No matter where I am, the public libraries belong to me. I’m the public.
October 18, 2015 1:36 PM   Subscribe

The role of the modern librarian, and other things. Interviewed by Erica Heilman, in which Jessamyn elaborates on librarians and libraries, the people they help, some of their needs, teaching tech and online skills in a rural community, and the balance of the online and the offline life.

"I have the libraries. They’re all mine. And everyone’s. And I think you can’t really understate how rare it is to have a thing that’s for everyone."

"As the librarian, what you’re supposed to do is help people with their stuff without getting all up in their business, if you can avoid that, and also without telling other people what other people’s business is."

"People have moral panics about bedbugs in their library or perverts in the library or  - you’ll catch a cold from the library, like, whatever the thing is. And there’s a shred of truth to that, but realistically people are afraid of their own public, I think, in a lot of ways. And so being kind of matter-of-fact about the fact that, “Well, these really are who your neighbors are. Like, you can choose just to ignore that that’s how the world works, but you know, these are all your neighbors, and you see them all at the public library. You’re welcome.” I think has social utility."

"I definitely get people who are novice users who come in and they’re like, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. And I’m like, I don’t know, maybe you don’t need to use technology then. And, you know, I tell them a little story about how it’s like not learning how to drive. You don’t have to. It’s not the law. But your life is going to be inconvenient and you may need to get other people to do parts of your job of being a human for you. There’s nothing wrong with that. But people need to realize that’s the choice they’re making. Like, driving a car is scary too. You could kill someone a lot more easily than I could kill someone with Facebook."

"But one of the hardest things for me is dealing with people where I’m like, click on that thing. And they click and click and they click and I’m like “What did that say?” And they’re like “I don’t know what it said.” And I’m like “How do you live?”"

"One of the steps a lot of times is: turn off the computer, interact with real life people. Slow it down. Deal with the pace of things, you know, somebody knocking on your door, walking down the street, the slower pace of interactions, but with people who maybe know you more."

"Yeah in online discourse there’s a lot of people who have things they want… gun control is a disaster. Bernie’s running for president. You know, the guy in my town needs a ride to the doctor. You’re bombarded with messages, all of which may have urgent attached to them, and if you don’t have good boundaries of your own, you have a very difficult time sorting out what you want and what you need and what’s relevant to you, and so it’s easy to be reactive. And a lot of being online, I think, is figuring out how to allot those things in ways that feel appropriate and true to your own values."

+ + + + +

Also features a neat Vermont icon, and the word "people" is mentioned 85 times.
posted by Wordshore (24 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
 
so what's the librarian's (well, jessamyn's) take on people who ask for stuff that is "offensive" (or dangerous, or illegal) in some way? because to me the article seems to describe a pretty hard-line "free speech", "knowledge is free" attitude. at the same time, jessamyn has been instrumental in building a community here, where there's a pretty strong consensus that speech is not free, that some things should not be said.

is the answer that the limitations here are "least bad" in that they enable people who would otherwise be excluded? or is it that there's a difference between speech and information (you can ask about white supremacists along as you don't say they're a good idea)? or is mefi (and askme particularly) not as connected as i think to this idea of "internet as a library"?

(i'm sitting here thinking this is going to be first post and i don't want to derail things into a metatalk discussion - this is really intended more as a question to jessamyn who i guess i kind of grudgingly admire (i am not really an admiring kind of person) from afar - i'm curious what her personal balance is...)

(also, "lady" really grates. am i a "computer gentleman"?) (i hope the heath is better) (come, on someone else post so this isn't some unfriendly first post) (oh to hell with it).
posted by andrewcooke at 2:04 PM on October 18, 2015


I think I've always been pretty clear that the public library has a different obligation regarding free-speech than an individual community on the Internet. I don't actually think there's much of a conflict of values there, except for people who really feel that free-speech is an absolute thing that should extend everywhere. This is definitely a moral position people can take, but it's not mine.

When you work for the public library in many senses you're representing the government, so in the United States you have free-speech obligations where an online community is more of a private club. I'm pretty anti censorship in many ways, I support TOR notes in public libraries for example, but I think there's compromises you have to make between absolute free speech and trying to create a community that is welcoming for the type of people you want to have in it. MeFI as a community has made some of those compromises, and I think it's a better place for having done that.

and yes the "lady" title is pretty much firmly tongue-in-cheek.
posted by jessamyn at 2:17 PM on October 18, 2015 [20 favorites]


One of the many things that resonated in Jessamyn's interview was the oft-emotional backstory that some people have about why they need to learn basic IT skills, especially people of later life. It is sometimes difficult (to me as a trainer) when a person who is struggling says what their backstory to their being there is, and you don't know the depth and extent of the slowly revealing story, and you can see or detect that other people in the group need help or you need to press on with the workshop objectives because time, but it may be motivation-destroying or heartless to cut that person off.

They perhaps need to unload, to articulate and make sense (sometimes to themselves more than to you or others) why they are there. Cut them off, no matter how politely, and they may just give up, not turn up again. Personally I find this a sometimes terrifying dilemma.

But sometimes this randomness has made it more rewarding. One person in a very rural session I ran was a 70+ year old whose family had all long moved to other countries and other continents, and assumed she would never use, or want to use, tech. For cultural reasons especially (the community had only recently gotten broadband, and mains electricity was only a few decades in use) she found this assumption annoying and patronizing.

What they didn't know is that she had read about Skype and planned to surprise them all on Christmas Day by Skyping her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Which she managed fine after several sessions (it turned out she didn't need much help, was pretty nimble of mind, and her predominant question was "Where can I find out how to do X?"), on her own from home, setting up her own tech, and with her meticulous world-wallchart-and-post-it-note planning of alternating between Skype chats and tea and naps all day and night because of the time zones.

Which was super cool.
posted by Wordshore at 2:56 PM on October 18, 2015 [27 favorites]


So if the President asked you to become Librarian of Congress, would you serve?

It seems like it would be a big sacrifice to leave Vermont and move to DC. But I don't know anybody else in the community who would be a better advocate for the LoC or for the kinds of copyright ideals I want or for librarians and libraries.

Compared to contentious Metatalk threads, Congress would be easy.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:06 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


I donno if it appeared here before but the Library Freedom Project rocks and runs Tor exit nodes against the wishes of DHS (NPR, Verge).
posted by jeffburdges at 3:13 PM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


I haven't worked in a library since I was a teenager, but as someone who is intermittently in the library to check out books and who knows a few librarians, my impression is that the patrons have, in the intervening years, become poorer and with more complex and higher needs. That probably just reflects broader economic trends (including the erosion of the safety net and the ability for more well-off people to use online services instead of coming to the library), but from the outside it looks to me like being a librarian today is a lot harder than when I was young.

Libraries are providing a set of absolutely vital services and it is neat to read a thoughtful interview like this. There is a lot in this that resonates with me, and in particular with the libraries I have used in smaller places.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:14 PM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


That was super interesting: not just the library bits, but also the "people expect women tech teachers to be their therapists" bits and the "people are on the internet all the time because they have anxiety, but being on the internet all the time exacerbates their anxiety" bits.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:48 PM on October 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


From TFA: "Like, you can’t show up and be like, 'I want to use a computer but I just want to use it hating it the whole time…' and get very far."

This applies to all sorts of things, not just computers. I think this statement just changed my life a little bit. I think I just had an epiphany.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:04 PM on October 18, 2015 [11 favorites]


I am in a new city, and the library has been gutted of books and perodicals, for these tech and social spaces. I know this is needed, but basic reference books in both the academy and the public library are completely absent. Even access to major databases don't exist. I know it's not hip and its cranish and double foldish, and the balance is hard--but why are we doing all of this tech and building, when there are fewer and fewer books or acccess to resources. I know we need people to help fill out forms, work out social problems, find jobs, work thru tech problems, watch movies, play video games, deal with taxes--all of this is impt, but i eel like my ability to work in public spaces is made more and more difficult by this, and im treated as a phillistine if it isnt)

(plus the librarians force me to use these fucking electronic serve out machines, and get super aggro if you don't.--I just want a little conversation, and a couple of books and access to jstor, and I get none of that)
posted by PinkMoose at 4:16 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


my impression is that the patrons have, in the intervening years, become poorer and with more complex and higher needs. That probably just reflects broader economic trends

I think the real thing that happened, if we're talking about several decades and not just a few years, is that libraries have gotten significantly less exclusive. "Public" libraries in the US originally weren't even available to children and there was a lot of lamenting about the end of everything when libraries started having children sections and children's programming.

So I think there's definitely a sense in which tough economic times lead more people to places with free computers, Internet, job-search help and just heat and clean bathrooms, but I also think libraries have done a better job at democratizing themselves. This of course comes with all the things that are good and bad about true democracy, where everyone gets an equal vote and you can't buy yourself a better "public" library.

Places with poor social services in general are also finding that their public libraries are picking up some of the slack, because they're the only people willing to (often) besides local churches. Anyone who complains about homeless people in the library should take a hard look at why they blame the library for this and not themselves and the society they live in.
posted by jessamyn at 4:18 PM on October 18, 2015 [33 favorites]


"Public" libraries in the US originally weren't even available to children and there was a lot of lamenting about the end of everything when libraries started having children sections and children's programming.

How far back was this change? I am in my 40s and I have only known libraries (in the US) with children's sections.

Places with poor social services in general are also finding that their public libraries are picking up some of the slack, because they're the only people willing to (often) besides local churches. Anyone who complains about homeless people in the library should take a hard look at why they blame the library for this and not themselves and the society they live in.

Yes! In my perfect world, we would fully fund libraries, and we would also provide an adequate social safety net so that libraries were not having to pick up that slack and could instead perform a narrower set of tasks.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:28 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Anyone who complains about homeless people in the library should take a hard look at why they blame the library for this and not themselves and the society they live in.
This point cannot be repeated enough. Maybe t-shirts or yard signs for the next election?

Here in DC we have a particularly annoying tendency for people to complain about the homeless population at the main library downtown. It is pretty large – as it turns out, they're bussed in from shelters every morning for various reasons, including affluent churches not wanting shelter patrons around their neighborhood during the day. It's rare for anyone complaining about library conditions to acknowledge that or call for greater city shelter funding.
posted by adamsc at 4:35 PM on October 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


Maybe "several decades" wasn't quite accurate; the shift to public libraries having sections available for children happened about the turn of the last century. Here's a really good New Yorker article about it.
posted by jessamyn at 4:42 PM on October 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


I mean, I'm not going to get aggro about it, but yeah, I'd prefer you used the self-check machines.

My library branches have small staffs, and each person spends hundreds of hours a year training in readers advisory, reference service, digital assistance, programming, outreach, crisis situations, and a whole lot of other tasks that can't be performed by a cheap pc with a barcode scanner and a receipt printer plugged into it.

Like a lot of public-library things, it's a question of how best to allocate limited resources.

More people using self-check machines means more time for staff members to help you with those advanced-search database functions, talk with you about which dystopian YA series you should read next, help that lady sign up for an email account, show that kid where to find sources for their school project, teach that man how to use his e-reader, plan a storytime that incorporates different learning styles, coordinate resume workshops and lectures and book clubs, and do all the other things that we do.
posted by box at 7:05 PM on October 18, 2015 [7 favorites]


that makes perfect sense, and i appreciate it. and sometimes they are good at making those choices, but also--like they don't know what jstor is, or they aren't great at telling me how to suggest new books, and the ill form is buggy and it felt short when i asked for help from that, and also, they have fewer and fewer books.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:08 PM on October 18, 2015


(And i will stop fussing about this)
posted by PinkMoose at 7:27 PM on October 18, 2015


My recent local library visit went something like this:
"I'm looking for local historical stuff. What kind of material is available here?"
::blank stare from staff, some rummaging, hands me two 1950's centennial books already in wide circulation and a book on Michigan shipwrecks::
I rally on, sure that my question was pretty fuzzy:
"My friend John was here last week and mentioned there were a couple of binders full of photographs of the city from the 1900's through the 70's. Do you know where they are?"
::confused blank stare:: ::consults fellow staff::
"We have those but we don't let patrons use them, sorry."
"Could I browse them at the counter here?"
"I'm sorry, we lack the space to let you do that".
"What would be the best way for me to look at these binders, then?"
"Do you have a library card?"
"Yes, here you go."
::consults fellow staff again::
"We suggest you visit the local historical society. Thank you"
::turns away abruptly::
"I was just there, they sent me here..."

I went back with John two days later, who proceeded to hand them a detailed list of local stuff and where to find it, and they still couldn't help. We did get a bright young intern who in helpfully pointed us to the University of Michigan Digital Archives, before going off to make copies. Apparently back in the day a few years ago, a staunch librarian here would not allow any library material to be digitized for U of M, so there are resources at that library that simply aren't available anywhere else.

This is a municipal library, in a county seat. It's not a branch. There are very few classes taught to patrons here, and I'm not sure the librarians have been to very many, either, to be honest.

They have virtually no money. Their staff is barely aware of what's in their own building, and I don't think it's because they don't care. It's because they don't have time to deal with patrons that have needs outside their little scripted "where to find it" index cards. I've begun a conversation with the historical society to see about moving the library's local historical assets - and they do have some - to the society. I'm nervous that leaving them in that library will lead to their loss. I already know it has in one case: I was there that day looking for a local picture that had been published in a historical book, "courtesy of the Pontiac Public Library". No one has been able to find the original, anywhere, and I need it for provenance. I'm now chasing down the author of the book to see if he kept the original or something.

In other libraries in my county, it's very common to ask for local history stuff and be told that it's all been packed up and shipped off to the university, never to be seen again, because U of M has been winding down its digitizations efforts for lack of money. For all we know, this stuff will now sit in boxes in a basement somewhere, uncataloged, probably until they need the space for something else.

I know they serve a public role and are important resources, and I know I'm quite specific about my needs there, but support for the library is far, far down the ladder for some governments. It's really disappointing.
posted by disclaimer at 8:09 PM on October 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


This was a fantastic talk. There's a part where Jessamyn explains tech support for people coming from nothing. If you have parents that are not familiar with the basic conventions and language we use to describe software interfaces and interaction, you know how brutal it is to try to help them through something. Jessamyn does this regularly for strangers. (It's a rather marked contrast from the seemingly high-flying stuff she does like public speaking and Internet Archive stuff, and I'm impressed she comes back down to help people up, so to speak.)

Back when I did tech support at various levels, I wish had known about looking out for extra-technical problems like bad days and resentment. Also, being aware that that sort of work involves emotional labor would've helped quite a bit.
posted by ignignokt at 8:32 PM on October 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


Man, whenever I'm down about the world, I should read a Jessamyn interview. This part was already quoted, but I'm repeating it because I got a little teary-eyed:
...realistically people are afraid of their own public, I think, in a lot of ways. And so being kind of matter-of-fact about the fact that, “Well, these really are who your neighbors are. Like, you can choose just to ignore that that’s how the world works, but you know, these are all your neighbors, and you see them all at the public library. You’re welcome.” I think has social utility.
posted by thetortoise at 12:58 AM on October 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


This is great.

I was always, you know, philosophically/politically in support of public libraries, but I never really used them. I mean, I'd check out books, but the library itself was just the space for books and guys looking at porn on public computers.

As I've gotten older, I've been kind of hankering for more of a sense of community, of an actual in-person community of people I maybe don't talk to, but who are physically present. I moved to Oakland recently, and I'm lucky to live within walking distance of the main branch of the public library, and it's really made a huge difference in how I see my community, along with libraries in general.

I've been making use of the Oakland History Room, as well as the newspaper and microfilm collection down the hall, and I've gotten this feeling of "wow, I can just walk in and look at this stuff?" At Berkeley we get to use some absolutely incredible libraries, and all I can think about is that I've sort of snuck in and tricked the staff into pulling stuff for me. I guess the whole effect for me has been one of thinking "oh wow, this is for me? Like, I'm exactly who should be using this right now?" And that goes for both public and university libraries, because there's so much there.

The interview mentioned bedbugs, and it's funny (or sad), because I have found myself looking for bedbugs in library books at the main branch, and then feeling like a bad person for having done so. I mean, I've never found any. And I think that really speaks to what part of this interview is about, that we're kind of scared of the public around us, and the community that we live in. But I've started recognizing a lot of the same people who hang around the main branch when I'm there, and they're reading some of the same books I'm looking at (this afternoon a guy got a book from the same shelf as me). And it's not necessarily this great leveling force, or something, but when you're new to a city, there's something really great about starting to recognize the same folks at your local hangouts. I ran into one of the pages from the rare books library at Berkeley while I was eating lunch the other day, and it was like "wow, I know people!"

Anyway, I'm getting off track - this has all been very illustrative for me of how you can be 100% in support of libraries and still not really get what they're about. I thought they were super important as institutions, but I still thought of them just as places where homeless people hung around, not as actual community hubs, and I was totally wrong. For me this has been the best way of finding out I was wrong, but it sounds like it must be a really common misconception.
posted by teponaztli at 4:08 AM on October 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


My father was a voracious reader and a frequent visitor to the local branch of the library. When he died 30 years ago, one thing my mom had to do was return some books he had checked out. When she told the librarians about my dad they were all so wonderful to her, and recounted stories of their interaction with him. To this day she will take any tangentel opportunity to talk about how much of a comfort they were. It always makes me a little verklempt when I go to the library. I'm not sure how relevant this really is, but I like librarians and libraries and think of them as an essential part of the community. Also, I have occasionally ended up at the library wearing my MetaFilter shirt, and while I don't know if anyone at SMPL is a MeFite, or even knows what one is, I still feel like a dork that went to a concert wearing that band's t-shirt.

(I'm a little saddened that there are now apparently generations of people who equate libraries with watching porn and homeless people.)

More people using self-check machines means more time for staff members to help you

Does this apply when there are people staffed at the check-out desk and there isn't a line? I like the personal interaction but I will start using the machine if that's the case.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:10 AM on October 19, 2015


I'm sorry, I can't help it:

If you live in Santa Monica and don't like homeless people at the library, get over it. You live in fucking paradise. If you don't want to sit in the same room as a homeless person get your books and go the fuck outside.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:17 AM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is four years old, and lists what librarians in UK public libraries do, but is still relevant:

What Do Public Librarians and Library Staff Do? (compiled by Lauren Smith)
posted by Wordshore at 1:43 PM on October 19, 2015


All of this said...

When it is National Library Week, go to your local library or the libraries and gift the the staff cookies. I have done this the past two years (this year I brought cheesecake) and it is one of the most fulfilling things I do throughout the year. They are genuinely appreciative, some on the verge of bursting into tears. One even offered to erase my fines. Recognize them. They work harder than strippers.
posted by goalyeehah at 7:43 PM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


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