Category Archives: libraryland

The perfect reference interview

So I just came across this recent blog post on Agnostic, Maybe, where he lists some informal rules about doing reference. It’s definitely worth a read, whether you’re fairly new to reference or it’s old hat and you could just use a couple reminders. My favorite part? He describes the perfect reference interview:

For me, the perfect reference interview is the one that makes someone’s day. It doesn’t have to be important or big, but just right to make them leave feeling good. It means I have them more than they expected, whether it is materials, information, time, and/or patience. The last two can overshadow all others because it shows a level of care and concern that translates at the human level.

Yes and yes and more yes. People really appreciate when I take extra time to help them. Yeah, it probably interrupted the workflow earlier this week when I spent almost 30 minutes fighting with the 3000th update Yahoo Mail and tried to help a lady print some online gift certificates… but 1) the poor lady was frustrated and starting to snap at her partner, and I hated to see them leave the library empty-handed and angry 2) for all I know, the certificate could have been for necessities like food, diapers, medicine, etc. 3) that’s exactly why I’m there! They were super grateful that I stayed with them until their printouts were in hand, but that’s just what you’re supposed to do as a good librarian. On the surface it may look like libraries are about materials, but the connections we make with people are really why libraries exist.


Dewey Free.

So apparently the director of Darien Library is retiring. Why is this significant? Aside from me really, really wanting to get down there a couple years ago for a book signing by Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen fame (I had to work instead… or possibly I chickened out at the thought of walking in an unfamiliar town after dark and waiting on the train station platform in late November*), it’s one of the most innovative public libraries out there today. I’m under the impression that Darien is the curve breaker of CT public libraries, and sometimes at big meetings I’ll hear somebody end an idea with the phrase “like what Darien Library did.” (Sometimes that phrase is followed by a jealous scoff from someone in the crowd.) Darien is known for its extreme customer service, and a few years ago it sort of got rid of Dewey in favor of a “glades” system that groups similar subjects together. Under Home, you’ll find gardening, cooking, crafts, and home repair, and Places is where travel and language books live. They’re still using the Dewey numbers to an extent, but they’re reorganizing the physical locations in a way that is much more apropros of browsing.

Public libraries without Dewey seemed to be like exciting magical unicorns, mentioned in library school as living in some far-off location, but never seen and without a live specimen to prove their existence. Sure, there are the roaming herds of academic horses using LC’s classification, and sometimes you’d come across a zebra like the Oriental Institute’s archives, whose organizational system was designed by a past archivist / historian for that particular collection. But now there are lots of unicorns, and one of them (at least, one that’s got the wings but hasn’t grown the horn yet) is less than 40 miles from me.

The idea of moving away from Dewey and coming up with a more browseable classification system like that of bookstores is thrilling to me. Libraries are paying attention to the usability of their websites, and it’s extended into exploring the usability of the library’s physical layout. Why not explore a more usable classification system? However, according to a 2009 online survey of public librarians, almost half of librarians still want to use Dewey, and more than a quarter believe that patrons should be able to find what they want simply with better signage. Nevermind that the resources on alcoholism, mental illness, and improving your mental well-being are at three different call numbers.

Less than 12% of respondents were in favor of going Dewey-free. There were some people who viewed leaving Dewey behind and moving towards a bookstore-like organizational system as a violation of librarian ethics:

Tom Eland, a librarian at Minneapolis Community and Technical College who teaches courses on the politics of information, thinks that turning to business as a model for libraries shows an uncritical acceptance of market capitalism. “Unlike customer service, which is done by private sector corporations on behalf of the profit motive, public service to library patrons is done on behalf of the civic duty of library workers to serve the interest of citizens and residents of the community who patronize the library.” He’s not surprised that libraries that drop Dewey often display materials using ideas from retailing. “Too bad for the people who are trying to do real research, or who want to explore a specific domain of knowledge by going to the shelves and browsing by classification area.”

Um, no. After working in retail for more than five years, I can say that libraries absolutely should be looking at corporate customer service models for examples of how to best serve the public. The profit motive is driving companies to innovate in customer service. I wouldn’t be half the public services librarian I am today if I hadn’t first learned how to build relationships with customers on the sales floor. Sure, it was great to make a huge sale, but it was more satisfying to me and my coworkers to make people happy and help them find exactly what they were looking for – which is the exact same end goal I have when I’m working with patrons at the reference desk. I could go on forever about how my retail jobs helped me learn how to get patrons to notice our hidden collections, and how to develop hype around our programming. Successful retailers are successful because they’re awesome at responding to customers’ needs, and Darien is successful because it’s also awesome at responding to customers’ needs.

Let’s not forget the reality that government officials and board members like seeing numbers just as much as corporate execs do. We’re here for the community, yes, but when the month ends we still need to come up with those circulation stats to justify our existence (and those numbers have gone significantly up in libraries that moved away from straight Dewey). When it comes to our bottom line, we do need to protect our funding. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to take a look at what businesses do to make a profit.

I would also argue that most patrons who are utilizing the physical collections at public libraries, especially branches, aren’t trying to do research – they’re coming in to pick up some entertainment and go on their way. Patrons who want to do serious research are theoretically more likely to show up at colleges and universities or central urban libraries with research-oriented holdings, like Harold Washington Library in Chicago – places that have enough holdings to fully benefit from the complexity of Dewey or LC. Again, it’s all about the customers’ needs.

I’m not even sure why Dewey is used in public libraries, but somehow it’s become one of those sacred standards of What Libraries Are Supposed to Be that we have had to completely break down to stay relevant. Maybe this is the wife-of-a-historian voice in me, but Dewey is an artificial, subjective system with no intrinsic superiority over any other system. In our diverse and globally connected 2014, it’s definitely showing its age and its Eurocentrism. It’s telling to see in which order Dewey lists literature and languages: English gets the first 10 subjects, then German, Romance languages, Latin and classical Greek, then the hundreds of other Indo-European, Semitic, African, East Asian, etc. languages have to share 10 subjects. Not to mention the 200s Religion section: there are 70 subject numbers for Christianity, but Judaism is relegated to number 296. And Islam shares number 297 with Babism and Baha’i. Maybe I’m completely overthinking it, but what sort of message is it sending our patrons when church furnishings are found at 247, and the Quran is at 297.122 like an afterthought? At best Dewey is slightly outdated, and at worst it’s helping to reinforce biases such as racism. (Not that I can readily propose a better system, mind you.)

Plus, Dewey wasn’t even made for public libraries – it was designed in the late 19th century for academic libraries. Almost all academic libraries, from my little undergrad up to major research collections like Yale, have moved to the more sophisticated Library of Congress at this point.

I’m not saying that all libraries should totally abandon Dewey, but that Dewey is far from sacred. What is sacred in the library is the patron, and we could definitely serve our patrons better by looking at alternatives to Dewey that would make it easier for them to find materials they care about, and would better reflect our diverse communities. I’m really excited to see where Darien and other partially and fully Dewey-free libraries will take their classification systems and how we’ll revise them over time, and it would be awesome to someday witness a major classification change from the front lines.

* TANGENT: I’m still hung up on the cold train platform thing. Chicago does it right in winter. Metro North, take heed and start thinking of installing these:


Sometimes you’d share a lamp with a pigeon.

And in the search for a photo of the L’s heat lamps, I came across this awesome time-wasting page of L trivia. It answers all your burning questions about Chicago’s mass transit train system, questions such as Are the CTA railcars shorter than that of the NYCTA (New York City Transit Authority) or other cities? To me they look a lot shorter in length. and Why aren’t there public restrooms in “L” stations? I did always wonder that.

650.7 Collection Development

So I’m trying to weed out all our old books on job hunting and replace our way outdated books. Library Journal’s website isn’t helping me out much, just returning articles on library job outlooks and landing librarian gigs and things of the sort. Nothing on best job hunting books. Then again, Library Journal seems to focus on academic library resources more than anything else. Then again, aren’t there significantly more public libraries in the U.S. than there are academic libraries?…

So I’m using Amazon and going through the informative but very, very time-consuming method of searching our OPAC, going to our shelves, looking at what we have and what circulates, and trying to combine all of those. Also just going Google searches on best job hunting books of 2013 and such. One of the best resources so far has been a reference librarian who usually works downtown – he could tell me a little on what circulates and what people are asking for, and we do have a brilliant guy downtown who specializes in small businesses and the job resources. Wish I didn’t have to wait until Wednesday to talk to him. Oh well, doing what I can with the time I have.

If I had my way so far:

  • Occupational Outlook Handbook – newest version, 2 copies, one for reference and one for circulation
  • What Color Is Your Parachute? – newest edition
  • Knock ‘Em Dead – newest edition
  • Knock ‘Em Dead Resumes – newest edition
  • 301 Best Questions to Ask on Your Interview (2010)

22,226: the Home Broadband Survey 2013

So Librarian in Black let me know recently about a report put out by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which shows where the U.S. stands in terms of home broadband connections.

According to the report, which breaks down the results by gender, age, race, education, income, and urbanity, about 70% of the country has a broadband connection at home and 56% of the country has a smartphone. Of the smartphone owners, about 10% have no broadband connection to a computer. So, combining the smartphone owners and home broadband owners, it’s fair to say that 80% of the country has ready and fast access to the Internet. There’s also still a small 3% out there who still have a dial-up connection.

The study didn’t mention any overlap between the 3% of dial-up users and 10% of smartphone-only users, so just for fun, let’s pretend they don’t overlap and thus 83% of our population has some sort of connection to the internet in their home. That still means a whopping 17% of our population does not have any home internet connection whatsoever. That’s nearly 1 in 6 people! They either are not connecting to the internet at all (which is probably fine for about half of them), or they’re finding ways to connect to the internet outside the home: friends, relatives, school, work, wireless in restaurants and cafes, leeching from their neighbor’s unsecured wi-fi connection, or – you guessed it – the public library.

Now, let’s make this data a little more real by applying it to the city where I work. Remember, 83% of people are connected in some way. (It would actually be really fun to sit and compare the broadband data against the census data along age, education, and income for the city and for my branch’s neighborhood, but then this post would never get done.) The Census Bureau estimated the 2012 population at 130,741 residents, so if 17% of city residents don’t have a home internet connection, that equals 22,226 people who are offline. That in itself is the population of a small city. For those 22,226 people, our five library locations are the only free, secure, and oftentimes convenient way to get online. On top of that, there is always assistance from tech-savvy staff and free computer literacy classes. No other body of government is providing free computer literacy classes to the public except the library.

Even if half doesn’t feel a need to be connected (another blog post for another date, that one), there are still 11,113 people who are interested in connecting and are looking outside their homes to go online. And that number doesn’t include many of the undocumented immigrants in the city, nor people travelling from out of state, nor the usually-connected residents whose connection is temporarily down (if that’s 0.5% of the population and 1/4 heads to the library to get online, that’s 163 patrons muttering to themselves about how long it takes Comcast to send out a maintenance van), nor the seniors who normally don’t use computers but get a letter from a government agency directing them to fill out a form on the agency’s website, or they want to see Facebook photos of their new grandchild who was born in another state. Does that bring the number to 12,000? 15,000? 25,000? With this in mind, why are budgets still shrinking when it’s obvious that public libraries are providing such a vital service to populations that are at a great technological and social disadvantage?