The Alberta Library Interview with Jessamyn West

The challenges facing today’s libraries & librarians

I was interviewed by Lauren Sergey from The Alberta Library. We had a good time. Here is a loose transcription via YouTube closed-captioning scraping.

See you at Netspeed!

[Music]

LS: Hey, welcome everybody to today’s interview. Whether or not you are a delegate at Netspeed I do hope this interview is going to be a fun one for you. My name is Lauren Sergey. I’m the communications strategist at the Alberta Library and the coordinator for the Netspeed libraries technology conference — and as a fun little pre-conference activity I thought it’d be great to take an opportunity to get to know our keynote speakers a little bit better.

And the speaker that I have with us today is Jessamyn West. On her website librarian.net Jessamyn humbly describes herself as a library technologist living in Vermont — which is a really succinct way of… I would say actually a slightly incomplete way, but… of Jessamyn saying everything that she does ‘cuz in reality Jessamyn is so much more than just a library technologist: she is a library legend as far as I’m concerned.

She’s an advocate for public libraries — sorry — for libraries as public spaces where people should be free to be who they are, find what’s important to them, and share what they feel needs to be shared. She challenges tropes of librarianship and clearly articulates difficulties that our profession faces today.

We are so excited, Jessamyn, to have you as our opening keynote speaker at Netspeed in October!

But I want to make sure that we keep all of the keynote stuff fresh for our people so we’re not talking your keynote today.

We’re going to get into hopefully your head a little bit more and I’m looking at helping our delegates and librarians out there — of all stripes — helping them get an idea of who Jessamyn is in context of your professional work, your livelihood and all of that.

And with that in mind I have to start off with a question that has been, like, in the back of my head ever since I hunted you down and that is that on your Jessamyn.com site — and by the way for those of you who are familiar with Jessamyn she’s got like five different websites and they’re all amazing — you describe yourself as “librarian, writer, technologist, justice of the peace, and moss enthusiast” Explain the “moss enthusiast” thing…

JW: Well, I spend a lot of time on the internet, like a lot of people and especially people in rural areas who may be night owls where everybody in town goes to bed at eight or nine o’clock. So I decided I needed — at some point maybe…I don’t know, five or ten years ago — an offline hobby, like a thing you do that’s not typing or reading or Skyping or whatever. I’ve always…

LS: Those exist?!

JW: …a couple of them! With librarianship a lot of times it’s, um, there’s a lot of people who knit, there’s a lot of people who have pets, there’s a lot of people who are serious cooks, there’s a lot of people who, you know, are hiking or fishing or whatever. My father was always really into bonsai when I was a kid so, you know, little tiny plants and you kind of fuss with them all the time and buy little stuff for them and whatever. The part of the bonsai that I always liked was the green sort of grass stuff they grew on the bottom of that. Moss!

Anyway it’s about moss that’s cool is you can basically get it from the woods and I live in the woods and you can stick in a jar and do a couple, you know, small things with it and it just stays looking nice forever. You don’t have to do much to it. I travel a lot, even though I love Vermont. I’m in and out a lot so I can’t sort of have a pet all the time. I’m not a good knitter. I’m not good at counting — my, this, my left hand doesn’t do anything, I can’t… I’m not good at playing an instrument, but having a little fussy green thing in my house that you can sort of neglect but also sort of pay attention to solves a problem for me. I feel like I got in a little bit before this sort of moss bandwagon because now you walk around Brooklyn and everybody’s got a little terrarium a little moss terrarium in the front window and la-di-da.

There’s not that much you have to do with them and so I can have greenery in my house year-round cool hobby .

LS: Instead of the cats you went for the moss!

JW: Now my sister has cats. Everybody else I know has cats. I’m a very happy cat auntie. But yeah exactly a cat would be miserable here without me too often.

LS: They occasionally need interaction and food whereas moss is slightly more accommodating of your schedule.

JW: A lot more accommodating.

LS: Mystery solved, I’m very happy about that section.

JW: Read more at mossarium.com — I made a little website that shows you how to make one — because of course how could I be a librarian if I didn’t share every single thing I knew?


LS: I love your diversity of websites, I really really do. It’s quite…it’s hilarious and it’s enlightening and it’s interesting — it’s so interesting, everything that you’ve gotten into. Along those lines I would love to know a little bit about your background, like what led you to librarianship in the first place, and what did those formative — you know, first, kind of, ten years of your career look like?

JW: Well, I grew up in a rural town in Massachusetts and I live in a town that’s about the same size in Randolph. My mom was always really into civics, which is less of a big deal in Canada, because I feel like everybody’s into civics — but in America there’s a lot of people who are not into civics at all, like that whole sort of community idea. And in my small town there were a couple public institutions, and one of them was a library — so I’m one of those people who had good library experiences early on, and was kind of a bookish nerdy kid. I went to college in Massachusetts, a kind of an alternative college where “do what you want” kind of thing and I was really into language, into linguistics, into writing — but I graduated being, like, “What am I….? Be a language scientist? I don’t know how that works.”

I didn’t have a plan, so I moved to Seattle — like you did in 1990 — and lived there and got more interested in social justice-types of things. I’ve always been what I would consider an activist, just helping people solve problems: social problems, personal problems, whatever. So at the time I thought I wanted to go to law school in order to do that, and kind of looked around. University of Washington was near me but I didn’t get in because Hippy School: my transcript was just a pile of evaluations: “Jessamyn is kind of smart and interesting…” but what you needed was grades. Then I was like “Well that sounds like a profession where you have to kind of dress up and get up early” which isn’t me.

LS: Yeah suits are required…

JW: Yeah, and I wondered what else is around? A lot of people, sort of, when you’re looking at these things, tell you to kind of “Think of what you enjoy. What do you actually enjoy doing?” When I was in college one of the things I really liked doing was just fussing around in the library, looking things up, figuring things out, solving problems, putting information together. And University of Washington — which I lived up the street from — had a really good library school. I was like a lot of people at the time: “Library school is a thing?” I had no idea. And not only is it a thing, but University of Washington had a pretty good school! I mean now they have a very good school, it’s the ischool, it’s fancy. When I went there it was the library school.

I went to school there and what I found — which pleased me to no end — was that my social justice work and my helping people work and my librarianship work could all fit together. That I didn’t need to do, like, my JOB-job during the day and then my “I helped people stuff” at night. I could do a lot of work teaching people how to use things. I took a lot of librarianship for special needs populations classes, I did a big project on prison libraries, I did a lot of bibliographies on feminism and activism, that kind of thing. So I was like “Wow, this is awesome !” I had no idea about the freedom to read, I had no idea about children’s rights to read that libraries support that — that they don’t just do it by accident, they do it on purpose — so I was really excited.

So I started school in 1993 and I graduated in 1996. For those of you who are putting that on a tech continuum it’s like [waves hands] text-internet… it’s a line beginning with text internet and ending with the graphical web. So it was a really interesting time to be in library school because we were learning about the web when the web was just becoming the web. Which was a great time for being in a sort of a cohort of like-minded people, a community of practice of people who are excited and learning about the same thing. When I got out of library school I was in Seattle in the 90s which for people who are of a certain age are like that was the little tech center one of the little tech centers… so I did a combination of working at Seattle Public Library doing basic technology instruction which I still do to this day, teaching people how to use computers. I also worked for an Internet service provider helping people get DSL installed. I learned a lot of the computer aspects of information delivery in addition to the sort of human and library side of information delivery.

The funny thing was at the time you know I’m teaching people how to use email in 1996, 97, 98 and I just figured I’ll do this for a couple years and then everybody will get email and then we can deal with really complicated stuff like how to keep your stuff private on the internet and how to you know sophisticated level 202, 303 stuff, good web design , user experience, whatever. No. We’re still at the “everybody’s getting an email address” stage and it turns out I still really like doing that, but that’s what got me really interested in digital divide issues. Why doesn’t everyone have an email address? And I don’t mean sort of millennial types who are like “Well I’m kind of post email…” I’m talking about people who need an email address and don’t have one. Why is that? What what feeds into that? I’ll stop here so I don’t give away precious keynote information but that really got me interested…

LS: Why is this a thing?

JW: It’s not just a technological problem anymore right?An email address is free. You can get to a computer at almost any public library even though it’s not the same as having one at home. What’s keeping people from doing this? And how do we help them do this? That’s kind of what my last several decades have been kind of untangling that problem, and living in Vermont making little moss gardens, and just getting really into sort of public library civics. I’m really active in the Vermont Library Association. We have a lot of librarians who I think have those same issues within their personal lives, in addition to trying to help the people in their communities answer those questions for themselves. It’s tricky and interesting.


LS: Of course you know as despite advances in technology obviously since the 90s — you were really in on the ground level there which is so exciting — there’s still so much going on in that sphere that’s developing. The problems can still in many ways be so similar as they were back then: same problems slightly different tech.

JW: Well and I feel like the underpinning reasons, late global capitalism, are the same, but figuring out how they impact the people that we serve and how to just effectively deal with it…. Like it’s easy to sit at home and be like “Oh Microsoft they suck and that’s why we have a problem.” but it’s overly simplistic, it’s not accurate, and it almost removes you from the responsibility of having to deal with the fact that that’s true.

Like any endemic social problem — like institutionalized racism, like institutionalized poverty, like homophobia — that we deal with. The underpinnings are important to think about, but realistically the boots on the ground way we actually address this with the people we serve… are the kind of tricky and interesting librarian issues that are worth working on proactively. You might be able to think forever about how to solve hunger but there’s hungry people today and you need to handle that at the same time.

LS: Of course if what we do is hang around and you know “Blame big corporations and money-hungry this and that!” we’re also shifting all the responsibility to fix it on them.

JW: I’m all in favor of like placing responsibility where it needs to be, but as well figuring out how to fix the problem. It takes all of us. That’s my sort of civics thing, everybody needs to pitch in to help. Libraries can often be a focusing point for where that help should come.


LS: Obviously our our audience here is mostly people working within the library profession. There might be some people watching this interview who are just getting started on their library careers. That idea of working in the profession today is something that you talked about quite a bit and very openly on your blog. And by blog I’m going to specify the librarian.net blog in this case. On librarian.net there’s a bit that you do every now and then that I find so interesting and it’s your work and money report.

I find that absolutely fascinating because working in librarianship today you know we’re strongly affected by this gig market economy and this notion that we have to have multiple income streams coming in because our jobs just aren’t stable. You know, libraries are not a warm cuddly blanket that we can wrap ourselves in for 30 years until we can start collecting our pension. So you break down everywhere that you’ve been working and all of your different income streams in this work and money report. It’s very open, it’s very honest. What prompted you to start sharing this information so openly on your blog?

JW: Well it’s a couple things. Number one I’m a quantified self nerd. I keep a list of all the books I’ve read, a list of all the movies I’ve seen, a list of every single place I stayed every year. I enjoy that, to kind of look back and kind of keep track of myself you know because it’s interesting to me: “Am I out of town more this year than last year?” “What about 10 years ago?”

The money thing, I think is especially tricky because — I assume this is the same in Canada — in America people are really weird talking about money.

LS: Yeah we don’t talk too much about it…

JW: Either they talk to much about it, or they don’t talk enough about it. So I think there’s a lot of people who wind up with money problems, issues questions, and they think maybe other people have it all figured out but maybe they don’t? Librarianship historically doesn’t pay very well. Librarianship historically is a profession that’s overarchingly female (until you get up to management where it balances out a little bit but overarchingly female) Women are known for getting paid less, for various social reasons but some of them are women tend to not negotiate as aggressively…. I mean there’s other problems I don’t mean to place it solely in the laps of women but they tend maybe not to negotiate aggressively. So you go in for a job and they’re like “It pays this.” and you’re like “Okay. I like money.”

I do feel like for a lot of people, especially younger librarians, again like gig economy stuff , maybe you don’t want like a one full time job at one library or maybe you can’t get one full time job at one library. Maybe you want to travel or maybe whatever else. There are a lot of different places to get money from theoretically. It’s also important… I feel like it’s also partly sort of a privilege report. One of the main things that made me able to be the librarian that I am right now is that grad school was cheap, and that isn’t true anymore. ’ll tell people: “Oh go to the University of Washington in-state tuition!” and people are like “You know what that costs now?” But it was a thing you could pay for with a pizza job, when I went. That puts me in a very specific position of privilege and I feel like investigating privilege is always something we should be mindful of doing, but that sort of helps.

The other thing is letting people know where money can come from. I do some writing for Computers in Libraries magazine. It pays really well compared to like writing for a blog about a thing which pays… all the blogs tend to pay terribly. I’m gonna be doing some work with Wikipedia promoting their #1lib1ref program which I love. Like, I would do anyhow but they’re like “How about some money for that?” “Oh that would be nice” Talking to librarians about other ways that they can look at their own life of work and money, can also help… I feel like helps us reflect back into our communities other ways of looking at that. I feel like it opens a conversation.

The other thing is, just the basic answer is… I’ll tell people I’m a librarian in rural Vermont they’ll be like “Oh, what’s your library?” and I’m like “Weeeeeell…”

LS: It’s a little more complicated than that…

JW: I feel like I need to say “I don’t actually work at the Public Library in my town” or rather “I do fill in there because I live a quarter mile up the street and if someone’s sick they call me” but I don’t have like a one-library-one-librarian relationship to the field of librarianship. I also feel like for a lot of consultants — because a lot of what I do is technically could be called consulting — like maybe that’s not even their job. Maybe they have family money or maybe they have a different job. I always feel like the conversation of “How do you make ends meet?” is useful if you can have that conversation without it becoming a weird statusing conversation; you can use it to achieve more clarity of how people do what they do. Like I said I’m in a lucky privileged position and I feel like being able to be able to openly share stuff that other people may not be able to, can help other people figure this out. Plus I want to normalize the idea of being a librarian without a library. Lots of us do it, but sometimes people are like “Well how does that work…? Where is your money…? Do you…?” You know, people think I have a secret job. I’m like “No I just have a lot of weird half-assed jobs but not a lot of grad school debt and a whole bunch of other things.” and that’s how it comes together.


LS: Right! So looking at these reports I’m sure that there are some people out there who might say “Yes, so she gets to write for Computers and Libraries or she gets to do this and she does the consulting and the speaking but she’s Jessamyn West, right? This this work magically comes to her somehow!” You weren’t always who you are today. Part of being able to bring in these additional gigs and these additional revenue streams, and in many ways being a librarian without a specific library, is part of building up your resume in your career. So in terms of building up your personal brand to use a hot hot overused buzzword it’s useful one…

JW: I do say it though and then I laugh…

LS: You’re like “Uggghh I can’t believe that came out of my mouth.” but in terms of building up your personal brand that is a very important aspect for many of our careers now. So how did you do that and kind of establish yourself as a thought leader within libraries?

JW: I think one of the things… It’s hard because you say like “thought leader within libraries” and I’m like “Ah that’s not me” but I know other people say it so I also don’t want to be weirdly fake-modest about it.

LS: Own it! You’ve worked for it!

JW: I think there’s a couple things that all go together. Number one: my father was a technologist and a briefly well-known one. He was a character in a book that became briefly popular and so in the early 80s he was like a famous guy. One of the things I remember growing up was listening to him on the phone talk about the things. He talked to reporters a lot. I feel like through osmosis I learned how to do that — like what they want to hear, what they don’t want to hear, how you have those conversations, how you work sound bytes out and get them into what you want to say.

Part of it is getting into the internet early. Like I said, I was in library school early. I have a name that’s unique. I got the Jessamyn com domain for my 28th birthday or something…

LS: Best birthday present ever!

JW: Thanks dad, right! Part of it, again, having a dad who’s a technologist who made me grow up feeling like not only computers were normal, which I feel like was helpful, but also that talking to people about computers… and that you’re a person who might have something to say. I mean, again it’s a privilege thing. I grew up feeling like people wanted to know what I had to say. As a result, I didn’t have to spend a lot of time thinking “Should they be talking to someone else?” I spend more time now trying to direct inquiries. I mean sometimes I’m the person, but a lot of times I’m like “You should really be speaking to people of color. You should really ask the disability activists about the ADA aspect of this library issue…” And so it’s a combination of me feeling okay talking about myself but also having a rolodex now of other people that I can direct that kind of query to.

There’s so many librarians who I feel like are just genius interesting people who are busy having a job which takes a lot of time and don’t necessarily get to BS with reporters for 20 or 30 minutes, but they’re just not sort of extroverted “blabbity blabbity blah” people. I have a tendency… I don’t mind listening to myself talk. I’ll get off a conversation and be like “Oh god I should have said that differently…” or I see myself misquoted in the media and I’m like “I should stop talking to reporters!” but by-and-large not only does this stuff work but I feel I hear from other people “Hey that did a good job of representing the thing.”

Like lately I’ve been involved in online discussions about a Hispanic librarian who stepped down from his job because he felt like he was getting a whole bunch of crappy racial pressure from the people he worked with. It was just a bad story, but he was feeling okay about it. I was like “Oh you talked to REFORMA?” the Spanish-speaking librarian organization he’s like “Oh… no. You know I asked someone once but…” I was like “Oh let me just go get them for you!” and spent a little time kind of cross-pollinating with people who may not feel like reaching out is either for them… or maybe they tried and it didn’t work or whatever the thing was. Then also on the back-channel I hear from people who are ‘Thanks for helping that guy out with that. Thanks for being a good ally.”

Because it’s a little too easy to just be like “Well listen to what Jessamyn has to say. I’m the voice of everybody!” which is awkward. I don’t want to be that person. Trying to figure out when it’s appropriate to step up and say “Libraries feel this way and I’m one person among many who can represent” or be like “Well I can’t represent but here’s some other people who you should talk to…” and again finding where your privilege is, and how that needs to be relevant. Because I am still female. I do still get guys talking over me at meetings all the time. I worked at the Internet Archive, and I felt like the secretary for our group, because everybody there would be like “Hey take notes!” After a while I’m like “Nope! And you shouldn’t even ask.” But like that’s awkward, but having a little bit of status can help you sort of achieve more. I feel like it kind of floats the boat of the whole profession. Everybody… if you have more people who can speak eloquently for libraries everybody in librarianship benefits.

I don’t feel like I’m one of those like “To the barricades! Everybody needs a makerspace! Fight me!” people. Even though those… that’s fine, you’re welcome to your opinion… Most of the opinions I have are about public spaces and civics. They’re not controversial for the most part. I don’t get out in front of “Should we have Nazis speaking at the library…?” although I have opinions… partly because people do look to me as like a voice for things. I try to spend that social capital usefully and not kind of flash of the pan political hate machine stuff that’s going on nowadays.


LS: So part of this is very much about knowing the sphere in which you do… in which you step into your role as an expert as someone who’s extremely knowledgeable, who talks about this. In your case looking at libraries in terms of the public sphere and policy and all of that sort of stuff. When a question does come your way where there is someone with a different perspective or the better perspective you pass it on to them. That’s actually a very generous move because some people do feel that “Oh if I can’t answer a question then what right do I have to speak about any of this?” but also in terms of ensuring that you’re the person who knows about this, will help direct attention to you where it’s really really warranted. That helps build you up in that area I would think.

JW: Well and I also feel like… I do a lot of public speaking coming to Netspeed, I’m speaking the Wisconsin Library Association conference, that kind of thing. I love what I do, it’s super fun, but I also do feel like for a lot of these organizations they also probably have local people who if they’re not going to be keynoting the conference should at least be coming to and speaking at the conferences. I try to encourage people to… if they like that kind of thing, even just attending, but if they’re like “Oh I have some ideas…” to tell their stories.

When I speak at a conference, I stay at the conference. I sit in on tons of programs at the conference. I learn about libraries the same way I hope I teach people certain things about libraries. Part of what I think is useful is encouraging more people, more different kinds of voices, like a more diverse set of voices certainly, just more people doing more kind of the non-sexy work of librarianship. I sat it on this great program… I think it was the Ontario Library Association: here’s how we do our sort of special needs population drop-in time program. A lot of it was like “How do you buy snacks? What’s a good program? How do people get transportation?” like just nuts and bolts, nuts and bolts. Every librarian who sat in there was taking notes. It was going to help them serve their population.

Librarianship as a profession… we work in our buildings for the most part. We’re working on social media etc etc, but the more we have excuses and experiences to get together — whether that’s in person, whether it’s through social media, whether it’s… who even knows — the more I feel like we can serve our people better. The other thing that I do in sort of addition to this is one of my big “work and money” job things was I worked at MetaFilter — a huge online community blog — as a moderator, Director of Operations… teaching people or helping facilitate them having conversations online. I also feel like that helps more people get information back and forth to each other during the times when they can’t hang out together.

I used to just spend a lot of time on the internet cuz I’m the only person awake in my town at eleven o’clock at night. Learning that there’s actually a lot of people who are online who can cross-pollinate, who can give each other ideas, who can learn from each other. I spent some time on Facebook every day on ALA Think Tank, which is kind of like a combination of like corner bar, and professional development, and everybody yelling at each other about Nazis. You can meet other librarians, you can find people who are like you, you can ask questions about your thing, whether it’s your personal stuff — you got a weird patron situation, you’ve got an extralegal situation and your lawyers said this but you’re not really sure about that…

That all helps us do what we want to do which is serve our populations as effectively and compassionately as possible. The more different kinds of people that you can interact with to help you do that, I feel like the better you are. We have three librarians at my public library in my town in Vermont. They’ve all been there for over 10 years. They are amazing. But, I’m happy that they have professional development opportunities to talk to other librarians at the Vermont Library Association conference etc, because it’s too easy for three people running one institution to be like “We got it all yeah taken care of…” and they don’t. They always learn, they always grow, they always try to improve. It’s tricky. Not all libraries can say that, and so I feel like having people who are sort of vocal but also kind of friendly? So instead of “You’re not being the right kind of librarian!” to be like “There’s a lot of different kinds of librarians. Let’s learn about them.” No one wants to be confronted by a consultant telling them they’re doing it wrong, everyone hates that.


LS: That’s very true. Like I said there’s so many different kind of librarians. That leads really beautifully into a question that I had for you because you’re a really fierce protector of what libraries are and what librarianship is. But, it can feels like librarianship I honestly don’t even know what it’s anymore. There’s this saw of the new grad a couple or three years after they entered the workforce they’re saying “I didn’t realize I went to library school to be doing this!” Realistically, in much of our work especially in the individual public libraries we need to be jacks of all trades. They end up being everything from tech support to de facto social workers and things that don’t necessarily tweak even the librarians themselves as being at the core of librarianship. So what do you think being a librarian means today? How can we preserve that notion of librarianship in these places when we don’t always feel like that that like that’s what we’re engaging in in a day to day basis?

JW: I think it’s really challenging and it also kind of goes back to the fact that libraries have a tendency to be kind of hyper local. So, my library in town offers completely different services than my next library in the next town, or the library over the mountain in the next town. Part of that is because they serve their community. Part of it is because of the people who work there. But part of it is also that they’re just teeny, and so they can be super flexible. If people ask “What does it mean to be a librarian as opposed to any other kind of information worker or knowledge worker tech or whatever whatever…?” I say “A librarian uses the tools that they have available, information resources, to help people solve their problems.”

LS: That’s a nice broad definition actually I really like that.

JW: The difference between the librarian approach to doing that and lots of other people who have jobs doing similar things — and I’m really heavy into publics, I know academic libraries have a slightly different mission, special libraries slightly different mission, but for publics especially — the big deal is you give them the best information, the most efficiently, in the way that they need it. The big deal with that is libraries aren’t trying to sell you something. That makes us not Apple. That makes us not Google. That makes us not LinkedIn. That makes us not Facebook. There’s good things about Google and Apple and LinkedIn and Facebook, but they have something to sell. Or you’re the customer and they’re selling you to somebody else. Equifax has been my week this week.

Given that, it really does belong to the people in this way that other institutions don’t. The spaces are public in ways that other spaces are not. The people who work there are service professionals, for the most part, in ways that other types of employees aren’t. I say that kind of not to be exclusionary but to be kind of inclusive. In my dream vision the library serves every single person. You move to town and if you register to vote you also get a library card, like why not? I don’t understand why they don’t do that but whatever. The thing that’s so funky about them is that they’re run citizens for the most part. Canada has a little bit more of an overarching top-down government that does help kind of run the library infrastructure, but for the most part the local…. I mean like you guys have like a National Library and Archives that’s like a real National Library and Archives, that has trickle-down effects to individual libraries in a way that I feel like our Library of Congress — as much as I love them — is different.

LS: (laughing) It’s funny because more librarians here understand the Library of Congress!

JW: I spend a lot of time looking at the National Archives, the National Library Canada website being like “Why don’t we have this? Why don’t we… I want this” The Library of Congress is doing a lot better than they were under James Billington, but it’s just such a slog you know what I mean? So for me it’s the combination of service, plus civics, plus your information need, whatever you want, patron-focused. Then there’s a technology layer on top of it that influences and affects everything that we do, but they’re just tools. We’re just the conduit for the tools. Apple did their ridiculous kickoff, I don’t even know what it’s called but it ruined my Twitter for 24 solid hours. Apple’s like “We want to be the Town Square for the world!” and I’m like “You don’t even have a Town Square.”

I have a town square in my town and half the town square is everybody hanging out and that’s awesome, but then the other half of it is kids trying to sneak around and smoke cigarettes when they’re not supposed, to and hobos sleeping places and pissing in the bushes. Those things need to be managed. You can’t just like run a store in…

LS: …in sunshine and clean and and chrome outlined…

JW: Right. The only way you get to have a store is because you overcharge people for technology and then you have extra money to underpay people to clean your bathrooms. It just irritates me. AND they’re trying to appropriate the language of civics for the business of capitalism. I just spent a little bit of time on what our being like “Let’s talk about what a town hall really is. Let’s talk about how a small town really operates.” because they know enough that those things are appealing…. that they try to sort of co-op the language but without having the ‘We’re actually accessible to everybody. We’re actually open to everybody. This actually belongs to you.” in the same way. There’s the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States where at least Apple store has to be as accessible as the public library. But it doesn’t mean that they have to make phones that necessarily work for people with shaky hands. Actually, they tend to work pretty well for people with visual disabilities, which is awesome, but that’s only because you can sell them, you know what I mean? Not because it’s your mission.

The last thing on that topic I wanted to talk about was there’s also the idea of making sure your library is setting expectations about what they actually can do realistically with the money time and staff they have available. And also sometimes setting boundaries.Which is language I learned in my online community world, but that I think I try to bring to the library world. Just because somebody wants something from your library, it doesn’t mean it’s something the library has to offer. Figuring out how to boundary what you actually provide is a kindness you can provide to your community. Sometimes people in the community are like “I don’t like it when people say no.” and then you have to figure out where you go from that. Maybe the community wants something you don’t want to provide and you’re wrong. Work on it. But maybe the community wants 24/7 access to the library, and you need to explain it and how the budget would change if you did that and why that’s not gonna happen, but hey let’s raise more money and talk about it.

It’s sort of an ongoing conversation but you do see a lot of you know kind of line workers like people who are front line librarians stuck between poor boundaries setting by management or administration, and/or unrealistic expectations by either patrons or management. So there’s a lot of talk about “What the hell’s going on in libraries I don’t understand it!” but I feel like it’s more of a communications and understanding issue than it is we don’t know what libraries are, if that makes sense.


LS: No, that does that does make sense. We’re gonna start wrapping up, but I do have two more questions that I want to ask. The first one is tied in to what you just said about the frontline workers in the establishment of boundaries and those sorts of issues. What do you see being the biggest human resource or employment issue libraries are facing right now?

JW: Well I don’t know if this is the same in Canada, but I know it’s a big deal me and it states: our libraries aren’t as diverse as the populations they serve. There are lots of issues and I don’t mean to sort of pooh pooh any of the other ones…

LS: The question isn’t to the exclusion of other problems…

JW: To me the biggest deal is you look at who’s working in libraries, and you look at who’s going to libraries, and their makeup is racially different, gender different, sexual preference different… My words are terrible here but the librarians, the people who are working in libraries, are not reflecting the populations they serve. Association for Research Libraries in the United States just came out with a paper this week super interesting just looking at research libraries and whether or not they felt…. like their personal feelings about whether they were as diverse as the populations they served and whether or not it mattered. A lot of libraries were like “Well… we’re not quite as diverse as the populations we serve but we think we’re doing okay anyhow.”

I think there’s lots of librarians who feel like if they’re trying that’s kind of good enough. I don’t mean to put down trying because trying is important, but I also do feel like if you’re a person of color, if you’re Muslim, if you’re transgender, you want to be able to walk into a library and see not just books that reflect who you are, but people who reflect who you are, as professionals as people who do this. There’s a lot of reasons why that’s not the case, but I do think one of the struggles we’re gonna have, in the United States at least which is what I’ve studied, is if librarians and libraries are seen as kind of old fusty white ladies telling you “No.” that’s gonna be… bad optics. And we should be working on that.

One of the reasons the things that we’ve been trying aren’t helping according to this ARL report is… You used to be able to kind of work your way up the food chain. You’d get an entry-level job which were often more likely to get sort of more people in who hadn’t been pipelined through library school and then you work your way up. A lot of those support staff jobs just aren’t there. They’re just going away completely, or they’re being outsourced to other companies. So a lot of the stepping stones that would scaffold you into a professional position where you’d be a person of color manager after 10 years or whatever are just going away. So the the routes in are more difficult. So I just think that’s part of why we’re seeing some of the weird politics we’re seeing in America. People are really getting confused about who the populations are we’re serving and what our makeup should be.

It’s complicated for me because it means kind of less people like me, but if the population doesn’t look like me that’s actually what I should want. I mean I live in Vermont so the population looks pretty much exactly like me… but in a lot of other places it doesn’t, it shouldn’t, and we need to get results not just kind of work on it. That comes along with a whole bunch of other pay issues, equity issues, inclusion issues generally. To me, that’s the biggest one: that if we kind of don’t do something about it, it’s gonna be bad for our profession in kind of general difficult ways, not just real specifics like “Ebooks! What can you do?” We’ll work on that!


LS: The final question, and this kind of ties it back to technology pieces — and of course Netspeed is a technology conference — what do you see is the biggest tech issue that the public libraries are facing right now?

JW: For me the biggest deal is the kind of…. People talk a lot about like the singularity right? In the future when like we upload our brains to the internet… and everybody kind of knows everything and you just.… Yeah right the port behind your ear and suddenly you know every language. It’s amazing! I feel like one of the things that’s getting in the way of the singularity — which I don’t necessarily see is the sort of amazing utopia that everybody thinks it’s gonna be — is the fact that you know brand differentiation is still a thing, which is fine. In order for the singularity thing to happen like Apple and Google need to make nice. In order for that to happen the economic structure of the world needs to be completely different. I have no faith that the government is gonna be the one that’s actually gonna make that work.

We used to sort of feel like “Oh maybe like all the brands will come together and there will just be one phone and it’ll be amazing!” but I feel like the concern is going to be that what there’s gonna be is just like one giant crappy database of stuff, and it’s gonna be run by huge global megacorporations not really for our benefit. From a library perspective, I feel like the concern is the shift from the library owning content — you buy a book you have it you do whatever the hell you want with it period that’s the law (in our country it’s a little different in Canada, it’s not a lot different) — but you have an e-book, you lease it, somebody needs to be taught how to use it, maybe they update it and you didn’t want them to…. There’s like a whole bunch of different file types. Everybody’s fighting.

I haven’t even used the A word, Amazon and their crazy craziness. Now they own Whole Foods and kale is on sale all of the sudden…? A lot of the container content stuff, and the leasing versus owning type of stuff, for the move to digital content generally — which again in general is awesome — in specific is really tricky. It means we’re going from a format that doesn’t require a manual, to creating a layer of interface between people and their content. Again, not a huge issue, but what it means is we’re a lot more beholden to companies to do the right thing, and they don’t. Which is why most of our library software is terrible, and why we’ve got this weird relationship with vendors, right? There is a lot of good software out there, but a lot of times at the rates libraries can pay, we don’t get the good stuff.

Figuring out how to make that work as well as dealing with digital content. In Vermont we lease a lot of databases at the state level. In other in other states they don’t. You might have like two libraries that are 50 miles away from each other that are each paying for an ancestry.com subscription. That’s weird, but from Ancestry’s perspective they deserve to make a buck off it. Selling to libraries is pretty tricky for them. How do they work that out? Figuring ways to equitably get people access to content that’s fair to businesses, because they need to stay in business, and fair to libraries and the patrons that they serve is one of the big questions.

Right now it’s like a whole job in librarianship: electronic resources management. All you do is manage this gigantic spreadsheet of garbage, because we don’t have simple and easy ways to navigate and negotiate digital content. Electronic resources librarians are amazing, so I don’t mean to be like “All you do is…” Those jobs are so hard, but it would be great if those people could do things used more of their human brain and less of just negotiating crappy contracts because this whole thing is sort of up in the air. Figuring out what to do with digital content, which has nothing to do with my talk which is all about people who don’t know how to deal with digital content and how do we deal with them? That’s a whole other issue! I think it’s gonna take up a lot of time for librarians in the next five or ten years.

LS: Outstanding. Thank you so much Jessamyn. What you just said about dealing with that digital content I can guarantee you that there’s going to be people at Netspeed, some people from my group from the Alberta library who are going to want to talk your ear off…

JW: Well I will be around after the keynote.

LS: Yes, we’ve got that open session after the keynote which I’m really looking forward to. Thank you again so much, Jessamyn, for carving out a chunk of time during the day to do this interview with us.

Thank you to everybody who’s already registered for Netspeed. If you haven’t registered for Netspeed yet, time is running out: you’ve only got about a week or so left to do so — and for those of you who aren’t able to attend, I hope you enjoyed this interview. It’s a pleasure being able to bring Jessamyn 
to you, to have this great conversation with her, and I look forward to seeing 
you all again soon. Thank you so much, Jessamyn, you have a great day.

Thank you, you too.

[Music]

Like what you read? Give Jessamyn West a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.