‘corporate library’ focusing on its management, policy, budgetary, interagency and international affairs, and public affairs and educational outreach operations. The HQ library does not include extensive resources in science or engineering. For a project such as Curiosity, our role would be to track legislative actions and hearings, providing NASA managers with information on public opinion, tracking down editorials and position papers from think-tanks and lobbyists. The information called upon by senior staff may include locating information on the economic impact of NASA Centers and projects. We may be asked to gather reports on previous mission failures in preparation for hearings or interviews. If there are controversial aspects to a mission, we would track public opinion polls, editorials, and position papers….our role in the agency is typically broader than individual missions. We have tracked down budgetary information on most of the worldwide space programs….. The library’s collection of policy documents dates back to the founding of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1915. Our collection focuses on the final, publicly released reports while the NASA History Program Office focuses on internal documents and correspondence.”
It sounds like the NASA library program has “the right stuff” and goes about its business in a very professional manner, what we would expect from an agency that lands one-ton rovers on Mars.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

30th Year Reflections/9: A Professional Snapshot and Glimpse of the Future

“In the last two decades of the 20th century the number of credentialed librarians increased rapidly, but this was followed by a slight decline between 2000 and 2005. More important for the profession, however, is the potential impact that retirement could have during the next ten years. The age structure of librarians is unique. This mostly-female profession has a long-standing pattern whereby people join it at what would be the middle or latter part of many careers. This pattern gained strength as the first half of the baby boom ascended through the profession. Today, this large group of early boomers is in their 50s. They make up over 40 percent of the profession, and they are perched on the precipice of what most think of as the retirement years.”

— Planning for 2015: The Recent History and Future Supply of Librarians (2009)

It is time to consider some numbers. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) there were 156,100 professional librarians in 2010 (professional defined as one having a master’s degree). Another report prepared for the American Library Association (ALA) in 2009 (quoted above), put the number of “credentialed” librarians (i.e. those with a master’s or doctorate) at 104,600. The 2010 median pay, according to the BLS, was $54,500. The projected rate of change in employment for the 10-year time-frame between 2010 and 2020 is 7%, or a numerical growth of about 10,800 jobs. The average growth rate for all occupations is 14%, thus prompting the BLS to characterize librarian job outlook as “slower than average.” According to the BLS the following areas employed the most librarians in 2010:

Local public elementary and secondary schools 35%
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 28%
Colleges, university, and professional schools (state, local, private) 17%
Private elementary and secondary schools 4%
Junior colleges (state, local, and private) 3%

In 2009, according to the ALA report, 17% of the profession was male and 45% of those men worked in higher education. (I’m running true to form.) And finally, the ALA report projected that by 2015 nearly one-sixth of the “current working U.S. membership base is likely to retire. Looking forward another five years to 2020, an additional 13 percent of members will retire.” I’m not planning on retiring until 2025 at the earliest, but then I’m not an “early boomer” (according to the report the largest demographic group of librarians in the modern history of the profession, born between 1946 and 1955; in other sections of the report this group is referred to as the “librarian bubble”). Looks like I’ll be saying “happy retirement” to around 28% of my colleagues before I take the plunge.

Why do I mention all this? Because, for those contemplating the profession or just about to take first steps in graduate school, it is good to go in with your eyes wide open knowing what the profession has to offer (or not). And because, as large as the profession might seem, there is a very good chance—depending on where one lands—that one will cross paths any number of times with people met along the way. Thirty-two years ago, while attending a class on academic libraries, I met a retired university librarian who was volunteering his time on a new special collection acquired by the University of Minnesota. The librarian’s name was Errett Weir McDiarmid and the collection was the Philip S. and Mary Kahler Hench Collection of Sherlockiana.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

30th Year Reflections/8: Theory and Practice

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.” — attributed to Yogi Berra
One day, while working in the library during graduate school, I had a minor run-in with one of the staff, a subject bibliographer (thankfully not my boss). I don’t remember any of the specifics of the incident except that it had something to do with a suggestion I made about connecting my work in the library with what I was learning in library school. This practitioner of the craft (or art) of librarianship wanted nothing to do with my proposal or the faculty connected with the school. She was rather heated in her remarks and I was taken aback by the ferocity of her response. It was clear to me that she had no interest—at least in this case—of mingling theory with practice, a position I felt unjustified on her part. Perhaps she was just having a bad day. But then who was I, a wet-behind-the-ears librarian wannabe, to suggest such a thing to an exalted professional. It was a mildly numbing experience. The fact that I still remember the occasion means it made an impression; it is not how I would want to treat a budding professional. I still think she was wrong (in any number of ways). It would have been (and is) a good thing, perhaps a great thing, to connect the classroom with the workplace.

At the same time I realize the limits of such desire, of a classroom confined by resources, facilities, or curricular direction. As an example: for the past six years I’ve taught a course on preservation and conservation at St. Catherine University as an adjunct faculty member in their graduate library and information science program. The absence of an onsite conservation lab combined with my own inexperience in actual “bench work” forces me to construct the syllabus in such a way as to emphasize managerial or planning aspects of preservation as opposed to actual hands-on experience. If my students want to learn how to rebind a book then they’re in the wrong class. However, they will be able to carry on an intelligent conversation with a conservator and know what a well-provisioned conservation lab or bindery looks like.

Part of this relates to styles of learning and what makes something “stick” in one’s mind. I’ve rarely read an instruction manual for computer software (which perhaps dates me to a time when software actually came with printed manuals). Remember such word-processing gems as MultiMate or WordStar, or my favorite flat file database program PC-File by Buttonware? It made more sense to me to dive in, see how the software operated, what it did, and then ask questions at the point of need (and receive useful answers from whatever “help” functions were attached to the program). For a few of these programs I became the “expert user” at work because I knew (and had experienced) all the little nuances the software could offer (or throw at me); it was my version of a computer game. As a result, I was sometimes targeted by others to assist them when problems arose (occasionally resulting in late night phone calls from harried colleagues, something that gave me an appreciation for those who work in “technical support”).

Some things make more sense when you can see or touch them. It was fine to discuss archival theory in class but what made it really “click” was when, as part of a 120 hour practicum, I was face to face with boxes of material and told to create a finding aid for the collection. One of my most treasured professional possessions is a copy of a memo written by my practicum supervisor to my archives administration professor (in order to change a grade from “Incomplete” to “A”). Writing about me the supervisor said: “His ability to communicate the required information within our format was as natural as any intern I’ve handled. I seldom had to change a word on the inventories he prepared.” My supervisor gave me a copy of the memo years later when we become colleagues. How’s that for a collegial way of rolling theory and practice together?