Friday, April 18, 2014

Let the Librarians Speak

Sure, we all know that librarians do a lot of reading. Librarians know books the way Michael Jordan knows basketball. However, librarians also do a lot of writing. EIU Writes recently interviewed two members of the Booth Library staff, Steve Brantley and Sarah L. Johnson, about the world of writing seen from a librarian's eyes. 

The interview was conducted over email. My questions appear in italics. Steve's answers are preceded by the initials SB, and Sarah's answers are preceded by the initials SJ

1. What genre of writing do you normally operate in? Emails, grants, reports, blogs, etc? Do you have a particular genre that you enjoy more than others? Why?

SJ--I do a fair amount of writing every day on various projects: handouts for library instruction classes, emails, responses to online reference questions, and book reviews, among other things.  I write a blog ( covering historical fiction. If I had to choose, I’d say I enjoy blogging and writing reviews the most, because the process involves the most creativity. 
SB--I guess I am most often writing daily communications and announcements which are in the form of email. But I also write reports for other faculty and staff in the library, prose to accompany exhibit displays, course and subject guides for web pages, presentations for my professional colleagues at library conferences, reviews of books, and journal articles reporting on library science research. My favorite writing is probably writing that I will present as public speaking at conferences. I can't look at a list of bullet points and speak off-the-cuff in a way that flows well or holds together, so I have to write my remarks. Writing in this way forces me to think about how I speak and the difference between listening and reading.
 2. One of my favorite high school teachers repeated daily the maxim "Strong readers make strong writers." Who would you suggest reading in order to improve writing?
SJ--I definitely agree with that statement! I recommend reading as much as possible in the genre in which you plan to write.That way you’ll not only familiarize yourself with other authors’ typical content and style, as well as any conventions of the genre in question, but you’ll also learn which techniques work most effectively (and which don’t).
SB--I think reading contemporary poets can be very useful to helping us write because their use of language is often playful, creative and frequently such a fine distillation of meaning(s). I find myself surprised and excited by the always new and unique ways that poets use words.
3. You're a librarian, so I gotta ask: What are your pet-peeves? Students being loud? Sometimes I attempt to re-shelve books that I look at briefly. How serious a crime is this?
SJ--I know students are often trying to help out when they re-shelve books themselves, so I’d hardly call it a crime! But in case you were wondering why library staff ask people to leave books they’ve consulted on book carts instead, it’s because we keep track of which books are getting used. If we notice that many reference books on world education, to give one popular example, are being consulted regularly, we may look around and see if there are more we should be buying. It helps with our collection development. Plus, not all students may be familiar with the Library of Congress classification system that we use to shelve books (although they can feel free to ask one of us at Reference if they’d like more info). It makes me nervous to see food and drinks around the computers, so I try to discourage that.  But it hasn’t been a significant issue, fortunately.
SB--Honestly, stereotypes about librarians bother me the most. I see references to media stories several times a year coming from all over the country in which they publish a "scoop" about how librarians aren't bun wearing, glasses-chain having bookworm ladies anymore, that they are interesting people from all walks of life. Well duh. Sheesh, get over it!
To answer your question more directly, the learning process requires talking and discussion as much as it requires reading, writing and listening. We promote the library as a space for collaborative and group study as much as it is a place for silent and contemplative study. Librarians and library staff don't have to police the noise level (although I _will_ shush you if I can hear music or video from your computer/phone/tablet. :)

As for re-shelving the books, stop it! If books are re-shelved incorrectly even by a little bit they are effectively lost to anyone else who needs the book. Let's say you are the next person looking for that book and you can't find it. How likely are you to seek out a staff member or a reference librarian to try to locate it? If you don't ask about it, the book stays lost until someone takes the extra step to let us know it isn't where it is supposed to be. As for the severity of the crime, let's call it a misdemeanor that carries a mild penalty.
4. What do you consider to be the most important elements of writing? Organization? Voice? Grammar? Obviously, all of the elements should work together, but if you had to choose a top three of writing elements, what would be on that list? 
SJ--If I had to pick, they’d be: clarity, content, voice. That may be cheating a bit, because part of making one’s writing clearly understood involves the appropriate use of grammar. My answer also depends a lot on the purpose of the writing; developing a unique voice is less important when writing meeting minutes, for instance.
SB--Coming from the perspective of someone who reads a lot but who also feels like he never has enough time to read, I would say that voice, organization and economy are my top three. Since my time to read is limited I appreciate the originality and distinctiveness of a writer's voice because it is what stands out to me as most memorable in a person's writing. 

Secondly, organization is key. When the elements of a theme are disorganized it stands out.The flow is broken. I also rate organization as highly important because it is something I struggle with in my own writing.  

Finally, by "economy" I mean the efficient yet elegant use of language to convey your point. I appreciate brevity that does not come at the expense of meaning or elegance.
5. There is a lot of talk circling around regarding the "digitalization" of literature. What does this mean for the future of libraries and librarians? 
SJ--Libraries and librarians are heavily involved in digitization projects, both as users of previously digitized material and as content creators. At Booth, for example, we subscribe to the Early English Books Online database, which has digital images of nearly all materials published in Britain between 1473 and 1700. We also maintain The Keep, EIU’s own institutional repository, with contains publications of EIU faculty as well as scanned-in items from the university’s history. 
More products continue to be offered in digital form – newspapers, books, journals – and having this material available online means increased access for users, which is a good thing. As a reference librarian, one of my responsibilities is to help students use these collections by guiding them to the most relevant resources and showing them how to develop good search strategies. On the other hand, while there’s a lot of useful free content out there, many of these wonderful products are subscription-based – and can be expensive.  This poses challenges for library budgets, and this won’t get any easier over time. Looking ahead to the future, I expect librarians will continue to play integral roles in the digitizing of literature, and in helping people locate the best sources for their needs. That’s what we’re trained to do.

SB--As the digital age has come upon us, libraries and librarians have adapted their practices and skills to accommodate the changes in the way published knowledge is collected, maintained and consumed. 

Generally speaking, from the perspective of the physical library, as digital information has grown, the numbers of walk-in visitors and circulation of physical books has dropped. In response, libraries have redesigned their spaces, collections and services to serve their patron's changing needs. From the perspective of the public services librarian, whose primary mission is to assist library users find and effectively use information, the proliferation of electronic literature in all forms has only made finding it and using it effectively that much more complicated. From the perspective of the technical services librarian, whose goal is to accurately and consistently describe the information objects, print or electronic, for optimal discovery by library users, their jobs are increasingly diversified and, in my opinion, interesting.

To put it briefly, new forms of information exist side by side with older forms and it takes a long time for any format to truly go away, if it goes away at all. Libraries may shift some of their focus from "brick and mortar" issues to issues of access to digital books and digital information, and the delivery of that information over digital networks, but the central mission of the library remains. I've got a book you can read about it: Clough, G. Wayne. _Best Of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, And Archives In A Digital Age_ Smithsonian, Washington D.C. 2013. []

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