Hi, this is Circulating Ideas, the librarian interview podcast hosted by me, Steve Thomas. My guest today is Justin Hoenke, the teen librarian at the Portland, Maine Public Library. He blogs at Tame The Web, and you can follow him on Twitter @justinlibrarian.
Thank you, Justin, for doing the show. My first question is about something that you’ve been writing about recently, about the future of libraries, is empowering patrons to create things. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Yes. Definitely. Two of the programs that we recently did here at my library in Portland, Maine, one of them was getting teams to create a video game of their own. To come up with a story, the characters, the plot, and really focus on that. We didn’t take it to the programming level yet, but that’s something that we’re going to look into. And the other thing we did this summer was a program called “Making Music At The Library” where I collaborated with a local hip-hop artist. Her name is Santiago, and she and I worked with the teens for four weeks, and we created two original tracks. That was amazingly awesome just to get teens in a room with a, I think it was an 8-track recorder, and just making something that’s never existed before.
Yeah, I listened to that, you posted some links to it on your blog and it was really cool that the kids were able to create that.
Yeah, it was just amazing. People that I thought would never be involved in this kind of project came out of the woodwork, and were like “I’ve always wanted to make hip-hop, and you know I’ve never had the chance. I don’t have access to these tools. ” So, it was really cool to be able to provide those tools for people.
Did you have a lot of interest from your teens in your community?
There’s, I don’t want to say it’s like there’s hundreds of people knocking down the doors to write hip-hop songs in the library. But, there’s definitely I guess a really focused crowd of ten or so teens that were really into this, like it’s their way of life.
And then we had some other kids that were coming in that were sort of like dipping their toes in the water. But, on my blog there’s a video of one of those kids that sort of dipped their toes into the water, and it’s me and him in my office, and we’re playing the track back for the first time since it was completed. You can see that there’s just this moment of he’s hooked. He’s like okay, at the library, making music, this is good. And that made me feel really good.
So what is it about content creation do you think that libraries in particular are good at making that their, why should we be making that our “thing”?
I was really influenced by Portland, Maine. There’s such a cool local history, and there’s a really good buy local, act local movement here, and just through absorbing that I noticed how much neat stuff that you know, you walk down the street and you’ll overlook. You never, I don’t know, I never did this before I moved to Maine, but I never looked up and saw the awesome art on buildings, and how they had such attention to detail when they built these skyscrapers. A lot of that just goes by without you ever noticing, or you live in a city for 20 years. I lived in Pittsburgh for 20 years, and there’s so many things that I’ve never seen. I think if a library can do a good job of collecting all that, and spitting it back out to patrons, I think that it could just, ah, how am I trying to say this?
You’ve said that you’re helping trying to create the community, that you’re…
Yes, exactly, yeah. We’re sort of the curators of the community. We’re capturing all this cool stuff that’s happening, and making sure that it doesn’t fade into obscurity.
There’s so many, I mean any kind of library you work in, especially a public library, there’s so many interesting people that come in every day, and you know, you talk to them every day. And they tell you their weird little stories, and they become sort of like a family.
And it’s just neat to capture these stories of how these people got here, and why they’re in the library every day.
It’s nice that it makes us sort of a community hub, that makes us the center of the community.
Exactly, yeah. I feel like it really breaks down the barriers too. It seems like in the past people were always afraid to approach librarians, or you know, it’s this quiet place with books. But, when you develop, when you show an interest in learning somebody’s story, or something they’ve created, I think it really creates a really cool connection. It’s creating people that really value libraries.
And I think you mentioned that it gives us some distance from the e-book wars, you know do we just have print books, do we have e-books, or whatever. So it give us another purpose. We can, of course, be involved in all that as well, but it gives us another purpose, another core purpose aside from all that.
Exactly, yeah. I guess I get really tired of e-book wars, so I say “okay, I understand this, but I’m just going to focus on my patrons.”
The core part of your job is, you’re the teen librarian at your library, so you work a lot with kids. Do you see that as being a really important part of the library? As in, you’re sort of shaping the teens, and they’re going to be the future of public libraries especially. They’re going to be the future taxpayers that support the library.
Exactly. So with that in mind I just try to make it a really welcoming kind of cool place that they feel comfortable in, and so that they can know, that they maybe look back when they’re 30, and say “you know, I wasn’t much of a reader or whatever, but I spent every day after school at the library. My friends and I we were loud, and we got kicked out a few times cause we were throwing food”. You know, or something like that, but just look back and have fond memories, and maybe they’ll encourage future children to go to the library and create their own fond memories.
Right, yeah I had talked to, I know you know Kate Sheehan, and I talked to her a little bit in the previous episode about that sort of thing, and she mentioned that McDonald’s is really good at that. They’re good at creating a good experience so that even if you’re, like Kate is a vegetarian, but she still has good memories about McDonalds, because she had this great experience as a child, and she can still taste this candy that was in the cake that they made. And that’s just what we sort of need to do. We need to grab the kids when they’re teens and younger. Just give them good experiences about the library so they don’t grow up to be grumps about the library when they’re adults, and want to support it.
You said McDonald’s, and memories, and all that I kept thinking about before you even mentioned it was the candy and the cake.
And I’m saying that’s the exact example that she gave.
Exactly, I had two birthday parties there as a child, and they were awesome, and I always remember the candy in the cake, and how that was so great. So yeah, exactly that. And one of my co-workers here, his name is Michael, he told me one day something I never really realized, but it’s sort of like our job as the teen librarian is to sort of socialize teens. I was always on the fence about telling teens to calm down, and you know teens are full of hormones, and excitement, and they’re just loud, and smelly, and great. So I was always hesitant to sort of say “you know guys and girls calm down” and all of this. But, my friend Michael sort of pointed it out. It’s sort of a cool thing to be kicked out of the library, or asked to leave for a day because you’re a little bit disruptive. You can socialize that way, and it’s an interesting way of looking at it.
Right. I mean, because you don’t want to, I don’t know if this is the right term, but “harsh their buzz” basically.
You don’t want them to think “those are the mean old librarians kicking me out”, but I mean we are helping them to learn to live in society. I mean they can act like that now because they’re teenagers, but they need to understand that there are, there is structure for the future. [laughs]
Exactly, yeah. It’s been great. When I first started here last April, there were a few teens that came in, and they just sort of acted like they ruled the place, and they got kicked out a few times. Now they’re back everyday, and they totally respect the rules, and they respect other people. I’ve just seen a change over the year and a half, and I’m just “okay, cool”. You know, socializing teens, that’s a good part of this job.
Yeah, that’s a cool idea, I haven’t really thought of it in that way but that’s really cool. Do you ever have any issues with the programs that you’re doing? I mean, not the Making Music one necessarily, but any kind of program that you’ve kind of come up with. Do you ever have issues with the parents? Or the community?
I haven’t had any problems with any parents recently. Most parents are just really excited to get their kids in the library. There’s a heavy focus on getting them to read a lot more, and getting them prepared for college. So when they see that the library has programs, video games, movies, and all these other things, it’s sort of like their way of saying “hey look, I’m cool, the library is cool, they have these other things, and you know you can get your homework done too.” So, I’ve never had any, I haven’t had any issues recently. I did have one issue when I lived in rural Pennsylvania. We did a book club for The Golden Compass and then we did a field trip to see the movie, and I remember I had to write up a big thing saying that you know, we weren’t trying to promote atheism in the library. Because that book sort of went crazy for a while, I remember when the movie came out.
Right. That’s good that you have a supportive community because I know there are some communities that see video game collections as a waste of time, and that’s good that your community supports that, and supports the programs that you are doing.
Yeah, the video game collection, it’s been amazing just to see how people have reacted to that. People just flipped out when they like, when the. The video game collection is strategically placed in the teen library so that everybody has to walk by it. I put it that way because I cannot get enough of people’s jaws hitting the floor. Like “the library does this? Whoa!”
It’s like, it’s great, and then you’ll get people asking you “Wow, the library’s really changed, and why are you guys changing so much?” And, I just engage them in conversation and say “You know, there are video gaming people out there too, and we’ve got to reach out to them.” They’re just so cool about it.
Right, and I know video game collections is one of your passions, of getting that sort of thing started in libraries. Do you have suggestions for libraries? If a library wants to start one, how do they go about not so much just conveying it to their community, but maybe to their library boards, or the community people that it’s worth their tax dollars to do this.
I always like to use personal stories, and that’s what I used. I used my own story of how I sort of found literature and reading through games like Final Fantasy 3, The Legend of Zelda. It was really, those were the first sort of books that I read, those are the first stories that I remember. So I think for, I mean librarians who might not have that same experience as me, there’s definitely patrons that come in that have had those experiences. A lot of the people that are hard-core graphic novel fans tend to be hard-core gaming fans, and they could be sort of your army. You know, you could mobilize them and sort of get their stories down, and share that with your board, share that with your community.
Some libraries have gone through this whole thing with graphic novels a few years ago, and that was the same sort of fight. “Why do we need these in the library?” and it seems to have, I haven’t heard of many libraries recently that they’ve had any issues with that any more, in justifying graphic novels. And maybe video games will be the same sort of thing, that it will just become normal.
Yeah, it seems like the more and more like media talks about video games and graphic novels, and to an extent if you think back to the history of hip-hop and rap now, I remember going through High School, and people telling me that that’s garbage you were listening to. And I was listening to Tribe Called Quest, and I was like “This is not garbage, these guys are really well spoken, and the music is awesome.”
But now, hip-hop is like an art form to most people.
Right, and if you look at the top 10 songs, it’s all, it’s almost all hip-hop now.
It’s all hip-hop, yeah. I just think it takes time, and it’s got to sink into people’s brains that it’s not all that bad.
Right. I mean it’s sort of like graphic novels, and even people when we put DVDs in libraries they were just sort of the “that’s not what the library is here for.” That’s usually the people who are “libraries are for books and being quiet” people.
Exactly. I think, there’s this really cool web show called “Double Jump”. I’ve tweeted and blogged about it before.
Yes, I saw that. I’ll put that in the show notes so that people can find that.
Yeah, and they just did an awesome sneak peek at one of their episodes about a video game archive in a college in Michigan. I think that kind of stuff too is treating video games as these things that should be archived and should be preserved, and so many different art styles, I don’t really, help us get video games accepted by mainstream cultures, like really legitimate.
Right. You almost have to make an archive collection at this point because you have to have someone who has, I mean that’s nice to have an old Atari 2600, or whatever game, but you have to have the console too to be able to play it. [laughs]
Or the old Pong, or whatever, that you just plug into the back of your old black and white TV. You have to be able to play it.
Yeah, and I mean a lot of people can download these games now onto their systems, but there’s something really cool about playing it the original way.
Right, operating on its native platform.
Yeah, like you know there’s nothing like holding an old Nintendo controller that’s square, bulky, not really bulky, I mean it doesn’t really feel that great in your hands. But, it just sort of changed my life.
Yeah, I remember very clearly, I think I’m about 10 years older than you, but I remember very clearly plugging in that Pong into the back, we had an old black and white TV in our kitchen, and it was just, I’m sure, completely huge, awkward controller. But, it was just like the greatest thing ever just to watch this little thing go up and down, and bounce the ball back and forth. [laughs]
Yeah, I have this old system called “The Odyssey 3000”, and there’s no place for a cartridge, and it can only play three games. It plays Hockey Pong, Tennis Pong, and Practice Pong. And Practice Pong is one player where you just hit the ball against a wall for as long as you want to. And that’s just so cool, to think that that really was awesome back in the day.
Right, yeah and I remember that so clearly, it was just “wow”.
So the modern equivalent might be say a game called “Angry Birds.” But, there’s something, you have some other thoughts about Angry Birds, can you tell me why you don’t like Angry Birds?
Yeah, I’ve really tried to like Angry Birds, I’ve played it. I played it for hours and hours, and trying to understand the strategies of it, and why people are really into it, and I just came away from it wanting those five hours back. I felt like there was no connection to the game. It was just me flinging birds, hoping for the best.
Yeah I think that sort of epitomizes that whole casual games atmosphere. It’s supposed to be on your phone, that you do while you’re waiting in line at the post office, you’re not really supposed to get immersed in it.
Exactly! I guess I was a little harsh on Angry Birds when I first wrote up a blog post about it. But, I’ve since then tried to dive into other casual games like Fruit Ninja. I don’t know if anybody’s ever played that, but that’s a great one. Robot Wants Kitty, these are all for the iPhone, but I guess the whole Angry Birds sort of phenomenon scares me a bit, that gaming is sort of going to step back and be a lot more casual, and, you know, people will accept this sort of casual gaming over everything else that gaming can be.
Right, we’ll kind of have to see how things like the Kinect and things like that, as tablets and computers get more popular, if the console gaming goes down now, or if it’s going to, how that’s all going to shake out now.
Exactly. I think I had my first really moment where I felt really old was when I was playing a game on an iPad, and all that I could think of was “Yeah, this game’s pretty cool, but like I really wish I could plug a controller into it.”
I’m thinking like my son who plays these games, he’s two and a half, and he would never think it would be great to use a controller, like touching the screen, that’s all you can get.
Right, you feel like that people are complaining that there’s no typewriters around anymore, still.
Exactly, yeah. I’m the typewriter guy, but for video games.
So I also wanted to ask you about with video games. You’re working, helping to work with National Gaming Day?
And what are you doing to help promote that? And that’s going to be, we’ll have this episode out before that, that’s going to be November 12th this year?
Yeah, it’s the 12th, I think it’s 10-12-11? I always get the numbers, it’s all 10s, and 12s, and 11s or something, so yeah. But, yeah I am helping out with that this year. I’m running all the social media for National Gaming Day which has been really cool. Basically, I blog, I tweet, I Facebook about all the cool little video gaming things that I find every day searching the Internet. It’s November 12th, 2011, 11-12-11. So, if you follow the National Gaming Day Facebook, Twitter, what I’m doing a lot there is putting up a lot of access to free games, free online browser games, a lot of cool games that you can find out there now through Google Chrome, the Google Chrome extension and app store, and sharing a lot of video games. There’s a really cool movement going on, like reimagining old TV shows and even newer video games as 8-bit Nintendo games.
Yes, I saw that link that you put up yesterday, the other day of the Twin Peaks Atari.
Yeah which is just so cool. [laughs]
And I saw one that was the Batman Dark Knight as an old Atari game.
Yeah. I think that’s a really neat thing too, is to not only give, not only is it just really neat to look at, but it sort of gives like a history lesson of how games were, and how they had to structure games back in the day because you couldn’t just say “Okay, the Dark Knight, you know let’s copy and paste the movie script and you’ll play that.” You had to really sort of focus on a scene, and set a whole game around the scene, because that’s all the resources you had. You couldn’t make these big, epic games. I think that’s cool to teach to patrons too, that video games weren’t always about these huge stories. Back in the day it was about completing a task, and sort of just a fun little moment.
Are you able to use Google Plus much? I guess you can’t, I guess the way their rules are set up you can’t actually set up a National Gaming Day account for it. But, are you just using your own personal account?
Yeah, I just use my own personal account, and for Twitter and Facebook there’s a National Gaming Day account that all that gets pumped out of. I’m looking over the National Gaming Day website right now, and I just realized they’re giving away the board game “Awkward Family Photos” if you sign up, and that’s awesome. [laughs]
I didn’t even know there was a board game.
I didn’t either, and that must be an awesome board game. So, that’s an even cooler reason to sign up.
So are you focusing mostly on video games? Or are you putting more stuff out about board games as well? I know that National Gaming Day is supposed to encompass all types of games.
Video gaming is more of my specialty, it’s sort of where my professional interests lie, so I put a lot out about that. We have a few other people working on the social media effort for National Gaming Day, and they’re more into board gaming so we sort to help balance each other out.
I know it helps gaming I think get a better toehold in society with things like that recent Supreme Court decision where they said that video gaming basically deserve first amendment rights just like books, and movies, and everything else. Did you have any thoughts about that decision?
I haven’t really thought about it too much, but I remember reading the decision and sort of feeling like a wave of comfort come over me, thinking “Okay, awesome.” That’s just sort of like one step towards something great in the future. But, I don’t think it’s really sunk into me yet.
I guess maybe it will come up again with some of these challenges.
I know you were in the ALA Emerging Leaders program.
Can you talk about that experience? I mean what your project was, and if you felt out with that since then?
Yeah, my project was, my group and I we were Team J for the 2010 Emerging Leaders, and we were tasked with looking at the ALA website. They’re planning a major reorganization of the website, and we were tasked with looking at the website, and seeing what could be done, and then taking our ideas, putting them into a formal survey, and sending that out to all ALA members. We did that, and we presented on it in June 2010. Wow, it’s 2011 [laughs] I just realized that.
More than a year. [laughs]
Yeah. It was really interesting to see what people really wanted in a website. Social media, back then, a year ago, was still all the rage, and the buzzword on everybody’s lips, and it was amazing how people really didn’t want as much social media as they think they want. They just sort of wanted a website that was clean, easy to understand, and pointed you in the right direction. And that was really the cool takeaway from Emerging Leaders that I really learned to work with a group through Emerging Leaders. I never really worked well in a group before that. It really showed me that’s there so much more out there than I could ever imagine. There’s so many different opinions, and what you read on the Internet and what you hear day-to-day, that doesn’t really mean that’s a solid path forward.
There’s so much more things to consider.
I know you wrote a lot when you came back from ALA this year that you loved that sense of community that you felt at the conference.
Did you see that as being something important, of keeping, I mean social media is nice, and we can make good connections. I mean I’ve enjoyed meeting you on social media, stuff like that. But, there’s still something about face-to-face communication that social media, as good as it can get, just can’t match.
Yeah, social media is like the good introduction, but then face-to-face, it really seals the deal. I don’t know, through Emerging Leaders I’ve found, I became friends with many awesome librarians, and library related people, that it’s just led to this amazing community where ideas are shared, and I think we all just keep getting better and better, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Do you still keep up with some people that were in your group?
Yeah, I keep in touch with all my group, and even more. I was a mentor for the 2011 Emerging Leaders group that did a program on video gaming in libraries, and I just finished an article with one of the people that was in that group.
Where is that going to get published?
We’re hoping to get it published in a journal for LLAMA. I forget what LLAMA stands for because all that I can think of is a llama. But, yeah, something like, I would have really, I would have probably never met these people if it wasn’t for Emerging Leaders, and I really believe in the program, especially for new librarians that want to sort of get into ALA, and are really interested in getting in the library community, because it will just sort of knock your socks off.
Yeah, I remember I first heard about the program right when I was outside of the eligibility for it. I was just too old and I think I was like at five and a half years in the profession, so it’s supposed to be in their first five years. I was never able to get into it and I’m really, I don’t want to say I was jealous of you people that got to do it, but envious? Is that a good enough word?
Ah, yes! I think that’s changed though, I don’t know. Because there were a lot of different ages last year I feel.
Yeah, you can be any age, but you have to be within the first five years of being in the profession too. It has to be one of those two things. You have to be under 35, or within your first five years. I think I found out when I was five and a half or six years into this profession, and 36.
That was something I’m going to ask about, you mentioned just briefly to me when we were setting this up that you’re writing a chapter for a book coming up, called “Reinventing Reference.” I don’t want to spoil your whole chapter, but can you tell me just generally about the sort of theme of that?
It’s a lot about what we’ve talked about at the beginning of this interview, as, you know, encouraging people to do really cool things. I feel like the modern day reference librarian instead of standing at this whole army of books and ideas, and being the person that liberates those ideas, they’re more of like a music producer. Where the patron will come to them with an idea, they don’t really know how to get to it, they don’t know how to shape it, and the role of the music producer is to listen to the artist and make their, this is going to sound cheesy, but make their wildest dreams come true.
I feel like that the modern day reference librarian could learn a lot from music producers. They’re just there to unlock what the patron needs. It’s not any more just spitting out information, it’s sort of like a content curator creator helper thing.
I’m still writing this chapter, so as you can see I’m still processing it in my brain.
Sort of, we’re the sherpas.
Yes, sherpas, that’s the perfect thing, I think I’m going to quote.
I think I’ve heard somebody else use that, so you might want to look that up and make sure I didn’t steal it from someone else. [laughs]
But that popped into my head way too easily, so I assume it was somebody else that I heard that from. [laughs]
I will put on my librarian hat and research it.
Maybe I was just really original and didn’t realize it.
I know you blog a lot now on Tame The Web website.
How did you get involved with that site with Michael Stephens? How did you meet him?
He was actually my mentor for my Emerging Leaders project, so we met through that which was really cool, because I remember being in library school and quoting Tame The Web in papers quite a bit, and I was like “this dude really gets it.” And then I got my Emerging Leaders assignment and I was looking over who I was working with and it was “Michael Stephens – Mentor” and I was like “woah, weirdness.” I can’t believe I’m a little bit nervous, and then I quoted this guy constantly in library school, and now I’m going to work with him. So that’s how that all came to be. And I remember when I came up to Portland, Maine for my job interview, I drove from New Jersey in the snow, got here at 1 am, and I checked my phone and there was a direct message on Twitter from Michael Stephens and he said “Would you consider becoming a Tame The Web contributor?” And I was like “Wow, I’m going out for this really cool job, I’m getting asked to do Tame The Web, things are lining up” and it felt like.
Best day ever. [laughs]
Yeah, best day ever! Yes, all in caps.
[laughs] And is there anybody else in the profession that you sort of look to as a, I mean not a mentor necessarily, but for inspiration?
I look a lot to Peter Bromberg who is the Assistant Director of the Princeton Public Library in New Jersey. He used to be the Assistant Director of the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative, and I remember going to a program, and he was sitting there on his laptop, and I remember he had some band stickers on his laptop, and he had his ear pierced. And I was thinking “Oh, this Peter guy, he’s probably really cool.” I just started talking to him, and he was the one who really encouraged me to start blogging, to start tutoring, and just be really honest, and open, and cool about things. Yeah, Peter sort of kicked me in the butt in a good way.
[laughs] That’s cool. So, for National Gaming Day what do you, do you have plans personally for your library? What you want to do?
Yeah, we are just, we’re going to keep it low-key this year. We’re just going to hang out, play video games, play some Settlers of Catan all day, and just enjoy gaming.
Cool, fun. Thanks a lot, Justin, for talking to me for the show.
Oh no, thank you for having me, I really appreciate it, this has been great.
Great, everybody can find you on Tame The Web, or on Twitter @justinlibrarian.
Yep, thank you, talk to you later.