Public Librarianship

Outreach Notes #3

The theme of this post: upkeep, upkeep, upkeep.

Right now, the most pressing agenda item where outreach is concerned is finding a use for our adult events budget of $500 before the end of June, which is the end of the fiscal year.  These are the possibilities right now:

– A talk by Richard Exelbert from the Brooklyn Brainery on having fun in East New York and off the A/C Subway lines on a budget (the A/C runs through Cypress Hills where I work).

– A CUP workshop that is accessible to the low income folks in this neighborhood.

– A local business owner who is also a self published author and a long time resident on the spirit of the community, her books, and the self publishing process.

–  An entrepreneurship workshop on starting your own online business (Using Etsy or some other related website)

– My direct supervisor is pushing for a public-service-friendly musical performance. She is of the opinion that If It Is Exciting Enough, They Will Come. I am not convinced. Also, I don’t know very many musicians who are  like “yes, let me do a gig for next to no money in a place that will likely not give me that much bigger of an audience for having played it.”

One of the weird problems is that the best programs for my patrons are free anyway. We have two potential “know your rights” workshops form the NY chapter of the ACLU, one on getting stopped by ICE and the other on getting stopped by police.  We have teams here at the library who do job readiness and financial advising and citizenship prep and ESOL.  We traditionally think of programs that we bring into the public library as being above the “basic need” level but to get people to attend  these programs, we need to establish a community first. And it doesn’t seem to me that you can backwards hack it — you can’t bring in a jazz band and expect loads of people to show up, but you could have a workshop on resume help that overlaps with a jazz band by fifteen minutes and get people to stay. The trick is that getting them in the door is about need, not fun or spectacle.  At least in this community, where energy is in very limited supply.
I previously mentioned the Lions Club Pacesetters Alliance as a service org that could potentially meet all three areas of need:
-Friends Group
-Volunteers/Collaborative Org

I visited them at their monthly meeting on Sunday and I quickly came to realize that they don’t yet have the infrastructure in place to really do any of this without a lot of guidance from me.  They are a small group working with little means,  and  so bringing them in would probably benefit their reach in the community but does not do much to extend the library’s reach.  Moreover, they are not the right audience for a ULURP talk, but I did see CUP puts on a workshop on how to get and keep welfare benefits from NYC and that would be definitely be useful. So we’ll see.

I still have to walk into the cypress hills local development corp, and then it will be time to strategize and make specific asks of the orgs I have been in contact with.
A revised step-by-step of what the outreach process has looked like:

1) Reach out by email and also leave a few voicemails for about six organizations.
2) Hear nothing back for three weeks.
3) Reach out by phone to a couple of organizations, and get some appointments made.
4) Reschedule those appointments.
5) Make positive connections that are still very general at these meetings.
6) Begin to look at ways to use the $500 budget and start making specific inquiries.
7) Discover that organizational culture is such that trying to get everyone on the same page is a  multi-day, multi-email process.
8) Come to terms with the fact that various people have ideas about what outreach and programming are supposed to look like and will not be flexible enough to adjust to the needs of this particular community as they contradict what has already been planned.

Where I am now:
9) Call NYCC  regarding the missed meeting right after the snow storm.  This will be more about bringing adult patrons into programs we already have.
10) Follow up with Janel P. about bringing in an English Language Conversation Group leader for Saturdays, to compliment my Monday program.
11) Walk into the Cypress Hills Development Corp. and see what’s the what.
12) Bring in the president of the Lions Club Pacesetters Alliance to talk with Jeri L. about creating a Cypress Hills Friends Group
13) Remain in contact with BACDYS and CUP about a potential program to use up the adult events budget.

This is solidly second-phase, but it still feels very up in the air.  It’s more like “jump into the fray and see where it goes.”

Public Librarianship

Outreach Notes #2

A follow-up from the last post about outreach, here is what is happening:

After waiting longer than one usually expects for an email reply between organizations (about three weeks), I suddenly heard from everyone all at once:

I set up three meetings, two of which had significant changes before they actually occurred worth talking about:

I set up the first meeting, with BACDYS, a Bengali immigrant advocacy organization in the neighborhood. A significant percentage of our patrons here at Cypress Hills are Bengali immigrants and working with BACDYS seems an obvious win-win for both organizations. I notified my immediate supervisor and cc’d the branch supervisor when I scheduled the meeting. The branch supervisor is, herself, a Bengali immigrant and she decided she wanted to come to the meeting. However, the day I set up to meet with BACDYS didn’t work for her, so she asked me to reschedule the meeting. This is one of the shortcomings of collaboration (as all library branch work is, in the end, because even individual work is done on behalf of the team) – sometimes frustrating events occur that you can’t control, like having to reschedule your meeting and a look a little silly because of  something you have control over!

When the meeting happened, however, it was a big success, and soon the director of BACDYS will be visiting our library to look at our space and to talk about joint programs.

On Tuesday, March 14th, in NYC, there were city-wide closures due to predicted blizzard conditions. While the snow accumulation was far less than predicted, Brooklyn Public Library remained closed due to wind mileage. When a business day is unexpectedly not a business day, everything gets pretty backed up. As a result of that, one of my scheduled meetings, with United Community Centers, didn’t happen.  I will call on Monday to reschedule the meeting, which is also occurring at my branch.

The third meeting came to me! The Lions Club Pacesetters Alliance of Brooklyn (LCPA) called the branch because they are a service org in the area, committed to bettering their community, and they were looking for volunteer opportunities. The president of the group came to visit me at the branch, and we discussed the possibility of individual volunteering, a group service day, and the possibility of forming a friends group. The meeting went quite well, and as a result, I am going to their chapter meeting on Sunday to talk collect library card and volunteer applications, and discuss next steps with them.

Lastly, I heard back via email from CUP, a community organization with an East New York Chapter that runs workshops on community betterment from an urban planning perspective. I believe that the LCPA would benefit from one of CUP’s workshops, which we could host in our own space. In such an event, the LCPA would be patrons, and the CUP presentation would be an event on the calendar open to the public as well.  This is like win-win-win, because the LCPA get training, and I get both outreach benefits from them as an org, and stats from them as patrons.

This is the dream: the organization contacted me, neither natural nor unnatural conditions interfered, and everything went smoothly. In my limited experience, this sort of outreach is super rare.  Really the dream.

And now for the opposite of the dream: the most obvious candidate for outreach at my own branch is the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation. It is literally right around the corner from this branch, and its mission is, “With community residents leading the way, the mission of CHLDC is to build a strong, sustainable Cypress Hills and East New York, where youth and adults achieve educational and economic success, secure healthy and affordable housing and develop leadership skills to transform their lives and community.”

Here are some recent experiences with them:
-No reply to my email, six weeks in.
-A phone system that constantly loops and does not allow callers to actually get to even a voicemail, let alone a human.
-Advertisements for their own programs coming through via listserv from them.

It seems I will have to walk into their organization, folder in hand. There’s cold calling and then there’s this.  Will it be successful? Is it a bad idea to try to partner with an organization that does not seem reachable by reasonable means? To be determined!

Humanities & Social Thought Non-Fiction Uncategorized

The Case Against Narcissism: Donald Trump and the Horror of Being

About a year ago, I came across an article about how mindfulness can be bad for middle class white people sometimes. At the time, I was taken aback by the sheer hubris of The Guardian writing a “story” about this- like, you can just imagine them “recovering” over their Starbucks Vente Soy No-Whip Chai Lattes, right? But in the wake of the Trump presidency, and the growing question of what it means to be accountable and to whom one is accountable, the same article floated back into my mind, framed somewhat differently: can the simple condition of awareness cause pain?


In my own, brief existence, there has never been a moment when it is clearer that we are what we believe, and that those beliefs together produce a reality in which each of us individually must exist. This observation has taken the political world stage as we watch Donald Trump go to town on this thing we think of as “truth.”  But it would be naïve to assume that this phenomenon has suddenly sprung into existence. Rather, Trump calls our attention to this collective act of being by rejecting it outright. In the analysis of why Trump rejects consistency, most media and individuals have concluded that it must be because he doesn’t want to acknowledge anything that might reflect badly on him, or his brand. His fragility and defensiveness, his overly literal solutions (such as the wall and the ban), and his overly literal measurements of what is allowable (when he doesn’t pay people or businesses he hires, when he talks about assaulting women),  are all taken as evidence that Donald Trump is mainly interested in Donald Trump. I would like to assert the opposite: Donald Trump is on the run from Donald Trump.

Martin Heidegger, author of Being and Time, is famous for two things- for introducing the idea that we, humans, are concerned with being, and for being a Nazi. How, one often wonders, do the people who have so much insight into the human condition always end up being such lousy examples of human beings themselves? It may be that those who are most sensitive to world disclosure are the same as those who generally make the conditions of the lives of the people around them worse.

World disclosure, identified by Heidegger in Being and Time, is the process by which any entity (living or non) gains meaning. However, the warning here is that this is not the cultural notion of meaning. Rather, it refers to becoming intelligible in the world.  The assumption here is that an entity’s existence does not automatically make it intelligible. A baby looks at many things and few of them are disclosed to it, in the sense of “world disclosure.”

And yet, moving beyond Heidegger perhaps, although certainly still to do with being, a human is unique among entities, for at the same time he is disclosed to the world, that is the moment when he becomes complicit.

There’s that word again, that seems to rise like a tide of self righteous anger: complicit. Still, it’s worth remembering that we are complicit not only in suffering, but in the all. And perhaps that is still terrifying, but it’s a different kid of terrifying. Just a few days ago, an article was rising on this tide and floating through my feeds. The woke misogynist, this article argued, was the guy who identified as feminist, even spoke like a woke man, but was in the end, merely a hypocrite, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, undeniably Part Of The Problem. And, bracketing the grievous act of sexual assault for the moment, we are confronted with a question that this article shies away from addressing: in the messy relationship between ideology and practice, what does it mean to be? For the unspoken rare universal truth is that no human escapes the grasp of hypocrisy entirely, we all struggle to embody the change we want to see in the world, and we all fail sometimes. The question here is not, “should we forgive someone who commits sexual assault if he’s really a feminist who just slipped up,” no, the question is “who or what is a feminist accountable to?” And put as the philosophical question that underlies the practical question, “what is accountability?”

There seem to be two conflicting definitions. The first is the degree to which a person’s deeds match the belief sets they explicitly subscribe to, and the second is the degree to which a person shows up for and on behalf of other people. These are not the same thing by a long shot. The former, the consistency between a person’s alleged belief sets and his actions, is measured most often by the category of potential victim: feminist accountability is judged by women, anti-racist accountability by people of color, and so on. This measurement is then adopted by the larger group as a social conviction.  The latter, the comprehensiveness with which one is accountable to other people, is measured through the response one has to the expression of experience by another. This latter definition requires first the ownership of experience, and second the expression thereof not couched in any kind of rhetoric, but rather true because by definition, experience cannot be false. We cannot have false experiences, and in expression, they are only false if we are lying. To take the tremendously upsetting example from the article as a way of showing this point, the experience of sexually assaulting someone may not be that of committing a sexual assault, even if that is exactly what is happening. If a perpetrator of sexual assault says, “I did not experience sexually assaulting someone,” that is true. If he says, “I did not sexually assault someone,” that is false. The question here is not, “should we forgive someone who commits sexual assault if he doesn’t experience it as sexual assault,” no, the question is, “what is the relationship between experience and accountability?” And put as the philosophical question that underlies the practical question, “how does experience become intelligible?”

Through the process of world disclosure – that is when an entity becomes intelligible to the world – it becomes an element of that world, in fact it collaborates in the very constitution of the world. For that reason, the mere act of awareness is world-constituting. This is a process that can be described in technical terms, philosophically, but it can also be described in the disquiet of a middle class white woman who breathes in and out and counts her breaths. It can be described in the pain of a sexual assault victim in Brooklyn, New York, who faces the deeply disturbing gap between the ideals we hold up and the actions we take. Our very thereness makes us complicit in something far more horrifying than the narrow and deep suffering of people who are not us. It makes us complicit in constituting reality.  A person is because he or she is intelligible to us, and if we did not recognize him as such, he would live in a different reality, based on a set of conditions that are still entirely imaginary, that we have constituted together and subjected him to.

This is not a new claim, but it is quite a large one. The border between a person and the conditions in which he or she lives is porous, and the conditions themselves are constituted by all people together, but not to equal degrees. The President of the United States of America, alternatively called The Leader of the Free World, has, according to many, the largest amount of complicity. My assertion is that his own complicity in the constitution of reality already terrified Trump before he was president. Consider that if people are partially or wholly a product of the conditions in which they live, then accountability to belief sets is far less relevant than accountability to each other. We are constituted by each other, and that is true because of the fact of our existence, not because of any choice we can make. What we owe, we owe to each other and not to anything greater than or external to each other (take that, nation state).
And if, as is reasonable, we find this complicity terrifying, some of us will react, unreasonably, by avoiding accountability. What does avoidance of accountability look like? My assertion: narcissism. Consider that once we have disallowed the measurement of meaning to be a reflection of our complicity, the ways we have left to measure value are identical to those which Trump uses:

-How much human effort can we get on our own behalves for how little of our own resources? This is the measure of the value of work.
-How many other bodies besides our own can we claim for our own use at the cost of the least amount of our own emotional labor? This is the measure of the value of status.
-And of course, the literal barrier, the wall, as a measure of the value of protection.

The reason why these things are all absurd and offensive behaviors in our view is that we take into consideration accountability to each other. We do not, on the whole, sexually assault each other, because we constitute each other, and because we hold ourselves accountable for our own role in creating the conditions that define our experienced reality.

And finally, we reacquaint ourselves with the plain truth that this complicity is not a choice, it is true because of the fact of our existence- it becomes true as soon as we exist, and it remains true as long as there is human society. Indeed, even after death, what we have done and thought and shared continues to constitute people and the world.

But accountability is a choice. A person can run from the very notion of himself to avoid the complicity the fact of himself creates. Of the multitude of ways a person can run from himself, I have briefly approached two: to hold ourselves accountable to rhetoric instead of each other, and to measure meaning in the intentional absence of each other, using the literal mechanism of more and less. Trump does not want to be held accountable; no one is surprised by that statement. But what Trump does not want to be held accountable to is his own complicity, which requires him to avoid the very fact of himself. Donald J. Trump is not a narcissist, he is exactly the opposite. No one’s home.

As in the case of  the sexual assault perpetrator, the question is not, “Do we forgive Donald Trump because he is acting out of a place of pain, fear, and guilt?” The question is, how do we approach Donald Trump from the perspective of a man running from himself, instead of a man who is only interested in himself? And put as the philosophical question that underlies the practical question, “what does the fear of being mean?”

If what we are seeking is a more accountable society, forgiveness is never the question because on the societal stage, ethical jurisdiction and accountability are not the same. The relevant measurement of the perpetrator is not how right or wrong his experience is, as if his experience can be right or wrong. It cannot be either of those things any more than it can be false. Rather, the measurement that is a reflection of societal accountability is the one which tells us how the experience of perpetrators of sexual assault is produced. We hold ourselves accountable for the production of that experience, and we send him to prison not because of his experience, but because of his action.  If you think your own moral judgment of an admittedly immoral human helps constitute the change you want to see in the world, well — that’s just narcissism.

Public Librarianship

Outreach Notes

The absolute hardest part of being a public librarian is probably recruiting new patrons to come to programs you develop for them. At a branch library like mine, the trick is to get a solid group of people who come to the library to see each other, and use the programs as a mechanism for doing so. In such cases, it’s still important to develop programs that are specific to community interests, but what brings them in is less the programs and more the social opportunities. But the irony is that no one is going to walk in the door of a public library just to meet people. So then you end up this spiral:
-Regular patrons show up regularly to socialize.
-But new patrons will not show up just to socialize.

Converting new patrons into regular patrons, a plan:

1) Call or visit but do not email local non for profit organizations that advocate for demographics who are need of institutional support but not individual support. Ask them what kind of programs they are interested in seeing, and as staff to staff, what kind of audience they can bring if we offer those programs.
2) Look at for target audiences and simply offer those groups space for their programs. This is a trick I learned from the Adult Steering Committee at my job.
3) Run programs that fulfill practical ongoing needs for organized, prepackaged audiences  in the neighborhood. Create a dialog between these programs and those that currently exist for regulars. This may be as simple as making each group aware of the other, or as complex as creating displays to show off programs or running them back to back to “inadvertently” mix them.
4) Synthesize and Introduce New StakesRun a program like a skill share, in which patrons take responsibility for hosting part of the program, and bring both the regulars and the newer patrons together to co-host.
5) Now perhaps programs that are fun, in addition to or instead of simply practical, can be done successfully. 

I have appointments set up with a couple organizations in the area this week and next, I have two more to reach out to, and I am working with the Adult Steering Committee and another team to be formed soon to create a central pool of resources for outreach for adult services librarians in my library system. Nonetheless, it often feels as if I’m moving at a snail’s pace.  The advantage to starting at the ground level is that there is a lot of flexibility and accommodation to do what I want. The disadvantage is that it takes a long time to build successful adult services that reach the community.

I will try to keep a log here of how it goes, so other people can learn from my experiences.