"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Hi, librarians! I went to the Urban Librarians Conference on Friday! It was awesome! And not just because I took a day off work to attend! I hope there are many more in our future! I hope that so hard that I told Christian that my co-captain and I would host one of the discussions next time! Luddbrarian, you’re just going to have to come along!
The theme of the conference was “Living in Interesting Times,” and boy howdy do we ever. Good thing we are all interesting people, so we’re pretty well prepared for our interesting times.
The morning started off with coffee and pie. The pie was pretty good. The maple bacon, rather than regular bacon was a nice touch; as an avid cook, I do enjoy mixing sweet and savory (last night I made up some some sea salt and rosemary sugar cookies and my friends ate them up so fast!). Christian is a first rate cat herder, and got us all on task nearly on time.
After a few words from Lauren of ULU (which, by the way, is pronounced “oo-loo”), we heard from a couple NYC city council members I was previously unfamiliar with. In terms of lefty politics, I’ve mostly seen Ydonis and Jumaane around. It was a pleasure, though, to hear from Vinnie Gentile from Brooklyn and Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens. Van Bramer in particular, as he worked in a library for more than a decade and has also been active in the LGBT community. (He confessed to having taken arrests during direct action in the past, citing busting into the NYC St. Patty’s Day parade, which doesn’t allow openly gay or queer contingents; my only question when he said it was far in his past was why he hadn’t been arrested more recently. Though, to quote him, he did urge us “out of the stacks and into the streets.”) Gentile and Van Bramer are among those working from within city government to restore the $106 million that the city’s libraries are loosing from their budget, which Van Bramer called a “ridiculous budget dance.” Gentile also noted Washington, D.C.’s recent move towards having 7-day library service throughout the city, hoping we here could work towards the same. Aside from that time we tricked Ydonis into getting photographed holding an ACAB banner about a year ago, this may be the most militant thing I’ve ever seen from the city council. I approve, of course.
We then heard from Peter Bromberg of the Princeton, NJ, Public Library. He’s a funny guy in a way I totally understand. He starts with something and then it makes other things come up into his brain which need to be shared, so we get our relative position in the universe and stories of shopping for pig noses while eloping. He had a couple important points for us. First was the exponentially exponential rate of technological change going on, and with which we need to keep up. Rather than an earlier was of looking at change theory — unfreeze, change, refreeze — we are now in permanent whitewater; the best we can do it try to see what’s coming, influence how we go through it, and hold on for the ride. He says we need to flatten our organization structures (yes!), distribute decision making, and find leadership roles where we don’t actually have official authority. I bet you all know what I think about that! Second, that what we do as librarians is ultimately motivated by love. (But that at the same time we seem to give off some problem-solving pheromone that makes people with questions and problems seek us out, be it for directions on the street or looking for a mirror while trying on funny noses.) And finally, he reminded us of the importance of self-care.
After all this welcoming there was more coffee and pie. I got to talking with some of the younger librarians from NYPL, and I am happy to report that I was not the first person to say “class war.” Also, I have a new crush. These things are related.
For the first session, I went to “Influence When You Have No Power or Authority,” also led by Bromberg. I must say, this is the only part of the whole thing that underwhelmed me. There were a lot of people at this session, and precious few radicals. I was hoping for a discussion about direct (or at least direct-ish) action, assuming power without asking for permission, and thinking outside the box. I even misquoted Utah Philips. (“The state can’t give you freedom, and the state can’t take it away. You’re born with it, like your eyes, like your ears. Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free.”) Instead we mostly talked about How To Deal With Your Administration. It was after this, by the way, that I rushed up to Christian and told him we’d be hosting a session next year.
“Effective Youth Programs” with Wick Thomas from Kansas City Public Library was my second session. I don’t work in youth programing — maybe aside from trying to keep the younger people’s librarians from ending up in jail too frequently and picking them up when they do — so I was mostly there to listen and get YA book recommendations. Because I love me some YA fiction. My take-away from this was that administrations make it a little hard to have effective programming for teens and tweens (duh). Especially with how rigorous school can be and how stressful urban living sometimes is, young folks often don’t want and won’t attend highly structured programs or things that make them feel like they are just doing more school work. And you can’t really make people do things they don’t want to at the library. More playful or relaxing programs and impromptu programming may be more effective, but can be harder to sell to administrators because impromptu programming doesn’t generate tidy statistics. The other thing to be conscious of — and this goes for any programming, really — is involving members of the target demographic in planning. Ask for input and suggestions, have young people in planning and advisory positions.
The librarians recommended the following YA authors to me: Cory Doctorow, Kristin Cashore, and Dan Wells.
My third session was “School and Public Library Partnerships,” with Rebecca Lubin, Kyle Luckoff, and Sarah Murphy. (I admit that I went to this mostly because Kyle and I [who recognized each other from an obscure part of the internet and a couple IRL near-misses] got to talking after the second session and kept it up on the way to the third and then all the way to the bar afterward.) We learned that “databases are not sexy,” in case anyone was laboring under that false assumption. There was a general hopelessness coming from both school and public librarians here about how well they have been working together so far. It seems to me, as an outsider, is that both groups are overworked and so don’t really have time or energy to pay attention to each other. Especially when both are working in large, sprawling, bureaucratic urban systems with limited, shrinking, and poorly-distributed resources. (I’m looking at you, NYC. I think this is the part of the blog post where I start cursing at neo-liberalism.) HOWEVER. I also heard pretty much the best idea ever at this session. Any teacher or librarian who is teaching information literacy and research skills, you need this idea — updating and correcting Wikipedia! The students work on correcting Wikipedia articles! They see how Wikipedia does and doesn’t work, Wikipedia gets better, they learn to use a wiki, they have to do “real” research to do it…. You’re welcome.
And then we had cake.
And then we went to the bar. In this case, the bar was Bar Sepia, on Underhill Avenue; I’d never been there, even though it’s pretty close to my hood. The G&Ts were cheap and good — it was a beautiful day out, my first G&T day of the year — so I’ll probably go back, especially since happy hour means they were some of the cheapest G&Ts I’ve had in NYC that didn’t get made in my kitchen. All you professional and academic conference goers know this is the most important part, the post-conference drinks. You catch the ear of all the interesting fellow travelers you passed during the day and you can talk about whatever it was you didn’t get to talk about earlier. Make connections, find allies and neighbors, plot vast grand ideas. We lot who found ourselves at a long table in the back slowly realized that several of us recognized each other from various digital and meat-space locales, had friends in common, and live or had lived quite nearby each other. (Seriously, has every queer in Brooklyn lived on Quincy Street at some point?) I think there’s big things a-brewing among the young, fabulous, and radical librarians of New York City.
Oh, and, all those stereotypes about librarians? Not the sweaters and cats stereotypes, the other ones. Those. Turns out it’s all true.
ETA: Here’s the SLJ writeup.