Friday, April 27, 2007

Should I be proud?

This blog comes up in the first page of results when you Google the words "delicious ass". Sorry folks, but everything here is SFW - unless you're interested in some hot library porn, in which case may I recommend Michael Griffith's excellent book Bibliophilia?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


By now you're probably familiar with the term GTD - short for Getting Things Done, a philosophy for approaching one's work/life productively that encourages its practitioner to collect his or her tasks in a central location (or "bucket") and deal with them in a systematic fashion. As my life has complexified and my available free time inches its way ever closer to zero, I've become more and more a devotee of GTD, which has proven to be an absolute lifesaver in my work life since taking on some additional duties that were not originally part of my position.

Sometimes however Getting Things Done is hard to do when you work at a service desk, where first and foremost one must be Taking Care of Business (or TCB*). Whereas GTD is a proactive principle of organization, TCB by its very nature must be reactive, as it usually involves spur-of-the-moment decision making and problem-solving that just won't wait, mostly because the person you're helping is standing right in front of you. To be fair, GTD espouses a "two-minute rule", whereby any task that would take you two minutes or less to complete should be done right on the spot, but whereas these are exceptions to the GTD method they are the rule in a TCB workplace.

The tricky part then of course is figuring out how to combine these two philosophies on the job. I've discovered that the best way to do this is designate GTD time away from the service desk, as even the most iron disciplinarian will find it hard to Get Things Done when being interrupted at unpredictable intervals. It has gotten to the point where I actually need to schedule an entire day off-desk every week for GTD purposes, and even then that still only seems to take care of a fraction of everything that I should be doing.

The funny thing is that I could probably spend the entire week downstairs in my office instead of manning my desk, which is the complete opposite of how this job was described to me originally by my former boss. In his defense the position was a little more circumscribed than it is now, but nevertheless it has always been the sort of job that would respond positively to the amount of extra work one could put into it above and beyond the daily expectations of TCB. Only now after a year and a half am I beginning to appreciate this interesting paradox and figure out how to make it work for me, but I suppose it takes that long to truly settle into any kind of job, doesn't it?

* For those of you who are fans of Elvis Presley, you may already know that TCB was a favorite saying of the King. TCB also happens to correspond to my initials: Thomas Charles Bruno. I've been fond of the mantra myself ever since I worked at a bakery/coffeehouse who derived endless mirth out of this coincidence, addressing me as "TCB" in as Memphis a drawl as he could muster. On one of my two (!) trips to Graceland I picked up a TCB coffee mug - it's one of my most treasured possessions.

What's another hat?

Recently I took on the added duties of supply ordering for my entire department, an alleged temporary move due to a staffing change elsewhere that I'm beginning to suspect may turn out to be permanent. This would not be an unwelcome development, as it adds some complexity to my job and allows me to finally attend to the material needs of the Reading Room without jumping through a series of bureaucratic hoops.

For instance, we finally acquired some alphabetical dividers for our 10-Day Hold Shelf, after my having agitated for them since I took on the position a year and a half ago. Granted, it was taking us a while to figure out exactly what we needed, but as I've mentioned previously here it is amazing how little you can take for granted when it comes to a library patron's experience of your space and his/her abilities to navigate it.

Even when something about the library - such as the alphabetical arrangement of our self-service hold shelves - seems completely intuitive, one must always bear in mind that our perceptions of what is clear and what is not have been warped by being in the library for a goodly portion of our waking hours. Habit and intuition are not one and the same, and any organizing principle based on the former is doomed to cause more problems than it addresses.

We've come a long way with our hold shelf system since the Reading Room's inception several years ago, moving from a completely opaque scheme where patrons were arbitrarily assigned shelves (each with its own barcode for charging items out to!) to one where our library users could feel comfortable making sense of without compromising the privacy of our patrons and the anonymity of our books. But inevitably we would find people stymied by the lack of adequate signage on the 10-Day Hold Shelf.

Well now we've invested in some nice double-wide alphabetic dividers that can be seen clear across our cavernous Reading Room, so short of hiring a bunch of helper monkeys to assist our most befuddled patrons I think we've done all we can do. Hmmm. I wonder what billing code I'd use to purchase a helper monkey...

Of course what would be really cool would be to have a hold shelf that worked like the wine rack at Aureole in the Las Vegas hotel resort Mandalay Bay, where "wine angels" in harnesses fly up and down to retrieve bottles of wine from the four-story tall glass and steel structure.

Book angels, anyone?

The question of questions

(This post originally started as a response to a query on an email listserv, but it occurred to me that it made a pretty good Library Ass posting in its own right on the topic of interviewing prospective student workers. So here it is!)

I am responsible for hiring and supervising between 8-12 student workers and a handful of temps. My desk is a point of service for both regular library patrons accessing rare or noncirculating materials as well as visiting researchers who access the entire collection through us, so there is a very large customer service component which requires a certain kind of temperament and/or work ethic. The trouble is that library jobs tend to be the lowest paid work-study jobs on our campus, which means that many times our "interviewing" process actually works in reverse, as prospective student employees shop around for the best gig for that academic year.

That being said, there are a few standard questions that I ask:

1. "How comfortable are you in a library?" While we try to keep our desk covered with one staff member and one student at all times, during breaks or book pages it's entirely possible that the student worker will be manning the desk on his/her own and subject to all manners of informational questions. Bearing in mind that by the time patrons get to our desk they've already been bounced around a couple of times we try not to send them away without the answers they need (with the exception of bonafide reference questions, of course), so that requires a certain familiarity with how our library and university library system functions. It's okay if a prospective student employee has no such experience or familiarity, provided that he or she demonstrates an eagerness to learn those skills during the interview.

2. "Do you consider yourself a 'people' person?" We are public service desk that interacts with scholars visiting from all over the world and who aren't afraid to make unflattering comparisons if we fail to live up to the other members of our peer group. As luck would have it, these same patrons tend to be the ones who require the most hand-holding, especially where technology is concerned (sometimes there is also a language barrier or physical disability). While our Circ Desk is much more production-oriented and is trained to make quick and efficient referrals when needed, in the reading room we need student workers who are above all patient, understanding, and willing to go the extra mile.

3. "How well can you multitask/prioritize?" Although our reading room has an hourly paging schedule and periodic deliveries from off-site storage, there is absolutely no regularity to our workflow from day to day, even hour to hour. I'm impressed that people can dash off an email while staffing our desk, let alone read a book for class or write a paper, but as long as students give their undivided attention to any patrons who comes to the desk we're pretty much laissez-faire about what they can and can't do with their free time. We're well aware of the fact that due to our abysmal wages we need to sell this fact in order to attract and keep a regular schedule of students, but that requires a certain kind of worker who is able to keep one eye or ear open while cranking out a problem set at the last minute.

4. (Perhaps most importantly of all) "Can you stay in touch and keep us in the loop?" I don't pretend that the 4-10 hours that our students work for us every week is the most important thing in their lives, and I'm not particularly interested in trying to teach them 'life lessons' about keeping a job in the real world. What I do expect, however, is for my students to read every email I send and respond when asked to, as well as give me advance notice of any upcoming problems in their schedule so that I can plan accordingly. I also ask prospective students how comfortable they feel with being contacted via IM or through Facebook for work matters, as I'm well aware that email is increasingly taking a backseat to social messaging. If through the initial contact period I suspect that there will be a problem on this front, I tend to turn away the students right then and there.

In truth, however, it's pretty hard to tank an interview with me. This isn't simply a function of campus economics, but an acknowledgment on my part of the limitations of trying to evaluate an employee's worth in the space of the first 10-20 minutes that we know one another. I've had students who interviewed impressively but were absolute basket cases on the job and vice versa, so unless there are any serious warning flags during the hiring process I tend to err on the somewhat lenient side. I guess I'm just a big softee that way...

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

This explains everything

From the BBC:
Fighting fires may sound taxing, chasing criminals
demanding, but a new study says that working in
library is the most stressful job of all.
Librarians are the most unhappy with their workplace,
often finding their job repetitive and unchallenging,
according to psychologist Saqib Saddiq.

He will tell the British Psychological Society that
one in three workers suffer from poor psychological

Sure, now they tell us!

Friday, April 06, 2007

God is dead - what's *your* excuse?

Don't get me wrong - I like Easter as much as the next guy (it's in my top three of resurrection myth celebrations, along with the Festival of Dionysos and the Evil Dead trilogy), but as a supervisor I hate scheduling desk coverage for the holiday. Since we're not a religious institution, we don't close or even go to reduced hours for Easter, which means I need to try and divine the religious beliefs of my staff and students without making an ass out of my self with a wrong guess or faux pas.

This is much more difficult than it seems, mostly because even if you have an inkling as to a person's religious affiliation that doesn't necessarily mean that you have a clue as to whether that person actually practices their faith or not. I've found this is hardest when dealing with people from the former Soviet republics, who may be nominally Orthodox or Jewish or what have you but are actually still old-school atheists. My super slick way of attempting to suss this out is usually something like: "So. Got any plans for this weekend?" hoping that some telltale mention of ham, lamb, or the Passover Seder will be elicited.

Of course the bonus nuisance this year is the fact that Western and Orthodox Easter coincide*, which means that I can't rely on my Greek, Armenian, or Ethiopian students to bail me out like I normally do. This is why the public services manager learns to instinctively dread any time of the year that encourages families to spend quality time together. At least on the Federal holidays we lock the library doors...

* It's a long story, but due to the contested interpretations of reckoning sacred time Orthodox and Western Christians can celebrate their Easter holiday as many as five weeks apart from one another. Wikipedia has a decent roundup of the controversy, if you're interested in that sort of thing! But the upshot is that because that the Orthodox reject the Julian calendar reforms when computing the date of Easter, there will come a time when it will be impossible for the two Easters to coincide (in fact, in the far future Orthodox Christianity will be roasting their Easter lambs in midsummer if they stick to their guns!). Bad for ecumenical Christianity I suppose, but good news for anyone who has to put together a desk schedule!

Oh, please

I admire J.K. Rowling as much as the next librarian, but this is just too much:
FARMINGTON, Utah — No peeking.

The publisher of the new Harry Potter novel has strict rules for libraries handling the book this summer.

Among them: Libraries must limit the number of employees who handle the books before the July 21 release and provide names and contact information for each branch manager, according to the contract from Scholastic Inc.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" is the final book in J.K. Rowling's popular series about the boy wizard.

Davis County Library director Pete Giacoma got a contract on March 28 and shared it with county commissioners. "I think we better ratify," Commissioner Bret Millburn said. "I think we'd get a spell cast on us."

The contract says failure to keep "Deathly Hallows" under wraps until July 21 could get libraries scratched from future embargoed titles. "We acknowledge and agree that any such violation will cause irreparable harm to Scholastic and the author, J.K. Rowling, and that monetary damages will be inadequate to compensate for violations," the contract states.

I'm sure there are probably all kinds of crazy legal issues at work here in attempting such a silly gag order - especially when it comes to public library employees, whose First Amendment protections are far more broad than those of us who toil in the semiprivate sector - but there's also the simple matter that this is the last installment of Harry Potter anyway, so what kind of leverage does Scholastic really have if anyone leaks spoilers or a review?

And not to put too fine a point on it, but advance press only hurts you if your work sucks (cf. George Lucas).

Monday, April 02, 2007

Review: The Entitled

Howie Traveler, manager of the Cleveland Indians, has reached the metaphorical bottom of the ninth inning of both his career and his life. After years of never quite succeeding as a ballplayer and a coach - not to mention as a husband and father - Howie is on the verge of being fired for costing his team a shot at the World Series when he becomes embroiled in a scandal involving his star player, Cuban-born slugger Jay "El Jefe" Alcazar. Everyone knows that professional athletes make their own rules (especially players like El Jefe), but when a troubled Jay seemingly crosses the line will Howie do the right thing and speak up, or will he let his MVP outfielder get away with the unthinkable?

The Entitled
is the latest novel by sportswriter and NPR commentator Frank Deford, whose previous works include Everybody's All-American and Alex: The Life of a Child. Deford deftly interweaves an insider's look at baseball with a plot that takes the reader from the Major League dugout bleacher to Fidel Castro's Cuba in a story that is equal parts thriller and encomium to America's national pastime. Drawing a cast of memorable characters who at the same time evoke real-world sports personalities is a formidable challenge, but Deford succeeds admirably in this regard.

While I couldn't help but think of Howie Traveler as Grady Little, the Red Sox manager whose fateful decision in 2003 to leave Pedro Martinez on the pitcher's mound in Game Six of the American League Championship Series against their mortal enemies the Yankees will forever live in infamy, Howie is nevertheless his own person, a man clearly haunted by his failures both on and off the baseball diamond. So too is Jay Alcazar not merely an imitation of a current marquee superstar but a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a modern Latin-American ballplayer - Frank Deford manages to capture the internal contradictions of the latter-day immigrant without resorting to platitudes or tired stereotypes.

If Deford stumbles anywhere, it is in the final act, as his resolution of the main plot feels somewhat rushed and the ending just a little too pat and Hollywood for its own good. Considering the seriousness of the subject matter being addressed - professional athletes and inappropriate sexual conduct - one can't help but wish that the accuser in the story comes off as something more than a convenient plot device, but unfortunately she is the least developed of the novel's characters. These minor considerations notwithstanding, The Entitled is a well-written and compelling tale, one that will satisfy both diehard sports fans and casual readers alike. As yet another baseball season begins, Frank Deford has given us the perfect reading material for that inevitable rain delay.

(Disclosure: Sourcebooks, Inc. provided me with a free advance copy of this book for review. My opinions, however, are entirely my own.)