From the Other Side

blue green and purple inflatable aliens
“Inflatable aliens at Anonymous protest” by Lewis Francis. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

As I’ve mentioned before, I do virtual reference (VR) (also known as chat reference).  And when you’re on chat, it’s common to have patrons ask for help troubleshooting technology.  The library has specialists in a variety of software – so we can always make a referral.  But it’s library policy (and just good reference etiquette) to try to help the patron as much as we can right when they ask the question, rather than put them off until they can get an appointment with the specialist librarian.

These technology questions – when I’m not really the specialist – can be nerve-wracking and/or frustrating.  Not being a specialist in everything, I hope I can help right then and there…even if I don’t know much.  And then, VR and technology troubles can be unbearably difficult because I can’t see what the patron sees.  I can never really be sure I’m 100% discussing the same issue they are (because I can’t see it); and I don’t always know that I’m explaining the procedures in a way that the patron understands.

So when I bought myself a piece of technology and it didn’t work, I experienced the strangest feeling – knowing I would be the patron in a chat reference transaction, and knowing how it feels to be the “expert” during that chat.

It is so bizarre coming in from the other side.

Still, I needed help, so I saddled up and faced that strange feeling.  I typed into the chat box and tried to explain as clearly and carefully as possible the issue, praying that I wasn’t making it any harder for the person on the other side. Fortunately, the Help Desk and I were able to communicate well and resolve the situation to my satisfaction.

Coming from the other side wasn’t so terrible after all.  But odd.


This company and its Help Desk also had an awesome technology in their chat where the Help Desk can send the user a link.  The user can then upload photos (or screenshots) of the issue at hand in the space provided by the link.  I think that would be an awesome addition to the library’s chat reference system.


Mental Health Micro-aggressions

This week (January 17-23, 2016) is #LISMentalHealthWeek, which was organized by Kelly McElroy and Cecily Walker.  The week will include blogging, podcasting, and resource-sharing about mental health issues.  It’s only early in the week (as I’m writing this), and I’ve read several exceptional posts and tweets.  Mental health issues are incredibly important to me.  So, I’ve decided that I will contribute a post to #LISMentalHealthWeek.  Plenty of awesome and brave librarians who have come forward and written about their own struggles with mental health issues.  For this post, though, I want to take a different approach to the #LISMentalHealthWeek.

blue and white statue
“E-Volve” by Keoni Cabral. 2012. Attribution 2.0 Generic. Via

Yes, recognizing that our colleagues (and even our librarian heroes) can suffer from all sorts of mental health issues is vastly important.  We need to understand, accept, and help.  And in that vein, we need also to be aware of our institution, our environment.  My library recently learned of several instances of racial micro-aggression in the library; the librarians, staff, and administration have been working hard to prevent further incidences.  Racial micro-aggressions are very real and very dangerous, but they aren’t the only type of micro-aggression that happen in libraries.  Patrons and employees suffering from mental health disorders face micro-aggressions as well.

Herein, I want to give a few examples of off-hand remarks about mental health I’ve heard in various libraries I’ve either been a patron in, or employed in.

  • “Just any body can walk in here. We don’t know what’s wrong with them.”
  • “She always seemed off his rocker.”
  • “He never has been able to get it together.” (when the speaker knows fully well the subject has an emotional disorder)
  • “She’s always muttering to herself.  I don’t like being in the elevator with her.  What if she suddenly turns against me?”
  • Talking about those with mental/emotional disorders being more susceptible to committing violence, like mass shootings.
  • “You never know what’s going to set them (those suffering from mental/emotional disorders) off.”
  • Nitpicking behaviors that are clearly those of a mental/emotional disorder.
  • “He should just suck it up and get over it.  It’s not that bad.”

All of these instances broke my heart.  I know that all of the speakers did not mean to offend, to be callous.  I know that I could very well have been one of these speakers in the past.  (We all have room for improvement.)  And these are just a small slice of what differently functioning people encounter in an information setting (not to mention many are not ADA compliant, and often intimidatingly institutional).

As we use #LISMentalHealthWeek to discuss our own mental health issues and share support, I hope we (the library community) can also try to renew our commitment to making libraries a safe space for everyone.  We should be aware of the things we say and do, and how that shapes a safe (or hostile) environments for our coworkers and patrons.

girl suffering from anxiety

Performance Anxiety

girl suffering from anxiety
“Girl suffering from anxiety” by Bablekan at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.ffering_from_anxiety.jpg

When I’m on reference, I’m almost always on Virtual Reference (VR), also known as the chat reference.  The public services librarians have found that the in-person reference desks do need to be staffed, but they are not as crucial or as heavily used as virtual reference.  So, of course, the acquisitions graduate assistant (me) is 99% of the time on VR when doing reference.

Like in-person reference desks are most often asked directional questions, VR often has common questions.  It’s often about accessing electronic resources.  Unfortunately, there are thousands (seemingly) of reasons that an electronic resource won’t work.  There are just too many potential points of failure, it seems.  There’s human failures – whether on the library’s or the vendor’s or the patron’s side.  And then there are the technology failures – the network, the browser, the computer, the platform, etc.

When I’m on VR and an electronic resources problem pops up, I get a pit in my stomach. I’m probably one of the best people to talk to about the problem…and I know it, so I really want to perform.  Unfortunately, I’m not doing VR from the acquisitions office, and often not during the hours in which acquisitions is open. What might be a semi-easy fix in acquisitions, with the ER team and my work computer with various software at my fingertips, becomes seemingly impossible from a VR station.

While I floundered in performance anxiety originally, I have come to learn a lot of tricks that can be implemented away from acquisitions. For example, the proxy url prefix that works for acquisitions people…doesn’t always work when jettisoned as a url via chat. Instead, one can add an affix to the middle of the url (immediately after the .com) in order to proxy an off-campus patron in.

All in all, the lesson here is that an electronic resources librarian is going to experience some performance anxiety no matter where they are or what they’re doing – particularly if they’re not in their “home” environment.  Even with electronic resources that aren’t from my library, I want to be able to master and fix them.  And if there’s a problem while I’m at home, researching for a class, I’ll be sure to freak out over the inability to access a resource.

Even though there’s performance anxiety (“I have to get this resource to work now!”), I want to let you (and myself) know that everything will be okay.  You’ll learn tricks for different situations (like at your office or on the VR desk). Most electronic resource issues are not emergency situations; if it’s midnight and a patron needs a specific journal, they can probably wait until 9am the next morning. The other people on the public service desk aren’t going to think you’re incompetent; they’re more interested in grilling you about policies and procedures that you’ve got down pat.

Don’t let performance anxiety cripple you; you’re doing just fine.

Paris book stalls

A Few of My Favorite Things (Nonfiction), Part I

Public librarians get to do the cool job of readers’ advisory.  Academic librarians rarely do; and definitely not academic acquisitions librarians.  Even though I don’t have the opportunity to recommend books particularly often, I have a few books that are favorites that I would like to recommend.

In the series “A Few of My Favorite Things,” I’ll perform some readers’ advisory and give some reading recommendations.

In this iteration of “A Few of My Favorite Things,” I’ll discuss 3 of my favorite nonfiction books.

Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium by Bart D. ErhmanJesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Bart D. Erhman). This book is fabulous – it’s easy to read and follow; and it’s almost like a mystery novel.  Biblical historian Bart D. Ehrman examines archaeological and textual evidence in order to create an image of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, a man who believed the end days would come in his lifetime or that of his followers.  Even though I was assigned this book for a college course, I could not put the damned thing down.  If you have even the slightest interest in religion or Christianity, this is a great book to look into.

Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun (A.J. Somerset).  Yet another book in Arms: The Credo and Culture of the Gun by A.J. Somersetthis list that I seriously could not put down.  Journalist (and former army reservist) A.J. Somerset examines North American gun culture – primarily of the United States and Canada.  The gun culture in North America is highly gendered (in particular, masculine) and this book seems written in a much more masculine style – but it’s a read that readers of all genders will like.  Readers learn about how the military fostered gun culture in order to train snipers and sharpshooters for WWI and WWII, how most pro-gun rhetoric is aimed towards men only, how the gun is a symbol that divides communities.

Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J. MassaquoiDestined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany (Hans J. Massaquoi). This book has moments that are slower than the above two books, but Hans J. Massaquoi’s Destined to Witness is not a real life story that anyone wants to miss.  In this autobiography, Massaquoi details his experience growing up as biracial with a German mother in Hamburg, Germany during the Nazi regime.  At the end of the World War, he travels to Liberia to find his father and his Liberian family, then finally to the United States.  It’s a book I will recommend to anyone.

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Accessing History Through Art

For most historians, the archives are a hallowed space.  All those unique manuscripts, census documents, silver gelatin photographs, crumbling newspapers and scratched microfilm – who doesn’t love an archive?  But what if a historian could find historical evidence in an art museum?  Well, it turns out they can.

Certain artworks detail contemporaneous events.  Today, I present two examples.

Meiji Period Japan was a text-based society.  It boasted some of the highest literacy rates in the world, for men and women.  There are stories of even peasant girls copying borrowed encyclopedias, so that they could own their own copy. But even though the Japanese were highly literate, they also were incredibly artistic as well. While, of course, a scholar could read about contemporary views of the Sino-Japanese War (for example), what could they gain from studying popular, contemporary artwork that depicts the war? It’s a new avenue from which to draw information.

Mizuno Toshikata woodblock print
Mizuno Toshikata (1866-1908), [Sino-Japanese war], Meiji era (1894). Color woodblock triptych. Graphic Arts Collection GC153. Princeton University.
Black Hawk Ledger
Black Hawk (Lakota Sans Arc). “Plate No. 8” [ledger drawing]. Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York.
The plethora of Plains Indian cultures are a particularly interesting case.  I consider them to be literate as well, but they were not per se literate in ways that most Westerners perceive as “literate.” So, you won’t see as many books or ephemera with written language – as you would with Meiji Era Japanese culture. Instead, you can look to their artwork for a historical record.  The winter counts are beautiful examples of a historical narrative; the artist recorded what happened during the year.  Ledger drawings are my personal favorite.  Ledger drawings depict historical events, from the perspective of Native participants.  While many drawings were destroyed or censored (by both whites and Natives), these ledger drawings present one of the best looks into Plains Indians’ lives and history – from their own perspective. For the historian who can interpret the intricate details of each ledger drawing, the ledger drawings are a trove of information that you’re not as likely to find in an archive.