Adventures In Customer Service

Names will not be mentioned in this point to protect the identities of the unreasonable.

I work for a small public library branch. I’m not concerned about mentioning this fact, as there are 28 library branches in my county and even if you take out all the branches that are too big to fit the previous description, the odds of guessing which one I work at are very slight. And even if you’re right, it’s not like I’m going to tell you.

For the most part, mine is a wonderful job. I love the duality of my life; I suit up in my motorcycle leathers every day, put on my helmet that’s emblazoned with skulls, climb onto my motorcycle and ride to my job where I then read picture books to children and sing songs with them for story times.

But everyone who has ever worked in public service for more than five minutes knows that sometimes things don’t go smoothly. Sometimes, working with the public is a little, well, . . . strange.

I had a few of those this week. These weren’t the scary kinds of incident, the ones that end with my calling the police. They were just the kinds of things that make you scratch your head and really wonder about people.

First scenario:

A man comes into the library and asks for a study room. We’re a small library, so we only have the one study room and it’s occupied. The man points to a staff work room (which actually happens to be my office).

Man: What about that room? It looks empty.

Me: That’s a staff work room.

Man: So I can use it?

Me: You’re not a staff member.

Man: But nobody else is using it.

Me (thinking about the carefully organized stacks of paperwork, the stacked crafting supplies I’m in the process of organizing, and the calendar with all my various engagements and other business for the month, all neatly organized on the desk): It’s really only for staff use.

Man: I think that’s pretty selfish.

Me: I don’t really know how to answer that.

Second scenario:

A man comes up to the information desk carrying a few pieces of paper. He stops near the same staff office and peers inside for a few seconds.

Me: Is there anything I can help you with?

Man: I noticed you have a paper slicer in that room.

Me (warily): Yeah . . . ?

Man: Can I use it?

Me: I’m afraid not.

Man: Why not?

Me (thinking): Because I don’t know you, I don’t know who you are, I don’t know if you’re a crazy person, so I’m not going to let you near what is basically a scimitar loosely attached to a piece of wood. At best, you’ll manage to cut your own finger off. At worse, you’ll decapitate someone. You’re not getting near this paper slicer.

Me (what I actually say): I think I’d get fired if I let a non-staff member use it.

Man: Why?

Me: Liability.

Man: That doesn’t seem right.

Me: Yeah.

And scene.

I think the lesson here is that I really need to start closing the door to that office.

Arizona HB 2379

HB 2379 sounds innocuous on the surface: Special Districts; secondary levy limits. Where’s the harm in that? The average person likely doesn’t even know what that’s referring to. Even if you look at it more closely, it doesn’t sound that bad: “HB 2379 limits secondary property taxes levied by county free library, county jail, and public health services districts.”

Well, shit, those librarians don’t need their own secondary property tax, right? Do people even need libraries? We all have computers, right? This won’t be so bad.

Here’s what happens if this bill passes.

Long story short: ten libraries get closed while the rest get gutted. If you’re curious, yeah, I’m biased, since my library is one of the ones on the chopping block. So that’s awesome.

I’ve seen several comments on the various newspaper articles mention something to the extent of “they’re not cutting funding, just limiting funding, it’s not the same thing, so shut up.”

Here’s the thing; the current budget is unsustainable long-term. It’s kind of like how when your personal budget is tight so you hold off going to the doctor or the dentist or getting some work done on your car? It’s a short-term solution. Eventually, your transmission will explode or your teeth will rot or you’ll get sick and then you have to address those things.

Well, yes, we’re operating on a cut down budget for this year because that is what you do when money is tight. You buckle down and cut what you can, knowing that it won’t be permanent and that when money starts flowing again, you can address some of the things you let slide during the hard times.

If the budget gets cut down right now, when it’s already been set as something unsustainable in order to practice fiscal discipline, it’s a death sentence.

If you’re in Arizona, contact to your representatives and oppose this bill. Because even if you think that libraries are archaic now that we all have computers, even if you think that books are a waste of time, please keep in mind that for some people who are not as privileged as you to own your own computer and have Internet access, the public library is the only place they can go to get this vital access.

And there are some people who actually read books. Made from dead trees and everything! Imagine that.


Hackers And Librarians

Grad school has been keeping me pretty busy which means I haven’t had as much time for free writing as I’d like. I don’t want to let my blog go neglected, however, so I thought rather than have several days of silence, I’d post the essay that I’m working on for my information technology course. I’m not certain this thing will be interesting to anybody who isn’t a librarian, but then, I’m not certain that most of what I talk about is going to be interesting to anybody other than me.

Anyway, my short essay was about about the similarities and differences between hackers and librarians. For reference, I’ll first post the ethical outlines I was working off of; you may or may not agree with the points made in those statements, which is fair. Afterwards, I’ll post what I wrote for my essay. I do apologize for the writing style; I tend to get a bit more stilted when doing academic writing due to perceptions that too much casual language creates a feeling of informality and sloppiness. Nevertheless, feel free to discuss, critique, or whatever. Here’s the essay:

The Hacker Ethic, as described by Steven Levy:

  • Access to computers and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust Authority Promote Decentralization.
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better.
  • Like Aladdin’s lamp, you could get it to do your bidding.’

The Library Bill of Rights, as described by the American Library Association:

  1. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
  2. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
  3. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
  4. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
  5. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
  6. Libraries that make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.

When looking at the Hacker’s Ethic and the Library Bill of Rights, we can quickly see that these are two credos that embrace the same core ideal but advocate the attainment of that ideal through almost diametrically opposed methodology. For the purpose of discussion, I will refer to these respective principles through their beholders: Hackers and Librarians. I make this distinction while noting that I am speaking of both groups in a somewhat broad and generalized fashion while also noting that there is always the potential for overlap: some hackers may also be librarians. Nevertheless, this will be the structure for my discussion.

Both the Hacker and the Librarian value information as an ideal. This distinction is necessary, because it creates a different standard than one might find among the general public. Clearly, information is valuable; there is no one who can rationally argue against that fact, but for the average user, information is only measured by its value. Its relative worth is purely practical.

For both the Hacker and the Librarian, information, and more importantly, information access has a value that extends beyond its practical application. Hackers and Librarians maintain that access to information is a basic human right and that denial of access constitutes a breach of ethical responsibility. Censorship is anathema for both, whether that censorship comes through the suppression of materials or restricting access to computers. In either instance, information should be freely open and available to all. Neither the Hacker nor the Librarian makes a judgment upon the value of the information itself. A user who desires information on a new video game is equally as important as one who needs information about Federal Income Tax codes. Hackers and Librarians are united in a sense of egalitarianism, although Librarians tend to operate in a true egalitarian fashion while Hackers are generally more of a meritocracy. In either group, however, one’s race, sex, income, or other factors are inconsequential when it comes to the execution of the ideal of information access.

Where Hackers and Librarians diverge, however, is in their execution of serving this ideal. For the Hacker, authority is a form of restriction. Centralization of information is merely another form of restriction. In this way, Hackers are very comparable to anarchists in that they promote open access for all. Any control is to be rejected. Any restriction is to be opposed. The only consideration that truly matters is the access. Everything else is secondary. Authority in any form should be disregarded due to the fact that authority means rules and rules by their very nature restrict access in one form or another.

Librarians, on the other hand, promote both authority and centralization. They do so in the belief that centralization of information actually promotes access rather than restricts it. Information that is not readily and easily accessible to the user often cannot be located when it is needed and is thus subject to what is called “soft censorship.” Thus, by organizing and collating information and bringing it to a central point of reference, Librarians ensure access.

Librarians, while opponents of censorship, also recognize that certain filters need to be in place due to needing to be open and accessible to patrons of all ages and temperaments. The anarchist mentality of the Hacker cannot serve the needs of the public librarian who needs to be concerned with children accessing adult images; in such an instance, a measure of control must be maintained. Librarians must balance the needs of informing and enlightening their patrons while also realizing that not all information is created equally and some information can be very hurtful, deleterious, or even dangerous. The act of maintaining such a distinction while not sliding into censorship due to doctrinal or partisan consideration is a very delicate balancing act. This balancing act serves as another contrast to the Hacker, who is unburdened by such considerations.

In conclusion, the Hacker and the Librarian approach the same ideal of information access through very different means. The Hacker is more chaotic, more libertarian, believing that authority of any sort is a negative presence and that individuals will be responsible for the content they experience. The Librarian, on the other hand, must balance information access with the other considerations necessary to properly serve her community. A book that is banned due to political pressure is just as much a moral loss as is a parent who does not bring his child to the library because the library does not take appropriate steps to keep adult materials out of the hands of children, for example. In both cases, censorship occurs, albeit in different forms.

Back Once Again Into The Breach

Well, I’m back and I survived my first week of grad school. Mostly. Actually, I still have a final exam and two papers that are due in the next few weeks. The only reason I’m not working on those right now is because the final exam doesn’t go online until midnight tonight. As to why I’m not working on the papers, well . . . I don’t really have a good answer to that question, especially since I’m leaving for New York on Saturday and won’t be able to take my research materials with me.

Yeah, I really should start one of those papers. That, or prepare to take a stack of library books on the plane with me.

Don’t laugh, I might just do that.

I’ve spent the last week getting introduced to the world of graduate school and quite literally, almost every waking moment has been focused on the topics of libraries and information professionalism. You might wonder how this is different from a normal day for me, given my job. Basically, it’s different in that while I spend eight hours a day in a library, I spend considerably than that amount of time thinking about libraries. It sounds crazy, but you can’t really appreciate how much you don’t think about your job until you start a graduate school course dedicated to studying your job.

In the past week, I’ve read scholarly articles about my job. I’ve wandered the stacks of the university library for hours, digging up arcane research materials and taking notes. I’ve listened and discussed and argued about this or that, all in the name of libraries. It was quite an experience and although I spent much of the past week looking forward to being done, I’m actually missing it now that it’s over. There was a certain purity to my time and a focus that was refreshing. Of course, I still have the papers to write . . . and I can’t wait for those to be done. Stupid papers.

Do you want to know the weirdest thing about my first week in graduate school? You’re still reading, so I’ll assume you do. The weird thing is that this is the first time I’ve ever felt like a college student. I have my bachelor’s degree, in Creative Writing, of all things, which does indicate how much research I had to do (very little) but during my undergrad, college just felt like this thing. This seemingly infinite thing that was really just a continuation of the same thing I’d been doing since my memory began. It didn’t feel distinct or unique. Sure, there were differences; there was one class I showed up for all of five times and still aced, but overall, the general feeling was “more of the same.”

I’m not sure whether it was the rigor of the class compared to my undergrad, if it’s the fact that I paid for this first class out of pocket, or if I’m that much more mature now than I was three years ago when I graduated. Maybe it’s some combination. Maybe it’s all of the above.

What I do know is that I learned more than I expected in the past week and I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I anticipated.

Except for the goddamn papers. I still don’t want to write those.