Interview: Adrienne Furness and the Discerning Meat Cleaver
I forget exactly how I stumbled onto the Discerning Meat Cleaver; at first I thought it was a children's lit blog, discussing books and the like. But then I read a few posts, and quickly realized that this was something so much more. It's a library using a blog to communicate with each other; to keep each other up to date on everything from books they like to how sign ups for story times are going to where the craft materials are.
I was mighty curious to learn more about the Discerning Meat Cleaver, so contacted the person who runs the blog, Adrienne Furness; she is Children’s and Family Services Librarian at the Webster Public Library, part of the Monroe County Library System. Adrienne agreed to an interview with Pop.
Liz B.: First, of course, I'd love some details about the blog. What was the original purpose of the blog? (I'm asking because it looks like you guys are communicating internally, but I'm not sure if you're at different branches, different shifts, or what.)
Adrienne: I'm really glad to talk about this, too, because it hasn't been without controversy, even in our own library.
Here is our story. :)
Webster Public Library is a suburban library serving a population of about 40,000 people. The Children's Department is currently comprised of two full-time librarians, one half-time librarian who works exclusively on a homeschooling grant, two half-time library assistants, and a half-time clerk. Depending on the time of year, we're open between 55 and 62 hours per week, and our schedules are all over the place -- swinging around to accommodate programs, evenings, weekends, etc…. Department meetings are nearly impossible to schedule, and we were having a lot of difficulty communicating. We were trying emails and notes, but often people were feeling out of the loop. While *I* see pretty much everyone on the children's staff every week, many other staff members can go months without even seeing each other. Being an avid blogger myself, I thought one day, "Hey, maybe a blog could solve this problem."
I brought the idea up, and a couple members of the department weren't too thrilled about it. But, a few months later (in light of a fantastic display of miscommunication), they reconsidered and we started the blog. All six official department employees are members of the blog, as are several other WPL staffers. And we've done our best to let everyone on staff know it's there and that they are welcome to become members -- so you will see occasional posts and several comments from staff from other departments. The idea is that we use the blog to communicate about day-to-day things, to help us all keep informed about what we're all up to and what needs doing.
Well, that's a pretty long answer to a simple question, but it gives us a place to start!
Liz B.: You mention that you were already a blogger when you brought this idea up. Did you do any type of training with your staff? Has this inspired any of your staff -- or any one else in the library -- to blog?
Adrienne: No one in the Children's Department was blogging when I set up the blog, so I helped some of the staff out with setting up IDs. It was very informal: one-on-one with two of us standing at the computer in my office or at the children's reference desk. After getting their accounts set up, they really just figured it out on their own. I was surprised at how easily and quickly they took to it, but, as far as I know, none of them have started blogs of their own. The people outside the Children's Department who are contributing to the blog were all already blogging, so they didn't need any training or anything. Most of the outside staff who *aren't* bloggers aren't, to my knowledge, reading our department's blog.
I feel like I just wrote variations of "blog" about 50 times in a row. ;) No way to get around it, I guess....
I should probably add that I've been itching to do some training on blogging and to try to get more staff involved in our blog and possibly blogging themselves, but I think there are quite a few people who really don't want to do it -- and I hate to be the person ramming something down someone's throat.
Liz B.: I know what you mean about blogging and training -- I'm very enthusiastic about the possibilities that blogging presents, which is one of the reasons that I love your blog. It's taking new technology to do something we've always done -- and making it better; communication within a department. But I also firmly believe that it can only work if people want to do it; forcing it won't work.
Does your library have any type of official blogging policy?
Adrienne: We don't have an official blogging policy right now, although I keep thinking it's only a matter of time. It's one of those things that worries me because I blog so much, even in other places. For instance, our local newspaper has town bloggers. Yesterday,* the Webster blogger wrote about some of our preschool programs, so I popped on and commented, addressing a complaint and providing a link directly into our program schedule. You can see it here
Mostly, I think this is a great use of technology, but from there, you can click to my Blogger profile. From my profile, you can find my email, find me on IM, and get to a couple of the other blogs I run. My main blog, watat.com, reveals a lot about who I am, my opinions, and etc.... It's also a way to find a lot of the other things I write. When you're publishing in the print world, people aren't necessarily going to connect something they read in a magazine to the girl sitting behind the reference desk. In the electronic world, it's a lot easier to see these connections. So, on some level, I'm a representative of the library 24/7, whether I want to be or not. I think a lot about what I write most of the time, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but one can also see where it would be easy to get into trouble.
Another example is a book-banning issue we've had in Webster with the school's summer reading list. A lot's been written about it on As If and there has also been a debate raging on the newspaper blog. I posted links to the school district lists to As If, but, other than that, I've been afraid to enter or engage the debate online. (Aside from any other considerations, things have gotten ugly on the Webster blog.)
I think you may have also noted that my Blogger profile doesn't connect directly to Discerning Meat Cleaver, a decision I made after a coworker expressed concern that the blog wasn't representing us well. We also tried to make sure that if you Google "Webster Public Library," this isn't going to be the first thing that comes up. If enterprising people find it, I'm okay with that, but I don't want this to be the first thing casual searchers find when they're looking for the library.
On some level, I think this has less to do with technology, per se, and how you want to run your library. Do you want the librarians to be people who retire into the background or do you want them to be active, expressive people that the community gets to know? The quiet behind-the-scenes librarian is more traditional and certainly safer, but it seems to me that perhaps part of the way libraries are going to succeed in the 21st century is by having librarians who are out there and engaged in our communities -- people who are recognized for energy, service, and expertise. Blogging is a natural way for us to be out there making connections even while we're in the library attending to other business in our offices and at the Reference Desk.
So, anyway, my supervisor has been completely supportive of my blogging (and writing endeavors in general), and, while I recognize the potential pitfalls of blogging, I also worry that creating a policy could invite controls and limits that could take away all the potential benefits.
Obviously, I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, particularly for a librarian who's not particularly techie. (You had to see me at the Reference Desk this morning singing my "I Hate Computers" song.)
Liz B.: I think what may be happening is that the definition of "techie" is changing. I don't consider myself a techie person; but because I blog, a lot of people at work think of me as the techie person. I do know about and advocate such social software tools as Flickr & blogging & RSS and the like, but to me the techie person is the one who knows how to fix a computer.
OK, final question. This blog is Pop Goes the Library, all about pop culture and the library -- what is your pop culture area of expertise?
Adrienne: I know just what you're saying about being a techie. I tend to know how to utilize things, but I know a lot less about how they actually work in a nuts-and-bolts sort of way.
It's funny because I'm the Children's Librarian, but I am a total movie freak. I generally go out to see movies once or twice a week, and, of course, I watch DVDs at home (yay, Netflix!). I'll watch pretty much anything, but I have a particular fondness for horror, sci fi, documentaries, and independents -- the weirder the better. I also love animation, from Looney Tunes right up through things being put out by Don Hertzfeldt and Jennifer Shiman today. My idea of "keeping up with the news" generally has a lot more to do with things like People Magazine, Go Fug Yourself, and the comics than world events. I've also become a big fan of TV on DVD: Buffy, Veronica Mars, The Office, Dead Like Me, Curb Your Enthusiasm. There's some excellent stuff out there.
Liz B.: Thank you very much for the interesting discussion, and for being willing to share your internal communications with the world! It's a great model. I especially like the connection between blogging and outreach; because of staffing, we cannot always physically leave a location, but thanks to blogging, we can still participate in our communities.
*This interview was conducted over a series of emails between Liz B. and Adrienne, so it was "yesterday" when the conversation was going on, not "yesterday" October 12.
Additional link: The Monroe County Library System web site features monthly columns; this month, Adrienne shares My Favorite Halloween Books.