Librarians Are Magic!

By Fern Hallman, M.Ln.Librarian can do it all_129009653 [Converted]

Every librarian I know has had this conversation. You meet someone, they ask you what you do, and then they say it: “I love books.” Yes, I love them too, but there is a lot more to being a librarian.

Many people do not realize that librarians are expected to go far beyond minding the library — and always have been. Back in the day, they even delivered books on horseback!

Thinking about the various duties librarians are asked to perform every day makes me ponder about how being a librarian has evolved over the years. Or has it? Maybe the central role of the librarian has remained the same, but the specific tasks have morphed over time to reflect outward changes in our world.

Here are some of my varied and treasured experiences as a librarian.

I have been lucky to have jobs where I have participated in creating new libraries. Imagine a blueprint for a new library building, and then figuring out what is needed to fill it up. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and librarians get the chance to determine what’s needed and wanted in their communities. Many librarians choose individual titles very meticulously, but it’s a whole different game to assemble an entire library at once.

One of my favorite “special skills” is the librarian’s ability to make sense out of bits and pieces of information. I’m a librarian who knows something about just about everything, and I know how to get up to speed on any topic in a hurry. In my initial interview for a job at a public library I found myself saying many things: “I love books,” “I know the difference between a stock and a bond,” “I speak four languages” (not fluently), “I can knit a boyfriend or a pet using scraps of yarn” (please refer to one my all-time favorite books: “Knit Your Own Boyfriend: Easy-to-Follow Patterns for 13 Men,” by Carol Meldrum), and most importantly, “I love stress!”

Often a library patron knows a little bit about a book, like the name of the dog in the story, and the color of the book jacket, and a good librarian (or a team) can figure out what it is. The patron remembers there was something about red hair, puffy sleeves, and the depths of despair. OK, maybe that one’s too easy. The New York Public library recently held an event called Title Quest 2018. A group of NYPL staff members gathered to try to identify books that patrons remembered. Using bits and pieces of information, they were able to solve nearly 50 mysteries and reunite hopeful readers with their long lost books.

Another magical thing librarians do is change with the times. When I was in library school, we learned about online searching using an acoustic coupler that made weird noises when you stuck your (landline) phone into it. Needless to say, everything has changed since then. But being exposed to those early database searches still comes in handy: I can do more with Google than the average citizen, and I can help you determine Computer Class_395916058what web sites are more reliable than others. Librarians across the country have played an indispensable role in teaching their users how to use computers and evaluate the information they find.

Many librarians coordinate magical programs such as storytelling for children, literacy skills, and book talks for adults. Many librarians have come up with unique programs for lending things other than books. They do all this while also unjamming copiers, keeping track of whose turn it is to use the computers, handing out bathroom keys, and so much more. They often also interact with patrons who have mental health issues and assist non-English-speaking patrons.

Every librarian has a story about what they can’t do. Here’s mine: I was working as a news librarian at an Atlanta TV network that shall remain nameless. One morning I got a call asking if we had any video or photographs of the “vast right wing conspiracy.” Despite my prodigious magical powers I had to say no that time. I was also obliged to explain to more than one library patron that while you can easily research federal, state, and local laws, there is no list of things that aren’t illegal.

Public libraries are a great asset to society, but today’s librarians are sometimes expected to take on responsibilities that they never expected. For example, the idea that anyone can come in and stay as long as they like is an ongoing challenge. Also, when I got my first job at a public library, I was shocked and dismayed to learn that I had to teach THOUSANDS of people how to use microfilm each and every day.

Today’s nationwide opioid epidemic has led to a program that supplies public libraries with Narcan to reverse overdoses. I find this to be kind of heroic and also terrifying at the same time. Librarians are responsible for providing books and information, presenting all kinds of programs and entertainment, promoting technological literacy… and literally saving lives?

Speaking of going beyond the call of duty, here’s a librarian’s take on the issue of boundaries.

In summary, most librarians will do their best to help patrons in any way they can. It’s what we do. More than that, it’s our calling and our passion. But don’t ask your librarian to braid your hair (unless you are under the age of five, in which case, maybe they will).

Further reading

For more on the magic we librarians create, here’s an interesting article on the role of librarians.

 

fern

Fern

Fern has worked for Brodart as a Collection Development Librarian since 1990. She also did a stint as a reference librarian in the CNN newsroom and is married to a newspaper librarian. Click here for more.

What Ever Happened to…?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

Xerox Machine

Chester Carlson invented the photocopier in 1938, but the now ubiquitous magic machine didn’t appear in commercial usage until 1959. The first one in the spotlight was the hefty Xerox 914, weighing in at a whopping 650 pounds. It wasn’t long before college students and librarians were “Xeroxing” magazine articles and catalog cards galore, in addition to using the trademarked name as an adjective and a verb.

If you’re old enough, you may recall the Xerox Corporation joining the ranks of Kleenex, Frigidaire, Clorox, and others in endless attempts to get people to stop misusing its name. Today, we “photocopy” everything under the sun using countless brands of equipment. The Xerox Corporation is still in business, and they still make Xerox machines. However, like so many longtime names in American business, they were absorbed into a new enterprise (now called Fuji Xerox).

Microfilm ReaderMicroFilm Reader_1048960790

Bulky and cavernous, these hulks — with names like Kodagraph — started taking up space in libraries during the 1930s. Early models demanded darkened rooms and considerable floor space, although new technology helped squeeze down their size in the 1960s. By the 90s, however, microfilm readers began their decline into obsolescence, a casualty of the mad rush towards digitization. Most medium to large libraries still have one or more devices tucked away for reading microfilm or microfiche on demand, but many staff are understandably unfamiliar with how to use them.

old librarian_2167390Hair in Buns, Shushing, Sensible Shoes: The Image of the Mean Spinster

How did we come to collectively use this image to represent a librarian? In the mid-to-late-19th century, single women started working outside the home in much greater numbers. With many professions still forbidden to women, that of librarian was one of several careers that became known as a “woman’s profession.”

Cornell University librarian Michael Engle, in his fascinating paper “Remythologizing Work: The Role of Archetypal Images in the Humanization of Librarianship,” discusses how the single female librarian was seen as a “good mother,” someone who would educate children and provide morally good literature for the poor and uneducated masses. As Engle relates, the shadow side of this “Good Mother” is “The Crone.” The negative image of the librarian came to gradually replace that of the saint who helps others. Armed with a scowl, shushing library patrons, hair in a bun, feet outfitted in sensible shoes, this mean character lurks even today in the imagination of some people, not to mention living on as a convenient cliché in advertisements. Some of us librarians might admit that, in our early days, we may have put our own fingers to lips to tone down excessive noise within our hallowed halls. I am not confessing.

Card Catalogs

Starting with the Library of Congress’ catalog card service in 1911, libraries began subscribing to this service and filing these cards in the multi-drawered furniture we all remember fondly. Later, OCLC offered its own card service to libraries. Surprisingly, this service continued being offered to customers well into the 21st century. Its termination on October 1, 2015, marked an official close to the card catalog, though they had vanished from most libraries long before that.

Where do old catalogs go to die? Many of them have found new purpose with these uses: sewing and craft supplies, wine storage, coffee tables, shoe holders, displays for postcards in antique shops, etc. Perhaps the most famous example of re-purposing appeared in the TV series “The Big Bang Theory,” where a card catalog starred as part of Sheldon’s living room decor. And what about those millions of rag content cards with summaries, height in centimeters, pagination, and tracings? At least one resourceful librarian took a heavy box of them home when his library’s card catalog was put to rest. He used them for note-taking and grocery lists. How do I know this? As with the aforementioned shushing, I am not confessing.

But wait, I have declared an end to the catalog too quickly! For libraries that continue to make use of the system today, Brodart makes handsome, well-constructed card catalogs.

24301650_120185669969Library Paste

This sticky paste, generally known in the industry as starch glue, was made of water and flour. Eons ago, many of us used it in our professional endeavors as an all-purpose glue. For the sake of professional accuracy, I must add that as children, a few of us might also have eaten it. You guessed it: I am not confessing to this, either. Production of starch glues was tied to supplies from extensive cassava plantations in Indonesia. When they fell under Japanese control during the Second World War, the industry turned to other types of glues. Here’s a paper on the history of wood adhesives that reveals even more (PDF).

I was not able to discover when use of library paste ceased but can confidently say that when sensible and progressive library staff learned about the virtues of the new PVA glues, they embraced the technological advancement and firmly stuck to it. Besides offering better adhesive qualities, this glue is apparently not palatable.

Library CatsCat on Books_609107240

What ever happened to those lovely felines that used to live in libraries? Many of their kind remain to prowl the stacks and fend off mice. Library cats are still in residence in libraries nationwide, although their numbers are decreasing, perhaps due to a combination of ADA, allergies, and the protests of ailurophobes. My cat still rules over my personal library, though he prefers watching television and sleeping in front of my computer keyboard.

16mm Film Projectors

Can anyone over the age of 40 ever forget the sound of the trusty workhorse Bell & Howell 16mm film projector? For a bit of auditory nostalgia, listen to this YouTube clip. At one time, it was important for AV staff in libraries to know how to use the three types of machines: Manual Threading, Self-Threading, and Slot-Loading.

The introduction of VHS tapes for commercial and educational use in the 1980s led to the demise of film projectors in most libraries. For a brief period, VHS struggled against a competing format, Beta, but soon won supremacy. We all know what eventually happened to VHS. Though gone from libraries, VHS today lives on in basements, attics, and garage sales. Here’s an article on old film projectors to take you farther down memory lane.

CDs_786220756CD-ROM Databases

In the early days of digital information use in libraries, the Internet did not exist for us. Vendors supplied libraries with CD-ROM discs, which looked like today’s music CDs and DVDs. Who of a certain age does not remember InfoTrac, which first infiltrated academic libraries in 1985, and soon followed across all types of libraries? Once Internet access became stable, CD-ROM use soon shriveled and shrank. EdTech has a nice online retrospective on CD-ROM databases.

Melvil Dewey

Born Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey in 1851 in rural Adams Center, New York, Dewey is known for his wide-ranging interests in education, winter sports, spelling reform, and — of course — libraries. His eponymous classification system still thrives, despite long-term competition from the Library of Congress classification system and recent library developments that use a bookstore style to group books by BISAC headings.

As an aside, Dewey would not have survived the current #MeToo movement, for another of his avid interests was female anatomy. Wayne Wiegand, whose biography “Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey” is considered the most historically complete and revealing, describes his behavior using the phrase “a persistent inability to control himself around women.” Dewey was an interesting, if somewhat controversial character, and it would be fun to write much more about the co-founder of the American Library Association and inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. But to return to the focus of this article, Dewey died of a stroke in Florida, in 1931, at the age of 80.

This forward-thinking quote from Dewey still rings true today:

“A library’s function is to give the public in the quickest and cheapest way: information, inspiration, and recreation. If a better way than the book can be found, we should use it.”

Henriette Avram

If you are like most librarians, you’re asking, “Who was she?” Avram, without a doubt, was one of the most influential figures ever to shape libraries, although few recognize her name. Avram was born in New York in 1919. She was not a librarian by training. Rather, she was a computer programmer who worked for the National Security Agency and, later, the Library of Congress. It was there, at the institution she referred to as “the Great Library,” that she was asked to develop an automated cataloging format. Through her genius, in 1968, the MARC record was born. Avram died in Florida in 2006.

City Directories

Valuable for genealogists, and perhaps most repeatedly used by skip-tracers, investigators, and voyeurs, the contents of the local city directory were among the most requested items of the library-based telephone reference service. So much so that some libraries developed policies as to how much — or little — service they would provide to callers. Strict policies were also developed to safeguard the books from developing legs and walking out the door.

Fold3, Ancestry, and other genealogy databases offer rich historical collections of U.S. city directories, as does the Internet Archive. The obituary of the city directory hasn’t been located, but a plethora of contemporary electronic databases offer much information, usually for a fee. Nothing satisfies the curious more, though, than leafing through the fascinating historical information within the hardbound covers of city directories. The story of how that information was gathered is for another day!

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Nothing brings a smile to Paul Duckworth’s face quite like a good book, a long walk, and the unmatched beauty of country life. Click here for more.

Floating Collections

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

20984552 - a stair case of books floating on a cloudy sky backgroundThe concept of floating collections is one that tends to polarize librarians. Many of us either love or loathe the idea. Toss that topic out at a conference social hour and listen to the reactions.

“Floating collections—what a neat idea!”

“Floating collections—I don’t want that to happen in my library.”

“Our library has been using floating collections for several years. We wouldn’t think of going back to static collections.”

“Well… yes, I can see some benefits. But what about …?”

The idea of floating collections is fairly new, wouldn’t you think? Surprisingly, the concept has been around longer than I realized. Floating collections began in a regional library system in Western Canada in the 1930s. The concept was later adopted by a district in Colorado in 1984 (a 50-year delay!). You have to hand it to those Westerners: they are free-thinking pioneers in many areas, including library practices.

I remember first reading about floating collections in 2003. The article I read intrigued me, but triggered several questions as well. It wasn’t until several years later that I found myself working in a library district that had been using floating collections for several years. After reading much more about it in the literature, visiting with librarians, and experiencing it firsthand as both a staffer and patron in a multi-branch system, I have developed my own observations and opinions.

There are some strong and clear positives. Floating collections make books available for patrons more quickly, while reducing staff time and delivery vehicle expenses. Collections get refreshed continuously, meaning branch collections better reflect what their patrons are using. Furthermore, there’s less wear-and-tear on materials, and centralized selectors don’t need to make branch-by-branch decisions on who receives a copy. The Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio found that floating led to budget savings of 10-15 percent and greater patron satisfaction. Another library’s experience was that floating collections brought the staff together in communication and collaboration through the bond of joint ownership between branches.

25661348_mSpringfield-Greene County Library (Missouri) began floating collections in 2007, and Lisa Sampley, Collection Services Manager, says she cannot imagine not using floating collections now. Her experience has been that the librarians buy fewer copies of some titles now and use the saved funds to purchase additional titles that they would otherwise not be able to afford. Another plus has been greater circulation. As Sampley put it, “Because materials are more readily available, they check out more.”

How could one argue against these advantages? Looking more closely, however, there are some drawbacks — or at least perceived drawbacks. Redistribution becomes a major issue: “We don’t have any room on the shelves for these items! How do we get them to another branch where there’s shelf space?” Branch collections can no longer be tailored to meet the needs of specific population groups, staff at branch libraries have little or no input as to what is in their collection, and portions of the collection can become unbalanced: “What happened to all the picture books?” “How did we get so much science fiction on the shelves?” Weeding can fall into the hands of busy front line staff, who may not recognize the value of individual items. Finally, patrons have a tendency to return items to a branch near a major road they travel or close to work, out of convenience, rather than to their usual library.

One library’s experience is that branches with high circulation become inundated with materials while those with low checkouts tend to notice their collection getting smaller and smaller. Another issue is with staff time. Much is made of saved staff time after implementing floating collections, but a survey1 revealed that several libraries were unhappy with the amount of time spent on managing collections, especially redistribution efforts. Overall, the redistribution issue is widely accepted as the most significant drawback.

What about circulation statistics? It is generally accepted that floating collections lead to an increase in checkouts—and the experience of many libraries tends to bear this out. However, the facts are inconclusive. Noel Rutherford, Collection Development Manager at Nashville Public Library, found that yes, checkouts went up—for some portions of the collection. However, for other areas or types of material, circulation decreased. Rutherford reported that following their late 2012 implementation of floating collections, some branches in her system experienced a more than 50% drop in circulation of large-type materials and more than 40% decrease in checkouts of AV materials.2 After much analysis and consideration, Nashville Public Library discontinued floating collections in late 2014.

22992147 - library with stack of books opened.The survey mentioned above, of over 100 library respondents, found that there is an almost equal divide between the pro and con camps on the concept of floating collections.3 So, what’s a library to do? Should we float collections or give them a permanent home? The answer isn’t simple. Prepare to take a good look at your library: its needs, user makeup, and objectives. Your answers to the following questions will help you determine whether your library is a good candidate for floating collections.

  1. Is your district suburban, with branches that serve similar types of patrons? Many librarians suggest that floating fits best in districts that have fairly similar clientele from branch to branch.
  2. Do you have a main library or central resource center, along with branches that all serve a somewhat distinct demographic group? If so, floating may lead to mixed results — working well for some branches and not well for others.
  3. What collections do you have that would not be desirable to float?
  4. Is participation from branch staff valuable in shaping collections? How important are tailored collections and branch-specific selections of materials?
  5. Is your district prepared to undertake a vigorous weeding program prior to implementing floating collections? Many librarians report that a thorough weeding effort prior to starting leads to greater satisfaction.
  6. Do one or more branches serve a geographic area and/or population that would benefit from a collection targeted at specific interests, needs, and usage patterns that are distinct from the remainder of your district?
  7. What place is there for low-circulating types of materials in your district? Does it matter where they are housed?
  8. Do you perhaps want to test the waters by initially floating small or specific portions of your materials?
  9. Can you develop a plan prior to implementation so that you can be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with the challenges of floating collections? Lisa Sampley at Springfield-Greene County Library wishes she had done more investigation and planning to deal with likely issues.
  10. Last but not least, what are other districts similar to yours doing? Why reinvent the wheel when you can tap into the rich experience of colleagues at other libraries? Sometimes the best flow of information starts during a library conference social hour.

Abby Hargreaves is a recent MLIS graduate and blogger who formerly worked at a large suburban library district with floating collections. She summed up the issue nicely with these comments from her library blog, 24 Hour Library:

The goal of floating collections is to create greater variety. This is especially important for smaller branches. So, with a static collection, if patrons are the kind of people who prefer to browse to look for something to read, especially in small libraries and especially if the patron prefers a specific genre, their options will be limited.

But what about patrons who prefer to visit a library knowing what they want to get? As someone with a lengthy to-be-read list, this is often my strategy. Floating collections make this challenging. I can check the online catalog, of course, before I leave for the library to go pick it up. But if the book is currently living at a library that’s a bit distant, I have three options: going to that distant library, putting it on hold and waiting two or three days for it to reach me, or going with something else.

So, this is why I don’t have a strong opinion either way about floating collections — or, rather, I have strong opinions both ways and they create this neutral space between them like the center of a rope in tug-of-war.

A Zen librarian might wonder, “What is the sound of one collection floating?” The Buddha would respond, “Be awake. Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.” And so we shall!


1 Weber, Kate E. The Benefits and Drawbacks of Working with Floating Collections: The Perceptions of Public Librarians. A Master’s Paper for the M.S. in L.S. degree. March, 2014. School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. p. 27

2 Rutherford, Noel. “To float or not to float?” Library Journal, April 1, 2016, p. 47

3 Weber, Kate E. The Benefits and Drawbacks of Working with Floating Collections: The Perceptions of Public Librarians. A Master’s Paper for the M.S. in L.S. degree. March, 2014. School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. p. 43

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Nothing brings a smile to Paul Duckworth’s face quite like a good book, a long walk, and the unmatched beauty of country life. Click here for more.