The adventures of the special librarian

This video, posted by the Minnesota chapter of SLA, has been making the rounds.

Many people were amused by the librarian with his little black bag and amazing photocopier. Others noted that his work is not that different from what we do today; it’s just the tools that have changed.

I noted that my job is very similar. Philatelic libraries are, in many ways, old-fashioned. While my library’s catalog is online, we routinely use print and card indexes to access the journal literature. Very few publications are digital, and very little of the older material has been digitized. We just started publishing our own journal online this year.

We are making progress, but there is a definite digital library divide. The New York Times recently ran an article about where American libraries stand in terms of digitization efforts: Playing Catch-Up in a Digital Library Race.

A day in the life of a philatelic librarian

Last week I started a new job as librarian for the American Philatelic Research Library, and this week is far from the typical quiet week in the library because it is our first Volunteer Week and we have four volunteers in the library sorting old journals.

Volunteers sort journals at the American Philatelic Research Library

Volunteers sort journals at the American Philatelic Research Library

So when I first saw that this week is Library Day in the Life, round 5, I thought that I wouldn’t participate because this is clearly not a typical time in this librarian’s life. Then I decided it was actually a good time for me to participate, as I begin to explore what exactly a day in my life will be like. I’ve been keeping a diary at work, so this is kind of a public extension of that.

Here’s a little recap of my day, from my Twitter feed:

Run, breakfast, bike to work, say hello, talk about volunteer work week at the library. THEN check email.

Met member of board of directors for the first time. (This is my second week on the job. Trying to remember names and faces!)

Also, I actually do get to read a lot at this job. Reading up on the library and society history to start.

Morning train just went by. I love my new office.

Met with board member about library blog, digitization, union catalog. Volunteers busy sorting journals. No time for snacks.

Biked home for lunch. Came back and sent introduction letters to other philatelic libraries and librarians, because I’m new.

The volunteers already finished their first project! Wow.

I also learned how to send mail. Important when you work for a philatelic library!

Finished my correspondence. Went out to help volunteers sort old journals. Favorite title: The Precancel Optimist.

Embedded library

While people discuss the value of embedded librarians versus centralized libraries, and the value of having an information professional within the department versus the value of having a library as study, research, and meeting space, I’ve had the best of both worlds for the past 9 years.

I’ve been embedded in a research center, along with my library. Really, this is not so different from the department library model, except that I work at an interdisciplinary research center with faculty and students from multiple departments and colleges – and I work for the research center, rather than the library system.PRI Library

An article on embedded librarians from Inside Higher Ed examines the Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins University, which is well ahead of most libraries in embedding its librarians. Some of the commenters note that losing the library as place means losing access to space for patrons who do not have their own offices, losing access to resources not available online, and losing access to collaborative space.

Having an embedded library – a thing that used to be common in NICHD-funded population research centers, but that is no longer being encouraged in new centers – provides immense benefits that, unfortunately, cannot be measured in research funding.

Because my office is in the research center, I know about new projects as working groups are formed or proposals drafted, and can provide assistance. Faculty and students see me in the elevator and ask questions. I overhear conversations that lead me to develop new workshops.

Because the library is also in the research center, graduate students have a place for informal meetings. While they are in the library, they have a chance to browse new books and journals. This is especially important in an interdisciplinary field, because resources related to population are not gathered in one place in the main university library.

As one commenter noted, the one thing I am missing is a connection to my librarian colleagues. In fact, since I work for the research center, I don’t have any formal connection to them. So, instead of having to work hard to connect with my patrons, I’ve had to work hard to connect with other librarians. Overall, though, I think this model has worked.

Do we have a librarian in the house?

A couple years ago, I wrote about infiltrating a tech conference. I did it again today, this time attending my college’s IT conference. I was a bit nervous about it, since everyone else in the room was classed as an IT professional while my job is in the library group (but not in the library – go figure).

Partway through his opening remarks, our university CIO was addressing a problem and said, “We need a librarian in the room. You wouldn’t believe how badly we need librarians right now.” (Little did he know there was a librarian sitting right in the middle of the room!)

This is just one anecdote, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard an IT professional say they need a librarian to work with them. It reinforced my belief that “the L-word” has a lot of value and meaning and was very timely considering the proposed SLA name change (which I wrote about yesterday).

Later, I mentioned the SLA name debate to one of our system administrators who also happens to have a library degree. He said he didn’t like the idea of dropping the L-word from the name, and that he specifically wanted library training to complement his IT training.

DIY library tech

Over at Information Wants to be Free, Meredith Farkas makes a case for the benefits of every librarian acquiring some basic tech skills. With a small amount of tech savvy and a “willingness to mess around with it and break it a few times,” she says, libraries of any size and budget can take advantage of new technologies.

As an inveterate tinkerer, I couldn’t agree more. I am lucky to have great IT support for my library, but if I want to experiment with new technologies, I have to be able and willing to play with them myself. For example, we are using both Plone and WordPress. The sys admin will help me install and update the software, and we have a great webmaster who maintains our main web site, but why should they have to learn all the inner workings of the software themselves? Both Plone and WordPress have great development and user communities, and as long as I have a sandbox to play around in, I can experiment until I get the results I want.

If I had to wait for someone to do these things for me, I’d still be in a queue, great IT staff or no. The library catalog, let’s face it, is not their top priority.

I would never call myself a programmer, but my parents introduced me to programming as a kid, and I’ve always enjoyed the challenge. In college, I satisfied my lab requirement by taking every computer science class my college offered – all two of them. These days, with the support of open source communities, it is incredibly easy to play around with programming. I think the biggest challenge is seeing it as playful and fun instead of scary – and I thank my parents for giving me the right attitude.

What makes a library a library?

On the latest episode of the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Tech Therapy, Scott Carlson and Warren Arbogast discuss the future of library buildings. They begin the discussion talking about Goucher College’s new library building, which will include a restaurant, art gallery, and treadmills. They talk about the library as a social place, the academic symbolism of books, and the possibility of the bookless library.

I always find it amusing that a library building that includes nourishment for the body and the spirit as well as the mind is seen as something new. I used to work in one of the original Carnegie libraries near Pittsburgh, and the building includes an athletic club and a concert hall. The athletic club includes a pool, and formerly a bowling alley too. The library opened in 1898.

Part of what has always appealed to me about libraries is their role as community spaces. It seems particularly easy to use public libraries as examples, but good corporate, academic, and other libraries play community roles as well.

The best quote from the Tech Therapy discussion, I think, was: “So long as there’s a librarian in it, it’s a library.”

Remembering Dr. Amy Knapp

The other night I went to dinner with some colleagues, and discovered that one of my companions was a fellow University of Pittsburgh Information School alum. She asked me who my favorite professor was, and I told her that I was really inspired by an adjunct professor, Amy Knapp. She then told me that Amy had died just a couple of weeks ago. I was shocked. Amy was very young – only 46 – and had been battling cancer for the past year. (There is an obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.) I hadn’t kept in touch with her and had no idea she was sick.

I took two courses with Amy. One was on social science resources. I’m not sure what motivated me to take it at the time, since I wanted to be a humanities librarian, but since I ended up in a social science library it’s proven very useful. The other was a course on bibliographic instruction, and I remember a story she told the class which has inspired me ever since.

Amy worked at the University of Pittsburgh’s main library for a long time, and was eventually promoted to assistant director. But in this story, she was working at the reference desk. A returning student (that’s academic lingo for a student older than 18-21 who is returning to undergraduate education) came to the desk, looking flustered and near tears. She was double parked (the University of Pittsburgh is an urban campus), needed to be somewhere, and couldn’t figure out how to get there or how to park legally.

Amy could have told this woman she was a librarian, not a parking attendant. She could have told her that this was a library, not an information booth. But she didn’t. She picked up the phone, called the office the student needed to talk to, and put the student on the phone. The student got her issue resolved.

Amy’s point: now how does this student view the library? Probably as a welcoming and friendly place on campus. Is she likely to come back when she starts her classes? And how much trouble was this for Amy to do?

When you have the power to help someone, especially someone who is clearly reaching their breaking point, why go out of your way to say “no”? When you sit at a reference desk, you represent your library, your institution, and libraries and librarians everywhere. Make us proud.