It is Banned Books Week again (a.k.a. Freedom to Read Week). I’m going to quote from Rob’s BBW/FtRW post from the Robbins Library blog:
During Banned Books Week, we celebrate the freedom to read. As you can imagine, this is most librarians’ favorite theme week; after all, as our code of ethics states, “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” But you don’t have to be a librarian to enjoy Banned Books Week – all you have to do is read!
(The word “Banned” is in quotation marks in the title of this post because the name “Banned Books Week” is a bit of a misnomer. First, we celebrate Banned Books Week not because we like or support books being banned – we celebrate to support intellectual freedom and the freedom to read whatever you want. Second, it’s now much more common for books to be challenged than actually banned, thanks to the efforts of teachers, librarians, and other supporters of the freedom to read. You can read a bit more about Banned Books Week here (or in our blog archives here) and check out a few lists of books that have been banned or challenged here & here.)
They link to a few of my Banned Books Week posts for the blog from past years, as well as the ALA site. Here are ALA’s infographics for this year:
There is a difference between a challenge and a ban; there are many more challenges than bans. And just because a book is removed from one library, that doesn’t mean it’s removed from all of them, or unavailable at bookstores or online. But you’ll notice that almost all of these titles are children’s or teen books, and kids don’t always have options beyond their school library (if they’re lucky enough to have a school library and librarian) or their local public library. If a book is removed from those places, it’s effectively unavailable for that kid.
It’s easy enough – for many of us pro-intellectual freedom types, at least – to see a story like the recent one from Nashville, Tennessee, where a Catholic school banned the Harry Potter series, and rail against it. Most librarians – and plenty of teachers and parents – believe that while parents do have the right to decide what their own children can and can’t read, they do NOT have the right to decide that a book should be unavailable for everyone.
However, there’s a subtler kind of censorship that I see a lot of, and I’m sure I’ll have moments where I wrestle with myself about this as well: the “is my kid ready for this yet?” question. Parents with eager, advanced readers, especially, see their kids racing through all the chapter books and middle grade novels and into the teen section. They’re concerned that their readers will encounter bad language, violence, sex, drugs (maybe even rock ‘n’ roll), etc.
So far, I’ve developed four responses to this: one, of course, is to talk with the parent (and the kid!) about the books they’ve liked, and suggest any others I can think of or find along those same lines, without going into more mature territory. Two is to suggest to the parent that they read the book too (either before the kid does, or at the same time, or after), so they’re prepared to talk about anything that concerns either of them. Three, if a kid is reading way above their age level (content-wise), they will likely either put the book down, or some things will just sail over their heads; they’ll take something away from the book, but they won’t understand it on every level, and that’s okay. Four, books are the safest places to encounter scary things. Plenty of fantasy and sci-fi scenarios won’t happen in real life (probably, hopefully), but realistic fiction that deals with death, divorce, poverty, bullying, mental health issues, violence, sexual assault, and any of the multitude of things that can and do go wrong in our world…those things happen. If they don’t happen to you, then knowing about them can build empathy for others; if they do happen to you, you know you’re not alone.
A final note: one other way that adults censor kids’ reading is by designating “girl books” and “boy books.” Here, I’m going to turn it over to author Shannon Hale:
Stories make us human. We form bonds by swapping personal stories with others, and reading fiction is a deeply immersive exercise in empathy.
So, what happens to a culture that encourages girls to read books about boys but shoos boys away from reading books about girls?
11:45am “Advocacy for Access and Equity to Massachusetts School Libraries,” Greg Pronevitz, James Lonergan, Robin Cicchetti (Concord-Carlisle Regional High School)
Greg Pronevitz (formerly of MLS, currently a consultant) introduced this session off by acknowledging the great impact of Judi Paradis, a school librarian and advocate for school libraries. Judi was instrumental in the formation of the Legislative Special Commission on School Library Services in Massachusetts, which produced the report The Massachusetts School Library Study: Equity and Access for Students in the Commonwealth. “This study is a result of her efforts,” Pronevitz said.
The report concluded that there is a lack of equity in Massachusetts schools. In its long-range action plan to build equity, it suggests hiring someone at DESE (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) to manage school library services; at present, it isn’t even possible to get a complete count of the number of schools that have libraries (let alone librarians, book budgets, and appropriate technology). A possible partnership between DESE and MBLC could conduct a census of school libraries, librarians, and services. School libraries should also be included in ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) funding. The report also recommends that the state set regulatory minimum standards, to ensure at least some level of equity and access for students, whether they’re in rural, suburban, or urban districts.
James Lonergan from MBLC (Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners) mentioned a number of other possible partnerships and stakeholders, including COSLA, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, EveryLibrary, and MLA. MBLC already supports school libraries through LSTA grants, the Commonwealth Catalog, and access to statewide databases; in fact, schools account for two-thirds of the use of state databases – would DESE consider contributing?
Robin Cicchetti, Head Librarian at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School and one of the authors of the Equity and Access study, spoke about the important takeaways from the school library impact studies:
A strong school library program (SLP) leads to higher overall test scores
Access to better libraries means higher reading scores
School librarians provide much more than access to books
High levels of poverty mean little access to books
Access to books appears to offset the impact of poverty
Economically disadvantaged children benefit at a higher rate
Unlike a classroom teacher, a school librarian can have a relationship with an elementary student for six years (in a K-5 school), getting to know their interests and preferences and helping them find the right books and other resources for them. Because many schools have lost their librarians due to budget cuts, nearly a whole generation of students (and teachers) does not know what a librarian can offer – “And you don’t know what you don’t have.”
“Neutrality replicates existing oppression. Being true to our professional core values around access, diversity, and social responsibility requires finding ways to make historically marginalized members of our communities feel that they belong in our libraries and are reflected in our collections, staffing, and services.” -Meredith Farkas
Some questions that arose during the session (from the speakers and the audience) included: Are libraries ever really neutral? How do we define “neutral”? What does that mean in practice? What/who are we including/excluding? Our libraries reflect our communities; how do we make sure our libraries reflect everyone in our community? Do all library users feel safe? What voices do we support and amplify?
Are libraries neutral, can we be neutral, should we be neutral? (Remember, a position of neutrality doesn’t necessarily mean an outcome of neutrality.) As information professionals, do we want to promote/defend intellectual freedom when it comes at the cost of social responsibility? What are the impacts of intellectual freedom? Which voices will be limited, which will be amplified? If access to information is a human right, should the education to be able to evaluate information be a human right also (information literacy)?
It was pointed out that freedom of speech is a “negative right” (i.e., “Congress shall pass no law…”). Government cannot get in the way of freedom of speech, but it doesn’t have to promote it either.
The session closed with Saunders’ reference to Dante’s Inferno, in which neutrality was found to be “not just unethical, but damning.”
Brennan brought plenty of energy and enthusiasm to this session, which wasn’t quite what I expected but had an important core point: Identify your “tribe” (or team, or pack), what they need to know, and what you can learn from them. There are a couple “tribes”: one is library staff, especially those who may be working only a few hours a week in the children’s department and may feel especially overwhelmed and underprepared to answer specific questions about levels from kids, parents, teachers, and caregivers. Make sure everyone who works in the children’s department feels comfortable answering those questions, or knows where to find the information. (This might be preparing a binder full of pathfinders, posting the various levels and their grade equivalents and some representative books, or whatever else works for you and your staff.)
Another “tribe” includes those who come into the children’s department and may have knowledge to share with you: parents, teachers, caregivers, coaches, kids, siblings, peers, librarians. Find out what the schools are using, talk to teachers (especially if they have very specific requirements). People are usually happy to share what they know, what they like, and what they don’t like.
Brennan shared two readers’ advisory tips that I liked: one was simply asking the kid to give a thumbs-up/thumbs-down when you show them or tell them about a book. This saves them from talking if they’re shy, but quickly allows you to gauge their interest and move on. Another strategy involves tiny colored post-it notes, which she sticks on/near books in the stacks so kids can browse without a librarian hovering; if it’s busy, you might use different colors for different kids.
“Everyone deserves to be trained in kid’s services, but not everyone is” – Brennan gave an overview of the areas of the library (fiction/nonfiction, picture books, early readers, chapter books) and the different levels (Lexile, Fountas & Pinnell, DRA). Kids need books at their “level” to learn certain skills and grow as a reader, but can “reach” for books they’re interested in and are motivated to read. She is a big fan of the NoveList K-8 database, which can be a useful tool for those who aren’t as familiar with children’s books.
Brennan is passionate about children’s services and early literacy in particular; to that end, she has developed backpack kits that kids can check out for pre-K, toddlers, and infants. It’s never too early to start reading together; “families that read together achieve together.”
Librarians can “model it”: be open, be cool, be confident, be fun. Encourage a growth mindset with a “Let’s find out together” approach. Remember that “There’s no more important library patron than our youth,” and “The windows and mirrors you have as a kid literally shape the rest of your life.”
Tuesday, 9am: ALA President Loida Garcia-Febo’s “Big Ideas” Talk: “Libraries = Strong Communities”
ALA President Loida Garcia-Febo’s speech put libraries at the center of their communities, and gave examples of the many different ways libraries serve their communities, from the usual (“When it comes to connecting people to information, librarians do it better than anyone…We promote reading, lifelong learning skills, equal access to information for ALL”) to the unusual (one library has partnered with a hospital so that every time a baby is born there, the mother can push a button and a gong rings in the library to announce the birth).
Garcia-Febo showed a slide of the text of Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” She said, “Access to information is at the core of what librarians do” – and access to information leads to education, citizen engagement, and empowerment….Libraries play a critical role in leveling the playing field.”
She concluded, “We are all creating the library of the future every day. We need to continue working with community members and local organizations….Libraries are the cornerstones of democracy….Information is a human right.”
Additional resources with links, and tweets below:
Tuesday, 11am: Free Speech & Libraries, Edward Fitzpatrick
Much of the content of Ed Fitzpatrick’s talk can be found in his October 2017 Providence Journal article, “Nation needs First Amendment refresher course.” The roomful of librarians (unsurprisingly) did much better than the national average at identifying the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment, and after the talk there was some articulate pushback on the pithy idea that “The best answer to hate speech is great speech.”
A particular dilemma faced in libraries centers around our public meeting rooms. If they are open to all, does that mean we must allow hate groups such as the KKK to use them? A July 2018 feature in School Library Journal, updated with comments by Jamie LaRue and a sidebar by Martin Gardnar, “Free Speech Debate Erupts with ALA’s Inclusion of Hate Groups in Revision of Bill of Rights Interpretation,” summarizes the issue neatly. In short, the ALA’s answer is yes. (So is Ed Fitzpatrick’s: ““When you’re a public library, you’re committed to that public experiment…It doesn’t mean the library is supporting or welcoming these groups or advocating for them.”) But there are other things libraries can do to show that we don’t agree with hate speech or hate groups. However, no matter how inclusive our collections, how welcoming our displays, or how diverse our events, patrons who are the target of such hate groups may well feel threatened and unsafe in the library.
Fitzpatrick cited two books repeatedly, both by Anthony Lewis: Gideon’s Trumpet (1964) and Freedom for the Thought We Hate (2007). Even as he defended free speech, including hate speech, he admitted, “Hate speech does exact a toll. We all pay a price, some more than others….Such freedom carries a real cost.” Fitzpatrick, a white man, may not bear as much of that cost as others in our society.
Tuesday lunch: Gregory Maguire
The author of Wicked (the book the Broadway show was based on) and many, many other books for children, teens, and adults spoke during Tuesday’s lunch, and he was an amusing and engaging speaker. I hadn’t known much about his childhood, or all the picture books he wrote, and I may dip into one of his more recent novels (After Alice) – it’s been a long time since I read Wicked or tried (but didn’t finish) Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Here are some tweets from the talk:
Tuesday, 2:30pm: Ignite!
The “Ignite!” sessions are quick, five-minute presentations on various topics:
“Time Travel Toolkit: Historical Maker Activities for Modern Kids,” Elise Petrarca, Youth Services Librarian, Cranston PL: Attendance at kids’ technology programs (like 3D printing and coding) was dropping off, so Petrarca used her background in history to come up with a new series of programs, branded “Time Travel Toolkit,” featuring stories and crafts related to a particular time period. Open to kids in grades 3-8, the goals of the program were to provide a unique, hands-on experience around an era of history, and to engage kids so they have fun and learn a little bit. It was a success, with the older kids helping the younger ones. The most popular activities were bread baking and butter churning (nor surprising, if they got to eat their creations…).
Sue Sullivan talked about ArtWeek (#ArtWeekMA); many ArtWeek events take place in collaboration with Massachusetts libraries.
“Collapse & Rebirth: Librarians as Architects of a New Humanity,” Madeleine Charney, UMass Amherst: Charney talked about hosting discussions on climate change, using the World Cafe dialogue model. She also recommended the book Emergent Strategy: shaping change, shaping worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown.
Four presenters from Johnson & Wales University presented “Who’s Got Your Back? Empowering Student Chat Ambassadors”: J&W librarians talked about training student employees to answer chat questions, and the results of their training.
“Touchscreen Digital Displays to Showcase Local History at the Watertown Free Public Library,” Brita Zitin: Zitin spoke about how they had made local history more accessible to library users in Watertown by placing touchscreens throughout the building. Using the software Intuiface, they made an interactive historical map, partnered with their local history society to make biographies of local historical figures, and – always popular – made features from high school yearbooks (such as guessing the decade from the hairstyle).
“From Reference Desk to Genius Bar, Public Libraries of Brookline” Callan Bignoli: Bignoli spoke about rethinking how library staff offers tech help at the (very busy) Brookline Public Library. In addition to one-on-one tech appointments, patrons can now come during drop-in tech help sessions, “Lunch and learn” sessions, and use LibChat reference. Bignoli’s advice if you’re rethinking how you offer tech help at your library:
Make sure staff are prepared – not for everything, but for many things.
Think about who’s coming in (and when). What are they asking you for help with?
Meet people where they are.
Try to get them what they came for. Does the format fit the person/topic? (Class, drop-in, 1-on-1)
Finally, Anna Mickelson from the Springfield City Library and Alene Moroni from the Forbes Library in Northampton presented “Weed This, Not That.” (Aside: I just noticed that the Springfield City Library’s tag line is “All Yours, Just Ask,” which is brilliant.) Their rapid-fire presentation included two case studies with before-and-after pictures (Before: crammed shelves. After: shelves with plenty of space for face-out titles, and no books too high to reach or so low they’re on the ground). When there’s “too much stuff” on the shelf, “people can’t find what they need. Find a reason to keep something not a reason to get rid of it.” Weed in accordance with library mission, space, etc. Different methods include item-by-item, “dusty” lists (low/no circulation in last __ years), and at the shelf (e.g. pulling books that have obvious problems like torn covers, water damage, or appallingly out-of-date information). Use professional discretion; you can do things like keeping series while getting rid of years-old “incandescent debuts,” and keep the inclusive, diverse books (put them on display!) and “get rid of the old white guys.”
Are you excited to weed, but need some talking points to convince others in your library? Weeding makes room for new items, seating areas, welcoming spaces, display opportunities, and it increases circulation. After all, “Do you still have every pair of shoes you’ve ever bought?”
All in all, a fantastic conference experience. Thank you to all the presenters, NELA and RILA, and the staff of the Crown Plaza in Warwick – professional, courteous, and unflustered in the face of fire alarms.
The New England Library Association (NELA) annual conference was in Warwick, Rhode Island this year, and it was a fantastic conference; all of the sessions I attended were worthwhile, and I saw lots of activity on Twitter (#NELA2018) to indicate that many other sessions were generating a lot of excitement as well. To top it off, the food was good, and the room temperature resembled neither saunas nor igloos. Well done, Rhode Island! Now, on to the sessions:
Monday, 9am: Finding Appeal Factors: Or What I’ve Learned from Being Twitter’s Resident Reader’s Advisory Specialist by Margaret Willison (@MrsFridayNext)
Willison had spoken the evening before about debunking the myth that “smart people like smart things and dumb people like dumb things.” Her presentation Monday morning was two-pronged: (1) how to learn to like what you don’t like (e.g. how to recommend horror if you don’t read/watch horror), and (2) cross-format recommendations (e.g. “I just watched ___, what should I read next?”). She talked about the need to step outside your natural tastes and build enthusiasm/information for other things; a great way to do this is to ask an articulate friend, and have them explain why they like what they like (not why you should like what they like). By discovering the appeal factors, you can build a common ground and work back. After all, “Just because something isn’t your cup of tea doesn’t mean you can’t understand why someone else likes it.”
Willison did a live example with an audience member who reads the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child, finding out the appeal factors, making a “wrong” recommendation (a series of books that matched in character and content, but differed in tone). This can be done for music and movies as well as for books, and that’s where cross-format recommendations come in. See, for example, NPR’s Read, Watch, Binge series (and while you’re at it, check out their incredible Book Concierge tool, which they make annually; here’s 2017). Other resources are Goodreads, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and The Ripped Bodice (for romance), The Criminal Element and Stop, You’re Killing Me! (for mysteries and thrillers), and the publisher TOR (for sci-fi and fantasy).
Monday, 11:30am: Sensory Storytime at the Public Library by Babs Wells, Maria Cotto
Shifting gears from adult readers’ advisory to children’s services, I attended two librarians’ joint presentation about sensory storytimes they offer at their libraries. Sensory storytime is geared for kids on the autism spectrum or with other developmental issues, though neurotypical children are welcome. Wells and Cotto strongly encouraged anyone thinking of offering a sensory storytime to use the book Programming for Children and Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder by Barbara Klipper, and also pointed to an ALSC blog post that serves as a brief how-to guide. It’s important to be aware of community resources as well, to partner with and to spread the word. (If you’re in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, or nearby, check out The Autism Project.)
Wells and Cotto described their usual sensory storytime, starting with registration: not required, but helpful, especially if it gives the librarian a chance to talk with the parent/caregiver beforehand about any special needs their child might have. They might also want a “social story,” a one-page handout that can help prepare the child for a new environment or event; it can be read like a picture book. Once the storytime has begun, it’s helpful to have visuals for everything, to ease transitions from one activity to another (books, bubbles, songs, activities, etc.). Starting with a hello song is a good idea; the librarian learns everyone’s names (parents too!) and can roll a ball to each kid and have them roll it back. Cotto said she always has a felt board or a puppet, and stools or mats for kids to sit on, and things for them to hold in their hands and fidget with. “These kids need something that will capture their attention, they need something in their hands, they like to participate.” She only reads one book, something like Dog’s Colorful Day by Emma Dodd or The Deep Blue Sea by Audrey Wood. “Go with the flow,” she advised – much like toddler storytime. After the organized part of sensory storytime, it’s playtime: they bring out more activities – popsicle sticks with velcro on the ends so kids can make different shapes, sensory sand, water marbles (but not together!), dried beans with little treasures kids can find and scoop into a cup. This can be a time for parents and caregivers to socialize (they shouldn’t be socializing or on phones during storytime; they should be involved. “I get in everyone’s faces!” Cotto said). Be sure to give plenty of warning when the program is wrapping up: five minutes, three, one, goodbye!
Lastly, remember: “When you meet one child with autism, you meet one child with autism.”
Monday, 12:45pm: NERTCL Lunch with author Tracey Baptiste
The New England Roundtable of Teen and Children’s Librarians (NERTCL) had their annual business meeting over lunch and then invited author Tracey Baptiste (The Jumbies, Rise of the Jumbies) to speak. She tried out a new talk on us, “Creativity Under Pressure.” Here are my tweets from the session, which was probably less polished than one she’d given many times, but definitely interesting (and mark your calendars for the third Jumbies book next year!).
Monday, 2:15pm: Fake News or Real News? Helping Our Patrons Tell Fact from Fake, by Victoria Palmatier and Lisa Lipshires, Springfield City Library
Palmatier and Lipshires’ initial workshop was a lecture format followed by discussion, and they said that next time, they would offer a more hands-on approach in their computer lab. Another great idea they had was to have a copy of the day’s local paper for each workshop attendee, and then look at the local news online as well. They said that an in-person workshop makes the library and librarians seem approachable and legitimate, and as resources that can provide human connection in a meaningful way and make the world less confusing. (We all know we’re not going to change anyone’s mind on Facebook…)
Monday, 4:30pm (slightly delayed due to fire alarm): Great Expectations: Leaping from High School to College, by Sarah Hunicke (Portsmouth High School), Mary C. MacDonald (University of Rhode Island), and Marianne Mirando (Westerly High School)
There is a gap between what college and university professors expect in terms of research skills and information literacy and the students’ abilities in these areas. Because this year’s high school senior is next year’s college freshman, these three presenters worked together to examine what high school librarians (and high school teachers) can do to bridge the gap. College faculty expect students to be able to: 1. determine information needed to answer questions, 2. recognize information bias, 2. distinguish scholarly vs. popular, 3. understand the publishing cycle.
“Where do our students struggle?” Practice, Process, Assessment. “Where do our instructors struggle?” Assignment design (format vs content), Process (time commitment), Additional burden (grading). The two high school librarians who were presenting wanted to help teachers integrate information literacy into their students’ assignments without greatly increasing their grading burden. They each brought an example assignment from their schools, and we split into groups to come up with ways to do just that. In one case, it was as simple as adding a section on research quality to the grading rubric, and having the students hand in an annotated bibliography early in the process. Of course, librarians can also model searching library databases and online, showing students how to broaden or narrow searches as needed, and how to use keywords instead of natural language; if students see librarians working through problems (like getting no results, or too many results), they feel more confident to work through the same problems themselves.
Some teachers may not seek librarians’ help or even accept it when it is offered; however, the idea of “coaching” is big in K-12 education right now, so one approach librarians can take is to ask teachers, “If you’re not happy with your students’ sources/bibliographies, what can we do about that?” and work together.
And that was Monday! Stay tuned for Tuesday’s sessions: the ALA President’s “Big Ideas” speech, the First Amendment in libraries, Gregory Maguire, and the Ignite sessions (quick, 5-minute presentations on different topics).
In her Printz Honor acceptance speech, Taylor discussed the importance of fantasy, now more than ever. “Human decency depends on empathy,” she said. “Empathy depends on imagination.” And what fantasy gives readers, especially young ones, is the ability to imagine worlds that can be remade. They can look at a community that mirrors our own and imagine it changed, and only by imagining it changed can we hope to change it.
That reminded me of what Neil Gaiman had to say on the topic of fiction and empathy. I’ve quoted from this speech of his before, but here it is again, slightly abridged:
“And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy….You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed…
You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:
The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.
….Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.”
The bit above in bold (emphasis mine) is crucial. I included it in a slide when I presented on “Readers’ Advisory in an Age of Uncertainty” at MLA last spring, alongside recommendations of fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, and other speculative literature.
Personally, I haven’t encountered anyone who has flat-out declared that fantasy books are lesser than other books. Certainly, there are people who say they don’t like the genre, and that’s fine – every reader their book, etc. – though in closing oneself off to entire genres, one is likely to miss some great stories.
As a side note, SLJ and Library Journal are pretty much the only places on the internet where the comments are constructive, intelligent, interesting, and relevant. Elsewhere, I usually stop scrolling at the end of the article and pretend comments don’t exist.
On the topic of fantasy, The Atlantic recently ran a piece entitled “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories.” I forwarded it along to all my children’s/YA reader/librarian friends, and while a few objected to the competitive aspect of the comparison (“There are so many good books on both sides of the pond!”), I won’t hesitate to admit that many of the magical books I loved as a kid (and still love) start with that tear in the fabric between our world and the other: “A tear in this fabric is all it takes for a story to begin.”
Of course there are incredible, magical, fantastical books from the U.S. and the U.K. (never mind all of the other countries in the world). But I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, read by Jim Dale, and I shivered when I heard Wendy ask, “Boy, why are you crying?” Pure magic.
Tim Wu is a lawyer who clerked for a Supreme Court justice, worked at a Silicon Valley startup, then moved into academia; he’s now a professor at Columbia and a columnist for the New York Times. But if his name rings a bell for you, it’s probably because he coined the term “Net[work] Neutrality” in 2003.
The fundamental idea of Net Neutrality, said Wu, is that the user should decide what the internet is. The carrier (Internet Service Provider, or ISP) shouldn’t get in the way. ISPs should be “a medium in the true sense of the word medium, respecting the wishes of those on each side.” They should be “faithful agents” providing reliable service, not blocking, discriminating, or censoring.
The federal government adopted Net Neutrality as a rule under the Bush administration, but the Trump administration killed it (though it’s likely to return under the next administration). Why were they focused on that? “Free flows of information can be very threatening to those who wish to consolidate their power. The censorial instinct remains very strong.”
The next issue threatening our democracy, said Wu, is the “crisis of attention.” (His newest book is called The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.) “Our attention has become our scarcest and most valuable resource…[and] when you have a purely attention-based business model, the competition runs to the bottom. It’s not who can be the most accurate, it’s who can capture attention.”
As Cory Doctorow says, if you’re not paying for the product, you ARE the product. Wu put it differently, as he described an 1830s New York newspaper publisher’s idea to re-conceive the audience as a product to sell to advertisers. The advertising model, he said, is “the harvesting and resale of human attention.” And this is the “original sin” of nearly all of the Internet’s giants: they “embraced advertising as their only business model and tied themselves business to attention harvesting.” (Wikipedia, as a recent New York Magazine article pointed out, is an exception.) This, despite Google founders’ early recognition that “advertising-supported search engine will always be biased, always serving two masters (users and advertisers) and cannot be expected to produce reliable results.”
The dark consequences of this setup are clear, with new examples in the news every day (most recently, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal). Sites and platforms based on an advertising model are driven to capture people’s time and attention, and to learn more about them in order to offer targeted ads – or to manipulate them.
“We’re at a moment in our democracy…information flow has changed how this country is governed.” What can be done? What should be done? Wu asked. Whose responsibility is it, who are the trustees of our time? He argued, “The largest information intermediaries of our time…must start operating with a true sense of fiduciary public duty or face regulatory consequences….The goal of aiming for truth is something that the tech industry needs to learn right now. The time has come.”
For the final two programs of the day, I indulged my YA-loving side. First was “How to Adult: Teaching Life Skills to Teens” presented by Kayla Marie Figard of San Mateo County Libraries and Elizabeth “Biz” Tanner of the County of Los Angeles Public Library. Their “How to Adult” programs teach “life hacks,” i.e. necessary life skills like healthy cooking, public speaking, car maintenance, etiquette, time management, organization, stress management, mindfulness, finding a first apartment, money management, self-defense, first aid, laundry (and sewing and mending), and the list goes on!
The presenters provided many short activities (tongue twisters for public speaking; a “multitasking is a myth” task) and a very handy program planning worksheet (see below). Some of their workshops for teens were single events, while others were a series. Nearly all included food, a surefire way to boost attendance at any program. Librarians ran some workshops, while others were conducted by outside presenters. With some research, you can find willing partners, like county/city/town departments, credit unions, and local businesses; some presenters may come for free, others may charge a fee.
To decide on the topic(s), ask teens what they want to know! Think about your own young adult life – what did you wish you had known, and what surprised you? Talk to teachers at local high schools – they will know what school does(n’t) offer and where students’ knowledge gaps are.
Along with planning and running the programs, the presenters discussed evaluation and measuring outcomes – required for grant-funded programs, but good for every program. They suggested: (1) determine anticipated outcomes, (2) ask: do the programs teach teens something? Do they feel better prepared for adulthood? (3) conduct pre- and post-program surveys to assess growth.
This was an excellent program: the presenters were good speakers, and came prepared not just with their slides, but with copies of their worksheets, planning documents, examples and activities from their workshops. A+!
For the very last PLA program, I went to the YA Crossover, or “AAP Crossover Appeal: Books that Work for Teens and Adults.” Despite the program’s title, it didn’t really focus on the “crossover” aspect so much as the teen aspect, except in the sense that some of the audience had read some of the authors’ books as young adults, and still loved them.
Luanne Toth of School Library Journal moderated the panel of four authors:Ally Carter, Carolyn Mackler, Gayle Forman, and Ashley Woodfolk. Woodfolk is a debut author (The Beauty That Remains), and the other three are further into their careers. Mackler’s most recent book, The Universe is Expanding and So Am I, is a sequel to The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things (a Printz honor book in 2004).
Here are a few quotes and paraphrases from the panel:
“I write about young people but I don’t write young stories” -Gayle Forman
“Young people are given license to feel your feelings.” There’s this idea that as you age you don’t feel things as strongly/intensely. You do have to moderate your feelings but you do have them. Satisfying as a writer and a reader. -Gayle Forman
“A lot of what happens in high school shapes your adult life….And you don’t really get it until you get older.” YA writing is cathartic because it helps revisit and dissect what happened & what you felt. -Ashley Woodfolk
“The world would be a lot better if we all read more broadly and more representatively.” -Ally Carter
“Libraries are our outposts in every corner of the country” (some places don’t have bookstores or people can’t afford books) -Ally Carter
“Encourage people to read everything…a kid might want to read something you won’t expect they want to read. Find out what a kid wants/needs” – Ashley Woodfolk
“Every book is a mirror. No matter how different somebody is from you, there is still an emotional through-line.” -Gayle Forman
And that is a wrap! See all PLA 2018 posts here. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to go to this conference, and I think I made the most of it, attending a variety of sessions and programs. I do wish I had a Time-Turner and could have been to even more. If you were at PLA, or followed along via a great blog or Twitter thread, please share your favorite links!
My first event on Friday was another stop at the PLA Pavilion for “Early Literacy Enhanced Storytimes: Intentionality is the Key” with Saroj Ghoting, an early childhood literacy consultant (earlylit.net). Presenters packed a lot into these 20-minute sessions; Ghoting addressed the challenge of keeping adults engaged during children’s storytimes, and provided several specific examples* to make storytimes more interactive. She also noted the different types of interaction during a storytime: librarian-children, librarian-adults, children-adults, and adults-adults. Adults value time with and advice from each other, and if they’re engaged during stortytime, they’re more likely to do the same activities with kids at home. Adult-child interaction also supports rich language development for children.
*Examples included books that lent themselves to two call-and-response parts, like Too Much Noise (kids make animal sounds, adults say “too noisy!”),The Cow Loves Cookies(adults say “but the cow loves…” and kids say “cookies!”), and Jump, Frog, Jump (adults say “how did the frog get away?” and kids say “jump frog jump!”).
After the “Enhanced Storytimes” session, I went over to the Children’s Book Buzz on the other side of the exhibit hall to hear about more upcoming children’s and teen titles, but left in time to get to the first morning program, “The Path to U.S. Citizenship Can Start at Public Libraries.” Laura Patching from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) spoke first, giving a short history of the service and talking about its work in and with libraries: sending community relations officers to do naturalization workshops, including mock interviews; setting up “Citizenship Corners” or “New Americans Corners”; and the “Bridges to Citizenship” program. Community relations officers will visit any library; find your local one by e-mailing email@example.com.
Next, Tiffany Nardella and Nate Eddy from the Free Library of Philadelphia (“Start here. Go anywhere”) spoke about their work welcoming new Americans in the library, in partnership with USCIS and with other partners, like the Office of Adult Education and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. And Michelle Gordon of the Fresno County Public Library in California said that naturalization ceremonies in libraries are “the best thing that I do,” and “If you don’t work with USCIS yet, do it! It’s worth it.” She suggested inviting local representatives to these ceremonies – new citizens are new voters! Elected officials might come or not, but it’s nice to invite them.
After the citizenship program, I followed a tweet from @NYPLRecommends and chatted with the hosts of the New York Public Library’s “The Librarian Is In” podcast, Gwen Glazer and Frank Collerius, who were delightful. I rarely listen to podcasts, but I am sure I would enjoy theirs.
I ate my lunch sitting on the floor and listening to the Adult Book Buzz, and then it was time for the afternoon programs. The first one I attended was “Refuting the Idea of ‘Neutral’: Supporting Civic Engagement & Information in the Library,” presented by Amy Holcomb, Amy Koester, and Mimosa Shah, an enthusiastic team from Skokie, IL. As the title of their program indicated, they refuted the idea that libraries are neutral: “If your library adheres to the Library Bill of Rights, you are not neutral.” Being neutral, however, is not the same as being nonpartisan; the library can have a stance (being in favor of access to good information) without taking a political position.
The Skokie Public Library started a Civic Lab to promote and facilitate citizen engagement by increasing awareness of issues, facilitating conversation, and providing access to quality information. They hoped to achieve several goals: to have patrons participate, not just passively consume; to offer more active, participatory experiences; and to have patrons engage with information so they feel confident and can make decisions based on that information. “We don’t want to get them to a particular point of view, we want them to have a point of view. If you have bad information, whoever gave you that information is making up your mind for you.”
The Civic Lab is a pop-up event in the library four times a month, addressing topics planned in advance as well as those that are timely and topical . Library staff at the pop-up station facilitate discussion between patrons, and each pop-up has a banner, display crates, media, books, and an activity. They suggest having “multiple access points [e.g. reading, listening, viewing]….There isn’t a right way to engage, it’s whatever is comfortable for the patron.”
Skokie also offers news discussion groups, which are scheduled events about quality news sources and how to navigate through the many news outlets. These cover news literacy in general as well as specific topics. They employ the reflective listening model for discussion.
There were also some good strategies for engaging kids and teens, from gamification (activities and questions that are more like trivia than quizzes) to clever program titles (“The media wants your brains” for teens). To get adults – patrons and staff alike – engaged, have them bring experiences from their own lives and family histories; “help people understand how much they can learn from each other.”
“The library is a place for difficult discourse.”
Programs like these can be equally inspiring and intimidating; you might want to do something similar in your library, but you’re already doing many other programs and displays. “Don’t add ‘civic engagement’ [on top of] everything you’re already doing,” the Skokie team suggested; rather, “Apply a civic engagement lens to what you’re already doing….Do a civic engagement audit of what you already offer.”
During the Q&A after the panel, someone asked, “How do you keep it to a discussion and not regurgitation of strongly entrenched opinions?” The Civic Lab team advised, “As a facilitator, restate what they’re saying and then ask to hear from someone else.” You can say, “You obviously believe this very strongly. How did you come to hold that belief, what are your sources? Tell me more, where can I find more information?” They said, “Opinions are fine, we want people to have informed opinions based on facts.”
“We want people to have informed opinions based on facts.”
For the final program of the day, I went to “The Information Needs of Citizens,” presented by Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center. Lee Rainie is a regular at library conferences; he is an excellent speaker, with excellent data which, it just so happens, supports the value of libraries. Although the country is experiencing “a crisis of truth, a crisis of trust, a crisis of democracy,” there are a few institutions and professionals that the public still trusts: librarians, teachers, and the military.
It’s no surprise that someone from a “fact tank” still believes that “facts matter.”
“Facts are the atomic unit of truth.”
“Facts drive outcomes for individuals and societies.”
“Facts underlie justice” – they are the cornerstone of democracy.
Facts are democratic. Facts are tied to trust – when trust grows, good things come from that. Trust in a culture binds people together, to overcome vulnerability and uncertainty. Trust cements interdependence.
Librarians, Rainie said, are in the vanguard of people who are going to help us solve these problems. Libraries are a free, open, trusted institution for learning. Research shows that people are glad that libraries are still here and providing access to information, helping bridge the digital divide and navigate the information environment online, and serving people and communities and on issues like net neutrality.
The next library will be built around five new insights:
People seek personal enrichment and entertainment in new ways
People seek knowledge and reference expertise in new ways (reference questions have gone down in number, but up in complexity)
Some groups especially need and want access to technology through trusted institutions (library as tech hub, tech support, wifi)
Learning is a social process, an ongoing process (learning happens in networks)
Where they fit on these continuums (PDF: ALA’s Confronting the Future report) physical/virtual, individual/community focus, collection/creation, archive/portal, everything for everyone/specialized niche
Rainie concluded, “A day spent with librarians is a better day.”