Library blogs reach mid-career

A number of recent events have led me to reflect on how, or whether, I want to keep blogging. First, I applied for a new job, and knew that the search committee would find my blog, last updated two years prior. Second, I got the new job, which happened to be at an institution where I’d previously worked, and discovered that they’d preserved a previous iteration of that blog, last updated thirteen years ago, and that it had been public for about a week before I realized it. (Ack!) Third, I stumbled across Chris Zammarelli’s post, The Future Fades Away Too Fast.

Chris writes about spending “the better part of a week” building a blogroll. (Remember those?) I was delighted to see on his blogroll not only my own dormant blog, but many I remember following “back in the day” that are still active., still putting the rarin back in librarian. Christina’s LIS Rant, still ranting away. Information Wants To Be Free. Librarian in Black. And more. Reading through them felt a bit like what I imagine going to a college reunion would be like. (I’ve yet to go; this year will be my class’ 20th.)

It seems many of us are about the same age and are struggling with the same kinds of issues. Kind of a mid-career crisis. Meredith Farkas (Information Wants To Be Free) wrote Wayfinding and balance at mid-career, which really struck a chord with me. Like Meredith, I’ve been a manager and left that track to go back to being “just” a librarian.

Nearly twenty years into my career, I’m starting my first tenure-track job. While it’s strangely intimidating, I’m also finding inspiration working in such a large library, surrounded by accomplished colleagues (and not managing a single one of them except myself).

And I’m blogging again. Chris pointed to a recent post by Tom Critchlow, Small b blogging, that really gets at the appeal of blogging for me. “Small b blogging” is

something with YOUR personality. Writing and ideas that are addressable (i.e. you can find and link to them easily in the future) and archived (i.e. you have a list of things you’ve written all in one place rather than spread across publications and URLs) and memorable (i.e. has your own design, logo or style).

I don’t think I’ll go back to the kind of frequency I blogged with when the internet was smaller, before social media created other outlets for sharing. If I’ve got something funny to say or a link to share, you’ll find that on Facebook or Twitter. But, if I’ve got something a little longer and more thoughtful to share, it will be here.

I’m back!

It’s been a while since I updated this site — about 3 years — and I’ve been thinking a lot about the name DIY Librarian.

When I came up with it, I was a newly-minted librarian just starting a new job. I was full of the idealism I acquired in library school, immersed in the mindset of punk and DIY culture, and determined not to lose any of that as I started down my career path. I was, I thought, putting in a couple of years at a big state school before embarking on my next adventure.

I stayed in that job for 9 years. Even though I was in the middle of a big campus where football and fraternities ruled, I managed a small library in a research center. I worked with a small staff and a small budget, and when we needed something, we often had to build it ourselves. Do it ourselves.

When I finally did move on, I went about 10 miles down the road to become the director of the American Philatelic Research Library, where, again, I worked with a small staff and put my DIY mindset to use.

After 7 years, I came back to Penn State in January, this time as the Librarian for Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures. I’m no longer the director of a specialized independent library. I’m one of many subject specialists in a huge academic library system. Does DIY Librarian still apply?

For practical purposes, since I’ve been maintaining this blog, off and on, in various formats, for more than 15 years, and since my Twitter handle is @diylibrarian, it makes sense to keep the name.

Letting go of the practical considerations of online identity, I still like the name. When I teach library instruction sessions, I think about whether I am teaching survival skills to get through this assignment, or lifelong skills that can be transferred to another environment. My hope is that I’m teaching my students how to do it themselves.

SLA 2015 part 5: Deconstructing Storage

silverfish There hasn’t been much programming related to physical collections at SLA in recent years, so I was very happy to see Deconstructing Storage: Creating Safe Spaces for your Physical Collections on the schedule. While my library continues to move in a more digital direction, I foresee our physical collections retaining their importance for a long time yet, and we are in the midst of renovating new library space.

The four speakers talked about different aspects of physical spaces, from shelving to building enclosures to pests, and even preservation through digitization. They also represented different roles in libraries, including architects, librarians, consultants, and business partners. This provided some welcome perspective on communication; for example, architects and librarians may estimate stack capacity differently.

One speaker recommended Building Blocks for Planning Functional Library Space, published in 2011 by the American Library Association.

The discussion of different fire suppression systems and climate control were especially interesting to me as my library is getting ready to finish a new library construction project. I was able to bring information learned at this session back to my board right after the conference.

Tony Stankus drew the most reactions from the audience as he talked about integrated pest management—in other words, creepy crawlies, from bookworms and silverfish to cockroaches. Whereas most discussions I’ve heard of pests in libraries focus on damage to books and other materials, Tony also included risks to humans like the increase in asthma in environments where cockroaches are prevalent.

I thought it was an interesting twist to include a speaker on digitization as preservation in this session. Taylor Surface from OCLC recommended reading “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner (The American Archivist 68: 208–263). The paper advocates a strategy of describing “everything in general before describing anything in detail” (a strategy my library has adopted as a coping mechanism for our processing backlog). Surface also recommended two methods for assessing digital repositories: TRAC or Trustworthy Repositories Audit & Certification: Criteria and Checklist (published by The Center for Research Libraries and OCLC) and DRAMBORA or Digital Repository Audit Method Based on Risk Assessment (a self-assessment toolkit).

I hope SLA programming continues to address the many special libraries which still rely heavily on physical collections and include preservation in their missions.

SLA 2015 part 4: A roundtable on determining fees

Determining Fees and ROI for Association Information Services was a roundtable. When I walked in and saw a large group sitting in a circle, I wasn’t sure how much valuable information I would get from the session, but it ended up being a really great session. I was reminded that one of the reasons I value my SLA membership is what I can learn from other members and their experiences.

It was really helpful to hear about all the different models associations use to charge for information services. One library was rated very highly in a member satisfaction survey and receives part of membership fees. Others charge $80-$100 per hour for research services. One person suggested moving to a value-based rather than the more typical cost-based system for setting fees.

I came away from this session feeling like I had a gained a good background for talking to people in my organization about our model of charging for services.

SLA 2015 part 3: Digital repositories on a shoestring

In my last report from the Special Libraries Association 2015 Annual Conference, I wrote about the new “master class” format used during the conference. Digital Repositories on a Shoestring used another new format, the “crescendo session,” to include basic through advanced content in the same session.

I’m not sure the session lived up to that promise, but I did learn a lot about digital asset management systems from the varied experiences of the four speakers.

The biggest lesson from the session for me was that the “shoestring” part of the systems discussed was not always the same. In some cases it meant a limited financial budget, but could also refer to labor and time. For example, a hosted DAM system might be more expensive financially, but would require fewer internal resources. On the other hand, an open source locally hosted system might require less financial investment but more internal development and support time and expertise.

SLA 2015 part 2: A master class on grant writing

This is the second of my reports on the Special Libraries Association 2015 Annual Conference in Boston.

Revolutions in Grant Writing: Finding Funding for Collections in the 21st Century used the new “master class” format intended to bring more advanced content to the SLA conference. The three speakers talked about the grant process in depth, going well beyond writing a grant application to look at what organizations can do to better position themselves for successful applications and for getting the most out of a grant after it is awarded.

Nina Zannieri, executive director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association, suggested several resources to help organizations assess themselves before starting the grant process:

Zannieri also suggested looking at community foundations and state and local cultural councils.

Next, Amy Lucko and Christa Williford from the Council on Library and Information Resources talked about the grant writing process and had attendees read and evaluate a grant application to get a feel for the criteria funders use. Speaking from the perspective of potential grant funders, they suggested that libraries applying for grants identify internal and collaborative resources for the proposed project and in the application aim for alignment, articulation, and accuracy:

  • Alignment: Do the project’s goals match those of the funder? Are you staying in scope? Is the project realistic? Don’t be afraid to contact the funder with questions.
  • Articulation: Follow the application guidelines, use clear language, and be sure to answer all questions, even if they seem redundant. Different sections may be read by different reviewers.
  • Accuracy: Check numbers and details in your application. Make sure it is consistent.

Finally, Patricia Hewitt from the New Mexico History Museum, a CLIR Cataloging Hidden Collections grant recipient, gave suggestions for making the most of the post-award period and sustaining momentum after the grant. She stressed the importance of assessment to the project and said the funded project could be used to make a case for a budget and/or staff to keep or expand a successful project.

Bringing in different speakers to address different parts of the grant funding cycle was helpful and I thought this session succeeded in going beyond the usual how to find a funder and write a grant application.

SLA 2015 part 1: Classifying and keywording image collections

Boston from Castle Island

Boston from Castle Island

This is the first of a series of posts about my experience at the 2015 Special Libraries Association Annual Conference in Boston. Though I was very busy with my duties as board secretary for the association, I found time to attend more sessions than I anticipated as well as time to talk with friends and colleagues. All of the sessions I attended were good, several were outstanding, and all in all it was one of the best conferences I’ve been to.

In this session, “Get the Picture: Use your Taxonomy to Classify Images,” the two speakers talked about the unique challenge of finding images in two very different kinds of collections. Because images themselves do not have any text, classification is especially important for retrieval in collections of images. The speakers’ use of specific examples to illustrate the challenges associated with classifying images and strategies to overcome them was compelling, and I came away from the session with ideas I can apply to classification challenges in my own library, even beyond image collections.

First, Ann Pool from Corbis talked about a commercial photography collection. The items in the collection come from photographers with their contributed keywords. These keywords are then translated into a controlled vocabulary, which is in turn translated into searchable terms and then into nine different languages. All this is managed using an in-house-developed taxonomy tool.

Pool described the strategies used to improve image retrieval, including manipulation of the contributed keywords and search functionality like keyword autocompletion and navigation filters.

One of the main challenges Pool discussed was over-keywording by photographers. She identified the reasons for this: thinking more is better, using batch keywording, and using keywords to provide background for the image. For example, “skyline” and “Boston” would be good keywords for the image included in this post. I might also add “clouds”—but would someone searching for clouds think this photo is relevant? I might add “Castle Island” or “Fort Independence” because that’s where I took the photograph, but neither of those places is in the image. The photographers think they are providing useful information but users end up frustrated and not buying images from the collection.

Pool uses a variety of strategies to improve image keywording. She communicates with the photographers about best practices, she batch removes overused keywords, and she sometimes rejects submissions and sends them back to the contributor with feedback. The relevancy rule Pool uses is that the keyword only applies if people searching for the keyword would want the image in their results.

Pool also uses crowdsourcing (through Mechanical Turk) to improve keywords. Projects include checking for relevancy and counting the number of people in images.

Next, Joy M. Banks, a library and archives consultant, discussed describing historical images for access. In the Bok Tower Gardens project she described, she started with an existing vocabulary and used contentDM.

In planning a strategy for describing images in a collection, Banks said, it is important to think about how the collection will be discovered and used. Who are your users? Do you have multiple audiences? Will users search or browse? Are you planning for unexpected users? (Can you afford to? Can you afford not to?)

Banks stressed the importance of user input. For example, users of a collection of citrus labels were able to point out that the color of the label indicates the grade of the fruit. If people involved in creating a collection are still living, seek them out and talk to them.

Many image collections can be used in unexpected ways, Banks noted, but a key to this is having your collection show up in search results. When thinking about pushing a collection out to a larger database or search engine (e.g., OCLC Digital Collections Gateway), you should consider adding keywords that apply to the entire collection.

Thinking about collections at the American Philatelic Research Library, for example, we don’t typically use keywords like “postage stamps” or “mail” that would apply to almost every item in our collection. However, in the context of a larger collection, these keywords would help users find images.

The lessons learned in this session can be applied well beyond image collections. For example, in the APRL’s catalog, the subject heading “postal history” (a specific term describing the collection and study of intact items that have traveled through the mail) has been overused to the point that it is often not useful as a search term. When they search, library staff often include the Cutter number we use for postal history in our call numbers (P860) to get more relevant results.

In another example, I recently imported an index for the Meter Stamp Society Bulletin into a larger article index database. I batch added the subject heading “metered mail”—assumed in the single-title index—to all the records to improve retrieval.

Leading with kindness

Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind. —Henry James

Kindness is an essential component of leadership.

When we think about leadership, kindness is not usually the first word that comes to mind. Nevertheless, several speakers at SLA’s 2015 Leadership Summit mentioned it, leading me to begin writing about it and to the conclusion that kindness is essential to leadership.

Being kind doesn’t mean we have to agree. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask tough questions or push for change. Being kind means treating each other with respect and working toward a goal, not toward a fight.

Of course, we all probably think we treat our colleagues respectfully. By taking a step back, though, I’ve found that my initial reaction to hearing a viewpoint I disagree with or witnessing behavior I don’t like is often more angry than empathetic. Read this blog post from Teacher. Reader. Mom. for some great examples of this in everyday life.

How can we change our reactions? These strategies have helped me:

Try this: when someone does something that irritates or angers you, start from the assumption that his or her intentions are good. See how it changes your view of the situation. You can now separate the irritating action from the person and try to figure out why the person is doing this, and how you can work with him or her.

Try this: start with questions, rather than statements. Make them true open questions, not statements disguised as questions.

For both of these, I found an excellent guide in Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.

I also found this series of questions (for which I was not able to find the original source) a good reminder:

Before you speak, THINK. Is it


In my own experiences—in my professional life and in my personal relationships—I’ve found that approaching situations with kindness not only gives me a better sense of well-being but contributes to more success.

Way to go Bard!

I love my alma mater, the tiny and eccentric Bard College on the Hudson River in New York, and I love it even more after reading this Slate article about its new admissions option. The new option allows applicants to bypass the Common Application and instead submit four 2,500-word essays.

Bard commencement, 1998

Bard commencement, 1998

When I was applying to Bard, I was a college admissions dream. I had really good SAT and ACT scores, AP classes, and extracurricular activities, and I was valedictorian. One of the things that appealed to me about Bard, though, was that it didn’t require SAT or ACT scores. I knew plenty of good students – students who went on to excel in college – who had mediocre SAT scores. I liked that Bard seemed to be looking at the whole student, not just data points.

The Specialist: now accepting submissions

I have been appointed to the new editorial board of Journal of Library Administration and am editing a column on special libraries, “The Specialist.” The first column, “What’s So Special about Special Libraries?” has been published. (If you don’t have access and would like an author e-print, please contact me.)

If you are interested in contributing, I am accepting submissions:

Though special libraries share concerns with their more general academic, public, and school counterparts, they also have unique characteristics which merit separate consideration. Libraries of all types are evolving, and just as special libraries can learn from the general literature on libraries, practitioners in general libraries can learn from the experiences and methods of special libraries. “The Specialist,” appearing in even-numbered issues of this journal, will address the administrative concerns of special libraries. The column welcomes contributions from practitioners and scholars. Interested authors are invited to contact the editor at for submission guidelines.