Steve Thomas: William Ottens, welcome to Circulating Ideas.
William Ottens: Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Steve Thomas: What is your librarian origin story? How did you get into the field in the first place?
William Ottens: So I actually went to school intending to become a teacher and, in my second year in the education program, I decided I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore. It was the time when the No Child Left Behind act was out, and I just got a little disillusioned by the program at the school I was at. And at that point I had decided I did eventually want to be a librarian. I graduated from school, my undergrad and started working at a high school anyway, as a para educator and I was working three jobs in addition to that one and I figured I could spend the rest of my life working three jobs, being exhausted and paying off my student loans, or I could go and get my master’s and then try to get a library job because I convinced myself I wasn’t going to be able to get a library job without that master’s, which isn’t always the case.
So I was going through the School of Library and Information Management at Emporia State University, and it was my second semester and I had to do a reference observation and write a paper on that. And I decided to do that at the Lawrence Public Library. And it just so happened to be that the coordinator of the department of adult services was at the reference desk when I came and did my observation. So I got to know her a little bit. I did my observation, wrote my paper, and then afterward I noticed there was an opening in her department. So I wrote her a nice thank you note, and then at the end, I said, by the way, I’m applying for your position and I interviewed and got the job and that’s kind of where I started as a part-time reference assistant.
Steve Thomas: Well, you made a good first impression, obviously.
William Ottens: Yeah. She said that of all the people that did the observation through Emporia at Lawrence, I was one of the only ones who wrote a thank you note. So that really stood out to her.
Steve Thomas: That’s great. The stories in your book are familiar, I think, to a lot of people who work in libraries, so what led you to want to start the Librarian Problems Tumblr, and then later you expanded to Twitter and Facebook as Tumblr went off into the sunset.
William Ottens: Yeah. So working at the desk, there were a few situations and I started the book with one of them, where I just figured out the library is not just this quiet, stress-free environment, that funny things happen, you’re working with the public and just these situations kept happening and I kept laughing and wanting to share. And I shared a few things through my personal Facebook and Twitter, my friends and family always liked it.
So I heard of this thing called Tumblr. And so I signed up for Tumblr and modeled it after some of the other GIF reaction blogs that had gotten popular at the time. And I started pairing common library frustrations, stereotypes, situations with the animated GIFs, and it just kind of blew up within a couple of months. I got 2000 followers really quickly, and then I was reaching 10,000, and then 30,000 and then I wanted to branch out so I went over to Facebook and Twitter eventually. I’m on Instagram now. And people have just responded very well. They like a semi anonymous space where they could relate to their frustrations and also laugh about stereotypes or silly things that they even do at the library or behind the desk or in the stacks.
Steve Thomas: Your account and Fake Library Statistics, everybody likes having some humor about the stuff that we understand every day. Do you get a lot of people suggesting things to you?
William Ottens: Yeah, not as much, cause it’s not as easy to submit ideas through Twitter. I still run the Tumblr, and I get a few submissions through there of situations, but now it’s mostly just me once a day or so coming up with the new librarian problem or rehashing an old one with a new GIF, putting a new spin on it.
Steve Thomas: Yeah. How often do you update the account?
William Ottens: So I think Twitter more frequently, I try to do that at least once a day. Instagram is a little more complicated with the animated GIFs cause you have to save it as a video and then upload it as a story and then save it as a video and all this stuff. And then I’m not on Facebook as much as I used to be, so that one’s updated a little less frequently.
Steve Thomas: Yeah. And sometimes you’re at the mercy of the algorithm. But as you point out in the book, it would be difficult to make a physical book of animated GIFs. So how did you go about wanting to adapt the material to a physical… I was going to say monograph, what a stupid library term, um, book, and then figuring out how to present the material in the different way?
William Ottens: So, yeah, I think people who follow Librarian Problems might be a little disappointed that not as much humor is in the book as you get all the time from the blog, but like I said, it’s just really hard to take that GIF, very compact microblogging experience and expand it to a book. The editor from Skyhorse publishing reached out and she wanted me at first to write an inspirational book for librarians because she had seen some of my tweets through Librarian Problems.
And, I just struggled a little bit there at the beginning, like, how am I going to do this pulling from what she knew from Librarian Problems, spin it as inspirational rather than humor? So I tried to do a really good mix there. I focused a lot on my personal library journey, but then pulled some stories and snippets from comments and stories that were shared with me through the platforms.
Steve Thomas: I think you did a really good job, it feels like you’re just being told stories. So I think that comes off really well.
William Ottens: Thank you. Like I said, a lot of it draws from my personal library experience, starting from when I became interested in librarianship, and then I break it down into the different departments that I had experienced working in, from circulation, reference, youth services, and collection services. And then a stint on my brief career as a director of a small library in Iowa.
Steve Thomas: How did you feel about your library school experience, at the time, and then how do you kind of look back at it now?
William Ottens: What really helped me really dig into it was actually getting that first library job in the second semester. So it was pairing all the theoretical stuff with the practical hands-on experience and thinking, okay, this is why we organize things. Instead of just reading about behind a computer screen or behind a book and not really working a reference desk and directing patrons to where things are on the shelves.
So that’s what I really appreciated about my own experience was also being able to pair it with that library job. And that’s what I encourage people if they don’t have a library job, find some way to get in the library, if they can. I know, schedules are tight and people are already working full-time, they’re wanting to switch a career. It’s tough. I was lucky to get that job and get in there and be able to do that. So it was a two year program. Most of it was online aside from a once or twice a month weekend intensives. We go all Friday night and then all day Saturday to do your presentations and class discussions, and like I said in the book, it just went very quickly. I started it thinking, oh, two years, it’s going to feel like forever. And then you get to the end of that two years. And it feels like you’ve watched a five minute YouTube video on the basics of librarianship.
Steve Thomas: Things that I got from library school that are very helpful to me still today. Like just knowing cataloguing kind of in the back of my head, knowing how a record is set up that helps me know how to search and all this kind of stuff. So you mentioned you that you were briefly a director of a small library. How did that work out for you?
William Ottens: So it was after I’d worked at Lawrence for three years, and my partner, his family lives in Iowa and we wanted to move up there to be closer to them. So I looked at openings and there was Oskaloosa, Iowa, 11,000 residents in the town, and honestly going into the interview, I didn’t think I was going to get it because I only had three years of library work behind me. Only one of which I had my master’s, but I went in there, proved my passion for libraries and the vision that I had for this little library. And then I stepped in and I was terrified. First staff meeting was 12 staff and I just didn’t have that kind of experience yet, but I think stepping into it forced me to kind of realize, Hey, I’m here for a reason. These people are here for a reason. And I also realized that most of them have been working at the library longer than I’ve been alive, so I wasn’t really there to kind of tell them what to do, but to lead them and think of new directions and new ideas for the library.
Steve Thomas: So how long did you do that position?
William Ottens: So just for about three years. I started in 2012 and then in 2015, my partner got a job back in Lawrence. So we moved back to Lawrence. I tried to get back on at Lawrence Public library where it started, and that was really tough because few positions or a lot of applicants for those few positions. And just because I had worked there, just because some of the managers knew me didn’t mean that I was a shoe-in for the jobs that you know, I was applying for.
So that was kind of a humbling experience coming from a directorship where I thought I was pretty successful and then trying to get a job where I had come from and kept getting told. No, you’re not the quite right fit for these positions. And then eventually I got in, I kept trying, kept trying, because I didn’t want to commute, and we were going to plan to live back in Lawrence and I got on as a member of the Book Squad or the Reader Services department, and really enjoyed that, being able to blog and talk about books and recommend them, and then eventually the Cataloging and Collection Development Doordinator position opened and I stepped into that role.
Steve Thomas: And that’s what you’re still in today is that correct?
William Ottens: No, so my partner got a job in Kansas City, so I was commuting from Lawrence about 45 minutes both ways and the commute just kept wearing down on me and my vehicle too. I noticed that my windshield started to crack. So I went and got it replaced. And then exactly a week later, a rock on the interstate chipped my windshield. It was very frustrating. And I took it as a sign that I needed to stop commuting and try to get a job in the Kansas City area. So now I’m a Youth . Services Associate with the Mid-Continent Public Library, which serve these suburbs and smaller communities that surround the Kansas City metro area. My position focuses on programming and outreach for teens, which is almost completely different than what I’ve been doing the last five years and even directorship and reference. So it’s been an adventure.
Steve Thomas: Yeah. You’ve had a wide range of experience in not that long of a career for that many different roles.
William Ottens: Yeah. Yeah. Even in my undergrad, I had a wide range of topics that I was majoring in, I did English writing, literature and mathematics, and then I went into library school, again intentionally wanting to become a school librarian, but I didn’t realize because I didn’t have a teaching certificate to attach that master’s to, I couldn’t really do that. And there was some roundabout way that I could do it, but it was just going to take too much to get there. So I was like, okay, I’ll just take a little bit of everything, and see when I’m done with this masters where I could land and, I landed in referenced and I was a director and then I was reader services and catalog and collection development. And I hadn’t done a lot of youth services work aside from helping my youth librarian at Oskaloosa. And when I was at Oskaloosa doing that teen programming and planning those events was part of the job that I really enjoyed. So I thought, hey, you know, this position at Mid-Continent looks really nice. Let me give that a try.
Steve Thomas: Stereotypes of librarians are abundant. Which ones drive you up the wall the most, and which ones do you think are just the most amusing?
William Ottens: Well, people still generally have this idea that the library is a quiet space. So when they come in and they’re surprised that the librarians aren’t whispering and shushing everyone, or there’s children enjoying their time in the library and they get frustrated because they’re being noisy, that’s a little frustrating. The ones that I embrace, I love cardigans. They’re very versatile for your fluctuating temperatures in your building. So, love to layer on with the cardigan and then be able to take it off. Those sensible shoes you always hear about, librarians making sure they have sensible shoes that are comfortable for walking around in the stacks.
So I love those canvas shoes, Vans, or Chucks, but they’re not very comfortable I’ve discovered.
Steve Thomas: I found some shoes on Zappos that actually were nice. And then I went and I bought three pair because I was like, yes, found a comfortable pair that I going walk around all day in.
So a lot of the funny bits of the book and the Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook and everything come from the problems, but in the last section of the book, you also talk about the joys of librarianship. What are the things that you love about the job that kind of keep you in the field and happy?
William Ottens: Right now the situations that really make me appreciate what I do and the services and resources that are provided by the library is just helping people on the computers. They get so frustrated easily sometimes if they don’t know a lot about computers or they didn’t grow up on computers, and just being able to walk them through something and help them feel competent in the use of the computer and walk away knowing, “Hey, I did that.” That brings a lot of joy, not only to me, but I think them as they walk away almost transformed, their opinions about computers or their own skills or abilities, that to me is a great experience.
And I also love that for some people, the library becomes that I think, is it the third space? Is that the term? Where they may not necessarily feel comfortable or safe at home, but there were a few teens that I worked with at Oskaloosa that came to the library often because they just didn’t feel at home at home. And the library was a safe space for them. So I really appreciate that libraries can offer that, too.
Steve Thomas: That’s great. So what do you feel is the overall appeal of Librarian Problems? Why do you think that in particular connects with people and is so popular?
William Ottens: Just the fact that people know they’re not alone and some of the frustrating or silly moments that happen at the library. Cause one patron can ruin your day, whether it was an argument over a fine or a argument over the use of the phone at the reference desk or whatever, and they get really mean, and it could ruin your day if you had otherwise a really good day, that kind of blocks it all out. People turn to their social media these days to kind of doomscroll and find an escape. And sometimes you just keep spiraling down, but if you run into Librarian Problems or Fake Library Stats and some of the other anonymous blogs on there that aim to make you laugh a little bit about your situation, to relieve some of that stress, to take yourself not necessarily completely out of it, but know that somebody else was there and maybe know what you’re going through. And I think that’s what the appeal of the Tumblr was 10 years ago and the Facebook page and then Twitter now.
Steve Thomas: Yeah. We’re all in this together.
William Ottens: Yeah. And I ended the book, cause I had the chance to write a little bit about my library’s experience closing for the pandemic and realizing we may be in our particular community alone and trying to make the best decisions, but we can reach out to other people, other libraries that are dealing with the exact same thing. How are you doing this? What resources are you using? What information are you using to make your decisions? And that helped a lot.
Steve Thomas: And I like that it’s not just, there are certainly anonymous accounts out there that are just for venting, but the accounts that I like it more like yours, where you’re making fun, but it’s with a wink and you don’t actually hate your patrons, whereas some people, it feels like they actually do. And it’s like, well, why aren’t you in this job?
William Ottens: Right. And if you look at some of my posts, you can get that sense too. And I think you might get that sense that I don’t like my job, but I think mixing it with parts where I even laugh at myself or I’d laugh at my situations that I’ve done, or my stereotypes that I embrace helps get the point across that I love my job, but I also love laughing about my job and not taking it as seriously as you could.
Steve Thomas: I have to say the one stereotype that I don’t have is I do not own a cardigan, and I don’t think I’ve ever owned the cardigan. And I am ashamed of that.
William Ottens: No shame, no shame. I, at one point maybe had 15 and then I’ve kind of narrowed it down. I was like, okay, I’ve gained too much weight and I can’t wear this one anymore or it’s just worn out. So I don’t buy them as often as I used to anyway. But one librarian, I think it was when I did the keynote for the South Dakota Library Association and I polled the audience on the number of cardigans they had, and I think the queen of cardigans in South Dakota had nearly 40. She was a children’s librarian, and she had different decorated ones for different seasons.
Steve Thomas: That’s awesome. I don’t understand why I don’t exactly, because I know when I was younger, like college age, I always liked to do the thing of t-shirt and then another shirt on top of it. So it’s sort of the cardigan thing, I was getting the feeling there, but not quite there. And I’m always hot, honestly, so I don’t need to wear anything else.
Well, William, thank you so much for coming on the show. Your book is Librarian Tales: Funny, Strange, and Inspiring Dispatches from the Stacks and that’s Skyhorse Press and ALA Editions. If listeners want to know more about you or follow up on anything or continue this conversation, how could they get in touch with you?
William Ottens: Yeah. I continue to run my Librarian Problems website on Tumblr librarianproblems.com. You could follow me on Twitter, personally @williamottens. You can also find Librarian Problems on Twitter. My DMS are open. You can send me a situation through either Librarian Problems or my personal one, or if you just want to vent, I’m here, I’m listening. I can commiserate with you.
Steve Thomas: And you might be able to help put a funny twist on it.
William Ottens: Yeah. I’ll throw a GIF at ya.
Steve Thomas: All right. Thank you so much, William.
William Ottens: Thank you.