Archive for the ‘ Commentary ’ Category

Volunteering at the Genealogy Center

I know there are varying opinions about the value of library school graduates engaging in volunteer work, but I come down firmly on the side of pro-volunteering.  I think much of the negative view of volunteering comes form the idea that everything we do should help with our careers and, in many cases, volunteering simply can’t do that. However, I disagree with that idea, that everything we do should be for pay or to work towards getting paid.  I’ve gained so much more from my volunteering than simply a line on my resume.  Volunteering gives you a chance to experience different organizations, to meet new people, to give back to the community.  I feel less stress and more joy giving my time for free.  Of course, I would love to find a job where I can use my degree and do what I love, but even without that, volunteering is a chance for me to be involved in the field.

I recently started volunteering at the Midwest Genealogy Center here in Kansas City.  Currently, I’m helping index obituaries from the 1970s.  It’s fascinating to read about people’s lives, to see what their loved ones thought was important at the end.  It’s also neat to see the differences between obituaries then and now.  For instance, there are a large number that are titled “Mrs. Husband’s Name” which isn’t something you see as often nowadays.  It’s nice to spend the morning in such a lovely, peaceful building going through them.  It’s also nice knowing that what I’m doing will help the patrons be able to more easily find what they need.



Oh, Deary

If you have any interest at all in libraries, you’ve probably come across an article quoting children’s author Terry Deary’s opinion* on the future of libraries – namely that there isn’t one.  Unlike the glut of other authors who are supporting the campaign to save libraries, Deary believes that libraries “have had their day” and are  “cutting [the] throats” of authors and that this “is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature.”   Deary claims that he isn’t attacking libraries, but rather the concept behind them.  I would argue that he doesn’t understand the concept behind libraries at all or how they fit into a successful society.


1. Libraries introduce readers to new books, which is good for authors.

I would argue that very few people only find new books by buying them.  Many people end up buying a large portion of the books they own because they have already read that particular book or have already read a book by that author or part of that series and enjoyed it.  Books are expensive to buy, difficult to resell, and hard to judge based solely on a cover blurb.  If readers were forced to purchase every book they read blindly, there would be much more balancing of cost vs. potential enjoyment, which could lead to many readers simply choosing not to buy books.  When readers are allowed to “test drive” books first by checking them out in the library, they are able to explore and learn more about their own reading tastes, therefore making them more confident in buying books.  Deary was the seventh most borrowed children’s author in UK libraries last year.   That means that thousands of children were introduce to his books.  It’s likely that many of those children would not have heard of Deary or read his books without access to a library.  Deary might think libraries are the enemy of author’s profits, but he’s wrong.  Libraries aren’t the enemy, obscurity is.

2. Libraries offer more than books.

Deary’s argument seems to be based on a rather outdated view of libraries.  While the library might have originally starts to connect individuals with books, that is far from their only purpose now.  Libraries offer multiple items, including movies, magazines, CDs, databases, computer programs, and even items like seeds.   Additionally, libraries provide a myriad of services.  They offer job hunting seminars, tax prep, tutoring, crafting programs, movie nights, ESL classes, computer classes, printing and copying needs, access to the internet, game nights, and music programs.  They serve as museums, meeting rooms, art galleries, archives, study rooms, and cafes.  The roles a library can play in a community number in the hundreds and only a part of them have to do with lending books.

Additionally, Deary claims that we do not expect other entertainment subsets to give out their materials for free, but it’s  a faulty comparison.  For one, as I mentioned before, libraries do offer movies, music, and games for lending.  Also, when comparing books, songs, and movies on a strictly cost basis, books will lose.  If I want to see a new movie, I can do so for $5.  If I want to buy a new song, it will cost me $1-2.  If I want to buy a new book, most of them are going to cost me considerably more than that.

3. We do have a responsibility to offer access to information and literature.

Though some might not agree with this claim, I would argue that we do still need to fulfill our responsibility of allowing all users (“impoverished” or not) access to reading material and needed information.  For many individuals, the library is the only way they are able to access the internet, to find materials to read, or to get the information they need.  To deny anyone the ability to do this is incredibly classist.  An informed society is a better society and libraries are needed to keep society informed.  We can’t simply rely on the internet, because the internet isn’t curated or verified.  And, anyway, relying on the internet is pointless if individuals can’t afford to access it and not longer have libraries to do so.

In an era where literacy is much, much lower than it should be, libraries provide a vital service by connecting readers to books and offering tutoring and other literacy services.  American isn’t the only country with this issue; the UK has problems, as well. If 15% of the UK adult population is reading below the level expected of an 11 year old with libraries in existence, how do you think they would fare without them?  If only 40% of England’s 10 year olds have a positive attitude towards reading now, how many of them will have one if they have to pay exorbitant amounts to do so?  Reading and literacy are both linked to education, personal, professional, and societal success more than almost any other factor.  Why would anyone want to make it harder for individuals to do it?

4. The concept of receiving a service for tax money isn’t exclusive to libraries.

Deary argues that libraries are offering a service for free at the expense of tax payers and this is a negative thing.  However, that is the entire point of paying taxes.  We are able to use roads for free because we paid taxes.  The workers who built those roads are paid royalties every time I drive over them.  We are able to receive schooling because we paid taxes.  Teachers aren’t paid every time a student asks a question.  In the UK, citizens like Terry Deary are even able to receive healthcare for free because they paid taxes.  Society is getting a valuable service in exchange for a small portion of the money they make.  In the UK, authors are even paid a special royalty for the books that are purchased by libraries.  It isn’t as if the library is paying $20 for a book and the small percentage that goes to the author is all he will get.   The author receives 6.2p every time one of their books is borrowed, up to a cap of £6,600.

5. Libraries are not killing bookshops.

Deary attempts to back up his claim that libraries are harming bookshops by stealing their sales.  This argument holds very little water considering both libraries and bookshops have existed for hundreds of years side by side.  Independent booksellers are definitely hurting now, but that isn’t because of libraries.  It’s because of chain stores or internet sellers like Amazon.  It’s because e-books are becoming more popular.  And, ironically enough, it’s because book pricing issues caused by publishers and authors makes it difficult for small shops to compete.  Getting rid of libraries will not help those bookshops, but it will hurt the community.


Luckily, there are many other authors, bloggers, librarians, and politicians out there who do not agree with Deary and are willing to fight to preserve the much-needed libraries.  For more reading, check out:

Why Terry Deary is Wrong

An Open Letter to Terry Deary

Why We Shouldn’t Ignore Terry Deary & 5 Ways to Help Your Library Right Now

*Deary has since tried to “clarify” what he was saying, but I’m not buying it.  Those quotes were not mercilessly edited; they were pretty clear.  His response just seems like a lot of backpedaling now, coupled with a very, very outdated view of libraries.

Literacy Isn’t Optional

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across this blog post on literacy privilege.   I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  The author states she is a recovering grammar snob and goes on the explain why she no longer gleefully corrects others’ mistakes.  Her reasons for refusing to continue to do so are  most definitely worth a read, but what I found the most shocking was something she included towards the end of her post:

I like to shock the new tutors I train by quoting statistics from the International Adult Literacy Survey. I ask them to estimate, in a developed country like Canada or the U.S., what percentage of the population has literacy skills below the very basic level needed to function well in our society. People usually guess ten percent, fifteen percent, maybe as much as twenty-five. Then I pull out the sad, stunning facts: nearly half of all North American adults cannot cope with complex written material of the sort that the other half of us take completely for granted. HALF, you guys. This should be considered a national crisis. Not fodder for sport.

The picture becomes even more dismal when you consider the other statistics from the survey.  Approximately one-fourth of U.S. adults performed at the very lowest level of literacy.  Only 59% of U.S. adults at the lowest two levels of literacy were employed.  This is compared to 77% at the mid level and 82% at the highest levels.  Other sources present more bleak findings.  55% of adults with below basic literacy did not graduate from high school.  60% of prison inmates and 85% of juvenile offenders have literacy issues. 75% of those on welfare are functionally illiterate.  The country’s literacy levels do not appear to be improving overall, either.

Literacy is also not being appropriately addressed in our schools.  Of the students who do graduate from high school, 25% have only received the equivalent to a 8th grade education.  Approximately 20% of high school graduates are functionally illiterate.   Whether this is an issue of demographics, educator assumption, methodology, or undetected learning disorders, a large number of students are falling through the cracks.

It is unthinkable that a country which claims the be the greatest in the world would accept this.  It breaks my heart and it makes me angry.

Literacy isn’t simply related to the ability to read a book.  Being literate is vitally important for an individual to maintain a successful and enjoyable life.

  • Literacy is directly related to employment and career successes. See the statistics above for evidence.
  • It is fundamental to educational success.  Almost all learning is predicated on it.
  • It’s related to criminal behavior.  Inmates have lower levels of literacy than the general population.
  • It is needed to fully understand and participate in society.  Illiterate adults risk social isolation.
  • It is necessary for survival.  So much of our existence is dependent on the ability to read and understand certain important  information.

Literacy impacts almost every facet of our lives.  So why are so many people still operating at the very basic or below basic levels?  And what can we do about it?

Aside from adopting new education policies that ensure all students are literate, the issue of those who already made it to adulthood needs to be more sufficiently addressed.  Despite many areas across the country implementing literacy initiatives, efforts tend to be spotty.  Though there are national literacy efforts, these don’t fare as well as is needed to curb the problem.  Without a sufficient nationally organized and funded program, it is difficult for literacy workers to reach all the vulnerable individuals.  Additionally, the ways in which literacy programs are advertised often are counterproductive.  If the programs are only advertised in print or at the library or school or in other areas unlikely to be accessed by those who need the services, they are not going to be aware of them.  Even if an individual learned of the program, the stigma attached to illiteracy prohibits many from seeking the help they need.  In certain areas of the country, language barriers can also make it difficult for individuals to access literacy programs.

So, what can libraries do to help?

The American Library Association has several resources and suggestions to help libraries address adult literacy issues.

  1. Ensure that adults with literacy issues are given equal access.  This can be accomplished by providing literacy classes, materials, and services to limit access issues.
  2. If your library doesn’t have a literacy plan, develop one. 
  3. If a plan is in existence, evaluate its effectiveness.
  4. If you live in an area with a large non-English speaking population, make sure they are being served by your programs.
  5. Reach out to community literacy programs and adult education programs to share resources and referrals.

Finally, something we can all do is contact government officials at all levels and charge them with addressing this epidemic.  Our country needs a concentrated, organized, sustained national effort to truly combat adult illiteracy.

For more information on the history of literacy policies and libraries and proposed solutions, check out this interesting lecture by Robert Wedgeworth.


New Series: Using Social Media in Your Library

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this summer I took a class focusing on libraries and Web 2.0.  For our final project, we split into groups according to the type of library in which we’d like to work and we were instructed to create a proposal and working model of a social media tool we felt would be useful for that type of library. As part of the proposal, we also had to pick a particular use or audience for the tool and justify its use. The public library group I was in chose to create a Tumblr aimed at individuals aged 18-25 (the proposal and model can be seen here and here).

The creation of this project, as well as what I’ve learned in previous tech classes  and my experience using social media for jobs and volunteer work,  inspired the list of topics I’d like to discuss over the next few days.  I’ll be discussing in depth a few aspects that should be considered before jumping into social media.  I am certainly not claiming to be an expert on the subject, but it is one that interests me.  I’d like to share that interest with all of you.  So, in the coming days, look for posts over these topics:

  1. Consider Your Audience and Purpose
  2. Choosing a Platform
  3. Delegating Responsibilities
  4. Creation of the Media
  5. Evaluation and Maintenance


Why Do You Want To Be A Librarian?

After I graduated undergrad, I knew I wanted to go on the grad school, I just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.  I worked a couple of non-degree related jobs and I knew they weren’t really what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I couldn’t really figure it out.  A little less than a year after I moved to San Diego, I was feel stressed and lonely and went to the nearest branch of the library.  While there, I thought about how it was a place where I felt the most calm and happy.  I thought back through the years and realized that the library had always been one of my favorite places, whether to look through books, to volunteer, or to attend programs.  I started looking into going back to school for my MLIS.  When I first started library school, I thought a lot about whether or not it was the right decision and why I wanted to be a librarian.  Now that I’m going through the job-hunting process, I’ve been thinking about that question again.  It’s something that’s not only important for me to be sure of, but it’s also a question that comes up in interviews frequently.

Recently one of my professors told an anecdote about a frequent answer to the question “Why do you want to be a librarian?” being “I love to read.”  Obviously a love of reading is a common characteristic of library employees (and certainly one I share myself – just look at the title of this blog!), but I don’t believe it should be the sole reason for becoming a librarian.  Sitting in a quiet room and reading may be the stereotypical view of a librarian, but it’s certainly not the realistic one.  The decision to choose a career can be both the simplest and most complicated one made.  My reasons for choosing librarianship are both.

I love helping people find the answers they need.  A small anecdote:  Among a particular group of my friends, I sometimes have the nickname Koogle  – a combination of my name and Google – for my ability to quickly find the answers to their questions.  I gained the same reputation among the members of the military family support site I helped run until recently.  There is a thrill in the process of taking someone’s question and helping them discover the answer, like an information detective.  Though we live in an age when it’s easy for anyone to get online and look for an answer, it’s also easy for them to come across incorrect information and problematic sources.  It’s just as important as ever for information professionals to offer help in sifting through to find the best way to search for the best answer.

Along with that, I’m an information junkie with interests in many topics.  There are very few career paths that allow for such a wide variety of interests in one job.  Being a librarian allows for this variety.

I feel very passionately about literacy, especially in youth.  Though reading among young people is making a resurgence, literacy rates and interest in reading are still not has high as would be ideal.  I want to work with youth to help them be excited about reading, to realize that reading can move beyond what’s required for school ( and not just to novels, but to graphic novels, magazines, even online) , and to help them improve their schools and gain confidence in their abilities.

I get excited by new technologies and tools.  Some of my favorite aspects of my courses have been learning about various platforms, tools, and programs that can be used to improve the experience of the patrons and the staff.  Librarianship may be viewed as a stuffy, old-fashioned profession, but that is far from the truth.  Librarians and information professionals are often in a position to try out new technologies and tools and to find the best ways to use those.

I get genuinely excited thinking about library programming and services.  The other day, while waiting before an interview, I was reading over that particular library system’s programming catalog. I couldn’t keep a smile off my face reading the descriptions and thinking about what I would do if I was in charge of running those programs or creating new ones.  My favorite course assignments involve coming up with creative new or improved ways to better serve the patrons through programs or services.

I want to work in a service position.  In my previous employment and volunteer positions, I found I’m the most happy when I’m helping others.  Obviously, there are many fields in which I would be able to do that, but librarianship fits with that desire and with my interests.   With librarianship, I can help the community while engaging in something I enjoy and and passionate about.

Finally, probably the most simple reason of all, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.  Though it took me a few years to come to this decision – and though much of what I’ve read about the prospects of breaking into the field has been discouraging  – I know I made the right decision.  Whether I’m able to get a job I want next week or a few years from now, it will be worth it.