“It’s just libraries, nobody dies”

“It’s just libraries; nobody dies.

I’ve been saying that since 2001, when my first Director said it to me when I was freaked out that I missed a deadline. I was a brand new professional, and that missed deadline seemed like a pink slip. Nope, Karen said. Not a crisis. Just fix it.

I’ve lived my whole professional career balancing between my own high standards for performance and the awareness that it’s just libraries and nobody dies. And for the last 6-8 weeks I’ve been suffering through some writer’s block on two new job ads. We decided to nuke our job ads from orbit and rewrite, reflecting the personality and reality of our libraries more effectively to the job market. I wanted to have them posted last week. They aren’t written yet, because I’m blocked. But it’s just libraries. Nobody dies.

Except then I got news from a friend writing to share the story of a family medical challenge, saying, “Sincere gratitude to all the medical researchers who post their works open-access and to hell with the rest of you. Pubmed is great. But I don’t have the kind of library access that lets me read all of this stuff and the stakes are pretty damn high for me right now.

One of the ads I’m writing is for a Coordinator of Technical Services and Metadata. The other is for an Electronic Resources and Discovery librarian. Know what those two positions do? Among other things, they are the library staff who ensure easy access to information, promote open access, and advocate for better vendor-user relationships.

Nobody dies, huh?

I’m going to go write, now.

Welcome to the Absurd Zone

Welcome to the Absurd Zone

Welcome to the Absurd Zone

I hate December. December is the Absurd Zone. December is when we wrap up classes, enroll students for the spring, prepare for winter break, have major cultural holidays and family obligations, and also wrap up a financial quarter. December is when academics break into tiny pieces.

In May, when the stresses hit, you know you have the summer to rebuild yourself. In December, we stare down the same stress points and recognize that there’s a light at the end of tunnel, for sure, but there’s still five months of trains coming before we get there. In December we know we’re going to make it… but only by embracing the absurd.

This week started with a toddler meltdown because overalls are CLEARLY torture, PARENTS, and the Tyrant Without Offswitch would like to know why we do not recognize this fact despite her 100 decibel shrieks informing us of it. Fine, kid, lie on the floor and scream while failing to remove overalls over your shoes. You do that. You still have to wear pants.

Then Monday proceeded into 11 hours of meetings. Eleven. Hours. Of. Meetings. The last one was a campus dinner, but it was professional conversation with students, colleagues, and the President and her wife. So… still a meeting. After 10 prior hours of meetings. I was grateful I wore leggings and a sweater dress, because that, at least, is sort of like pajamas. I can pretend I’m happy and comfortable if I’m wearing sort-of-pajamas. Then I went home and battled through bedtime with a super-restless toddler, then laid awake with an annoying hacking cough of undetermined origins, because of course.

At 8:05 this morning I woke up thinking “I just heard the kitchen door close, so that means Kyle went to work. OH SHIT IF KYLE WENT TO WORK I AM LATE”, because I had an 8:30 meeting on campus. Which I made it to about 3 minutes late, because I’m a goddamn superhero who can embrace the ludicrousness of a messy bun and good jewelry as a substitute for ACTUAL PREPARATION. Then three more hours of meetings, endless gratitude that the library cafe sells bananas and coffee, and… oh man, the email. I can’t with the email yet.

I’m typing this on my “lunch break” as an exercise in stress reduction because holy crap what the fuck, during which I’m listening to The Beatles “Blackbird” and trying not to obsess about the data requests I got yesterday which I’m getting texted reminders of today. Of the grant report due two months ago that I have not done, which needs to be followed up with another report in two weeks. Of the job descriptions that need to be posted ASAP and are not done. Of the all-faculty email I need to edit and send out ASAP. Of the Cuba Winterim travel course which keeps throwing up details to be dealt with. Of the four more hours of meetings on my calendar today. Of the list of un-registered students we need to cross-reference to our student employee roster to contribute to eleventh-hour retention efforts. Of the million other details which pile up because December.

Bob Dylan just shuffled up. “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?” And I’m thinking about the four years straight that I’ve sworn up and down I would begin a lunchtime mindfulness meditation practice for myself. You know what I won’t be doing in December? Starting that. Maybe January.

Because January is coming. IT IS. January has a few weeks with no classes in session, and is on the upside of the darkest time of the year — past the solstice, and into the spring semester — and is a cultural touchstone for change and renewal. 2017 is coming, and until then… I’m going to embrace the absurd. These stresses are impossible to manage. I’m going to do it anyway, with liberal application of manatees and whatever else makes me smile. Because Everything Will Be Okay.

Right?

An open letter to my community

Libraryland colleagues,

I walked past the campus lunchtime protesters today, twice — once on my way to lunch, and once on my way back. The first time, they were shouting “FUCK THE WALL”. The second time, they had a great dance-line chant of “Hey ho, hey ho, Donald Trump has got to go.” I smiled and gave them a thumbs up both times, but didn’t join in.

Truth be told, I was far more interested in stopping and joining in the first chant than the second, despite the social inadvisability of the Director of Libraries and Applied Learning yelling “FUCK THE WALL” across our academic quad. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a personal fan of President-Elect Trump. I voted for Clinton. I’m actually deeply fearful of what the next two or four or eight years will bring, but the unavoidable fact is that he won the election. Our system upheld its own rules, and assuming we don’t get a bunch of Faithless Electors, the deed is done. Yelling about it won’t change it. The Director of Libraries and Applied Learning won’t be standing on the statue of Minerva and shouting profanities across the quad, but I will be taking action this next year in my own way.

Because those protesters have the right to yell. So do the citizens in this community who are pleased that Trump won.

And that’s the source of my action point number one. The librarians have agreed that we will be doing an informational and educational campaign on campus about the first amendment, the rights and responsibilities of free speech, freedom of information rights and principles, and the power and consequence of social media in a speech and protest environment. Online resources, browsing collections, workshops, seminars in campus Days of Reflection, guest lectures. Whatever we can do.

I’m committed to this course of action for a lot of reasons.

First up, as a librarian, it’s something I believe in. I’m an adherent of the Hall/Voltaire “I will protect your right to say vile things” philosophy, because who defines “vile” is a point of privilege and power, and if we start stripping away the right to say vile things by our definition, we’re offering others the power to strip away our own right to say what they deem to be vile by their definition. Protecting one protects all.

Second, also speaking in my role as librarian, freedom of information is a tenet of my profession that drives my commitment to what we do. It’s all in the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights:

I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use

But further, as an educator I have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable in my community, ensuring that they have a safe space to pursue their education. So that means preventing and addressing bias, discrimination, and harassment. By my read, librarianship’s professional Code of Ethics also lays this one out, in numbers 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7.

  1. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.
  2. We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.
  3. We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.
  4. We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.
  5. We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness, and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.
  6. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
  7. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.
  8. We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.

And there’s the final reason why I won’t stand up and should “Donald Trump has got to go” while on work time: numbers 6 and 7 above. I have an obligation, as a professional and as a representative of the State, to distinguish between my personal convictions and my professional duties. I must not advance my private interests at the expense of the comfort and safety of my library users. I must not alienate my community — regardless of which 50% of the electorate best represented their views this political season.

So we’ll be focusing on ensuring our libraries are safe and welcoming to all members of our community, and educating our students about freedom of speech, freedom of information, the role of the State vs the role of the individual, and the powers and pitfalls of all of the above. That is my job. That is my purview. And I will fight for it, red in tooth and claw.

And while that probably won’t change the rhetoric about the wall President-Elect Trump insisted he would build, or change the outcome of the presidential election, or even make my students of color feel any better about the world they live in, I hope that it does one very important thing. I hope it helps to create an empowered, educated, critical electorate in 2018, 2020, and 2024. That is the most important contribution I can make, if I can make it.

And I hope you will consider a similar path in your libraries.

Valar Dohaeris.

Jenica

The poison of elections

The refrain I hear throughout my social media feeds is that the system is broken. Our electoral college system is rigged. Our two-party system is a joke. Trump’s candidacy makes a mockery of our democratic ideals. Having the spouse of a former president run for president makes a mockery of our democratic ideals. Why bother voting, the whole thing’s broken.

I’ve spent 36 hours at the SUNY Council of Library Directors meeting in Albany, and our main order of business is to evaluate the results of a consultation we hired Ithaka S+R to do for us, assessing our current structure, our needs, our goals, and our challenges, because we recognized that we had a leadership challenge. We didn’t have any consistency, we didn’t have a model for raising up our best and supporting them to lead, and we haven’t had a contested election in my memory — we just appoint somebody because we twisted their arm into volunteering. And so we hired Ithaka to study our challenges, and propose solutions. The main proposed solution is a radical restructuring of our current model. And the hesitation, fear, and pushback are intense.

I see some parallels to the general American state of mind. We look at our national government and observe that public opinion of Congress falls somewhere lower than public opinion on cockroaches and communism. We have an intensely divided presidential race in which neither candidate represents the ideals of the party faithful. Money has more influence over our candidates than our voters’ voices do. The most influential court in our government is missing a bench member because Congress is having a hissy fit. And we’re all bemoaning the state of affairs… but we all agree that there’s just nothing to be done. Besides, Obama’s gotten a lot done. Congress has made some important stands. Blah blah blah partisan blah.

SCLD has faced some major challenges, and we’ve succeeded and we’ve failed. We’ve created a strategic plan and small pieces of it have been followed through on. Other pieces have been abandoned or neglected. We’re literally sitting in a business meeting as I write this, arguing about whether or not we should vote, and if we vote, what percentage of majority is required for a vote to be binding. We’ve pushed through multimillion dollar negotiations, and we … well, we signed a contract, so we call it a success even though it sucks. We’re working hard to lead on OERs and OA for SUNY, but it’s a few people in a subcommittee. Ditto our ILS/LSP migration — a few people are making it happen as a sheer force of will.

There’s also a lot of discussion of trust. How do we build trust in a new organization? How do we trust our elected representatives to the new governing body? How do we guarantee we’ll be represented? Our failure to reform our national government is reflected so clearly in these questions. We don’t trust those we elect. We don’t feel represented by those we elect. We don’t believe our voices will be heard. And we take that general unease and it applies to all our governance structures. Even when those structures are made up of people we’ve known for years. Decades. Who we work side by side with. We assume that elections and power structures require distrust and engender unfair decisionmaking.

I don’t believe that’s true. I don’t believe that everyone who runs for an office does so to gain power. I don’t believe that being elected to an office means that you’ve stopped listening to those you represent. I don’t believe that elections must be a choice between the lesser of two evils.

I do believe that some people who run for offices want to serve. I believe that some people who are elected believe in representing the good of the whole. I believe that some people who are elected want to listen, want to know, want to understand, want to serve the greater good. And I believe that in a functional election, you have a choice between multiple good candidates.

And I believe all of those things about my library colleagues. I believe in us. I believe we can have useful, contested elections for leadership of SUNY libraries. I believe we can have leaders who listen, and serve the system and our strategic goals. I believe we can trust our community.

I don’t think that SCLD’s members are the GOP and DNC. I don’t think we need to be so afraid.

I think we need to acknowledge that we have problems. And that we cannot ignore those problems by searching for incremental changes that are easy to swallow. We need to try something new. Find the courage. Lets do that.

 

Try

Jenica   September 14, 2016   1 Comment on Try

Where there is desire, there is gonna be a flame
Where there is a flame, someone’s bound to get burned
But just because it burns, doesn’t mean you’re gonna die
You gotta get up and try, and try, and try ~
Pink, Try

Last fall I dyed my hair purple in an act of professional defiance, and wore a coordinating lavender dress when I stood with scissors in my hand and cut the ribbon on the campus’s new Center for Applied Learning. That same day we announced that we’d been awarded $750,000 by SUNY to continue and expand our efforts. I was burned out and angry and frustrated and celebrating one of the most amazing accomplishments of my career at the same time.

Today my hair is auburn, with copper highlights and far-less-obvious purple lowlights. I’m no less driven, but definitely less angry. I am, in fact, hopeful and feeling an emotional upsurge about my work. What changed?

Leadership.

That’s it. The budget situation isn’t better. Racism is still a thing. Change aversion continues to be a real challenge. We’re still working through conflicting priorities on lean resources. But our leadership has changed. I have a new boss.

And just like that it feels like the lights turned on in a darkened room. Projects started moving forward. Attitudes began to shift. The Academic Affairs team began to re-form, with smiles and laughter instead of grim uncertainty. And we began working on hard important projects again.

Our communal work in supporting our students and collegues didn’t stop being hard — academia is rarely easy. But I think Pink has it right; desire –> flame –> burn. Because I believe that’s true, I believe that the possibility of danger, of challenge, of struggle should never be enough to stop us from moving forward. But when the lights are off, and you’re walking in the dark, knowing that if you stick your hand in the wrong direction you’ll be burned and forced to snatch back what you put out there lest you be irreparably damaged… it’s a lot harder to push forward. Our new Provost turned the lights on.

And I know there are fires. I know I’m likely to get burned. But it’s worth it, because I believe in it. And now, finally, I can see where I’m going, and why. That’s all I really needed — a direction, some encouragement, and the knowledge that my contribution is valued —  and I’ve been reminded of just how much it does matter.

Today I watched Dr. Carla Hayden be sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress. The first woman. The first African-American. The second professionally trained librarian, and the first of those to serve during my lifetime. I saw her new staff, in the balconies, looking down as she was sworn in. Roaring in celebration. Their faces alive with emotion.

And while it’s not the same league as the LoC, I’m in that same kind of leadership position. So as I note how much it means to me to have positive, encouraging leadership, I also have to note that I have an obligation to perform in that role, as well. Frustrated, angry leaders don’t do much for team morale. Library staff come alive when they have hope, and leaders who nurture it. It matters that I do better, too.