One Locomotive, Four Cars: ALA’s Railway Odyssey of 1891

June 16, 2015 - 1:49 pm

Later this month, nearly 20,000 librarians, library workers, and other information professionals will descend on the city of San Francisco for the annual conference of the American Library Association (ALA). They will arrive by airplanes, by bridges, and by freeways. But in 1891, when San Francisco played host to the ALA’s first ever West Coast conference (Bertram 2015), the story of their arrival was extraordinary: the ALA commissioned a private steam train to transport over half of the conference attendees on a five-week, round-trip transcontinental train ride.


The Pennsylvania R.R. provided cars from its Pennsylvania Limited, seen in this postcard courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It was an amazing odyssey that would crescendo in a tumultuous scene on the return ride home: an impromptu but official conference session aboard the moving train. Picture the ALA president Samuel Swett Green struggling to keep both his feet and order as association members argued over whether to override a committee vote and change the planned location of the following year’s conference, all while he was waving around a Native American warclub in lieu of a gavel.

“Oratory, poetry, and cold facts all call us west”

Where to host the conference was a recurring controversy. The original suggestion to situate the 1891 conference in San Francisco was itself contentious: at the 1890 Fabyan House conference, Herbert Putnam, then the City Librarian of Minneapolis, submitted a letter charging the ALA with “making excursions” and not accomplishing enough business at its annual meetings (ALA 1890, 124). It fell to John Vance Cheney, a poet recently appointed the Librarian of San Francisco, to convince the conventioneers to travel west the following year.

Cheney opened his address to the 1890 conference with this appeal: “If I wished to show you that this invitation is from a land of beauty, I should point you to that queen city sitting by the gate of the sea; I should point you farther down the coast to that stray bit of paradise, Monterey; or I should point you still farther down to Santa Barbara, where lingers yet the old Spanish language, and where it is always afternoon. And as a contrast to this, I should lead you suddenly to the Yosemite, whose invitation to you is in a voice far kinder than the thunder that rattles from crag to crag of the Sierra Nevada; and lastly, I should bring you to that peak, 15,000 feet high, Sovereign Shasta, bowing to welcome you as you approach.”

“Now if you were a selfish body, California could address you on the selfish side. But I utterly waive that. I wish to put that out of your minds as much as possible. Think first of your duty” (ALA 1890, 125).

Mr. Cheney proceeded to make the case that it was ALA’s duty and responsibility to travel to California; the state needed funding for library buildings and the arrival of the conference would sway the minds of politicians and the newspapers and inspire a library boom. “We have money; we have some books, but we need library buildings. Why, you who sit here in the centres of culture, you who sit here in your old world complacency, know not the need of us who wrestle in the sagebrush and track the yellow sands of the prairie” (ALA 1890, 125).

I’ll allow Mr. Cheney his poetic license, but there is no sagebrush or prairie in San Francisco. However, he did have to fight constant battles to obtain dedicated space for San Francisco’s public library. By 1891, he had managed to move the main branch from an abandoned, fire-prone theater to a wing of City Hall, but space was still cramped and inadequate. When the conference commenced, there were public sessions on the cultural importance of public libraries and another focused on library architecture, both of which held the potential to inspire the funding of library construction (towards that goal, it failed: San Francisco would not have a freestanding Main Library until Andrew Carnegie helped fund its construction in the 1910s).

The librarians of Denver and Chicago both spoke in favor of a San Francisco conference, and Boston’s Charles A. Cutter, the beloved cataloging pioneer still remembered today for his “cutter numbers” spoke up to defend excursions and unofficial business at conferences: “I also come to join in the little talks on the train, in the lobby, and on the excursions, for these talks give us fully as much benefit as anything that goes on at the regular meetings. [...] So I second this motion, because I wish to see a mountain with a snow line, as well as one with a tree line. Also, I should like to see Mr. Cheney wrestle in a sage brush” (ALA 1890, 125).

The resulting vote turned out to be unanimous. As 1890’s ALA President Frederick Crunden said, “Oratory, poetry, and cold facts all call us west” (ALA 1890, 126). The Association was going to California.


Matthews, Northrup and Co., Railroad Map of the United States, 1890, courtesy Library of Congress

“They don’t all wear glasses; but they look almighty wise”

At 7:30 am, October 1, 1891, four travelers, partly refreshed by sleep under the auspices of Jersey mosquitos, stepped over from Taylor’s Hotel in Jersey City to the Pennsylvania R.R. station and formed the nucleus of a company of faithful members of the ALA bound for the setting sun conference. In the course of a few minutes a local train brought into view the smiling face of our Secretary, who, being used to the insects of the locality, had without doubt enjoyed a good night’s sleep; and soon the New York and Brooklyn ferries brought in the rest of our party, and at a minute or two before 8 the special train was off — one locomotive, four cars, about twenty officials, and nine tourists. (Johnston 1891, 129-30)

That smiling face belonged to Frank P. Hill, the Librarian of Newark, New Jersey and the new ALA Secretary, succeeding Melvil Dewey. It had fallen to him to somehow move the East Coast-based library establishment west. He settled on a uniquely luxurious travel experience: he reserved an entire train that would tour the librarians across the country, from New York to San Francisco, and back again, with westward stops in Chicago, Denver, Sacramento, and an eastward sojourn through the southwest, starting with Santa Cruz, Southern California, a day trip into Mexico and a ride across the territories of Arizona and New Mexico. It cost $250.00 to travel from the East Coast, and slightly less if you were boarding in Pittsburgh or further points west. The fare covered a double-berth in a sleeping car, all meals, side trips, and excursion hotels. Cost-conscious travelers could share a double-berth, or fifty extra dollars would get you an entire sleeping compartment to yourself (ALA 1891, 4). By the time the train pulled out of Chicago, 41 librarians were aboard, or roughly half of the conference attendees, all engaging in professional chatter for the span of the trip. D.V.R. Johnston, Sub-librarian of New York, chronicled the westward journey for ALA, and wrote that “it was understood that each individual possessed at least one new idea on library matters, we all set to work to interchange — a work, by the way, which completely lasted out the trip” (Johnson 1892, 130).

Mr. Hill didn’t book just any train: he commandeered the pinnacle of railroad luxury, the Pullman Palace Cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad. A published tour itinerary went into detail about the train’s magnificence, declaring it “by universal verdict [...] the handsomest and best appointed passenger train in existence” (ALA 1891, 7). The vestibuled train featured two drawing-room sleeping cars, a dining car, and a “composite smoking car.” The librarians would be accompanied by a “Tourist Agent” and an “Experienced Lady as Chaperon,” furnished by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The composite smoking car was the social nexus of the train ride: “A compartment introduced between the baggage-room and the main saloon is fitted up as a barber-shop and bath-room. A regular barber’s chair and all the paraphernalia of the tonsorial artist are at hand. The rear section of the car is a smoking-room, furnished with comfortable rattan arm-chairs, a lounge, and two writing-desks, each surmounted by a small case of selected books” (ALA 1891, 7).

The sleeping quarters could accommodate both men and women: “The Pullman Vestibule Sleeping Cars composing this train are the best examples of nineteenth century car building. Each contains twelve sections of two double berths, and two drawing-rooms, containing two double berths and a sofa. Inclosed toilet-rooms for ladies and gentlemen occupy separate ends of the car” (ALA 1891, 7-8).

In describing the dining car, the itinerary rhapsodizes that “glistening silver and glassware vie in brilliancy with the spotless linen, and above the tables, in the spaces between the windows, potted plants are placed on shelves set in the hardwood” (ALA 1891, 8).


A Pullman Palace Car, circa 1890s, courtesy the Newberry Library

The train departed from Jersey City on Thursday, October 1st, stopping in Philadelphia to pick up additional librarians (the Boston contingent had arrived on the Boston and Philadelphia Night Express that morning). They would continue collecting librarians in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Fort Wayne. On Friday, October 2nd, they took a long stop in Chicago, so that the passengers could to tour the Chicago libraries, plus an unscheduled stop in Ottumwa, Iowa to spend a few minutes at a county fair running at “full blast” (Johnston 1892, 130). Since Denver, Colorado, was farther west than most attendees had likely ever been, it merited a two-day stay, as it was “one of the most pushing and cultured cities of the plains” (ALA 1891, 9).

The touring party also took its time in the Rockies, stopping to ascend Pikes Peak via a (still operating) cog railway out of Manitou Springs. Ill-equipped for the high-altitude temperatures, the tourists who went to the mountaintop all wore billowing red blankets stamped with the initials of the Pullman Palace Cars. Johnston wrote that “without doubt some thirty able-bodied citizens so wrapped in red blankets that the letters P.P.C. were worn on the small of the back, walking in solemn procession around the mountain top, was a sight for gods and men” (1892, 131). Charles Cutter (who had so ardently defended excursions) continued what was apparently a continent-spanning trend of nearly missing trains with his nearest miss yet. As the cog train began its descent from Pikes Peak, “somebody caught sight of Mr. Cutler [sic] plunging wildly through the snow on the peak and frantically waving his arms. The train was finally stopped in its downhill course, and the panting librarian climbed aboard, saved from a wintry night near the stars” (San Francisco Chronicle 1891).


Manitou Springs – Pikes Peak Cog Railway, circa 1900, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, the westward passage over the mountains claimed one victim, none other than tour organizer Frank P. Hill. “Some of the more profane say that his lungs, long used to New Jersey malaria, could not stand the pure air of 10,000 feet elevation; but the more thoughtful said that that pressure of work in getting up the trip had exhausted his strength” (Johnston 1892, 132). After meticulously planning the itinerary, the ALA Secretary had to disembark to recover, waiting for the eastward train to pick him back up when the conference had ended. Despite this disappointment, his career prospered, and Mr. Hill later served as ALA President and eventually left Newark to become the head of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Once the train made it past the transcontinental divide, it crossed the Territory of Utah and into the state of Nevada, where the librarians were surprised to find a small public library in the remote and dusty whistlestop town of Carlin. Johnston wrote that it was “like a voice crying in the wilderness, and with one accord we rushed in upon the librarian, and wished him all manner of good luck” (1892, 132).

He also noted that the distinguished travelers impressed many of the residents of sparsely populated Nevada. “For at one of the stations,” Johnston wrote “we overheard a citizen inviting a friend to come and inspect our party, on the ground that ‘it was the smartest lot of people which had ever been seen in the State.’ ‘Are they all from Boston?’ asked the other. “Nop, they are not, for they don’t all wear glasses; but they look almighty wise just the same’” (1892, 132).

One other librarian was waylaid mid-tour, but of his own volition: Samuel Scudder disembarked in Truckee to catch grasshoppers before catching up a day or two later (San Francisco Chronicle 1891). While he did dabble in librarianship at both Harvard and the Boston Society of Natural History, he is better known today for his prolific career as an entomologist and paleontologist, so this should come as no surprise.

When the train arrived in California, it was met by a greeting party in Truckee made up of distinguished California librarians, who delivered fresh salmon, quail, figs, peaches, and grapes to the travelers, who offered in return black coffee and cigars. The easterners and westerners breakfasted together on the ride down from the mountains into Sacramento. They stopped in Rocklin to saw off a heavily-laden branch from an orange tree, which they suspended from the ceiling of one of the rail cars as decoration (Sacramento Daily Record 1891).

The westward passage of the train ended in Oakland. The bay was not yet bridged, so the librarians disembarked to conclude their journey: “A short wait for the ferry, a short ride in the cool fog drawing in from the sea, a twinkling of electric lights and a jingling of bells, the wheels ceased churning the water, and our journey was done” (Johnston 1892, 133).

“Useful and Important”

Mr. Putnam, so offended by excursions, was likely tsk tsking at the conference agenda: no meetings were scheduled to start before noon so that there would plenty of time for sightseeing. There was a banquet with the wealthy and eccentric rare-book collector Adolph Sutro at his Sutro Heights Mansion; there was a (chilly) cruise around the Bay (“they would have had a more enjoyable excursion if a fog had not enwrapped the hills and a cold wind swept the bay and the steamer’s deck” (San Francisco Chronicle 1891); there were tours of Golden Gate Park and Chinatown; a visit to the Stanford family’s horsefarm and the new college they had founded; there were side trips to Oakland, San Jose, and Monterey; there were readings by Poet-Librarians John Vance Cheney of San Francisco and Ina Coolbrith of Oakland. The Papers and Proceedings do list a number of speeches, presentations, and meetings, so it does appear they found at least a little bit of time to conduct the business of the American Library Association. In his historical account, President Green (1913, 230) wrote that “the convention proved to be useful and important, probably exerting no little influence in bringing about the remarkable degree of prosperity in library affairs which disclosed itself to visitors in California at the second conference of the Association held in that state, at Pasadena, in 1911.”

In a repeat of the debate at the 1890 conference, there was a quarrel during the conference’s eighth session over where the Association should meet next. The committee tasked with determining the next host location was divided on the subject. ALA President Green suggested Nantucket, paired with a chartered steamship cruise of the Atlantic Coast (ALA 1892a, 117). But ultimately the debate came down to an impasse between two diametrically opposing ideas: either meeting in Washington, D.C, which was conveniently located for maximum attendance, or at a remote resort, far away from the distractions and excursions of big cities. The choice of Washington won the day, but the anti-city faction was not done raising objections.

Later in the same eighth session, Oberlin College’s Azariah Root moved that the conference not be officially adjourned until the excursion train had arrived in Chicago. The train’s Composite Smoking Car would serve as a traveling conference so that the ALA could issue official edicts thanking every locality that hosted them along the way.

“A Funeral or an Opera Troupe”

The Pullman Palace pulled out from the Bay Area on Monday, October 19th, but it did not repeat its westward itinerary. Instead, the returning librarians traveled south. On the first day they lunched in a Santa Cruz redwood grove. Indiana’s Mary Eileen Ahern (1892, 149) journaled the eastward trip on behalf of ALA, and wrote of this excursion that “a beautiful stream flows through this forest,” but protects the modesty of her traveling companions, saying “I will not chronicle the pleasures and mishaps of the young ladies who enjoyed its pellucid waters.”

After refreshing themselves under the Big Trees, the librarians toured Southern California, starting with Santa Barbara followed by stops in Santa Monica, Redondo Beach, Pasadena, and La Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles, which, according to their tour itinerary, was an “ideal spot for health, scenery, climate, and pleasure” and “undoubtedly destined to become the social metropolis of the Coast” (ALA 1891, 27). The City Librarian of Los Angeles left a memorable impression on President Green. During a carriage procession through the city, Green (1913, 242) noted that their “span of horses was skillfully guided by the vigorous and sure hand of the accomplished and energetic librarian, Miss Tessa Kelso.”

Finally, the California tour ended with a stay at San Diego’s opulent Hotel Del Coronado, then just three years old. According to Ahern (1892, 150-51), the Southern California adventures included shark sightings, impromptu dances, a border crossing into Tijuana, and one incident in Redlands where an unnamed young women of the touring party attempted to steal a burro.

The Hotel Del Coronado, circa 1900, by William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), photographer, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

While all of this touring and sightseeing seems superfluous, it’s worth noting that in many of the stops the train made, the local paper covered the arrival of the librarians as a newsworthy event and mayors and local library officials came out to shake their hands. The tour served to increase the profile of libraries and librarians in these emerging communities when the public library movement was still in a fledgling state. Papers in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, and Topeka all covered the arrival of the touring party as if it were a major event.

The train rumbled through the territories of Arizona and New Mexico before turning northeast through Kansas on its way to Chicago. As the trains crossed the southwest, the travelers played “relic-hunter, curio-seeker, and sight-seer” amongst the Native American communities along the rail line (Ahern 1892, 151). Mary Eileen Ahern writes wistfully of evenings spent gathering on the train’s “back porch” — “night after night, as the evening shadows fell, ‘by ones and twos the company came.’” She added that “during the day, this same back porch served as a debating ground, resting place, meeting place, studio, and it was said poetry was inspired on that platform on several occasions.”

It was on the final leg of the return ride, after departing New Mexico heading towards Kansas, that Dr. E.J. Nolan, Librarian of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, moved to reconsider the resolution passed at San Francisco to situate the 1892 meeting in Washington, D.C. (ALA 1892, 124-26). While there was an objection that a small group should not be able to override the larger public vote in San Francisco, debate carried on anyways. According to Ahern (1892, 152), it was a lively discussion, with President Green “trying to keep his feet in the swaying car and order at the same time, energetically waving an Indian war club by way of a gavel, surrounded by members, each anxious for his own peculiar views to be adopted.”

Among those opposed to Washington hosting the conference were Dr. William Poole, who objected because it was “too hot” and “because in the South there were few libraries” (ALA 1892, 125). Frank P. Hill, who had been retrieved by the return train after recovering his health, also objected, and felt that the Association could override the vote in San Francisco whenever it wanted. Colonel W.H. Lowdermilk, a DC-based bookseller, and Miss E.W. Sherman of the Library Bureau, defended the “devoted librarians” in the south who were striving to improve circumstances there, and felt situating the conference in a place they could attend was for the best, and would help promote the cause of public libraries in the South. A compromise of sorts was reached: a motion was carried that the “first sessions of the conference would be held at some quiet resort, preferably Annapolis” before moving into Washington (ALA 1892, 125).

That evening the train stopped in Kansas City, where the tourists disembarked to sleep at the Midland Hotel. Nearly five weeks into their travels, the party must have had a strange look to them: Ahern (1892, 152) wrote that “as the long line of carriages wended its way to the Midland, speculations were heard on the streets as to whether it was a funeral or an opera troupe.”

The 1891 Conference was officially adjourned after a meeting in Chicago, though many librarians stayed on until the train arrived on the East Coast. Ultimately, the tour covered a total distance of 8,116 miles through 12 states and three territories (ALA 1891, 31).

And as for the 1892 conference? It was ultimately moved to a resort hotel in Lakewood in northern New Jersey. Of the 260 attendees of the 1892 conference, only three came from Southern states (ALA 1892b, 104). But there were day trips to Baltimore, Washington, and post-conference excursions into Virginia.

As for California, the American Library Association would not return until the Pasadena Conference of 1911. That time, Frank P. Hill did make it all the way west. The industrious Herbert Putnam, by then the Librarian of Congress, did not (ALA 1911, 282).


#ALA2013: Librarians in the Windy City

August 4, 2013 - 2:05 pm

The ALA Annual Conference of 2013 was a tad different from the 1913 edition chronicled previously on this site. Instead of hundreds of participants, there were tens of thousands. We were in Chicago, since the Catskills can no longer hold us. But we still had a lot in common with our forebears – we discussed the public perception of libraries, how to broaden library appeal, and serve underserved communities just as they did one hundred years ago.

Gamifying Libraries

On Saturday morning I attended a session on gamification in libraries, emceed by Bohyun Kim, writer and editor at ACRL’s TechConnect blog and a librarian at Florida International University. It featured a mixed panel of academic and public librarians, each with a unique take on this emerging practice. “Gamifying” is the adoption of board or video game elements in outreach or instruction. Most of the examples incorporated digital badges, something Char Booth recently wrote about.

Different libraries are applying these concepts in radically different ways, from a children’s reading program in a Michigan public library to using it as an orientation and instruction tool at a California law school library.

One of the most fully developed examples is at the University of Huddersfield, in the UK. They have an interactive game that students can opt-in to called “Lemontree” (, which awards them digital badges and points based on their use of the library. Walking in after midnight earns them the “night owl” badge, while checking out ten or more books at once earns a “strongman” badge. Each of these badges are worth a certain amount of points, and as they climb a leaderboard, the more their eponymous tree grows from seed to sapling to mature lemontree. It’s fun and cute and even pits the different academic schools against each other.

Screenshots from Lemontree at the University of Huddersfield

Information Literacy Standards

Saturday featured a forum on revising the ACRL Information Literacy Standards. An ACRL committee has been formed and was reporting out to a very crowded (and opinionated) room of instructional librarians. The forum’s goals were two-fold: provide the attendees a timeline for the committee’s work, and get official feedback on two questions: 1) how libraries are currently using the existing ACRL standards in their work, and 2) what librarians feel is missing from the current standards.

There were various opinions offered on the latter: teaching guidelines for the different standards; detailing a picture of an information literate student; a request that we embody practices rather than “standards;” etc.

There was also discussion of the “-literacy” lexicon: pan-literacy, media-literacy, meta-literacy, and other terms that I am rather suspicious of (though I like and use the term “information literacy,” it sows enough confusion amongst non-academics, and I’m not sure we need to add more).

SpringShare’s New LibGuide Interface

I visited the SpringShare booth on the Exhibitor Floor to get a preview of the LibGuide design. I appreciate the ease of use when designing LibGuides, but their look is quite dated and design options are limited. Without completely changing the core concept, the new interface and design possibilities are a notable improvement: instead of set, fixed columns per page, box width can vary (e.g., you could place a horizontal box along the top of a page and place columns below it); boxes are no longer restricted to a single content type (e.g. you could mix images, mirrored database links, and highlighted books in a single box); new visually appealing tools such as lightboxes allow for more creative image use; and you can create tabbed boxes. The general look is improved, too: corners and edges are more rounded, and the default appearance is smoother and more pleasing to the eye.

There are also new administrative features. They have an automatically updating A-Z list (powered by SerialsSolutions), easier ways to reuse content (not just reusing links and boxes), and the ability to edit HTML templates.

SpringShare is not forcing an adoption date on client libraries. The new system will be available starting this fall and libraries can migrate when they elect to. Existing LibGuides should move seamlessly into the new system, gaining more appealing curves but otherwise remaining the same. The SpringShare representative also said they’d be willing to provide clients with a sandbox account to experiment with before migrating to the new system.

Overall I was pretty impressed, not only with the look of the new product but their method of roll-out and information sharing.

MakerSpace at Chicago Public Library

“#makerspaces” in libraries seems to be the new “thing.” I took a tour of Chicago Public Library’s new Innovation Lab, which is currently hosting a MakerSpace. The tour was followed by a panel talk featuring representatives of several public library systems each with their own take on MakerSpace. Briefly, a MakerSpace features tools that help people create and craft; this can run the gamut between sewing supples to 3D printers, paper for zines to soldering equipment. Detroit Public Library’s MakerSpace is geared towards teens and has numerous workshops (e.g. bike maintenance, fashion design). Chicago’s is officially adults only and is heavy on the 3D printers and modeling software. It’ll be interesting watching this moving forward, and I wonder which academic libraries will find a way in on this trend.

Digital Public Library of America

Have you seen the Digital Public Library of America? Executive director Dan Cohen spoke at ALA to introduce the DPLA and how it operates to the attendees. It’s an online platform that brings together digital objects and collections from over a dozen partners (with more to come) searchable from a single interface. Contributors include the Smithsonian, the NYPL, the Internet Archive, and a number of universities. In addition to search functionality, content is curated into browsable exhibitions, and the DPLA makes its API available to creative app developers.

Tumblarian 101

Librarians on tumblr: officially a thing. Four of my favorite people, Molly McArdle (formerly of LibraryJournal), Erin Shea (adult services librarian, Darien, CT), Kate Tkacik (corporate research librarian) and Rachel Fershleiser (Tumblr lit outreach guru) spoke about how and why libraries and librarians are using tumblr in increasing numbers (including me).

Tumblarians assemble! I joined up with Erin, Kate, and Molly for brunch.

Why tumbl? More characters than twitter. More social than Wordpress. More flexibility in posting, and the ease of reblogging. But best of all is the community, the vibrant, active, and positive librarian community that shares ideas, offers advice, and supports one another.

For those of you not already a part of that community, you can sign up in seconds. Tag your posts with “libraries” and “librarians” and we will find you!

Tumblr tags: metadata is your friend (photo courtesy @sophiebiblio)


I was asked to serve as a guest judge for the Librarian Wardrobe Walkoff, a fundraising party for EveryLibrary, the pro-library political action committee (PAC) founded by John Chrastka. Joining me on the judging panel were Courtney Young, Trevor Dawes, Celia Perez, and Patrick Sweeney (I felt like a minor leaguer called up to pitch in the majors). It was a fun gathering and helped spread the word about EveryLibrary, which already has three electoral victories under its belt and is turning towards California for a fall campaign. Chrastka’s mantra is that he wants to corner the market on “smart + fun” librarians, and channel their enthusiasm and energy into the ideas and momentum EveryLibrary needs to be an effective advocacy force. If this party was any indicator, there was smart + fun in spades.

Librarian Wardrobe Walkoff contenders strutting their stuff; myself with Sarah Houghton.

EveryLibrary is bringing the smart + fun to California with a fundraising brunch on August 18th – if you’re nearby, get your tickets and come out to support this great cause.

Wrap Up

The ALA Annual Conference has a universality no other library conference can match. There is tremendous value in learning from our peers in different branches of the profession, something that doesn’t happen at specialized conferences. It’s important to see what else is happening outside of our individual niches: what issues are of concern in special libraries, or what new marketing ideas are working well for publics. If you get out of your own specialized silo, you come away with a lot of new and exciting ideas, and a better sense of what’s going on in the profession as a whole.

I enjoyed the positive kinetic energy. At both the sessions and at the social events there was a tremendous enthusiasm for what’s going right and what’s working well in the field. There is something very affirming about spending a weekend with colleagues and peers who love what they are doing. You go back to your day job full of energy and ideas, and the confidence that comes from connecting with the people you admire. I’m already looking forward to 2014 and what I’ll learn next.

#ALA1913: Librarians in the Catskills

June 24, 2013 - 10:51 am

The ALA Annual Conference of 2013 is bearing down on us. Tens of thousands of librarians – myself included – will descend on Chicago this Friday. The modern iteration of ALA Annual, for better and for worse, is the very model of a modern major conference, with an exhibitor floor, professional presentations, vendor parties, dubious swag, and, hopefully, learning and growth experiences for the assembled librarians.

I was inspired by a passing comment on Facebook last week to look up the 1913 Papers and Proceedings of the American Library Association Annual Conference, exactly one century ago. The older Proceedings are in the public domain and most are scanned in Google Books (though some wonky metadata can sometimes make specific ones hard to find).

In 1913, the librarians gathered in Kaaterskill, in upstate New York’s Hudson River Valley – a far cry from the recent history of Chicago, Anaheim, and New Orleans, and next year’s Las Vegas. The 1913 conference featured 892 participants, with the host state leading the way with 316 attendees, while my home state of California only sent four on the cross-country trek. One can only imagine the scene in the Catskill resort town. Did any flock of librarians choose to take a moonlit walk to the Kaaterskill Falls with a bottle of wine or two under their arms? The Proceedings close by chronicling a post-conference librarian trip by train, steamer, and automobile through the Adirondacks, including a group swim in a mountain lake.

Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls for Frank Moore and Dan Hodermarsky by Stephen Hannock, photographed by flickr user p_a_h.

“As Others See Us”

One of the most intriguing portions of the Proceedings is under the heading “As Others See Us.” The ALA President of the time, Henry Legler (chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library), sent a letter to the “eminent men and women in the United States and Great Britain” requesting “brief expressions touching our own work.” Accompanying the letter was a question relevant to the individual recipient, which included Andrew Carnegie, Winston Churchill, W.E.B. Du Bois, John F. Fitzgerald (JFK’s prominent maternal grandfather), and various other leaders in society, business, and the arts. Noteworthy answers were read aloud at the conference.

Most of the questions asked are as illuminating, if not more so, than the answers. The questions that librarians saw fit to ask society’s leaders tells us a lot of what they thought of their own profession at the time. Here are ten of the 22 original 1913 questions (language unaltered):

  • Should our public expect the library to supply all the “best sellers” hot from the press?
  • Is the negro being helped by our public libraries?
  • Is cooperation between the public school and the public library developing in the right direction?
  • Should the public library exercise censorship over the books it circulates?
  • What rank should the library have in the scale of the community’s social assets?
  • What is your conception of the ideal librarian?
  • Is it wicked for our libraries to amuse people?
  • Are our libraries helping to make better citizens of those from over-seas?
  • Is the modern city library engaging in activities outside its proper sphere, e.g. lectures, story-telling, art exhibits, victrola concerts, loan of pianola rolls, etc.?
  • Need librarians apologize for circulating a large percentage of contemporary fiction?

“The Color Line in Literature is Silly”

W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP, answered the second question above pointedly. It is not a surprise that libraries operated under systematized racist policies in 1913 and were not welcoming to blacks and other cultural minorities. Du Bois stated clearly that while libraries could be a great benefit, those in the north often intentionally made blacks feel unwelcome and those in the south systematically barred blacks from entering (“rigorously excluded”). His closing comment was that “it would seem a statement from the American Library Association to the effect that the color line in literature is silly, is much needed at present.”

It seems as if Du Bois’ words largely went unheaded; in a report on services to black patrons that occurred on the second day of the conference, Rochester public library director William F. Yust condemned the dismal state of library services to blacks in the south, but insisted that blacks were universally welcome in northern public libraries, in direct conflict with Du Bois’ observation. Yust also advocated for segregated blacks-only libraries in the south (with white leadership). The ALA was not, unfortunately, ahead of its time.

The conference record is a little better when discussing immigrant services. Prominent author and immigrant-rights activist Mary Antin delivered a rousing speech (it still reads well today) on the value and importance of immigrants to the American economy, and the importance of library services to those communities. The Proceedings notes that her oratory was hailed with a standing ovation. After Antin spoke, librarian Adelaide Maltby, who was the director of the Tompkins Square Branch on New York’s Lower East Side, added nuts, bolts and statistics to strengthen Mary Antin’s argument, and specifically argued in favor of collecting library materials in the native languages of their immigrant patrons. For 1913, this strikes me as forward thinking. However, a third presentation on the subject of immigrant services was startling for its xenophobia and bias against immigrants. One can only hope that the speaker, St. Joseph public librarian Charles Rush, was not greeted with the same acclaim and ovation as Mary Antin.

“Yet to answer a single question”

After I posted the original “As They See Us” questions to Facebook, my friend Patrick Sweeney, a public librarian, wrote that he was discouraged – “it almost seems like we have yet to answer a single question after 100 years.” While I understand his point, I would argue the opposite. I see tremendous positives in some of the questions the 1913 ALA saw fit to ask. It’s true that we still grapple now with questions of censorship (although, fortunately, the ALA’s stance on the subject is quite clear), what types of materials and services we should supply to our patrons, and what our core mission is (as hinted at in the 1913 questions about the “ideal librarian” and “proper sphere”).

However, the fact that these questions were asked suggests that the librarians of 1913 were already looking to expand our services beyond book circulation. Some of the creative programs going on in modern libraries – Patrick’s guitar lending program, Chicago Public Library’s exciting new Maker Space – are echoes of these questions. Would the ALA have asked about hosting lectures and victrola concerts, lending player piano rolls, and exhibiting art, if some libraries weren’t already doing just that? Would the ALA asked about the partnerships between public schools and public libraries if such partnerships weren’t already forming? Would they have wondered at the propriety of lending immoral “modern fiction” if many libraries didn’t already do just that?

The 1913 Proceedings make it clear that libraries have been pushing against the limits of our “proper sphere” for over a century now. Innovative library programs are building on a century-old legacy. Our professional forebears were already looking to provide new services to their communities. When a critic derides libraries as obsolete in the Age of Google, it’s worth remembering that libraries are not only more than just books today, but that they’ve been more than just books for at least a hundred years. We are building on the innovations of the past, not tearing history down – it’s an evolution, not a revolution – and we would do well to remember that as we engage in the latest debates.

Unfortunately, there will be no train or steamer to take us to the Adirondacks when ALA 2013 wraps up, and I doubt Kaaterskill could handle 20,000 of us for a conference. But a look back at our past (warts and all) helps us as we move forward into the future.

The Indianapolis 300: Wrapping up ACRL 2013

April 29, 2013 - 1:58 pm

Indianapolis, home of the legendary Indianapolis 500, recently hosted the 300 presentations,workshops, and poster sessions that made up ACRL 2013, the biennial conference of academic librarians. Here are just a few of those sessions worth highlighting.

Indy Car

Libraries in the Age of Wikipedia

Before the start of the official conference, I participated in a free pre-conference workshop entitled Libraries in the Age of Wikipedia hosted by the IUPUI Library. IUPUI is the joint Indianapolis campus for Indiana University and Purdue. Presenters included IUPUI archivist Brenda Burke, librarians Chanitra Bishop and Phoebe Ayers, and Lori Philips of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. The morning covered many of the basic principles of Wikipedia: its mission statement, and history, and the various programs it has initiated, such as the fall event “Wikipedia loves libraries” and the ongoing Galleries-Libraries-Archives-Museums (GLAM) project, which seeks to elevate the visibility institutional collections as information sources on Wikipedia. They also discussed the “Wikipedian-in-residence” programs at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and elsewhere. The presentation also featured mentions of Wikimedia Commons, an open license, royalty-free image archive, and Wikidata, a new project to bring together sources of open-access research data.

Wikipedia is one of the top ten websites in the world, it is an important resource for librarians to understand and help students make the best use of. No matter what library-specific resources we promote, or services we offer, chances are most students will start their information search by browsing Wikipedia. It has strengths, and it has weaknesses, and we must have a clear understanding of it to be of use to our patrons.

ACRL Battledecks! Imagine, improvise, inflict: Get inspired or die trying.

The opening night social event was ACRL Battledecks, an improvisational competition featuring six librarians presenting six random slidedecks to an audience of nearly five hundred. I rolled up my cardigan sleeves and jumped into battle, and emerged victorious. You can check out the whole ACRL Battledecks competition on YouTube. My thanks to John Jackson for inviting me to participate and organizing the well attended event — nearly five hundred screaming, hooting, hollering, and laughing librarians. It made for a great, entertaining evening and conference kick-off. My victory prize? The Ice King’s crown, complete with beard.


Photo courtesy Kate K.

The One-shot Mixtape: Lessons for Planning, Delivering, and Integrating Instruction.

This presentation featured a large panel and was based on an article published in the LIS journal Communications in Information Literacy 6(1). Panelists included ACRL Immersion presenters Beth Woodard, Randey Hensley, Deb Gilchrist, and Michelle Millet, as well as Steven Hoover, Jennifer Corbin, Diana Wakimoto, Christopher Hollister, and Patty Iannuzzi. As the paper’s main author, Megan Oakleaf, was not available, Hollister acted as MC.

Panelists limited their comments to one point or two points each:

  • limit your lesson-plan instead of trying to cover “everything;”
  • vary your instructional approach in order to accommodate different learning styles (concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization; active experimentation);
  • assessment doesn’t go last, assessment isn’t an afterthought, assessment = good teaching;
  • don’t wing it in the classroom; work from a lesson plan;
  • enthusiasm in a teach is authentic and humanizing, and shows that we care;
  • at the beginning of a class, take evidence of what they already know (how many have used the library and in what ways, how many already use a major database, etc.) and adjust your lesson plan to fit the level of your students;
  • incorporate case studies into your lesson plans; using a narrative to drive group work and debriefing encourages engagement;
  • faculty are your friends; find ways to plan instruction around their syllabus;
  • think product, not process; an active exercise could include annotated bibliographies where they not only explain why they used a source, but how they found it;
  • it’s about the institution, not your classroom; think big-picture issues when crafting your lessons. Retention, completion, graduation rate – what is your library’s role in the students complete educational experience? Are we playing the role of a partner and a leader? Are we contributing to the collection of data and evidence so that we can show the value we play on campus?

Original article: Notes from the Field: 10 Short Lessons on One-Shot Instruction.

Making Information Literacy Relevant: Inspiring Student Engagement through Faculty-Librarian Collaboration

Two librarians, one faculty member, and one student from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania reported on a partnership they developed for a public health course taught for upperclassmen.

The librarians and faculty consulted before the start of the semester and planned three workshops timed to specific course assignments. Each workshop was built around the tools the students would need to accomplish the next assignment — evaluating quality sources, using internet-derived public health data, etc. This presentation contained a number of useful details: exact exercises, assessment strategies, what worked and didn’t work and how they’ll change it in future iterations. Some of the specific workshop activities could be easily adapted to any number of different courses. Each lesson plan was hosted and shared with students via libguide, with on-screen polling for immediate student feedback.

Riding the RAILS of Rubric Assessment to Keep Information Literacy Learning on Track

ACRL workshops are three hours and require advanced sign-up due to their limited capacity, and are one of the best aspects of the conference. They get hands-on and practical the way a shorter presentation with a larger audience cannot. I attended this one focused on rubric assessment, and specifically the RAILS methodology developed by Megan Oakleaf. The workshop was excellent – it was very practical, and gave me a perspective on rubrics and how we could use them to analyze many different facets of our information literacy instruction. While I have seen these concepts discussed before, this was the first time someone placed actual student work in my hands, gave me a rubric to judge it by, and then forced me to discuss and defend my scoring (in order to normalize the various personal biases each individual brought to what is supposed to be objective scoring). It made me realize how much work must go into standardizing evaluations, and the ways in which the ideas could be successfully implemented at my place of work — and which ways they might not.

Keynote Presentation: Henry Rollins, political activist and punk icon

What can I say about keynote presenter Henry Rollins? If you seen him speak, you have an idea of what happened: he came on stage, gripped the mic in his hand, and didn’t slow down or seemingly take a breath for over 80 minutes. His first line? “I have no librarian jokes.” Highlights included his personal experience touring the National Archives with the equally iconic Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), his articulation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and anecdotes about collecting and preserving band fliers, zines, and other punk-related ephemera.

His core message was simple but powerfully relayed: information organization, dissemination and access is the cornerstone of freedom, and as core principles, they must be retained and defended in order for this country to survive in the 21st century. There’s a snippet on YouTube; get a taste.

CARL-ACRL Ilene F. Rockman Scholarship Award Dinner

I had the privilege of organizing a dinner to honor the 2013 Rockman Scholarship recipient Brittany Austin. Ms. Austin is a current SJSU SLIS student and member of the FIDM-San Francisco library staff. We were joined by six California academic librarians at The Libertine, a restaurant and cocktail bar that, by the end of the night, was turning people away at the door because they were packed wall-to-wall by librarians. It was a good thing we had a table reservation. Librarians know where to find the best cocktails, it seems.

The Art of Problem Discovery

ACRL president Trevor Dawes introduced Virginia Tech’s Associate University Librarian Brian Mathews, author of the Chronicle of Higher Ed blog the Ubiquitous Librarian, to present his invited paper on the concept of problem-seeking in library management.

Mathews opened with a dictionary-derived definition of “problems:”

  • unwelcome or harmful, to be dealt with and overcome.
  • questions raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution.

He made the point that sometimes we jump too quickly into problem solving mode before fully exploring the wide range of possibilities. When dealing with library issues, we have to consider what the problem actually is; for example, patrons don’t want to use your catalog; they just want the book that will help them write their paper. Mathews referenced the quote from Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen: “Don’t sell products and services to customers, but rather try to help people address their jobs-to-be-done.” Libraries should invest in other people’s problems.

Things for libraries to consider:

  • What three things do students struggle with the most? (and how can we help them overcome them?)
  • What challenges do researchers face when applying for grants?
  • What information would help academic deans make decisions?

As can be expected from a Brian Mathews presentations, there were quite a few quotable bon mots:

  • a job ad should include “proficient listening skills;”
  • librarians should be problem developers, not just problem solvers. You can only solve the problems you discover or identify;
  • instead of “thinking outside the box,” let’s reach into other people’s boxes.

Through the art of problem discovery we can design and develop the capacities, service models, etc. of the future. We need to decide what business are we in. Is it the book business, the reference desk business, the catalog business, or none of the above? Rather, we should be in the problem solving business for our campus. How do we help you with your data needs? That’s our business.

Love Your Library: Building Goodwill from the Inside Out

Four librarians from different institutions (Char Booth, Adrienne Lai, Lia Friedman, and Alice Whiteside) shared their ideas for interesting, weird, and creative outreach programs to develop library love on campus in what was a fun, morale-boosting presentation. They threw out dozens of ideas in less than an hour. Here are just a few examples:

  • “re:book: take a book. remake it. win,” remixing weeded books into book art as a student contest exhibited in the library;
  • “exCITING FOOD,” a citation event in the library with food to eat and the recipes for that food displayed as citation examples. Students snack and mingle with librarians and discuss their citation challenges.
  • “Library on Wheels” and “Pop Up Libraries” in different places on campus, with fun materials and costumed librarians, to generate conversation with students.
  • “Wikipedia Edit-a-thon” organized by campus archivist at a women’s college in response to a report that 9 out of 10 Wikipedia editors are men.
  • Student photo contests around the library.

The presenters made all the materials related to their outreach programs available, and the slideshow is online.


Altogether, ACRL 2013 was a worthwhile conference with many compelling presenters and actionable ideas. Over the length of the conference, I had conversations with dozens of librarians I admire, many of whom I connect with electronically during the year but only get the chance to meet at a conference like ACRL. In those social moments — whether it’s the downtime between presentations, at an event like Battledecks, or at an evening gathering, we’re talking about our jobs, our careers, our ideas for instruction, and what we think we can bring back to our libraries. There is tremendous value and inspiration derived from those conversations, and the ongoing conversation that will happen moving forward.

The final evening of the conference saw a couple dozen librarians out for a night at a neighborhood dive, killing it at karaoke (I must admit, I was an observer, not a singer). We had duets, we had disco, we had the Big Bopper. And, naturally, a librarian sang that one hit by the Cardigans. It was a good way to wrap it up.

Trip Report: SCELC Vendor Day

March 14, 2012 - 9:48 am

I flew to Los Angeles a couple weeks ago to attend the second half of the Statewide California Electronic Libraries Consortium’s (SCELC) annual Colloquium & Vendor Day hosted at Loyola Marymount University (I was unable to attend the first day because I was leading a four-hour intensive information literacy workshop for Biology students; I should post about that someday, too).

The first night, my colleague N.G. and I got to meet up with some Southern California information all-stars: Young Lee, law librarian and bon vivant* from the University of La Verne; John Jackson, the dapper, bow-tie wearing ALA Emerging Leader and Grand Cataloger at USC; and Loyola Marymount’s librarian-in-residence Cynthia Orozco. Our conversation was exactly what you’d expect with a table full of librarians (bar the unexpected interloping business-traveling New Zealander who butted into our conversation to regale us with his personal philosophy — think: people are either sheep or wolves — he was the wolf, we were the sheep?): it was a mix of excellent professional observations and ideas, a wealth of outstanding verbal sorties and quips, and a healthy debate on the proper composition of a Manhattan.

Another perk of going to SCELC was I finally got to meet my long-time internet friend Sherry Youssef and her colleague Shawna, who are librarians at a specialized psychology graduate school. Since I recently became our liaison librarian to our Psychology Department, this was a useful chance to pick their brains about products, collections, and other things relating to a field I still need to learn about. Sometimes professional networking isn’t just about getting jobs; it’s about getting good ideas from smart people (and good dinner conversation is just the bonus).

Daniel and Sherry

Hanging out with Sherry

SCELC’s Vendor Day followed the next day. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the product demonstrations I saw and my first impressions**:


The first presentation I saw was from the publishing & electronic content arm of the American Psychology Association (APA; shhhh…I didn’t tell them that I’ll soon be staging a protest). They are debuting a few new products:

  • PsycBOOKS, which can be purchased by title-by-title or leased as a 44,000-chapter full-text collection. This collection will grow with newly published materials (after a 1-yr embargo) and also contains various “classics” in the psychology field.
  • PsycTHERAPY, apparently a competitor to Alexander Street Press’s existing Counseling & Therapy Video Collection. This contains 300 therapy demo videos featuring actual clients and practicing professionals.
  • PsycTESTS, a database of testing instruments (including non-commercial permissions) as described and culled from various journal articles and other sources. Their long-term goal is to have 20,000 tests in the database. Currently 75% of content is full-text (remainder have either been published as commercial tests or authors have not provided permission – in those cases, only a citation and contact information is available).


Credo provides DRM-free reference eBooks; generally speaking, they are one of my favorite vendors both for the quality of their content and the ease of using their UX on both the user and administrator side. The depth of the Credo reference collection is what allowed my library to move almost entirely away from print reference collections (this is a ubiquitous trend in libraries and elsewhere; note the recently announced death of the print edition Encyclopædia Britannica). Our Credo collection contains over 500 different sets of encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference items running the gamut of arts, humanities, social science, health, education and science disciplines.

Credo was at Vendor Day to demonstrate their new product, Literati. Literati is a spiffed-up interface for content from Credo’s Reference Database that includes customized videos, a stylish navigation screen and built-in hyperlinks designed to make information-seeking more intuitive for millennial students. However, since the content beneath the splashy screens largely remains the same, I’m unsure how much of an upgrade over the simpler Credo experience this is. Is it just adding more clicks into the information retrieval process? That’s counter to what we want. Until I get a chance to try it myself and see what the benefits might be, the jury (ie, the jury of me) is out on Literati.

Copyright Clearance Center

The non-profit organization Copyright Clearance Center was at Vendor Day to demonstrate the usefulness of their Get It Now automated electronic article inter-library loan (ILL) sharing system, first designed and implemented by the CSU system but now spread to many institutions. The patron-driven, automatic delivery of electronic scholarly articles is absolutely the way ILL should work in the 21st century and it’s pretty cool to see it taking off — a la carte article publishing could save libraries a lot as opposed to big bundles of unused electronic journal subscriptions. The service bills libraries monthly for the number of articles acquired.

There is a fairly large group of contributing publishers including many of the major names. Currently, 120 colleges have adopted the service. Along with receiving a copy of the articles requested, libraries are also provided the copyright clearances they need for most academic uses (not surprisingly, since the Copyright Clearance Center is behind all this).


Gale Cengage was demonstrating two products – Business Insights: Global and the newest iteration of the Gale Virtual Reference Library. I was pretty pleased with what I saw from Business Insights: Global — clean, simple interface; you can use it to create quick, easy-to-design charts based on financial and statistical data; and it prominently features hyperlinks to promote the proximal curiosity effect that drives so much of Wikipedia usage. As for GVRL, it looked like a sharper interface; I believe many libraries are already using it. I’ll check it out more thoroughly before I implement it, however (interface changes mid-semester aren’t usually a good idea).

All in all, it was a good trip to SCELC — whatever you think of the world of library vendors and journal publishers (and there are issues with them all, to varying degrees), it’s useful to know what they are offering. It’s just too bad I had to miss the librarians vs. vendors bowling night.

Future Travel

My trip to SCELC marked the start of my travel season; I’ll be heading to the California Academic & Research Libraries (CARL) Conference in San Diego in April and I’ve been accepted into ACRL Immersion in Vermont in July (I know, I just buried the lede in the 12th paragraph). I’ll post more about both of those soon. I will not, however, make it to ALA this year; there will be no reprising my surprise Battledecks performance, at least not in 2012.

*My spellchecker wanted to correct this to ‘Bob Vivaldi.’ Perhaps I should have let it; that’s kind of awesome.

**I’d like to emphasize these are my initial judgments based on what I saw in demonstration; I have not gotten hands on with these products yet and my opinions — poorly developed as they are — are purely my own and do not reflect those of my employer (or anyone else for that matter).

Riding the Long Tail

October 31, 2011 - 10:29 pm


I’ll be a participant in a panel during the Library 2.011 Worldwide Virtual Conference. Our program, Riding the “Long Tail”: Leveraging a Niche to Build a Network, focuses on the niche professional networks and interests enabled and encouraged by the use of social media tools. It will be moderated by USC’s John Jackson & the University of La Verne’s Young Lee and feature panelists Nicole Pagowsky of the entertaining Librarian Wardrobe and Micah Vandegrift of the HackLibSchool Blog. I am quite honored to be included in their company to discuss the Information Amateurs Social Club, the informal networking organization my friend Greg Borman and I created after graduating from library school in 2009.

Participation in the virtual conference is free — and highly encouraged! Our panel will speak at 10am Pacific Time on Thursday, November 3.

Jumping on board a presentation like this required me — for the first time — to write a professional bio, a decidedly odd thing to compose (particularly since custom dictates writing it in the third person). Here it is:

Daniel Ransom is the Librarian for Research and Electronic Resources at Holy Names University in Oakland, California. Daniel provides reference and research services and co-coordinates the university’s information literacy program. Daniel also serves on the committee for the California Academic and Research Libraries’ Ilene F. Rockman Scholarship, an annual award for library school students. He co-founded the Information Amateurs Social Club with Greg Borman after graduating from San José State University’s School of Library and Information Science in December of 2009. The goal was to create an informal online and in-person venue for early-career information professionals to stay in contact with their peers and share job-seeking skills and ideas.

I also had to submit a profile photo; I took this shot the morning of my very first day as a professional librarian 15 months ago and have used it as my professional profile ever since (that’s right, I like to rock the argyle sweater vest).


At some point soon I’m going to have to admit that I’m a grown-up.

Tapping into information

August 23, 2011 - 10:06 pm

Saturday night, the Information Amateurs Social Club gathered at the special pour-your-own-beer keg table at San Francisco’s Mad Dog in the Fog, a Lower Haight pub. I never got an exact count of attendees as it ebbed and flowed all night (much like the tap!) but it was well over a dozen and possibly as many as twenty. As usual, the crowd contained a mix of backgrounds — academic librarians, archivists, a children’s librarian, public librarians, MLIS students, and the usual but unfortunate smattering of unemployed librarians hoping for a change in the wind.


Engrossed in conversation. Photo courtesy @TheLiB.

The beer table was an entertaining gimmick — it was by the window, near the door, and allowed us to pour beers for new arrivals without them having to walk to the bar and wait for service. Conversation was by turns serious and silly (like all good conversations), and any lull could be filled by filling our own glasses. And, by the end, we knew exactly how much beer we had drunk!

BeerTotal631 ounces! The hefeweizen proved more popular than the IPA.

I’m very proud of our little association. While we have a core group of regulars (some of whom will sadly be leaving the Bay Area shortly), each and every outing has featured at least several new faces. Our group’s name — the Information Amateurs — was born out of our circumstances in April, 2010. Greg Borman and I had both recently graduated with our MLIS degrees (December, ‘09) and were both struggling to find jobs. We couldn’t quite call ourselves professionals without a professional paycheck! So I had the inspiration to call us the Information Amateurs, and stuck with it even though both Greg and I were gainfully employed by that summer. I’ve always kept the tone of messages to the group cheerful and little irreverent in the hopes that it will draw out newcomers, and that seems to work.

The next event is one worth getting excited about: on October 20, USC’s Norris Medical Library’s Megan Curran will be presenting her lecture “Ill-gotten Brains: The Grisly History of Sourcing Bodies for Anatomical Learning” (an appropriately macabre subject for late October) at the Bone Room in Berkeley as part of their ongoing salon series of talks on subjects in natural history. Ms. Curran has already presented this talk in Los Angeles and Brooklyn but this will be her first Bay Area appearance. The recently engaged Ms. Curran has also agreed to join the Information Amateurs for a post-lecture drink at a to-be-determined gathering spot. You can follow her on twitter at @LibraryatNight.

Dewey + His Decimals: ALA in NOLA

July 1, 2011 - 11:15 am

This past week I got to attend my very first American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference, a dizzying gathering of over 20,000 librarians (a far cry from the 1876 inaugural event, with its paltry 103 attendees). I got to attend various professional presentations, meet online contacts and make friends in real life, explore New Orleans by foot, trolley, and ferry, and, much to my surprise, perform in the improvisational slideshow competition Battledecks.

I have organized sessions I attended and events I participated around a couple of the most recurring themes.


Cushing Library is currently implementing a new tool for our end users to use for search and retrieval of our items in our collection. This system, called WorldCat Local (WCL), finds and retrieves items be they print or online, and whether they are book, article, journal or other media. WCL and similar products are referred to as “Discovery” systems within the librarian profession.

I attended several programs relating to the implementation of Discovery systems. Two directly related to the implementation of OCLC’s WCL technology, tasks I am involved in right now, and another on the rate of return various libraries have seen since their implementation of Summon, a competing but similar product to WCL offered by ProQuest. There is strong evidence, from both libraries operating WCL and from libraries utilizing Summon, that full-text article retrievals are up, most notably from smaller, more specialized sources. At WCL libraries, print circulation tends to rise post-WCL implementation as well.

For example, the University of Idaho, which has implemented WorldCat Local, has seen usage over print materials rise 20%, interlibrary loan requests rise 34%, and a 78% increase in full text article downloads. Summon libraries, such as the University of Houston, saw a 50% rise in full text article retrieval. They have also found that the Summon search service is pushing users to finding underutilized resources, such as special collections and multimedia items, and that it favors direct journal services (such as Sage) over aggregators such as EBSCO.

Information Literacy

Part of my continuing duties at Holy Names University is my role as an instruction librarian. I provide information literacy education to students via workshops and research help sessions.

One of the best instruction-related programs I attended was Making Information Literacy Instruction Meaningful through Creativity. The three speakers were current or former faculty for ACRL’s highly-regarded Immersion Program, a “boot camp” for instructional librarians, and the session reinforced many themes that are part of Immersion training — creative lesson planning; interactive, motivational presentation styles; and pedagogy grounded in research and assessment.

In addition to these presentations, I also had chances to sit and talk shop with a good mix of other instructional librarians, such as Michelle Millet, Tiffini Travis, Lea Engle, and Nicholas Schiller. In Schiller’s case, I’ve been reading his articles and stealing his classroom ideas for a year so it was great to get a chance to admit that to him. He didn’t seem to mind.

Out and About

New Orleans: what a city. While I admit I’m not such a fan of colorful drinks in plastic cups — I’d rather have one well-crafted cocktail than a half dozen cups of syrup-flavored alcohol — I have to admit that New Orleans knows how to have a good time, and a good time I had, passing from place to place with a gang of roving librarians I befriended. It’s hot in New Orleans in June (that’s not a newsflash, I realize), but the heat and humidity didn’t keep me from walking continuously from the Garden District, to the Warehouse District, along the river and into the French Quarter, and back again throughout the conference. Café Du Monde was naturally a regular destination, both late at night and after lunch, and I was shocked that a plate of three beignets was only two dollars and change — here in San Francisco, our tourist traps won’t sell anything for less than five dollars.


While I expected to meet hip, smart librarians from Brooklyn (and did) (stereotypes for the win!), there were smart, interesting people coming from all corners of the country — Indiana, Texas, Florida, and even Southern California. In between the beignets, coffee and occasional cocktails there was plenty of sharp chatter about information services, instructional technique, and emerging tech. All of it pointed to my original thesis in founding the Information Amateurs Social Club — that the best, most enlightening professional conversation happens in the informal air of casual conversation. Preferably with a drink in hand. Between the ALA Dance Party, the ALA Tweet-up, the ALA Facebook Afterparty, the Radical Reference Social, the HackLibSchool Social, and all of the more informal connecting in between (including a trip to the Voodoo Museum), I met many of my internet heroes and formed some genuine bonds of friendship I’m going to hang onto. And hopefully, someday, all of them will move to San Francisco. It’d be killer.

IMG_3983That’s Lauren and Lea in the middle at the Radical Reference Social


No report on the goings-on in New Orleans would be complete without mention of Battledecks, the competitive, improvisational battle of slideshow presentations that concluded the conference Monday night. My participation was not strictly speaking voluntary, but it was thrilling to speak right between Lisa Hinchliffe, President of ACRL, and widely known executive and public speaker Stephen Abram. However, I’m going to save my extended thoughts on that experience for a future post — once the videos have weaseled their way online and I can embed my performance right here on The Pinakes.



April 9, 2011 - 12:33 pm

Recently I went to Philadelphia for a four day library conference. This one is about my first day in Philly, before the conference started. The city was not what I expected.

I arrived at the Philadelphia Airport Tuesday evening and hitched a ride into downtown Philly on their commuter rail. It took me directly into a subterranean stop that is now called Market East station, but is built under what had been the vast depot of the Reading Railroad (made famous by Monopoly). The massive pavilion above has now been converted into the Philadelphia Conference Center, where ACRL was to take place, and adjacent to and adjoining the hotel where I was staying. So I arrived at the station, walked up what seemed like two centuries of underground history, and directly into the hotel without feeling a hint of outside air. It was surreal, especially at night.

Philadelphia Conference Center set for #ACRL2011One commenter on twitter called this shot of the conference hall at night a “steampunk wonderland”.

I struck out on foot that night in search of my first Philly cheesesteak sandwich, or as they simply call them locally, a steak. I’d been told by a former Philly local to head to a place called Jim’s Steaks on South Street. It was a good chance to explore the city on foot and see how it actually lives and breathes. Philly was nothing like I expected — all blue collar, Santa-booing meatheads. Instead I saw the quotient of hipsters on fixies I expect to see here at home, plus a community garden, and an anarchist bookstore. Swap the steak shops for taquerías, you’d be in San Francisco’s Mission District; swap them for vegan bakeries, you’d be in Portland, Oregon.

IMG_3133What you get in Philly you don’t get in SF: rowhouses of beautiful brick lining narrow streets.

Jim’s Steaks was the antidote to this Hipsterdelphia. I walked up to the register to order, and the middle-aged local behind the counter (I’ll call him “Jim”) proceeded to ignore me while he finished a conversation with one of the other guys. Or, I thought I was just waiting until he finished what he was saying, but no. He just kept on talking, with me just a couple feet from him on the other side of the counter. Jim wouldn’t even turn his face my direction. He resolutely refused to acknowledge my existence. I should note that I’m the only customer in the store. This went on for more than one full, awkward minute. Now this is the Philly I had arrived expecting! Brusque assholes who wouldn’t give me the time of day. Here was authenticity. Thank you Jim.

Eventually the fry cook took pity on me, and summoned me over with a finger (not that one). I was supposed to order with him, and in their assembly line, I’d get passed down to the drink guy and then to Jim at the register. Didn’t matter that no one else was there — I still had to follow procedure. Once I had done that (note: I was not allowed to touch my beer until I had paid, even though they placed it on my tray), Jim was willing to acknowledge my existence. No mention of the prior awkwardness.

The steak, it should be said, was delish. I’d go back.

The next day I had to myself until the conference started in the late afternoon. Again I set out on foot, first finding a comfy coffeehouse (the negative Yelp reviews are amusing; accusations of hipsterdom abound, as if posting reviews on Yelp about the quality of their vegan goods isn’t an enormously hipster thing to do). It’s in a corner brick Victorian rowhouse in Philly’s gay district (Philly has a gay district? More things I did not know). Here the staff was actually friendly. Probably not natives. They made a solid cappuccino.

From there I was off to the ghastly but utterly fascinating Mütter Museum, a collection of human oddities (think strange skulls, deformed spines, babies in jars…) that was formed from the personal collection of 19th century physician Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter and has grown under the stewardship of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. I’d entertain you with a collection of gory photographs of leather made from human flesh, a modern mummy, 19th century medical tools and all manner of human parts except the museum strictly forbade photography (not that that has stopped others; there’s plenty on flickr).

My museum trawling was not yet done; after that I walked to the Rosenbach Museum, on an elegant street of handsome rowhouses in the Rittenhouse Square district. The Rosenbachs were brothers engaged in the rare book trade in the first half of the twentieth century; they were extravagant bachelors, who entertained lavishly, enjoyed bourbon, pipes, and books, and made the savvy purchase of James Joyce’s handwritten Ulysses manuscript before the book became the icon it is today (amongst many other great purchases, including Herman Melville’s own bookcase, now filled with 1st edition copies of Moby Dick, on their ground floor). Their shops — in Philly and New York — were the locus of the American rare book trade for decades, and the collection of the Folger Library in Washington, DC and many other great private libraries were built by their acquisitions. The museum hosts hourly tours of their mansion and library, with exhibits on news coverage of the Civil War and Joyce’s years in Paris.

My final Wednesday stop before the conference started was lunch with an internet friend, Molly from yon Falling Molly blog. She’s mutual friends with my pal Jenny and we met up so she could teach me about Philly’s other local sandwich, roast pork with broccoli rabe. Because of legacy Quaker liquor laws, most small shops can’t get a liquor license, so they just let you bring in your own beer. So Molly arrived six-pack in hand and we chowed down on these massive, greasy, vinegary sandwiches. It took a couple hours to polish those monsters off (and the six-pack). Molly is both smart and funny; if you’re looking for an entertaining internet friend, you couldn’t do better.

IMG_3146It must be healthy because it’s covered in vegetables. Never mind the other stuff.

After that I headed back to the conference for the opening keynote!

The Information Amateurs Strike Back

July 5, 2010 - 9:04 am

Sequels, as a concept, are much maligned. But then again, The Empire Strikes Back is as good or better than Star Wars. Godfather II? Better than the first. And thus it’s time for the second go-round for the Information Amateurs Social Club! Early career librarians and archivists, recent MLIS grads or current MLIS students, or any one else connected to the profession is invited to join us Saturday, July 10 at 6:30 at the Lone Palm, a comfy neighborhood bar on 22nd Street near Guerrero in San Francisco’s Mission District. We’ll talk shop, trade stories, and meet other professionals.

If 6:30 sounds early to you, fear not — I’m sure at least a fair few of us will be out well into the evening, so if you can’t make it until 8, 9 or 10 — that’ll be fine. You can RSVP via facebook or let me know you’re coming via twitter or email — that way we know who to look out for over the course of the evening.

It’ll be a great time out. Let’s just not turn this into one of the Matrix sequels.