This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is Kyle Cassidy. He’s an author and photographer whose work has appeared in New York Times, Vanity Fair, Sunday Times, Marie Claire and PR and elsewhere. His new book is This Is What A Librarian Looks Like – A Celebration Of Librarians, Communities and Access To Information. You can find more about Kyle at kylecassidy.com or follow him on Twitter @kylecassidy.
Circulating Ideas is produced with support from the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science and from listeners like you.
Right, Kyle Cassidy, welcome to the show.
Thanks Steve, it’s great to be here.
So, you’ve written and photographed a new book called “This Is What A Librarian Looks Like” and a lot of it is about sort of shattering librarian stereotypes and I’m curious, before you kind of embarked on the process and we’ll talk about how you got started with it, what were your kind of thoughts about librarians before that. Like, did you buy into any of the stereotypes? Did you realize that librarianship was as diverse, kind of as it is?
I guess I had vague understandings of it and I think that’s, that’s like anything, you know. If I asked you, I don’t know about bus drivers or something like, you’d probably have a vague idea in your head of what a bus driver is like, but you spent three years with bus drivers, you would, yeah you know, know more about their day-to-day life and what they’re uniform actually looks like and the things that they did, so. Anything that you go into like this you come out with a, a far greater understanding on, on the other side. I hadn’t been in a library in probably a decade when I started this. I sort of moved away from them in a way I think a lot of people had and this is something that you hear from politicians all the time, right? You can get any book that you want from Amazon and I had been getting my books from Amazon and not realizing that in the intervening years, the libraries had been changing and growing and doing things in an entirely different way that meant that I was still missing things, even if I was getting books from Amazon. So, my idea, my entire idea of what a librarian was, I realize had gone stale in the years that I had been away.
And what, what was it that kind of kicked off your interest in wanting to do this? I mean you kind of started photographing librarians at one of the conferences in Philadelphia where you live. What made you want to start photographing librarians?
I got a message on Twitter from a librarian named Naomi Gonzales who said librarians are going to be in your town. Yes, we are photogenic.
So, I wrote back to her and said oh I would love to photograph librarians and she put out the word, got some people together and on the last day of ALA 2014, it was Mid-Winter, I photographed about 30 people and I interviewed them and I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I said if I could put you in fifth, in front of 50,000 people, what would you tell them? And that was my question. And so they talked about either things that they had done or ways that people could help libraries or what libraries were doing that people might not realize and I sent that to Slate Magazine and they published it three months later and it went viral instantly and it stayed at the top of the charts for a week as people all around the world began sort of sharing their stories of libraries and remembering librarians who had meant something to them. All these memories just came boiling across on social media and there were also some criticisms of the, the photo essay. There were some long blog posts about what was wrong with it, and I think I started the great librarian war of 2014. And all of those back and forth arguments that people were making, you know, this is terrible, this is great, served to keep it in the public eye a lot longer and more and more people saw it and it ended up, that is it ended up millions of people saw it, not 50,000 people.
And one of the very legitimate complaints that people had was that I didn’t have a huge cross-section of librarians. I had 30 people who were self-selected and who had decided to show up for a photo shoot, and a lot of people said well I wasn’t in it. You know, my type of librarianship or my look wasn’t represented. So, I started a Kickstarter, a crowd funding campaign. I raised some money to go photograph. My goal was to photograph 100 more librarians, and I ended up photographing 350 librarians and interviewing them. And somewhere along the line, Check Books became interested in making this book of it, which is where I thought it belonged the entire time when I was photographing the hundred librarians. I wasn’t really sure what was going to become of it if it didn’t become a book.
I think this is the, the best way to, to get it around and then my editor, Becky Koh, at Black Dog & Leventhal, which is an Hachette imprint, said she though there needed to be more to it than just the pictures. And that there should be some essays from writers, and I said that sounds like a terrific idea, and I put the word out and most people just said yes right off the bat. And then she wanted 10 essays about particular libraries or librarians and at the time I thought these pictures should just speak for themselves, but after writing 10 in-depth chapters about librarians I think that it really helps to bring the job of librarians out much better. So, Becky did a terrific job in figuring out what I hadn’t figured out to make this book work.
Well as they always say, a good editor can do that, so, draw out what’s the best, you know, work.
Yes. That is true.
And when you had first started, when you were doing the Kickstarter, it was sort of more of a art project and a touring show. Did that, how did that end up going? I know it did go on tour for a while, I don’t know if it still is or not?
It will be again. There is a group called “EveryLibrary” and they’re a librarian advocacy group, I kind of think of them as the Amnesty International for libraries. If your library, big or small, is having difficulties getting funding, or if a particular bill or legislature is trying to pass, Every Library can sweep in with either money or, more importantly, people and they have lists of people who live all around the country who are fans of libraries and if Congressman so-and-so is thinking of cutting the budget to the library in such-and-such a place, Every Library knows how to get hold of constituents to, to write letters about library experiences and why shutting them down would be a bad idea. So, Every Library is going to be handling the touring gallery show, that’s using, you know, some of there giant mailing list and resources, so I had envisioned, this is another example of me thinking small and somebody else thinking big, I had imagined there would be two touring gallery shows, and a library would just ship them from one place to another when they were done and Patrick McSweeney at Every Library said you know there are 37 branches of the Brooklyn Public Library all by itself. Your gallery show could stay there for five years and never move. So, they’re making it so that libraries can get their own copy of the gallery show, and if your particular librarian was featured in the book, we will try and make sure that one of the prints that you get is of your librarian, and hopefully that gallery show will draw people in who saw this late essay and maybe haven’t been into the library in a while and help them to reconnect.
And you are also taking some stock photos, cause I know, I think you said you looked around and saw all the kind of stock photos about librarians were all the stereotypical, look a lady in a bun with glasses and a cardigan on and stuff like that, so.
Yes. So, I am indeed making a collection of free stock photos that libraries can use to advertise events and books and things like that. I’m still working on that. I think when this launch settles down I’ll get back into doing more of those and get them out in the next year. What I really need to do is partner with some libraries who need photos and who would be able to wrangle up some patrons and some, you know, list of things that they want, you know, would like photographed that would helpful to them. So.
That’s where I am right now.
And you also talked about doing a documentary. Is that still going as well?
Yes. Neil Gaiman’s going to narrate it and it’s a very small documentary. It was interviews with some really interesting librarians about things that they’re doing and I think I would like to add to it some footage which I haven’t shot yet of libraries great and small.
So, you know, a giant cathedral like the Los Angeles Central Library and then a tiny, tiny little neighborhood library somewhere. So that people can see the scope of what libraries are doing and this institution is possibly unique in that it forms to fit the needs of its constituents. So, it services that libraries offer are very different from place to place and I would like to be able to show the insides of some of them and what they’re doing.
Right. And you, you had done some work earlier with Amanda Palmer so I assume that was kind of your in with Neil Gaiman?
Yeah. Yeah, I’ve known Amanda for a long time. I’ve done a few of her album covers and we both met Neil at the same time.
She and I were working on the cover of “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” and we had this terrific idea that it would be a mystery, it would be an eight panel booklet and each panel would have a picture on it and be a complicated picture and if you paid attention and found all the clues, at the very end you would be able to figure out who killed Amanda Palmer. And she took this to her record company and they said what? No you get four panels like everybody else. Next. And she mentioned this to Neil who was a friend of a friend and he said “Oh no, let’s just do a book, I’ll write little stories about them.” And, so what I had seen as a wall, Neil realized was a hurdle and we got together in Boston and I took pictures and he wrote stories about them and the big book of Who Killed Amanda Palmer was the result of that.
That’s very cool. And then obviously he’s done, obviously, he’s done an essay for the, the This Is What A Librarian Looks Like book as well, so.
He did indeed, yeah, yeah. So, I, he’s a very busy person, and so I didn’t want to take up too much of his time, so what I offered was that we could do a conversation about libraries and then my editor has shared, sort of reformed that conversation that we had into an essay. So, he did not sit in the woods and labor over it which I would have felt bad in anybody’s sense. He needed to be writing Norse mythology at the time, but he is able to speak in beautiful sentences off the top of his and this is a subject that is very important to him, so it was as easy I believe.
Yeah, and I’ve, I know of, libraries know he’s a, he’s a friend of ours, very much so, and very much of an advocate for libraries, so.
So, you have also got essays by several other authors, about, around ten authors. Did you just kind of put a call out for that kind of thing and that’s how they kind of came in? Or did you approach specific people?
I did both.
So, my publisher worked one end of it. You know they were contacting specific people and Amy Dickinson, the Asking Amy advice columnist, and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me panelist. Actually, I think she contacted me and said she would like to do something for it. And, she had a terrific story about library fines and an idea, an interesting idea that libraries should be moving away from fines and I think that a lot of librarians are down with that. That librarians are not interested in keeping people from getting books, they’re interested in getting their books back, but they’re not interested in keeping somebody from coming into the library to get something.
And, with Amy Dickinson came Peter Sagal from Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me who has a terrific story about an episode in his life in the library where he realized that books for grown ups were in a, up a staircase and if you wanted to read those books, he’d have to read his way into adulthood basically. So, it was an inspiration to learn how to read better, and then George R Martin has an essay in there and he. I didn’t want to be the guy who asked George R Martin to write something that was not the Winds of Winter, so. Like Neil, I offered to have a conversation with him about libraries and, and I did that. He was throwing a party in Kansas City, Missouri and he said well if you come photograph my party, I will do this library thing with you. And so I went and photographed this wonderful party in Kansas City and he told a really wonderful story about growing up in Dayton New Jersey and his library had a tiny science fiction section and in it he discovered the works of Robert Heinlein, and read them all, and went off inspired to become a writer himself, and when we were in Kansas City, that was the hometown of Robert Heinlein, who had written in his autobiography about visiting the library and reading all of the books on astronomy and becoming inspired to go out and become a writer. So, while George was there he was able to visit the library that inspired Heinlein, which in turn inspired him and the whole thing has a wonderful circularity to it. Obviously, George is a genius, so his off-the-cuff beard-stroking comments about libraries are some of the best in the book.
And you’ve also got Paula Poundstone in there who’s another Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me column panelist and I knew she’s, she’s talked, she’s worked with ALA a lot recently.
And she does performances at a lot of the conferences too, so that’s, I know she’s a library lover too.
Yes, she was at the last conference and I got to see her perform, although we have not met and I thought, I thought, you know, I owe you Paula, I owe you. I’d like to do, like, portraits of her with each of her cats, like that would be, I think, awesome, to maybe pay her back for having done this. Some day we shall meet.
Yeah, well, save me, if you both keep going to library conferences you’ll eventually meet up, so.
Some day we shall meet and I’ll say thank you for that essay that you might have forgotten about, I would like to photograph you and your cats.
Well, so when you were putting the book together, did you kind of have, I know you kind of said that this was the final form kind of as you would have wanted it to be anyway as a book, but did you kind of have an idea in your head of how you wanted it to be laid out as you were doing it? Or did it kind of come together as you were putting the book together?
I had a really simplistic vision of it, you know, like well it’s 320 librarians so it should be 640 pages and, you know, one librarian per page and the layout and design team at Hachette sent me this thing that they call a BLAD which is book layout and design. That’s pre-publication, like 6 or 8 pages and it, I guess it can’t be 6 pages can it, it’s got to be multiples of 4, so it’s 4, or 8, or 12 pages, and it shows book buyers what the book is going to look like. They can say oh, I’m really interested in this, when does it come out? May? Okay, oh, I’ll buy 200 copies of it.
And when they sent me the BLAD I saw that they had come up with a much better layout scheme than I had possibly considered. I, you know you think you’re a genius when you’re doing this stuff and then you realize that somebody, a bigger genius than you has.
Well, different skill sets for different people, so [laughs].
Yes, it’s wonderful to have people on your team who are capable of doing things. So, they did a really, really nice job in, in laying it out. And also, I mean to tell you another instance where I failed and my editors succeeded, I thought that there should be one person on the cover. It’s not, you know, it looks a little busy with all those people, and I have been delighted in the past week seeing all of the people who have their pictures on the cover and there are about 50 people on the cover, posing in their library with their copy of the book and just seeing how all of the librarians have been delighting at finding people that they know on this cover with 50 or so people on it. I’ve had a much more austere idea which probably wouldn’t have attracted as much attention.
So, do you, do you think now that you have a final product, product in hand, did you, were you able to silence some of the critiques that you had gotten, you know, way back when when the Slate article was first published?
Ah, I think so. I would be surprised if anybody who had written an essay complaining about it then would complain about this final product. There are all sorts of librarians in here. There are privates in here, there are medical librarians, there are children’s librarians, there are people who work behind the scenes who don’t do any desk time, there are library directors in here, so.
I think it’s a kind of pretty broad swash of people representing the librarian community.
And, you got a, this is going to come out before ALA so we have, you have a book release launch party that’s going to be at ALA. Can you talk about that a little bit? It’s also going to be an EveryLibrary fundraiser?
Two, yes. So, EveryLibrary is throwing that party. It is on Saturday night and the easiest way to find out about it is to go to the EveryLibrary page on Facebook, and it will be one of the top ten posts they have on there cause they’re really promoting it for the, for the next month or so, and it’s a fundraiser for ALA as well, so it does, you do need to get a ticket, but you can get a book as well. I think at ticket and a book, the book ends up being $10 or something like that and it is an open bar at this place called The Old Crow and we’re going to have slide shows of pictures from the book, you can meet lots of other librarians, I think it’s going to be the best party in town.
And you will there obviously, right?
I will be there and quite possibly some special guests who had written essays for the book.
And that’s called a teaser, so [laughs].
It’s called a teaser! Yes. Look in the book and there are people that you’d really like to meet and you happen to be at ALA, stop by the Smokehouse and look around.
That’s the place to be. And I, and I obviously, I assume a lot of the people who are in the book, the, just the portraits, they, a lot of them will be there too hopefully.
Yes. So, if you do this right, the maximum number of signatures you can get in your book, I think is 221. So, you could see how many of these people you can meet and get them to sign your book.
You need to talk to John Cross about making sure they have enough pens around [laughs]. So, that sounds like a great event. So, is the book officially out now, right? It’s out in stores available to purchase, correct?
It is. I have been really enjoying seeing people on Twitter and on Facebook and on Instagram posting pictures of the book in the real world. On the shelves in their libraries, on the shelves in their book stores, and with their cats and dogs.
And so if you cannot, if you’re not lucky enough to be at ALA you can get it at your, wherever you buy books.
Or your local library of course.
Indeed. You do not have to buy my book. Philadelphia has 50 copies of it, but, it’s also in all of the book stores around here too, I’m delighted to see.
And, I wanted, I wanted to kind of wrap up with sort of a, a broader question, cause I don’t, I don’t tend to have a lot, I don’t have a lot of, most people on this show are librarians so we talk about other kind of stuff, but as an artist, kind of, do you have an underlying kind of artistic philosophy behind your photography? Like when you’re doing portraiture, is there something in particular you’re trying to convey about your subject or draw out of your subject?
Well, I think that the best thing that I can do is amplify what librarians are saying, because a lot of what they’re saying right now is critical about the future of, this is an hyperbole, the future of civilization itself.
Librarians are on that last line, the last line of defense between civilization and savagery. Between, you know, sitting around in the mud hoping that somebody rediscovers fire. That’s how dangerous I think this is. There was a Stanford University study in 2016 that said that 80% of high school students couldn’t tell the difference between news and sponsored content. And information literacy is quite possibly the most important skill that somebody can leave school with today. And in his essay in the book, Corey Doctorow mentions that we are drowning in information, that is true. And, we have few people who are able to sort through the information and help create knowledge with it. And this is what librarians do. That is their job. That is what they go to school for. It’s not strange that terminal degree that a librarian gets is the Master of Library and Information Sciences, which is essentially in part an IT degree as well as a library degree. And being able to navigate this limitless stream of information that we have is a critical skill that we are losing as school libraries shut down and students start to get their information directly from Facebook or from Twitter without anybody help them figure out that they need to look for context, and sources when reading something. So, I think that in my photography, the pictures are a hook. They’re a cheat to get you to listen to the words of the people behind them and I want to capture everybody fairly. I want to make everybody look good, and I think I did that, I think that this is a beautiful collection of pictures that could stand on its own.
But is augmented some wonderful words as well.
I agree. It’s a great book and a great collaboration between you, and the essay writers and all that kind of stuff and I know librarians can use as many, I think allies, and advocates as we can so we appreciate the work that you’ve done.
Thank you, I appreciate what you do.
And, so if you want to meet Kyle, come to ALA and go to the fundraiser party and if you can’t come to ALA, go buy his book, or check his book out from the library. And Kyle, thank you so much for talking to me for the podcast.
Thank you Steve, it was great to be here.
Have a good day.
Circulating Ideas is produced by Steve Thomas in the suburbs of Atlanta with support from the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science and from listeners like you. Find out how you can help support the show by going to Circulatingideas.com and clicking on ‘Support’. Help others find the show by subscribing, rating and reviewing the show at Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Overcast, or your podcast app of choice. Follow the show on Twitter @circideas, or the show’s Facebook page. Our music is by Pamela Klicka. Thanks for listening, and keep circulating your ideas.