November 24, 2010

On Writing Fan Letters

I am thankful for good books to read, time to read, and the freedom to read.

Last year at this time I discovered Lorrie Moore. That's her, at left, in the irresistible photo I had on my Twitter page for a long time until I gave into my music cravings again and changed the backdrop. Although I'd had the same favorite book for almost twenty years, once I found Lorrie Moore there was no going back. I read all her stuff in four months and decided I could have two favorite books. Now (and possibly forever), Lorrie Moore is my favorite writer.

In February, when I decided that Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? was worthy of sitting beside The Pigman each time I answer the Favorite Book question, I decided I ought to tell Lorrie about it. It has been my standard practice for a while to write fan letters when someone's creation moves me. Normally I do not experience much pressure during the process (except to find the right address) but this was different: writing to my favorite writer. About writing.

I spent about two weeks agonizing over how to express myself, and how to talk about the way Frog Hospital had affected me. I didn't want to come off as a presumptuous intellectual (like the kind who would attempt to shorten her title as in an industry write-up). Then one evening I reread her short story Go Like This and in the middle of that night it hit me--a voice in my head repeated, "Just tell her you like her." I got up and wrote two pages to her about how much I like her writing, and asked her to keep doing it. It was an emotional outpouring that I refined over a couple of days before sending, cleverly disguising it in a way that was *sure* to get it delivered to her University of Wisconsin office. It's one of my best pieces of writing.

When I finished Cartwheels in a Sari I wrote a fan letter to Jayanti Tamm, and she wrote back! We ended up organizing a DCPL event together for her book tour, and I've recently corresponded with her about how to get my own novel published. When I wrote to David Carr to tell him how often I refer people to his article on Why Twitter Will Endure, he wrote me back the sweetest message. I've written to dozens of journalists to thank them for particularly well-researched and well-written articles, and they often reply to thank me, and sometimes to say I've made their day. (Hint: Tell celebrities you are a librarian; they love that.)

Writing fan letters is an act of thanksgiving. It's often the only way to calm the gratitude--yes, gratitude--that spins inside me when I read, see, or hear something beautiful. Do you know that feeling? When something is done so well that you have to tell someone? Tell the creator. Write a fan letter.

November 17, 2010

*Results Not Typical

I finally finished Daniel Pink's Drive after a long, interrupted reading that began this summer. Since Pink went to the trouble of providing a "Twitter Summary" of his book, I will reproduce it here: Carrots & sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery & purpose.

He also provides a discussion guide. For me, the most intriguing question in it was, "Pink draws a distinction between “routine” work and “nonroutine” work. How much of your own work is routine? How much is nonroutine?" While my attitude toward the lack of structure in my job oscillates wildly, one thing is clear: I have autonomy. I believe that many of the successes I've blogged about are directly traceable to the very high level of autonomy given to me by my employer in general, and by my supervisor in particular. This may render my advice useless to those who have fewer options in their libraries or organizations, but it's a nice applied study of Pink's ideas. Most of my work would fall into the "nonroutine" category.

My primary project is conducted through a federal cooperative agreement which outlines discrete quantitative deliverables for the library: items added to the events calendar, publications announced as being added to our holdings, and print resources disseminated by staff at events around the country. These tasks are routine. They also take a maximum of 90 minutes per week (on average), and perhaps another 90 minutes at the end of the quarter to report on them. Coding web pages would also likely fall under "routine," except that each page requires a sufficient amount of creativity. And replacing complex code (which I generally refer to as "surgery") takes so much concentration, at least for me, that the routine aspect of it is overshadowed by the caution required.

The rest of my work is nonroutine by Pink's definition: "Creative, conceptual, right-brain work that can't be reduced to a set of rules." I was acting as de facto marketing specialist on one project for a while and came up with a bunch of good ideas for promotional items. I've been working on "blog empowerment" lessons for a set of independent contractors who write (somewhat reluctantly) for us from the field. I was searching for a penguin costume. At times I have blogged about these adventures, and other times I got so carried away with my nonroutine work that I didn't want to stop to document it. Suffice it to say that the creativity and autonomy I have for most of my work have led to great, and perhaps atypical results.

So, what can you do about it? Last week I wrote about how this blog is becoming more about effective work habits than embedded librarianship. If your work is largely routine, figure out a way to do it more effectively. I know this doesn't always mean Faster, but it may pave the way for more nonroutine work in your future.

November 12, 2010

Revisiting Web Accessibility

“Accessibility is not a box to tick; it is a call to action.”
~ Richard Hulse

In the past few months I have realized that this blog is more about effective work habits than embedded librarianship. I'll take it. After all, the whole of life is not so much about what you know, but what you repeat. It takes effective work habits to put into practice everything I learned in library school. One thing I learned was to be user-focused, and this includes focusing on the needs of users with disabilities.

It's been about two years since I was studying and speaking about web accessibility in a significant way, but I always try to make it part of my work here. Some of the main principles--especially if you frame the issue as "universal design"--remain constant: make your technology (information technology or otherwise) easier for everyone to use. But a lot of the details change and, as with all things tech, we have to keep up.

Today I reread a lot of the great web accessibility resources that have been gathering dust in my sidebar. I was reminded of the unique role of librarians in advancing the issue of web accessibility, because of our special place at the intersection of information technology and outreach to underserved populations. I installed the Firefox add-on for accessibility, and I ran a few of our social media tools through an online accessibility check. Now I just have to figure out how to interpret our Twitter report card (below).

One of the things I read gave a description of web accessibility that just sounds like a good habit in general: "Give all users more options and control when accessing web resources and support the interoperability concepts of the web." How do we make it happen? The same way we do everything else:
  • Know your users. We recently started rolling out an online magazine to replace the print version. We did a lot of "ground softening" for older, less tech-savvy users. If we have a good sense of which parts of our web content present challenges to users with disabilities (Do we? Jury's still out.), then we should be able to help all users through the transition.

  • Plan ahead. Have you checked your site for keyboard-only navigation? This is a key piece of web accessibility that could fall through the cracks during project management if you don't plan ahead--just like everything else that falls through the cracks if you don't plan ahead.

  • Work together. It's hard to be a one-man-band/one-woman-choir on web accessibility, or on any issue for that matter. You need to recruit allies.
If you are slow to start, or don't know where to start with web accessibility, I recommend reading the first few sections of Dive Into Accessibility, which gives great profiles of real users with disabilities--users who are much more colorful characters than just Jane Doe with a screenreader. These profiles remind you of the complexity of ability and disability, and of the human beings trying to access your web content.

November 3, 2010

These Things Take Time

"How did you go bankrupt?" Bill asked.
"Two ways," Mike said. "Gradually and then suddenly."
~ The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I've been thinking a lot about New Year's resolutions. When January 1 rolls around I want to be able to commit to three priorities for 2011. It will take me a while to settle on a list that I am likely to be successful with. As part of the process I am reviewing where most of my resolve has settled in 2010, and while it's not critical to discuss what they are (okay, okay, they are bike empowerment, money management, and music), the larger point is that they are all things that had to be built up slowly over time, rather than discrete events or accomplishments.

One of the laws I have discovered is that most things operate this way: gradually, and then suddenly. It's how I got comfortable using a bike instead of a car for grocery shopping, how I finally started learning how to save money, and how I am learning to play guitar. It's also (sometimes) how relationships are destroyed and how people get cancer. Time is the undeniable factor in it all, and I am now branded with the lunar cycle so I never forget it.

Librarianship is not to be crammed for. There are aspects of it that are best applied by quick thinkers through rapid-fire protocols and honed instincts, but doing it well is not something to be achieved overnight. There is a lot of listening and marinating that has to go on for a while before you even have a frame of reference for how things work in your particular organization, and you won't even know what your goals should be for a while.

I would have thought that by now the print library would be a heck of a lot more organized. What have I done with it in three years? Very little, but not because I wasn't paying attention; it's precisely because I was paying attention that I put my efforts elsewhere. I realized that people don't really use it, and they are not necessarily going to use it if I make it fancy or put out a candy dish. I realized that the job is not necessarily as originally described because a job description is always a somewhat artificial construct.

I would like to think that some of what I am learning is transferable, but it is also quite specialized. Each organization is different, and delving into the differences is what makes you an asset: How does it work here? What does this mean in our context? You can ask these questions all you want in your first two years (and a ton of other questions), but there are all these other subtle and unspoken things that you'll glean, and Time seems to be the only dispenser of these particular pearls of wisdom.

So be patient. With yourself, your staff and your organization. These things take time.