Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Why Don't They (Just) ____?: Dropping "Just" and Seeking to Understand

Asking As A Parent

With two school-age children of my own, I have often heard complaints among parents in the vein of "Why don't they just ____?," where "they" are the school, the teacher, the principal, etc. I myself have been guilty of these exasperations:
  • Why don't they just email us this information? 
  • Why don't they just put this on the school website? 
  • Why don't they just print this for us?
Working in a public school, though, I realize that the answers are often not so simple. It's not always a matter of "just."

Why don't they email? Probably time. Teachers don't have a whole marketing or communications department on their side. It is just them, doing it all, and chances are high that it's all alone and on top of all of their other core responsibilities.

Why don't they put this on the website? It could be time (see above). It could be that the school's web host was down. It could be a matter of who has editing access and if that person is available (see above regarding time).

Why don't they print out this form or that packet? It could be time (see above). There may be no paper allowance available or the toner is out and there is no budget for more. Or, the machine could be broken... yet again.

Is there room for improvement and should educators strive to improve? Of course! Always! But, as a parent, I try to regularly replace "just" with a little understanding.

Asking As An Educator

Parents aren't the only ones guilty of asking "just" questions. Working at a school, I will hear staff members similarly question, "Why don't they just ____?" about students and parents. For instance, while managing Chromebooks for our district's 1:1 implementation, questions arise such as the following:
  • Why don't they just charge their Chromebook at night?
  • Why don't they just write a better explanation about how they broke their Chromebook?
  • Why don't they just buy Chromebook insurance on the website?
Over the past four years of helping with Chromebooks, though, I have encountered circumstances that convince me that it is similarly not always a matter of "just." In fact, my recent experience with a parent crystallized this for me.

To provide some context, managing Chromebooks is a lot of work. Helping students and parents with Chromebook insurance is just one element of management and it alone causes extra work at the beginning of the school year while the purchasing window is open. The recommended method for families to purchase insurance is online; but, even with this self-service process, parents often call or email for help figuring out what information they should enter on the online form.

Why don't they know what to put on the form? Obviously, they don't live and breathe Chromebooks like those of us who manage them, and so it makes sense. It's tedious, but it is understandable.

If families don't use the online option, there's another layer of frustration since the paper form process causes an extra burden of work. We must still help with figuring out what information should be entered on the paper form. In addition, we must make copies of forms for the parent and the school, add notes to our online circulation system, package and mail forms and checks to the district, and double-check that submissions have been received and processed. So...

Why don't they buy Chromebook insurance on the website? Some families may not have wifi access at home. Some families may not have the ability to make online payments. Or, my recent experience opened my eyes to another reason I had not considered.

Asking Because Of A Parent

It started off with a phone call from the front office. There was a parent who wanted to purchase insurance and needed help. It was after my official workday was over and I was tired out, but I took a deep breath and explained the process and the fact that payment needed to be made by check. The parent did not have their checkbook with them and so we resolved to connect the next day.

By the end of the next day, I had long forgotten about the parent until the library door opened and in they walked with a checkbook in hand. Spotting the checkbook, I knew right away why they were there and so I went to get the paper insurance form and printout with the student's Chromebook information that I had set aside the day before due to the phone call.

I handed the paperwork to the parent and then they leaned in and whispered, "I can't read or write." It must have been clear that the words didn't fully register with me upon the first utterance and so they repeated, "I can't read or write."

Why didn't they buy Chromebook insurance on the website? Because they're illiterate.

After processing what this meant in terms of completing the transaction, I quickly shifted gears to help fill out as many of the paper form fields as possible, all while explaining what I was writing: Chromebook model, serial number, and so forth. For fields that required personal information, the parent was able to write in the basics that they've surely mastered to memory over the years.

The point that really made me pause, though, was when it came to the parent writing a check for payment. I pointed out the payee so that they could copy it. I confirmed which plan they wanted and specified the corresponding payment amount required. They wrote the numbers in the box on the check, and then they unfolded a scrap of paper from their wallet with a handwritten reference chart for how to write out numbers in word form: twenty, thirty, forty, etc.

The parent found the words that matched with the corresponding numbers and then copied them to the check. They clearly had their system to navigate through the world, and any previous feelings of impatience I had slunk away. 

I finished up the transaction with the parent and wrote down my contact information in case they had any further questions. Of course, now it is my own questions that keep bubbling up.
  • How did the parent learn about the option to purchase insurance? It sounded like the child had perhaps told them. Although, the parent also mentioned that their child is "not always the most responsible" and so it is necessary to remind them about things a lot.
  • How challenging might it be to rely on a child for decoding the written world while still parenting that child?
  • How many times do I not consider barriers to entry that may exist? As often as they are outside of my own experience. In this case, it took the parent making themself vulnerable to expand my awareness.
As I filed away a copy of the insurance registration paper form, I noted the two sets of handwriting: mine and that of the parent. When it came to filling out the form, I was helping them. But, as I picture the juxtaposition, I am left thinking of how the parent helped me. 

They reminded me about the importance of striking "just" from my questions and truly pausing to ask, "Why don't they ____?" 

If I am open to the full explanations for these questions, then perhaps I can make changes so that "they will ____." Or, in the least, I might at least understand why not.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Managing Chromebooks and the Stories of Our Stuff

At the school where I work as a teacher librarian, this is the fourth year of our 1:1 technology implementation with students. While this has been a huge undertaking that takes a lot of work at both the district and site levels from a whole team of staff members, I have found myself on the frontline of customer service when it comes to Chromebooks at my site.

Managing Chromebooks has been an often overwhelming task, at times filling all of my day's work, and in the least, interrupting it sporadically throughout the day, every single day without fail. Yesterday, one of the interruptions made me cry.

Admittedly, Chromebooks have made me literally cry more than a few times due to sheer exhaustion or when I've reached my mental limit with the constant barrage of issues; but this time, it was a slow, still pooling of tears.

The library door opened and an adult I didn't recognize entered with a Chromebook in hand. This is a common enough occurrence. It is typically a parent returning the Chromebook for a student who is exiting the school mid-year. I was all set to help with the "checking out" process when the person explained they were returning the Chromebook of a student who died last year.

The student's name was on a sticky note on the Chromebook's top cover. I didn't recognize the name, but my heart fell immediately. 

My husband was an anthropology major in college, and so over the years, he's peppered in references to "contagious magic," the idea that things we've had contact with continue to hold a connection to us even after they're no longer part of us or in our direct possession. This instance brought the concept to my mind.

With the logical part of my brain, I did my usual visual scan of Chromebook's condition. There was nothing broken, but it had the typical wear-and-tear evident from use. I scanned the barcode to check it back into our tracking system and then put it in a pile to be cleaned for future use.

With the emotional part of my heart, though, I couldn't help thinking that I was holding the machine that this student once held. As I used the touchpad to "remove the user" with the student's name and kitten profile image from the login screen, I thought about how student's fingertips once touched the same touchpad and keys countless times.

This was a machine the student likely used to interact with the outside world, writing their ideas into essays for classes, sending and receiving messages, peering into the lives of others on YouTube, searching up answers to questions.

The adult who brought in the Chromebook explained that while the student had passed away during the previous school year, the parents weren't able to deal with it earlier and they apologized because they didn't have the charger, but would continue to look for it.

At a time when I can't imagine a parent feeling more powerless in the world, they were worried about finding the power adapter.

Most Chromebook stories that I hear do not end so tragically, yet bearing witness to the accounts is nonetheless a way I find myself connecting to students' lives and experiences.

There was the badly dented Chromebook that barely survived a car crash. The parents had been driving with the Chromebook in the backseat when the accident destroyed the entire back half of the car. The Chromebook was all bent up, but luckily nobody had been riding there. The whole family was grateful that it was just the Chromebook back there.

Another student reported getting their whole backpack, including their Chromebook, stolen when mugged at a park near their home. This was a student who was perpetually smiling, cheerful, and confidently friendly on a regular day. But, on this particular day, the student stood with their shoulders low and with a flatness in their demeanor I had never seen. They were scared.

There was the Chromebook with profane scars carved over its entire body, external expressions of anger and frustration.

There was the charger left in a hotel room overseas when a student traveled to attend a family member's memorial service.

There was the Chromebook turned in by a stranger who found it behind an apartment washing machine. It turns out it had been left behind when the student's family was forced to move in a hurry.

Fortunately, not all stories are sad. There are, for instance, many stories of new pets. Cute puppies can do a lot of damage! One visually memorable case came in at the beginning of this school year. It was the most destroyed charger I have ever seen. The student brought in every bit and piece of it, the work of a cute Jack Russell (I got the student to show me a photo).

Another amusing damage case was a screen broken by yet another dog. The student had their pup's photo set as their wallpaper image, but there they were, the noteworthy cracks of a shattered screen now obscuring the dog's face. All you could see were the paws, the same ones that had done the damage.

Whether it is regarding Chromebooks or helping students in other ways in the library, I see every interaction as an opportunity. Sometimes a transaction is just a simple transaction; but, sometimes it can reveal an entire story and I feel privileged when it allows me to connect with students.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Shushing Stereotype and Communicating with Heart

As part of my MLIS ePortfolio work, I am now writing about Competency C: "Demonstrate oral and written communication skills necessary for professional work including collaboration and presentations." My post that follows is adapted from my competency reflection.

When thinking about this competency related to communication, I reflected on how ironic it is that the stereotype of the shushing librarian is so common since it conveys the very shutting down of communication. With a ghostly apparition shushing in Ghostbusters and a gargantuan tentacled librarian in Monsters University hunting down mischief-makers, one might think that librarians are downright scary when it comes to enforcing silence.

However, let us consider the case of the Nancy Pearl librarian action figure. First released in 2003, the product description includes the following marketed feature: "Pull her arm down, then press the button on her back and the arm will move up to her lips with 'amazing shushing action!'"(Archie McPhee, 2017). Amazing shushing action! The thing is, the toy's producer Archie McPhee highlights the story of the librarian that the toy is modeled after: Nancy Pearl. Looking at Pearl's work, it is clear that she is far from obsessed with shushing. Perhaps best known for launching the first One City One Book program in Seattle in 1998 (S., 2005), Pearl is so busy communicating - whether writing books, teaching classes, or speaking on NPR - that "to use a singularly appropriate word, this woman is booked" (Broom, 2005).

Source: slgckgc
Worth noting, Pearl did address opposition to the figure's shushing action: "There are too many other things in the world to be shocked and outraged about...As librarians, we need to take our work seriously, but we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously" (Broom, 2005). My philosophy is similar in terms of simply combatting stereotypes through the work that I do. In addressing this competency, this means consistently communicating in effective ways, whether the communication is oral or written, and whether I am helping an individual person or addressing a large audience. And, in terms of effectiveness, I want to emphasize the importance of communication being greater than just the message and the messenger. As we can learn by looking at communication theory, communication is dependent upon the receiver, as well.

When thinking about ways to account for the receivers of messages, I love to learn from the field of User Experience (UX) and an article that has inspired me this past year is "Good Design is Humble" by Austin Knight (2016) who writes:
If there’s anything that design has taught me, it’s that my assumptions, while generally well-founded, are almost always wrong. No matter how much of an expert I become, I will never be able to represent the collective mass that is a user base. This is why humility in the design process is so important...the designer is not designing for themselves; they’re designing for the user. It’s simply in the nature of design: whenever you’re creating for someone else, the creation can’t be about you. And as such, designers must take a humble approach to design, or risk being handicapped by their own egos.
Knight uses terminology related to design, but his ideas are helpful when applied to communication in general. When communicating, it cannot be about me as the messenger, but about the users I am trying to communicate with. If the majority of my users do not receive messages the way I intend for them to, I cannot blame them. Instead, I must reflect on ways to improve how I am communicating. For instance, over time, I have learned to improve my library signage by using fewer words and more visuals. With printing in my library, I started off by creating detailed step-by-step instructions about how to print. The instructions were accurate, but students never read them and so they failed to effectively relay information. Rather than berating students to read the instructions, though, I have experimented with making new versions of guidance that are much simpler. While I have omitted details, I have left the markers that are most essential and highlighted those with visuals. Through trial and error and by observing the way that users interact with information, I constantly seek to refine my delivery to ensure messages are being received as I hope they will be.

Finally, since the example about printing instructions is unidirectional with information flowing from me as the messenger to my students as receivers, I want to insert that my most powerful communication experiences are actually those that are multidirectional. More than lecturing, I thrive on conversation. More than leading alone, I gain strength from collaboration. Along these lines, I think the most effective communicators are those who observe, listen, and are open to receiving from others as much as they are to delivering to others. Activities such as listening may be assumed to be passive by some people, but as expressed with the Listen With Intent slide from Elgan (2013) below, listening is more than hearing and involves considering our own personal biases and seeking to understand others. Effective communication requires being present with undivided attention and heart, and this is how I aim to show up as a communicator in my work.

Source: Anthony Elgan

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Libraries, Diversity, Inclusion, and (No) Neutrality

As part of my MLIS ePortfolio work, I just finished writing about Competency C: "Recognize the diversity (such as cultural and economic) in the clientele and employees of an information organization and be familiar with actions the organization should take to address this diversity." My post that follows is adapted from my competency reflection.

This week, I received an email about an American Library Association (ALA) press release, “ALA opposes new administration policies that contradict core values,” that current ALA President Julie Todaro issued in response to recent actions of the Trump Administration. Below are some excerpts from the statement.
Our nation’s 120,000 public, academic, school and special libraries serve all community members, including people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities and the most vulnerable in our communities, offering services and educational resources that transform communities, open minds, and promote inclusion and diversity.
ALA believes that the struggle against racism, prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination is central to our mission. We will continue to speak out and support efforts to abolish intolerance and cultural invisibility, stand up for all the members of the communities we serve, and promote understanding and inclusion through our work. (American Library Association, 2017a)
Todaro ties her remarks to ALA’s core values and she asserts how promoting diversity and inclusion is in fact integral to the work of library professionals. ALA’s proclaimed value for diversity may indeed be traced far back: “Since 1936, the American Library Association has been actively engaged in combating any and all attitudes, behavior, services or programs which amount to the exclusion or restriction of a targeted group of people based on a designation of race, skin color, ethnic origin or descent” (American Library Association, 2017b).

Have libraries perfectly lived up to these values over the years? Certainly not perfectly. Just consider the story of Congressman John Lewis who, when accepting the National Book Award this past year, shared his experience of being denied entry to a public library in 1956: “When I was 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and cousins [were] going down to the public library trying to get public library cards, and we were told the library was for whites only, not for coloureds” (Flood, 2016).

Have libraries improved since then? In many ways and with the promise that, as may be seen with this competency itself, professionals entering the field learn about how libraries may better address diversity. Also, as a positive addendum, librarians are now some of the biggest fans of John Lewis, with ALA hosting him as a speaker at its 2016 Annual Conference (Albanese, 2016) and recognizing his graphic memoir March with multiple book awards (Neary, 2017).

Nevertheless, promoting diversity is not as straightforward as it may seem at first glance. What complicates matters is how efforts to address the needs of diverse and marginalized groups have become politicized. As long as acts promoting diversity are deemed to be partisan, there arises a conflict with claims that libraries should be neutral institutions.

Supporting the standard of library neutrality in general, Hart (2016) writes, “Keeping yourself and your collection politically neutral ensures that you are in good ethical standing…” He cites Section 5 of the IFLA Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers: “Librarians and other information workers have the right to free speech in the workplace provided it does not infringe the principle of neutrality towards users” (International Federation of Library Associations, 2012).

But, is it really possible for libraries to be neutral? Perhaps it depends on how you define neutrality. Teller (2016) suggests:
…libraries can and should be neutral, in the sense that they provide curated information to as many groups as possible in the pursuit of serving all possible patronbases (carrying books by Queer Theory scholars on gay liberation, along with Christian theological works that write from the perspective that marriage is a spiritual union between a man and a woman, and on and on) and also the sense that they are there for everyone, not just for those in favor of (for example) Black Lives Matter, but also for law enforcement officers and police supporters who are critical of the movement.
As Teller continues, supporting Black Lives Matter – whether it is by creating diverse book displays or establishing safe spaces – is really just “public libraries being public libraries. It’s public libraries fulfilling their mission more fully, more honestly, more expansively, with an eye to serving underserved communities and making everyone feel welcome and valued in the library, and thereby hopefully, in the broader community in which the library exists.”

By centering library values of diversity and democracy, support for movements such as Black Lives Matter may be considered as falling within the bounds of neutrality. Some people, however, view such promotion to be political and thus wholly unneutral. As a result, librarians may choose to avoid engagement and use what Mclain (2016) calls the “non-partisan card.” Even though librarians might otherwise support various social justice movements due to their alignment with professional values supporting inclusion, inaction may be favored to avoid controversy.

This raises the question, is avoiding controversy really a neutral act? Eckert (2016) posits, “all your decisions shape your library.” As follows, deciding to not act in support of a social justice movement has an impact as much as deciding to support it. Maintaining the status quo may not cause controversy, but it is just as unneutral as deciding to challenge it.

“Neutrality can obfuscate injustices and the possibilities for active contributions. Often, neutrality is not a defense of the controversial, but rather an avoidance of it.” — Pat Schuman

Furthermore, when writing about the critical librarianship movement – a movement that promotes “examin[ing] and fight[ing] attempts at social oppression” – Farkas (2016) cites a key tenet “that neutrality is not only unachievable, it is harmful to oppressed groups in our society.” She explains that “in a world that is fundamentally unequal, neutrality upholds inequality and represents indifference to the marginalization of members of our community.” In other words, choosing to uphold the “neutrality” of a status quo in which inequalities exist is actually a hurtful act since it perpetuates those inequalities. Farkas owns that “we are not being neutral when we advocate for our patrons,” but she asserts that when we do so, “we are being good librarians.”

Taking a stance against neutrality may raise concern with some, but it is important to carefully understand how people are choosing to use and define terminology. For instance, while Eckert (2016) asserts that libraries are not neutral, she pointedly emphasizes that she simultaneously stands behind creating “balanced collections, where people can freely research information and come to their own conclusions.” These stances are not mutually exclusive.

Similarly, when Sonnie (n.d.) debunks the idea that libraries “cannot and never have been spaces of neutrality,” she positively affirms that “what libraries offer our communities, and will continue to offer our communities, are spaces to learn, debate, listen and engage. We advance a public commons for inquiry, empowerment and freedom.” The goal is just as much to “provide the greatest amount of access to as much diverse material as possible” as Hart (2016) argues is his intent behind supporting neutrality.

Moving on from debates about terminology, where should we start? While there are a number of ways to address diversity, I will close by sharing this simple advice from Bourg (2015):
One way we might do better is simply by being aware and by asking the questions… Who is missing? Whose experience is being centered?
When we become aware of who is missing, we can strive to find ways to include them. When we see whose experiences are being centered, we can expand our focus to be shared with those on the periphery. And, another important point raised by Bourg is that we also consider the intersectional aspects of identity, not simply defining diversity in terms of any one factor (e.g., race, economic status, sexuality, etc.), but by looking at serving our patrons with nuance that recognizes their whole, multidimensional selves.

[My review of evidence demonstrating competence continued here.]


In my introduction to this competency, I shared the ALA press statement asserting the long-standing tradition of libraries valuing diversity and inclusion. Historically, libraries and librarians have not been perfect in this respect. Still, I am excited that the professional community is actively engaging in conversations about ways to improve. Regarding libraries and neutrality, a Twitter thread posted by Storytime Underground in July 2016 – captured here – garnered considerable attention and inspired a general #noneutrallibraries discussion, which continues to carry momentum.

While I am passionately curious to follow and participate in these discussions, I also hope that the promotion of diversity remains a value that people support regardless of where they fall on the debate of libraries being neutral or not. Rhetoric aside, I believe that we must not let differences in definitions detract from and discourage the work of diversity that we should be doing. In my everyday work, I prioritize taking actions that are inclusive and I commit to continually improving the ways that I support all community members.


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Librarians as Human Hyperlinks Rather Than "Search Engines"

When reading for my INFO 254 Information Literacy and Learning course this week, there was an article about advocacy in which the author shared her personal favorite marketing slogan of: "The ultimate search engine is your librarian." I have seen this before, and it always makes me cringe. I also wince when seeing librarians proudly recite the Neil Gaiman quote: "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one."

Don't get me wrong. I love libraries and I love librarians. I work in a library. I am a librarian, I am married to a librarian, and many of my friends are librarians.

But, I also worry when I see advocacy efforts that appear to be self-congratulatory or pre-emptively defensive. To me, the slogans above fail because they play into the false binary that people must choose between technology OR libraries rather than technology AND libraries.

I worry, because I feel that non-library observers may interpret these slogans as librarians being dismissive of technology rather than as embracers and champions of positive and wise use of technology. I think these statements do not recognize the true value of librarians as humans who additively complement technology rather than replace or compete with it. And, to be frank, if we choose to compete with Google, we will lose.

I strongly feel that we librarians will fail if we insist on selling ourselves as “all-knowing” or at least more knowledgeable than others. While I hope people may find helpful the unique training I have and purpose that I serve, I think that it is important to find messaging that simultaneously respects the expertise and capacity of others in a way that teachers are similarly shifting from roles as “sages on the stage” to “guides on the side.”

I'm still thinking about what I would propose as alternative marketing, but one idea that comes to mind is libraries and librarians as embodiments of hyperlinks rather than as search engines. Instead of being gateway keepers to information or the sole or "best" means for access, how may we emphasize the way libraries facilitate unique opportunities for connection and librarians as humans who help other humans discover and develop connections?

What marketing slogans do you like?