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Sunday Reflections: Do we still need Reference? Do we still need Librarians? (aka Why Turning Libraries into Wal-Mart is a Bad Idea)

One recent Saturday morning I woke up and our toilet didn’t work. My first instinct was to get The Mr. to come fix it, but he works nights and had just gotten home so I wanted to let him sleep. I loaded my kids into the car and we walked into our local Lowe’s store. The first associate I asked for help didn’t know what I needed, but he walked me to the plumbing counter where I proceeded to ask for “the thingy in the toilet behind the thingy.” And yes, I really did say thingy twice. After he asked me a few questions he knew exactly what I needed and we got the part. I even somewhat successfully replaced it myself when I got home, although that is not the point of this story, the customer service at Lowe’s is.

Not too long ago a man came into my library wearing slacks, a button up shirt and a tie. He signed up to use a computer, which sits right next to the Reference Desk where I sit. After a few minutes working he started asking me some questions. It turns out that he was recently laid off and he was trying to apply for jobs. So we began talking resumes. He asked if he needed one, how to do one, etc. We got some reference materials and I showed him some templates on the computer. Then he teared up and said he would apply everywhere, even Sonic if he had to, because he just wanted to take care of his family. That day he needed a Reference Librarian in the same way that I needed a plumbing expert at Lowe’s.

Every day I interact with patrons who need help researching recent medical diagnosis, finding ways to fix their cars or AC because they can’t afford to pay someone, and more. And every day I help students research topics for papers or science fair projects. I often even help teachers pull materials together on topics that they are teaching in their classroom. They all need a Reference Librarian.

But more and more, large library systems are doing away with Reference all together. Or combining Reference with Circulation. What happens is they put everyone at the Circulation desk and it becomes a one stop shopping place. There are lots of reasons that this is happening, but some of them include wanting to decrease staff (thus decreasing staff costs), wanting to cut down on the number of points of service a patron is sent to (although even in the grocery store you may go to the deli counter, the bakery, the wine counter and more before you go to check out and at each location you will get a trained staff member who can answer your more specific questions as opposed to a cashier who may, if you are lucky, know how to answer your question), and because many people erroneously believe that we don’t need Reference anymore because you can just look everything up on the Internet.

I have a lot of concerns about this trend in libraries. For one, I think we are marketing libraries incorrectly when we stop hiring librarians and putting them in a place to provide quality patron service. Library patrons can go buy a copy of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green in paperback at Target for around $8.00. They can buy a Spongebob or Dora book for around $4.00. But  there is nobody there who can help them find other books to read if they have already read it and are looking for something new. There is no one there who can help a community grow readers. And there is nobody there who can make the curriculum connections between that book and other books that students, teachers and parents come in looking for. There is no one there who can take them beyond the 10 to 20 bestsellers that are available at your local discount big box store. Libraries have always thrived in part because we are those people that take individual community members beyond the most recent bestseller and help them discover new titles and grow as readers. Librarians grow a community of readers.

The other reason libraries thrive is because they have qualified children’s, YA and adult services librarians who build local collections that not only meet the needs of local communities, but challenge them to grow. When a teen walks into my library and asks about a book, they are very likely to walk out with five. This is because I have spent 20 years reading ya, reviewing ya, buying ya, building ya displays, and doing ya reader’s advisory. When I’m not on the desk and a person comes in asking about ya, whoever is working the Reference Desk at the time will usually call and ask me to come out and help them. And if someone comes in and starts asking about certain other areas that are not my strong suite, I will also call the best person. But if I’m not available, every person at the Reference Desk has the training and/or education to help answer the patron’s question. That is part of the value of the library that we need to be selling to our local communities: we have information specialists who can help you be successful in using the library.

Which is why we need multiple points of service. Some people come in to the library, get what they need, and just want to check out quickly. That is the value of the Circulation Desk. Then, if they have a deeper need, they can go the Reference Desk where more time can be given to ask the right questions, explore not only the catalog but the books in the stacks (sometimes I go through multiple book indexes to answer a question), and to help connect readers to books. It is interesting to me that many administrators will talk about the need to conform to a Wal-Mart model and go to one point of service for the convenience of the customer when even at Wal-Mart you have to go to a customer service desk for any type of transaction beyond the simple checking out. And the truth is that people don’t go to Wal-Mart expecting great customer service, they go there to get the lowest price. Libraries already have the lowest prices in town, but what we can offer is great customer service to help the members of our communities explore, learn and grow.

And I hope we all know that the Internet is often not the best or even quickest source of information.

I also fear that they may be some classism involved in the opinion of higher up administrators regarding the belief that no one uses Reference anymore. You see, over my twenty years as a librarian I have learned that the majority (though not all) of patrons who use Reference Services tend to be lower educated patrons, often coming from areas of poverty. For example, we have many patrons that are business people or students who will come in and use the Internet and they need little to no help because they have access at home or work and can navigate computers quite successfully. These are the same patrons who can also come in and look books up on their own on the library PACs. A majority – though of course not all – of the patrons that ask for help are those who don’t have computer access at home so they need more help navigating the library computers or finding books. Sometimes they are older patrons who just chose never to engage with 21st century technology, sometimes they truly have complex questions that even challenge the librarians, but often they are people with lower education and less access to technology so they need the time, attention and skills of a Reference Librarian. Administrators, however, tend to hang out with other business people in the community and it is easy to forget that our local communities are very diverse in education, access to technology, and the skills necessary to successfully find materials in a library.

Whenever someone says that we don’t need libraries anymore because everyone is online, I know that person is speaking from a place of privilege and forgets that 1 out of 5 children go to bed hungry every night. I know that person is not one of the patrons sitting in the library parking lot at 9:00 PM at night with a baby sleeping in the backseat just so they can get a Wifi connection so they can answer emails and apply for jobs. I know that person isn’t one of the more than 70% of families in our community that qualifies for free or reduced lunch when they suggest that libraries don’t need books anymore because everyone just reads ebooks on their tablets. I know that person hasn’t worked a public service desk in a library any time recently because if they did, they would know that our communities still need libraries and our patrons still need librarians to help them answer questions, to help them navigate the library, and to help them make connections with books.

It’s true, we can stop hiring actual librarians and save money on our payroll, but what will it be costing our communities in the end? And what does it cost libraries in terms of marketing when we are losing one of our primary marketing points by decreasing the value of the library and the quality of service our patrons receive. I don’t know if you have noticed lately, but Wal-Mart and big box stores are getting a lot of bad publicity. I’m not sure these are the business models we want to be following. If we really believe that communities thrive when the people within those communities are challenged to grow, think and succeed, then maybe we should keep hiring Reference Librarians. Add your Makerspaces – I love mine! – and programming, but let’s not forget to make sure that we have the people inside the building that can help our patrons be successful in the educational part of library services, whether it be connecting them to a story that challenges them to think or helping them answer specific questions.

Communities still need libraries, and libraries still need librarians. And we need to pay them livable salaries that honor the education and experience they have earned.

Sunday Reflections: A Tale of Two TLAs

I have always thought of the library as the great equalizer. As a librarian, I work ceaselessly to try and bridge many gaps that my patrons face in terms of access to information and resources and opportunities. And although I have worked at some very different libraries, I had not really thought a lot about the differences in meeting our patrons needs . . . until this past week.

This past week, I went to TLA, the Texas Library Association conference. A little over 7,000 librarians, authors and publishers were present – as well as just some good old fashioned readers, many of whom were teens. But let me back up and tell you about planning for TLA.

Due to a move for my husband’s job, I moved to Texas a little over 2 years ago. I got a job working part-time at my current library system because as full-time staff leave, they are replacing them with part-time staff. This apparently is a trend as someone recently Tweeted a statistic that indicated that approximately 1/3 of professional – meaning degree holding – librarians are employed part-time. (Side note: so please consider this the next time you talk about poor people being lazy or stupid, lots of people out there holding degrees of various kinds are either un or under employed). As someone who is very passionate about libraries and teens and books, I knew I wanted to go to TLA – but I also knew it would be on my own very meager dime. So I was not able to sign up for the full conference experience. And I shared a hotel room with a great roommate in a part of town that we discovered the first night was probably not the best place to be walking through in the dark of night. In fact, every morning we loaded the shuttle bus that would pass under this magical lighted overpass that seemingly transport us into a different, magical world known as the convention center, but on the way we passed by some homeless people sleeping next to abandoned buildings and my heart ached.

I began early on to notice the different levels of conference experiences people were having around me. There were others, like me, who were making tremendous personal sacrifices to attend because they weren’t employed by a system – either public or school – that was paying for them to attend the conference. There were no opening sessions and dessert mixers, there were no short walks across the River Walk to a posh hotel. There were just dedicated librarians giving their all to be the best they could be for their schools and communities. One school librarian had even come in from another state on their own dime and on their spring break so that their employer wouldn’t complain about their missing school. The truth is, not all library systems support their librarians and their libraries in the same way. We talked about skipping lunch, eating off of dollar menus for dinner, and hoping that there weren’t any bugs in the beds in our questionable hotel rooms. We found solidarity in our hunger pains that we were trying to satisfy with intellectual sustenance.

But as I listened to the snippets of conversation around me, I was reminded of another way in which the same income inequalities among our patrons also plagues our various library systems. As vendors talked about 3D printers and renovations, other librarians were just hoping to keep the library partially staffed in the next year and be able to update their very antiquated technology so that maybe the software would be compatible with new updated browsing systems. So although many librarians may have equal passion, they do not have equal access to resources. And I am sure that there were many librarians who weren’t able to come at all.

To those who work in the education world, this is not new. Not all school systems are created equal because they are not funded equally. But this is also true of libraries. I don’t have any really good answers, of course, for this problem of inequality in our world and in our profession. I just think this it is important to highlight occasionally because as we sing the praises of those libraries that are doing great and wondrous things, we must also remember to sing the praises of those who are doing more with less, often for patrons who truly need access in ways that better funded communities often do not. And this inequality in library funding and support is another reminder of just what it means for our students to come in to this world at a disadvantage; while their peers born into better funded communities are taking coding classes and dabbling in maker spaces, they are lucky to get current technology and their librarians are scrimping to stay involved in professional development.

In an ideal world, we would allow for conference registration and membership into professional organizations based on a sliding income based scale, similar to the way we provide affordable lunches to our lower income students. Because the truth is, the areas with a higher percentage of lower income students tend to have a lower taxable income base, and thus their librarians are often paid lower salaries and the schools/library systems also get lower funding. The school and public library systems themselves often don’t have the resources to fund professional development. And yet these students deserve librarians with access to the same current professional development as more well funded school and public libraries. One day I may rule the world and I will make this so. Or maybe we can set up a system to fund scholarships. Until then, blog about what you learn, share with others, and do what you can to help bridge the gap of inequality among libraries and librarians – because that too is serving our teens.

P.S., don’t feel too super bad for me because I got to eat dinner with Libba Bray. So even if I have to eat hot dogs for dinner for the next two weeks it will all have been worth it because – Libba Bray! And the parts of TLA I was able to attend were very awesome.

P.P.S., I will go looking for that stat about the number of un- and under-employed librarians.

And finally, I will probably never rule the world so I am putting the suggestion out there because I think it is a really great idea: scholarships, income based dues, and other ways to make it affordable for librarians to continue on in professional development.

For more, see our series focus on Teens and Poverty

5 Reasons and Some Quotes Explain Why I Think Doctor Who Appeals to Book Lovers and Librarians

Source: Read more about this marketing at Book Riot

I’ve got a theory, it must be bunnies . . . No, wait, wrong show.  That’s from Buffy. 

Some shows have huge, devoted fandoms.  Shows like Buffy and Battlestar Gallactica and the show about everyone’s favorite doctor, Doctor Who.  Doctor Who is popular for many reasons, but I do have some theories as to why Doctor Who is so popular among book lovers and librarians – like me, a newly obsessed fan.

The Tardis is Like a Bookstore or a Library (or even a book)

You have probably seen the picture on the Internet, but the Tardis IS like a library (or a bookstore or yes, even a book).  When you walk into the Tardis, you know that you are going to explore new worlds, meet new people, and travel through both time and space.  You can do the same thing in a library.  When you walk through the library doors and explore the shelves you are transported to the past, to the future, to new worlds, to old worlds, and literally out of this world.  You will meet new people and hear their stories.  The library is full of ideas and thoughts and journeys.  Like the Tardis, the library is oh so much bigger on the inside then it appears on the outside.  The library (or a bookstore) is the one place where you have access to the entire universe and all the knowledge it holds.

Two Awesome Episodes Take Place in the Universe’s Most Amazing Library

In the two episode arc that begins with Silence in the Library, we journey to the universe’s largest library.  I love this episode.  Love it.  And not just because it takes place in a library.  The Vashta Nerada are terrifying, especially with the suggestion that they are what lurk in dark corners everywhere, even on Earth.  But oh my goodness, I want to work in that library.  Well, after they get rid of the Vashta Nerada.

There is actually another episode, Tooth and Claw, where the Doctor and co barricade themselves in a library to escape an alien werewolf thingy.  This is where a librarian’s favorite quote comes from . . .

 “You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world!” (from Tooth and Claw)

Spoilers Sweetie: River Song’s Journal

I know there are some people who don’t like River Song, I have read it on the Internet.  But in my very humble opinion – they are wrong.  I love River Song.  She has sass and spunk.  She also has the most amazing book ever.   You see, River keeps meeting the Doctor out of order, so she keeps a journal to figure out where and when they’ve met.  It’s like having a guidebook to your life.  Can you even imagine?  But she recognizes the importance of not knowing your life events ahead of time, so she is not one to divulge spoilers.  Thus, her tagline: “Spoilers, Sweetie”.  Such a great book and such a great, fun way to demonstrate the power of a book in life.

“Spoliers, Sweetie” (repeated often)

Authors, Authors Everywhere

Author Annie Cardi actually wrote a fabulous guest post (it will post on Friday) on this so I won’t get into too much detail here.  But in his travels through time and space the Doctor has met a variety of amazing authors.  He meets Agatha Christie.  He meets the bard himself, William Shakespeare.  He meets Charles Dickens.  It is fun to see the writers tinker with the lore of some of history’s most famous books and to suggest that The Doctor, or Donna Noble, or even Martha might have had something to do with the most important plot twists, lines, or characters.

William Shakespeare: How can a man so young have eyes so old?
The Doctor: I do a lot of reading. (from The Shakespeare Code)

“No, but isn’t that a bit weird? Agatha Christie didn’t walk around surrounded by murders, not really. I mean that’s like meeting Charles Dickens, and he’s surrounded by ghosts, at Christmas.” (from The Unicorn and the Wasp) 

Melody Malone, Private Investigator

Source: Doctor Who Tumblr.com

One of my favorite episode arcs involves a book starring one Melody Malone.  The book tells exactly what is going to happen in the episode, but if The Doctor and Amy read it, then time becomes fixed.  And they are definitely trying to change the events of the story.  I love the way The Angels Take Manhattan uses a noir detective story to frame the story of this episode.  I cringe every time the Doctor tears the last page out of the book, but I geek out over how they use the table of contents.  Yes, it’s true – I am a geek.

“I always rip out the last page of a book. Then it doesn’t have to end. I hate endings!” (from The Angels Take Manhattan)

Quotes, Quotes, and More Quotes

Most book lovers love a good quote.  If you spend anytime on the Internet you have seen them – beautiful pictures with book quotes.  Doctor Who is full of great quotes.  Here are five of my favorites (not mentioned above):

“In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important”
(from A Christmas Carol)
“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”
(from Vincent and the Doctor)

“The universe is big. It’s vast and complicated and ridiculous. And sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles.”  
(from The Pandorica Opens)
“When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all… Grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have a kid, and that’s it. But the truth is, the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.” 
(from Love and Monsters)

“You don’t just give up. You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand! You say no! You have the guts to do what’s right, even when everyone else just runs away.” 
(from The Parting of the Ways)

This post is part of TWO marvelous blogging events!

Sci-Fi Month is brought to you by Rinn Reads. Check out the full schedule of Sci-Fi Month posts! There are reviews, discussions, giveaways, and more!

Doctor Who Week is a joint venture between  Maria’s Melange and Teen Librarian Toolbox. We have a full week of fun posts to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who.

Sunday Reflections: We Can Be Heroes, Just For One Day

The first time I ever worked in a library was the 8th grade.  That was the year it all fell apart.  I had just been fitted for my back brace (I was diagnosed with Scoliosis in the 7th grade) and I couldn’t do PE.  So they had to stick me somewhere.  That somewhere turned out to be the library.

To this day I can close my eyes and remember exactly what my librarian looked like.  I can’t recall her name, but then I am always calling my kids by the wrong name so this doesn’t surprise me.  Even though I can’t remember her name, I remember what a difference she made in my life that year, the year it all fell apart.  The year she was my hero.

The back brace was this fiberglass contraption – a fiberglass corset I called it – designed to hold me upright and in place in an effort to straighten my crooked spine.  The first time I had to wear it out in public I vomited, self conscious about the way it made me look.  In a time where teens are trying to figure out who they are and just trying to fit in, this bizarre thing was happening to me.  The only ever person I had known with Scoliosis was named Deenie, and I met her in the pages of a Judy Blume book.

So every day while my friends went to PE where they put on their horrific gym uniform (seriously, who thought those were a good idea?) and ran around the track while they flirted with boys, I made my way to our middle school library and shelved books.  While the difference that was Scoliosis made me feel like I stood out for bad reasons, I felt like I stood out in amazing ways when I entered into the library.  Here, I was one of the select few who was allowed to enter into this magical place and be entrusted with each precious book it contained.  It was like I had been allowed to enter a sacred place and was knighted as a keeper of all things holy.  For this hour each day I was not a freak in a brace, but the wielder of knowledge.

It was here that I sat and watched the shuttle Challenger launch and shortly thereafter explode, and my librarian comforted me.  It was here that I sat when not 1 but 2 boys asked me to the school dance; they sent gifts and fought over me – me, the freak in the brace!  And it was here that I wept when my heart was broken.

Check it out, 8th grade Karen.  It’s okay – go ahead and laugh. I understand.

That year, the library was my sanctuary and my librarian my hero.  When I left that year it never occurred to me that I would one day be a librarian myself.  It wasn’t until college that I got a job working in the library and thought to myself – self, this is what you should be doing.  She didn’t know it then, but she was saving me.  And not only did she save me, but she helped to write my destiny.

Sometimes we are heroes and we never even know it, but those we save know it and that is enough.  If we are living our lives right, just once someone will look back and recall how you were their hero, even if it was just for one day.

This week we’re going to be celebrating heroes and villains here at TLT.  And while I love the Avengers movie as much as the next geek, the truth is that it is the every day heroes that make the world a better place.