This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is Jessica Olin. She’s the director of the Robert H. Parker Library at Wesley College. You can find her at her blog at letterstoayounglibrarian.blogspot.com, or on Twitter at @olinj.
Jessica, welcome to the show.
I was thinking about it, and with your blog, Letters to a Young Librarian, I kind of feel like you and I are doing similar things — with my podcast and your blog, we’re trying to educate the profession. And you’re aiming more at the beginners of the profession, those in school and new to the profession, but can you tell the listeners a little bit about what the blog is and the origins of it — why you decided to start that up?
I was thinking about this the other day. It seems that every major decision in my career has been made because something made me angry [laughs]. And it’s as good a reason as any, but the genesis of the blog was, I was supervising a student in his culminating experience in graduate school. We were his internship-ish thing. And he was telling me about a class he was taking, and he was talking about learning DIALOG.
Mmmm, DIALOG [laughs].
And the look on my face, I’m sure, was shock. I said, “Is it a point-and-click?” And he said, “No. It’s command line.”
Oh. That hurts.
This was in 2010? 2011.
So, right, like, a few months before I started the blog, and I went off. I said, “That was out of date when I was learning it ten years ago.” Blah blah blah blah. And then, shortly thereafter, I was complaining to a senior colleague at that institution, and he told me about how some of the most prestigious library graduate programs were still teaching library penmanship in the ’50s and ’60s.
Well after we were doing things with computers and typewriters and all that. And it just struck me how our curriculum and our graduate programs are tragically always running 10, 15, 20 years behind what working professional librarians do.
Yeah, it’s like the kids say on the internet, I just can’t even.
Well, I say that too [laughs]. And I’m definitely not a kid. But it was just a moment of righteous anger, of, “How dare you do this? And I need to do something about this.” Combine that with the fact that I had just been reading “Letters to a Young Poet,” a fantastic, fantastic book. I recommend it to everyone, even if you aren’t a professional creative. And a couple of other things, and I said, “I’m gonna start a blog.” And I was so impatient to start the blog that I just went with Blogger and have stuck with it, because I know enough tech to get me in trouble. I’m public services. Even though, guilty secret, I was a system admin in my first professional library position, and it was that anger, and wanting to make sure that things go better for people coming up behind me than they did for me, because my transition from graduate school to professional practice — I’m very lucky in that my first job, the first director I worked for is basically — ten years ago, I said, “Oh, so that’s what I’m gonna be like in my forties, and I was right.”
So, I was lucky in that I had someone to hold my hand as I made that transition. And not everyone’s lucky. So, that’s where the blog started.
And so, when you’re making these decisions of things that make you angry, it’s more, I think — it sounds like it’s coming from frustration on how the thing is and your wanting to make it right.
Exactly. Not that I didn’t like the directors I’ve worked for in the past. I’ve worked for some fantastic people. But there was a moment of, “Oh, come on. I could do a better job than that” [laughs].
“That’s what I need to pursue, becoming a library director.” There’s other things that are going on in my life right now that I don’t wanna talk about to publicly because I’m not sure, but there’s another, “Oh, come on. I could do a better job.”
Is it doing a library podcast and you’re listening to my —
No, no [laughs].
Just don’t tell me if it is. No. So, I do want to go into your journey to being a director, in a minute, but to go back to the blog for a minute, what was your decision to — from the beginning, did you always want to open it up to others to write for it as well, or did you plan to write it all yourself at the beginning? Or was it all sort of just coming together really quickly and you didn’t think it through [laughs]?
Kind of a mish-mash of all three of those. Even though I had eight or nine years’ experience by the time I was getting ready to start the blog, I worked with a bunch of people who had 20, 30 years’ experience in the field. So, even though the 11 years I’ve been a librarian now might seem impressive to people who are just coming up from graduate school, I still felt like a kid. It felt like I didn’t know everything. I still feel like I don’t know everything. So, fairly early on, I knew that my voice alone wouldn’t be enough, and I was friends with — I tend to gravitate more to public-library people, because I feel that, having worked at small, liberal-arts colleges, my job has a lot more in common with public libraries than it does with someone who, say, works at Harvard. Harvard’s wonderful. I’m sure. I know people who’ve worked there and they like it. But it’s an awareness of my day-to-day job, and so, starting to ask public-library people to balance my academic library voice, and I knew a medical librarian, and I knew a legal librarian. So, it wasn’t an immediate decision from the beginning, but fairly early on, I knew and wanted to have multiple voices involved, because as much as I do feel like I know what I’m talking about a lot of the times, I’m not the only person, and I’m not the only perspective. But it wasn’t a conscious decision at the beginning, and it wasn’t a, “Oh, this will just work.” It was kind of a natural progression, and I’m not sure exactly how to explain it beyond that.
Yeah, yeah. And so, I don’t think we went over the actual [laughs] conceit of the blog itself. So, basically, it’s people passing on knowledge to younger librarians, people coming up through library school and new to the profession.
Sometimes it’s not just that. I’ve had someone write a perspective of, “Hey, I’m a brand new branch director. And for people who are thinking about taking that step, here’s some advice.” It’s also — I think for a lot of people, it’s the advice they wish they had gotten.
Does it help you when you’re writing it out? Is it helping you in your own journey?
Oh. My. Dear. Sweet. Lord. Yes [laughs].
That, that was the — the conversations I had with that graduate student who was complaining about dialog, we had conversations about everything from how I decided what to wear to work, to which books I wanted to read, to more lofty discussions like my pedagogical philosophy. And having to explain it to him really solidified it for me. You’ve written for a Letters to a Young Librarian.
It’s a moment of being clear with yourself in order to be clear with someone else, and very little has helped me in my professional philosophy more than having to write about it every week.
Yeah, yeah. It’s more when you have to explain it to somebody else. Yeah, you do have to — you might think it’s clear in your mind until you — yeah, you actually have to write it down.
So, I wanna get into how the blog fosters mentoring kind of things and how that can work. But before we get to that, a lot of it is — it’s aimed at newer people in the profession, new things like that, in general. But obviously, anybody else can learn from it, ‘cuz, I mean, I read it regularly too, and learn things. But library school curriculum [laughs], as we’ve talked about, dialog is an issue [laughs]. What do you think — from what you hear about — obviously, it’s been a while, I think, since both of us have been in library school — I graduated in 2004, I think? What do you think needs to be changed? What’s feeding this anger now [laughs], and that side of it for you — what are these people not learning in school that they need to be learning?
I’m actually planning to write a post about this. Everybody needs pedagogy. I don’t care what kind of library you’re gonna work in; everybody needs to know about how people learn. We are a service industry, whether it’s at a law firm or investment firm or K-12. We are all involved with people learning, and teaching themselves. And understanding how that works, and the difference between how children work and teenagers work and adults work — that’s the thing. I went and got a master’s in education, because I didn’t think I got enough of it in library school. And I was fortunate in that I had a bibliographic instruction class available to me. I went to Simmons, yay Simmons. But pedagogy is one of the things that’s missing. I don’t think everybody needs to be able to code, but I think everybody needs to be able to understand code.
So, being able to speak tech, as opposed to do tech — that’s something else that — I recommend Simmons to anyone who wants to hear, because that’s another thing, another opportunity that Simmons afforded me, was a class about library technology, and about how to teach yourself about library technology. Those are the main pieces that I see lacking in a lot of programs. There are other things that I think are good or great. I think everyone should have a full-blow cataloguing class, even if you never become a cataloguer.
I’ve heard of things like cataloguing-light. And I understand how our automated system works much better, because I know how to do the back end. I understand the interplay of why things are put in certain parts of the Dewey system or the Library of Congress system, because I had to study it. And even if we move away from those specific systems, understanding how we organize our information in libraries — it’s doing future librarians a disservice not to make them learn that stuff. And this isn’t a “Ha ha, I had to go through it, you do too” kind of hazing, because cataloguing was my hardest class.
My favorite professor, but my hardest class. But it underpins how I teach people to use the library, and how I interact with the community in general, so I think it’s a definite need.
Yeah, dialog feels like a “Ha ha, had to go through this, now you do too.”
To continue teaching that is sort of a, “Well, we learned it, so you have to learn it.” I can’t believe they’re still — hopefully they’re still not teaching it there, but.
That was less than five years ago.
Yeah, I know [laughs].
So, to get back to the idea of mentoring — which I think is part of what your blog is — it’s helping a mentoring relationship, especially for people who maybe don’t have a direct mentor to work with. It’s sort of that relationship, that you’re learning from other librarians, even if you don’t have a specific person you get to deal with. Have you had specific mentors in the past that you’ve learned from?
Oh, I have been very fortunate. So, early on, that first library director I worked for — she was only there for about six months, but she really shaped who I am as a librarian, and the relationship I had with her — although not strictly called “mentoring,” really was a mentoring relationship. I was also very fortunate there to have some quote-unquote para-professionals who kind of took me in hand and said, “Yes, we know. You learned all that fancy stuff in library school. Let me show you how to do it in the real world.” People without the master’s degree — bar none, the best cataloguer I’ve ever known is someone who doesn’t have the degree. And he taught me so much. More recently, the gentleman I worked for at my last job, at Hiram College, he — I haven’t worked there in almost two years and he still reaches out to me occasionally to see how I’m doing. Any questions. And he is always available when I have the panicked, “Oh my God, I need to cut this much money from the budget, and can you tell me how to make those kinds of decisions?” I had that conversation with him about a year ago, and he patiently and kindly said, “OK, here’s what you do.” I’ve also — because of the college library director’s mentor program — fantastic program — I would have an official mentor who was assigned to me through that program, and she [laughs] — she still, even though we are technically done with that formal relationship, she still is reaching out to me and making herself available to me.
It was funny. She sent me an email, like, three weeks ago. “So, budget season’s coming up. Wanna chat? [laughs]”
I find her invaluable. She helps me keep things in perspective, so. Yes. I know I’m lucky, but I’ve had a few mentors along my path, and I know other people aren’t as lucky, so, I value these people in my life. I am so grateful for these people.
And do you, then, now, feel like you have a responsibility — especially now that you’re a director — that you start mentoring people? Or are you now? Do you feel like you are now, or do you feel like you want to have that relationship with someone?
It’s intimidating. The fact that — someone told me semi-recently, about six months ago, how she really looks up to me. And it’s intimidating to have that kind of role in somebody’s life. I know how my relationships with my mentors have really shaped who I am, and it’s intimidating, but it’s also an honor to have someone say, “I need your advice on something.” I have a few people who give advice, but I don’t know that I’m a formal mentor —
— for them. Yeah. I’m not sure how to answer that question [laughs].
Well, and I think through the blog, you are doing that with people. I mean, in an informal way, but you are passing on knowledge to people about the profession.
My big caveat, when someone asks me for advice, is — I’ll try to clean this up for an audience — I’ll try to say it PG — is that I have made a lot of mistakes in my career. I have learned from them. I’d like to think that I make smart mistakes, and that I don’t make the same mistakes again. I’m not afraid to make mistakes, either. And I own my mistakes. But it intimidates me when people see who I am now and think that they have to be that together.
I read somewhere recently that there’s really no such thing as a grownup. And I think we are all always evolving, and we are all always learning. And I still need mentors, and I’m getting better at calling myself a mentor to other people, but the thing I want to make sure people realize when they come to me for advice, when they look at my blog, is that some of this wisdom has been very hard-won.
And it’s two steps forward, half-step back. Two steps forward, one and a half steps back.
So, yes? I mentor people, but I think I’m still skittish about it.
And some of it is sort of the — it’s almost like the famous athlete saying, “Well, I don’t want to be a role model.” I’m like, “Well,” I mean, like, you’re a director. You are a mentor [laughs], I mean, you stepped into the role and that’s the role that’s there, and that’s part of it, and so —
Yeah. It’s part of the role. And I think you knew that going into it, that that’s just part of the role, and so you have to step into it, and — I think, realistically, almost everybody is uncomfortable with that idea. Maybe there are people who are comfortable with it, but [laughs] I don’t know anybody that’s comfortable with it.
It’s been strange for me to develop a relationship with Barbara Fister online. I’ve even direct messaged her a couple of times on Twitter when I had questions. And I really admire Barbara Fister. I wanna be Barbara Fister when I grow up. And to look at my reactions to her and to realize that there are some people who have the same reaction to me —
— has kind of put it in context for me. It’s, maybe, squashed my “but I’m such a mess-up” mentality, and own the fact that I do, a lot of the times, know what I’m talking about. I feel the same way with Chris Bourg, too.
The two of them — I look at them and think, “Wow.” And then, to have it right in my face that some people look at me and have that reaction, yeah.
Yeah, sometimes I’ll have, like, a little conversation on Twitter, and it’s like, “No way, man, I’m having a conversation with that person? Wait a minute, what? And they were respecting my opinion? I don’t understand.”
Yes. Exactly [laughs].
[laughs] So, mentoring, I think, is one of the big qualities of a good leader. Are there other things that you’ve tried to embrace as you’ve transitioned into a leadership role? Qualities of leadership?
Trust. Being able to trust your people is huge.
It’s an important thing for leaders, and I know I did a little bit of micromanaging as I was learning, as I was finding my legs, my management legs — but that’s one of the biggest steps I think I’ve taken from being a frontline librarian. And I still do a lot of frontline librarian work — about 60 percent of my job, 70 percent of my job is still frontline stuff, because this is a small library. But learning to trust my staff and learning to let go of a few of the details here and there, and more details on things where it really doesn’t matter, that’s — yeah. Not just mentoring but trusting the process.
Right, I mean, ‘cuz when you’re leading, you have to trust that the people below you are going to — ‘cuz you can’t do everything yourself, so you have to trust the process of the people under you are going to get the things done that they need to get done.
And it’s not a blind trust.
It’s checking after them and making sure things go the way they’re supposed to, and keeping tabs. I was introduced to a philosophy called strengths-based leadership, and I think it is one of the smartest ideas I’ve ever encountered as a librarian, of working to people’s strengths. We can’t all be all things to all people, and so, I’m really good at big-picture stuff, surprise, surprise. The professional librarian — I have a frozen position, but the professional librarian who works for me, she’s really good at taking my, “Here, this is where we should go, and here’s a couple ways we should go to it.” And she’s really good at saying, “OK. Here are the discrete steps that we need to take along that path.” She is really good with details, and the nitty-gritty details. I’m really good with the big picture. So, developing that kind of relationship. But there are other people on my staff who want more direction.
One of the things that you have done at your library that a lot of academic libraries don’t do is, you’ve brought in a lot of popular materials. Can you talk about the decision to do that, and why you want to do that?
Well, my first job — my first job shaped so much about my professional career. I worked at Landmark College, which is now a four-year school, but at the time, was a two-year school. Fully accredited, all of that, for people with learning disabilities and ADHD and other learning difficulties. Traumatic brain injury, et cetera. And getting students in the library when the library represents everything they can’t do is a challenge [laughs].
And so, the idea of looking to see what worked at other places, like, you’d see what works for other libraries — and a lot of research led me to the idea of adult basic education materials, high-interest for adults but low reading level. It also let me to graphic novels, which — it takes a different part of your brain. You look at pictures with a different part of your brain than you look at words. So, getting involved with that kind of material and that kind of collection — while at the same time learning about the theory called universal design for instruction — some people call it the universal design for learning — and the idea of, “If I do something that’s gonna help someone with dyslexia or someone with ADHD, it’s actually gonna benefit other people as well, because good pedagogy for them is good pedagogy for everyone.” It taught me the value of not discounting those kinds of materials. And then, my next library job, we had a lot of popular-culture scholars. So, I was able to find footing for the kinds of materials I knew worked within a different setting for a different reason. It’s interesting to postulate who’s going to be the Jane Austen of our era. Jane Austen was popular appeal and her romances were seen as throwaway, and yet they’re seen now as great literature.
And so, working with people in the English department. I had a Cormac McCarthy scholar, and he’s got a lot of popular appeal, so bringing the idea of good pedagogy into an atmosphere that already respected the role of popular literature as an academic pursuit — there were people who were teaching graphic novels, there was a disciplinary class where they were teaching — an art professor and an English professor were teaching about graphic novels. So, I had fertile soil for it there. And the two experiences combined, so when I came on board here, it was just an automatic, “Yeah, we’re going to have popular reading materials.” We are actually currently working on a circulating board-game collection — just waiting to get a little bit of information back from the Delaware Library Consortium. Our catalogue is tied to theirs.
The thing is, our students — I’ve always worked at schools with a lot of first-generation college students, or students who don’t learn traditionally, or both. And when you think about this incoming freshmen — traditional incoming freshmen, 17-, 18-year-olds, they used to be going to the teen section of the libraries three months before, so it’s not like they’re a completely different person —
— over the summer, from high school to college. It works, and there’s a lot of research to support what I do, but my decision was based on trying to get people into the library.
Again, something that really confused me, and I started getting angry about, but, “This other thing works for other people, and why can’t we do that here?” And, “OK, I’ll do it.”
Mm-hmm. Yeah. “Hey, I’m the director. Wait a minute” [laughs].
Oh, now I can do that. Back then, it was a, “Please, may I?”
And I think that really leads into the next thing I wanted to ask you about anyway: that that helps to build the sense of community in your community, that the library is an essential part of that. So, on a college campus, it’s the student body; in the public library, it’s the surrounding community. Do you see that as a big part of what the library should be to its community?
[laughs] All right. Next question [laughs].
I have been doing a lot of relationship-building here, and my first question has always been, “How can a library help you?” And then people start to say, “How can we help you in return?”
That’s great. And so, are you already feeling that at your current position, feeling that sense of community growing?
The SGA is gonna pay for coffee and tea that we’re gonna have in the library for finals. [laughs] I had someone come to me who was writing a grant, and asked me, “What can I put for the library in this grant?” He didn’t get it, but he asked. I’ve had people — it’s starting to come back. It took a year and a half, but it’s starting to come back to me — of people realizing that there’s someone new in the captain’s chair, and this is a different starship now.
Yes, now I — people who follow your blog know that you like “Star Trek.”
Very much so.
And you like animated GIFS, jifs, ghifs, jifs. See, I’m all confused by the “ghif”/”jif” thing now, ‘cuz now I know — I can’t remember what the right one is anymore.
The person who created it says it’s pronounced “jif,” but you don’t say “jirl,” you say “ghirl.”
But you do say “jinjer,” so.
Huh, this is true.
The trouble is, is that it is both ways in different words, so, I don’t know. I think it’s “ghif,” is what I think it is.
That’s what I like.
But the whole conversation confused me.
[laughs] Anyway. So, you do like animated GIFs, too.
Yes, very much.
[laughs] When you choose — this is obviously a tangent to what we were talking about before, but when you choose the images and things for your posts, do you choose those yourselves — or the people who submit, do you have them give ideas? I think I gave some ideas when I did mine, but I don’t remember. I don’t know what you do generally.
I ask for them, and generally, I offer some options. Most people think, “Oh, yeah, that’s great.” Every once in a while — so, I have a post coming up that — I found something that was probably a little bit more traditional for the topic, and the guest author came back with a funnier one that was a picture she had taken herself. It works both ways. I know I’ve said this to you, and I say this to everyone: even if Letters to a Young Librarian is kind of a thing now, I still conceive of it as my little rebel yell, my shouting into the darkness.
Shaking my fist at the powers that be. And so, any time someone says, “Yes, I’ll write for you,” or offers to write for me before I even ask them, it’s a huge favor that people are doing for me. So, I try to make the process as smooth as possible. It’s “How can I help you?” Again.
It is my approach.
And then, sometimes, people say they’re going to write for you and they take a really long time, but we won’t talk about those people [laughs].
And I understand that. Anybody who starts feeling guilty about that, trust me. There was someone who asked me to write a guest post for his blog last year, and he stopped asking me, and I still mean to write it — it’s just, it’s a big jump from — not just from one type of job to another, but from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic. It’s took a lot more out of me and a lot more of my mental energy — and so, I respect that people have other priorities. So, I just — I’m OK.
How do you generally, I guess — we’ll just go back to talking about the podcast — talking about your blog [laughs]. So, how do you get — we didn’t talk about this — how do you get people to write? Do you ask them? Do they come to you? Is it a little bit of both?
Yes, yes, and yes.
Sometimes , I’ll put out a call: “Hey, who would you like to see write a post for my blog?” That’s how I got Erin Leach to write. A couple of people said they wanted to hear from her. I sometimes will approach people individually, because I see they’re writing about something cool, or doing something cool, or I get to know them and think that we are somewhat like-minded. I occasionally put out a call on Facebook groups or on Twitter: “Hey, I’m looking for authors. Do you have something you want to say?” I have, knock on wood, and all the other gestures of luck, I have a little bit of a backlog of posts right now. It gets very stressful when I’m staring down the barrel of a Thursday without a guest post to publish. But it hasn’t happened in a while, probably a few months. So, yay [laughs].
Well, let’s wrap up with a very important topic to you, I know, and that is the Oxford comma.
I understand you support the Oxford comma.
Very much so.
[laughs] Why is that?
It increases clarity. It doesn’t add confusion. It hardly ever adds confusion when you use it. But it always ends up confusing me when people don’t use it. It’s one little comma, and I don’t care what AP talks about. There’s the joke, the “Let’s invite the strippers, Hitler and Stalin,” and then there’s a picture of Stalin and Hitler with their little tassels on, and their stripper outfit.
The panda eats, shoots, and leaves.
Eats, shoots, and leaves. Exactly. The panda with his Derringer. And I understand that one.
It’s very rare that an Oxford comma adds to confusion, in my experience.
I know that’s important to your — close to your heart, so.
I wanted to make sure to talk about the important topics in your life. So, if people wanted to get in touch with you to write for your blog, how would they get in touch with you?
It’s librarianjessica — all one word, exactly how you would expect it to be spelled — at gmail dot com. I can’t say that I’m the best at responding right away, but I do respond.
And that’s for anybody who wants to submit or give you feedback or anything like that.
Exactly, or if someone really wants a post from X librarian, and they want to suggest that, or if there’s a topic. I get requests for topics more than anything else, actually.
And what is the URL for the blog?
letterstoayounglibrarian — that is all squished together as one word — dot blogspot dot com.
And people can follow you on Twitter as well?
Absolutely. I am O-L-I-N-J.
That makes sense [laughs].
All right. Jessica, thank you so much for being on the show today, and I hope people go and visit the blog, read the blog, subscribe to the blog, and also want to write for it.
All right. Thanks a lot, Jessica.
Really? No. Just… no.
Don’t make me shush you, please. Don’t make me shush.
I have no problem shushing.
I don’t know what the “Stop Dancing” version of “shush” is.
It’s usually The Look. You know?