Monday, October 29, 2012

Comments from the Peanut Gallery #6 & #7

Bethany has a great post on the tragedy/comedy of Lexile numbers and the necessity of their presence in the catalog. You can read her post (and my comment) here.

Margaret had a very interesting post on technology and teens. You can read her post (and my comment) here.

The Fallacy of the Lazy Librarian

I've brushed on this topic before in some earlier posts, but I wanted to devote a little more space to it, as it's something that seems to be relatively prevalent. While working at the desk, I've heard variations of the following:

1). "You need a Master's in order to be a librarian?"
2). "Working in a library must be so much fun! I'd love to read all day!"
3). "Are you a volunteer?"
4). "Librarians just organize books and shelve."
5). "Why are you going to school for library science? What can you actually do with that?"
6). "Are all of these books donations?"
Et cetera.

I admit this can be maddening. Who wants to have their profession and passion reduced to an amusing hobby, at best? It's not a nice feeling. But the thing is that for the most part, people don't ask this question to be condescending or rude: they ask because they honestly don't know. It is, in its essence, a reference question. The difference is that we are perhaps more emotionally and personally involved with this question than, say, a query about stock prices from August 1943. So it makes it harder to be detached. However, the hallmark of our profession is providing access to information without imposing personal judgment, preferences, or taking personal offense. Why should inquiries about the profession itself be the exception to the rule?

This issue comes up frequently in the context of youth services. If librarians are lazy, children's librarians are the laziest because all they do is read picture books and sing songs. They work with kids all day, and kids are funny and always well-behaved, right?

I will be the first to admit that working with kids is a lot of fun and very rewarding. It is also a heck of a lot of work. Part of doing good work in children's services seems to necessitate hiding the hard work. Our main patron service group is children; our priority is providing them with library services and access to library information and materials. While I've had some children ask me about what I do all day at the library or what I'm working on, the majority are not interested in what I'm doing--their priority is finding whatever it is they're looking for. They're not interested why these stories were selected for storytime or why we ordered this book instead of another one. 

So, are we still obligated to explain our roles if they are not immediately apparent or relevant to the patron's needs? I don't have a very good answer for that. I think we can justify the necessity of libraries and librarians through excellent service. I also think there are some areas where we can be more upfront about what we do behind the scenes. And we need to learn to bristle less and explain more when patrons ask about what we do, which I know is much easier said than done.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

It's My Library and I'll Cry if I Want To: Dealing with Conflict

I confess that this post is not strictly related to youth services--it's more about the general skills of librarianship. But it's something that I wanted to write about because I think it's an important moment in my professional growth (or whatever you want to call it).

I should explain first that I am a crier. Some people get mad or loud or really, really quiet when exposed to conflict. I cry. I am the sort of person who cries at the end of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which is not a particularly sad movie in the slightest. I have always been this way and it's not something that I'm particularly embarrassed about or frustrated with on a general level--it's just part of who I am.

Despite the fact that I have grown to accept my weepy tendencies, the fact is that it's not always convenient. In fact, I would venture to say that it is rarely, if ever, convenient. This is especially true for professional settings.

The reality of public librarianship is that you have to work with the public. Most of the time, this is a wonderful and excellent privilege because it allows you to work with all kinds of wonderful and excellent people. But even wonderful and excellent people have flaws and bad days, and sometimes, you end up with a Very Angry Person at your desk.

I do not like being yelled at. I certainly do not like being yelled at for things that are not my fault or are beyond my control as an individual library employee (you would be amazed by the number of people who seem to think I personally have something to do with the most inconvenient aspects of Illinois state law). But the great and challenging thing about my job and this profession is that it has very little to do with me and everything to do with the person who comes to the desk looking for help. My job is to help them, whether they want to find a book or angrily soliloquize about their overdue fines.

It's easier said than done, but it can be done--actually, the more I've dealt with these situations, the better I feel about them. Ninety percent is knowing what to say: the policies to cite, how to explain them, what alternatives to offer, when to turn the situation over to the director or a coworker. Every situation like this is an opportunity to learn and practice.

The reason that I wanted to write about this today was because of a situation that I handled recently. This person was angry and frustrated for a variety of reasons that I won't go into here. Had this situation taken place a few years ago when I was a new library employee, I would have cried in the staffroom after it was over.

But I didn't. I explained the library's policy and corresponding laws clearly. I offered what alternatives I could. I told her that I understood her frustration and explained why I could not offer the option that she wanted. I was polite, but firm. And after she left, I was a little frustrated, but I didn't feel like crying.

It may sound silly, but I'm so proud of myself for that small victory.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Comments from the Peanut Gallery #5

Bethany is gearing up for Teen Read Week and it sounds like a lot of fun! Read more about it (and my comments about big dreams vs. reality) here.

Great Expectations: Children and Non-Fiction

One of the more interesting and challenging aspects of helping kids find non-fiction books is that their expectations often far exceed either library budget or the scope of the publishing industry. For example,  I've had questions like:

"We have to make a model of the Congo River Valley for class. Do you have a book on how to make a model of the Congo River Valley using things like papier mache and sticks? 
"Do you have any children's biographies on Machine Gun Kelly?" 
"I'm doing a project. Do you have a book about the history of root beer and how to make root beer?"

These questions are almost always compounded by the fact that the teacher wants them to use a book source and not any websites. While I firmly believe in the importance of teaching kids how to research using print materials, I always bristle at teachers who seem to believe that legitimate research excludes anything that may be found on the web. It is so, so, so important to teach kids how to use the web for academic work! With books, there's this (perhaps undeserved) idea that print is free from error, whereas the web is a handful of facts scattered in a minefield of lies. There are some really great resources on the web and it is just as important to teach kids how to identify and use those resources in addition to print resources. There are also many web databases that offer digitized versions of print books and journals. I cannot tell you how many times I've had this conversation: 

"This isn't quite the same thing as a website. This is a digitized version of a book--you are accessing it through the internet instead of looking at the print copy. If you looked at the print copy, it would be exactly the same as what's on the screen--you're just accessing it differently." 
(skeptical look) "I dunno, my teacher said I can't use more than three internet resources..."

However, I've digressed a bit from my initial point, which is that kids have high expectations for very specific materials. I have learned how to reform their question and show them how to use a number of resources to find the information that they need: "Well, I'm not sure that we have a book that is specifically about making a model of the Congo River Valley, but let's take a look at some of these craft books..." For the most part, this works well: the kid gets some information and hopefully learns a little bit about how to find information in the library.

And occasionally, I'm quite pleasantly surprised by what I find during this process. Case in point: this weekend, a girl asked me for help in finding some books on a rare kind of frog. I pulled a couple of non-fiction books before wandering over to the reference section where I found it: a full three-page article about the rare frog. I was thrilled--I hadn't expected to find anything beyond a passing mention. So perhaps the lesson here is that hope in reference work is sometimes rewarded--ask for the impossible and sometimes you might find it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Some of the Best Books Are Banned: Banned Books Week

As you are most likely aware, it is Banned Books week. Today I made this display:

While this project was done in my capacity as the interlibrary loan manager/general adult services sidekick, it concerns youth services in that most banned/challenged books are challenged/banned in order to "protect the children." Case in point:

The fact that Captain Underpants is so often on the chopping block never ceases to amaze and amuse me. Are we as a society really concerned that our children might think underpants are funny? (Hint: it's too late. This is a commonly held belief). Do the amusing qualities of underpants really qualify as Serious Business that should not be Taken Lightly?

The perceived problems with this particular title are sexual content and setting a poor example. The presence of sexual content is fuzzy at best. I've outlined it in a flowchart:

1. There are underpants in this book.
2. Underpants are worn over underparts.
3. Underparts are involved in sex.
4. By using the power of the transitive property, you can conclude that this book has SEXUAL CONTENT.

The notion of "setting a bad example" has a little more merit in that it actually exists in this book--the protagonists are poor students and notorious cutups. The issue here is that "a bad example" is so subjective that it is difficult to enforce in terms of defining suitable content. Some people might believe that Captain Underpants should be banned because the kids set a bad example; however, there are others who might argue that people who try to ban books set a bad example by trying to force individual values and beliefs upon the larger community.

There was another issue unrelated to Captain Underpants that I came across while making this display, and that's the idea of silence. A lot of books have been banned or challenged because they contain elements that are objectionable--racism, sex, foul language, etc. Take To Kill a Mockingbird. This book is frequently challenged because it contains accounts of racism. But what I can't quite wrap my brain around is this: the book talks about racism in order to show why it is wrong and how it creates a society that is unkind and unjust. How is that an unsuitable or dangerous idea?

The other problem that accompanies this is the idea that difficult issues should not be discussed with children. It is true that not every child is intellectually and emotionally prepared to take on the problems of racism, sexism, violence, or what have you, but is it not just as harmful to pretend that these issues do not exist? It often seems that situations where material is "unsuitable" for children are really code for "I don't feel like exploring the complexities of this issue or answering the questions that a child might have." The importance of dialogue cannot be understated--with dialogue, adults have the opportunity to help children understand and think about difficult issues. With silence, the opportunity to learn and understand is lost.