Pop Goes the Library

Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better.

by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, Melissa Rabey, Susan Quinn, John Klima, Carlie Webber, Karen Corday, and Eli Neiburger. We're librarians. We're pop culture mavens. We're Pop Culture Librarians.


Must Read: Library Geek at West Warwick Public Library

AKA: Can you tell I'm catching up with LIS feeds I subscribed to ages ago, but hadn't read until this morning?

Laura, Library Geek in residence at the West Warwick (RI) Public Library, has taken her library's blog in a direction I haven't seen before -- she's focusing primarily on "the latest the library has to offer in technology, classes, and interesting computer tips and tricks." It's really smart to take an area of library staff members' professional & personal expertise and turn it into part of a library's service. It sets the library apart, so it's a great marketing tool. It's useful to patrons, so it's a great PR tool. And it's a way to encourage library staff to excel while exercising creativity, so it's a great employee recognition tool. Everyone wins!

My favorite category of Laura's posts are the ones about USB drives (more can be found here and here -- the most recent post is about how the library is selling mini-drives at low cost -- what a smart way to encourage patrons to let go of outdated & easily destroyed floppy disks).

I look forward to reading more about what librarians at West Warwick PL are doing to keep their patrons technologically up to date when classes resume in March.


Rock On, Krystle Lennon!

I love MTV's show MADE. I love seeing a super-high achieving preacher's kid audition successfully for her school's hip hop dance squad, I love seeing a 98-lb weakling transform himself into a running back, and most of all, I love seeing one of Camden County's own prove that you can become a Junior Prom Queen without being one of the queen bees of your school. Krystle Lennon, a patron at my library's South County Regional Branch, was selected by MTV to follow her dream of running for Junior Prom Queen at her high school, and she won! Brava, Krystle! MTV is still airing this episode, so check your local listings.

Fending Off Would-Be Suitors

Oh, McSweeney's. Sometimes you make me so grumpy with your hipper-than-thou-ness. And sometimes you make me snarf my morning coffee. Librarians, contrary to our sexless image, do get hit on by patrons. And now, McSweeney's has provided us with a list of witty, somewhat ballsy rejoinders to some of the most popular (and cheesiest -- yeesh!) librarian-specific pick-up lines ever. [Via nexgenlib-l -- thanks, Molly!)

Info Literacy & Libraries

Sarah's eloquent & smart post in response to Geoff Nunberg's NYT piece from this weekend pretty much says it all. She's got a nice list of action items for libraries to do to bring their services to the students who need them, quoted here:

  1. Provide a solid collection of subscription databases across subject areas.
    Make students aware of these databases and the resources they have to offer (an up-front Metasearch tool would do that nicely).
  2. Can students request that print resources from one branch/location (academic or public library) be sent to another? For free? Through the online catalog? And easily?
  3. Does your library provide online reference services to help students with their research? E-mail? Web-based chat? Instant Messaging?
I know my library is doing 1, 2, and parts of 3 and 4.

I think we could do 2 a heck of a lot better -- meaning, we can tell students about these databases till we're blue in the face (and we do), but scheduled or impromptu public demonstrations and teaching sessions of the databases would be much more effective.

We're a little slow on one aspect of #3 -- patrons can request print resources be sent from branch to branch (and from the local community college to the branches) quickly & for free, but doing so from the online catalogue is a cumbersome process, and many people don't know they can place multiple holds at once, which is much less cumbersome than placing them item-by-item.

We do provide online reference, but again, this is something that is probably marketed more effectively within the library community than outside of it. Hey, maybe we could use a marketing mentor to help us with that.


Clarification Regarding Goals

Something I wrote below has been haunting me since I posted it:

Indispensability is the key not merely to libraries' survival (a paltry goal), but to a future in which we are thriving.

That came out more mean and more glib than I'd intended. I posted in a fired-up mood, and, well, sometimes fired-up = grumpy jerk. I apologize. I don't mean at all to denigrate the trials of people recently out of work in Salinas, Philadelphia, and other cities and towns where libraries are either closing or experiencing really tough times.

I meant more that I'm tired of witnessing a lot of hand-wringing about the future of libraries, and not enough coordinated action on that score. Librarians like to talk amongst ourselves; we're good at it. We're not so good at taking the steps we need to take (better marketing, more involvement in our communities, rethinking our collections & services, rethinking the entire reference interview) in order to change our libraries so that they can not only survive, but thrive as well.

It's amazing how much nicer (and more thoughtful) I am after dinner.

The Culture of Cool

So, something Rochelle wrote in my comments last night struck a chord with me, and I've been mulling it over all day. Strap in -- this is a long one.

I'm going to muse out loud on the keyboard for a little while about the subject of coolness. I believe it's a mistake to conflate pop culture with coolness -- in my mind, they are totally separate things that happen to overlap sometimes.

That which is cool is blase, aloof, elusive, and unreachable for those who want to reach it. You (I don't men you personally, by the way. You are fabulous. This is the global you I'm talking about) can't try to be cool, because trying is the mortal enemy of coolness. Being cool is specifically about not trying, about saying "whatever" when asked what you think about something, about being utterly devoid of enthusiasm, and about appearing never to work at something and yet effortlessly achieving it, anyway. Scoring the most beautiful girl without even saying hello to her, wearing sneakers nobody's ever seen before ("oh, I got them in Harajuku. Have you ever been there? No? Oh, that's too bad -- you'd love it there."), releasing a handful of multiplatinum albums posthumously -- all of these are cool.

Oh, and for the record? Cool doesn't necessarily equate good. Things and people that are cool are frequently off-putting, largely because they appear to lack any enthusiasm for their achievements, possessions, looks, talent, or whatever it is about them that makes them so darn cool.

Pop culture is not necessarily cool. Neither does popularity instantly confer goodness on a thing, person, trend, or product.

Here are some illustrative examples I came up with:

Example Set 1:
Johnny Cash: Cool (and also good).

Johnny Cash's 40-year romance with June Carter Cash, which caused them to break with their respective partners, involved June's efforts to break Johnny of his scary drug habit, and caused a great deal of trouble for June's very respectable Country Music Royalty family: Profoundly uncool, but also amazing, inspirational, impassioned, and beautiful. Double also: Coming to a screen near you. Triple also: named by Sarah Vowell as the Greatest Romance of the 20th century. Strangely, Johnny's uncool, enduring romance with June actually makes him cooler. Such is the math of coolness.

Example Set 2:
Jay-Z: Cool.

Beyonce: Uncool. Think about it: she is constantly in our collective face. She's recorded a solo album! She's performing at the Grammys with Prince! She's had 4 top 10 singles in the last year! She toured nonstop in 2004! And then, she released yet another Destiny's Child album, which has spawned 2 Top 10 singles so far! And they're going to tour this summer! This is a woman who lives for success and recognition. Such naked ambition, while laudable, is simply uncool.

Example Set 3:
David Bowie: Cool. Will never, ever not be cool.

Brazilian singer Seu Jorge singing bossa-nova versions of classic Bowie songs in Portuguese for the soundtrack to Wes Anderson's recent film The Life Aquatic: Even cooler. Because who comes up with an idea like re-recording grimy glam rock of the early 1970s in a jazz-inflected style made popular a decade before? Wes Anderson, that's who.

Life Aquatic director Wes Anderson, for coming up with the idea: Cool to the nth degree.

Me, for being an obsessive fan of Bowie, Brazilian music, and Mr. Anderson: Abysmally uncool.

It is certainly not cool for me to put on a crazy Strongbad voice when talking with a teen. It's actually very, very dorky. It is, however, fun, and more importantly, it sends the message that I am aware of and engaged with stuff that interests that teen.

And this is the point. You knew I'd get to it eventually, right?

Libraries are not cool institutions. What we do, and what we are here for, is not to be cool. It is to be of use. We should not be focused on coolness, not only because it is something we will never, ever achieve, but because it is antithetical to the point of our existence. We are too earnest, too helpful, and too square to be cool. We are too focused on others -- the public! -- and their needs -- what do they want to read? Or listen to? Or watch? Let's ask them! Let's find out what they care about! -- to be cool. Libraries, and everyone who works in or for them, should be focused on making ourselves and our services not cool, but indispensable.

My continuing interest in & reporting on popular culture is not to prove how cool I am (this would be a total waste of time, because I'm not cool -- I'm enthusiastic.) but to help me find a way to be indispensable to my particular constituency -- teenagers, their families, and their teachers. I ask my library's teens what materials they want, and I make sure to have them on the shelves. I ask them what programs they want, and I figure out how to run them. I want them, when they think of places they're welcome to hang out and just be themselves, to think of the library in their top 5 list of places like that.

The thing is, we can do this with any (and every) slice of the demographic pie we choose -- senior citizens, families of every description, singletons & quirkyalones, every ethnic group you can imagine, Christian homeschoolers, radically progressive unschoolers -- you name it. By schooling ourselves in the cultural language of whatever group we're interested in, we gain credibility and insight. In short, it makes us better librarians.

Indispensability is the key not merely to libraries' survival (a paltry goal), but to a future in which we are thriving. How were your library's collections or services indispensable to one of your patrons today? Tell me all about it & I'll be happy to write it up right here, quoting you warmly & accurately. It doesn't have to involve pop culture, but it'd be nice if it did. :)


Behold, The Power of Pop

Sometimes, all it takes to win over a kid is an exchange like this:

Kid: I need a copy of The Outsiders.

Me: Sure, I'll show you were to find it. [we walk together to the spinning racks of paperbacks.] Okay, what have we got here, Hinton, Hinton, Hinton. Well, here's Taming The Star Runner, which is sort of like Homestar Runner, but different.

Kid [flabbergasted]: You like Homestar Runner?

Me [using best Strongbad voice and finding his book at the same time]: Yes, of course I love Homestar! And I love The Outsiders! Have you heard my album? It is the greatest of all time! Oh, and here's your book.

Kid [rapid-fire]: Thanks! I haven't heard it yet. Do you have it here? Do you read the Strongbad e-mails? I once wrote to him, and he wrote back, but didn't really answer my question. This library is way better than I thought. [to his friend, sotto voce, as they walk away] She's actually kind of cool.

Me [silently]: Yesssss!

Totally baffled? Try the Homestar Wiki. Goodness, but the Internet so rules.

Super Bowl & Awards Parties, Redux

Alert reader Josh pointed out in his comment to the previous post on this subject that it's a good idea to have a table full of related library materials in the same room with the TV & snacks. I could not agree more. Here's an initial list of goodies to include:
  • For an Oscar/SAG/Golden Globes Awards party, display the nominated movies (assuming some of them will be available on DVD by the time of the awards ceremony), biographies of nominated actors & directors, magazines featuring nominees on the cover, soundtracks of nominated movies, novels that the nominated films were based on, and so on.
  • For a Grammys, Country Music Awards, VIBE or other music awards party, display CDs by every nominated artist -- both their more recent work, and any items from their back catalogue you may have -- as well as biographies of the artists (hint: check your juvenile & YA biographies sections for these!), and all of your related music magazines.
  • For a major sports event party, well, you probably know the drill by now -- all those gorgeous oversized books full of physics-defying moments of sports heroism captured on film, athlete bios, sports magazines, sports-related movies (Miracle, anyone?), etc.

You want the event to be communal and fun and also a great opportunity to showcase and promote the library's collections while you're at it. A current collection = with-it materials selectors = happy patrons who know they can rely on their library to have stuff on the shelves that interests them = you win!


Super Bowl Parties at Libraries?

Did any libraries out there throw Super Bowl viewing parties? If so, let me know. If not, think about the following:

Awards night parties -- The Grammys, Screen Actors' Guild awards, and the Oscars are all coming up -- should be not terribly difficult to throw, and should offer a hefty return in goodwill from your public.

  1. You schedule keeping the building open late, clearing it with your director, fire department, security team, staff to keep the building open, and other stakeholders. This will probably take the most time.
  2. You buy adequate snacks & beverages (or if you have patrons who are super-keen on the idea, arrange a potluck) -- say, enough for 25 people to snack & sip on for 4-6 hours, including the red carpet commentary.
  3. You book your largest meeting room, or just clear out space in a department that has movable furniture and put your biggest TV right in the middle, surrounding it with chairs.
  4. You put your food & beverages on tables arranged to the side of the chairs & TV.
  5. You promote the heck out of it -- in person, with bookmarks, with materials displays, posters, with small ads in your local paper -- and see how it goes. It could be a new tradition @ your library, and it would certainly be a program that brings people together, in a spirit of celebration (for those cheering the winners) and schadenfreude (for those spotting truly awful dresses).

Are Your Patrons Blogging?

When I saw Mommy (And Me) on the cover of the NY Times Style section last Sunday, my first thought was, "Hey, I know that kid! Leta's on the cover of the Times! Cool!" (Of course, I've never met Leta or her parents, but I've been reading about the Armstrongs since before Leta was born. In some sense, I really do know that baby.) My second thought, after reading the article, was, "how many of these parent bloggers are library users?"

I bet lots of them are.

I bet they use their libraries' websites to find out about programming for their kids, to place holds on materials they want, to make materials requests, and so on.

This gives rise to my third thoughts: How many of these bloggers' libraries are aware of the bloggers in their midst? How many are making sure that their websites are catering to these very tech savvy families' needs? Are the libraries of bloggers blogging themselves? Are they offering blog safety classes for their kids? Blog software classes for wannabe patron bloggers? RSS feeds to their catalogues? Food for thought, and for action.