Librarian Avengers on Pinterest

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As a middle-aged mom, I’m contractually obligated to spend 10% of my week repinning things on Pinterest. Librarian Avengers has benefited, since there are plenty of librarians running around posting cool stuff that I can point at. It’s certainly simpler than actually creating original content.

Therefore, in support of the gender-disproportionate ladynerds at Pinterest’s main headquarters up the road, enjoy my Librarian Avengers board:

Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City

I am from Flint, Michigan.

I was born and raised in a crappy little city perched on the edge of a dying industry. The ominous creaking sounds coming from below sounded like a pretty clear warning, so I got the hell out. I graduated from a halfway-decent suburban high school in a district that my parents fought like hell to keep me in, renting claptrap houses on the edge of the boundary line. I left with a few AP credits, a 1986 Chevy Nova, and a seriously fucked up attitude. Being from Flint was important to me. I thought it conveyed important information to the outside world, information about my work ethic, my disappointments, my belief in the higher power of Buick Automotive.

Flint had helped win the War. My grandpa dropped out of school to help design the M18 Hellcat Tank for Buick, trading in a career as an architect for the promise of a pension and a world free of Nazis.

Flint had started the labor movement. My dad was a proud union representative, joining generations of men and women inspired by the Great Sitdown Strike to restore the power balance between owner and worker. He would sing Woody Guthrie’s song down the echoing hallway during tense negotiations. Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union. I’m sticking to the union, till the day I die.

My family stayed. Flint crumbled. Everyone who could afford to moved away. My suburban school district installed metal detectors. I went to graduate school and met people who had never heard of a carbureted engine. I’d come back home for holidays, dragging bemused boyfriends and waving around my new words, new ideas, big opinions. I’d come home to re-hear the stories that had defined me. Funny stories of disasters too big not to laugh at. People doomed by their own stupidity. Companies collapsing from their own greed. Fights at basketball games. People shooting out the lights on cop cars. Things falling off of trucks. Apocalyptic decisions made by people entrusted with our public good. Flint stories.

Recently, one of my neighbors wrote a book filled with his own Flint stories. Gordon Young lives a few blocks away in my new hometown of San Francisco. Oddly, we have never met. He went to the other suburban school district – those southside swine that were always beating us at quiz bowl – and left about ten years before I did. He’s been writing a blog called Flint Expatriates, and a few years ago he did this weird thing. He tried to go home.

The book is called Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City. Gordon writes about life in Flint and San Francisco, often through a lens of real estate. He has gone through the process of trying to buy houses in both cities, a testament to his tenacity and possibly some kind of undiagnosed brain injury. Anyway, you should read it because it’s awesome and it says many of the things that should be said about Flint. The ending is really strong, and I found myself saying “hell yes” out loud a few times. Leaving Flint seems to have given him the perspective he needed to make some peace with the goddamned place.

You may have noticed, I’m still searching.

Thoughts on 37

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According to the calendar and math, I just turned 37 years old. This meets most definitions of adulthood. I’m a parent, and a wife. I have a professional portfolio with 15 years worth of stuff in it. I’m employable and pretty much have my shit together. Of course, none of this means a thing. I’m the same dumbass I was in college.

As I’m constantly reminding my daughter (who is 2 and concerned with such things) we get a little bigger every day until we grow up. For her, that’s enough. For me, growing up is an ongoing campaign.

After childhood, an extensive support network surrounding the products we buy encourages us to spend our energy trying to look and act like the people we briefly were in our early 20s. The desire to grow up is subsumed by a need to stop growing or changing.

I started dying my hair to cover up grey when I was 24. My fair skin and fear of the sun got me a brief reprieve from wrinkles. General immaturity and bad impulse control made me seem younger than my age. Postponing motherhood helped as well. I put myself on pause.

When I became pregnant, I stopped dying my hair. Weight gain and bloat changed my face, and I was too damned tired to indulge in any silly nonsense. Everything hurt and I aged ten years in a few months. I was still the same dumbass, but without the honors and privileges awarded to youth. There was some mitigating churn around “oh look a pregnant lady how sweet” but it didn’t kick in for six months and was offset by vomiting and crippling depression.

Some time has passed, and I’m suddenly 37. Parenthood has reshaped my priorities. I have become Erica’s Earning Potential, Erica’s Ability to Absorb Interruption, Erica’s Immune System, and Erica’s Ability to Feed Her Family.

Endless undignified tasks arise when you’ve chosen to subsume personal ambition to create an environment where a potentially decent interesting child can grow and exist. There are no awards, there is no press coverage, and everyone involved forgets the details.

This isn’t the narcissism of Midwestern modesty (“Oh it’s nothing, here let me get that. Well maybe someday when I’m rich.”) or a perversion of patriarchal beauty standards. My sudden need for mid-afternoon naps and my enduring relationship with Ibuprofen and the heating pad argue against anything so energetic. Being punk rock is a lot of work. This is different. This is mom jeans and uncombed hair.

This is some organic freerange not-giving-a-shit.

I don’t try to look younger unless it assists the new priorities which are focused around people other than myself. I clean up ok, and I’ll do the thing where I get into lady drag when I go to job interviews or meetings with people who aren’t my work bros. I brush my teeth so my husband will kiss me, and I continue to fool him into thinking I’m pinup-hot.

But seriously? That food stain on my shirt is going to stay there. And I’m going to look right at you and talk anyway. I’m going to have opinions and expect a response even though I’m not wearing a particularly coordinated outfit because that’s what I’ve gained by becoming my own age. I’m not on pause anymore, and I didn’t lose anything of value.

I’m still the same dumbass I was in college, so why shouldn’t I claim the column of space around my body and fill it with something useful? I’m not here to be decorative. I don’t have to be, and neither do you.

So here’s to 37 and the freedom it brings. Here’s to being alive for no particular reason and not mattering much. Here’s to reeling around doing your best. And here’s to writing about it, because questioning that urge doesn’t help much either.

Good to be here, everyone. Hope you are well.

Librarian Rave Mix

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Librarians: You know how it goes.

You are out partying with your librarian friends. Suddenly you realize that your gathering requires a suitable soundtrack. A library-themed soundtrack. Indeed, without the proper music, the event will be a disaster!

It could happen. The worst case scenario is sobering: everyone ends up hopping around to the They Might be Giants’ album “Flood” until the police show up and ticket you with a noise violation.*

Using a combination of technology and powerful query-typing skills, I have SOLVED THIS PROBLEM. Introducing Dancing on the Reference Desk, a free playlist dedicated to libraries, librarians, and their interests.

Including such timeless classics as Ch-Check it Out by the Beastie Boys, and Lady Writer by Dire Straits make sure your next librarian rave is a success with this excellent compilation.

Note: I’m not associated with Spotify, but I do think they are pretty awesome. If you end up using this soundtrack let me know. I would love to attend some rocking librarian parties vicariously.
Credits: I dictated this entire blog post to my iPhone via Dragon Dictate while spooning nutrient-rich goop into the baby’s mouth. Special thanks to Jenny Klumpp who provided numerous excellent suggestions.
* This actually happened. I was in grad school hopping around with my fellow nerds, watching the Muppet Show and listening to TMBG. We chipped in to pay the ticket. This was in my experience hands-down the Dorkiest. Police Intervention. Ever.

How FreeFile Almost Cost Me Plenty

Let’s talk for a moment about why I misfiled my tax extension. Melty Jello brain aside, bad software design almost cost my little family $2,500.

Background:

When I’m not wrestling a one-year-old into tiny shoes, I’m a User Experience Designer. This means I work with software companies to create easy-to-understand interfaces.

It also means that when I screw up my tax extension, I look very carefully at the software path that got me there.

Dramatic Reenactment:

It was April. I needed to file an extension. Like most Bay Area tech nerds, I hate mail. I consider it a personal affront if I have to print out a form, write an address, locate stamps, and put a letter in the whatsit…mailbox…thing. Naturally, my first step was to search irs.gov for “file extension online”.

Problem one: Too many results

The IRS site is too damned helpful. There were 948 results for my search. Many results were press release or blog type articles hinting at the existence of online extension filing, but containing no direct links. I wanted to find one or two good matches. Instead, I found a sea of irrelevance.

Problem two: Too many names

I hopped down a bunny trail for about ten minutes, searching for a feature alternately referred to as “E-file an extension”, “Free file”, “Freefile”, “Free Fillable Forms”, “Free File Fillable Forms”, “Free Federal Extension”, “Form 4868”, “Traditional Free File”, and “IRS e-file”.

Problem three: Inconsistent design

I eventually landed on a modern-looking site that seemed likely. I clicked “Get Started” and wandered through four increasingly less-well-designed pages which jumped from site to site, forcing me to read and parse options despite having already told the system what I wanted.

Problem three: Asshole account requirement

The eventual winner was a page called “Free File Fillable Forms” which required me to create an account and update my Flash plugin. I was already logged in to irs.gov, but that didn’t count. I created “a password that is different than my User ID, between 8 and 32 characters, and contains at least 1 number and 1 symbol”. All the eye-rolling gave me a headache.

Problem four: Misleading email

I received a spammy looking ALL CAPS email telling me my account had been created. I filled out the IRS extension form, which was the easiest part of the process. I submitted, and received another spammy ALL CAPS email saying “Your federal return was successfully transmitted”.

At this point, I fell on the bed and whined to my husband for several minutes about information architecture. Then I fell asleep, secure in the certainty that I had filed an automatic extension. Taxes wouldn’t be bothering us for a few more months, by which time we would certainly be getting more sleep.

Months passed. There was no sleep, but we still did our taxes. One day, we received an exciting letter! The 8-32 character password was for naught. We hadn’t filed an extension. We were scofflaw losers who owed the IRS huge penalties.

What happened? Email forensics turned up the unhappy answer. Seven and a half hours after I had filed the form, I quietly received a final ALL CAPS email. It looked the same as the others, and had the same subject line. It filtered right into the folder I use for Crap Communications from Companies.

Our extension had returned “Error Code 0312: Reserved for Electronically Transmitted Documents (ETD)”. At least they provided an acronym in case I needed one.

I hadn’t noticed the email. I didn’t realize the form had been rejected. It was my mistake, but it could have been prevented with a more carefully designed user experience.

Lessons:

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer article called File your taxes free, but read carefully points out that the Free File service is made up of several companies who each have different restrictions on who can file online. This would have been good to know. If my age and/or income didn’t match the criteria, the system should not have let me submit my form.

Back-end form validation isn’t that hard. It is easier to filter out invalid data than to waste the IRS’s time by submitting a flawed document, parsing return error codes, notifying the user, and having the user write critical blog posts about you.

I’m not sure why my extension failed. The error code only tells me what I already know: that I filed electronically, and that the first letters of Electronically Transmitted Documents are ETD. A more specific error system would be nice.

Still, the real reason I feel double-crossed can be attributed to an oversight shared by other, better websites. Nobody thought of email communications as part of the user experience. One person made the website, and another person wrote the emails. Chances are the email person was a clever engineer who made a template and inserted variables instead of crafting separate text for each use case. Entire lines of code were saved. And as a result, every email has the same subject heading. Every email looks like a bit of auto-generated confirmation junk, and nobody actually designed the most crucial communication in the entire experience.

The IRS was kind to us

Yes, that was my letter from the IRS.

I misfiled our tax extension. My husband, who is hilarious, wrote a letter to the IRS asking for clemency due to new-baby-induced Jello Brain. The IRS, who are apparently also hilarious, quoted him in their response.

I scanned the letter and he put it on Facebook. It went viral.

That afternoon during a lull in the daily baby-management, I hopped on Reddit to post the letter and discovered that someone had put it up hours earlier. Our funny IRS letter was now at the top of Reddit’s front page.

Over 1,800 people left comments and opinions. Everyone was pretty nice and we enjoyed the discussion. Some IRS employees even chimed in, talking about their jobs and lives.

This is the nature of the Internet. Something strikes a chord in our collective subconscious, and we share it with ourselves at the speed of thought.

I think we are all a little afraid of the IRS.

They seem to speak a slightly different language. They use phrases like: “A nonbusiness bad debt must be treated as a short-term capital loss” and look at us expectantly.

Every year they make us do math. They know our financial secrets, and they remind us that our money will be spent by people we probably didn’t elect, on things we might not like.

They could put us in jail. They took down Al Capone.

As a result, people yearn for a bit of humor from the IRS. I think any reminder that the government is made of people who are themselves parents and taxpayers is welcome news.

Anything to break the tension.

Kaiser Perminente’s website causes heartburn, sleeplessness

Yesterday I tweeted:

The Kaiser Permanente site is pretty, but someone organized it using their butt.

I had just spent an hour on their member website trying to set my daughter’s primary care doctor. The links I followed did not lead to useful content. I was frustrated. I wrote:

I officially volunteer to redesign the Kaiser site. For free. Just so I don’t have to use it in its current state. Call me.

And I got a response! Sort of. In the form of an autoreply directing me to the Contact Web Manager form.

I’m pretty certain I can’t re-architect a site in a fixed-width six line text box in under 1000 characters.

Still, I tried. Here’s my cranky critique, crammed into a tiny webform textbox after a day spent with a teething baby and no clue who her doctor is:

  1. Kaiser. You break my heart. Your site architecture is spaghetti.
  2. Link titles should match their destinations.
  3. Text should be optimized for the web. Cut the wordcount by 75%. Seriously, cut the “If you prefer, you may call us” wordy bullshit. It actively prevents people from getting the information they need.
  4. Dynamic, member-specific content like records and messages should not try to ship you off to one size fits all “resource” pages.
  5. Who is your user? Members? Potential Members? Employers? Identify common use cases and count the number of steps and breakpoints.
  6. “Are you an Employer?” is not a helpful architectural node.
  7. I can tell you sprung for the bulk membership to clipart.com, so kudos on the pretty pictures but they eat up most of the space if you insist on a 10 year old fixed width layout. Grow some CSS.
  8. Seriously. I love Kaiser, but this site hurts me.

 

I’ll keep you guys updated if anything exciting happens as a result of my whiny ranting. I’m sure there are fifty good reasons why their site sucks the way it does, but as a user I simply don’t care. I want a big red “do the thing I want” button. And possibly a pony.

Tales from the Reference Desk

Hey gang,

I was funemployed for several weeks and rapidly began losing my mind. I could use some perspective.

The new crop of students must be coming into the library to do last-minute midterm research around now. Remind me what I’m missing by skipping out on my library career to make software?

I declare this an open thread. Gimme some funny library stories!