Date Archives October 2017

To Criticize, To Hope, and To Library

I've been struck by something on library Twitter recently. I doubt that anything has changed, but i seem to be noticing this more and wanted to dig deeper into my response to it. What I'm seeing is a lot of "either for us or against us" response to criticism of libraries. A lot of what I'm seeing is good push back, I'm certainly not arguing against the content of what people are saying. Instead, what I want to do is to look at criticism of and in libraries and see if there is something to learn in the general reaction, as opposed to simply choosing a side or deciding who is right and who is wrong. 

This is coming from a place of self-contemplation. At my intersections of gender, race, class, and other demographics I'm learning how to examine my initial emotional responses to external criticism and temper my defensiveness with listening. For example, when friends post online "Men are awful!" or something to that effect, instead of responding "YOU'RE WRONG! I'm not awful."  I've been taught to listen to the complaint and to try not to be awful. When this happens, above all, don't say #notallmen.

Maybe because I've been paying more attention to how I respond when groups I belong to are publicly criticized, I've seen that when libraries and librarianship are criticized, our first responses aren't quite what they could be. So there are three examples of criticism of libraries and librarians that showcase our response. Again, my point in writing this is not to determine who is right and who is wrong, but instead, I want to figure out how can we best respond to criticism.

@theangriestlibrarian's excellent rant to an uninformed library critic

(librarians) are so convinced that we must defend libraries against threats that we are defending libraries against improvement

In this lovely rant, @HalpernAlex takes down someone who suggests that libraries are no longer needed, or at least are no longer the most efficient way to provide the public with access to information. I have zero criticisms of the rant; I think that it's is accurate. What I'm worried about is that we, as a profession, are more interested in preserving libraries as institutions than we are in fulfilling the mission of libraries. When we see bad ideas about replacing libraries, whether it's this one (give the books to schools and close the buildings) or others (buy everyone Kindle Unlimited and stop funding libraries or academic libraries are vanity project that have already been replaced with smartphones) we (myself included) gleefully dogpile on the poor benighted fools who dare question the invaluable contributions of our vocation to the public good. My question is this: when librarians face a choice between libraries and something new that more efficiently serves our mission, how will we respond? Part of me worries that it will be with torches and pitchforks.

At least, this is what I'm afraid of. I'm afraid that we (librarians) are so convinced that we must defend libraries against threats that we are defending libraries against improvement.[1]Though, obviously in this case, just dumping books in schools and closing libraries is the opposite of improvement.

@rdlankes' tweet about a continuum of library quality and @lisalibrarian (& others)  response to this.

I'm really intrigued by this exchange. There are two good (and not mutually exclusive, in my view) arguments being made here. One: some libraries do bad work or at very least, bad libraries are the result of bad library work. The other: referring to library work as bad in public forums is disrespectful of library workers. So what do we do about libraries that fail in some aspect of their work?

The first example that comes to mind is the Florida librarian who broke the law and patron privacy ethics by calling the FBI to report on suspected library usage by 9/11 perpetrators.  If that is too ambiguous an example, nina de jesus' article Locating the Library In Institutional Oppression and Cheryl Knott's book Not Free, Not For All: Public libraries in the age of Jim Crow provide undeniable examples of not just bad libraries and bad librarianship, but libraries (the concept writ large) in the service of oppression.

if good library work is our goal, positive and nurturing conversation is more likely to achieve it than running down and disrespecting our colleagues

So I guess I'm taking a position here. I'm against the unwritten rule that orders librarians not to tell the truth about bad library work. On the other hand, I'm on board with the argument that says if good library work is our goal, positive and nurturing conversation is more likely to achieve it than running down and disrespecting our colleagues. As a personal rule, I try to talk about bad libraries and bad library work, but not bad librarianship or bad librarians. Failing this, if I'm talking about bad librarianship, it's best to assume I'm talking about myself. We'll see in the next example that I don't always follow my rule here, but similar to the first example there's a tension between telling the truth about library work and providing a consistent narrative most likely to lead to better library work in the future.

My tweets about bad library instruction and the responses to them.

I wrote some tweets earlier this month about bad library instruction and my response to it. There was more engagement with these thoughts than there is with most of what I write, so I appear to have struck a nerve with others. However, it wasn't the same nerve that I had struck in myself. Reading how others responded to what I wrote, I saw a lot of people concerned about their own library instruction being seen as shit. I was more concerned with interacting with the course instructors--what do we do when then inevitable bad day of instruction happens? How do we safe-guard instruction programs from instances of low-quality work? I know that author intent theory is dead and what I intended is not more important that what the readers perceived, but it was hard to see the thread of conversation get away from me.

It was especially hard because my casual use of profanity and the scatological metaphor [2]I'm sure this reads as pompous, but it was SO MUCH FUN to type that I'm leaving it in. only amplified the disconnect. When instruction librarians are fighting for the time, respect, and resources we need to succeed, it must have felt awful to have another librarian say that our work is shit.[3]I wasn't trying to say that at all, but that's really beside the point. Swearing about librarianship helps me, as a professional practitioner, to shed rose-colored glasses I have to wear at work. There are a lot of contexts in which I rightfully treat librarianship as holy. These make it necessary to have a space where I can blaspheme with critical thought. Otherwise I'll have no choice but to believe my own marketing copy and drink the Kool-Aid. When we're shifting perspectives or code-switching, hyperbole, profanity, and blasphemy can be contextually confusing. I'm confused as well. I still strongly believe that the library instruction I was writing about was undeniably shitty and that talking about shitty library instruction is a first step towards making better library instruction. Yet by not making my criticism general enough or impersonal enough [4]I really don't think it matters if original  example was someone bad at their job or just someone having the inevitable bad day. I appear to have disrespected my colleagues and caused pain.

So What Do We Do About Criticism?

What do we do about criticism? We accept it. We listen to it. We don't have to agree with it or obey it, but we should hear it. Librarians should strive to hear criticism of our profession without treating it as a personal attack. Library critics (myself included) should strive to hear the push back that tells us overly mean criticism tears down rather than building up. Criticism is a means to an end and that end is the public good, the good of the people who use libraries. The end we are pursuing is not the good of libraries or librarians, it is the mission of libraries.

We embrace criticism and we pursue to provide better criticism. We seek out criticism that provides hope for better libraries to come. I don't have a better example of this than a talk given by Eli Neiberger in 2010.  Neiberger tell us that libraries are screwed, explains why, and then gives us reason for hope and a vision for services that better meet the information needs of our communities. For me, this is the platonic ideal of how do provide criticism. I worry that if we're not able to hear that libraries are screwed, if we're not able to hear that there are bad libraries out there or that if we make bad choices, we get bad libraries, and if we're not able to hear that some library instruction is shitty, then we're not able to avoid these fates.


There's no intrinsic value in making us feel bad about libraries. There's nothing to be gained in nihilism or in being a pretentious know-it-all who looks smart by correctly predicting that there is no hope. However, the path towards hope, the path towards a better future, the path towards better libraries goes through criticism, not around it.

Vocational Awe: A concept that helps us go forward here

Finally, I want to refer to someone else's words and thoughts that do a better job of describing the dangers I'm trying to write about. Fobazi Ettarh wrote a great piece on Vocational Awe I strongly encourage y'all to read it. I've pulled two key passages here to explain the term vocational awe:

As we were brainstorming, I mentioned that I was interested in deconstructing this idea of vocational awe in librarianship. I saw the concept as the root of a lot of problems within librarianship, especially in creating a work/life balance and in larger critiques of the field. ~Fobazi Ettarh


So what exactly is “vocational awe?” Well simply put, it is the idea that libraries as institutions are inherently good. It assumes that some or all core aspects of the profession are beyond critique, and it, in turn, underpins many librarians’ sense of identity and emotional investment in the profession. The closest that Sveta found to a similar concept was occupational mythology in the journalism world.

My fear is that we (librarians) feel so much protective love for our work and our patrons and we feel so much justified fear that changing attitudes towards funding the public good and changing information technologies will undermine and destroy libraries; we feel this so much that we lash out against all criticism, even the criticism we need in order to have hope for a better future. Vocational awe is a thing that keeps us from building better libraries because we are afraid of listening to criticism. Vocational awe is what makes us define program assessment as "making the library look good to the administration so they don't cut our funding" instead of as a practical tool to doing our work better. We can do better.


Here's the hope I have to offer. No matter how real the threats we face are, our cause is just. We can wrap ourselves in the confidence that when we teach people to find and use quality information, we are improving their lives. When we help kids learn to love literature, stories, and information we are making their futures brighter. When we library[5]That's right, a library isn't a book warehouse, library is a verb!, we are doing the good work. This confidence is well-founded and it can replace vocational awe. We don't have to be afraid of criticizing the library that we love, because we know that the library is unquestionably lovable. We don't have to shy away from ugly truths about the shifting foundations beneath our feet, because our mission is clear.

We're going to have to face a lot more ugly truths about the future need for today's library services. We're going to have to confront the ways in which our library structures prop up oppressive structures in society. We're going to have to face the unpleasantness of learning that some of the ways in which we library are misguided. We are wrong about a lot of our thinking about libraries. That's where the hope is. We can do better. We can find new ways to library that aren't shit. We can find new ways to library that don't exclude the marginalized. We can find new ways to library that continue to meet the changing information needs of our service populations. As long as people need information, librarians need to library.


Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Fobazi Ettarh's name. My sincere apologies for being careless.


1 Though, obviously in this case, just dumping books in schools and closing libraries is the opposite of improvement.
2 I'm sure this reads as pompous, but it was SO MUCH FUN to type that I'm leaving it in.
3 I wasn't trying to say that at all, but that's really beside the point.
4 I really don't think it matters if original  example was someone bad at their job or just someone having the inevitable bad day.
5 That's right, a library isn't a book warehouse, library is a verb!

What is Nicholas Doing?

Photo on 10-10-17 at 11.53 AM
What is Nicholas doing?

Today I have an opportunity to talk to my WSU library faculty colleagues about what I'm doing, now that I'm working outside of the library. Organizing my thoughts on how to update them <waves at WSU librarians> seems like a fitting context to also fill the rest of you in on what I'm currently doing at work. <Waves at everyone else.>

At WSU, library faculty divide their work into three categories

  • Category One is our librarian work: primary job responsibilities
  • Category Two is our research
  • Category Three is our service to the library, university, profession, and community

The most significant changes occur with my Category One work. In the past, the work included reference and instruction, systems work, collection development, and liaison work. [1] Now this work includes acting as the Assistant Director of the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) and also working with the Electronic Literature Archive (ELA) at WSU Vancouver. Here we are working to archive and provide access to early (pre-web) works of electronic literature. We are starting with the collections of early scholars of electronic literature and expanding our collections to allow electronic literature artists to archive their work with us. We are also expanding to host the archives of other scholarly organizations with similar missions to ours such as Turbulence and the trAce writing centre. Current projects w/ ELL include pursuing grant funding to help us migrate our catalog to the Samvera platform, hosting a series of events including traversals of early e-lit works, hosting a Wikipedia edit-a-thon to improve the public documentation of e-lit works and artists, and publishing our work. Dr. Dene Grigar, the director of ELL, and I have been writing a paper: Documenting Multi-Dimensional Works.  We have also put in a proposal to bring our work engaging undergraduates in the archive to the upcoming INKE meeting.

This summer, Dr. Grigar and I will be teaching a course at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on the preservation of born-digital works. Our course focuses on preserving works through documentation. We'll walk our students (DH faculty, librarians and archivists, and graduate students) through the pathfinder methodology and

I am also working as the ELO Coordinator for the scholarly society Electronic Literature Organization (ELO). I'm working with the directors to keep the organization and it's annual conference running efficiently and effectively. Currently we are planning the 2018 ELO Conference in Montreal Canada. I am also, through the ELO and the Electronic Literature Archive (ELA-an ELO project) working to earn a certification from the Society of American Archivists as a Digital Archives Specialist. I'm also working with ELA to help implement the CELL taxonomy of electronic literature to help unite the literature and increase access to the field.

Finally, I am continuing to teach DTC 356: Information Structures a three credit course in search, organization, and finding information. Over the course of the semester my students and I move from organizing physical information artifacts, to organizing digitally in databases and then moving on the the particular contemporary challenges of organizing information at web-scale with particular focus on search engines, search engine optimization, and semantic markup of web content for increased search engine visibility.

How I Work: Fall 2017 Update

How I Work

When I did this before, back in 2014, I wrote:

I mostly work experimentally. I change operating systems, app environments, and the media or modes I work in frequently. I work through exploring  new methods and being distracted by shiny new tools or workflows. While this suits my temperament, it also means I spend a lot of time learning and adopting new systems and a lot less time enjoying the efficiencies of one evolved and perfected routine.

Yeah. That still holds true. Since then, enough has changed that it's worth revisiting the How I Work concept and updating it. I'm also hoping that as I reflect on the tools I'm using that I'll make some additional changes as well.

Location: Portland, OR (ish) Live in Tualatin, OR work in Vancouver, WA

Current gig: Faculty with Creative Media and Digital Culture program, Archivist and co-director of ELA archive, Coordinator for Electronic Literature Organization
Systems and Instruction Librarian

Current mobile device:

Phone: iPhone 7 plus. This is my first iPhone and OH MY GOD DO I LOVE IT SO! I've used Android phones since the G1 came out, but I've never really owned a flagship phone. The big form factor iPhone is almost a laptop replacement and I can't live without it

Tablet: iPad Air 2; now that I'm using the big iPhone, the iPad has been reduced to a media-viewing screen. This has changed my workflow significantly. I no long write student feedback w/ a stylus on the screen; I do my grading on the laptop now.

Current computer:

Work: Macbook Pro 15” from mid-2014. This is likely due for replacement soon, but I love it so much I may try to hang on to it for another year.

Home: My 2016 birthday gift from Natalie was a new gaming machine (Thanks, Natalie!). Before this I'd always built my own rigs and the one I'd been using had been in an incremental upgrade since 2004. The current unit has an Intel i5-6500 processor, NVIDIA GTX 1060 6gb video card and I do love it so. It's a treat to be able to run new games at playable framerates and I promise I'll never take it for granted again.

One word that best describes how you work: Experimental (This is still true. I'd also clarify that I work in fits and starts and that mode is increasingly difficult to maintain as years go by. I'm MUCH more dependant on schedules and calendars than I once was. I don't know if this is due to reduced neuro-placticity in my aging brain or if I was just an unreformed man-child for an unconscionably long period of time.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

(These tools work on multiple operating systems and platforms, unless indicated.)

Airmail & Calendars 5: OH MY GODDESSES AND GODS I'm so happy that I can ditch the Outlook/Exchange environment. I currently use Airmail 3 as my mail app on iOS and OSX. I love it unreservedly. It works very smoothly with the inbox zero email method and has made me much more efficient. I also use Calenders 5 on iOS and the default calendar apps on iOS and Windows 10. I haven't had a calendar app I love since Sunset was bought out by Microsoft.

Outlook/Exchange: Work requires me to use the Exchange environment for calendaring and mail. My calendar is the most important tool of my work environment, so despite personal preferences to the contrary I’ve built my workflow in Microsoft’s platforms. Sadly, this means moving from a linux environment back to Windows. Happily, Apple’s mail and calendar apps play nicely w/ Exchange servers so I’m not forced into a complete computing monoculture.

DropboxI've used every cloud storage solution out there and Dropbox is the one I'm willing to keep paying for. Box, OneDrive, and Google Drive all have selling points, but Dropbox just works. I'll give the caveat that my most frequent collaborators work in Dropbox and if they chose Box or one of the others, I'd likely follow them for convenience's sake. Still, I'm happy that I'm using the one that's most convenient. (Dropbox would be perfect if it had a built-in embed code generator like OneDrive does.) I still use the Synology NAS for my backups, but I don't rely on it to serve up cloud storage any more.

Synology Cloud Station: I work on a number of devices, so all of my files have to be accessible remotely. The most valuable tool I have for this is my home Synology NAS and their Cloudstation app. This allows me to access and edit all of my files from any machine, tablet, or phone, which enables me to work in many places. Thank you Synology!

LastPass: This is unchanged from before, what was written then is still true. Hands-down, my most frequently used and least-complained-about service. This allows me secure access to passwords, account information, notes, and bookmarks (using their XMarks product) on all my devices.

Acrobat Pro: It may be that the Apple Pencil is a killer peripheral for handwriting on tablets, but I've given up for the time being. Bluetooth styli were an order of magnitude better than capacative styli, but I've decided that annotating PDFs in Acrobat Pro using a keyboard is faster and easier than writing. (This opinion is subject to change with my access to new technology.)

Notability (iOS): Being able to hand-annotate articles, student essays, and meeting notes on a tablet is the KILLER APP for tablets in higher ed. So the Notability app is paired with a TruGlide fiber-tipped stylus, although I’m eager to try one of the active styli that will work with the new iPad.

Zotero: This is also unchanged from before. I still can’t imagine doing research without it.

Keynote: Keynote is best. Slides in the browser is cool and interesting, but keynote is faster, easier to edit, and much, much easier to use when collaborating. iCloud and Keynote live are worthwhile improvements in slide deck technology. I use the WordPress plugin Embed Any Document Plus to embed PDFs of my Keynote decks in my class site.

reveal.js: In class, I need visuals in the form of a slide deck. reveal.js allows me to do class lecture slides in a way that doesn’t piss me off like PPT does and is web accessible without a slideshare-like service acting as an intermediary. I don’t mind Keynote, but reveals.js is fun and more useful.           

What’s your workspace like?

This is largely unchanged. I share space with others now, so I'm more mindful of my mess and being a good partner in shared space. I find that I miss the white board. I also find that my documents are a bit messy again. I have stuff in Google Drive, two different instances of OneDrive, my Synology CloudDrive, and now Dropbox. I'm steadily migrating everything to Dropbox, so it is getting better. I was also able to move a decade of old files into zArchive folders (the z puts them at the bottom of alphabetized lists) and that is amazingly freeing.

I LOVE my standing desk. It makes a ton of difference in my physical comfort and health in the office. Besides that, I need a lot of desk space that I can clear off and use for projects. I also have a big dry-erase board for planning and process-mapping.

My space is messy and paper still gets stuck and collects in messy piles, but most of my workspace is digital now and thanks to Cloud Station, that is clean, orderly and accessible. The physical space, however, is crowded with accumulated cruft that semi-annually is either recycled or jammed into file cabinets.

What’s your best time-saving trick?

OneNote: almost everything I said about Evernote is true for OneNote. I grudgingly moved over at the request of MPOW, but what do you know, it works better. At some point I'm going to have to deal w/ using separate tools for notes and documents and address how there really isn't a difference between notes and documents, but until them I'll be using OneNote.

Evernote is about cataloging as much as it’s about note taking. I can throw lots of stuff into it, and as long as I tag it promiscuously, I can find it again later. You may notice that I work in a number of partially overlapping tools on a number of computers and devices. Evernote is a way for me to grab or create content where I am and know that I can find it when I need it, whenever and wherever that is. The tipping point for me was realizing that Evernote is a cataloging tool, not a note-taking tool.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

Todoist works with my mail client (Airmail) and integrates well with IFTTT and  Google Calendar. This is a tool I'm happy to pay for, because it is what keeps me on track and helps me manage long-term projects. I know others have good relationships with different to-do list aps, but I dig Todoist.

I’ve worked with Remember the Milk for a long time. I appreciate how it is accessible from many platforms and it just seems to work with the way my brain organizes tasks and priorities. That said, I’m currently struggling with some productivity and workflow efficiency issues, so I’m going to follow the lead of a couple of sage colleagues and try HabitRPG for a while. I won’t be cancelling my premium subscription to RTM just yet, though.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?

I wear a Garmin VivoSmartHR fitness tracker and it has become a part of my life. The main appeal is the optical HR tracking. I struggle w/ AFIB (a heart-rate condition) and this watch can help me catch when my heart beat goes out of rhythm. Beyond that, it does just enough "smart" activities not to be distracting. Perhaps I'll upgrade to a new VivoActive 3 soon or even an Apple Watch, but for now this keeps me happy.

My Motorola Motoactv watch. I’ve little interest in the current generation of Android Wear devices, but this first generation smart watch does exactly what I need it to. The MotoActv is a GPS tracker and heart rate monitor for exercising. It has just enough battery life to work as a step-counter (Fitbit) and as a good-old-fashioned wrist watch. It pairs with both ANT+ and BLE heart rate sensors and with bluetooth or wired headphones. I don’t need it to extend my phone, but it does what’s it’s designed to do better than any phone app or dedicated GPS watch I’ve tried.

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?

My superpower is making useful thematic connections between seemingly unconnected things. I’m able to see how items are related and how systems work on similar principles more quickly than other around me.

What are you currently reading?

If I'm honest, I'm probably reading Reddit threads or Twitter right now. Otherwise I'm listening to and re-reading the Song of Ice and Fire novels. I have a ton of books on my to be read shelf, but I'm not reading them at the moment.

What do you listen to while you work?

(I'm leaving this bit intact. Recently I've been listening to Kesha's Rainbow, which is a much better album than I expected,  Solange's A Seat at the Table, and Jay-Z's 4:44. I'm a little obsessed with those last two albums and Lemonade and the circumstances that brought them together.) I listen to audiobooks A LOT. They make up the bulk of my listening, usually three hours at day. However, when I’m working I need something without recognizable words so I like chillout electronica like Supreme Beings of Leisure, Thievery Corporation, and Air or also Icelandic music like Mum, Sigur Ros, or Jonsi. I recently switched to Spotify, so I’m also exploring as many new directions as I can find. Send me your suggestions! (Please and thank you.)

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

(This hasn't changed. Since I've moved out of the library I've realized that non-library circles are a LOT less introvert-friendly.) Almost all of the time, I’m an introvert. However, in certain classroom or conference settings I magically transform into someone who loves being the center of attention. At a party or a social event I’m a wallflower, but I’m happily gregarious when asked to moderate a panel or teach a class.

What’s your sleep routine like?

Sleep may be the one things I’m best at. I use a CPAP machine, but I’m asleep by 11 PM most nights and up before six AM most days. I generally get enough sleep, but I really wish I was able to sleep later on weekends and catch up.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see ______ answer these same questions.

I've already inflicted my request on others, so I won't turn this into a chain letter. Again. Becky Yoose and Bohyun Kim

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

(This remains unchanged. Thanks, Coach Jim.) When I was a college athlete, I was struggling with burnout. I had sacrificed a lot to my training and repeated injuries were making it hard to keep putting in the hours and the miles with very little to show for my work except another injury. Anyway, I was angry and rebellious. I started smoking cigarettes. My coach gave me a talking to that I've never forgotten. A rough paraphrase of that conversation:

"Of all the vices you can try: drugs, drinking, sex, or smoking; cigarettes have the biggest penalty for the smallest reward. I'm not saying you have to be a saint, but don't be stupid about how you rebel." {imagine a Mark Harmon style headslap here.}

I was a fairly straight-edged kid, but I took those words to heart. Even today I'm easily swayed by my passions and my emotions, but when I remember that advice I'm much more likely to make a considered choice instead of impulsively lashing out at the universe or myself.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The process of articulating how I do my work is a useful tool for refining and evaluating how I do things. I recommend trying this yourself as an interesting and useful mindful-about-work-practices exercise.