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!

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.

Books Media Public Librarianship

Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart (Book)

Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart
Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart

Silent Hall (Kindle: $6.99 Paperback: $7.99) is a classic fantasy novel written by a dear friend from my college days. The novel is written for a new generation of readers, while hearkening back to some familiar themes. As I began this book, I immediately recognized the internal sensation that is discordant with most fantasy published in 2016, the sensation of comfort. This would be a book about characters who did the right thing, often despite themselves, became close unexpectedly, and found themselves in the process. This book features five very different characters who all have reason to be unhappy with their lives but none of whom would have voluntarily committed to the journey they end up taking together, as refugees. Of the many things that guide their actions, one of the main things is their struggle with their own moral compasses, with trying to understand how to be good people in a complicated world. The book does some new and unique things as well; it consciously addresses certain political challenges that are relevant to today’s struggles, and it also features an endearing and surprising system of scholarship the characters use as they interpret the world around them.

I knew this reading experience, because when I grew up in the nineties, I read Patricia C. Wrede, and Tamora Pierce, and Melanie Rawn and Mercedes Lackey. These authors presented similar tropes, in fantasy settings.  Most striking for me is the sure knowledge from the get go, in both these authors’ novels and in Dolkart’s Silent Hall, that these characters take it as a given that there is a shared ethic. It is simply assumed that there is a right thing to do.

Today, for the same group of readers, instead of these tropes, fantasy mainly refers to paranormal romance, and to tropes that can and often do glorify lack of control generally and rape specifically. In library school, we talked about how fantasy has gotten so much darker. It was largely seen as a liberalization of standards, of permissions. We now accept that kids and young adults (who are commonly seen as the target demographic for fantasy novels, although of course this leaves out a non-trivial minority of adults as well) can read this stuff without becoming crazed and violent. But perhaps there’s something else going on, too. In reading Silent Hall, I began to reflect on how the key difference between Dolkart’s work and that of say, Stephenie Meyer, is that in Meyer’s work, a lack of control has largely taken the place of the moral standards Dolkart’s characters struggle to understand and abide by. This is a substantial difference in both theme and literary mechanic. In paranormal romance, we sympathize (or don’t, as in the case of my grumpy self) with these new characters because of the way their individuality is subjected to forces beyond their control, and we are meant to thrill at the idea that possibly we, too, could one day live without the burden of ethical choices on our shoulders.

Dolkart’s Silent Hall is a refreshing and comforting reminder that there remains in the literature, and in the minds of some people, an idea of a morality that is upheld by us all and individually manifested. This morality is not one that speaks to identity, but to the basic human interaction.

If you are a reader of fantasy, I highly recommend Silent Hall, the first in Dolkart’s new series. Read it because you like a comfort read. Read it because you like to read about close friends succeeding together. Read it because you appreciate the value of ethical interaction that is so lost in most of the fantasy literature coming out today. Read it for its cleverness, read it for its endearing Talmud like study of a fantastical theology. Read it because of its feminist bent or its discussion of the value of knowledge and the fear that knowledge can generate. Read it to watch characters learn to love themselves. Read it because it’s raining outside. Whatever. Read it!

Public Librarianship

Technology in the Public Library

I have been in conversation recently with the children’s  librarians and a grant coordinator here about making this Summer the Summer of Technology at the Cypress Hills Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Some of the ideas we’ve had are:

Coding bootcamp – One for kids, and one for teens. The first will use Scratch, the MIT in-browser program for learning to code, specifically designed for kids. The second will focus on app design. There is a chance our TRS will be able to get them to install processing on the computers in the library, too. Plus, we are apparently getting laptops for programs! Hurray!

3D printing – Using a glowforge or some other consumer level 3D printer, as well as the free browser apps for design, we might set up a mini maker-lab.

Minecraft Modding!

Co-op gaming – Team gaming using the eight available desktop computers at our library.

Google actually offers a training for instructors on how to teach Scratch, and I’m going on Friday!

All of this is very exciting, both for us and for the kids, but you wonder where any of it goes, ultimately. Public libraries offer a range of great programs but they don’t yet offer a Coursera style experience — in two to four hour stints, you can dabble in something, but there’s as of yet no sound structure for doing some more comprehensive. What if you really wanted to learn how to code, like to build a portfolio? What if you wanted to work your way through Ulysses or say, get a good primer in postmodern fiction? What if you enjoy working on mid to long term projects with the same group of people? Why can’t the public library be a place for that, too? Like a “Library Meetup” program.

The importance, for me, and the relationship to technology, is that more often that not, technological innovation leads to physical absence. Librarians are constantly worried about getting the stats– getting people to show up to their programs. But that term “show up” has more than one meaning, and at a community institution, “showing up” could also mean nurturing lasting relationships with other community members and the library itself.

Public Librarianship

The Social Scientist and the Public Library Patron

To my great surprise, it was suggested recently in my class, “Intro to the City II,” that the public is aware of the way in which space produces identity. As a public librarian, I can say with confidence that nothing is farther from the truth. But this does give me an opportunity to address the ongoing tension between the academy and the public – the library is a great symbol of this, having both a public version and an academic version.

Let me tell you a little bit about public library patrons – not only do they not know about how space produces identity, they don’t care. They can’t afford to care because they are doing other things with their lives that take up a hell of a lot of time, like working and parenting and studying STEM. Like so many ideas that we can assert shape reality, the people who actually produce that reality have no need for the ideas. I’m not just saying that to be snarky, (although I am also saying it to be snarky), a central property of the “public” for the academy is the “studied subject.” By and large, the public does not feel the same way about itself.

This division is particularly important because it is one of the few dichotomies that is as real and as true as a concrete block.  One cannot both engage in being and study being at the same time, by necessity the subject of study cannot be the person who is studying, at least at the time he is studying it.  This is a universal truth. However, it also means that someone who is mostly only engaged in being is mostly not engaged in studying being, and therefore a pertinent question arises:

If the process of space producing identity can only itself be observed on reflection, then who is producing the identity? Is it the studied subject, or is it the scholar?

Public Librarianship

Kids From the Projects

Hello, world!
On November 16th, I joined the Brooklyn Public Library system as an adult services librarian. I have been on the desk for two weeks now, and there is already so much to think about. I’m going to start by addressing a question I think a lot of people in my demographic wonder about: what are kids from the projects really like? The branch I work at is directly across the street from the housing projects, and so our main population of patrons is in fact kids who come here after school, because their parents are at work and it’s free to hang out here.

If you’re like me, you have long suspected that there’s something fishy about the pedagogy, and the social theory. They consistently fail to keep it real, because they tend to represent a middle class white perspective, and on occasion, I have had direct experience with their racism. And I’ve known bright, inspired people who have dropped out of their teaching certifications and degrees because of this culture. This is a sweeping judgment; obviously, this cannot possibly be true of every member of the field. But it dominates the literature, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the whole framework inside which “the literature” lives is disconnected from the street on which this people it talks about live. And then we have the popular media, which tends to present the projects in two ways: 1) oppressors of the middle class and 2) victims of police brutality.

So that leaves people like myself, who have no real access to the projects, relying on what are obviously incomplete and often biased sources. What’s it like to wake up in public housing? To get ready for work or school? To come home and make dinner? To discipline your kids? To attend parent teacher conferences (or not)? To celebrate Thanksgiving? Do they text? Do they have smart phones? Do they all hang out with each other or is it like my apartment complex, where we might know each other’s names, but never really interact? Are they really violent all the time? Is the “broken windows theory,” which states that low level crime, like graffiti,  is an indicator of more serious crime to come, true? Are these kids getting ready to become criminals?

Well, if you haven’t guessed already, the answer is definitely nope, not even a little bit.

Here are some things that are true about kids from the projects:
– They have earlier access to “adult concepts” like sex and profanity. It is not uncommon to catch groups of grade school boys looking at porn on a library computer.  While they are younger than the demographic of middle class white dudes who do this, they are certainly not alone in their interest in looking at porn on public computers. However, it is evident that they have a pretty decent understanding of how hookup culture works, and how and when adults swear. While I have seen kids swear before, I’ve never really seen them swear like someone who knows how to swear. But these kids do. And when they want to act out, they’ll hide behind shelves and make sex noises.
– Like their more well-to-do counterparts, they represent a wide range of intellect and interests. Most of them love computer games. Some of them like to color dinosaurs. Some of them like to collect books that have been left around, and pretend to be library employees. Some of them really do just want to do their homework. All of them want to be here because their friends are here.
– They all want library cards, and they all lose them with great frequency. I spend a lot of time on the desk helping kids get replacement library cards. We give them these little library card holders that they’re really into. It doesn’t help them keep track of their cards though. They appear to simply have a different understanding of these cards, one that is more transient. For them, their identity as library patrons is only tied very loosely to a “library card.” My limited experience suggests they treat a lot of other IDs the same way. They’ll produce long-expired ID, or random IDs with no official affiliation, sometimes old tickets or school documents they have lying around, to prove identity. This is not surprising – I doubt they have much motivation to maintain a strong connection with their public or state identity representation.
– And I doubt this because despite the fact that these kids are not really very different in potential from any other group of kids I have ever met, they suffer from an obvious lack of attention. The kids here are regulars, I can tell you which ones are “precocious” (one quick way to tell you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know how to keep it real is that he or she uses the word “precocious” to describe a kid) and which ones would be future DMV employees. I can tell you which ones are afraid of their parents, and which ones never see their parents. The vast majority of them respond very well to one on one attention, even to small group attention.  The analogy that comes to mind is morning glories, they open up. Some of them roll their eyes, some of them are hostile – but even in those cases, it is perfectly obvious (I mean entirely uncontroversial to anyone who sees it) that their hostility arises from the a lack of familiarity, that given enough time and sustained attention, these kids would come around. I don’t have access to the reasoning for this lack of attention – maybe their parents work long hours, maybe their teachers have huge classes, maybe it’s racism.  I don’t know, and I’m not attempting to pass judgment here, I’m just telling you what I see: these kids are jonesing for some love.
– As a direct result, the security guards often play the dual role of disciplinarian and parent. And they know it. Our usual security guard is out on a vacation. It is notable that the kids have asked for him. But it has given me a chance to talk to the assortment of substitute security guards, who work full time going from branch to branch. One of them goes as far as to take off her uniform shirt (and use her “civilian” shirt) when she wants to have a “sisterly” conversation, instead of a disciplinary one. She tells me she has seven younger siblings, and she knows what to say to kids to get them to do the right thing.

What makes kids from the projects “at risk,” if you’re going by the ones who show up at the library every day, is not at all inherent to them – they are largely the same as their white, middle class counterparts. It is evident from watching this group of kids every day for the last two weeks that what puts them at risk is a lack of infrastructure.