Library Tourism: The San Francisco Main Branch

Air freshener

I’ve escaped my parental bonds for a moment, thanks to my husband, so I have a few minutes to tell you about my recent trip to the SF Public library. The big one downtown. The one I visited a long time ago and left, convinced that public librarianship in a large city belonged to the realm of the nostril-less.

San Francisco has a Big Beautiful Library, located in the Civic Center across the street from City Hall. The building is full of glass and marble and echo-y ceilings, in the grandest tradition of main library excess. As a young library tourist, I had visited this landmark eager to see Library Done Right, and learn what can be made when budget constraints are erased and the architects are released from their fetters. Unfortunately, I had failed to consult with a resident when planning the walk there, and found myself entangled in The Tenderloin, SF’s most unpleasant neighborhood. I dodged madmen in wheelchairs and puddles of vomit for a few blocks, and arrived safe but shaken. Which is not to say that the special Tenderloin atmosphere ended when I went inside.

Due to its location, the SF Library Main branch has struggled with strange bedfellows. City Hall, the Opera, the Symphony, and a few lesser monuments surround the building, but the clientele and the smell remind you that the Tenderloin ends only a block away. Nine years ago, this meant the entire bottom two floors were permeated with Eau Du Armpit, and the best reading chairs were occupied by scruffy men with newspapers over their heads. This may have influenced my decision, upon moving to the city, to avoid the downtown branch entirely.

However! When Adorable Daughter and I visited the library two weeks ago (after some discreet nursing in the car) we encountered a cleaned-up building, with a less lived-in look. We visited the small soulless cafe downstairs, wrestled with the wireless (mommy has an iphone MMORPG problem), and found a nice browsing collection staffed by two friendly and incredibly overqualified librarians. The homeless problem seems to have abated somewhat, and I noticed security guards everywhere.

One of the things that prompted me to give it another try was an excellent article in the Chronicle announcing “the country’s first full-time psychiatric social worker stationed in a public library”. A quick google search reveals this to be a much-press-released, and apparently effective tactic on the part of SFPL to combat the library’s struggle with homeless patrons.  It might have been a coincidence, I’m just a single data point, but there did seem to be an improvement since my last visit.

If you want a reason to be grateful for your current job (assuming you aren’t an SF Public librarian), you might enjoy reading the many Yelp reviewers who have shared their encounters with some of the library’s pants-eschewing patrons. If you want to save thirty bucks on a newly-released hardback, you might enjoy the Main Branch’s science fiction collection.

The San Francisco Library Main Branch: Four stars. Would visit again.

Books for busy mums and other humans

Reading has been a challenge lately, due to new baby and the delirium that accompanies around-the-clock breastfeeding. On the other hand, it has taken me three months to be able to comfortably leave the house, so I’ve had quite a bit of downtime.

My favorite book that I’ve read lately is, appropriately, about raising happy infants. Superbaby, by Dr. Jenn Berman was a gift from my mom the librarian, and has been a great help. It is a compendium of research and useful information from a variety of sources. So rather than an exhaustive study of, say, the positive effects of using ASL as baby sign, it dedicates a nicely summarized chapter and moves along. For the attention deprived among us, it is a quick way to wade through a pile of information.

When I was pregnant, I read about 500 Terry Pratchett books. I was emotionally wrung-out, and they provided just the right balance of humor and comfortingly happy endings to keep me going. If you haven’t read any of the Discworld novels, I often recommend Small Gods, or Guards, Guards!, but you can start anywhere. If it were possible, I and almost everyone I know would like to give Terry Pratchett a hug for being such a nifty writer.

Connie Willis. I’ve been working my way through everything she has ever written, novels, short stories, novellas, introductions and interviews. I don’t usually obsess this much over reading an author’s full catalog, but Connie Willis shares many of the same qualities that make me enjoy Terry Pratchett, in addition to a fantastic grasp of European history and a charming tendency to always turn the Most Frustrating character into the means of Everything Working Out in the End.

If you haven’t read any Connie Willis, I suggest starting with the short story Firewatch, then her novel Doomsday Book. Next, skip over and read the classic Jerome K. Jerome story Three Men in a Boat: to Say Nothing of the Dog. Once you’ve done this, grab Willis’ To Say Nothing of The Dog, a wonderful homage to both Jerome and Dorothy Sayers.

Oops. Happy Daughter is waking up. That’s all for now. Website improvements will continue at their current plodding pace. Thanks for reading!

Ethnically Librarian

I am a librarian. I am not a librarian.

I have an information science degree. I’ve been working for fourteen years, my entire adult life. Most of my jobs have been in libraries.

I am a librarian. I am not a librarian.

emdot
photo by emdot

As a student at Michigan State University, I learned Library of Congress serials cataloging.

I walked through secluded aisles surrounded by rare books, incunabulum, alternative newspapers, and gay pornography.
I cataloged comic books in the world’s largest archive of comic art, radicalism, and popular culture.

In the course of my work, I learned that Spiderman serials change their volume as often as many Spiderman readers change their underwear. By graduation, I could walk into any comic shop in the country and pick a fight about whether X-Men film adaptations should be considered canon.

When I went to graduate school (Michigan ’03), my program had recently transitioned from “Library Science” to “Information Science.” In the process, they picked up a bunch of renegade computer science professors and expanded to include information architecture, information economics, archival theory, and a bunch of crazyass dot com bubble refugees like myself.

sh0dan
photo by sh0dan

We discovered that the term Digital Library can be used to describe an entire array of cool shit, including the Internet itself.

One of my professors, Sue Davidson, tells the story of how Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang called to ask about the subject guide to the web she had created for the Michigan Electronic Library. Sue answered: “that’s what librarians do, we organize information.”

Librarianship, defined as the act of organizing information, is a broad and inclusive field. Librarianship as a profession, is not. There are strict professional guidelines determining who is and is not technically a “Librarian,” but there is also a strong case to be made for the authenticity of self-identification.

There are librarians who work in libraries, and there are librarians who just Are.

It’s the difference between being a Jew by Religion, and being a Jew by Ethnicity. Both groups contribute to the cultural whole.

While a Librarian by Profession is inherently a Librarian by Ethnicity, the opposite may not be true. A trained librarian can sport a different job title, but her clarity and understanding will still contribute to her work.

by Syntopia
photo by Syntopia

I’m a librarian by ethnicity.

Right now, I work as a user experience designer on a software team. I wrestle with ship dates, dependencies, conflicting user requirements, and engineering constraints. I design interfaces and help identify how the software should behave.

But somewhere, deep in my soul, I am doing the work of the Library.

I’m a librarian by ethnicity, regardless of the job I take. I don’t make my living as an ALA going, patron-helping organizer of resources, but I’ll be damned if I don’t use Librarian skills to battle confusing groupings of information.

Librarians bring order to chaos, and so, with a little luck, do I.

Library Tourism

bernallib.pngI visited my local Bernal Heights library branch this afternoon, in search of a place to sit and read. It turned out to be one of the last weeks the building is open before it closes for an extensive renovation. On a kid-filled sunny spring Saturday, the current building gives the impression of being a community center rather than a library, with more conversations, computers, and chaos than visible books.

I’m looking forward to the new design. The neighborhood obviously is drawn to the location, which swirls with families out walking dogs and babies.

— — — —

Things I’m currently researching…

  • Wedding venues in the Detroit area that are:
    • Non-religious
    • Interesting-looking or unusual
    • Cheap, cheap, cheap!
  • Things to do in Brighton, UK
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Cat grooming (did you know you can use baby powder to make your cat less itchy?)
  • Better WordPress plugins (I’m playing with a new Twitter sidebar)
  • Management jobs in SF for my sweetie Chuck this summer

Introducing a 7-year-old to the concept of “library”

Modern Day Prometheus or why my boyfriend is the greatest guy ever. Can you believe I get to kiss this man?

My first question was a slightly judgmental “where were his parents during all of this?”

adobe-orange-yellow.jpgI’m remembering week after week of library visits when I was a kid. We didn’t have any money, but we had all the books we wanted. My first library card was at age, what? four?

Apparently the parents were there checking out videos. Hopefully they will return.

Hello? It’s Guybrarians.

Penny Arcade realizes that the word “librarian” doesn’t imply gender, except in issues of pay equity.

Webcomics’ newfound appreciation for the finest of underpaid professions is thanks to an encounter with the authors of Unshelved after the San Diego comic con.

This is the same comic con, coincidentally where my friend and coworker Jon, author of the excellent DogBlog, ran into Joss Whedon while both gentlemen were drunk and thanked him thanked him thanked him for making such excellent movies.

Jon has a photo to prove it, which he will show you at the slightest provocation. Walk quietly around him and don’t make any sudden moves.

Oh? And as they point out, there’s already a word for a male librarian. It’s Librarian. Or Guybrarian, if you buy into my pathetic merchandising attempts.

Hello NYTimes readers. Radical Librarians welcome you!

I got a call about 20 minutes ago from a friend telling me that my website, this website, the website I HAVEN’T UPDATED IN WEEKS was mentioned in the NY Times. So, um. Hi. I’m updating! This is me. Updating. Just for you. La de da.

If you are interested in becoming a librarian, you might want to take this quiz.

If you know some librarians that you want to get gifts, I sell some cool t-shirts and mugs here.

Here are some of my favorite posts.

Here’s a quick summary of this website:
I’m Erica Olsen. I am a librarian (religion) and interface designer (profession). I just moved to San Francisco two weeks ago. I work doing User Experience at Second Life. I’ve been blogging since 1998, but in those days of yore we just called it “having a web page.”

If you wanna write to me and say hi, I’m ericaolsen (AT) gmail (DOT) com.

70’s Librarians Know How To Party

I grabbed this photo from my Information School’s 75th anniversary website. Which I designed. A long time ago. Before I discovered that flexible CSS-layouts make everyone’s lives better.

Anyway, I love these librarians. The photo was from the “campus life” section, and I’ve just got to say: If you are in this photo or know someone who is, please let me buy you a Schlitz. Because that’s what they’re drinking. I know this through the magic of Photoshop.

So is it just me or was library school more fun back then? My classmates drank, don’t get me wrong, but we did it in a more serious, social-reform sort of way. You know, Mojitos and Cosmopolitans. These guys look like they just grabbed a case of beer after Intro to Cataloging and went to town.

Counterweight to snark

I’m typing with my face today due to a stupidity-induced thumb injury from, I think, painting my basement. Homeowners beware.

In the meantime, just to show that I’m not all thorns and lemons, here are some good websites. Good in that attainable way. You will notice that these are mostly not library sites, but I hope you will enjoy the parallels between, say, a really clean weblog about t-shirts, and a really clean list of community activities.

Decent design example #1

The New York Public Library’s Main Page

Good things:

  • A nod to the principles of graphic design – a grid is established, everything is on one page, so no scrolling. A bit font-y, but not too bad. Clean and reasonable.
  • Respect for web traditions. Contact link, search, hours up top, copyright statement at the bottom.
  • There are tons of links, but they are separated by negative space and grouped to reduce clutter. There are only links to things the public might care about. If you want info about their current grants or whatever you have to dig down a bit, because fewer people care. I sure don’t.
  • User-friendly labeling. “Pictures, Photos, & Maps Online” rather than “The Boogaboo Collection” Thank you. As a user, I like pictures. I don’t know Mr. Boogaboo and I don’t want to.
  • Visually consistent (at least within this main page). The logo matches the icons which match the features. Don’t click on “Teens” or it will all go to hell.

Decent Design example #2

Preshrunk (hipster t-shirt weblog)

Good things:

  • This is negative space, my friends. As a user, it calms you, soothes you. Makes you feel a bit less like you are being attacked by dozens of people who all want your attention. Feel the negative space? Ohm…
  • Look! A clear focal point for each easily-distinguished item. It’s an image! A high-quality image! Not clip art! A visually consistent size and presentation for each image! Don’t you feel safe and warm?

Decent Design example #3

Planet Dog

Good things:

  • Great info architecture. What section are you in? It’s obvious! Your location is the only highlighted thing on the page. These guys aren’t out there trying to get you to “Find Databases” or click on “Interlibrary services”. Do you want a leash? Click on leashes. Do you want to know how the company works out contracts with various wholesalers? Of course you don’t. Click on leashes.
  • Here is a really full website that still seems calm and peaceful. It’s that negative space and consistent design thing again.
  • Notice all of the images? Aren’t they nice? Nobody downloaded those from Microsoft. Notice how they have their backgrounds dropped out? This gives them a consistent look and reduces visual clutter. If you can’t make, attain, or afford images that look this good than don’t use images. Use a clean CSS based layout instead…

Decent Design example #3

A List Apart (the other ALA)

Good things:

  • Look ma! A simple clean layout, and only one image up top. No need to keep a Photoshop maven on staff. Like it? There’s more.
  • This site changes its look every day. Why? Because they use CSS and it’s easy. Still, each design is minimalist, standards-compliant, and simple to navigate.

Finally, here are some books if you’re into that kind of thing…

Usability for the web [link]

Information Architecture [link]

Don’t make me think! [link]

Designing websites for every audience [link]