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Two large potted roses in a Radio Flyer wagon
Walking two roses to their new home, where they would be planted in the front yard.

I have been reflecting on the future of a national association I belong to that has struggled with relevancy and with closing the distance between itself and its members, has distinct factions that differ on fundamental matters of values, faces declining national and chapter membership, needs to catch up on the technology curve, has sometimes problematic vendor relationships, struggles with member demographics and diversity,  and has an uneven and sometimes conflicting national message and an awkward at best relationship with modern communications; but represents something important that I believe in and has a spark of vitality that is the secret to its future.

I am not, in fact, writing about the American Library Association, but the American Rose Society. 

Most readers of Free Range Librarian associate me with libraries, but the rose connection may be less visible. I’ve grown roses in nine places I’ve lived in the last thirty-plus years, starting with roses planted in front of a rental house in Clovis, New Mexico, when I was stationed at Cannon Air Force Base in the 1980s, and continuing in pots or slices of garden plots as I moved around the world and later, the United States. Basically, if I had an outdoor spot to grow in, I grew roses, either in-ground or in pots, whether it was a slice of sunny backyard in Wayne, New Jersey, a tiny front garden area in Point Richmond, California, a sunny interior patio in our fake Eichler rental in Palo Alto, or a windy, none-too-sunny, and cold (but still much-appreciated) deck in our rental in San Francisco. When Sandy and I bought our sweet little house in Santa Rosa, part of the move involved rolling large garden pots on my Radio Flyer from our rental two blocks away.

Some of you know I’m an association geek, an avocation that has waxed as the years have progressed. I join associations because I’m from a generation where that’s done, but another centripetal pull for staying and being involved is that associations, on their own, have always interested me. It’s highly likely that a long time ago, probably when I was stationed in New Mexico and, later, Germany (the two duty stations where I had the ability to grow roses), that I was a member of the American Rose Society for two or three years. I infer this because I accumulated, then later recycled, their house magazine, American Rose, and I also have vague memories of receiving the annual publication, Handbook for Selecting Roses.

Early this year I joined the Redwood Empire Rose Society and a few weeks after that joined the American Rose Society. I joined the local society because I was eager to plant roses in our new home’s garden and thought this would be a way to tap local expertise, and was won over by the society’s programming, a range of monthly educational events that ranged from how to sharpen pruning shears to the habits and benefits of bees (a program where the audience puffed with pride, because roses--if grown without toxic chemical intervention–are highly beneficial bee-attracting pollen plants). I joined the national society less out of need than because I was curious about what ARS had to offer to people like me who are rose-lovers but average gardeners, and I was also inquisitive about how the society had (or had not) repositioned itself over the years.

My own practices around rose gardening have gradually changed, reflecting broader societal trends. Thirty years ago, I was an unwitting cog in the agricultural-industrial rose complex. I planted roses that appealed to my senses — attractive, repeat-blooming, and fragrant — and then managed their ability to grow and produce flowers not only through providing the two things all roses need to grow– sun and water — but also through liberal applications of synthetic food and toxic pest and disease products. The roses I purchased were bred for the most part with little regard for their ability to thrive without toxic intervention or for their suitability for specific regions.

Garden by garden, my behavior changed. I slowly adopted a “thrive or die” mantra. If a rose could not exist without toxic chemical interventions, then it did not belong in my garden, and I would, in rosarian parlance, “shovel-prune” it and replace it with a rose that could succeed with sun, water, good organic food and amendments, and an occasional but not over-fussy attention.

Eventually, as I moved toward organic gardening and became more familiar with sustainability in general, I absorbed the message that roses are plants, and the soil they grow in is like the food I put in my body: it influences their health. So I had the garden soil tested this winter while I was moving and replacing plants, digging holes that were close to two feet wide and deep. Based on the test results, I adjusted the soil accordingly: I used organic soil sulphur to lower the ph, dug in slow-release nitrogen in the form of feathermeal, and bathed the plants in a weak solution of organic liquid manganese. As I now do every spring, when it warmed up a bit I also resumed my monthly treatment of fish fertilizer, and this year, based on local rose advice, in a folksier vein dressed all the bushes with organic worm castings and alfalfa, both known to have good fertilizing capabilities. Alfalfa also has a lot of trace nutrients we know less about but appear to be important.

Rose: Princesse Charlene de Monaco
Princesse Charlene de Monaco, hybrid tea rose bred by Meilland

Guess what? Science is real! Nearly all of the rose bushes are measurably larger and more vigorous. Carding Mill, a David Austin rose, went from a medium shrub to a flowering giant. New roses I planted this spring, such as Grand Dame and Pinkerbelle, are growing much more vigorously than last year’s new plantings. Some of this is due to the long, gloomy, wet winter, which gave roses opportunities to snake their long roots deeper into the good soil we have in Sonoma County; my friends are reporting great spring flushes this year. But roses planted even in the last six weeks, such as Princesse Charlene de Monaco and Sheila’s Perfume, are taking off like a rocket, so it’s not just the rain or the variety.

(You do not need to do all this to grow roses that will please you and your garden visitors, including bees and other beneficial insects. I enjoy the process. The key thing is that nearly all of my roses are highly rated for disease resistance and nearly all are reported to grow well in our region.)

Science–under attack in our national conversations–is also an area of conflict within the ARS. Presidents of the ARS have three-year terms, and the previous president, Pat Shanley, was an advocate of sustainable rose growing. She spoke and wrote about the value of organic gardening, and championed selecting varieties that do not require toxic intervention to thrive. The theme of the 2018 American Rose Annual was “Roses are for Everyone,” and this Annual is a fascinating look at the sustainable-gardening wing of the ARS. Most of the articles emphasized the value of what Paul Zimmerman, a rose evangelist, calls “garden roses,” flowers that everyday people like you and me can grow and enjoy. The message in this Annual is reinforced by recent books by longtime rose advocates and ARS members, such as Peter Kukielski’s Roses without Chemicals and Zimmerman’s Everyday Roses, books I highly recommend for library collections as well as personal use. (Roses without Chemicals is a book I use when I wake up at odd hours worried about things, because it is beautifully written and photographed and the roses are listed alphabetically.)

Now the ARS has a new president, Bob Martin, a longtime exhibitor, who in editorials has promoted chemical intervention for roses. “And yes Virginia we do spray our roses,” he wrote in the March/April “First Word” editorial in American Rose, the house organ of the ARS. “As does nearly every serious rose exhibitor and those who want their rose bushes to sustainably produce the most beautiful blooms [emphasis mine].”

American Rose does not appear to publish letters to the editor. There is no section listed for letters that I can find in any recent issue, and the masthead only lists a street address for “member and subscription correspondence.” Otherwise, I would write a short letter protesting the misuse of the term “sustainably,” as well as the general direction of this editorial. I am a rose amateur, and make no bones about it. But I know that equating chemical spraying with sustainability is, hands-down, fake news. It’s one thing to soak roses in toxins and call it a “health maintenance” program, as he does in this article. That’s close to the line but not over it, since he’s from the exhibitors’ wing of ARS. But it’s just plain junk science to claim that there is anything connected to sustainability about this approach.

I also can’t imagine that this “toxins forever” message is attracting new ARS members or encouraging them to renew. It feels disconnected from what motivates average gardeners like me to grow roses today (to enjoy them in their gardens) and from how they want to grow them today (in a manner that honors the earth). Frankly, one of the happiest moments in my garden last year was not from personal enjoyment of the flowers or even the compliments of neighbors and passers-by, but when I saw bees doing barrel-rolls in the stamens of my roses, knowing that I was helping, not hurting, their survival.

The vast majority of people buying and planting roses these days have no idea there is a single-plant society dedicated to this plant, or even less that this society believes it understands their motivations for and interest in roses. My environmental scan of the literature and the quantities of roses provided by garden stores makes me suspect that many people buy roses based on a mix of personal recommendations, marketing guidance (what the vendors are promoting), and what they remember from their family gardens. (I would love to learn there had been market research in this area; vendors may have taken this up.) For average gardeners, their memories include roses such as Peace and Mr. Lincoln, which were bred in the middle of the last century, when the focus was not on disease resistance but on producing the hourglass hybrid tea shape that became the de facto standard for exhibiting.

We can get sentimental about roses from the late 20th century, but many of these varieties also helped perpetuate the idea that roses are hard to grow, despite the many varieties that grew just fine for thousands of years (or in the case of Excellenz von Schubert, which I planted this year, 110 years and counting). Market persuasion continues today; vendors tempt buyers through savvy marketing plans such as the Downton Abbey rose series from Weeks or David Austin’s persistent messaging about “English” roses. Note — I own a lovely rose from the Downton Abbey line, Violet’s Pride, that is quite the garden champ, and have three David Austin roses (Carding Mill, Munstead Wood, and Gentle Hermione). I’m just noting market behavior.

It is well-documented in rose literature that the rose that seems to have shaken the ARS to the core is the Knockout series, which introduced maintenance-free roses to a generation short on time and patience and increasingly invested in sustainable practices throughout their lives, including their gardens. Again, smart marketing was part of the formula, because there always have been sustainable roses, and ome companies, such as Kordes, moved to disease-resistant hybridizing decades ago. But the Knockout roses were promoted as an amazing breakthrough. (It may help to know that new varieties of roses have 20-year patents during which propagation is only legally through license. I don’t begrudge hybridizers their income, given how much work–sometimes thousands of seedlings–goes into producing a single good rose, but this does factor into how and why roses are marketed.)

You don’t need a certificate as a master gardener or membership in a rose society to grow Knockout roses or newer competitors such as the Oso Easy line. You don’t really need to know anything about roses at all, other than roses grow in sun, not shade, and appreciate water. You also don’t need to spray Knockout roses with powerful fungicides to prevent blackspot and mildew.

Regardless of the public’s reaction to easy-to-grow roses, the rose world’s reception of the Knockout rose by the rose world was mixed, to use an understatement. Though the Knockout rose was the 2004 ARS members’ choice rose, rumblings abounded, and Knockout was even blamed in popular literature as a vector for the rose rosette virus (RRV), though this was later debunked. Fifty years ago RRV was observed in a number of rose varieties, long before the Knockout rose appeared. (This mite-spread virus was promulgated in the United States to control a pest rose, rosa multiflora, that was itself introduced without realizing what havoc it would wreak.) Again, I’m no scientist, but I would think the appearance of RRV in “domesticated” roses was inevitable, regardless of which rose variety was first identified by name as carrying this disease.

Rose hybridizing is now catching up with the public’s interests and the wider need for roses with strong disease resistance. Rose companies prominently tout disease resistance and many new varieties can be grown toxin-free. I selected Princesse Charlene de Monaco in part because it medaled as best hybrid tea in the 2018 Biltmore International Rose Trials, for which roses must perform well in terms of vigor and disease resistance as well as aesthetic qualities. There were companies such as Kordes who walked this walk before it was fashionable, but in typical change-adoption fashion, other vendors are adapting their own practices, because the market is demanding it.

But association leadership is driven by different goals than that for for-profit companies. A colleague of mine, after sharing his support for my successful run for ALA Executive Board, commented that it takes expertise to run a $50 million organization–skills not everyone has in equal abundance. My further reflection is that the kind of leadership we need at any one time is also unique to that moment, though–with absolutely no aspersions on our current crop of excellent leaders in ALA–historically, we have not always selected leadership for either general expertise or current needs, an issue hardly unique to ARS or ALA.

So I watch the ARS seesaw. As just one more example, recently I read an article within the same ARS email newsletter touting the value of lacewings for insect management, followed by an article about the value of chemical interventions that I know are toxic to beneficial insects. These aren’t just contradictory ideas; they are contradictory values, contradictory messages, and contradictory branding. And these conflicting messages are evident even before we look at the relationship between the national association and local societies (organized differently than ALA chapters but with the similar intent).

If I could deduce the current priorities for ARS from its magazine, website, and email newsletters, it would be the renovation of the ARS garden in Shreveport. The plan to update the 84-year-old “national rosarium” makes sense, if you like rose gardens, but it sounds more like a call to the passionate few than the general public. It’s hard to infer other priorities when website sections such as “Cyber Rosarian” invite members to ask questions that then go unanswered for over a year. The section called “Endorsed Products” is its own conflicted mix of chemical interventions, artificial fertilizers, and organic rose food. The website section on rose preservation–a goal embedded in the ARS mission statement, “The American Rose Society exists to promote the culture, preservation and appreciation of the Rose”–is a blank page with a note it is under construction. A section with videos by Paul Zimmerman is useful, but the rose recommendations by district are incomplete, and also raise the issue that ARS districts are organized geopolitically, not by climate. A rose suited for the long dry summers of Sonoma County may not do as well in Maui.

The ARS “Modern Roses” database has value, listing over 37,000 cultivars. But if I want insight into a specific rose, I use, which despite its generic name and rustic interface is the de facto go-to site for rose information, questions, and discussion, often in the context of region, climate, and approaches to sustainability. I pay a small annual fee for premium access, in part to get HMF’s extra goodies (advanced search, and access to lineage information) but primarily because this site gives me value and I want to support their work.

Though I couldn’t find data on the ARS website for membership numbers in national, district, or local societies, I intuit membership overall is declining. It is in our local society, where despite great programming in a region where many people grow roses, I am one of the younger members. Again, there are larger forces at work with association membership, but pointing to those forces and then doing business as usual is a recipe for slow death. Interestingly, the local rose society is aware of its challenges and interested in what it might mean to reposition itself for survival. Most recently, we founded a Facebook group that anyone could join (look for Redwood Empire Rose Society). But the society doesn’t have very much time, and a Facebook group isn’t the magic bullet.

To loop back to ALA for a moment: I can remember when the response to concerns about membership decline were that the library field was contracting as a whole and association membership was also less popular in general. But these days, ALA is invested in moving past these facts and asking, what then? ALA is willing to change to survive. And I believe that is why ALA will be around 100 years from now, assuming we continue to support human life on this continent.

As I ponder all this, deep in my association geekiness, I’m left with these questions: if the ARS can’t save itself, who will be there for the roses? Will the ad hoc, de facto green-garden rosarians form a new society, will they simply soldier on as a loose federation, or will the vendors determine the future of roses? Have rose societies begun talking about strategic redirection, consolidation, and other new approaches? Does the ARS see itself as a change leader? Where does the ARS see itself in 25 years? Am I just a naive member in the field, totally missing the point, or is there something to what I’m observing, outside the palace walls?

I’ve been writing this off and on for months. It’s Memorial Day and it’s now light enough outside to wander into our front yard, pruners and deadheading bucket in hand, iPhone in my pocket so I can share what bloomed while I slept. Over time I changed how I grow roses, but not why I grow roses. Somewhere in there is an insight, but it’s time to garden.

I have measured out my life in Doodle polls

You know that song? The one you really liked the first time you heard it? And even the fifth or fifteenth? But now your skin crawls when you hear it? That’s me and Doodle.

In the last three months I have filled out at least a dozen Doodle polls for various meetings outside my organization. I complete these polls at work, where my two-monitor setup means I can review my Outlook calendar while scrolling through a Doodle poll with dozens of date and time options. I don’t like to inflict Doodle polls on our library admin because she has her hands full enough, including managing my real calendar.

I have largely given up on earmarking dates on my calendar for these polls, and I just wait for the inevitable scheduling conflicts that come up. Some of these polls have so many options I would have absolutely no time left on my calendar for work meetings, many of which need to be made on fairly short notice. Not only that, I gird my loins for the inevitable “we can’t find a date, we’re Doodling again” messages that mean once again, I’m going to spend 15 minutes checking my calendar against a Doodle poll.

I understand the allure of Doodle; when I first “met” Doodle, I was in love. At last, a way to pick meeting dates without long, painful email threads! But we’re now deep into the Tragedy of the Doodle Commons, with no relief in sight.

Here are some Doodle ideas–you may have your own to toss in.

First, when possible, before Doodling, I ask for blackout dates. That narrows the available date/time combos and helps reduce the “we gotta Doodle again” scenarios.

Second, if your poll requires more than a little right-scrolling, reconsider how many options you’re providing. A poll with 40 options might as well be asking me to block out April. And I can’t do that.

Third, I have taken exactly one poll where the pollster chose to suppress other people’s responses, and I hope to never see that again. There is a whole gaming side to Doodling in which early respondents get to drive the dates that are selected, and suppressing other’s responses eliminates that capability. Plus I want to know who has and hasn’t responded, and yes, I may further game things when I have that information.

Also, if you don’t have to Doodle, just say no.

Memento DMV

This morning I spent 40 minutes in the appointment line at the Santa Rosa DMV to get my license renewed and converted to REAL ID, but was told I was “too early” to renew my license, which expires in September, so I have to return after I receive my renewal notice. I could have converted to REAL ID today, but I would still need to return to renew my license, at least as it was explained to me, and I do hope that was correct.

CC BY 4.0,

But–speaking as a librarian, and therefore from a profession steeped in resource management–I predict chaos in 2020 if DMV doesn’t rethink their workflow. We’re 18 months out from October 2020, the point at which people will not be able to board domestic flights if they don’t have a REAL ID or a valid passport, or another (and far less common) substitute.

Then again, California DMV is already in chaos. Their longtime leader retired, the replacement lasted 32 days, and their new leader has been there ca. 60 days. Last year featured the license renewal debacle, which I suspect impacted the man standing behind me. He said he was there to apply for his license again because he never received the one he applied for last fall. And California DMV is one of 10 states that still needs a REAL ID extension because it didn’t have it together on time.

Indeed, I was on the appointment line, and nearly everyone in that line was on their second visit to DMV for the task they were trying to accomplish, and not for lack of preparation on their part. Some of that was due to various DMV crises, and some of it is baked into DMV processes. Based on how their current policies were explained to me today at Window 13, I should never have been on that line in the first place; somewhere, in the online appointment process, the DMV should have prevented me from completing that task. I needlessly took up staff time at DMV.

But the bigger problem is a system that gets in its own way, like libraries that lock book drops during the day to force users to enter the libraries to return books. With me standing there at Window 13 with my online appointment, my license, and my four types of ID, the smart thing to do would be to complete the process and get me out of the pipeline of REAL ID applicants–or any other DMV activity. But that didn’t happen. And I suspect I’m just one drop in a big, and overflowing, bucket.

I suppose an adroit side move is to ensure your passport is current, but I hope we don’t reach the point where we need a passport to travel in our own country.

An Old-Skool Blog Post

I get up early these days and get stuff done — banking and other elder-care tasks for my mother, leftover work from the previous day, association or service work. A lot of this is writing, but it’s not writing.

I have a half-dozen unfinished blog posts in WordPress, and even more in my mind. I map them out and they are huge topics, so then I don’t write them. But looking back at the early days of this blog — 15 years ago! — I didn’t write long posts. I still wrote long-form for other media, but my blog posts were very much in the moment.

So this is an old-skool post designed to ease me back in the writing habit. I’ll strive for twice a week, which is double the output of the original blogger, Samuel Johnson. I’ll post for 15 minutes and move on to other things.

I am an association nerd, and I spend a lot of time thinking about associations of all kinds, particularly the American Library Association, the American Homebrewers Association, the American Rose Society, the Redwood Empire Rose Society, the local library advisory boards, my church, and our neighborhood association. Serving on the ALA Steering Committee on Organizational Effectiveness, I’m reminded of a few indelible truths.

One is that during the change management process you need to continuously monitor the temperature of the association you’re trying to change and in the words of one management pundit, keep fiddling with the thermostat. An association didn’t get that big or bureaucratic overnight, and it’s not going to get agile overnight, either.

Another is that the same people show up in each association, and–more interesting to me–stereotypes are not at play in determining who the change agents are. I had a great reminder of that 20 years ago, when I served as the library director for one of those tiny Barbie Dream libraries in upstate New York, and I led the migration from a card catalog to a shared system in a consortium. Too many people assumed that the library staff–like so many employees in these libraries, all female, and nearly all older women married to retired spouses–would be resistant to this change. In fact, they loved this change. They were fully on board with the relearning process and they were delighted and proud that they were now part of a larger system where they could not only request books from 30 other libraries but sometimes even lend books as well from our wee collection. There were changes they and the trustees resisted, and that was a good lesson too, but the truism of older women resisting technology was dashed against the rocks of reality.

My 15 minutes are up. I am going in early today because I need to print things, not because I am an older woman who fears technology but because our home printer isn’t working and I can’t trust that I’ll have seatback room on my flight to Chicago to open my laptop and read the ALA Executive Board manual electronically, let alone annotate it or mark it up. I still remember the time I was on a flight, using my RPOD (Red Pen of Death, a fine-point red-ink Sharpie) to revise an essay, and the passenger next to me turned toward me wide-eyed and whispered, “Are you a TEACHER?” Such is the power of RPOD, an objective correlative that can immediately evoke the fear of correction from decades ago.

Keeping Council

Commemorative Coin, 1893 World ExpoEditorial note: Over half of this post was composed in July 2017. At the time, this post could have been seen as politically neutral (where ALA is the political landscape I’m referring to) but tilted toward change and reform. Since then, Events Have Transpired. I revised this post in November, but at the time hesitated to post it because Events Were Still Transpiring. Today, in January 2018, I believe even more strongly in what I write here, but take note that the post didn’t have a hidden agenda when I wrote it, and, except where noted, it still reflects my thoughts from last July, regardless of ensuing events. My agendas tend to be fairly straightforward. — KGS


Original Post, in which Councilors are Urged to Council

Edits in 2018 noted with bolding.

As of July 2017, I am back on ALA Council for my fifth (non-consecutive) term since joining the American Library Association in 1991. In June I attended Council Orientation, and though it was excellent–the whole idea that Councilors would benefit from an introduction to the process is a beneficial concept that emerged over the last two decades–it did make me reflect on what I would add if there had been a follow-on conversation with sitting Councilors called “sharing the wisdom.” I was particularly alerted to that by comments during Orientation which pointed up a traditional view of the Council process where ALA’s largest governing body is largely inactive for over 350 days a year, only rousing when we prepare to meet face to face.

Take or leave what I say here, or boldly contradict me, but it does come from an abundance of experience.

You are a Councilor year-round

Most newly-elected Councilors “take their seats” immediately after the annual conference following their election — a factoid with significance. Council, as a body, struggles with being a year-round entity that takes action twice a year during highly-condensed meetings during a conference with many other things happening. I have written about this before, in a dryly wonky post from 2012 that also addresses Council’s composition and the role of chapters. I proposed that Council meet four times a year, in a solstice-and-equinox model. Two of those meetings (the “solstice” meetings) could  be online. (As far back as 2007 I was hinting around about the overhead and carbon footprint of Midwinter.) I doubt Midwinter will go to an online format even within the next decade–it’s a moneymaker for ALA, if less so than before, and ALA’s change cycle is glacial–but the proposal was intended to get people thinking about how Council does, and doesn’t, operate.

In lieu of any serious reconsideration of Council, here are some thoughts.

First, think of yourself as a year-round Councilor, even if you do not represent a constituency such as a state chapter or a division that meets and takes action outside of ALA. Have at least a passing familiarity with the ALA Policy Manual. Bookmark it and be prepared to reference it. Get familiar with ALA’s financial model through the videos that explain things such as the operating agreement. Read and learn about ALA. Share news. Read the reports shared on the list, and post your thoughts and your questions. Think critically about what you’re reading. It’s possible to love your Association, believe with your heart that it has a bright future, and still raise your eyebrows about pat responses to budget questions, reassurances that membership figures and publishing revenue will rebound, and glib responses about the value of units such as the Planning and Budget Assembly.

Come to Council prepared. Read everything you can in advance, speak with other Councilors, and apply solid reflection, and research if needed, before you finish packing for your trip. Preparation requires an awareness that you will be deluged with reading just as you are struggling to button up work at your library and preparing to be away for nearly a week, so skimming is essential. I focus on issues where I know I can share expertise, and provide input when I can. Also, I am proud we do memorial resolutions and other commemorations but I don’t dwell on them in advance unless I have helped write them or had close familiarity with the people involved.

Fee, Fie, Foe, Forum

Coming prepared to Council is one of those values Council has struggled with. Looking at the Council list for the week prior to Annual 2017, the only conversation was a discussion about the relocation of the Council Forum meeting room from one hotel to another, complete with an inquiry asking if ALA could rent a special bus to tote Councilors to and from the Forum hotel.

Council Forum is an informal convening that has taken place for decades to enable Council to discuss resolutions and other actions outside of the strictures of parliamentary procedure. It meets three times during ALA, in the evening, and though it is optional, I agree with the Councilor who noted that important work happens at this informal gathering.

I am conflicted about Forum. It allows substantive discussion about key resolutions to happen outside of the constrictive frameworks of parliamentary procedure. Forum is also well-run, with volunteer Councilors managing the conversation. But Forum also appears to have morphed into a substitute for reading and conversation in advance. It also means that Councilors have to block out yet more time to do “the work of the Association,” which in turn takes us away from other opportunities during the few days we are together as an Association. I don’t say this to whine about the sacrifice of giving up dinners and networking with ALA colleagues, though those experiences are important to me, but rather to point out that Forum as a necessary-but-optional Council activity takes a silo–that Brobdingnabian body that is ALA Council–and further silos it. That can’t be good for ALA. As Councilors, we benefit from cross-pollination with the work of the Association.

Resolved: To tread lightly with resolutions

New Councilors, and I was one of them once, are eager to solve ALA’s problems by submitting resolutions. Indeed, there are new Councilors who see resolutions as the work of Council, and there have been round tables and other units that clearly saw their work as generating reams of lightly-edited, poorly-written resolutions just prior to and during the conference.

There are at least three questions to ask before submitting a resolution (other than memorial and other commemorative resolutions):

  • Can the resolution itself help solve a problem?
  • Has it been coordinated with the units and people involved in the issue it addresses?
  • Is it clear and well-written?

There are other questions worth considering, such as, if the issue this resolution proposed to address cropped up a month after Council met, would you still push it online with your Council colleagues, or ask the ALA Executive Board to address it? Which is another way to ask, is it important?

Tread lightly with Twitter

Overall, since coming through the stress of living through the Santa Rosa fires, I’m feeling weary, and perhaps wary, of social media. Though I appreciate the occasional microbursts taking on idiots insulting libraries and so on, right now much of social media feels at once small and overwrought. If I seem quieter on social media, that’s true. (But I have had more conversations with neighbors and area residents during and after the fires than I have since we moved to Santa Rosa in early 2015, and those convos are the real thing.)

More problematically, as useful as Twitter can be for following real-world issues–including ALA–Twitter also serves as a place where people go to avoid the heavy lifting involved with crucial conversations. I find I like #alacouncil Twitter best when it is gently riffing on itself or amplifying action that the larger ALA body would benefit hearing about. [the following, to the end of this post, is all new content] I like #alacouncil Twitter least when it is used as a substitute for authentic conversation, used to insult other Councilors, or otherwise undermining the discourse taking place in the meatware world. Twitter is also particularly good at the unthinking pile-on, and many people have  vulnerabilities in this area that are easily exploited.

Sometimes those pile-ons hit me close to home, as happened a little over a year ago. Other times these pile-ons serve only to amuse the minx in me, such as when a Famous Author (â„¢) recently scolded me for “trafficking in respectability politics” because I was recommending a list of books written by writers from what our fearless leader calls “s–thole countries.” Guilty as charged! Indeed, I have conducted two studies where a major theme was “Do I look too gay?” I basically have a Ph.D. in respectability politics. And like all writers–including Famous Author (â„¢)–I traffic in them. I chuckled and walked on by.

Walking on by, on Twitter, takes different forms. As an administrator, I practice a certain pleasant-but-not-sugary facial expression that stays on my face regardless of what’s going on in my head. I’m not denying my emotions, which would be the sugary face; I’m managing them. It’s a kind of discipline that also helps me fjord difficult conversations, in which the discipline of managing my face also helps me manage my brain.

The equivalent of my Admin Face for me for #alacouncil Twitter is to exercise the mute button. I have found it invaluable. People don’t know they are muted (or unmuted). If only real life had mute buttons–can you imagine how much better some meetings would be if you could click a button and the person speaking would be silenced, unaware that you couldn’t hear them? Everyone wins. But that aside, I have yet to encounter a situation on Twitter when–for me–muting was the wrong call. It’s as if you stepped off the elevator and got away from that person smacking gum. Another car will be along momentarily.

My last thought on this post has to do with adding the term “sitting” before Councilors in the first part of this post. When I was not on Council I tried very hard not to be “that” former Councilor who is always kibitizing behind scene, sending Councilors messages about how things should be and how, in the 1960s, ALA did something bad and therefore we can never vote online because nobody knows how to find ALA Connect and it’s all a nefarious plot hatched by the ALA President, his dimwitted sycophants, and the Executive Board, and why can’t MY division have more representation because after all we’re the 800-pound gorilla (ok, I just got political, but you’ll note I left out anything about what should or should not be required for a Very Special Job).

Yes, once in a while I sent a note if I thought it was helpful, the way some of my very ALA-astute friends will whisper in my ear about policy and process I may be unfamiliar with. Michael Golrick, a very connected ALA friend of mine, must have a third brain hemisphere devoted to the ALA policy manual and bylaws. And during a time when I was asking a lot of questions about the ALA budget (boiling down to one question: who do you think you’re fooling?), I was humbled by the pantheon of ALA luminaries whispering in my ear, providing encouragement as well as crucial guidance and information.

But when I am no longer part of something, I am mindful that things can and should change and move on, and that I may not have enough information to inform that change. We don’t go to ALA in horse-and-buggies any more, but we conduct business as if we do, and when we try to change that, the fainting couches are rolled out and the smelling salts waved around as if we had, say, attempted to change the ALA motto, which is, I regret to inform you, “The best reading, for the largest number, at the least cost”–and yes, attempts to change that have been defeated. My perennial question is, if you were starting an association today, how would it function? If the answer is “as it did in 1893” (when that motto was adopted), perhaps your advice on a current situation is less salient than you fancy. You may succeed at what you’re doing, but that doesn’t make you right.

And with that, I go off to Courthouse Square today to make exactly that point about events writ much, much larger, and of greater significance, than our fair association. But I believe how we govern makes a difference, and I believe in libraries and library workers, and I believe in ALA. Especially today.

What burns away

We are among the lucky ones. We did not lose our home. We did not spend day after day evacuated, waiting to learn the fate of where we live. We never lost power or Internet. We had three or four days where we were mildly inconvenienced because PG&E wisely turned off gas to many neighborhoods, but we showered at the YMCA and cooked on an electric range we had been planning to upgrade to gas later this fall (and just did, but thank you, humble Frigidaire electric range, for being there to let me cook out my anxiety). We kept our go-bags near the car, and then we kept our go-bags in the car, and then, when it seemed safe, we took them out again. That, and ten days of indoor living and wearing masks when we went out, was all we went through.

But we all bear witness.

The Foreshadowing

It began with a five-year drought that crippled forests and baked plains, followed by an soaking-wet winter and a lush  spring that crowded the hillsides with greenery. Summer temperatures hit records several times, and the hills dried out as they always do right before autumn, but this time unusually crowded with parched foliage and growth.

The air in Santa Rosa was hot and dry that weekend, an absence of humidity you could snap between your fingers. In the southwest section of the city, where we live, nothing seemed unusual. Like many homes in Santa Rosa our home does not have air conditioning, so for comfort’s sake I grilled our dinner, our 8-foot backyard fence buffering any hint of the winds gathering speed northeast of us. We watched TV and went to bed early.

Less than an hour later one of several major fires would be born just 15 miles east of where we slept.

Reports vary, but accounts agree it was windy that Sunday night, with windspeeds ranging between 35 and 79 miles per hour, and a gust northwest of Santa Rosa reaching nearly 100 miles per hour. If the Diablo winds were not consistently hurricane-strength, they were exceptionally fast, hot, and dry, and they meant business.

A time-lapse map of 911 calls shows the first reports of downed power lines and transformers coming in around 10 pm.  The Tubbs fire was named for a road that is named for a 19th-century winemaker who lived in a house in  Calistoga that burned to the ground in an eerily similar fire in 1964. In three hours this fire sped 12 miles southwest, growing in size and intent as it gorged on hundreds and then thousands of homes in its way, breaching city limits and expeditiously laying waste to 600 homes in the Fountaingrove district before it tore through the Journey’s End mobile home park, then reared back on its haunches and leapt across a six-lane divided section of Highway 101, whereupon it gobbled up big-box stores and fast food restaurants flanking Cleveland Avenue, a business road parallel to the highway.  Its swollen belly, fat with miles of fuel, dragged over the area and took out buildings in the  the random manner of fires. Kohl’s and KMart were totaled and Trader Joe’s was badly damaged, while across the street from KMart, JoAnn Fabrics was untouched. The fire demolished one Mexican restaurant, hopscotched over another, and feasted on a gun shop before turning its ravenous maw toward the quiet middle-class neighborhood of Coffey Park, making short work of thousands more homes.

Santa Rosa proper is itself only 41 square miles, approximately 13 miles north-south and 9 miles east-west, including the long tail of homes flanking the Annadel mountains. By the time Kohl’s was collapsing, the “wildfire” was less than 4 miles from our home.

I woke up around 2 am, which I tend to do a lot anyway. I walked outside and smelled smoke, saw people outside their homes looking around, and went on Twitter and FaceBook. There I learned of a local fire, forgotten by most in the larger conflagration, but duly noted in brief by the Press Democrat: a large historic home at 6th and Pierson burned to the ground, possibly from  a downed transformer, and the fire licked the edge of the Santa Rosa Creek Trail for another 100 feet. Others in the West End have reported the same experience of reading about the 6th Street house fire on social media and struggling to reconcile the reports of this fire with reports of panic and flight from areas north of us and videos of walls of flame.

At 4 am I received a call that the university had activated its Emergency Operations Center and I asked if I should report in. I showered and dressed, packed a change of clothes in a tote bag, threw my bag of important documents in my purse, and drove south on my usual route to work, Petaluma Hill Road. The hills east of the road flickered with fire, the road itself was packed with fleeing drivers, and halfway to campus I braked at 55 mph when a massive buck sprang inches in front of my car, not running in that “oops, is this a road?” way deer usually cross lanes of traffic but yawing too and fro, its eyes wide. I still wonder, was it hurt or dying.

As I drove onto campus I thought, the cleaning crew. I parked at the Library and walked through the building, already permeated with smoky air. I walked as quietly as I could, so that if they were anywhere in the building I would hear them. As I walked through the silent building I wondered, is this the last time I will see these books? These computers? The new chairs I’m so proud of? I then went to the EOC and found the cleaning crew had been accounted for, which was a relief.

At Least There Was Food And Beer

A few hours later I went home. We had a good amount of food in the house, but like many of us who were part of this disaster but not immediately affected by it, I decided to stock up. The entire Santa Rosa Marketplace– CostCo and Trader Joe’s, Target–on Santa Rosa Avenue was closed, and Oliver’s had a line outside of people waiting to get in. I went to the “G&G Safeway”–the one that took over a down-at-the-heels family market known as G&G and turned it into a spiffy market with a wine bar, no less–and it was without power, but open for business and, thanks to a backup system, able to take ATM cards. I had emergency cash on me but was loathe to use it until I had to.

Sweating through an N95 mask I donned to protect my lungs, I wheeled my cart through the dark store, selecting items that would provide protein and carbs if we had to stuff them in our go-bags, but also fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy and eggs–things I thought we might not see for a while, depending on how the disaster panned out. (Note, we do already have emergency food, water, and other supplies.) The cold case for beer was off-limits–Safeway was trying to retain the cold in its freezer and fridge cases in case it could save the food–but there was a pile of cases of Lagunitas Lil Sumpin Sumpin on sale, so that with a couple of bottles of local wine went home with me too.

And with one wild interlude, for most of the rest of the time we stayed indoors with the windows closed.  I sent out email updates and made phone calls, kept my phone charged and read every Nexil alert, and people at work checked in with one another. My little green library emergency contact card stayed in my back pocket the entire time. We watched TV and listened to the radio, including extraordinary local coverage by KSRO, the Little Station that Could; patrolled newspapers and social media; and rooted for Sheriff Rob, particularly after his swift smack-down of a bogus, Breitbart-fueled report that an undocumented person had started the fires.

Our home was unoccupied for a long time before we moved in this September, possibly up to a decade, while it was slowly but carefully upgraded. The electric range was apparently an early purchase; it was a line long discontinued by Frigidaire, with humble electric coils. But it had been unused until we arrived, and was in perfect condition. If an electric range could express gratitude for finally being useful, this one did. I used it to cook homey meals: pork loin crusted with Smithfield bacon; green chili cornbread; and my sui generis meatloaf, so named because every time I make it, I grind and add meat scraps from the freezer for a portion of the meat mixture. (It would be several weeks before I felt comfortable grilling again.) We cooked. We stirred. We sauteed. We waited.

On Wednesday, we had to run an errand. To be truthful, it was an Amazon delivery purchased that Saturday, when the world was normal, and sent to an Amazon locker at the capacious Whole Foods at Coddington Mall, a good place to send a package until the mall closes down because the northeast section of the city is out of power and threatened by a massive wildfire. By Wednesday, Whole Foods had reopened, and after picking up my silly little order–a gadget that holds soda cans in the fridge–we drove past Russian River Brewing Company and saw it was doing business, so we had salad and beer for lunch, because it’s a luxury to have beer at lunch and the fires were raging and it’s so hard to get seating there nights and weekends, when I have time to go there, but there we were. We asked our waiter how he was doing, and he said he was fine but he motioned to the table across from ours, where a family was enjoying pizza and beer, and he said they had lost their homes.

There were many people striving for routine during the fires, and to my surprise, even the city planning office returned correspondence regarding some work we have planned for our new home, offering helpful advice on the permitting process required for minor improvements for homes in historic districts. Because it turns out developers and engineers could serenely ignore local codes and build entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa in areas known to be vulnerable to wildfire; but to replace bare dirt with a little white wooden picket fence, or to restore front windows from 1950s-style plate glass to double-hung wooden windows with mullions–projects intended to reinstate our house to its historic accuracy, and to make it more welcoming–requires a written justification of the project, accompanying photos, “Proposed Elevations (with Landscape Plan IF you are significantly altering landscape) (5 copies),” five copies of a paper form, a Neighborhood Context and Vicinity Map provided by the city, and a check for $346, followed by “8-12 weeks” before a decision is issued.

The net result of this process is like the codes about not building on ridges, though much less dangerous; most people ignore the permitting process, so that the historic set piece that is presumably the goal is instead rife with anachronisms. And of course, first I had to bone up on the residential building code and the historic district guidelines, which contradict one another on key points, and because the permitting process is poorly documented I have an email traffic thread rivaling in word count Byron’s letters to his lovers.

But the planning people are very pleasant, and we all seemed to take comfort in plodding through the administrivia of city bureaucracy as if we were not all sheltering in place, masks over our noses and mouths, go-bags in our cars, while fires raged just miles from their office and our home.

The Wild Interlude, or, I Have Waited My Entire Career For This Moment

Regarding the wild interlude, the first thing to know about my library career is that nearly everywhere I have gone where I have had the say-so to make things happen, I have implemented key management. That mishmosh of keys in  a drawer, the source of so much strife and arguments, becomes an orderly key locker with numbered labels. It doesn’t happen overnight, because keys are control and control is political and politics are what we tussle about in libraries because we don’t have that much money, but it happens.

Sometimes I even succeed in convincing people to sign keys out so we know who has them. Other times I convince people to buy a locker with a keypad so we sidestep the question of where the key to the key locker is kept. But mostly, I leave behind the lockers, and, I hope, an appreciation for lockers. I realize it’s not quite as impressive as founding the Library of Alexandria, and it’s not what people bring up when I am introduced as a keynote speaker, and I have never had anyone ask for a tour of my key lockers nor have I ever been solicited to write a peer-reviewed article on key lockers. However unheralded, it’s a skill.

My memory insists it was Tuesday, but the calendar says it was late Monday night when I received a call that the police could not access a door to an area of the library where we had high-value items. It would turn out that this was a rogue lock, installed sometime soon after the library opened in 2000, that unlike others did not have a master registered with the campus, an issue we have since rectified. But in any event, the powers that be had the tremendous good fortune to contact the person who has been waiting her entire working life to prove beyond doubt that KEY LOCKERS ARE IMPORTANT.

After a brief internal conversation with myself, I silently nixed the idea of offering to walk someone through finding the key. I said I knew where the key was, and I could be there in twenty minutes to find it. I wasn’t entirely sure this was the case, because as obsessed as I am with key lockers, this year I have been preoccupied with things such as my deanly duties, my doctoral degree completion, national association work, our home purchase and household move, and the selection of geegaws like our new gas range (double oven! center griddle!). This means I had not spend a lot of time perusing this key locker’s manifest. So there was an outside chance I would have to find the other key, located somewhere in an another department, which would require a few more phone calls. I was also in that liminal state between sleep and waking; I had been asleep for two hours after being up since 2 am, and I would have agreed to do just about anything.

Within minutes I was dressed and again driving down Petaluma Hill Road, still busy with fleeing cars.  The mountain ridges to the east of the road roiled with flames, and I gripped the steering wheel, watching for more animals bolting from fire. Once in the library, now sour with smoke, I ran up the stairs into my office suite and to the key locker, praying hard that the key I sought was in it. My hands shook. There it was, its location neatly labeled by the key czarina who with exquisite care had overseen the organization of the key locker. The me who lives in the here-and-now profusely thanked past me for my legacy of key management, with a grateful nod to the key czarina as well. What a joy it is to be able to count on people!

Items were packed up, and off they rolled. After a brief check-in at the EOC, home I went, to a night of “fire sleep”–waking every 45 minutes to sniff the air and ask, is fire approaching?–a type of sleep I would have for the next ten days, and occasionally even now.

How we speak to one another in the here and now

Every time Sandy and I interact with people, we ask, how are you. Not, hey, how are ya, where the expected answer is “fine, thanks” even if you were just turned down for a mortgage or your mother died. But no, really, how are you. Like, fire-how-are-you. And people usually tell you, because everyone has a story. Answers range from: I’m ok, I live in Petaluma or Sebastopol or Bodega Bay (in SoCo terms, far from the fire), to I’m ok but I opened my home to family/friends/people who evacuated or lost their homes; or, I’m ok but we evacuated for a week; or, as the guy from Home Depot said, I’m ok and so is my wife, my daughter, and our 3 cats, but we lost our home.

Sometimes they tell you and they change the subject, and sometimes they stop and tell you the whole story: when they first smelled smoke, how they evacuated, how they learned they did or did not lose their home. Sometimes they have before-and-after photos they show you. Sometimes they slip it in between other things, like our cat sitter, who mentioned that she lost her apartment in Fountaingrove and her cat died in the fire but in a couple of weeks she would have a home and she’d be happy to cat-sit for us.

Now, post-fire, we live in that tritest of phrases, a new normal. The Library opened that first half-day back, because I work with people who like me believe that during disasters libraries should be the first buildings open and the last to close. I am proud to report the Library also housed NomaCares, a resource center for those at our university affected by the fire. That first Friday back we held our Library Operations meeting, and we shared our stories, and that was hard but good. But we also resumed regular activity, and soon the study tables and study rooms were full of students, meetings were convened, work was resumed, and the gears of life turned. But the gears turned forward, not back. Because there is no way back.

I am a city mouse, and part of moving to Santa Rosa was our decision to live in a highly citified section, which turned out to be a lucky call. But my mental model of city life has been forever twisted by this fire. I drive on 101 just four miles north of our home, and there is the unavoidable evidence of a fire boldly leaping into an unsuspecting city. I go to the fabric store, and I pass twisted blackened trees and a gun store totaled that first night. I drive to and from work with denuded hills to my east a constant reminder.

But that’s as it should be. Even if we sometimes need respite from those reminders–people talk about taking new routes so they won’t see scorched hills and devastated neighborhoods–we cannot afford to forget. Sandy and I have moved around the country in our 25 years together, and we have seen clues everywhere that things are changing and we need to take heed. People like to lapse into the old normal, but it is not in our best interests to do so.

All of our stories are different. But we share a collective loss of innocence, and we can never return to where we were. We can only move forward, changed by the fire, changed forever.

Neutrality is anything but

“We watch people dragged away and sucker-punched at rallies as they clumsily try to be an early-warning system for what they fear lies ahead.” – Unwittingly prophetic me, March, 2016.

Sheet cake photo by Flickr user Glane23. CC by 2.0

Sometime after last November, I realized something very strange was happening with my clothes. My slacks had suddenly shrunk, even if I hadn’t washed them. After months of struggling to keep myself buttoned into my clothes, I gave up and purchased slacks and jeans one size larger. I call them my T***p Pants.

This post is about two things. It is about the lessons librarians are learning in this frightening era about the nuances and qualifications shadowing our deepest core values–an era so scary that quite a few of us, as Tina Fey observed, have acquired T***p Pants. And it’s also some advice, take it or leave it, on how to “be” in this era.

I suspect many librarians have had the same thoughts I have been sharing with a close circle of colleagues. Most librarians take pride in our commitment to free speech. We see ourselves as open to all viewpoints. But in today’s new normal, we have seen that even we have limits.

This week, the ACRL Board of Directors put out a statement condemning the violence in Charlottesville. That was the easy part. The Board then stated, “ACRL is unwavering in its long-standing commitment to free exchange of different viewpoints, but what happened in Charlottesville was not that; instead, it was terrorism masquerading as free expression.”

You can look at what happened in Charlottesville and say there was violence “from many sides,” some of it committed by “very fine people” who just happen to be Nazis surrounded by their own private militia of heavily-armed white nationalists. Or you can look at Charlottesville and see terrorism masquerading as free expression, where triumphant hordes descended upon a small university town under the guise of protecting some lame-ass statue of an American traitor, erected sixty years after the end of the Civil War, not coincidentally during a very busy era for the Klan. Decent people know the real reason the Nazis were in Charlottesville: to tell us they are empowered and emboldened by our highest elected leader.

There is no middle ground. You can’t look at Charlottesville and see everyday people innocently exercising First Amendment rights.

As I and many others have argued for some time now, libraries are not neutral.  Barbara Fister argues, “we stand for both intellectual freedom and against bigotry and hate, which means some freedoms are not countenanced.” She goes on to observe, “we don’t have all the answers, but some answers are wrong.”

It goes to say that if some answers are wrong, so are some actions. In these extraordinary times, I found myself for the first time ever thinking the ACLU had gone too far; that there is a difference between an unpopular stand, and a stand that is morally unjustifiable. So I was relieved when the national ACLU concurred with its three Northern California chapters that “if white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution. The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”

But I was also sad, because once again, our innocence has been punctured and our values qualified. Every asterisk we put after “free speech” is painful. It may be necessary and important pain, but it is painful all the same. Many librarians are big-hearted people who like to think that our doors are open to everyone and that all viewpoints are welcome, and that enough good ideas, applied frequently, will change people. And that is actually very true, in many cases, and if I didn’t think it was true I would conclude I was in the wrong profession.

But we can’t change people who don’t want to be changed. Listen to this edition of The Daily, a podcast from the New York Times, where American fascists plan their activities. These are not people who are open to reason. As David Lankes wrote, “there are times when a community must face the fact that parts of that community are simply antithetical to the ultimate mission of a library.”

We urgently need to be as one voice as a profession around these issues. I was around for–was part of–the “filtering wars” of the 1990s, when libraries grappled with the implications of the Internet bringing all kinds of content into libraries, which also challenged our core values. When you’re hand-selecting the materials you share with your users, you can pretend you’re open to all points of view. The Internet challenged that pretense, and we struggled and fought, and were sometimes divided by opportunistic outsiders.

We are fortunate to have strong ALA leadership this year. The ALA Board and President came up swinging on Tuesday with an excellent presser that stated unequivocally that “the vile and racist actions and messages of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Charlottesville are in stark opposition to the ALA’s core values,” a statement that (in the tradition of ensuring chapters speak first) followed a strong statement from our Virginia state association.  ARL also chimed in with a stemwinder of a statement.  I’m sure we’ll see more.

But ALA’s statement also describes the mammoth horns of the library dilemma. As I wrote colleagues, “My problem is I want to say I believe in free speech and yet every cell in my body resists the idea that we publicly support white supremacy by giving it space in our meeting rooms.” If you are in a library institution that has very little likelihood of exposure to this or similar crises, the answers can seem easy, and our work appears done. But for more vulnerable libraries, it is crucial that we are ready to speak with one voice, and that we be there for those libraries when they need us. How we get there is the big question.

I opened this post with an anecdote about my T***p pants, and I’ll wrap it up with a concern. It is so easy on social media to leap in to condemn, criticize, and pick apart ideas. Take this white guy, in an Internet rag, the week after the election, chastising people for not doing enough.  You know what’s not enough? Sitting on Twitter bitching about other people not doing enough. This week, Siva Vaidhyanathan posted a spirited defense of a Tina Fey skit where she addressed the stress and anxiety of these political times.  Siva is in the center of the storm, which gives him the authority to state an opinion about a sketch about Charlottesville. I thought Fey’s skit was insightful on many fronts. It addressed the humming anxiety women have felt since last November (if not earlier). It was–repeatedly–slyly critical of inaction: “love is love, Colin.” It even had a Ru Paul joke. A lot of people thought it was funny, but then the usual critics came out to call it naive, racist, un-funny, un-woke, advocating passivity, whatever.

We are in volatile times, and there are provocateurs from outside, but also from inside. Think. Breathe. Step away from the keyboard. Take a walk. Get to know the mute button in Twitter and the unfollow feature in Facebook. Pull yourself together and think about what you’re reading, and what you’re planning to say. Interrogate your thinking, your motives, your reactions.

I’ve read posts by librarians deriding their peers for creating subject guides on Charlottesville, saying instead we should be punching Nazis. Get a grip. First off, in real life, that scenario is unlikely to transpire. You, buried in that back cubicle in that library department, behind three layers of doors, are not encountering a Nazi any time soon, and if you did, I recommend fleeing, because that wackdoodle is likely accompanied by a trigger-happy militiaman carrying a loaded gun. (There is an entire discussion to be had about whether violence to violence is the politically astute response, but that’s for another day.) Second, most librarians understand that their everyday responses to what is going on in the world are not in and of themselves going to defeat the rise of fascism in America. But we are information specialists and it’s totally wonderful and cool to respond to our modern crisis with information, and we need to be supportive and not go immediately into how we are all failing the world. Give people a positive framework for more action, not scoldings for not doing enough.

In any volatile situation, we need to slow the eff down and ask how we’re being manipulated and to what end; that is a lesson the ACLU just learned the hard way. My colleague Michael Stephens is known for saying, “speak with a human voice.” I love his advice, and I would add, make it the best human voice you have. We need one another, more than we know.


MPOW in the here and now

SSU clocktower with UFO and monsters

Sometimes we have monsters and UFOs, but for the most part it’s a great place to work

I have coined a few biblioneologisms in my day, but the one that has had the longest legs is MPOW (My Place of Work), a convenient, mildly-masking shorthand for one’s institution. For the last four years I haven’t had the bandwidth to coin neologisms, let alone write about MPOW*.

This silence could be misconstrued. I love what I do, and I love where I am. I work with a great team on a beautiful campus for a university that is undergoing a lot of good change. We are just wrapping up the first phase of a visioning project to help our large, well-lit building serve its communities well for the decades to come. We’re getting ready to join the other 22 CSU libraries on OneSearch, our first-ever unified library management system. We have brought on some great hires, thrown some great events (the last one featured four Black Panthers talking about their life work — wow!). With a new dean (me) and a changing workforce, we are developing our own personality.

It’s all good… and getting better

The Library was doing well when I arrived, so my job was to revitalize and switch it up. As noted in one of the few posts about MPOW, the libraries in my system were undergoing their own reassessment, and that has absorbed a fair amount of our attention, but we continue to move forward.

Sometimes it’s the little things. You may recall I am unreasonably proud of the automated table of contents I generated for my dissertation, and I also feel that way about MPOW’s slatwall book displays, which in ten areas beautifully market new materials in spaces once occupied by prison-industry bookcases or ugly carpet and unused phones (what were the phones for? Perhaps we will never know).

The slatwall was a small project that was a combination of expertise I brought from other libraries, good teamwork at MPOW, and knowing folks. The central problem was answered quickly by an email to a colleague in my doctoral program (hi, Cindy!) who manages public libraries where I saw the displays I thought would be a good fit. The team selected the locations, a staff member with an eye for design recommended the color, everyone loves it, and the books fly off the shelves. If there is any complaining, it is that we need more slatwall.

Installed slatwall needs to wait until we know if we are moving/removing walls as part of our building improvements. A bigger holdup is that we need to hire an Access Services Manager, and really, anything related to collections needs the insight of a collections librarian.

People… who need people…

But we had failed searches for both these positions… in the case of collections, twice. *cue mournful music* We have filled other positions with great people now doing great things, and are on track to fill more positions, but these two, replacing people who have retired, are frustrating us. The access services position is a managerial role, and the collections librarian is a tenure-track position. Both offer a lot of opportunity.

We are relaunching both searches very soon (I’ll post a brief update when that happens), and here’s my pitch. If you think you might qualify for either position, please apply. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. If you know someone who would be a good fit for either position, ask them to apply.

I recently mentored someone who was worried about applying to a position. “Will that library hold it against me if I am not qualified?” The answer is of course not!  (And if they do, well, you dodged that bullet!) I have watched far too many people self-select out of positions they were qualified for (hrrrrmmmm particularly one gender…). Qualification means expertise + capacity + potential. We expect this to be a bit of a stretch to you. If a job is really good, most days will have a “fake it til you make it” quality.

This is also not a “sink or swim” institution. If it ever was, those days are in the dim past, long before I arrived. The climate is positive. People do great things and we do our best to support them. I see our collective responsibility as an organization as to help one another succeed.

Never mind me and my preoccupation with slatwall (think of it as something to keep the dean busy and happy, like a baby with a binky). We are a great team, a great library, on a great campus, and we’re a change-friendly group with a minimum of organizational issues, and I mean it. I have worked enough places to put my hand on a Bible and swear to that. It has typical organizational challenges, and it’s a work in progress… as are we all. The area is crazily expensive, but it’s also really beautiful and so convenient for any lifestyle. You like city? We got city. You like suburb, or ocean, or mountain, or lake? We got that!

Anyway, that’s where I am with MPOW: I’m happy enough, and confident enough, to use this blog post to BEG YOU OH PLEASE HELP US FILL THESE POSITIONS. The people who join us will be glad you did.


*   Sidebar: the real hilarity of coining neologisms is that quite often someone, generally of a gender I do not identify with, will heatedly object to the term, as happened in 2004 when I coined the term biblioblogosphere. Then, as I noted in that post from 2012, others will defend it. That leads me to believe that creating new words is the linguistic version of lifting one’s hind leg on a tree.

Questions I have been asked about doctoral programs

About six months ago I was visiting another institution when someone said to me, “Oh, I used to read your blog, BACK IN THE DAY.”

Ah yes, back in the day, that Pleistocene era when I wasn’t working on a PhD while holding down a big job and dealing with the rest of life’s shenanigans. So now the PhD is done–I watched my committee sign the signature page, two copies of it, even, before we broke out the champers and celebrated–and here I am again. Not blogging every day, as I did once upon a time, but still freer to put virtual pen to electronic paper as the spirit moves me.

I have a lot to catch up on–for example, I understand there was an election last fall, and I hear it may not have gone my way–but the first order of business is to address the questions I have had from library folk interested in doctoral programs. Note that my advice is not directed at librarians whose goal is to become faculty in LIS programs.

Dropping Back In

One popular question comes from people who had dropped out of doctoral programs. Could they ever be accepted into a program again? I’m proof there is a patron saint for second chances. I spent one semester in a doctoral program in 1995 and dropped out for a variety of reasons–wrong time, wrong place, too many life events happening. At the time, I felt that dropping out was the academic equivalent of You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, but part of higher education is a series of head games, and that was one of them.

The second time around, I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted from a program and what kind of program would work for me, and I had the confluence of good timing and good luck. The advice Tom Galvin gave me in 1999, when Sandy and I were living in Albany and when Tom–a longtime ALA activist and former ALA Exec Director–was teaching at SUNY Albany, still seems sound: you can drop out of one program and still find your path back to a doctorate, just don’t drop out of two programs.

I also have friends who suffered through a semester or two, then decided it wasn’t for them. When I started the program, I remember thinking “I need this Ph.D. because I could never get a job at, for example, X without it.” Then I watched as someone quite accomplished, with no interest in ever pursuing even a second masters, was hired at X. There is no shame in deciding the cost/benefit analysis isn’t there for you–though I learned, through this experience, that I was in the program for other, more sustainable reasons.

Selecting Your Program

I am also asked what program to attend. To that my answer is, unless you are very young and can afford to go into, and hopefully out of, significant amounts of debt, pick the program that is most affordable and allows you to continue working as a professional (though if you are at a point in life when you can afford to take a couple years off and get ‘er done, more power to you). That could be a degree offered by your institution or in cooperation with another institution, or otherwise at least partially subsidized. I remember pointing out to an astonished colleague that the Ed.D. he earned for free (plus many Saturdays of sweat equity) was easily worth $65,000, based on the tuition rate at his institution.

Speaking of which, I get asked about Ph.D. versus Ed.D. This can be a touchy question. My take: follow the most practical and affordable path available to you that gets you the degree you will be satisfied with and that will be the most useful to you in your career. But whether Ed.D. or Ph.D., it’s still more letters after your name than you had before you started.

Where Does It Hurt?

What’s the hardest part of a doctoral program? For me, that was a two-way tie between the semester coursework and the comprehensive exams. The semester work was challenging because it couldn’t be set aside or compartmentalized. The five-day intensives were really seven days for me as I had to fly from the Left Coast to Boston. The coursework had deadlines that couldn’t be put aside during inevitable crises. The second semester was the hardest, for so many reasons, not the least of which is that once I had burned off the initial adrenaline, the finish line seemed impossibly far away; meanwhile, the tedium of balancing school and work was settling in, and I was floundering in alien subjects I was struggling to learn long-distance.

Don’t get me wrong, the coursework was often excellent: managing in a political environment, strategic finance, human resources, and other very practical and interesting topics. But it was a bucket o’ work, and when I called a colleague with a question about chair manufacturers (as one does) and heard she was mired in her second semester, I immediately informed her This Too Shall Pass.

Ah, the comprehensive exams. I would say I shall remember them always, except they destroyed so much of my frontal lobe, that will not be possible. The comps required memorizing piles of citations–authors and years, with salient points–to regurgitate during two four-hour closed-book tests.  I told myself afterwards that the comps helped me synthesize major concepts in grand theory, which is a dubious claim but at least made me feel better about the ordeal.

A number of students in my program helped me with comps. My favorite memory is of colleague Gary Shaffer, who called me from what sounded like a windswept city corner to offer his advice. I kept hearing this crinkling sound. The crinkling became louder. “Always have your cards with you,” Gary said. He had brought a sound prop: the bag of index cards he used to constantly drill himself. I committed myself to continuous study until done, helped by partnering with my colleague Chuck in long-distance comps prep. We didn’t study together, but we compared timelines and kept one another apprised of our progress. You can survive a doctoral program without a study buddy, but whew, is it easier if you have one.

Comps were an area where I started with old tech–good old paper index cards–and then asked myself, is this how it’s done these days? After research, I moved on to electronic flashcards through Quizlet. When I wasn’t flipping through text cards on my phone, iPad, or computer, I was listening to the cards on my phone during my run or while driving around running errands.

Writing != Not Writing

So about that dissertation. It was a humongous amount of work, but the qualifying paper that preceded it and the coursework and instruction in producing dissertation-quality research gave me the research design skills I needed to pull it off. Once I had the data gathered, it was just a lot of writing. This, I can do. Not everyone can. Writing is two things (well, writing is many things, but we’ll stick with two for now): it is a skill, and it is a discipline. If you do not have those two things, writing will be a third thing: impossible.

Here is my method. It’s simple. You schedule yourself, you show up, and you write. You do not talk about how you are going to write, unless you are actually going to write. You do not tweet that you are writing (because then you are tweeting, not writing). You do not do other things and feel guilty because you are not writing. (If you do other things, embrace them fully.)

I would write write write write write, at the same chair at the same desk (really, a CostCo folding table) facing the same wall with the same prompts secured to the wall with painter’s tape that on warm days would loosen, requiring me to crawl under my “desk” to retrieve the scattered papers, which on many days was pretty much my only form of exercise. Then I would write write write write write some more, on weekends, holiday breaks, and the occasional “dissercation day,” as I referred to vacation days set aside for this purpose.

Dissercation Days had the added value that  I was very conscious I was using vacation time to write, so I didn’t procrastinate–though in general I find procrastinating at my desk a poor use of time; if I’m going to procrastinate, let me at least get some fresh air.

People will advise you when and how to write. A couple weekends ago I was rereading Stephen King’s On Writing–now that I can read real books again–in which King recommends writing every day. If that works for you, great. What worked for me was using weekends, holidays, or vacation days; writing early in the day, often starting as early as 4 am; taking a short exercise break or powering through until mid-afternoon; and then stopping no later than 4 pm, many times more like 2 pm if I hadn’t stopped by then.

When I tried to write on weekday mornings, work would distract me. Not actual tasks, but the thought of work. It would creep into my brain and then I would feel the urgent need to see if the building consultant had replied to my email or if I had the agenda ready for the program and marketing meeting. It also takes me about an hour to get into a writing groove, so by the time the words were flowing it was time to get ready for work. As for evenings, a friend of mine observed that I’m a lark, not an owl. The muse flees me by mid-afternoon. (This also meant I saved the more chore-like tasks of writing for the afternoon.) The key is to find your own groove and stick to it. If your groove isn’t working, maybe it’s not your groove after all.

Do not take off too much time between writing sessions. I had to do that a couple of times for six to eight weeks each time, during life events such as household moves and so on, and it took some revisiting to reacquaint myself with my writing (which was Stephen King’s main, and excellent, point in his recommendation to write daily). Even when I was writing on a regular basis I often spent at least an hour at the start of the weekend rereading my writing from page 1 to ensure that my most recent writing had a coherent flow of reasoning and narrative and that the writing for that day would be its logical descendant.

Another universal piece of advice is to turn off the technology. I see people tweeting “I’m writing my dissertation right now” and I think, no you aren’t. I used a Mac app called Howler timer to give me writing sieges of 45, 60, 75, or 90 minutes, depending on my degree of focus for that day, during which all interruptions–email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.–were turned off. Twitter and Facebook became snack breaks, though I timed those snacks as well. I had favorite Pandora stations to keep me company and drown out ambient noise, and many, many cups of herbal tea.

Technology Will Save Us All

A few technical notes about technology and doctoral programs. With the exception of the constant allure of social networks and work email, it’s a good thing. I used Kahn Academy and online flash cards to study for the math portion of the GRE.  As noted earlier, I used Quizlet for my comps, in part because this very inexpensive program not only allowed me to create digital flashcards but also read them aloud to me on my iPhone while I exercised or ran errands. I conducted interviews using FaceTime with an inexpensive plug-in, Call Recorder, that effortlessly produced digital recordings, from which the audio files could be easily split out. I then emailed the audio files to Valerie, my transcriptionist, who lives several thousand miles away but always felt as if she were in the next room, swiftly and flawlessly producing transcripts. I used Dedoose, a cloud-based analytical product, to mark up the narratives, and with the justifiable paranoia of any doctoral student, exported the output to multiple secure online locations.

I dimly recall life before such technology, but cannot fathom operating in such a world again, or how much longer some of the tasks would have taken.  I spent some solid coin on things like paying a transcriptionist, but when I watch friends struggling to transcribe their own recordings, I have no regrets.

There are parts of my dissertation I am exceptionally proud of, but I admit particular pride for my automatically-generated table of contents, just one of many skills I learned through YouTube (spoiler alert: the challenge is not marking up the text, it’s changing the styles to match your requirements. Word could really use a style set called Just Times Roman Please). And of course, there were various library catalogs and databases, and hundreds of e-journals to plumb, activity I accomplished as far away from your typical “library discovery layer” as possible. You can take Google Scholar away from me when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

I also plowed through a lot of print books, and many times had to do backflips to get the book in that format. Journal articles work great in e-format (though I do have a leaning paper pillar of printed journal articles left over from comps review and classes). Books, not so much. I needed to have five to fifteen books simultaneously open during a writing session, something ebooks are lame at.  I don’t get romantic about the smell of paper blah blah blah, but when I’m writing, I need my tools in the most immediately accessible format possible, and for me that is digital for articles and paper for books.

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Your cohort can be very important,  and indeed I remember all of them with fondness but one with particular gratitude. Nevertheless, you alone will cross the finish line. I was unnerved when one member of our cohort dropped out after the first semester, but I shouldn’t have been. Doctoral student attrition happens throughout the academy, no less so in LibraryLand. Like the military, or marriage, you really have no idea what it’s like until you’re in it, and it’s not for everyone.

It should be noted that the program I graduated from has graduated, or will graduate, nearly all of the students who made it past the first two semesters, which in turn is most of the people who entered the program in its short but glorious life–another question you should investigate while looking at programs. It turned out that for a variety of reasons that made sense, the cohort I was in was the last for this particular doctoral program. That added a certain pressure since each class was the last one to ever be offered, but it also encouraged me to keep my eyes on the prize. I also, very significantly, had a very supportive committee, and most critically, I fully believed they wanted me to succeed. I also had a very supportive spouse, with whom I racked up an infinity of backlogged honey-dos and I-owe-you-for-this promises.

Regarding success and failure, at the beginning of the program, I asked if anyone had ever failed out of the program. The answer was no, everyone who left self-selected. I later asked the same question regarding comps: had anyone failed comps? The answer was that a student or two had retaken a section of comps in order to pass, but no one had completely failed (and you got one do-over if that happened). These were crucial questions for me. It also helped me to reflect on students who had bigger jobs, or were also raising kids, or otherwise were generally worse off than me in the distraction department. If so-and-so, with the big Ivy League job, or so-and-so, with the tiny infant, could do it, couldn’t I? (There is a fallacy inherent here that more prestigious schools are harder to administer, but it is a fallacy that comforted me many a day.)


I am asked what I will “do” with my Ph.D. In higher education, a doctorate is the expected degree for administrators, and indeed, the news of my successful doctoral defense was met with comments such as “welcome to the club.” So, mission accomplished. Also, I have a job I love, but having better marketability is never a bad idea, particularly in a political moment that can best be described as volatile and unpredictable. I can consult. I can teach (yes, I already could teach, but now more fancy-pants). I could make a reservation at a swanky bistro under the name Dr. Oatmeal and only half of that would be a fabrication. The world is my oyster!

Frankly, I did not enter the program with the idea that I would gain skills and develop the ability to conduct doctoral-quality research (I was really shooting for the fancy six-sided tam), but that happened and I am pondering what to do with this expertise. I already have the joy of being pedantic, if only quietly to myself. Don’t tell me you are writing a “case study” unless it has the elements of a case study not to mention the components of any true research design. Otherwise it’s just anecdata. And of course, when it comes to owning the area of LGTBQ leadership in higher education, I am totally M.C. Hammer: u can’t touch this!

I would not mind being part of the solution for addressing the dubious quality of so much LIS “research.” LibraryLand needs more programs such as the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship to address the sorry fact that basic knowledge of the fundamentals of producing industry-appropriate research is in most cases not required for a masters degree in library science, which at least for academic librarianship, given the student learning objectives we claim to support, is absurd. I also want to write a book, probably continuing the work I have been doing with documenting the working experiences of LGBTQ librarians. But first I need to sort and purge my home office, revisit places such as Hogwarts and Narnia, and catch up on some of those honey-dos and I-owe-you-for-this promises. And buy a six-sided tam.

A scholar’s pool of tears, Part 2: The pre in preprint means not done yet

Half-bakedNote, for two more days, January 10 and 11, you (as in all of you) have free access to my article, To be real: Antecedents and consequences of sexual identity disclosure by academic library directors. Then it drops behind a paywall and sits there for a year.

When I wrote Part 1 of this blog post in late September, I had keen ambitions of concluding this two-part series by discussing “the intricacies of navigating the liminal world of OA that is not born OA; the OA advocacy happening in my world; and the implications of the publishing environment scholars now work in.”

Since then, the world, and my priorities have changed. My goals are to prevent nuclear winter and lead our library to its first significant building upgrades since it opened close to 20 years ago. But at some point I said on Twitter, in response to a conversation about posting preprints, that I would explain why I won’t post a preprint of To be real. And the answer is very simple: because what qualifies as a preprint for Elsevier is a draft of the final product that presents my writing before I incorporated significant stylistic guidance from the second reviewer, and that’s not a version of the article I want people to read.

In the pre-Elsevier draft, as noted before, my research is present, but it is overshadowed by clumsy style decisions that Reviewer 2 presented far more politely than the following summary suggests: quotations that were too brief; rushing into the next thought without adequately closing out the previous thought; failure to loop back to link the literature review to the discussion; overlooking a chance to address the underlying meaning of this research; and a boggy conclusion. A crucial piece of advice from Reviewer 2 was to use pseudonyms or labels to make the participants more real.

All of this advice led to a final product, the one I have chosen to show the world. That’s really all there is to it. It would be better for the world if my article were in an open access publication, but regardless of where it is published, I as the author choose to share what I know is my best work, not my work in progress.

The OA world–all sides of it, including those arguing against OA–has some loud, confident voices with plenty of “shoulds,” such as the guy (and so many loud OA voices are male) who on a discussion list excoriated an author who was selling self-published books on Amazon by saying “people who value open access should praise those scholars who do and scorn those scholars who don’t.” There’s an encouraging appproach! Then there are the loud voices announcing the death of OA when a journal’s submissions drop, followed by the people who declare all repositories are Potemkin villages, and let’s not forget the fellow who curates a directory of predatory OA journals that is routinely cited as an example of what’s wrong with scholarly publishing.

I keep saying, the scholarly-industrial complex is broken. I’m beyond proud that the Council of Library Deans for the California State University–my 22 peers–voted to encourage and advocate for open access publishing in the CSU system. I’m also excited that my library has its first scholarly communications librarian who is going to bat on open access and open educational resources and all other things open–a position that in consultation with the library faculty I prioritized as our first hire in a series of retirement/moving-on faculty hires. But none of that translates to sharing work I consider unfinished.

We need to fix things in scholarly publishing and there is no easy, or single, path. And there are many other things happening in the world right now. I respect every author’s decision about what they will share with the world and when and how they will share it. As for my decision–you have it here.