Hey, I Didn’t See You There

Dave, on left, as the title character in Larry Shue’s The Nerd

I’m an actor. Though not the star of any art house films or of Hollywood blockbusters (that, you may have guessed), I’m an actor all the same. This was not always the case. It was about ten years ago when first I auditioned for a play at our local community theater – the Bradley Playhouse, a historic theater located in Putnam, Connecticut. When I auditioned, they asked me about my experience. I had none. Up to that point, I’d never been in any kind of theater production – save maybe playing a tree in an elementary school show. After doing a few shows, I would later joke that I’ve been acting my whole life, but that I’d only recently received direction. And it’s true.

Dave in a scene from Ray Cooney’s Caught in the Net

When I was a child – elementary and middle school age – I often would perform skits for my family. They were silly and were constructed so as to elicit laughter. My parents, however, were not audience plants. If something wasn’t funny, well then why would they laugh? Receiving honest feedback was important, they felt, for me to know what was humorous and what wasn’t. When I reflect back on my indoctrination into humor, I realize that it was through plays, TV, films, records, and yes, books. I remember watching episodes of All in the Family and M*A*S*H.  My mom permitted me to stay up late and watch the early Saturday Night Live, sketches with Gilda Radner, Dan Ackroyd, and John Belushi. We had Bob Newhart and Steve Martin record albums. We loved watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS and seeing Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian. I loved Mel Brooks’ movies and the slapstick comedy of Airplane. My parents, readers that they were, also made sure that I knew that reading could be funny, too. Books by P.G. Wodehouse and Kingsley Amis were holiday and birthday gifts. Later I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Tim Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker, feeling smart when I got the jokes. Indeed, when I became an English major in college it was, at least in part, because an upperclassman I knew and admired was one. He had such a rapid fire and biting wit that I knew I wanted to hone these skills for myself and knew that it was through immersing myself in language and art that I could. And should.

Dave in a scene from Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy

Later, when I read books by Hunter S. Thompson, Augusten Burroughs or David Sedaris, it only deepened my understanding that so much of life, as difficult and dark as it can often be, is still funny. In fact, it often needs to be funny. So while I have a serious side and enjoy drama and what might be classified as more serious literature, I need laughter each day. Sometimes the measure of my day might be how many laughs I induced. How does this fit in with my role as the library director? Well, we all have to play our best hand and, for me, that means bringing some silliness and laughter into our various efforts to promote the library and its programs. Here are a few videos that we, upon occasion, send out to our school community. They’re silly, sometimes funny, and popular. It’s gotten to the point that if we go too long without making one, we’re asked to speed up the production.

Not everyone is a comedian or an actor, but everyone has a character attribute that is a strength or a talent. So why not play into your strengths and use them to highlight the library – or your role there? I am pleased to say that I don’t laugh when my kids tell bad jokes. It’s important to know what’s really funny. That’s something I take very seriously.

A scene from Steve Martin’s The Underpants

Who’s Behind the Curtain?

Okay. I’m just going to lay it right out there. It’s a secret I’ve kept from you since we first met. At first I thought I’d tell you, but then I didn’t. And the more we became friends, the more I feared sharing the truth. And the longer I waited, the harder it became to tell you. I don’t know how many times I tried to find the courage to tell you, but when the moment came I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I was afraid that if I told you, you’d scoff at me or roll your virtual eyes, ostracize me from this community I’ve grown to love. But the thing is, you not knowing has been eating at me for years. I have dreams about it. I wake up in a cold sweat, nearly hyperventilating. My wife, accustomed to these frequent night terrors, strokes my  forehead and calms me to sleep. This is it, though. I can go no further without you knowing the truth. So darn the consequences. Here goes: I….I….I do not…<gulp> have a degree in library science. [record scratch], [crickets], [gasps] from across the AISL frontiers].

I won’t blame you if you disown me, throw me out of the library club, remand me to the usurious hands of full price booksellers. I’ve misrepresented myself. I’m a fake, a charlatan, impersonating a librarian for all these years. And I didn’t even sleep at a Holiday Inn Express!

I mean, do you even know me at all? The foundation of our relationship has been built on a lie. I wouldn’t blame you if you reported me to the librarian police and sent me away to library prison for life. But before you condemn me to books previously annotated by a sophomore who uses hearts to dot i’s, hear me out. I never set out to deceive you. It just happened.

I’ll spare you the entire career history, but a few highlights are needed for you to understand how a nice boy like me ends up in the rough and tumble world of librarianship. I was a college English major (a revelation that, at the time, nearly caused my mother to choke on her Tab cola).  After a couple of years of stereotypical mid-1990s, post college Boston living, I decided to go to graduate school. I’ll be honest (finally, I know!), I didn’t even think about an MSL. Heck, I am pretty sure if someone mentioned it I would have assumed they were talking about Major League Soccer! I went for an M.Ed. with a certification to teach secondary English. But the joke in my family is that I went to graduate school for two years only to teach for one. That’s right, after a year of teaching ninth grade English on Cape Cod, I left academia all together. I had a penchant for some wanderlust – and wander I did – back to Boston in 1997 then Amsterdam, Toronto, Zurich, New York, Los Angeles, until I returned to Massachusetts in 2004. I married, had kids, and relatively soon thereafter chose to move back to my home state of Connecticut. With my praxis test taken and my Connecticut secondary English teaching certificate in hand, I returned to the Nutmeg State somewhat resigned to, after a decade and a half away from academia, a return to teaching. At first I landed a temporary job at my old high school. (Yes, it was as uncomfortable as you might imagine!), but I was keeping an eye out for something better.

It was at this time, with a bit of free time on my hands, I did what all great job seekers do: auditioned for community theater. During my second show (The Crucible – ironic life parallel?) the director and I got to talking. She asked me a bit of my career back story and what it was I was hoping to do. It was toward the end of that conversation that she said, with some conspiratorial undertones, “Have you ever thought about working in a library?” I said, earnestly, “No. Tell me more about that.” And with those six words uttered in reply, my life – my family’s life – was irrevocably changed. This woman, who directed plays on the side, had been at my current school for nearly 30 years. She’d been the library director for close to a generation. With her retirement not long beyond the horizon, she was looking to groom her replacement. She ushered me into the school as her assistant. It helped that I 1) had a master’s degree, 2) had technical/computer experience, and 3) for the benefit of the boarding school life, was a runner and a former college rower.

It’s not exactly the right analogy, but it also isn’t that far off: she was my Mrs. Miyagi and I her karate kid. I began as all young apprentices do: in the stacks. I refreshed my knowledge of the Dewey system, shelved books, neatened stacks, and helped pull books for weeding, scraping off barcodes and stamping discard on them. My desk was right near Mrs. Miyagi’s and she announced her every library activity. What she was doing, what she was buying, why this book was being discarded but another wasn’t. I checked new books to make sure there weren’t missing pages, wondering why bother (but of course, we found some!). She taught me how to catalog, I learned how to read the Sears subject headings, and what in Sam Hill name a Cutter Sanborn table is and how to use it! Eventually I was permitted to go beyond cataloging fiction, learning the nuances of subject headings for non-fiction, learning how to sometimes disregard the suggested Dewey number to put a book where it would be better found in our library. Suffice it to say that in the course of three years working under my library director, I worked my way up from the proverbial mailroom to know, intimately, each and every inch of shelving and every aspect of our library’s operations.

I did, briefly, because we thought I might eventually require an actual MLS (or MILS, if you’re getting all fancy and modern), take online courses at Southern Connecticut State University and at San Jose State University. I took Foundations of Librarianship and Information Communities and Information Analysis and Organization among a few others. And, to degrees, it was helpful, but they didn’t specifically prepare me for the unique environment in which we ply our trade. So when it came time for Mrs. Miyagi to retire, it was because she knew that I had graduated from her MLS program. It was longer than a typical program, and the practical component was intense. I don’t have a degree on my wall from Mrs. Miyagi’s Library School, but I have the education to rival any accredited institution’s. (And the best part was that I got paid to enrol!)

As we all know, though we may have been educated to assume our professional responsibilities, we are never done with our education. And this is how, among several other opportunities, AISL plays such an important role. Whether we call it professional development or continuing education, our active involvement in the AISL listserv, attending the summer or annual conference and workshops – certainly for me, and I know for many of you – is the impetus for so much of the positive changes and initiatives we take at our school. The collective AISL brain has helped me not only fill in some gaps in my library education (hey – we all have them, right?). It’s helped me greatly make up for my lack-of-MSL inferiority complex (not sure what DSM code that is.)

This lack of librarian self-esteem is, to some extent, your fault! You’re all so gosh darn smart, and with each question, suggestion, blog, or “helpful” link, I am only made more aware of my shortcomings. But that’s okay, because it makes me not only want to be a better librarian, but somehow prove my worth in spite of my lack of a library degree. So, yeah, I might have a chip on my shoulder, but it serves me – and our library – because it motivates me to do the best we can with our small but important sphere of influence. 

Mrs. Miyagi still lives in our area. She comes in to check out books and chat. The library looks different from when she was here. Gone is our reference section, in favor of a more contemporary seating and work areas. And there are other changes, too, in the nature of the services we provide, the demeanor we exude. Many of the changes we’ve adopted were influenced by you! Mrs. Miyagi may not approve of everything we have done, but she knows that when she retired, that I would, like a constitutional oath – not dissimilar to the ALA Bill of Rights (which I also learned!), solemnly swear to faithfully execute the position of library director, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the mission of our library, which is, essentially: to support the curriculum and mission of the School by developing critical information literacy skills and by instilling an appreciation and understanding of the value of reading to promote lifelong learning.

Okay, so now you know. The truth is finally out there I’m sorry I kept it from you for too long. That was wrong. I understand if you need some time to process. I, for one, feel relieved and unburdened. Whatever the consequences, I hope that you can understand my initial reticence to disclose the truth. I am so enamored and in awe of all of you. I just wanted you to like me, to feel like a peer. Instead I felt, for a time, an imposter. Now, however, after all my years of both my direct and practical training and the ongoing education I’ve absorbed, feel as confident as ever in my credentials and abilities as a library director, librarian, information literacy educator, advisor for readers, and a role model for students that it was high time I came clean. And if I can pave the way for just one more librarian to reveal their true path to this noble profession, then, well, this whole confession will have been more than worth it. So, that’s it. It’s time to move on. I’ve got reviews to read, books to process, and students and faculty to serve. Simply stated: it’s time to go back to work.

What’ll Be?

Maybe it’s because summer vacation is tantalizingly close, or maybe it’s the warmer weather, but I sure could go for a cold adult beverage. Anyone else? As I considered my libation choices, I realized, through a conversation with my office mate and work spouse, Beth, that our library is, in many ways, not unlike a bar…minus the alcohol. Those beverages are, at least for now, still not allowed in the library.

Cheers!

Our circulation desk – like yours, perhaps – is situated near the front door. When we’re stationed behind its high counter, we are in prime position to greet our patrons. We have a trivia desk calendar, which people stop at regularly and predictably. When patrons come in, they look around, see who’s where, and decide where to gather. Sometimes it’s up at one of the counters, sometimes it’s a more secluded table in the back, or a table by the windows, well suited for people watching. There are certain patrons who come in at certain times of the day. We have our morning crew who are often in their seats before we arrive (students have keycard access during off hours – ask me about that if you’re curious how that works). Students come in when they have an hour to kill or don’t feel like going back to their dorms. Others roll in after their last classes, eager to take a breather after a full day. And, of course, there are our night owls, who seem to only wander in after the sun has set. There are many (too many?) parallels between the local tavern and the local library.

Being Alone. Together.

If the library feels like a favorite corner bar, that makes us librarians the bartenders. Patrons come in, often not sure what they feel like having. They ask us for a suggestion. Sometimes they’re not in the mood for certain offerings. Sometimes they feel like something different, something new. Sometimes we barkeeps not only serve patrons their usuals, but are asked to surprise them with something fresh or with a classic. Sometimes they see something that someone else enjoyed and ask for the same. And don’t you know, we sometimes have some featured items, the specials of the day or the week or the choice selection of the bartender, our signature go tos. But there’s more than just what’s on the menu.

The Specials

We all know the trope: the melancholy soul, down on his or her luck, who wanders into the pub. The bartender wanders over, mops off the bar, pours a drink and asks, “What’s the trouble, pal?” And wouldn’t you know it, the same sort of thing happens in our office all the time. In our library – maybe as in your library – the librarians’ office is just behind the circulation desk. There are two large panes of glass that lend us zero privacy, but invite people to join us. We are fortunate to have two comfortable wicker rattan chairs, which invite people to come in a chat. And come in they do. They come in, sit with a sigh. Beth or I will then begin our therapy session. What’s the trouble, pal? And we hear it all, the woes, the tribulations, and the struggles. And it’s not just the trials we hear; we are also often the place to come when there’s big news to announce or an event to celebrate. We offer sage advice and attentive ears, and, invariably are thanked for our confidentiality, excellent listening skills, and our kindness.

When it’s all said and done, we know all the information, but we keep secrets a secret and share what we’re able. This is what a good bartender does and it’s what a good librarian does. We are the neighborhood gathering spot. After all:

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came


Some bars from TV shows are below, but what bars from literature would you put on a list?

Cheers – Cheers
Three’s Company – Regal Beagle
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – Paddy’s Pub
How I Met Your Mother – MacLaren’s
True Blood – Merlotte’s
Simpson’s – Moe’s

And now, It’s Closing Time

Know Their Name

I know that I am not a disservice to my school, but I can’t help but wonder how I can do more, do better, and fulfill my mission more completely.

Like many of you, I’m sure, I often question whether I am doing a good enough job. In many ways – and for many of the same reasons as you – I am quite sure I’m not! I don’t have enough staff. I don’t have enough hours in the day. Many of my colleagues don’t fully appreciate the resources we offer. Students are more interested in their smartphones than books.The list goes on. I ask myself if I am under serving my school community. I wonder if I’m a fraud. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t lie awake in bed at night stressing about if all of our students truly understand the importance of proper citation (because I know they don’t). Part of the awesomeness of being a member of AISL is being exposed to the exceptional work that my librarian colleagues across the country are doing. I am in awe of your energy, enthusiasm, professionalism, and dedication to our mutual passion. The downside of being aware of the your wondrous deeds is being painfully sensitive of exactly how I am falling short. I know that I am not a disservice to my school, but I can’t help but wonder how I can do more, do better, and fulfill my mission more completely.

It was with this feeling that my lone colleague and I traveled last spring to a small but highly selective liberal arts college last spring to spend some time in exactly the kind of college library into which many of our students will transition after they graduate. We went to see if we were adequately preparing our students for the college library experience. In addition to touring the library, we were also lucky to be able to spend an hour with the Director of Research Support and Instruction. Finally, we met in the student center with three students there who were graduates of our school: a freshman, a sophomore and a senior. If we were to boil our visit’s mission to an essential question it was: are we, as a library, aligning our efforts and environment to sufficiently prepare students for college?

Visiting with former students who are now in college to see if we set them up for success

I’ll spare you the dramatic build up. The answer is: yes! But how is that possible? We don’t have nearly the utilization of our databases that we ought to. We don’t have nearly the number of strategic partnerships with classroom teachers that we ought to. There’s too many students who still can’t find a book without our help. We have a collection that desperately needs more weeding. I haven’t done inventory in two years (at least)! So with all our admitted failings, the sorts of things that would cause a less tired person to lay awake in bed at night, how are we meeting the mission? Like a lot of beautiful solutions, the answer is quite simple. The relationship you have with your students is the most important part of your job, the library, and its mission.

Our school is a four year boarding school with about 350 students. The library staff is me and my colleague (who is part time). That’s it. Together we hold every title a library can manufacture. We are the directors, catalogers, liaisons to humanities, technical services, circulation managers and whatever other titles you might conceive – we are librarians. (And at our boarding school, we are also advisors, coaches, and dorm parents.) There’s no realistic way we can do each of these things exceptionally well. We just have to do them well enough. What’s more important is that we have a relationship with all our students. We know their names – each and every student, where they went on spring break, what their favorite sport is; we talk to them about food, pop culture, fashion, and music. In school meetings, when I have an announcement, I make it funny. I walk up the aisles, and project to the back of the room (a background in acting helps!) When they walk through on their way in or out, I say hello and engage them, directly. You’d be hard pressed to walk by me without at least a brief conversation. What’s the result of this engagement, this effort we put into making connections with students, investing in the relationship? Students feel comfortable in the library and comfortable with the librarian. They are less self-conscious about asking for help, admitting they actually don’t know how to use a database or find a resource. They are less bashful about asking for a book they might have interest in. You get to know the student, their interests, their tastes. I can tailor purchases of books to them because I know them.

When we toured the college library, we saw that, though the scale was different, we had nearly all the same elements as they did. We had quiet areas, active areas, books, technical resources, databases, magazines, staff at the ready. The librarians were knowledgeable and dedicated. The librarian told us that they didn’t expect students to arrive as junior MLS candidates. They expected them to arrive as college freshmen who still had much to learn. They expected them to be able to know what a library was and what the librarian might do for them, but not to be expert researchers. Sure, there will always be a few students who are proficient in their library skills, but more important is that they feel comfortable going to the librarian and asking for help.

When a senior graduates from our school they have to get a paper signed by various departments making sure that they are in good standing (athletics, business office, etc.). One of their stops is the library. I’m grateful that we get to see each student before they depart. Without fail, some senior will say, I’m not sure if I even ever checked out a book from the library. I tell them, always in good humor, that that’s nothing to brag about, and we have a laugh. Then I tell them to make sure they make friends with a college librarian. I tell them that they don’t have to go to parties with them, but that they should get to know a librarian by name because when you form a personal relationship with that person, you will be well disposed to get the information, get the best that library and librarian has to offer, and the benefits will be mutual.

I know that there’s much more I can do as a librarian. I won’t likely ever stop feeling that I am falling short in many ways. What I also know is that so long as I never stop making the effort to know each student, to greet them warmly – not just in the library – but wherever I encounter students, that I am the best librarian they’ve ever had!