Librarians as “First Responders”

After graduating in May of 2015 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison SLIS program, I was lucky enough to land my perfect job (Adult Programming and P.R. Librarian at Pine River Library) in my perfect place (SW Colorado: nestled between desert and mountains, home to some of the best hiking, biking, and skiing in the West, if you ask this Alaska and Montana girl!). Add to that, my own office in a library connected to a community garden, with yoga classes three times a week???! I knew right away that I had a high standard of excellent, innovative, engaging programming and services to live up to!

In my first year of librarianship, I’ve been was lucky enough to attend two conferences, one national (PLA) and one local (CAL). I know that it’s the main point of these professional convergences, but both times I have returned to my desk with a pages of useful notes, with a few cryptic jottings here and there (“Colorado Spider Survey”?!). The brainstorming I did in the margins of my notebook during CAL looks like it will generate enough ideas to bring me through the next year of adult programming at least!

When I first set out to write this blog, I was thinking that I would follow the traditional route, talking about the sessions I liked the most from the conference. But in the wake of last week’s election results, I’ll go big picture here instead. I now realize that one of the most affecting sessions I attended at CAL was Jamie LaRue’s Julie J. Boucher Memorial Lecture on Intellectual Freedom. I had always heard that he was a bit of a rockstar in the library world, but this lecture really proved that fact. His wit, grace, and well-honed appeal for the importance of Intellectual Freedom had everyone in the room inspired about our chosen profession.

With recent events, Jamie’s inspirational words are returning to me even louder than when he shared them a month ago. In light of the drastic change of rhetoric we are facing, the importance of libraries is even stronger. Just two days after the election, the Los Angeles Times featured a column entitled ”How to weather the Trump administration: Head to the library.” In this appeal for the equalizing power of libraries, David Kipen, former literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts writes:

“If all these experiences have taught me anything, it’s that librarians may be the only first responders holding the line between America and a raging national pandemic of absolutism. More desperately than ever, we need our libraries now, and all three of their traditional pillars: 1) education, 2) good reading and 3) the convivial refuge of a place apart. In other words, libraries may be the last coal we have left to blow on.”

Oh yeah baby! CAL Logo

Jamie LaRue warned us about the changing trends he sees in challenges to books: More challenges are coming at the high school level, and these challenges are often directed at books that are a part of school curriculum. By the time the next election comes around, these students will be a part of the voting public, part of a generation who could mobilize in the voting booths and shift our country back towards the more inclusive ideals (and beyond) that America has worked so hard in the past to reach. As Jamie reminds us, libraries must fight to retain open access to thoughts, materials, ideas, art, stories… all the things that will continue to “make America great” no matter the administration in power at the time.

I’ll end this blog with a quote from the great Kurt Vonnegut, which my library director shared in the days after the election. Let’s keep fighting the good fight!

“The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”

Communication is Essential: First Step is Listening

As a life-long learner, CALCON 2016 was an exciting opportunity to not just learn new ideas but also hone my skills in previous interests. After three days of conferences, classes, and networking, my important takeaway was “it’s all about communication in all its forms”. This is the foundation on which we build everything else.

The class about “weeding without tears” was a good example of this insight. Examples were given of library supervisors not taking the time to communicate to a concerned volunteer who discovers piles of discarded library materials that lead to a huge maelstrom of bad press, protests and in extreme cases, the dismissal of staff and directors. Be pro-active and use these teaching moments to educate the stakeholders and citizenry in the purpose of weeding. It is a major tool in good collection development and a librarian’s job. A concerned patron has the right to ask about the reduction and disposal of library materials, and our profession should welcome inquiries and not be dismissive. Make sure the concerned citizen knows they have been heard. That they have been listened to!

CAL Logo

Other classes I attended reinforced this idea of communication as the key. The “finding the funding” class explained that before asking for money, the library should have previously developed a relationship through good communication with the donor organization. Listening to understand each other’s missions and how well they match comes before communicating needs and mutual goals.

Reaching out to each other also to communicate our needs and aspirations can result in greater successes. Inter- Library Loan is a wonderful example of sharing materials, but libraries can also share ideas, as well as unique resources such as a book- bike mobile. Some pool their money to create large author events as an example.

The author event class displayed how communication among library institutions can benefit the patrons as well. Securing a bestselling author may be too pricey for a smaller library or library district but is easily within reach when combined with a neighboring library’s resources. And again, communication is key. Not only in the set- up and planning with your own patrons but the scheduling and moving the author from city to city in a timely manner that works for everyone.

One library was able to allow their patrons to vote on which author to bring for their public event. A choice of three authors offered by the publisher to the library met their patrons’ interest and library budget requirements. A simple community communication through paper ballot allowed the patrons to have some say, a vote, and some buy in on what their library would present. In this example, library programing was directly designed through listening to the collective voice of the patrons.

Yet communication is slippery.

The problem with communication …is the illusion that it has been accomplished. – George Bernard Shaw

The same words used may conjure different concepts based on our unique individual experiences. The choice of media for the communication can be an obstacle. Some may feel comfortable in speaking in front of a room full of people, some are better suited to write down concise plans and thoughts, yet we all need to hone both these skills to be effective information professionals. Often we believe we have reached our audience only to find that our intent was totally misunderstood when clarifying questions were asked. Communication essential to our profession includes a strong emphasis on listening skills.

The ALA Turn Outward campaign gives all libraries the tools to step up and begin conversations and community communication. The tool kit is very useful in training reluctant librarians to step out of their comfort zone and approach their future programming from the library user’s point of view.

CALCON 2016 offered many opportunities to practice my own networking skills with co-workers and new colleagues. This was a worthwhile workshop experience all on its own. Visiting with vendors, sharing information such as the location of the morning coffee cart, lunching with new people forced introverts such as myself to practice these all important intercommunication skills.

What have I learned? This CALCON experience confirmed for me that the days of the quiet shy librarian in the back room comfortably surrounded by her library materials is no more. The collection, though still important, is not our profession’s primary concern. Our primary focus is the people with whom we come in contact and their information needs. Librarians today must think on their feet and communicate effectively with their co-workers, other library professionals, and the library stakeholders and patrons. As a MLIS grad student concerned about developing career skills for the information field, I believe communication skills should be the number one competency necessary for our profession. Not just speaking skills, but listening respectfully to each other and truly understanding the message sent is essential to all our activities.

Our inputs must be based on comprehension, in order for our outcomes to be successful. We must get the first step correct. Listen.


Submitted by:

Darlene Oliver, Loveland Public Library. Colorado State Library CALCON Scholarship Recipient