Thursday, July 29, 2010

Library Day in the Life: Late Shift Edition

Whereas for past Library Day in the Life postings I have divulged the thrilling secrets of a normal nine-to-five day and an exciting Saturday shift, this round it is time to discuss the wonders of working the night shift. Every Monday and Wednesday, I alleviate the tedium of working normal hours by coming in at noon and leaving at eight. Those are actually the hours we are open to the public for those days, although some of my co-workers come in for 9-5 and get additional off-desk work done, such as collection development and email reference. I, on the other hand, usually spend those morning hours wrangling a baby and occasionally attempting to run errands. This Monday morning, rather than be productive, I took a nap.

11:00  Leave the house for day care. I am listening to His Majesty's Dragon in the car at the moment, and completely do not mind the hour long commute, because then I get to hear more scenes of man-dragon bonding.

12:00  I clock in to work on time, YAY! Luckily, I am rarely on desk the first hour of the day, so I have time to put my things down, boot up my ancient Windows 2000 computer, and check my email(s), Google Reader, and Twitter for news and exciting developments. If there are no exciting developments, I will hope to create some.

This morning I had the pleasure of coming in to find a Job Content Questionnaire (JCQ) waiting for me on my desk. Apparently, the purpose of this study is to "continue our on-going efforts to ensure that we can attract and retain qualified employees." It comes with a FAQ and a glossary. It requires me to describe my basic purpose as an employee, primary responsibilities (which have to be divided into the percentage of time spent "accomplishing each responsibility"), education, communication, work experience, decision making, problem-solving, supervisory responsibility, budget management, and physical and mental demands of the job. Some of the items on the latter list are nonsensical and unintentionally hilarious (to me), such as how often employees:
  • Use hands to "finger, handle or feel"
  • Use hands, arms, feet and legs sequentially or simultaneously
  • Are able to identify and distinguish colors
The reason I am spending so much time discussing this is because 1) I actually had to take a lot of time on it instead of doing my job and 2) this is a good example of what being a municipal employee is like. I briefly considered the idea of directing them to this blog post in lieu of filling out the form, but it seems to be required. Sigh. I am going to try to think of this as a good exercise in how to justify why librarians = awesome. Also, I do love a survey!

Eventually, after puzzling out the form for quite a while, I get ready to go on desk and help actual patrons. I leave my cozy cubicle with my name badge and flash drive (my "portable brain") and find that it is, for once this summer, not oppressively hot in our un-air-conditioned public areas.

2:00  My two-hour shift this afternoon is on the main reference desk, which is adjacent to our 33 public computers, several large library tables, the microfilm and microfilm readers, and the reference collection. Once in a while, I go through the room and count people to see how many are in my realm of responsibility (which I share with one other reference librarian when staffing that desk). I have counted over seventy on occasion, but today it was closer to forty, even though they seemed to be the most high-maintenance forty people one could possibly imagine, including:
  • The guy who wouldn't believe us that someone could have locked the bathroom from the inside because they were using it.
  • Numerous people with computer issues, including: can't get on (typing in card numbers incorrectly or expired cards); can't get to the internet; can't close browser windows; need to print; having trouble filling out complex online job applications; need more time; and just want the computer for "like five minutes!" and are frustrated at the wait and reservation system. 
  • The most troublesome computer issue was a deaf patron's inability to load [unnamed evil browser] on her laptop, considering that her computer was showing as connected through her wireless card. After wrestling with it myself, I chose to call the IT department, which is a luxury I have working at a large library. They eventually got the problem sorted out, with a few more difficulties than usual due to the communication barrier. We have a TTY phone that is infrequently used, none of the librarians here (that I know of) are proficient with sign language, so most of our communication with hearing-impaired patrons is done through gestures and writing on small pieces of paper. This interaction was a good reminder to 1) not assume that everyone can hear and 2) slow down and enunciate for the purposes of lip-reading.
  • I also ended up having two reference questions that required longer contemplation. The first was a woman who started out saying she wanted one thing, but upon further application of reference interview tactics turned out to probably need a lawyer. I gave her the numbers for the Hampden County Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service, the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center, and the name of a local lawyer with free consultations. The other question came from another library looking for assistance from us as the largest public library in the region. However, despite researching it on and off for the rest of the day, I couldn't find a concrete answer for the number of Palestinian deaths (related to the conflict) since 1948. On the advice of @shinyinfo, I tried the UNreference form as well as some websites that seemed to at least cite their sources. It was not a very satisfying conclusion, but that happens sometimes. If anyone reading this post has a better idea for a reliable source, please send me an email!
4:00  Time for a dinner break! Those two hours on desk seemed to take an eternity, but I do actually enjoy being constantly busy with patrons and questions. For dinner I had homemade pesto with pasta, red potatoes, and green beans that I picked at our CSA, as well as snacks and a sanity-preserving Coke.

5:00  Back on desk, this time in the Fiction and Media area, which is in the air-conditioned part of the library. Evening patrons are a little different than those that come in on days we are open from 9-5. There are definitely  more parents with their children (toting summer reading lists, especially this time of  year). There is a different set of people that comes solely for the computers and will stay the whole two hours allotted. A group of raucous teens usually haunts the YA section for most of the night. The pace is a little slower, and there are fewer opportunities to call other libraries with questions or for shelf checks. My three hours on desk were much quieter than the two in the afternoon, allowing me to contemplate deep, deep questions such as which hour to put my statistics in if the reference transaction occurred at the turn of the hour and whether there was a patron-friendly way to describe "fiction" and "non-fiction" so they would actually understand it. I had fewer and fewer patrons as the night wore on, and therefore the opportunity to order some paperbacks and perform other collection development tasks, in addition to considering the topic of my upcoming display, the new self-checkout machines, and whether or not it would be advisable to divide the popular movies by genre. Another moderately productive day!

    Wednesday, July 21, 2010

    Meditation on Library Late Fees

    I didn't want Amanda to have the dilemma of deciding whether or not to approve my comment, so I thought I would comment on her (apparently controversial) library late fee post over here.

    As a public librarian who also does collection development [disclaimer: not a circulation person that actually has to deal with people and their fines], I often come across items that are "billed"--that is, have been checked out and never returned. In my opinion, billed items cause a lot more problems for people than slowly accruing (at 10 cents a day) overdue fees. I have also encountered many people (and I am sure that there is a secret legion of others who are afraid to come back to the library) with late fees over $10.00--the level at which they are ineligible to check out or hold books or use the public computers--who were forced to return to the library because their children have to check out books for summer reading, or they have no computer at home and need to use ours to look for a job, since theirs has recently disappeared. These people are angry, or embarrassed, or sad, or some combination of these things, because they owe the library money and they haven't paid it for whatever reason. Unfortunately library staff allowed to let these patrons do anything at all (other than browse the reference collection--whee!) unless they get their late fees below the $10.00 mark. As Amanda points out, these are most likely the people that the public library is keen on serving: those that can least afford to lose library privileges due to restrictive fine policies. How to reach the untold number of people who are currently unable to use the library due to fines is one problem; my concern is how to keep hundreds more from joining them every year because of our insistence on clinging to late fees as an appropriate punishment for overdue books.

    Perhaps what the patrons with fines don't know is that what we really want is the item returned--if you actually bring it back, $3.00 is the maximum that we will charge per item. If you don't bring it back, however, we have to try to recover item replacement costs, perhaps including an ominous sounding "processing fee." From my perspective as someone who orders items, it is much more time consuming to run a report to find billed items, try to determine which ones merit replacing, and go through the ordering process (bringing up issues like back order, out of stock, out of print), not to mention the collections process that many libraries go through to get something back from patrons with very large fees. If lack of information is the case, perhaps the library needs to be more open about its policies on overdue and billed items.

    On the other hand, perhaps human nature is actually at the root of the problem. As a lifelong fine-accruer myself, it isn't due to lack of love or respect of the library, or my fellow patrons, or fear of consequences, or anything else remotely sensible that has motivated me to keep items long past their due date. It is sheer laziness. Or, at the very least, absent-mindedness. I'm not sure that any fine policy would change this behavior, but something like what Amanda has described (you keep it, you've bought it) might work better for a person like me. One of the problems is, no doubt, that public libraries have very little recourse when it comes to getting their items back. Whereas an academic library might be able to, for example, prevent students from graduating if they don't return their library books, the most a public library can do is pay a collections agency to try to get money out of people who probably don't have that money to spare in the first place.

    Once in a while, public libraries will try to encourage people to bring back overdue and billed items by holding an (usually unpublicized) Fine Free Day. In my experience, the administration is usually a bit resistant to the idea, because someone always feels that patrons will take advantage of the idea of such a lenient day to hold their overdue and billed items until they know they can return them with no consequences. This is one example of not trusting our patrons. Some of the people who replied to Amanda's post probably said things like "but you work in a medical library, in the public library . . ." [fill in the blank]. In the public library, as in any library, there are going to be people who take advantage of the system to steal materials. There are going to be people who don't understand the policies. There are going to be people who destroy library property, etc. etc., perhaps at a higher rate than the medical students that patronize a special library like Amanda's. However, the majority of public library patrons (in my experience) are worthy of trust. They appreciate the library for what it offers, both in terms of materials and computer access.

    What I am trying to say here, in my meandering way, is that I believe the current system has serious flaws. In this economic climate, having to pay down library fines can make a serious impact on an already strained budget, especially for those who arguably need the public library the most. On the subject of budgets, it is also true that public libraries get a certain amount of yearly revenue from library fines. The question is whether that revenue is enough to balance the staff time spent dealing with overdue and billed items. I seriously doubt it. There has to be a better way to ensure that patrons are able to continue using the library, even with the occasional late item, while at the same time

    I don't have a template for implementing a fine-free system at my library, and I can't guarantee that it would work any better than our current policies. But I can say that some of the honestly heartbroken people that I have had to turn away because of fines would be better served with a different system in place. And, as some might argue, if public opinion is important to libraries in a time when our budgets are in jeopardy, perhaps we need to consider ways to make our patrons--past, present, and future--feel like we trust them to responsibly use the services we offer.

    Meditation Index

    Friday, July 9, 2010

    Book Review: Shades of Grey [2010]

    Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde, is the second novel I have read recently that takes color and makes it a central and essential function of the story (the other was Warbreaker). Maybe this is a new trend to watch? Fforde, well-known for his absurdly clever Thursday Next series, takes a leap in a different direction into post-apocalyptic dystopia, as the world of the novel (Chromatacia) is organized into a strict and self-policing color hierarchy. People are ranked according to the colors they are able to see, with purple being the highest and grey the lowest. Set in the United Kingdom of a far, far distant future--after the "Something That Happened," whatever that might have been--Shades of Grey explores a society entirely bound by the sometimes nonsensical rules attributed to a figure known as Munsell. Rules such as: "Unicycles are not to be ridden backward at excessive speed" and "All residents are required to make sacrifices for the good of the community." In the world of the Collective, free movement and independent thought are frowned upon, advanced technology is being progressively phased out, marriages are arranged to result in the most highly colored offspring, the landscape is plagued by lightning and giant swan attacks, and there is a severe shortage of spoons.

    We are introduced to these and other curiosities (some tantalizingly familiar, such as a passing mention of "Chuck Naurice") through the first-person narration of Edward "Eddie" Russet, who has been sent to the Outer Fringes to conduct a chair census as a punishment. His father, who accompanies him on the journey, has been sent to replace the previous Swatchman (essentially a doctor who administers carefully chosen color swatches to heal the sick), who died unexpectedly. When Eddie arrives in East Carmine (place and person names in the book all have some color-based significance), he falls in love with aggressive and chromatic-hating Jane Grey, who threatens to kill him several times and actually attempts it twice. Despite being half-promised to Constance Oxblood back home, Eddie finds himself falling rapidly into life in East Carmine--making friends and enemies, learning the ins and outs of the town and its eccentrics, and becoming increasingly invested in the ongoing mystery of the Swatchman's death. Unfortunately, Eddie's propensity for questions (intelligent or not) and kind heart are not qualities that are likely to lead to a long and healthy life as a productive citizen of the Collective. And neither is his attraction to Jane. Fforde has created a fascinating and somehow believably absurd world which conveys enough glimpses of our own to make you wonder whether anything would ever make the Earth's population trade religious faith for the religion of following the rules.

    Grade: A

    Random Thoughts:

    I also enjoyed the portrayal of librarians a great deal, although it was deeply sad that the constrictive nature of the Collective lead to their guardianship of empty shelves where books used to sit. Ah, bureaucracy.

    The idea of "megafauna" quite frankly makes me giggle, as does this Bestiary of some of the creatures mentioned in the book, including bouncing goats. Fforde somehow manages to be completely silly and satirically pointed at the same time. There's also a lovely history of barcodes available.

    This is a book that I both listened to in the car, and then read on paper when I didn't want to stop and have to wait to find out what happened next. It had the same narrator as The City & The City, which was a little weird at first (since I had just recently finished that one), but it turns out that John Lee is a pretty kick-ass narrator who can sell whatever material he's given. I enjoyed both versions, and would recommend them both. 

    I wonder if this book might find some interest among a YA audience, as the story has some "coming of age" elements, and Eddie is only twenty. Either way, I do look forward to reading the rest of the series.

    Dead Mother: Yes
    Book Review Index

    Tuesday, July 6, 2010

    Food Post! Homemade Scallion Pancakes

    One of my favorite things to do in the summer, as soon as the (extra large) scallions start pouring in from our CSA, is make Ming Tsai's scallion pancake recipe. If you have not ordered scallion pancakes as an appetizer at your local Chinese restaurant, you have been missing out! I will attempt to re-create the recipe here for anyone who wants to follow along at home. The process is simple but (if you do it the way I always do) makes an ungodly mess, so you should budget about forty-five minutes to make the pancakes and dipping sauce and fifteen minutes to figure out how far the flour was flung during the rolling out process. 

    Pancake ingredients:
    2 c flour + incidental flour
    1 c boiling water
    1/2 c scallions, sliced
    1/4 c canola oil
    2 tsp sesame oil
    The intelligence not to make this recipe when it's freakishly hot

    A half hour in advance, make the dough by combining 2 cups of flour and 1 cup of boiling water. The recipe calls for doing this by slowly add water to flour in a steady stream while mixing with a wooden spoon, adding water until a ball is formed. However, I always use the food processor, which is faster and requires less stirring action, saving arm strength for the squishing and rolling parts of the recipe.

    Last night, I made a double recipe:

    Cover the dough with a damp cloth and let it "relax" for thirty minutes.

    While it is resting, commence the chopping of many scallions!

    You'll need a half cup for the pancakes and a quarter cup for the sauce, although you can over-estimate a little. Two of those little bundles of scallions at the grocery store should be more than enough, unless they are particularly scrawny. I tend to cut the sauce scallions in rounds (for aesthetic purposes) and the pancake scallions in half or quarters before chopping them, because you don't want the thinness of your pancake to be restricted by the height of your scallions. 

    >>>Sauce interlude<<<
    While you are waiting is as good a time as any to make the dipping sauce, which consists of combining:

    1/4 c tamari
    1/4 c rice wine vinegar
    1/4 c sliced scallions
    1 tsp minced ginger
    1 tsp red pepper flakes
    1 tsp sugar

    And setting it aside to collect itself. The sauce is awesome and, we find, generally better than the dipping sauce in our local Chinese restaurants. It also tastes good with Trader Joe's frozen potstickers.

    >>>End sauce interlude<<<

    After the dough is done with its nap, roll it out on a floured surface into a thin rectangle. Or whatever shape will fit on your floured surface.

    Brush on some of the oil mixture (1/4 c canola and 2 tsp sesame) with a pastry brush, cover with scallions, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper:

    Roll up the dough and cut it into four equal pieces:

    At this point, the recipe says: "Take one piece and twist three times. Roll and flatten to achieve a 5 to 6 inch pancake." This is never as smooth as one would hope, and involves the application of additional flour to the surface and the rolling pin and the loss of some scallions, and it's not as if the pancakes (or at least my pancakes) come out looking symmetrical or particularly attractive

    So my supplemental direction would be to twist and mold into a ball, then roll out to a fairly thin pancake, as thin as you can make it without having it fall apart. Even though it might be tempting, don't use too much flour, or the cooking surface in the pan will get all gooey. Coat the top of the pancake with the oil mixture and flip it into a hot (medium heat) non-stick pan. Sear one side, then coat the exposed side with oil and flip. When that side is done, you have yourself a delicious pancake:

    Cut the finished product into wedges and serve with the dipping sauce (we serve it in individual small bowls, to reduce vicious table fighting). Serve immediately to the ravening hordes, although you can keep them warm in the oven while you finish making the pancakes. In our house, one recipe serves 2+.  I would have taken pictures of the final presentation, but hunger took over and the photographees disappeared in record time. Although I was told that they were the "best ever."

    Saturday, July 3, 2010

    Sports I Love: Soccer*

    I began my not-so-illustrious soccer career at the same time most children do in the United States: at a fairly young age, when "playing" is more equivalent to "everyone chasing the ball and sometimes accidentally kicking it in the goal" than what one would generally see when watching, say, the World Cup. Although sometimes that kind of thing still seems to happen on corner kicks, even at that level.

    Upon reflection, however, it should have been a tip-off that I often preferred the yummy orange slices at halftime to actually being on the field. I spent most of my youth soccer career playing fullback, which was just as well for me because we had a few really good forwards who kept the ball on the other side of the field for the majority of the game. On one memorable occasion, however, I was placed in the net as the goalie, where I promptly allowed several goals and was never called upon to serve in that capacity again.

    Despite my reluctance to actually move around the field (another manifestation of the laziness that has kept me from my destiny as an Olympic athlete), I do remember enjoying myself and even (gasp) practicing at home. I had a stake that you put into the ground with a long elastic cord that ended in a closed net for the soccer ball; this way you could kick the ball as hard as you wanted and it would snap back in your direction, which I liked because: less running. I eventually even figured out how not to get in the face by the returning ball.

    After years of acquiring soccer trophies based on very little effort and consistently good teammates, things started to get more serious as I got older (although my future in-law and I did spend a lot of time singing "Take Me Out of the Ball Game" during yawn-inducing junior high games). When the time came to try out for a real soccer team in high school, on which girls occasionally got spiked or tore ACLs and were expected to actually run continuously for a horrendously long time, I bowed out. I also disliked the coach intensely, and decided that one sport (basketball) was enough effort for my modest energy resources.

    However, despite my non-dramatic departure from competitive soccer, I still do enjoy watching it being played. I usually follow the men's and women's World Cup, and was able to attend a few women's games at Gillette Stadium when it was held in the United States several years ago. I find the sport aesthetically pleasing and enjoy that it forces me to be a patient viewer even more than baseball does. Plus: at least one announcer usually has an accent. I also enjoy being cast into a nostalgic frame of mind about my decade in the soccer trenches. Maybe I will stop by the store for some orange slices to eat during the next World Cup match . . .

    ETA: I am now being told that I also played enthusiastically not only for the orange slices, but because I liked kicking people. Good to know.

    Meditation Index

    *I am calling it soccer and not "football," purists, because a) that's what I've always called it and b) to do otherwise would make my actual (forthcoming) football post more confusing.

    Thursday, July 1, 2010

    Book Review: Eon: Dragoneye Reborn [2008]

    I had been meaning to read Australian author Alison Goodman's Eon: Dragoneye Reborn for some time, but as often happens, I had to return the paper copy after (cough) renewing it a few times, and ended up listening to the book on CD in the car. But at least I still managed to read it! The first book in a two-part series, Eon follows the story of a young girl who is plucked from the life of a salt farm drudge by a former Dragoneye looking to regain power in the Dragon Council. Dragoneyes are the magic-wielding men responsible for using the power of their zodiac-based energy dragon to control the weather and ensure the prosperity of the realm. However, Eon (actually Eona) and her master hide her sex (at the risk of execution) and present her as a candidate for the annual choosing of the Dragoneye apprentice. After being chosen by an unexpected energy dragon, Eon/a finds herself caught up against her will in a swirl of politics and intrigue as the fate of the empire rests on her shoulders. Her main adversary is the downright sinister Rat Dragoneye Lord Ido, whose ambitions seem to know no bounds.

    Goodman has created a heavily East Asian-influenced kingdom in which being female means being largely powerless. In fact, the social hierarchy is so rigid that nearly all the characters are powerless in some capacity, even the seemingly all-powerful emperor's son. Class and regional conflict is a very interesting part of the narrative, but what intrigued me most was the portrayal of gender roles and sexuality. Eon/a struggles with her identity as she encourages her male energy and attempts to suppress her female energy and unite with her dragon. Lady Dela, who is a biological man who chooses to dress and live as a woman, is just freakin' cool and snarky. She also seems to [spoiler alert] be in love with the super-butch eunuch (yes, that's what I said) Ryko; we'll see how that plays out in the conclusion. The takeaway--the importance of embracing who you are rather than attempting to escape it--is a valuable one, and since it comes in a package with zodiac animals (which I have been a sucker for ever since Fruits Basket), sword fighting, imperial splendor, harem scenes, dragon magic, and cool artifacts, I am definitely on board.

    Grade: B+

    Random Thoughts:

    One of the other interesting themes that Goodman addresses is disability. Eon/a has a lame hip and is therefore regarded as a symbol of ill fortune by many of the characters. Her good friend from her days as a trainee, Chart, is more severely deformed, but is portrayed as sarcastically clever and good friend. [Spoiler alert] I am not sure yet how I feel about her hip being healed at the end of the book, since it is such a large part of her identity for the rest of the novel. It will be interesting to see how Goodman handles that in Eona, where presumably the secret of her sex will be out in the open, so she will have that "disability" to deal with as well.

    This book was also one of the more frustrating I have recently read, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It was only that my emotional involvement was such that I was actually shouting things like "don't be an idiot!" repeatedly to my car stereo. The plot points were predictable at times, but the story was a refreshing change of pace from fluffier YA lit, a lot more serious and stark and full of violence than I was expecting.

    The redemption(?) of Lord Ido at the end of the book was also unexpected, given that he had up to that point been a drug-abusing, crazy-raging, homicidal, power-hungry, would-be-rapist asshole. I guess they call that character development.

    Dead Mother: Not clear, maybe?
    Book Review Index