Hi, My name is Jessamyn West and I’m a library technologist living in Vermont. This is my professional blog where I occasionally write about library-oriented things and about my own work within the library profession.
The conference Brag Deck is one of my favorite community engagement secret weapons. It’s basically a slide deck that has pictures of things libraries want to show off. It runs on repeat somewhere during the conference, preferably someplace high-profile but that’s not always attainable. People can watch it and see what other libraries are doing. I make a little web page that goes along with it so it’s available online all year. If you can make slides, edit images, and operate email, you can do this. Here’s an example from last year (sorry no ALT text version available yet)
People make slides in a number of different ways, so I won’t get too into the technical weeds but here are a few tips for how to do this.
– Don’t start too early. Ask people on your library mailing list (or other communication method) for a few images a few weeks out. “What’s something you’re proud of? Show it off here!”
– Remind people a few times in a non-nagging way. The last email can say “There’s still time!” a few days before the conference. You’ll be surprised how many last minute entries you’ll get.
– Email everyone back who sends in images saying thank you and congratulating them on their achievement. We spend so much time recognizing others that we don’t always recognize ourselves. Your response helps.
– I do 1-2 slides per library, so that big and small libraries all get a chance to shine. If there are a few good images of one event I try to do a multi-image slide. Don’t get too fancy.
– Include the library’s name and location and a small bit of text about what people are looking at on each slide, so people can follow up with a library if they want to know more.
That’s it. Finish it up, bring it to the conference, set it somewhere on repeat. Especially by the end of a conference, people can be tired and want to just chill somewhere. Having something professionally applicable but also passive and relaxing is a great addition to any library conference.
I have mentioned elsewhere that doing less public speaking was an intentional decision. I took some time off and now I’m slowly taking some time back ON. I did a great webinar for the folks at WiLS on how to teach online privacy in the library, my usual talk. Then I made two new talks, one at the request of a local senior residence and one for a local Lifelong Learning Institute. Different and all new topics and both of them I’m really happy with. If you might be interested in me giving one of these talks at your event, do let me know.
Second, the talk about scams is more of an outline that I talk over (so no built-in narrative it sort of flows where the conversation takes it. People are concerned about the ways people rip people off and this is especially the case in the online world where a lot of people, particularly older people, can feel out of their depth and not at all sure if they’re doing the right thing. I wanted to give sensible, practical advice that wasn’t just stuff like “Never click on an email attachment!” because, quite frankly, that is dumb advice.
Next week I get on an airplane to give a keynote talk at the MD/DE Library Conference. I’m pretty excited. If you see me there, please say hello.
From a friend’s email: My parent has become increasingly befuddled by things in older age, especially computers. I think the main problem is that everything offers way too much functionality, and they find it overwhelming and confusing. They are definitely confused by things updating and changing layouts and such. But they are also confused by long-standing things like tabs and new windows – when I went to help sort their laptop recently I found 78 Safari windows active, all opened to the same Yahoo Mail account. They had no idea. Are there any tools that you know of (hopefully for Mac) that maybe “simplify” things somehow? Or maybe an entirely different OS?
I feel like the Mac is usually the best option for older people if they want to use a computer and not a tablet. Tablets do solve some of these issues, but cause other ones. At the same time, I agree, I see my landlady’s computer like this all the time. And part of it is… maybe it’s okay to have it be weird?
One of the things I’ve been trying to get my landlady to do is turn the computer off every night. And then I set up her browser to not open all the old tabs (one of the culprits) and just open to her email. So when she opens it that day, there’s only so messed up it can get before she turns it off again and then… new start. And I think part of it all is that some people are just more… derailed by things. And so some of it is just “Well things change a lot, you do not have to like it (I sure don’t) but lets’ figure out how to get you to your email….” that sort of thing. Sometimes you have to let yourself be comfortable with someone else’s discomfort and just step them through how to get where they want to be.
Some people have found it easier to just get their email delivered via Mac’s Mail program. I think it creates more problems than it solves, honestly but it’s an option. But yeah, I have some people who
have been coming to drop-in time for over a decade and no matter what new tech they get they always sort of…. fail to learn how it works and then bitch or whine that it’s hard. Which, hey, those feelings are real and I can sympathize with them. But also realize that for whatever reason, absent any mental health issues, this is the way they are choosing to interact with it. There are some great “Missing manual” books for the Mac that can help explain things. But this is only good for people who are okay deputizing themselves to learn this stuff. The line I use a lot lately is: there are some people who demand lists when we try to give them flow charts. And you can’t learn to effectively operate a computer with a list, not anymore.
It might be helpful to hook them up with a local person who could swing by once a month and make sure stuff was basically working. I don’t know if you do this job but I feel like this is a great niche type job. One hour tune-ups. Don’t cost a lot but just swoop in, do software updates, make sure nothing is out of control, Flash is working nothing sketchy is going on, swoop out. If there’s a
local senior center and/or library and they use a laptop, that can be a good place to send them. Otherwise, setting up Skype or Facetime to do desktop sharing and you can swoop in yourself to help with some of this. It’s always hardest with parent/kids. I always thought a good idea would be for people to ‘trade parents” with each other and like, I would have your parent with stuff and you could help my mom (RIP) with her stuff.
This is a post about rural libraries and money on the occasion of Town Meeting week. Town Meeting happened last week. Most Vermont libraries receive their money through the town and Town Meeting is a time to discuss library funding. I am a sub at the library in my town, enough to go to staff meetings but not enough to work there all the time. I also do drop-in time both at my local library and at one “over the mountain” in the next town. Here are a few anecdotes about how local libraries manage their money situations.
The library in my town (pop 4,778, Orange County) has a budget of about $275K which includes three full-time staff, and one part time staff member. It’s open 36 hours a week. The library received a windfall from a local man who died recently of about 200K. In the pre-Town Meeting coffee hour, people got to talk to the library staff about what they’d like to spend the money on. There are a lot of options. There is a neighboring town that also supports our library with tax dollars. Some years they vote to support the library, other years they don’t. When they vote no, suddenly the people in that town have to pay for a library card. In Vermont there are a lot of different approaches to whether you charge out-of-towners for library cards. Most big libraries do, most small libraries don’t. My town is just barely a big library town.
The over the mountain library is smaller (pop. 1,139, Windsor County). Their service population is about a quarter of my town’s. Library cards there are free. The library runs on a budget of about 45K and is open seventeen hours a week. The library budget got pulled out of the town budget and put on a separate line that needed to be voted on at Town Meeting. This is usually done because someone doesn’t like the library. In this case that someone was a former town clerk who railed against the librarian receiving health insurance for her part time job as well as other expenditures. People in town, people the librarian is certain have never set foot in the library, came to the library’s defense, loudly and vocally. The library got their money. I got a library card (free) when I was there this week.
Down the road is a library that has never had a budget (pop. 546, Rutland County). It’s fully volunteer staffed and is open five hours a week. For the first time, the town voted to give the library 15K so that they could hire someone to actually work in the library. They are hoping for someone with professional experience but it’s pretty tough at that price point. There are no library schools in Vermont but people can take classes with the state library and earn their certification.
I went to a library I had never visited before (no website, pop. 323, Addison County) because I happened to be nearby when it was open. It’s the one in the picture, it lives in an old schoolhouse. It used to be in a tiny box of a building, but they fixed up the other half of the town clerk’s office which is where they are now. There’s a full kitchen which is an amazing feature of such a small library, the second smallest year-round library in the state. It has a budget of 15K and is open 12 hours per week. The town is 82% national forest. The building has an upstairs but they can’t use it because of ADA. There is still a bell in the bell tower and you can ring it if you want. I don’t know what their Town Meeting situation is because I was too busy hearing about the DRAMA in the town clerk appointment.
All of these libraries are in towns that are next to each other. All of them are in different counties. None of them except mine have any full-time staff. All of them are, I think, automated to some degree. All of them are deeply embedded in their communities, which try to support them as best they can. I’ve been trying to visit all of them; I’m a third of the way there.
Note: This list, written in 1996 by Phil Agre is the best advice I can give people who are helping novice users with computer issues. Phil Agre was a visionary technologist and this list was up on his website forever but has been up and down lately so I am reprinting it.
Computer people are generally fine human beings, but nonetheless they do a lot of inadvertent harm in the ways they “help” other people with their computer problems. Now that we’re trying to get everyone on the net, I thought it might be helpful to write down everything I’ve been taught about helping people use computers.
First you have to tell yourself some things:
Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
If it’s not obvious to them, it’s not obvious.
A computer is a means to an end. The person you’re helping probably cares mostly about the end. This is reasonable.
Their knowledge of the computer is grounded in what they can do and see — “when I do this, it does that”. They need to develop a deeper understanding, of course, but this can only happen slowly, and not through abstract theory but through the real, concrete situations they encounter in their work.
By the time they ask you for help, they’ve probably tried several different things. As a result, their computer might be in a strange state. This is natural.
The best way to learn is through apprenticeship — that is, by doing some real task together with someone who has skills that you don’t have.
Your primary goal is not to solve their problem. Your primary goal is to help them become one notch more capable of solving their problem on their own. So it’s okay if they take notes.
Most user interfaces are terrible. When people make mistakes it’s usually the fault of the interface. You’ve forgotten how many ways you’ve learned to adapt to bad interfaces. You’ve forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface would be able to do for you.
Knowledge lives in communities, not individuals. A computer user who’s not part of a community of computer users is going to have a harder time of it than one who is.
Having convinced yourself of these things, you are more likely to follow some important rules:
Don’t take the keyboard. Let them do all the typing, even if it’s slower that way, and even if you have to point them to each and every key they need to type. That’s the only way they’re going to learn from the interaction.
Find out what they’re really trying to do. Is there another way to go about it?
Attend to the symbolism of the interaction. Try to squat down so your eyes are just below the level of theirs. When they’re looking at the computer, look at the computer. When they’re looking at you, look back at them.
Explain your thinking. Don’t make it mysterious. If something is true, show them how they can see it’s true. When you don’t know, say “I don’t know”. When you’re guessing, say “let’s try … because …”. Resist the temptation to appear all-knowing. Help them learn to think like you.
Be aware of how abstract your language is. For example, “Get into the editor” is abstract and “press this key” is concrete. Don’t say anything unless you intend for them to understand it. Keep adjusting your language downward towards concrete units until they start to get it, then slowly adjust back up towards greater abstraction so long as they’re following you. When formulating a take-home lesson (“when it does this and that, you should check such-and-such”), check once again that you’re using language of the right degree of abstraction for this user right now.
Whenever they start to blame themselves, blame the computer,no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative tone of voice. If you need to show off, show off your ability to criticize the bad interface. When they get nailed by a false assumption about the computer’s behavior, tell them their assumption was reasonable. Tell *yourself* that it was reasonable.
Formulate a take-home lesson.
Take a long-term view. Who do users in this community get help from? If you focus on building that person’s skills, the skills will diffuse outward to everyone else.
Never do something for someone that they are capable of doing for themselves.
Don’t say “it’s in the manual”. (You probably knew that.)
This is a question from the FAQ but I’m updating it and fleshing it out. Even as blogs are not the main place where people go for information, I still get pitches from people who find me when Googling “librarian” or some other impersonal way. I know it’s hard to promote a book or software, especially in today’s days of information overload. At the same time, barring you becoming some sort of viral sensation, libraries learn about books in a lot of the usual, normal ways.
The short answer to this question is “Go to library conferences. Have a decent, short pitch. Be familiar with their issues and concerns. Don’t be the typical salesperson.”
For books, if you are a publisher, particularly a small publisher, the most direct route to getting a book in libraries is getting good reviews in a library publication such as Booklist, Library Journal or School Library Journal. Kirkus even has a form to help you. Yes, this can mean giving away some copies of your book. You need to be willing to spend some money and/or time to work on your promotional project.
If you are an author, make sure your book is durable enough to be in a public library. If you self-publish, make sure it’s with an outfit that does the CIP data stuff for you. Make sure your cover is professional looking. If you have an ebook to sell, keep in mind that most libraries do not buy ebooks directly, they use a service such as Overdrive or cloudLibrary. You’ll usually be better off trying to get your book noticed in a library sub-group that covers your book’s topic or audience. A few examples, from my interest areas.
If your topic is regional, consider talking to your state’s library association. Here’s a list of all of their websites. If you’re available to do a reading or other program associated with your book, let libraries know.
Getting galleys or ARCs out to people is also useful, and can be useful for you. Librarians use some of the same paths for this as other readers: LibraryThing and Goodreads. Librarians also get a lot of advanced copies of books via NetGalley (which can also give you feedback on your cover).
For products, the answer involves really figuring out what libraries need and explaining why your product helps out in some way and solves a problem for them, in the world that they currently inhabit. Librarians are continually pitched to by people with very little understanding of their institution or why a particular product or service is any better than what they are currently using. Businesses are often trying to wedge some sort of educational or business tool into the library market without really having done their background research into basic library things like privacy and accessibility. Have some good information on those subjects before you start. Have good printed material that librarians can take home if they don’t buy on the spot. Have a demo. Make it look nice, make the UX top notch.
Do your research. Make sure you know if your book or product is within the library’s budget or collection development policy to begin with. Make sure you are contacting the proper person. Do not spam faculty or students at an academic institution and tell them to contact their librarian. Above all, never pretend that you are a patron in the library’s service area wanting them to purchase a book. Librarians can look stuff up.
As a personal aside, keep in mind that not all library bloggers are librarians, are in charge of purchasing decisions at their libraries, or read the sort of book that you are publishing. Most do not review books on their library blogs. I have been sent many advance copies of books, despite being very clear about my review policy, and then received “When are you going to review my book on your website?” queries. Try not to spam bloggers with your press releases. Communication etiquette still applies, if someone says “No thank you.” move on.
That said, when you make a genuine connection with someone in a position to positively promote your book or product, it can be worth a lot more than a quarter page ad in some random library publication so it can pay to put the work in, in a directed sort of way.
average read per month: 9.5
average read per week: 2.2
number read in worst month: 5 (Sep)
number read in best month: 15 (Jun)
number unfinished: 5
percentage by male authors: 60%
percentage by female authors: 40%
percentage of authors of color/non-Western: 22%
fiction as percentage of total: 61%
non-fiction as percentage of total: 39%
percentage of total liked: 91%
percentage of total ambivalent: 8%
percentage of total disliked: less than 1%
A few books hit my best list. That book about eggs from last year was great. I also read one about the history of postal mail and a personal memoir about hippies in Vermont. I read a lot of genre fiction but only one really stuck with me, a time travel novel. I keep feeling like there must be a diminishing number of good ones in that microgenre left. For 2019 I’m going to be tweeting my booklist (and also keeping track online, same as always, since 1997) just so I can notice trends and show off nice book covers. The one thing I don’t really track now is what format I am reading in (I still have a good mix of paper and ebook) and I’m curious about that. This list was heavily weighted towards a (white, male-authored) genre fiction thriller series that I finished in the early part of the year when I was still having some of 2017’s “bad year.” Not that 2018 was amazing, but it was better, maybe, and I read more widely and more interestingly. Hoping to keep that up in 2019.
I continue to visit libraries every chance I get. This year I worked in my local library so my visit count is way up, I also gave my privacy talk at six Vermont libraries which was more visits. The rest were working on my VT 183 project or just curiosity. The pie chart isn’t that interesting, but you can see it here. I decided to just include a photo of one of the great libraries I visited in Warren Vermont.
From the Mailbag, a UVM grad: I’ve always had a deep love for libraries, reading, and learning. In college, that love coalesced into a passion for leftist politics and I hope to direct this love into constructively making a difference in the world. I’ve been researching and working on applying to graduate school to get a Master’s in Library Science. In conversation with one of my favorite professors… she recommended I look you up. Your work as part of the “librarian resistance” as you call it is super inspiring to me as a firm believer in libraries as having massive potential for advancing social justice as far as they spread free access to knowledge and technology to the community they exist in. I’m wondering if you have any advice for an aspiring librarian?
Hey there — always good to hear from another library-interested person in Vermont. I should note before I go much further that I have a lot of interesting jobs but do not currently work in a library, so I may not be the best person to talk to about actual library work. I do have a lot of advice though.
If you’re into social justice stuff and you use Twitter, there’s the #critlib hashtag which is great for finding like-minded librarians
Think about going to a library conference if you can afford it. There is VLA which has a very small conference and NELA (New England) which is bigger but requires travel most years. You can see what people are talking about and if it jibes with what you are looking for
Above all think very closely about going into debt for another degree. I don’t know what your situation is (and don’t need to) but jobs DO NOT PAY WELL and it’s a lot harder to smash the state, if I am being honest, if you are burdened with a lot of debt. This is a complex issue since, of course, this means that the profession (and those who can be radical within it) favors the privileged. Most library degrees will prepare you okay for a job in a library, a lot of the rest of it comes from you, so unless you want to go to a high-powered academic library, you can pick and choose your library education somewhat based on cost.
And speaking of privilege, if you’ve been in Vermont your whole life (and I have no idea if you have, and I do not know your personal background) make sure you get out and around the country a little. Vermont is so white it can be hard to understand that some of the diversity we do have (class diversity, GLBT diversity, and Chittenden County is certainly less white than most if not all other counties) is small potatoes compared to places that have a lot of people from many other cultures all of whom are the populations that you, if you are in a public library, serve. And they don’t all get along. I was talking about this with someone else today: part of librarianship, if you’re doing it right, is figuring out how to deal with all these people with conflicting and competing interests.
So anyhow, make sure you understand issues of diversity, accessibility (not just ADA stuff but how to really provide equity for all patrons) and what it really means to honor a child’s right to read, the difference between having a “balanced” or “neutral” collection and one that empowers people, etc. It’s tricky and people within the profession do not agree. I have strong opinions in one specific direction, many people disagree with me, and I don’t have to worry about the institution I work for putting pressure on me to not shoot my mouth off.
So that is jut me talking about MY things. If you have specific questions that aren’t any of the things I talked about, email me back. And feel free to look me up if you come through Randolph.
We’re working on some stuff at VLA that has necessitated looking at other state library association websites. I have found them maddening to track down. Here is a list I have created from this Wikipedia list and this ALA list (which has additional information). Something incorrect? Let me know!