Ask a Librarian: How to engage a community with limited volunteer hours?

cover image from linked document saying "Principles of Community Engagement, second edition"

From the email box: One of my book followers is doing something very brave for her, volunteering at her branch library. It’s a little branch with a lady running it, who is something out of the 1950’s  —  and not in a good way. It’s quiet. It’s serious. And it’s falling apart without any new visitors at all. So, this lady is asking her new one-day-a-week volunteer to “do something” to get new people to come into the library.

I’ve been giving my friend lots of ideas, based on what I see at my own very vibrant branch library – including mothers’ clubs, reading hours and clubs, tech training, etc. But I wonder if you are aware of some source of inspiration to help library workers that are very low on the ladder, yet eager to invite new energy to a branch? Maybe you have a clever list of the easiest and most successful types of library programs? What seeds can they plant and how often should they be watered?

I think that is a good idea. First off: Five Minute Librarian is made for your friend

But this IS what a librarian does – the rhetorical value of being a librarian

Marjorie Barnard (1897-1987) was an Australian writer, historian and librarian.

It doesn’t matter what we look like, what matters is what we do.

You may have seen the news, my small claims case against Equifax was mostly successful. This delights me. Mostly because the whole campaign was effective at what I set out to do: raise awareness about online privacy, data brokers, your right to access the court system and seek a redress of grievances, and generally help people understand the world of interconnected systems that we exist within whether we want to or not, whether we opt in or not.

And, for various reasons, the fact that I am a librarian always made it into the headlines:

Which, hey, if that gets people to read it, I guess it’s fine. But I found myself talking to reporters a little about what I actually do for a job and when the answer wasn’t “I work in this adorable little rural library.” they seemed disappointed. I admit, my patchwork of freelance gigs can be confusing. Currently I teach at UH Manoa’s library school, write for Computers in Libraries, do public speaking particularly on online privacy issues, run my local drop-in time, and volunteer as the tech coordinator for the Vermont Library Association. These are all solid librarian jobs. But for people whose views of librarianship are limited, the idea of a librarian without a library just does not compute.

So, that is what I have been working on. Explaining that this campaign against Equifax is actually exactly what librarian-types do: help people understand complex systems, encourage people to be civically engaged, remove some of the misinformation about online privacy, and most of all teach people that there is something that they can DO. Most of us don’t stop being librarians when we leave the buildings where we work. More people should know that.

Back at my Vermont 183 project

google map showing a meandering visit to seven different libraries

It’s been a while since I talked about my library visiting in earnest. Vermont has a 251 Club, a pretty informal group who have the aim to visit all of Vermont’s 251 towns. I love the idea (I’ve been to all the towns, now going back to photograph them) and have extended it to libraries. The Passport to Vermont’s Libraries project that VLA did for three years was basically an outgrowth of this. But now it’s just me and my list and map and car.

Yesterday I gave my Practical Privacy talk in Richmond Vermont (pop. 4000-ish) and had the day free beforehand. I figured I’d go for a drive. I started with VLA’s map of all the public libraries in the state, then used a new tool I’d just made, a list of all the public library websites in the state. From there I made a list of which libraries would actually be OPEN (this is more challenging than it might seem in a library where some libraries are only open 14 hours) and charted my course. I managed to see seven libraries in one long day, had two meals with interesting women–Mary the director of Fletcher Free, and Julie a techie powerhouse who does coding and coaching and public speaking–and gave my talk in the big upstairs room of the Richmond library which had previously been both a church and a basketball court. Here’s where I went.

  • Warren Public with its beautiful giant tree painted in the children’s section
  • Joslin Library in Waistfield was a quiet Carnegie-esque building where I caught up on email
  • Carpenter-Carse Library in Hinesburg where my neighbor’s Mom (who I had just met on Memorial Day) had recently retired and they’d named the Large Print section after her.
  • Charlotte Library where I got a tour from Margaret the director and we schemed about ways to make the VLA website better and more useful
  • New Haven Community Library where I watched a kid watch a woman on YouTube talk about Taco Bell for 15 minutes
  • Lawrence Memorial Library in Bristol where I met Nancy and she let me go up to the creepy attic, a place she’d never seen even though she’d worked there for 27 years.
  • Richmond Library where I talked about internet privacy for two hours to an attentive audience

I peeked in a lot of old books, talked to a bunch of nice people, stayed on top of my email and really felt like I’d gotten to know more of Vermont through its libraries. And it gets me jazzed about figuring out ways I can do more things that are helpful, that use my particular skills to get things done for libraries. My little photoset, which should eventually have 183 photos, is over on Flickr.

end paper of a book showing lake Champlain with a checkout card stuck on top of it

Ask a Librarian: File management

old files in leather bindings on a shelf

A funny thing happened on the way to this blog post.

From a local librarian:I get to take over the duties of someone very beloved by patrons who recently left us and this includes computer help. I’m trying to create a repository of ‘self-help’ documents both for staff who often need it and for patrons to take home with them when we do something like set up an email address and they need the steps repeated. I’d rather not reinvent the wheel… it occurred to me that maybe you already have some that you can share? If not, can you provide me some pointers on what to include?

I’m also charged with cleaning up the staff file system on our server and coming up with good practices for file naming, document organization, and teaching our staff how to do it…. I’m hoping you know of some examples of local libraries with excellent file management in place or a set of best practices somewhere so I can give more models of what I’m trying to fix. Where might I find something like this?

Those sound like challenging tasks. I am happy to help as I can. Some of it is really going to be moving people to a “digital readiness” place where they feel deputized to do some of this themselves and that is challenging and needs to be as much an emotional task as a physical one. Lots of positive “you can do it” feedback and lots of “ok let’s try this again….” sorts of stuff, patience, etc. Trying to view improvement as improvement, even if it’s ever-so-slight as opposed to “Man, this is just a MESS.” I know I’m not telling you things you don’t know, but I have found that if I reframe some of the “work” as just being supportive and patient, I can feel better about what I do manage to get done.

I’m not sure I have those documents in print, though I have a few that are a little outdated. I often dig around in the NYPL Tech Connect site to look for handouts.

Usually the biggest thing is making sure they know

  • How to go to a URL, any URL
  • WHAT THEIR LOGIN AND PASSWORD IS (sorry to shout but my gosh this one is harder than it should be – I send them home with it written down, privacy be damned)
  • How to troubleshoot if the two things above don’t work

I don’t know a lot about how libraries manage their files but as someone who is basically organized, I usually tell people a few things

  • Make sure whatever system is in place, it works from all computers basically the same (i.e. make sure there’s a shortcut on the desktop or something from every staff computer)
  • Make sure people either can search for stuff (the Google way) or can understand the file/folder system (the librarian way) pretty effectively
  • I’m a big folder fan, putting things either in thematic folders (summer reading, trustee minutes, etc) and then inside those by date, or doing something like file types (images, PDFs, word documents) and going from that. Depends on what people are expecting and how much work they are willing to do on this.
  • Think about whether an offboard solution like Dropbox would be simpler. Doesn’t work for everyone but they have some “version
    control” types of things that can be helpful sometimes

This would be a great question for the VTLIBRARIES list. Happy to be a continuing help with this, I know it’s a process and not a one and done deal.

Ask A Librarian: Tips for Avoiding Online Banking?

banknotes at eh Ottoman Bank Museum
Live porn
Context: I wrote a column for Computers in Libraries magazine about practical technology tips. Here is an email from a reader.

Your December 2017 column, “Money Matters” doesn’t seem to contain any information that would advise or reassure a person who, like me, avoids online banking because she is, frankly, somewhat paranoid about identity theft. As you yourself point out, I’m not the only one who worries about that. Would you consider writing a column that specifically addressed those concerns?
live cam
That is not a column I am likely to be writing. Not because I’m not interested in the topic, but because ultimately my column is a tech column and the solutions to not using online banking often involve offline stuff. Which is good! But at the same time, as much as I respect your own personal choice to not use online banking, I feel that it’s not the weak point in the complex system of electronic transactions that permeate our life nowadays. I feel like those are more like

  • debit cards which get stolen with alarming regularity and are used, sold, and traded
  • non chip-and-pin credit cards though most banks have done away with those
  • social engineering to obtain access to bank accounts through phone banking.

While it’s totally true that not having online banking can limit some of the access points, I sometimes feel that having and securely locking down ones online banking (using something like two-factor authentication, a good long password, and not logging in from anywhere other than a home computer) is actually safer than not having it and risking someone else potentially activating it.

All of this is not to try to sway you from your position which is yours and, as I said, I respect everyone’s agency to make the personal choices that work for them. At the same time, a lot of what I do is to slowly nudge people to make better and more secure choices that allow them to use technology, even as I acknowledge that they may choose, ultimately, not to.