Wednesday, July 27, 2011

This may be why I am still unemployed

Sometimes I see a job description that I just know is perfect for me -- I have the required skills and experience and it's located in a place I really want to live. So, I send off my application and then stop looking at other job postings.  I tell everyone I know about the perfect job in the perfect place. 

I spend hours on the perfect job's website, critquing it, imagining myself working there. I think about how I will spend my lunch times and how I will personalize my office. And I start house hunting. I email real estate listings to my mother with subject lines that say things like, "Look at the garden!" and "OMG The Kitchen!!"

Then, when I don't get the job, the door slams shut on the life I thought I would have. I mourn for weeks. And because I told everyone,  people ask me about the job, about the interview, and I have to reveal my rejection. This is a soul sucking process.

Only after I convince myself I never wanted to work there in the first place do I return to the recruitment sites and start looking again, and invariably the cycle repeats.  Maybe it's time to try a new approach...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Library Stereotypes

The Wikiman published this Infographic the other day, and I found it quite amusing. Clicking the image will take you to his Flickr stream:

Maybe it will catch on and people will finally stop "Shh"-ing us. But, then all the Hollywood librarians might  start sipping gin & tonics at the reference desk.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Second Chance to Make a First Impression

Today I think I will fill you in on my experience in New Orleans. We made this trip so that I could attend the American Library Association’s Annual conference. For a week, more than 20,000 librarians converged on the city. Everywhere you looked you could see determined and sensibly dressed women (and men!)  carrying red ALA tote bags, and checking schedules on their smart phones. I’m sure the city, which has a huge convention center, is used to large professional conferences, but New Orleans has a special appreciation for librarians.
The ALA plans its conference years in advance, and in 2006, the Annual (as it is known) was scheduled to be in New Orleans. After Katrina hit, the ALA debated moving the conference but ultimately decided to proceed as planned. I spoke with people who’d attended the Annual that year, which was the first conference to be held in New Orleans after the hurricane.  One librarian told me that most of the stores were closed, and whole city blocks stood empty. She said that the city had bussed people in to work in the restaurants and hotels. Another woman told me how she would sit in a cafĂ© reading and would be approached again and again by locals asking for her magazines. At that point, almost a year after the storm, nothing but essential mail was being delivered by the post office.  “Some people didn’t want to come to the conference,” she said, “but I thought it was our duty to come and just spend as much money as we could.” At the opening ceremony this year, Mayor Mitch Landrieu personally thanked the ALA for all it had done to support the city.

I didn’t attend that conference in 2006 because I was in England getting ready to start working at the prison. Though I had followed the news closely when it happened, it was hard for me to imagine the level of destruction and devastation Katrina had wrought on the gulf. And I’d sort of assumed it had been rebuilt by now. Certainly that was my first impression of the city, from the downtown area where we stayed on the edge of the French Quarter. From the pictures my mother posted yesterday, there was little evidence of the storm. The beautiful houses in the garden district all had a freshly painted look to them –as did the buildings in the French quarter. Aside from the slightly “new” look on old buildings, everything looked perfect.
As part of the conference, I spent one day volunteering in a school library. It was downtown, just off Canal street and a group of us were bussed there from the conference center. The bus driver either misunderstood our destination or decided to deliberately take us the long way, but we wound up taking what the school director called “The Misery Tour.” The bus headed uptown, beyond where the street cars stopped and drove through a lower-income residential neighborhood. These homes, though smaller than the Garden District mansions, were still average sized older family homes, with porches and yards and playground sets. It would have looked like a nice place to live except that half of the homes stood vacant, boarded up and caved in. On many doors and walls it was still easy to read the spray-painted code used by rescue teams in the days following the storm: an X with the date the home was searched, and number of dead or living inhabitants. 

I understand why it was necessary to rebuild the tourist areas first. New Orleans relies on the convention center and the tourist industry to fuel its economy, which has also been harmed by last year’s oil spill. And everywhere I looked in that damaged neighborhood, I saw signs of construction – houses had been lifted onto cinder blocks or simply rebuilt high off the ground. While we were there, local news reported the final safeguard to prevent another breech of the levies had just been put in place. A lot has happened in five years, just not as much as I’d expected. The ALA Annual is not currently scheduled to return to New Orleans, but no doubt we’ll get back there eventually. I hope I will  see more houses like this:
*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on June 30, 2011

Networking for (Insecure) Dummies

I suppose, on a social level,  most people consider themselves worth knowing. I certainly do. I’ve said before that it takes some effort to get to know me. As is probably the case with a lot of writers, I’m more confident on paper than I am in person. I find small talk with strangers excruciating. I’m trying to work on that because I hate being the person at the party alone in the corner or hovering around the one person I know. I don’t want to stand around with the other outsiders; I want to participate. As usual though, I’m starting slow. I made a joke with the barista at my regular coffee house. I comment on the weather with my softball teammates (most of whom I don’t know). By the end of the season, I might ask about their weekend.

But there’s another way to look at this topic, and that is being worth knowing career-wise. I’m talking about professional networking.

To aid in my job search, I have “liked” and subscribed to a number of advice columns and library list-servs. I followed the advice about “branding” myself and establishing a professional presence online. I joined relevant groups on LinkedIn and followed big names in the library profession on Twitter. I made business cards.

What I haven’t done is joined in the conversation. In the job seeking circles there are numerous threads and discussions about the effectiveness of personal branding etc. There are also a lot of complaints about the economy, library closures and long-term unemployment. I find these topics depressing and unhelpful. If I sit around participating in the whining circle, I start to remember that in addition to being unemployed,  I’m turning 30 in a few months, I live with my parents and I am single. The male version of this cliche would be playing video games in the basement. But I’m writing blog posts in the shed about how I have nothing to contribute.

This is all the more frustrating for me because I used to be worth knowing. The community of prison librarians in the UK is  small, but  active. When I worked at the prison, I was on the national committee. I was a person other people called for help, for advice, and for information. I helped plan and execute training days and annual conferences. Professionally, I had a lot of potential and I was ambitious and … I totally burned out. But that was because of the prison, not the job.

Anyway, next week I’m going to New Orleans for the ALA annual conference. I will be volunteering in a school library and attending a job fair. I will make jokes and talk about the weather. I will go armed with a fistful of resumes and business cards and if anyone follows the address to my website they’ll be directed here.

Um.  I may not have thought this through. 
*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on June 17, 2011

Public Speaking

In the prison library, I once got a written request for a "bok that teeches you how too do oritory." For this prisoner, speaking clearly and well was a skill he wanted to develop as he was appealing his conviction and representing himself. I found him a book on making speeches and reminded myself that intelligence is not always dependent on literacy although I did not have high hopes for the success of his case. This same prisoner also asked me for a list of every law book ever published, because he wanted to buy them all.

Anyway, I grew up performing in Christmas pageants and participating in the Liturgy of the Word at church, so public speaking was never really a problem for me.  I did it without thinking. As part of my final thesis requirement in college, I had to read some original writing in front of a large group of my peers and I got nervous for the first time I can remember.  The writing was personal and I thought I might start crying. It always annoyed me when other people got emotional while reading out loud and I was mortified. My voice shook and no one could hear me. 

In library school I had to do several group presentations, and in the Management class I was part of a group that imploded mid-semester due to personal conflicts, bad tempers and mental illness. Standing unprepared in front of the class with no one in the group willing to look at or speak to each other was probably the most awkward and embarrassing moment I’d ever experienced. I’d known it was going to happen though and warned the professor (and also checked that failing the presentation didn’t equal failing the class).

So, I suppose those experiences were in the back of my mind when, after I’d become a professional librarian, I was asked to introduce a speaker at a national conference. I wasn’t the speaker, mind you, I was only supposed to introduce him. I went to the chair of the committee and asked if I could switch tasks with someone else. The Chair interpreted my request as an admission of a full-fledged phobia, and not as the lazy-don’t-really-feel-like-it mumble that it was. His concern was so great that for the rest of the conference he kept passing me information about public-speaking courses and practical exercises in overcoming fears. I couldn’t correct him because I knew how unprofessional it was to back out of an assignment for any reason other than extreme terror.

He left the committee after that conference and by the time the next one rolled around no one remembered my “phobia” of public speaking. By that point I was more confident professionally anyway. I gave a series of lectures around the county on prison librarianship and, as long as the subject is libraries, I’m fine speaking in groups of any size. But put me in a social setting with people I don’t know, and I’m lucky if I can remember my own name.

*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on June 4, 2011

A Duty of Care

In the prison, all members of staff have what is called a “duty of care” towards the prisoners. It’s sort of a vague expression, but it basically covered the need to treat them humanely – to provide food and water and an hour’s exercise, access to showers and healthcare and information (via the Education department and Library).  It also extended to breaking up fights, identifying those at risk of self-harm and suicide, and isolating troublemakers and bullies.

My responsibility was to provide a library service comparable to the one used by the public, which included not just reading materials, but audio/visual resources, IT access and information on everything from prison rules to career training. UK prisoners are lucky that the government deemed quality library services managed by actual librarians a legal requirement, especially since there is currently some question about whether they have the same obligation (duty of care) to the public.

One of the first things I did after I started working in the prison was try to identify and eliminate any obstacles prisoners had in gaining access to the library. Some were fairly easy to fix – such as rearranging the schedule to make sure that the library times didn’t clash with the gym or their time on the yard. Occasionally it was pointed out to me that in real life, people have to make choices about how to spend their time, which is certainly true. But in real life, most people have access to a public library more than one hour a week. In prison , when almost every minute of unlocked time is designated for a certain purpose, there is really only ever one choice – to participate in the activity or not.  And that was the only choice I wanted them to have to make about the library.

This proved more difficult for prisoners who were not held on the main wings.  Separate library service was already provided to prisoners in segregation (solitary confinement), but prisoners  who were long term patients in the health care centre did not have the chance to attend the main library. Cambridgeshire Library Services had a system in place for visiting the smaller villages and providing for the housebound and disabled – called the Doorstep service.  When I was first hired, I went with the program facilitator to deliver books to a housebound couple in one of the southern villages. The facilitator had a file on each person, with their likes and interests and selected about 12 (large print) books to deliver personally to their homes. I remember being greeted by a couple in their 90’s, who were so excited to see us. The wife made us tea, while the husband showed me a letter they had received from the queen on their 70th anniversary. They were absolutely delighted with the service, especially because there was no way either of them could get to the public library in the next town.

In the prison, because it was my duty to provide a comparable service, I arranged a small mobile library service for the health care centre, including weekly visits by library staff to take requests and reference inquiries. There were never more than a couple guys in there at a time, but often they were injured or unable to leave their bed and they certainly appreciated the visits.

That’s the part I miss about working -- interacting with people who depend on the service, people who appreciated that public libraries provide more than just books, but also a companionable social element that improves their quality of life. 

*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on April 4, 2011

Intellectual Pioneers

So, this is one of those topics that gets Mom all excited because it means research. When I moaned about it, she suggested I write about the president of the college I went to because she was the first female president of a college west of the Mississippi. I find that difficult to believe because the school, first a seminary then a college,  is 158 years old, and has always been west of the Mississippi. Also, it has always been a woman’s college except for two weeks in 1990, which resulted in the college needing a new president.  Anyway, I know there was a female president before this one. But I’m not going to prove it because I’m not in the mood for research right now.

I was talking to my Dad on the way home tonight about how I completely forgot to mention this website in the interview I had last week – didn’t conceal it on purpose, but actually forgot to mention how I’m spending half my days. And he said that if they find it (and they will) they’ll probably want to hire my mom instead because her essays are researched and mine are silly. And I was like, thanks a lot jerk. But I didn’t actually say that, because I don’t speak that way to my father.

Look. I like this project. I didn’t think we’d make it this long, but I’m glad we’re still doing it. But this is not a job for me. I write this stuff mostly to be funny, or at least entertaining. Occasionally a topic really interests me and then I do the research, but not everything excites my curiosity. If this were my job, it would be different. I’d be answering questions, or hopefully, helping people learn how to answer their own questions. But I’m only willing to put a certain amount of time into these essays – like a maximum of an hour – because I have a lot of research and reading to do that is unrelated.

Getting my master’s degree and starting out my career in England has handicapped me. I am not saying I am unqualified to work in this country because that is absolutely not true. But librarianship is practical career and it involves a lot of different skills, most of which are honed on the job. So, while I don’t have a job, I’m spending a lot of time trying to figure out the American way – the American vocabulary, the American resources. I’ve taken classes since I got back, and spent a lot of time reading professional literature.  I’m not trying to hint that I am an intellectual pioneer, self-training for the job I eventually hope to land. I wouldn’t be getting anywhere at all without the wealth of information and advice available to unemployed librarians concerned with keeping their skills up-to-date. There are a lot of us, working while unemployed. This website is the thing I do when I’m either reflecting on it, or I want a break from it.

Especially when I realize that the thing that would help me the most, I haven’t done. I should be volunteering in a library. But I really thought that at any moment I might find a job and I didn’t want to let anyone down by suddenly quitting. Which was not a concern I had when starting this project – although it is now.

Anyway, another reason writing this essay isn’t like a job: I’m actually writing this in the middle of the night, in the middle of my bed, wearing the nightgown I tried to dress Milo in earlier today. I wish I had been able to video him running up the stairs while the little dress slid further down with each step. By the time he reached the top, it was just hanging off his tail. You probably had to be there.  

Milo wishes he wasn't there.

PS: Mills College is named after its founders, Cyrus and Susan Mills. Susan became as president of the college in 1890 and served for 19 years.  I knew this already. I’m guessing what my mom actually meant to say was that Mills was the first women’s college established west of the Rockies, and is the second oldest women’s college still in existence.

PPS: Mom has clarified to say that she meant Aureilia Henry Reinhardt (Mills President 1916 – 1943) was the first female president.  But as we’ve already established, that is wrong too. 

*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on April 1, 2011

Dream Adventures

In my more dramatic moments, I tell people that the reason I quit the job in the prison was because I felt like the evil was seeping into me.
I had that idea – that the “evil was seeping in” -- a few different times while I worked there – and it sort of became an excuse in my mind for some of the ways I found to cope with the stress. Anyone who has worked in that sort of environment – high stress and dangerous – whether it is a prison, or the military, or juvenile detention, or law enforcement – there comes a point where you think the only people who understand are the people you work with. And the only way to cope with too much stress, too much danger, is to act too much in other ways – too much drinking, too much exercise (never my problem) too much anger, too much sleep. 

I mentioned to one of my library officers about my fear, but she was offended by the idea. “If you feel this way after 3 years, what does that mean for me? I’ve been here 10.” And there were others who had been there for 20 or 30 years, had spent the majority of their lives in prison, on purpose, doing a job that no one appreciates and no one understands.

But, unlike me,  they had lives outside of work, spouses and interests unrelated. In social situations, they were used to lying about their jobs  -- claiming to be an electrician, or the accurate but vague “civil servant.”   I could say, “I’m a librarian.” But I had the feeling that there was an unspoken just in there – I’m JUST a librarian. So, I always followed it with the qualifier, “at the prison” because it was novel, because it was interesting, and because I felt like I was owed some sort of recognition for working in such a miserable environment.

But what I didn’t mention was that it was my dream job. That because my supervisors didn’t have the same clearances that I did, they rarely came into the prison. That I was on my own, in charge by myself, isolated yes, but this was MY LIBRARY and to this day, the idea that I have been replaced grates on me. By the end, I was so ready to leave, so exhausted and used up and sick of it all. But even now, nearly 10 months later, I still have dreams about MY LIBRARY --  the way I did when I began working there.

A couple times in the past few weeks I have a thought – it’s the end of the financial year, I hope they remember to…  don’t forget the… what are the stats like? Has attendence increased or decreased? Is it inappropriate to ask that them to send me a copy of the end of year report? I’m unemployed now, but despite the "evil," I did some good there – made quantifiable, justifiable progress. I want to know if it held up. I want to know how it’s going. And sometimes, even though I wake up in Arizona, with Milo curled into my back, I still have a moment while still half asleep and I’m planning the day – planning what needs to be done in MY LIBRARY . 

*This post was originally published at The Daily Them on March 28, 2011

An Apology for Bores

I don’t think I know any boring people. Sometimes I am bored by what interests other people, but that’s not the same thing. I don’t hold it against them. It bothers me when people don’t get to the point fast enough—when they are more concerned with accuracy than telling a good story:

“Six years ago… or was it 5? Bush’s first term it was, so that must make it… Junior was still in college so …” That makes me crazy. I’d rather tell a good story and sacrifice any semblance of accuracy. I believe the technical term for this habit is exaggeration.

Anyway, I had a prisoner who worked for me who told the longest winded stories ever and it was a real chore not to completely zone out. Sometimes he would tell the entire plot of a TV show, and it would take longer to listen to him than to watch it live. I could always tell when he was gearing up for a long one when he would lean against the counter, take off his glasses and run his fingers through his cropped short hair.
    “Well, Megan, did you uh happen to catch last night’s episode of True Blood on BBC One?
    “No Joe. I don’t have a TV.”
    “Oh that’s right you told me that before. Don’t know why I can’t remember. But you are familiar with the show?”
    “Yes.” This is the fatal mistake.

We always let him talk though because he didn’t fit well into the prison. He was older than most of the other inmates, but only recently been convicted. His wife had killed herself and his children did not visit him, and in an alcoholic black-out he beat to death his 87 year old neighbor who had refused to loan him money.

I once overheard him discussing his crime with the other orderlies who worked in the library – the only time he didn’t go into detail. “I can’t remember doing it, but the evidence was there. It must have been me.”

Most of the time people get bored because they do not understand the details, and the topic does not inspire their imagination. Sometimes the language gets in the way; the jargon can be distracting. I don’t understand the language of geneology, which is why its sometimes hard for me to get excited about 9th great-grandfathers. I’m never sure how related we are. In England, I didn’t have a TV so I was never able to participate in the daily recaps of popular shows with my colleagues. Instead, we found other things to talk about, like books and movies, and the prisoners we served.

Sometimes its hard for me to talk about my job, because librarianship does not seem like an interesting occupation. For many incarcerated people, prison is their first experience with libraries. That’s why it was so important to be friendly and welcoming and professional.  Most people’s opinions on librarianship have been shaped by their experience as a patron, and whether or not the staff were helpful. In many libraries, it is often impossible to distinguish the librarians from the assistants,and from the pages and volunteers;  a library is judged by the quality of its customer service as much as its resources. This makes sense, but it limits the general public’s awareness of the variety of duties and the skills required to perform them. Mention a cataloging problem to anyone but a librarian and it’s like hitting a snooze button. I try to get around this problem by reeling my audience in with a prison anecdote and then I hit them with the library.


*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on January 25, 2011

I worry about Intellectual Property Theft

This is going to be a fun topic. I associate holding one's tongue with keeping something secret. What examples can I give of keeping a secret without failing to keep the secret? We have a lot of family reading these essays, and the biggest secrets and dramas often happen within families.  To avoid any potential for hurt feelings,  what I’m going to do is tell you about something without telling you what the something is, that way the conundrum can be revealed without giving away the bank. You’ll see what I mean.

The conference I attended in San Diego ended last Sunday, and then I stayed with Kelly (as I‘ve mentioned). During that time I came up with 3 truly brilliant ideas – ideas that will make money and contribute to the information profession. I’m serious. These ideas will be revolutionary. But I need to do some research. The ideas are so great they might already have been invented. If they have, then too bad, but I will purchase one from whoever did the inventing because now that I’ve thought about it, these new things are going to be absolutely indispensible. And if my great ideas haven’t already been invented, then I am going to need to find a partner because I do not have the technical skills to create the prototypes. It is also possible that my great ideas are impractical or impossible to create in real life.

 I may have seen The Social Network a few times too many. I have relationships with people who have the skills to construct my great ideas, who might make excellent business partners, but what if they turn out to be the worst business partners in the world? It’s not a good idea to mix money with friendship. But we could be the next great partnership, like all the other great partnerships everyone could get rich and contribute to the profession at the same time. Or something like that. I am conflicted.  I just don’t want to be the person who’s sits around bitter and telling everyone that I was actually the inventor of “The Greatest Library Related iPhone App ever” (TM).

I think I’ve already figured out what I’m going to do. I’ll do some research, sketch out the instructional designs, and objectives and find out if they would work. Then I will approach my friends with contracts and confidentiality and non-competition clauses.  Worst case scenario, I have to take classes and learn to do the coding and data base construction myself. It will take longer but I should learn how to do it anyway.

So, I would say the conference was a success. I remember after the prison library conferences, I would always return to work so excited and full of ideas, and over time the place would wear down my enthusiasm, but I always got the most ideas after spending time with colleagues.  Eventually I may reveal the great ideas, after  I've determined if they are viable. I once came up with a plan to raise children using only sock puppets and I told everyone about it before I'd fully thought it through. Big mistake.
*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on January14, 2011

Color(ful Vocabulary) Antipathies

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of colors that I dislike so much that I avoid them, but even neon colors (which I extremely dislike) look all right in certain contexts – like Las Vegas (which I also dislike). So I googled this title, and aside from being proud that The Daily Theme was number three on the listed results, I was surprised to discover this expression has racial and sociological connotations. So Kelly suggested this could seg nicely into a comment on the recent Huck Finn scandal over the replacement of certain words in a new edition intended for children.

We were driving to a grocery store yesterday when my phone beeped with an incoming email and when I checked I saw that it was my daily update from the ALA’s discussion group on LinkedIn. “The Librarians,” I said, turning to Kelly, “are Angry!”
Censorship, which is what this revision is being called, is one of several issues librarians are ethically bound to have an opinion on (another is Privacy).  However, a well-reasoned argument on either side of this issue is difficult to achieve when the forum restricts character length (as in Twitter, which is where some of this conversation is taking place), and people react from a hardwired emotional place. And actually, this emotional reaction is what the publishers of the new edition are trying to avoid from young students of color.

From the censorship angle, I just have this to say: we are not being called to burn all former editions of Huck Finn. No one is trying to erase the original text – this new edition everyone is so fired up about is not even the first abridged version to censor the racist lingo. See here a Junior Classics edition published 12 years ago.  I am no fan of censorship in any situation, and if and when I have children, I will make sure they read the original version once they have reached an appropriate age. But like me, they also will never be able to understand the genuine devastation and outrage provoked by that word.

In the course of our discussion, Kelly and I realized that as two highly educated, middle-class, white women our ability to rationally discuss the context and literary value of the n-word was exactly the sort of ‘white privilege’ we heard Black scholars rail against in college. We do not have emotional reactions to this term because we have NO IDEA what it’s like to be systematically oppressed and subjugated (no matter what we might claim when our feminist hats are on) and to claim a place in a discussion of the appropriate use of the N-word is arrogant and disrespectful. 

*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on January 12, 2011

On Discovering Myself

I may owe Eckhart Tolle an apology. I haven’t decided yet. I still fall asleep if I read more than  3 pages of The Power of Now at a time but the dreams, they are peaceful. I’m kidding (sort of), but people I respect recommend this book – people who have opened their hearts and minds to new ideas that I have shared so maybe I owe them, and maybe I’ll learn something, if I can just shed my automatic and cynical revulsion towards New Age vocabulary. I’m not sure why, but I resist terms like “self-actualisation” and the expression “inner peace” creates for me an inner storm of  bitter and sarcastic retorts. Yet, I envy the lifestyle and secretly want for myself the calm these crazies claim to have achieved.

For Christmas this year, I received Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. I had already seen the movie and didn’t find Julia Roberts’ character to be particularly likeable. And I felt the same about the book really, except again for the envy and attraction to the lifestyle that this woman experimented with for a year. How nice for you, I thought, that you could take a year off to run away from everything you had screwed up for yourself and a publisher was basically going to pay for your pursuit of pleasure and … see the bitter, jealous side of me bursting out? I wish someone would pay ME to do that. I want to hang out in Bali and learn how to meditate in an Ashram in India. I would even settle for a weekend retreat at the Buddhist center near my house.

So, at the same time I’m thinking about all of this, I’ve just come from the ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in San Diego where I did not find a job, but got a lot of useful advice about job hunting. I’ve even come up with a quarter-of-a-million dollar idea, that I don’t think will make me rich, but might take my career in a new direction assuming I don’t lose interest.

The key-note speaker at this conference was, of all people, Ted Danson (promoting his book Oceana) and he summed up his interview with a brief explanation of his belief in the Law of Attraction (another theory I have both dismissed and secretly been drawn to) and how any changes we might want to see in the world or in ourselves must be approached from a positive angle, from a place of joy and delight instead of fear or disgust. Fear and Disgust have always fueled my sense of humor (in which I take joy and delight) but I recognize truth in Mr. Danson’s words. And Mr. Tolle said (just before I fell asleep) something about how he wasn’t saying anything new in his books, instead was just reminding us of truths we had forgotten.

What surprises me is that I am actually open to these ideas. Maybe it’s a developmental stage. In both Tolle and Gilbert’s books they were roughly my age when the desire to make a profound, spiritual change came over them. Maybe that explains why I felt drawn back to Church. I’m not looking for God really, I just need to calm the hell down and learn to sit quietly by myself. That’s the appeal: To learn something about myself that I’ve forgotten that I always knew.
I'm including this picture because I have it on my phone.
*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on January 10, 2011

On Card-Indexing One's Friends

In the olden days in Europe and also in America,  a person of a certain class had a calling cards, which he would deliver to another person’s house as a way of introducing himself. Then, if that second person found the first person to be agreeable and wished to pursue an acquaintanceship, he would send a servant over to the first person’s house with his own card. I’m not sure how it was decided whether a person was agreeable or not based on just a name on a card. Maybe discreet enquiries were made. Upon receipt of the other person’s card, the first person may now visit the second person in their home during certain hours. The cards were kept in a fancy case, called the card case. 

After a brief visit and conversation, then each person added notes on the back of the other's card -- some personal attributes and information which would aid them in planning the seating chart in the event of a dinner party. If a person was tipsy at 2:00 in the afternoon, then that person would not be seated next to the tee-totalling wife of the Member of Parliament. It was very important, at dinner parties, that people were seated in such a way to aid conversation and to avoid boredom and offense. That is why married couples were not seated together.

Now in these modern times, we do not have calling cards. Some (employed) people have business cards and those are handed out at parties or accident scenes;  perhaps one might get a card in return but there is not the expectation there once was attached to the exchange. One is not expected to visit the address on the business card unless one has business to do. They are not designed to facilitate a social network, is what I’m trying to say.

Speaking of social networks, when I was complaining to my mother about not knowing what to write about this topic, she suggested I write about Facebook. She was sort of snooty about it, “I would expect you of all people to have something to say about your experience with Facebook.” So fine, I’ll say something about Facebook.

 Yes, it is a social network, but it is artificial. A person sends a friend request (not unlike a calling card) and if the other person finds it acceptable (after a discreet glance at their public profile), they accept the request. Then they are “friends.” One can “visit” the other’s space, leave messages and invitations to play games, but maintaining this friendship requires isolation rather than integration. A person does not need to leave the house, instead one pushes a few buttons and stares at a screen.
The more time a person spends interacting with virtual friends, the less time one has for real dinner parties and actual conversation with interesting people who are not your spouse (if you even have one).

The only other similarity is that some people collect friends as people collected cards in the olden days. In both cases, a person will sit by himself, staring at the friend list or the collection of cards and think “Look how popular I am.”


With the exception of the first paragraph, I made up everything in this essay. The analysis of Facebook is my own, therefore also made up. 
*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on December 17, 2010

Under-worked and over-paid

When I was first hired to work at the prison, it was a part-time job – 25 hours a week. In the UK, a workweek is 37 hours.  The other 12 hours I was a member of the Adult Stock and Promotion Team, which managed the collections for the entire county – over 35 libraries. My specific responsibilities were to select and order DVD’s for the county and to supervise the collections on 3 mobile libraries.

Shortly after I started, a draft specification on the management of prison libraries was released by the Home Office, which recommended an extension of professional librarians’ duties and an increase in their hours. My ASAP manager felt that 12 hours was the minimum I could work and be useful to the team, so instead of reducing my hours, I worked over-time. I was hired late in the financial year, which meant there was plenty of money in the budget to cover an extra 8 hours a week. The plan was to hire me an assistant the following spring, as my managers did not want me to burn out by working too much.

For reasons I never quite understood, the extra hours put me into a different, enhanced salary bracket and I made more money each month than I could come close to spending even though I was new to the country and constantly buying household items and professional clothes. I managed to save enough to fly myself to New York City for a week – the first time I had ever paid for my own vacation. I was extremely proud of myself, and certain that I was an adult and would never have to borrow money from anyone ever again. So… naive.

Shortly after that vacation to NYC, the end of the financial year came and I had a meeting with my managers within the prison and out about hiring an assistant. I convinced them that the prison would benefit from a continuity of service if I was the only librarian, although that would mean taking me full-time and giving up my place on the ASAP team.

I was full of great ideas for the prison (reading groups, creative writing classes, literary journals) that I planned to implement now that I could devote my full attention. Some of the ideas worked, some didn’t, as is always the case. I did manage to double library attendance and quadruple the reference queries – but I wasn’t prepared for the isolation I felt working away from the team.

I also wasn’t prepared for the decrease in my monthly paycheck. My car ate what little savings I had left after that vacation, when the driver’s side window fell off the tracks and dropped down inside the door. Then the car was sideswiped in a hit and run, the wing mirrors were kicked off and someone stole the radio antennae. That’s what happens when you live next to a pub. Anyway, after constantly having to repair my car, I was back to borrowing money from my parents.    Even after I became a Chartered Librarian and reached the height of the pay scale, I never made as much money as I did in those first 6 months. I never want to work over-time again – it’s just so not worth it when the money runs out.

*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on December 2, 2010

The Dilettante Librarian

I was going to be an art major in college, but I couldn’t get into a drawing class my first semester so I took creative writing instead. Those are the only two interests I’ve ever really had – and not so much on the art side. I like painting and drawing, have a modest ability in recreating objects (but not people – except in cartoon form) but any inspiration, any ability to paint with meaning, left me a long time ago.  I’m ok with that.

I wouldn’t have been a successful art major, because it turned out I didn’t like art history. My lowest grade in college was an Asian art history class. I thought we’d be studying sculptures of people "doing it," but it was mostly about how to distinguish different Buddhas depending on his hat style and hand position. The instructor pronounced the Himalayan mountains  “Hee-mall-yawn”. That may be the correct pronunciation, but I found it distracting and that’s all I remember about the class. I also remember crying all through the final because my best friend was having emergency life-saving surgery at that exact moment and I knew I was failing the exam. The painting of a mandala I did for extra credit, which kept me from failing the class completely, now hangs in my mom’s office. Upside down. She’s worse at interpreting Asian art than I am.

Anyway, I took creative writing instead and those were pretty much the only classes I got A’s in, and definitely the only time I felt confident in college. Or ever again.  I had no idea what I was going to do with it, or even if I wanted to pursue an MFA. I used to sit in the Mills College Library, when I worked the 9pm – midnight shift and look up things on the Internet, explore the databases and try to find something that interested me for more than a few minutes.  Or I spent the time I was working writing stories. Occasionally someone would come up to my desk and ask me a question. Annoyed at the interruption, I would smile sweetly and say, “I really have no idea. Why don’t you ask the librarian?” The librarian didn’t work that shift.

I don’t remember the exact moment that I decided to become a librarian. I was still only thinking about it when I realized I could go to Library School in England. But it seemed like it would be a low-stress, quiet job that would give me plenty of time to write. So, of course my very first professional job was the highest-stress, loudest job and required me to sign the Official Secrets Act.

I also got to find out what happens when assistants say, “I don’t know. Ask the librarian.”  In the course of looking up the answers to everyone’s random questions, I’ve learned a little bit about a lot of different things – and I’ve discovered one more thing I like to do: answer questions. Unless I’m writing, in which case I’d rather you didn’t bug me right now.

Note to future employers: This, as with most of my essays, is meant to be humorous and should not be taken as a reflection of my work ethic. I was good at my job, and I'll be good at your job. 
*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on November 2, 2010

A Mental Lapse

When I first became dissatisfied with my job in the prison, but before I started thinking about quitting, I considered going back to school. The idea came, sort of out of nowhere, while I was weeding books from the shelves. Weeding books is one of those mundane tasks that I actually really enjoyed. You pick up each book, and flip open the cover to see the last time it was checked out. Then you examine its physical condition. Deciding which books to remove is subjective and tricky in a small library. You don’t want to get rid of popular books, but on the other hand, there’s no reason to hold onto a book once everyone has read it. And books that have never gone out … is it because they haven’t been marketed properly, or are they really just not suitable for the population? On top of that, you might be a librarian with very specific ideas about what items a library needs to have in order to be a Library. That is why, in a tiny library, in a maximum-security prison filled mostly with black men in their early 20’s, you will find the complete Jane Austen.

Anyway, that’s what I was doing when I had my brilliant idea. I came across a prison studies book that hadn’t been issued in 2 years… and I thought, maybe I could use this place as a case study. I had a ‘captive’ audience that I could study and do my thesis on the uses of a prison library and finally get my Masters in Library Science. I was standing on a chair, dropping discarded books on the floor. That’s something else you get to do when you’re a librarian – you can ‘mistreat’ books. In the course of your daily duties, but especially during weeding season, you can drop the books on the floor, you can toss them across the room aiming for a box (usually you will miss, but when you make it, you can throw your arms in the air and shout Heeeyyyy!), you can write on the books and you can rip out pages. And you can do those things because you are The Librarian.

So I continued for most of the morning, working backwards in my mind from planning my Masters in Library Science thesis, to selecting programs, to wondering if I would have to pay foreign tuition after living in England for so long, to mentally composing my application and updating my resume. I flipped through a book and blew a bunch of dust straight into my eyes. I rubbed at them with the back of my hand and bemoaned the fact that I always seemed to develop conjunctivitis while weeding books and was that a side effect of being a librarian or being a prison librarian?

Which is when I remembered.

I already have a Masters Degree in Library Science.  

*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on October 12, 2010

Monday, July 18, 2011

Haunted Libraries

Most people assume that the most popular section in a prison library is True Crime. That’s probably true, but at the prison I worked in, modern True Crime was banned. We had plenty of books about Jack the Ripper, and other famous, long dead killers, but there were no books by or about any currently incarcerated prisoners. I didn’t know that was unusual until I visited another prison library and found book after book about the people I worked with every day.

Prison libraries in the UK are meant to be a mix of public and school libraries, and censorship is unusual except for security reasons. It makes sense not to have books on martial arts or how to build bombs. And, it was explained to me, that books written by inmates were not allowed because they should not be able to profit from their crimes while they are in prison. Also included under this mandate were books about current inmates. After I had been working there for a while, an officer explained to me another, more disturbing, reason.

In 1993, not long after the prison opened, and before the infamous IRA escape, a Whitemoor prisoner was murdered by two other inmates. His name was Leslie “Catweazle” Bailey and he was a convicted pedophile and child killer. According to the officer, the subsequent investigation revealed that the prisoners learned about Bailey’s crimes in a book they had checked out from the prison library. Then, all books that mentioned any prisoners or their crimes were removed from the library.

The Security Department at the prison periodically tried to ban books and I always challenged them to demonstrate an actual risk. Sometimes I got the book re-instated (in the case of a book about military helicopters), and other times I acquiesced (in the case of a book on chemical warfare). While preparing for this essay, I searched online for information about this murder. Although I was able to confirm that a prisoner by that name was murdered in Whitemoor prison, I could find no mention of a library book being to blame. That information may not have been released to the press, or it may not even be true.

Under normal circumstances, I would argue that freedom of information is a human right, no matter what a small minority might choose to do with that information. But a prison library is not a public library, the minority is the majority, and sometimes safety and security, even for murderers and rapists, takes precedence over censorship quarrels and access to information. So, I never challenged this rule, because I didn’t want the library to be haunted by another murder.

*This entry was originally posted at The Daily Theme on September 10, 2010

The Serendipity of Browsing

One night when I was still working, a prisoner shouted to me from across the library,
"Miss! Where you keep the black books?"
"We don't segregate books in this library."
"Seriously Miss, how am I supposed to find other books this guy wrote? You should have a system and put them in some kinda order, like, by genre, you know... law, cooking, fiction..."
"Yeah, we do have a system."
"You gotta fiction section?"
"It's arranged by the author's last name."
"Oh, right. That's a good system."
"I think so too."

Setting aside the fact that I obviously failed that prisoner when I gave him the library induction, the way books are shelved in a library can actually be a complicated notion. The inmates who worked for me in the prison library were tasked with shelving the library materials. It was a continuous struggle to get them to put the books where they belonged instead of in the first space they came across. One time they tried to convince me that all the books should be re-shelved according to size because “it would look so much nicer” and had completed a section before I could stop them.  

Everyone’s heard of the Dewey Decimal Code, but it’s actually a really outdated coding system (i.e. Philosophy & Psychology get the 100’s, Religion gets the entire 200’s section, but computers only get from 004-006). However, with the DDC and other subject based shelving systems, items placed next to each other are usually related. This system lends itself well to browsing, as people are often searching for a specific topic rather than author (except in Fiction). In the library world, there is a notion of the ‘serendipity of browsing,’ the loss of which is often bemoaned when discussing the digitization of information – when card catalogues became online catalogues, and when people started using Google to answer their questions, instead of the Reference section. The serendipity of browsing is the idea that one often finds exactly what they are looking for, seemingly by accident.

But it’s not an accident – not really. You may be randomly browsing the Just Returned shelf, or wandering the stacks with a vague idea of what you’re looking for, and suddenly stumble upon an entire section relevant to your interest. There is a psychology to this – people choose reading material either because it was recommended (in reviews, by a friend, and by virtue of having been recently read) or because they are looking for specific information. Non-fiction books are not shelved alphabetically because people would have to run all over the place to find what they were looking for; it would incapacitate the ‘serendipity of browsing’ and diminish the influence of proximity.

The influence of proximity is really a matter of convenience. People usually shop at the grocery store closest to their home, pick the restaurant closest to the movie theater and fall in love with “the girl next door.” And when browsing, they look for more information on a subject and expect to find it within arm’s reach. Those aren’t the only options and they may not be the cheapest, the best, or even available, but close and convenient often rank high when making decisions (at least, when I make decisions). And it is this somewhat lazy human personality quirk that Mr. Dewey was catering to when he came up with his system.

*This entry was first published at The Daily Theme on September 27,2010