MLA Conference, Day Two (Thursday), Part Three

On Thursday afternoon, I attended the session “Analyze Your Collection.”


“Collection analysis” in this case seemed to be a polite synonym for weeding (withdrawing books from the library collection). Two representatives from the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy, MA, Claudia Shutter and William Adamczyk (now of the Milton Public Library), spoke about their experience using the tool/service CollectionHQ. They described CollectionHQ as a “weeding/collection development tool” that “optimizes performance of materials”; CollectionHQ “talks” to the ILS monthly via FTP, so the library regularly sees new data.

Adamczyk spoke about the practical and ideal reasons for weeding. Practical reasons have to do with space, aesthetics, and cleanliness; “ideal” reasons have to do with updating the collection, keeping accurate statistics, and improving catalog searches. To get started, he said, (1) have a plan and goals and commit to it/them, and (2) form a team, then discuss, prioritize, and standardize.


Systematically weeding the library collection is “a great inventory project.” The hands-on aspect plus the CollectionHQ tool helped the Thomas Crane staff identify “dead items,” grubby items, and areas that were over- or under-stocked by comparing the items in the collection to the demand for those items. CollectionHQ also helped them maintain an accurate inventory and clean up their database. (Throughout the project, they used special red book trucks for weeding, so those carts wouldn’t be confused with regular circulation carts.)

Thomas Crane reported that their results after weeding and using CollectionHQ were “better circulation and better turnover, better aesthetics, better browsing, more space on the shelves…a better understanding of over/under-stocked areas.”

Next, we heard from Rick Lugg from Sustainable Collection Services. SCS “offers deselection decision-support tools to academic libraries.” Academic library stacks, Lugg said, are often “full of books but empty of users.” As he pointed out, it’s not free to keep a book on the shelf (see “On the Cost of Keeping a Book” by Paul Courant and Matthew Nielsen, p. 81-105, PDF), and so weeding – or “deselection” is necessary in academic libraries too. Lugg acknowledged that public librarians are “way out in front” of their academic counterparts in terms of weeding, but that academic libraries have a different mission than public libraries, and that mission includes preservation.


Lugg defined three categories of material: archive copies, service copies, and surplus copies. He spoke about redundancy, in terms of keeping a book on the shelf when it could be easily accessed elsewhere, either online (via HathiTrust or Google Books) or from another library. With “independent action in a collective context…safety is built into the system.” With SCS, libraries have the ability to “combine elements in a way that makes sense locally” and use the “rules-based interactive system” to make “data-driven decisions.” For example, a librarian could create a deselection list of withdrawal candidates that were published before 1990, have never circulated, and that are owned by at least 100 other libraries; these lists can be iterative, as weeding is “an ongoing process” rather than “one massive project.”



Overall, this was an okay session; though it was neat to see some of the CollectionHQ and SCS output, the session felt a bit like an advertisement, and I’m already very much on the weeding bandwagon for both “practical” and “ideal” reasons here at the public library. It was interesting to consider the additional parameters that academic librarians have to consider when weeding, though.

The final panel I attended at MLA on Thursday was “Print and Digital Publishing: How are Publishers, Editors, and Authors Adapting,” moderated by Skip Dye of Random House, with Liz Bicknell of Candlewick Press, M.T. Anderson (author of Feed and many other young adult novels), Amy Caldwell of Beacon Press, and Chris Stedman (author of Fathiest).

Skip Dye began by asking the question, “Adapting?” and answering it, “Are we?” The basic cycle of the publishing industry hasn’t changed: authors find agents, agents pitch the book to editors at publishing houses, publishers acquire the book and distribute it to the market. Within that cycle, however, there’s a lot of room for difference. Some editors still prefer to mark up a physical manuscript with pen or pencil (“I think with a pencil in my hand,” said Bicknell), while others will make corrections and suggestions on an electronic copy of the manuscript and e-mail it back to the author. Some editors – at Scholastic, for example – work entirely over e-mail, Anderson said, but that changes the revision process, not the writing process. At Candlewick, Bicknell said, books are still “conceived as print books,” then made “e.” Caldwell said she preferred to edit shorter pieces electronically, but still preferred to read long books on paper, for the better sense of cohesion and pacing.

The two really disruptive elements to the publishing industry at this moment are e-books and self-publishing, and those topics made up most of the panel’s discussion in this session. The editors and authors on the panel made many salient points about how e-books affect publishing in ways large and small. Caldwell pointed out that “it does take work to make a book into an e-book”; Bicknell explained that permissions were tied to the number of copies published, so even though e-book sales are not connected to physical quantity, they can be limited by permissions. “Trade publishing is a small profit margin business,” she said. Anderson, too, expressed concern about that margin. If advances continue to shrink, authors may no longer be able to afford to write research-intensive, sophisticated books – “Then what?”

Skip Dye raised a seemingly small but non-trivial point: permissions are necessary not just for other authors’ or artists’ work, but for fonts as well. Different e-readers and tablets display different fonts, and often offer only a limited choice. Bicknell added, “Fonts send subliminal messages…[they] create mood.” (Surely some readers of this blog are familiar with the documentary Helvetica? And we all have our favorite fonts…I am fairly certain I could identify a single line from an Ann Patchett novel based solely on the font.) Dye mentioned that different devices also display different levels of color saturation, which has an effect on illustrated books, especially children’s books.


The discussion then turned to self-publishing. Chris Stedman is a 26-year-old active blogger, a digital native who writes and edits on the computer, and reads and writes on paper – yet he still chose to write a book and work with a traditional publisher instead of self-publishing. He said that the value of a traditional publisher lies in the “third-party perspective,” an editor’s experienced eye instead of a friend or family member’s opinion. Caldwell spoke about the author-publisher match, describing publishers as “curators in certain areas.” (Beacon Press, for example, is “an independent publisher of serious fiction and nonfiction.”)

On the topic of self-publishing, Caldwell said, “Publishers can be wrong, and not want to take risks. But, editors see lots of manuscripts and know how hard it is to write a good book. There’s so much stuff, finding something you want to spend time with is hard….Publishers make it easier for readers to find something worthwhile.” Anderson too chimed in, agreeing that self-publishing allows for “democratization” but asking, “How do you end up with the grassroots but not the dirt?” Whereupon publishers were compared to the “special environment” of hydroponics.

printdigpubtweet2During the Q&A, Stedman stated, “The way in which we consume media is changing dramatically.” Writers are trying different formats (might we see a resurgence of the long-form essay, or the novella?). Caldwell mentioned the attention span issue; with the proliferation of information (and entertainment), shorter formats like “singles” or long articles might do well.


This final panel might have been trying to cover too much ground in its allotted time, but the panelists certainly touched on a number of interesting topics. As a former assistant at a literary agency, I can attest that about 99.98% of manuscripts submitted were nowhere near the quality of a published book, and even with help from an agent and an editor, most of them never would be. (Which is not to say that awful books don’t get published – they do – or that worthwhile manuscripts don’t get rejected – they do.) Whatever else changes, editing is a crucial part of the writing and publishing process.


MLA Conference, Day Two (Thursday), Part Two

Michael Colford, Director of Library Services at the Boston Public Library, moderated the panel, “Authors, Authors, Authors!: Three Local Authors Strut Their Stuff!” The local authors featured were Claire Messud, Christopher Castellani, and Laura Harrington. Each author had a different writing background, and all three were fascinating, refreshing, entertaining, and articulate as they spoke about their work, the book world, and culture in general. It was a wonderful panel, and the fact that it was held in the tent with fresh air and natural light didn’t hurt either.

Laura Harrington, author of Alice Blissimmediately earned cheers by saying, “Librarians are some of my favorite people….Librarians and teachers are my heroes.” Alice Bliss is Harrington’s first novel, but she is an experienced writer, having spent the last 25 years writing for the theater: operas, radio plays, screenplays, librettos, lyrics, and more. With her novel, she said, “I wanted to reconnect to the creative process by becoming a beginner again.”


Christopher Castellani, author of A Kiss From MaddalenaThe Saint of Lost Things, and All This Talk of Lovestarted with an overview of his books so far. His three novels deal with the same family, but each book can also stand alone; each covers a two-to-three year time span, from Italy in WWII, to immigrant life in the U.S. in the 1950s, to tension between the first and second generations of the family. He originally imagined the work as one “epic, sprawling saga” – “I wanted to write something like One Hundred Years of Solitude but for Italians” – but the story found form across three books instead. Rather than one main character, the books feature an ensemble cast.

Claire Messud, author of (most recently) The Woman Upstairs, as well as The Emperor’s Children and several other novels, spoke generally about writing (“Writers are like magpies”), rants, and angry women. Nora, the main character in The Woman Upstairs, has been perceived by critics as angry, and Messud observed, “Women’s anger is uncomfortable….If a woman is angry, she’s ‘unhinged.'” Readers confront this right away: the beginning of The Woman Upstairs is “the rantiest bit.”

“I’ve been a delighted reader of rants,” Messud said, “but all the ranters are men.” Maybe, she indicated to the mostly female audience, it’s our turn. She mentioned the Chekhov story “The Lady With the Dog” and expressed her admiration for the way the author wrote the character’s internal life. “All her torment is invisible….I wanted to write about what’s below the surface for people.” When the question of Nora’s anger came up again during the Q&A, Messud stated: “Nobody eviscerated on the table is gonna look pretty.” If Nora was real and walked into a room, you’d think she was perfectly pleasant; you’d like her. But as the reader, you see everything under the surface, not just her public face. Nora’s complexity might make her hard to like, but “Giv[ing] voice to true human experiences, that’s our job [as authors].”

While readers’ and critics’ reactions to the book are worth discussing, The Woman Upstairs also examines the questions, “What is the cost of making art? What do you have to sacrifice?”


The issue of women and anger arose from Alice Bliss as well; Harrington said that readers have been judgmental and unforgiving of Angie, Alice’s mom, who falls apart a bit when her husband, Alice’s dad, goes to war. All This Talk of Love is not without an angry woman, either: one of the characters finally speaks for herself after a lifetime of others speaking for her, and giving up things she doesn’t want to give up, creating conflict within the family. In fiction as in real life, rage, Messud noted, “comes from helplessness, a lack of agency, struggling for control.” (She also mentioned Blood Wedding (Bodas de Sangre), a play by Federico Garcia Lorca, full of angry female characters. I read this play when I studied abroad in Spain, but hadn’t heard anyone mention it since.)

The next question from Colford had to do with families. All three writers acknowledged that, as Messud put it, “For anybody writing anything, our own experience of family informs the fiction that we write.” Castellani spoke about the “inescapability of each other and the narratives we have constructed for each other….When we change, it sends shockwaves through our family.” Harrington illuminated the fine line of using pieces of real people in one’s fictional characters: “How do you do this in a way that is inspired by real people but not slavish to them?”

Colford particularly complimented Harrington’s supporting characters (“I love supporting characters in novels”), and she credited an inspiring work (Our Town by Thornton Wilder) and her past work as a playwright: “A playwright’s job is to write great characters for actors to play.” At the same time, a playwright must be “very economical with ‘brushstrokes,'” using few words to describe each character.

An audience member asked Harrington about transitioning from a collaborative medium to a solitary one. She answered, “Collaborating is either heaven or hell. You often find yourself married to someone before you’ve had a first date.” In theater, however, “All those moving pieces [can] fall to pieces,” and with novel writing, it was “a relief to be in control.” Writing for theater and opera involves compression; novel writing allows for expansion.

On the question of character likability, Harrington said, “Likability is a slippery slope….If we’re focused on likability we’re going to forget the possibility of transformation.” While Messud acknowledged that “Readers desire to identify with the character [and] feel that she is admirable,” she pointed out that this is a gendered point of view: “Let’s try to make a list of the male protagonists we want to be friends with.” (It reminded me of when voters elected Bush because he was someone they’d like to have a beer with; great, have a drink with him, but let someone serious run the country.)

Gender makes a difference when it comes to the author, too – or at least, how publishers package authors’ books and how critics review them. “Character-driven family novels” are one example of this: think Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections vs. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (or J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine). Castellani, who studied with Jonathan Franzen in college, said that he (Franzen) said, “It’s not as if I invented the family novel,” though The Corrections is often held up as an example of this type of book. Harrington pointed out that the same dichotomy applies to novels about war; reviewers write about male authors’ war novels as a group (not to pick on Slate, but here’s an example), and don’t mention novels about war written by women.

Despite this obvious unequal treatment, the panel ended on a positive note. An audience member asked Messud whether she’d seen Ron Charles’ book review of The Woman Upstairs (YouTube video), and she said yes – she thought it was very funny. (It is.) Overall, the “Authors, Authors, Authors!” panel was one of the most pleasurable parts of the conference. I wouldn’t have thought to group these three authors (or their books) together, but it worked just beautifully, thanks to the moderator and the panelists themselves.

Two more Thursday sessions to write about, coming soon!

MLA Conference, Day Two (Thursday), Part One

I had a hard time deciding which Thursday morning session to go to, but ultimately I chose “On Life Support, but Not Dead Yet!: Revitalizing Reference for the 21st Century” and I’m glad I did. Jason Kuhl of the Arlington Heights (IL) Memorial Library (AHML) and Celeste Choate of the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) presented, and both had excellent ideas to share. As most librarians know, demand for “traditional” reference services have been declining, with many fewer “ready reference” questions as well as fewer complex reference questions. Multitudes of column inches in newspapers (screen inches in online publications) have been devoted to whether libraries are relevant in today’s world, and probably an equal amount has been written by librarians and our allies on why libraries are in fact relevant.

But as some libraries shift toward the “library as community center” model, others consider how to highlight the reference services that have always been libraries’ strength. One of the most obvious ways, Jason pointed out, was to make the reference desk visible: put it in a high-traffic area, near an entrance, or just make sure it’s not behind a wall where patrons have to seek it out. Another way that Arlington Heights increased the number of questions answered (by 34%!) was to separate face-to-face interactions from phone, e-mail, and chat interactions; that is, when a librarian was at the reference desk, s/he was only responsible for face-to-face interactions with patrons physically in the library. Librarians away from the desk handled all other types of reference questions. In addition to boosting the number of questions answered, this solution seems to me like a big stress-reliever; instead of trying to answer four questions at once, staff can focus on just one, and give that patron better service.

Jason also talked about a reshuffling of responsibilities at the two desks at the Arlington Heights library. Previously, they had an “Information” desk and a “Welcome” desk. At the info desk, staff with MLS degrees answered traditional reference questions, helped with database research, did technical instruction, and handled genealogy and business questions; at the welcome desk, staff without an MLS answered questions about the catalog, helped with technology, and did readers’ advisory. This distinction was unclear to patrons (most patrons, not unreasonably, assume that everyone who works in a library is a librarian with the same level of expertise), so the desk responsibilities were shifted and the names were changed accordingly. Now, patrons could go to the “Digital Services” desk to ask about the public computers, digital content, technology instruction, and e-readers/tablets/phones, or they could go to the “Information Services” desk with questions about genealogy and business, readers’ advisory, or the catalog. Some staff at each desk had an MLS and some did not. Though it required cross training for staff, the new system was more intuitive for patrons.

Jason noted the importance of “proactively marketing what you can do versus waiting for people to come to you,” as well as the importance of being “nimble and local,” by responding to rising unemployment by offering help for jobseekers, for example. The library also offers technology classes, and staff noticed that attendance at these classes rose even as public computer use declined. The Arlington Heights library is able to offer more than the usual tech classes: they offer sessions on blogging, Twitter, Android vs.  iOS, and where to listen to music online. The library is “not just a grocery store, but also a kitchen,” Jason said, meaning it is not just a place to come get things, but also a place to make things. “Libraries,” he finished, “help people be successful in their lives.”



Celeste from AADL presented next, starting with an overview of the library system. The AADL is one main library and four branches; they have 8.8m checkouts, 1.6m visits, and about 80k attendance at programs annually, but reference questions have declined sharply, from 126k in 2003-2004 to 51k in 2011-2012. The AADL took a hard look at “What job needs to be done? Who is qualified to do it? Who answers which questions?” They have several levels of staff, from clerks to MLS students to library technicians, librarians, supervisors, and managers. Each level of staff spends a certain amount of time on the desk every week (the library is open 74 hours/week year-round), but there is a six-week training program that supports non-MLS staff on the desk. There is also peer-to-peer training in the form of a staff wiki, and a variety of ways for patrons and staff alike to ask questions.


All of these changes seem designed to support library staff’s responsiveness to the public and to each other. Staff create wayfinders and tools for the public, like homework help, and staff and the public also create resources together, like readalike lists. There is also an “on demand” digitization process; digitization can be a long, slow process, so why not let the public decide what they want to see first? Patrons can request digitized copies of articles from old local newspapers, and instead of simply delivering that item to that patron, the item is made available to the public as well. The public also helps tag items in the catalog (crowdsourcing!) with the Points-o-Matic game.

A final small outreach effort was to add a short message to the  “Ready for Pickup” notices that are automatically e-mailed to patrons when their requested items arrive at the library. Instead of just saying that the item is ready, the AADL added a sentence along the lines of “Did you know the library can answer questions?” Because, unbelievably, some people do not know this. (Celeste’s own grandmother, apparently, was one of these people. “What do you think I do all day, Grandma?”)


All of the ideas that Jason and Celeste presented were thought-provoking and inspiring. I especially like the idea of a combination staff/patron chat where staff can provide answers to their fellow staff as well as to patrons (Celeste called this “the channel”), but I have to say my favorite idea is separating face-to-face reference from phone/e-mail/chat reference, and handling the latter off-desk. At AHML, this seemed to have many positive effects: it reduces stress on desk staff, improves the F2F experience for patrons, and allows library staff to answer more questions (a ringing phone doesn’t go unanswered because the person on the desk is helping someone else).

This post wound up being pretty long, so I’ll write about the remaining three Thursday sessions in the next post(s). Stay tuned, and please share your thoughts in the comments!


MLA Conference, Day One (Wednesday), Part Two

The afternoon sessions at MLA on Wednesday were just as good as the morning sessions. First up after lunch was “Library Services and the Future of the Catalog: Lessons from Recent ILS Upgrades,” with representatives from the Boston Public Library (BPL), the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium (MVLC), UMass Dartmouth, and the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC); the first three library systems had recently changed from one ILS (Integrated Library System) to another, and the MBLC had helped MVLC and two other Massachusetts library consortia with the search process and transition.

The speakers explained why their libraries wanted to change from one ILS to another and the decision-making process involved in choosing a new ILS; they also spoke about the process of the change and how it affected users and staff, pointed out some of the differences – good and bad – between old and new systems, and talked about the future of library catalogs. They touched on the differences between open source and proprietary systems: with open source, you need more in-house talent (software developers on staff), but you have more control, as well as access to the open source community; proprietary systems require less technical skill from library staff, as fixing bugs and implementing new features are outsourced.


All library systems experienced some growing pains during the change; in some cases, initial training was good, but follow-up training could have been better. “The old system never looks as good as when you’ve migrated to a new system,” one speaker said somewhat ruefully. “It’s always going to be harder than you think,” said the MVLC representative. However, when asked how they felt three months after migrating to the new system, overall everyone seemed satisfied with their new ILSs, though each had a laundry list of wishes, and much of the reporting seemed based on anecdotal evidence rather than formal evaluation of either staff or patron experiences.

ILStweets2Every ILS has usability issues, and usability testing with patrons would likely identify areas in need of improvement for each ILS; developers don’t always develop with real users in mind. (As Aaron Schmidt pointed out in Library Journal, most library catalogs are designed to prioritize the collection, not the people searching the catalog.)

The last session I attended on Wednesday was “Loaning eReaders to the Public: Legal and Strategic Challenges,” where Anne Silvers Lee and Jamie Wilson from the Free Library of Philadelphia and Melissa Andrews from the Boston Public Library spoke about the lessons they learned in the process of developing programs to circulate e-reading devices: the Free Library lent B&N nooks, and the BPL will be lending iPad minis starting next month.

This was a fascinating session that started off with some startling statistics. E-readers, Ann said, are “not a cutting-edge thing anymore”; forty percent of libraries loan e-readers. Why did the Free Library want to lend e-readers? They considered the digital divide (the gap between those who are familiar with technology and those who don’t use it; in Philly, 41% of the population of 1.5 million does not have internet access at home), patron demand, innovation, and transliteracy.

The library obtained a grant to purchase e-readers and hire part-time staff to help train patrons on how to use the devices. They chose nooks because B&N offers institutional accounts for invoicing and batch wifi delivery of new content; they were also aware that Amazon had already sent out at least one cease-and-desist letter for lending Kindles. Jamie referenced copyright experts Mary Minow and Peter Hirtle of and Cornell University, respectively, whose opinions the Free Library sought to determine the legality of their lending program. He summed up their response as “We’ve looked into this, we think it’s all right,” with Hirtle less sure than Minow (who also included a long list of caveats).


During the Q&A at the end of the session, I suggested that B&N and Apple’s cooperation in helping the libraries set up their devices for lending implied consent, but apparently it’s still a “gray area.” However, Ann said, “If [device manufacturers] don’t want us to do it, [they] better lawyer up.”

ereaders2Jamie explained the Free Library’s system for lending: the program was limited to patrons fifty years of age or older, all of whom had to have a library card and a valid ID. There were steep late fees in place (though fears that the devices would be stolen proved unfounded; none went missing), and all users had to take a training class. All of the nooks circulated from the senior center in the Main Branch, and all were pre-loaded with the same selection of fiction and nonfiction bestsellers and classics. Because they weren’t buying content through a third-party vendor like OverDrive or 3M, they could purchase titles from all “Big 6” publishers.

Results once the program launched were somewhat disappointing, with lower use of the devices than they had anticipated. In response, the library lowered the age requirement for borrowing, expanded the availability to other locations, dropped the training requirement (while providing even more training classes), and eventually repurposed some of the nooks for staff training.

Then, of course, there was the lawsuit: the National Federation for the Blind sued the library because the nooks were not accessible. The lawsuit was resolved, but it stands as a cautionary tale, and the BPL accordingly proceeded with caution when planning their own e-reader lending program. The NFB had sent a letter to the mayor of Boston stating that it was an ADA violation to lend nooks or Kindles; only iPads were appropriately accessible (more than just text-to-speech capability is required for a device to be considered accessible).

The BPL purchased 70 iPad minis with a grant, and worked with Apple to ensure that users’ personal data was protected and that any content a user had added to the device was wiped between checkouts. The iPads are preloaded with 40 high interest titles as well as some apps; they will circulate for two weeks at a time, and patrons will be able to place holds on them through the catalog (though Melissa anticipates long wait times due to their popularity). The iPads will show up in the results list when patrons search the catalog for books that have been preloaded onto the iPads; this is something that the Free Library staff thinks would have boosted circulation of their devices, which only appeared in the catalog if you searched for them by device name.

Overall, this was an informative session. All three speakers were well prepared and articulate, and the learning curve was evident in the changes that the Free Library made to its own lending program as well as how the BPL developed its lending program. As I’ve said before, libraries are all about sharing, and learning from each other’s experiences is one way of doing that. For any library that is considering implementing an e-reader lending program, I’d definitely recommend consulting these folks’ resources.

Next: the Thursday sessions at MLA were also fantastic. Stay tuned for not-so-concise summaries of four more sessions (probably in two parts, probably tomorrow or early next week). The Twitter hashtag war continues, so make sure to check #mla13 and #masslib13 (I was mostly using the latter).

MLA Conference, Day One (Wednesday), Part One

Today was the first day of the Massachusetts Library Association Conference in Cambridge. The conference site, located near the MIT campus, was surrounded by police, who were out in force for the memorial service for fellow officer Sean Collier. (Librarians may have seen that many police in one place before, but I doubt the police had seen that many librarians.) It made for a somber beginning, and people trickled into the 9am sessions a few minutes late due to some of the roads being closed.

Despite missing the first few minutes of the session on “Teaching Technology to Patrons and Staff,” I enjoyed Ann Lattinville and Peter Struzziero’s presentation about the series of “Tech 101” classes that they offer at the Scituate Town Library, and Jessica Lamarre’s presentation on her work with the “teen tech squad” at the Pembroke Public Library. (This was the only session during which I wasn’t on Twitter, because I didn’t get the MLA wireless password until afterward. You’d think that would be in the conference packet, or on the website…) I came in just as Ann and Peter were finishing talking about the Library Edge Initiative’s Benchmark test, and how their library’s results had led them to offer more technology training for patrons at their library, including classes on how to set up an e-mail account, Facebook and Pinterest accounts, and a “tech petting zoo” to showcase e-readers, tablets, and library databases and resources like Zinio.

They talked about the importance of having a lesson plan, giving handouts at programs as well as having them available around the library, branding (“Tech 101”), different types of marketing, and using videos to provide an overview (they showed Eric Qualman’s video “Social Media 2013,” but also recommended resources from WebJunction and TechSoup). They also emphasized the importance of promoting the library as “a place of interactive learning,” not just a warehouse for books.

Jessica’s Teen Tech Squad is a different kind of technology program; her teen volunteers are trained to help other patrons with technology needs. At first this was a drop-in program, but people didn’t always show up, so she changed it to an appointment model, which worked better. She assessed the teens’ skills and areas of expertise with different software and devices, and did role-playing exercises with them to improve their teaching skills, patience, and ability to talk through problems.

The next session I attended was “Afraid to Advocate? Get Over It!” Eric Poulin from Greenfield and John Ramsay from Springfield gave the Western Massachusetts perspective, acknowledging the perception in Western Mass that their tax money comes to the eastern part of the state and doesn’t return. Point being that they know the importance of fighting for their libraries. (By this point in the conference, I had gotten the MLA wireless password and found the Twitter hashtag – or one of them – and began posting during the sessions.)



Eric and John talked about legislative breakfasts, usually held annually, and the importance of attending them, getting to know your local legislators in an informal context. Libraries can also host legislative breakfasts, and are definitely a great place for photo ops. Participation can’t be just once, though; it should be ongoing, to build a relationship: “Legislators are people too. They work for us and they are part of our community.” Librarians, of course, know that libraries are important, but not everyone knows that, and librarians can be unwilling to stand up and be loud. “Is your library important? Then fight for it! …Fighting for libraries is good citizenship.”

As public employees, librarians can’t ask or tell patrons who to vote for in local elections, or how to vote on an override, but they can provide balanced information about the issues. The Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries are a good resource for those who want to get involved but are afraid of crossing a legal line. Not all advocacy is political, though; any PR is advocacy, from newsletters to photo ops to social media to special events at the library. “It’s not just gonna happen by itself.”



John spoke about three branch libraries closing in Springfield, and how public support brought them back. “Libraries are, in some ways, an equalizer,” he said, and Springfield patrons showed that their library was important to their community. Eric shared a story from Greenfield, where a new mayor made a particularly egregious comment about libraries and within two days the community mobilized and marched on city hall [could not find news article to link to]. He also joined the fight when the high school was considering cutting its librarian position. “Tell legislators how issues affect you personally,” he said. And don’t wait for a crisis to talk to legislators; they’re more likely to listen if you have a relationship already in place. “Anticipate the questions so you have the answers” when you talk to them.

Another part of advocacy is making sure the library has a positive image with the public. “Points of friction” may include late fees or other customer service issues; consider how your library staff handles these.

MLA logo

All that was just before lunch on Day One. More to come in the next post, where I’ll write about “Library Services and the Future of the Catalog: Lessons from Recent ILS Upgrades” and “Loaning eReaders to the Public: Legal and Strategic Challenges.” For now, you can check out the highlights on Twitter by searching for #mla13 or #masslib13.


Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

ravengirlToday I’m feeling quite grateful to book publicists, particularly to one who works at Abrams Comic Arts, publisher of Audrey Niffenegger’s new graphic novel, Raven Girl. In a time when libraries and publishers are sometimes on opposite sides of the fence, this is a good reminder that on both sides are people who love books and want to share them.

Audrey Niffenegger is best known for her novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, in which Clare (the wife) and Henry (the time traveler) are often separated against their will; it is an unusual and powerful love story. Her next novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, features identical twins who inherit their aunt’s London flat next to Highgate Cemetery; it is a ghost story, but the ghost realm and the human realm prove to be more porous and permeable than in other ghost stories.

Readers of these novels, however, may have missed Niffenegger’s other work; she is both an author and an artist, and these two talents come together in her graphic novels. The Night Bookmobile was serialized in The Guardian before being published in book form in 2010. The Three Incestuous Sisters (2005) and The Adventuress (2006) preceded it. And now, we have Raven Girl, in which readers of Niffenegger’s previous graphic novels will recognize her characteristic style in both the art and the story itself.

Raven Girl was conceived as “a new fairy tale,” and that is exactly what it is. A postman falls in love with a raven; their daughter is born with the form of one, but she longs for what she feels is her true form. Instead of a witch or a fairy godmother, she finds a doctor who can help her effect the change. As in a fairy tale, some details and impossibilities are glossed over; as in a fairy tale, the animal and human worlds overlap; as in a fairy tale, some characters have happy endings, and some come to unfortunate ends.

In the illustrations paired with the text, remarkable detail contrasts with simple, flowing lines, and muted browns, blues, and greens. As you read, you may find yourself looking back and forth between the text and the art, as together, they amplify the power of the story.

Like most of Niffenegger’s work, Raven Girl is magical, dark, and unusual. I highly recommend it, not just for those who are already fans of the author, but as an entry point for those who have not yet discovered her.







Disclosure: I received my copy of this book from the publisher. I received no compensation for this review. Raven Girl will be available May 7.

Happy National Library Week

This week is National Library Week, the time of year that we “celebrate the contributions of our nation’s libraries and librarians and promote library use” (as opposed to the rest of the year…when we also do those things). Jessamyn West wrote a NLW post full of great links at the actual beginning of the week, which is well worth checking out. The Swiss Army Librarian posted a wonderful quote from the very pro-library author Neil Gaiman back in 2011, which is worth revisiting. And of course, the #nlw13 tag is also active on Twitter.

On Monday afternoon – Marathon Monday – I was sitting with a friend of a friend who is considering leaving academia (she’s a few years into a PhD in English Literature) and becoming a librarian. We had met up to talk, and she asked me what librarians were like. I told her one of the striking things I had noticed about librarians as compared to people in other professions: on the whole, they – we – are collaborative, not competitive. We are friendly and helpful and very willing to share our work, our discoveries, and of course our favorite books. “There may be asshole librarians out there,” I said, “but I haven’t met one yet.”


MOOCs and online learning

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are gaining popularity, prompting much discussion among those involved in higher education. Some champion the spread of knowledge through technology, while others call MOOCs the death knell of higher education as we know it, and still others point out that the MOOC experience cannot replace the traditional college experience. There are now a number of companies and institutions that offer a platform for MOOCs: there’s Coursera, edX (founded by MIT and Harvard), Udemy, Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE), and many others.

The Boston Globe recently profiled Lexington “writer and entrepreneur” Jonathan Haber, who has set himself the goal of earning “a one-year MOOC BA,” taking a range of classes on a variety of platforms in 2013 – certainly an interesting way of achieving firsthand knowledge on the issue. I can’t speak (or write) with such first-hand authority, having never taken a MOOC myself, but I did take some online and “blended” classes (some in-person meetings, some online lectures and discussions) in grad school, so I will write a little bit about that.

Technical difficultiesTeachers face a learning curve when moving from a classroom environment to an online environment. On one hand, there is new software to learn, which can create glitches for even the savviest professor. Course management software is idiosyncratic, and teachers may need to become familiar with other software programs (like Camtasia for recording lectures) in addition to course management software like Blackboard or Moodle.

On the other hand, techniques that work in the classroom don’t always transfer well to an online environment, and it can be trial-and-error to discover what types of assignments work well online. The first semester or two can be rough as professors troubleshoot new tools and figure out what works and what doesn’t; students can help by recognizing the learning curve teachers face (many put in extraordinary amounts of extra time), and by doing their best to stay with the course schedule, even if there aren’t physical meetings to attend.

Synchronous or asynchronous? Online courses may be synchronous – everyone “present” at the same time – or asynchronous, where the professor posts a lecture and the students can watch it whenever is convenient (usually within a specified time frame). Asynchronous courses give students flexibility and control over not just where they learn (at home instead of in a classroom, for example), but when (so night owls and early birds are both happy).

Communication: If the students don’t see the professor on a regular basis in the classroom, they must have some way to communicate. Professors should establish communication guidelines/ground rules at the outset of the class, letting students know when they will be available and how they can be reached. I have taken classes with professors who would respond to an e-mail in minutes; professors who were on Skype and Gchat and Twitter; professors who held traditional office hours and could be reached by phone.

Communication is of paramount importance for several reasons: there may be a technological glitch that the teacher is unaware of (inaudible audio file, broken link); students might need clarification on assignment instructions; students will want feedback on their work. Ideally, there will be at least two channels of communication – and professors should remember that not every student is on facebook or wants to communicate that way.

Discussion boards: Online discussion boards are now part of many traditional classes as well as online ones. As a student, I came to appreciate discussion boards for a few reasons. The act of writing is more considered than the act of speaking; writing responses to prompts reinforced my own learning and increased my grasp of the material. Reading others’ comments was valuable as well, because written comments were more thoughtful and clear than spoken ones – people weren’t just saying the first thing that came to mind, as they do in a classroom. The interaction between students on the discussion board was impressive as well: people responded to each other’s posts and sometimes cited outside sources, providing links to extra materials. In a “blended” class, discussions carried over from the online forum into the classroom.


In many ways, my experience with online learning is vastly different from that of students who take MOOCs. I was in classes with 20-30 other students, and we received as much feedback on our work as we would have in a traditional classroom setting. But there are similarities too: as with most education, the student is at least partially accountable for his or her own learning, and to a great degree you get out of it what you put into it. If you do the reading, attend (or listen to) the lectures, and participate in discussions (in person or online), you’ll learn. Good teachers will find ways to adapt what works in the classroom to what works online. The success of MOOCs so far (and of TED talks) prove that there is an untapped desire to learn in many people, and that’s something to celebrate and encourage.

Edited to add: A.J. Jacobs, who I can’t help but think of as a stuntman of the author world (experimenting with certain ways of life and then writing about them, e.g. The Year of Living Biblically), has written a piece for the Times opinion pages called “Two Cheers for Web U!” Despite the enthusiastic title, he points out a few drawbacks to MOOCs, and predicts that, while they offer benefits to some, they won’t ever replace brick-and-mortar colleges. –4/21/13

The Great Migration

The Amazon acquisition of Goodreads came right on the heels of another major change that I didn’t blog about here (though I did do plenty of reading about it): Google is shutting down its RSS tool, Google Reader, on July 1 of this year. This news sent its millions (but not enough millions, apparently) of loyal users in search of alternatives.

Google_Reader_logo_GalliganFor those who don’t use any RSS feed: how they work is that you add subscriptions – to blogs, news sites, or webcomics, for example – and all new content from those sites is collected in one place. It’s a great way of keeping track of content from many places on the web, especially if they post content at irregular intervals; by highlighting new content when it appears, the RSS feed ensures that none of the sites you want to follow disappear from your radar.

So, which tool to use to replace Google Reader? I don’t have a smartphone, but I wanted something that I could access from my home computer, my work computer, and my tablet; I wanted something browser-based, not an app or plugin I’d have to install. Lifehacker’s March 13 article about Google Reader alternatives is worthwhile if you’re still trying to decide which one to switch to, as is the March 14 article from Extreme Tech.

the-old-reader-logoIf I’d had a smartphone, I might have gone with Feedly (my roommate’s choice), and I’m not ruling out changing to NewsBlur (Cory Doctorow’s choice) in the future, but for now I’ve switched to The Old Reader. It did feel a bit like going back in time, and because so many others were switching over at the same time, it took a few days(!) to import the OPML file that I had exported from Google Reader, but it’s been working well so far.

Uploading my exported Goodreads data to LibraryThing took a little time as well, but not as long as I expected, and I was very pleased with the outcome; all my Goodreads “shelves” became tags in LibraryThing (e.g. young adult, science, cooking, magic, to-read). I’m still getting used to navigating around the LT interface, as I’ve only really used it for cataloging before, but I’ve had no major problems so far, and the documentation is very good, so I can often find the answers to my questions.

The LT staff, including Tim Spalding, are active and responsive members of the site. The “LibraryThing: How to Succeed in an Amazon/Goodreads World” thread has been so active that it has spawned several additional topic threads. Barbara Fister has also written a good overview about the “culture clash” that occurred when a wave of Goodreads users joined LibraryThing (“culture shock: when Goodreads and LibraryThing collide“).

LT_logoIf you’re thinking of becoming a member of LT, or if you’re just curious to learn more about what it is, you can’t do better than this collaborative piece from LT staff and members, “What Makes LibraryThing LibraryThing?” They address the difference between users and customers (LT is free only up to 200 books; after that, you’re required to pay, but the amount is “suggested” and you can get either annual or lifetime membership at a very reasonable price): “We have no ‘users.’ If you’re not the customer, you’re the product. If a social website can’t support itself on customers and straightforward products, it’ll eventually sell out what you gave it—your data, your friends, and the community itself….We want what paying creates—customers, with loyalty and rights—not “users.'”

The “user vs. customer” difference is becoming more apparent as platforms launch and close, are bought and sold. As Alex Kantrowitz noted in an article for Forbes (“Google Reader Shutdown a Sobering Reminder That ‘Our’ Technology Isn’t Ours,” March 13), “The death of Google Reader reveals a problem of the modern Internet that many of us likely have in the back of our heads but are afraid to let surface: We are all participants in a user driven Internet, but we are still just the users, nothing more. No matter how much work we put in to optimize our online presences, our tools and our experiences, we are still at the mercy of big companies controlling the platforms we operate on.”

This is something to consider seriously: the major social media sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) are free, and users produce the content, signing away more rights than they’re aware of by agreeing to the various sites’ Terms & Conditions. Though everyone likes free, there are some things worth paying for, and having a little more control in the content you produce, and a little more confidence that the platform on which you’re creating it won’t be unceremoniously pulled out from under you, is sometimes worth it. (Not to say, of course, that just because you pay for something, it will always be reliable, TIME WARNER. Companies go under, or they’re sold, or they change.)

demandprogressSpeaking of Terms & Conditions, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) makes it extremely perilous to violate T&C (or Terms of Service); according to the Department of Justice, it can even be a felony. Read more and find out how you can take action to protect the internet as we know it.

This just in: Academic publisher Elsevier just acquired Mendeley, to the dismay of many of Mendeley’s users. Elsevier is notoriously expensive and anti-open access, whereas Mendeley is (was?) a free research and reference management tool. Many users will probably be jumping ship to Zotero, a similar service.