Monthly Archives: August 2010

Life Lessons from the Library: Stealing is Bad, But How We Respond May Be the Real Point

Usually this does not happen so soon in the semester, but it always does happen. Someone tears out chapters of a reserve textbook. One person’s unwillingness to wait in line at the copier, pay 10 cents a page for copies, or simply take a hour to read the assignment in the library means that all the other students in that class will now not have access to the materials they need. While I can often sympathize with students in almost all situations, this is one academic crime that makes me furious.

Textbooks are expensive and can cause a real financial burden for students. Faculty and staff members recognize this and go out of their way to provide the library with reserve texts so that they they keep up with their readings and assignments until their financial aid checks come in or they can find cheaper versions online. This truly is a gift for students. And the fact that a small number of students can be so thoughtless and selfish really upsets me. No, upset is too mild a word. It makes me angry enough to spit as we like to say in Alabama.

But then we have to decide how to respond. I need to point out here that our system doesn’t display a history of users, so by the time we find out about it, the chance of discovering the actual culprit is next to zero.For some of us (and I have to admit that I am one of them), the first response is to do something draconian. We want to take the entire book off reserve and announce publicly that SOMEONE (implication someone evil and selfish) ruined it for everyone else by ripping out several chapters. Then one of  the staff with a kinder and gentler soul mentions that we are simply punishing everyone for the sins of one. And then we calm down and look for other ways, none of them totally satifactory for those who desire punishment but usually somewhat effective.

My experience with library materials reminds me of the times I overreact in the real world as well. It is so easy to take such things personally. I have to remind myself that most actions have nothing to do with me. The person who ripped out fifty pages of a textbook didn’t do so with the intention of making the Jolly Librarian miserable. In fact, the person probably didn’t think of anyone but himself. And that’s true for many things. The woman in the SUV didn’t say to herself, “Ah, a curly headed woman in a Hyundai. I hate her. I’m going to pull out in front of her.” The truth is that most people rarely think of us at all when making decisions, no matter how personal we want to make things.

Bad things do happen. And there are those who have the right and ability to punish. But there are many more times when we are not in a position to punish, and to spend time ranting against the unfairness of it all makes little sense. Instead isn’t more logical just to take as many precautions as possible but realize you can never fully protect yourself from those who want to take advantage of the system? And that concentrating on the few malefactors takes the focus off the many, many good people we meet each day. And life is too short to do that.

Monday Motivator: Beginning of the Semester Tips

The Jolly Librarian is always surprised when people do not take advantage of her vast wisdom and ask me to give long, interesting speeches to welcome students and faculty back each semester. I’m sure that this has more to do with the administration being unaware of my willingness to do so rather than any doubt in my wisdom.

But I don’t want you to miss the opportunity. So here in abbreviated form is the Jolly Librarian’s Five Tips (in no particular order) for a Great Semester. These work equally for faculty, students, staff, and complete strangers wandering down White Bridge who also need wisdom.

  1. Set high standards. If you’re an instructor, make sure that students have to work hard to make a good grade in your class. Yes, students might like the Easy A Professor, but it’s the ones who challenged them and made them work that they remember and admire. If you’re a student, remember this: College is for learning. If you’re taking classes that don’t stretch you, then you’re cheating yourself out of an education. If, for some bizarre reason, you have one of those creatures who I believe is actually mythical–the easy professor–then set high standards for yourself. And for the rest of us, let’s set some high standards for our offices and ourselves. Maybe we’re planning to have fewer than ten customer complaints this semester. Maybe we’ll find new and interesting ways to get information out to students. Just make sure that you stretch yourself. 
  2. But make those standards reachable. Research shows that standards must be both high and reachable. To set goals that can’t be reached results in failure and frustration. This is whether they are set by others (such as instructors) or by ourselves. So if you have a full-time job, take care of a family, visit your aging parents three times a week, and then decide that you must have a 4.0 in the 19 hours of science courses you’ve signed up for, then you might want to re-evaluate how realistic such a goal is. This is something I know about very well from painful personal experience. It is much better to set more modest goals and actually achieve them. Please take my word for this.
  3. Just Say Yes. Besides being the title of a catchy Snow Patrol song, this phrase is a good one to keep in mind. Emily, our incomparable instructional librarian, pointed out this philosophy in a library journal article. Whenever you can, say yes to students. And when you have to say no, see if there is a way to modify things so that next time you can say yes. Sometimes we set policies and rules that made sense at one time, but continue on long after their necessity has faded. Is there really any reason to limit students to two DVDs? Are cell phones really the enemy of the library? I’m sure your office has some of these rules that need to be revisited as  well.
  4. Be kind. The library staff probably has a unique perspective on students this first week of class. There are so many students who are apologetic that they don’t know how to find the bookstore or their classroom. They’re afraid because they haven’t been in school for a decade or more. They didn’t quite understand what an instructor told them in class but were too timid to ask for further explanation. Often, if we can see the fear that lies beneath the bored or even hostile expression, we would be less likely to lash out in annoyance.
  5. Be happy. Maybe I’m going to sound way too much like Oprah here, but happy people are just more fun to be around. They make the days go more smoothly and tasks less onerous. So yes, you can sit in the back of the class (or a meeting) and make smart comments while rolling your eyes, and you may succeed in making others miserable as well. But really, is that the claim to fame you really want? People who know how to make things fun will always be wanted, whether in school, on the job, or in friendships and romance. And smart people know that happiness truly comes from inside.

So there you have it: the Jolly Librarian’s 5 Tips to a Successful Semester. And I truly hope that we all have one.

The Jolly Librarian Considers Mistakes

A simple mistake starts the hardest time.– Snow Patrol

A friend of mine was in a wreck yesterday evening. An elderly man in a truck pulled out of a parking lot and smashed into her passenger side. Luckily, no one was hurt, and by the time I arrived, my friend, in her typical fashion, had discovered where the man lived, how he had made his living before he retired, and what he had been doing on our side of town (moving his granddaughter into an apartment so she could attend college). The police, of course, had to assign blame so that all the insurance companies could get to work. But I kept thinking that blame was besides the real point here. It was a mistake pure and simple. He had no intention of hitting her. He wasn’t in a hurry and pulling out in the middle of traffic to get somewhere quickly. He simply didn’t see her.

I once almost pulled out in front of another car myself. A philosopher friend was in the car with me. I apologized profusely. He pointed out that in philosophy there are two schools of thought about assigning blame. One is to judge the intentions (Did I mean to harm him?). The other was to judge the results of the action. I was absolved on both counts, but it didn’t do much to alleviate my guilt for putting him in harm’s way.

Tolstoy once said that we tend to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. Maybe that’s why we are so hard on others when they make mistakes, especially mistakes that cause so much disruption and pain. We feel that if we can just find someone to blame, some part of this whole mess can at least be explained. Even when it doesn’t solve the problem at all, blaming seems to be some sort of narcotic which temporarily dulls the pain. Or at least, that’s the only explanation I can come up, since people certainly like to do a lot of blaming!

But it seems that sometimes the best thing you can do is just realize that the reason for this hard time is a mistake, maybe even a simple one, and looking around for someone to blame won’t get you one step closer to solving the problem.

The Library Losers: In Which Our Heroines Realize that They Just Can’t Ignore What They Don’t Like.

First, the good news: there was no gaining this week. Now, the bad news: there was little losing as well. We’re a total of .2 pounds lighter. Still, the promising signs continue: 1/2 inch off a stomach; pants fitting for the first time in 2 years, etc. And then there are some less promising signs: some squishy bits that are not firming up; secret trips to the vending machine, and the occasional 2-pound egg salad sandwich for lunch.

Obviously, the goal is to eat healthy and exercise more so that the calorie intake is less than the calories burned. What the 3 original losers discovered is that each of us is a master of part of the program, but we can’t seem to get a handle on the whole thing.  Some of us have improved our eating habits but can’t seem to get an exercise plan going. One of us has a tendency to skip breakfast so then she’s ravenous and ready to eat anything at lunch time.

And me, the Jolly Librarian? I simply can’t get the eating part under control. I started the Y in June and  have done a great job. I worked out there everyday but one in July. And I missed a week in August when I went to the beach, but got right back on track. And I do feel better, have energy, and have maintained my weight. And I’m actually wearing some clothes that were uncomfortably tight last year.

BUT, I still eat like I might not have access to food again this year. For example, this week, I’ve been watching previous episodes of “Lost” to get ready for the release of the final season on DVD. At first things are fine. I have my dinner: pasta and a salad. Then I have one of the light ice cream cups I bought specifically to control calories. But the deeper I get into “Lost” the more I need to snack. Sometimes, it’s an extra ice cream cup. Sometimes, it’s cheese. Sometimes, it’s popcorn. Sometimes, it’s a bizarre combination of things left in the very back of the fridge that have not yet completely ruined. It’s not pretty, people.

The Losers wish they could merge themselves into one person for the total weight loss package. But since that is not possible, we will continue to try to accentuate our strengths while realizing we must find the strength to work on our weaknesses.

Life Lessons from the Library: In the End, All You Can Do Is Advise

We knew that a new semester was truly upon us when Pam started thinking of what class to take. This is a tradition for us, and it goes something like this. Pam decides to take a class. She looks in the schedule. Now, you have to understand this one thing about Pam; she truly is a person who’s interested in all topics. We can be shelving books or waiting in line for lunch when she’ll suddenly ask, “Why are we here?” And she does mean in the existential sense. Then the next day, she’ll be engrossed in an article on bedbugs. She’s also a professional banjo player, having worked with the likes of Porter Waggoner. You can guess that deciding on a class to take can be a dilemma for her. So she asks for our advice. But there’s just one problem: she never takes it.

Yesterday, the class dance began again, this time with our newest library person, Allison. As I walked by,  I heard snatches of conversation. The class couldn’t meet on Friday because that was Pam’s day off. Philosophy required too many papers. How about Theatre? As I walked out of the library, I heard Pam say enthusiastically that Theatre was perfect for her. A hour or so later, Pam told me, just as enthusiastically, that she’d signed up for class. She was taking piano at 8 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. 

In the library, we learn quickly that we can only advise students. Even when it’s in their best interests, they can always reject our advice and sometimes do. They pick the shortest journal article even after we tell them that it’s too dense and full of jargon to make a good article review topic. We advise them to read a paper one more time because there are many, many typos, and the next thing we know they’ve turned in the error-riddled paper any way.

Still, it’s true of all relationships. We may think we know best. We may actually know best, but in relationships between adults, the best we can do is advise someone about a course of action. We can’t make them do it. And we can’t do it for them. (Well, if we’re in anything approaching a healthy relationship).

It can be frustrating to provide help and advice only to have it ignored. But, isn’t that part of our jobs as college librarians, helping folks make decisions, but also teaching them, as adults, that the final decision is always theirs? Ultimately, each person is responsible for his or her decisions, no matter how much advice or help was given along the way.

 So we continue giving advice. And we don’t take offense when it’s not taken. Even with Pam.

Monday Motivator: Be Early When You Can

I’ve written before about being on time, a most useful habit. But author Joseph Telushkin reminds us that sometimes simply being on time is not enough. Sometimes the right thing to do is be early. He tells the story of a mother who came to her daughter’s play. She was right on time. All the other children were happy and ready to go. Her daughter, on the other hand, was crying and very anxious. She’d seen all the other parents arrive and greet their children. She thought her own mother wasn’t coming at all.

Okay, admittedly, this is the sort of story that makes me all sappy, although I can only recall a couple of times that this happened to me as a child. One was after Sunday school. I was standing on the church steps trying to hold back tears as people poured into the building. A man asked me what was wrong. I told him that my dad had not picked me up.

“Where is your dad?” he asked. I pointed at the next house down the road. Yes, my grandfather’s house was about a half mile from the church and I could even see my dad’s car from the church steps. Okay, a spunkier kid would simply have walked. But what I lacked in spunk, I made up for in imagination. I thought maybe my father had suffered an accident and was lying in the driveway and none of my other relatives had noticed. I thought that maybe he’d been kidnapped. I thought many things, all of them resulting in my being deserted and alone. Hey, I was four at the time. All I knew was that my daddy was supposed to be there, and he wasn’t. So the world as I knew it was completely messed up.

But besides providing comfort for children, being early has other benefits. Early people tend to have their things organized before meetings, so meetings with them start on time. Being early for an appointment means that you’re not panicked if there’s a traffic jam. And the people in your life aren’t spending a lot of time wondering if you’re going to show up.

So for this week, be early. Even if you don’t see any tangible benefits, you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing the look of stunned surprise on the faces of your family, friends, and colleagues.

The Jolly Librarian Considers Passion

Our new student handbooks have arrived, and the cover asks us to think about our passion. Of course, one of my more obnoxious colleagues has already suggested that the last thing we want college students thinking any more about is passion.

But aren’t colleges all about passion? Sure, college is the time when many of us fall deeply in love and maybe even meet our future husbands and wives. It’s a time when freedom coincides with hormones.

But college is also the time when other passions are explored as well. I remember having no  idea what I wanted to do with my life when I started college, so I tried everything. I took accounting, which I enjoyed but realized I didn’t want to investigate any further. I took Russian culture and  Spanish classes. Since my mom is English, I took a course in British history. And of course, I took English. And it was literature that called to me in a way that no other subject ever did or ever has since. I am very fortunate that my job allows me to share my love of words on a daily basis.

When I taught, I was honored when students came to me and said they’d signed up for the literature course because it was required or because it fit their work schedule, but then they found that they really loved poetry or short stories or novels.  It made me happy to think they would take something with them  from my class whether or not they ever took another English class or ever did anything literary in their careers.

 At our college, we spend a lot of time, rightfully so, advising students to find well-paying work they enjoy. But not every passion pays well, and some that do only pay well for a select few. For every Snow Patrol, there are hundreds of day job folks who play small bars at night. (And living in Nashville, I know of what I speak.) 

So I think one of our jobs as college professors and administrators is to teach and model the various ways of  putting passion in our lives. On our campus, we have no shortage of role models for this, including faculty and staff who, in their non-work time, are musicians, photographers, poets, filmmakers, master gardeners, web designers, and computer geeks.

I hope we teach our students that there are many ways to develop their passions.  And I hope that they know this from simply watching how we live.

The Library Losers: In Which Our Heroines Win the Only Way They Know How–By Cheating.

This week the Losers lost an impressive 15 pounds! Okay, mostly due to the fact that student worker Naomi paid a surprise visit on Monday and weighed in. After a summer of working on an organic farm, she’d dropped twenty pounds. Now some would call this cheating, and we agree. But we don’t care. We need a victory.

For the rest of the team, the results were much more modest. One gained 6 pounds since the last weigh-in (I suspect something’s wrong with that person’s scale since she’s as svelte as ever.) One person stayed the same. I lost 2 pounds. And Pam feigned illness and stayed home to avoid the scale. (I can hear her protests already!)

The good news is that the beginning of the semester is very busy for the library staff. We are constantly walking from the desk to computers to help students log in. So we are hopeful that our results will stay positive, even without cheating.

Life Lessons from the Library: Memory is a Tricky Thing!

`The horror of that moment,’ the King went on, `I shall never, never forget!’
`You will, though,’ the Queen said, `if you don’t make a memorandum of it.’

The White Queen in Through the Looking Glass certainly has a point. It is very easy to forget things, even things that were quite momentous at the time. But what is also easy, but less obvious, is modifying the past without being aware of it.

Once my parents were talking about the fact that everyone knew where they were on the day JFK was assassinated. My father told a story about where he was. My mother could barely wait until he finished. “You were not. I told you about it when you came home from work.”  Granted, my mother would not win a tact contest; still, it does show  how tricky memory can be. I didn’t hang around to find out who had the correct memory on that one.

Just recently, I was talking with a couple of friends who were remembering an incident and a third person’s involvement in that incident. They were quite certain of how the person had responded and behaved. They could have taken a lie detector test and passed with flying colors. There was only one problem: They were wrong. I was also present at the time, and while their broad strokes were basically correct, they had changed some details to fit in with their new negative perception of our former friend. They had not done it intentionally to smear his character. It’s just how memory is. It’s a slippery beast that helps us confirm our beliefs about people.

In the library, since we are responsible for giving accurate information, we try hard to double-check our facts, even facts that we are sure of. Although I have written more than my share of papers, I never answer a citation question without checking the English Department’s handbook or the MLA style book.  I try to get the staff to double-check room or phone numbers because faculty do change offices and departments occasionally move. And people, in general, would rather wait a minute for correct information than have instant wrong information.

It is something that maybe we should do in all aspects of our life. Sure, we usually can’t go back and double-check the past. But when we remember something, especially something that upsets or angers us, maybe we should take a minute to assess how much of it really happened and how much of it  we have overlaid with emotions.

And knowing how tricky memory can be, maybe we should be more willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Monday Motivator: Look Forward to the Next Fun Thing!

I was on last vacation last week. As the week drew to the end, one of my companions kept saying, “Now we only have 3 (2, etc.) more days left at the beach. I’m so sad.” This, of course, is one of the drawbacks of vacations: they end, and you must go home, usually to a frantic effort to catch up on all the things that piled up while you were gone. I am not immune to this sadness.

But a few years ago, I read something that made a lot of sense to me. The writer said that before your vacation is over, book your next one so that you’ll always have something to look forward to.

Obviously, this writer did not work in higher education. I will spend the next few months trying to pay off this vacation, not plan the next one. But I do think there is something sound in the advice. So when a friend emailed me that John Mellencamp is coming to the Ryman and did I want to go, I immediately ordered my tickets. Now I hope more fun things happen before November’s concert, but if not, it’s not a terribly long time to wait. (And for those of you who are wondering why it’s not Snow Patrol, the lads seem to be ignoring our continent this year.)

It’s always nice to have something to look forward to. It can banish the post-vacation blues and make facing the 365 emails that came despite the out-of-office message bearable.