SoCal Connected Blog

The Virtual Librarian

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Like many workplaces, the libraries are full of bloggers. Here is a look at librarian life in librarian's own words.

The Librarian Avenger's blog tells the story of an early encounter with "The Worst Librarian Ever:"

Once upon a time, I was a new employee at Cornell University’s Olin Library. One of my first assignments was to tour the campus libraries and get a sense of the place. As you can imagine, campus library tours are not as popular as say, bong hits at the Tri Delts. Often the tour consisted of three or four people. One ill-fated day, the Olin Library tour consisted of one person: me.

Two of the library’s head muckeymucks guided the tour. One of them, a stern grey-haired woman, will heretofore be known as the Worst Librarian Ever.

The tour proceeded, and the three of us wandered through various rooms. I feigned interest in an array of statistics. Finally we reached a popular section of the library nicknamed The Cocktail Lounge, a white 1970’s style reading room filled with comfy chairs and tables arranged for group work. Students sat reading, listening to music, and talking.

I was relieved. Here at last was a comfortable space where the real life of the library took place, away from the fluorescent backrooms of library administration. I wondered what people were reading. A buzz of conversation filled the room.

My tour guide kept up her spiel about circulation and holdings, until The Worst Librarian Ever suddenly cut her short. “Excuse me” she said, striding away from our small group. A lone student lay across two of the comfy chairs with a book on his chest. The comfy chairs, which I suspect were chosen for the express purpose of being comfy, had put him to sleep.

The Worst Librarian Ever leaned over the student and poked him awake. I watched in horror as he woke with a start to stare into her blazing eyes. The Worst Librarian Ever, pausing for effect, raised her finger, pointed and said in a voice so terrible its echo caused students in surrounding states to drop out of Library School:

“Take your feet off that chair RIGHT NOW young man!”

I winced. The entire room winced. The student took his feet down and put on his headphones. Conversation started up again. The earth continued to turn.

Five years in the future, three of the students in the room find themselves voting down a library millage but can’t quite explain why. Ten years in the future, the young man will be arrested for soliciting a dominatrix to flog him with rubber stamps. Five minutes in the future, I place an emergency call to my friend the Excellent Cornell Librarian.

Librarian Avenger goes on to explain why you should fall to your knees and worship a librarian:

Ok, sure. We’ve all got our little preconceived notions about who librarians are and what they do.

Many people think of librarians as diminutive civil servants, scuttling about “Sssh-ing” people and stamping things. Well, think again buster.

Librarians have degrees. They go to graduate school for Information Science and become masters of data systems and human/computer interaction. Librarians can catalog anything from an onion to a dog’s ear. They could catalog you.

Librarians wield unfathomable power. With a flip of the wrist they can hide your dissertation behind piles of old Field and Stream magazines. They can find data for your term paper that you never knew existed. They may even point you toward new and appropriate subject headings.

People become librarians because they know too much. Their knowledge extends beyond mere categories. They cannot be confined to disciplines. Librarians are all-knowing and all-seeing. They bring order to chaos. They bring wisdom and culture to the masses. They preserve every aspect of human knowledge. Librarians rule. And they will kick the crap out of anyone who says otherwise.

The Shifted Librarian explains how technology is changing her job:

So I call myself "The Shifted Librarian," but what does that mean? I took the name from a presentation that I do called "Information Shifting" about how the change from pursuing information to receiving information is and will be affecting libraries.

[...]

So back to the definition of information shifting. It comes from a New York Times article that discussed the history of consumer fair use and the entertainment industry's efforts to regulate use of VCRs and MP3 players. It referred to the 1984 Supreme Court decision in favor of VCRs in which the judges declared that these devices were okay because consumers were using them to "time shift." In other words, to record shows to watch them at their convenience.

Next up was a case in 1999 over the Diamond Rio MP3 player. Industry folk argued that consumers were illegally transporting digital files on it, but the judges decided that consumers were simply "space shifting," which meant they were just taking music they already owned and listening to it somewhere else. That's a very brief summary of the court cases, but what the article pointed out was that information in general was being shifted now that it was digital.

Take that to its logical conclusion, and you realize that people aren't going out to get information anymore. Instead, it's coming to them. Think about that for a second and you'll recognize the truth in it. After all, don't you feel information overload in your own life? That's because information is coming to you from everywhere now. Most of it may be noise, but focused information can come to you in new and more efficient ways than ever before.

[... Library users] expect information to come to them, whether it's via the Web, email, cell phone, online chat, whatever. And given the tip of the iceberg of technology we're seeing, it's going to have a big impact on how they expect to receive library services, which means librarians have to start adjusting now. I call that adjustment "shifting" because I think you have to start meeting these kids' information needs in their world, not yours. The library has to become more portable or "shifted."

Therefore, a "shifted librarian" is someone who is working to make libraries more portable. We're experimenting with new methods, even if we find out they don't work as well as we thought they would. Sometimes, we're waiting for our colleagues, our bosses, and even the kids to catch up, but we're still out there trying. And please don't think I don't love books and print, because I do. No amount of technology will ever replace them, and libraries will always be a haven for books. It's the extras that I'm concentrating on, especially as we try to serve our remote patrons.

A Librarian's Guide to Etiquette tackles the minor annoyances and pleasures of the job, A-to-Z:

Doubt, Giving the benefit of the Always assume that patrons are using your library computers for legitimate, academic reasons. It is not uncommon for students to research...

  • autobiographical communication perspectives in Facebook user profiles
  • the effects of high bandwidth speed on illegal file sharing
  • a "how they do it" demonstration on student plagiarism
  • feminism and gender identity in pornographic depictions of big beautiful women
  • a participative ethnographic study of librarians' hostility towards cell phones, loud iPod ear buds, and unapproved beverage containers

Vendors, Hating

Librarians should not hate library database vendors. Yes, they dress better than you and they get paid more than you, but they are miserable soulless people who deserve your compassion. Plus, they give you free ink pens.

This librarian tackles a sadder version of this week's SoCal Connected segment on libraries as social safety net:

What They Didn't Teach Us in Library School

The strong odor of mouthwash on the breath of transient alcoholics who shelter with us is often masked by the overwhelming odor of old sweat, urine-stained pants, and the bad-dairy smell that unwashed bodies and clothes give off. It can take your breath away long before you can smell theirs.

The library wrestles with where to draw the line on odor. The law is unclear. An aggressive patron in New Jersey successfully sued a public library for banning him because of his body odor. That decision has had a chilling effect on public libraries ever since. When library users complain about the odor of transients, librarians usually respond that there isn't much they can do about it. Lately, libraries are learning to write policies on odor that are more specific and so can be defended in court, but such rules are still hard to enforce because smell is such a subjective thing — and humiliating someone by telling him he stinks is an awkward experience that librarians prefer to avoid. None of this was covered in library school.

It's a chicken-or-egg world for the mentally-ill homeless. Are they on the street because they are immobilized by severe depression or is deep depression the consequence of being on the street? Any tendency towards a psychological problem is aggravated and magnified by the constant stress, social isolation, loss of self-esteem, despair, and relentless boredom of street life. Imagine the degradation of waiting an hour in the cold rain to get into a soup kitchen for a meal; the hassle of hunting endlessly for an unpoliced spot to sleep; the constant fear of being robbed or attacked by other street people; or the indignity of defecating in a vacant lot. It's a combination that would probably drive a mentally healthy person to psychosis and substance abuse. Street people, who suffer serious psychological disorders, are often substance abusers, too, and the drug that a psychotic person prefers, often matches the psychosis. I have learned, for example, that bi-polar users prefer cocaine when in their manic phases and schizophrenics gravitate, naturally enough, to hallucinogens.

Got a library story? Are you a librarian? Tell us here.

The image associated with this post was taken by Flickr user jazzmodeus. It was used under Creative Commons license.

This week's SoCal Connected:

The People's University - By Judy Muller - Follow a day in the life of the Los Angeles Public Library, as Phillip Saffell shows us how this public space serves as his home.




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