December 2003

Michael Farrelly


An Interview with Jessamyn West

It sounds like the most innocuous site on the web right? Perhaps snatched up by one of the big library supply companies to farm out their products? Not by a long-shot. is run by Jessamyn West, a librarian and library advocate who uses the site to connect library professionals to information all over the internet. West has chronicled issues ranging from the construction of prohibitive library edifices (big beautiful buildings) to the USA Patriot act. West was kind enough to grant Bookslut an interview, which was conducted over e-mail.

How would you describe to a new viewer/user? What's the history of the site? is one of the first weblogs about library culture. It's updated a few times a week, usually includes short descriptions and sometimes short excerpts and deals with issues affecting librarians such as pay issues, union stuff, the PATRIOT Act, what's up with ALA and what's going on on the librarian web. I've been maintaining it since 1999 when I noticed the domain was free, jumped on it and then said "hmmm NOW what am I going to do with that?"

Concisely, and with as few explitives as possible, could you explain how you view the USA Patiot Act of 2001 and it's impact on libraries?

It basically took the leads librarians made after the FBI's Library Awareness Program -- where states passed patron confidentiality laws protecting the privacy of library users -- and rolled them back. The gag order is truly amazing in terms of what it is asking people to do in the name of "patriotism" It's a direct rebuke to freedom of speech and just in general, I feel it's unamerican. This is only the section that deals with libraries [section 215] a lot of the rest of the bill is equally creepy in its breadth, scope and sheer power. The one positive impact is that libraries are really getting united [not all of them but many of them] to stick up for patron confidentiality and the Freedom to Read and that's been a great thing for people to see as well as an energizing act for librarians.

Your "technically legal patriot act" ( signs have made a real buzz in the library community. Have you felt any backlash from within or without the library world?

No. Weirdly. I have gotten a few hate-mails, but nothing super bad. I got worse when I came out against Dr. Laura. I would think here would be more people saying "hey the government *needs* these powers to fight terrorism" but there's really been no one saying that.

What is the ideal librarian? What are the qualities, both personal and professional that best suit one for library work?

Well, friendly helps. Tech-savvy helps. With that said, knowing your technology limits, in fact knowing all your limits, makes you better able to handle information work. It's one thing to not know an answer to a question, it's quite another to drag a patron all over the library while you figure it out. An inquisitive mind is probably the most important thing. And, of course, you need to read a lot, I think. Familiarity with both print and online sources is necessary. Of course, none of us do our library work in a vacuum so you need to be conscious of patron needs and complementing the other staff in your library. At my library the two reference librarians I work with mainly have a really good grasp on children's and reference materials respectively, so I don't beat myself up as much when I don't know things in that area but I try to beef up my online reference abilities since that area is my strength.

Personally, I feel like it's like the medical profession where they say "first do no harm" I think in libraries it's "first don't scare off the patrons"

Another library hot button issue, the librarian action figure? Pro or Con or Indifferent? Why?

I'm indifferent mainly. It's just something to buy so it doesn't affect my life too much. On the other hand, having Nancy Pearl and the fine folks at Archie McPhee saying [at least originally] "If you don't think it's funny you're just uptight" [I paraphrase] is really disrespectful and lame. I do think the action figure is amusing. I also think it's not really putting our best face forward. Nancy is a gem, but this representation of her is not my favorite way to see her. My basic feeling is "nine dollars for any hunk of plastic is money you could have spent on books" my second thought is "have any of these people had to scrape to find work and they were offered $12 an hour for 25 hours a week....?"

On a more serious note, you often cover down-sizing and "Big Beautiful Building Syndrome" on your site. What are the downsides of a bright and shiny new library building?

They bankrupt cities. They set unreasonable expectations for what a library is supposed to be. They are less inviting to the homeless, the poor and the misfit patrons. They unfairly elevate some above others via fancy meeting rooms, fancy offices and fancy internet and then rank and file folks have to deal with budget shortages, layoffs and closures. Look at Denver and Seattle. I'm not saying the two are related [and there will be PR people who jump to say "hey that money came from different budgets!!"] but do you really think that Seattle's new BBL doesn't have some effect on the fact that they have been shutting the library for two weeks a year? Really? As I see it, there's only so much donation money to go around in a community and the BBL's suck it up. I think a little bit of creative marketing could get those people interested in helping out library staffing and services. It's less sexy but WAY more useful to everyone in a community. It's just baseball stadium politics with a thin veneer of bookish respectability.

Librarianship is a tech-heavy profession. Do you think that librarians should be required to study programming and web design along side Dewey and story-telling?

No. However, I think libraries need to be savvy in their hiring practices to make sure they have a healthy mix of old school and new school librarians. The Accidental Systems Librarian phenomenon [so aptly written about by Rachel Singer Gordon] is a real travesty. People with little to no training are becoming systems librarians because they formerly were in circulation and now need to run the OPAC. Everyone suffers. The library computer systems become a cipher. Librarians look like idiots because they don't understand what is essentially a small cryptic tech fiefdom. It's avoidable, but it requires more money for good tech staff, prioritization of tech issues right up there with book repair and replacement issues, and no staffers should be able to beg off of computers entirely. I don't know how to program [though I'm good with HTML] and I don't know Dewey [though I can fake it] there's room for everyone but while we KNOW why books are important, I think we're still as a profession, muddling through why tech is important. ALA website, need I say more?

A follow-up, do you feel that MLS/MLIS programs would benefit from different tracks for technical and reference librarians? Should librarianship strive for a "Renaissance person" model?

I have no idea. I think tracking is not bad. I think the emphasis is not on how we are training people [though that is important] but how we are *hiring* those we train. The fact that the more technically savvy you are, the less likely you are to take a crappy paying job in a library is worth examining. I think the Renaissance model makes it seem like there is one way to know all there is about librarianship and I don't' think that's possible. Heck, I've been trying, it's hard!

My big question: what are we doing with all the MLSes and MLISes we are graduating? Are there even jobs for these people? Do schools have a responsibility to fairly characterize the job market? is a very passionate site, what drives your passion for libraries?

They're free and open to everyone. With Interlibrary loan, and the internet they are a distributed means of sharing information. They're a social good. They have clean restrooms in unfamiliar cities. They take capitalism out of the equation of "what to do?"

If you could require one continuing education program for all librarians what would it be?

Customer service. Including the reference interview, how to tell when a patron is done with you, computer troubleshooting, basic web design, marketing your library and just generally learning to be affable.

The desert island books question. Say you truly were stranded upon that archetypal desert isle, what books would you take with you and why? Further, if you had to pick three more books about librarianship what would you bring?

Um, my old copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1896 because I've always wanted to read it. Same goes for the OED that I salvaged out of the trash. All 19 volumes? 33 volumes? I can't remember. Maybe Dewey's 13th index [the first one published posthumously] because it has all his weird spelling in it. Plus, I don't' know DDC.

I haven't read many books on librarianship that I'd need to have with me, or that I'd want to read again. Not that they're not good but well... is there a *library* on this island? I'd probably bring mine so I could agonize over the typos for the rest of my life.