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My Odd Obsession with Office Supplies

2 Jun

I loved going back to school. Summers off were fun, of course – lounging at the swim club, riding my bike everywhere, family camping vacations, basketball camp. Carefree days that seemed to last so much longer than days today. But fall is my favorite season and the end of summer always meant a new school year. And a new school year meant … new school supplies!! New notebooks, new pens and pencils, new packs of paper, new zip folders, and a new lunchbox. I loved the list, the shopping, the putting everything together. New clothes were okay, but new school supplies? Now we’re talking!

I still love office supplies. I love to go to Staples (though I visit so infrequently now that they’ve closed nearby stores). We have cabinets in the back staff room of my library with boxes of paper clips, staples, folders, sticky notes, pens and pencils, highlighters, spiral notebooks. Sometimes when I’m waiting for my lunch to reheat in the microwave, I’ll just poke around to see what’s new there. Sometimes I’ll take a new pencil, just to sharpen it.

And my obsession doesn’t end with the supplies themselves. No. I have BOOKS about office supplies. I read James Ward’s, Perfection of the Paper Clip. I have Caroline Weaver’s, Pencils You Should Know. I’ve read every book in Ian Sansom’s “Mobile Library Mystery Series,” but I’ve also read his book, Paper: An Elegy.

All of this is prelude to describe my absolute joy and delight when Craig Robertson, PhD, associate professor of communications at Northeastern University, delivered this year’s Leiter Lecture during the opening plenary session of the Medical Library Association’s annual meeting in Detroit a couple weeks back. The title of his talk was the title of his latest book, The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information.

You can only guess how drawn I was, immediately, to the talk. I learned that the filing cabinet was invented in the 1890 by Library Bureau, a business founded by Melvin Dewey (yes, the same) to build and provide supplies to libraries. I learned that the filing cabinet was – and still is – a key technology. While we might not see the long rows and banks of filing cabinets that once filled offices, the concepts of files, folders, and tabs that we make use of daily with our computers are concepts straight outta the filing cabinet.

More interesting, Robertson traced the history of sexism in business and information professions through the history of filing cabinets, from their height, to the size of the drawers, to advertising images showing women doing the filing (even disembodied female hands filing) while men sit at their desks, waiting for the information. I learned about “deskilling” in the office setting, about Barney Google (Google!), about capitalism and the economization of knowledge. It was a brilliant talk that left me wanting more, so of course I bought the book! (Even got it autographed.)

I’ve spent countless hours as a librarian thinking about the repercussions of our predominantly female workforce operating in a male-driven world. I’ve thought about how people (more often men) do the very same type of work but call it “information management” or “information technology.” I’ve thought about how calling the work something else and then building a male-dominated workforce around it yields a higher paying profession. I’ve thought about the gigantic wave of data and data science, and how male-dominated (and higher paying) these professions are to date. Filing cabinets were for women; computers for men. Or so it seems. (Caveat: I am speaking in grand terms here. Please don’t yell back at me that women are not represented at all in Silicon Valley.)

Tracing the history of these trends through the filing cabinet is fascinating to me. I enjoyed the lecture tremendously and can’t wait to read the book in full. I’m obsessed.

My sketchnotes of the lecture can be found here.

Raining on Parades

23 May

Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Day” yesterday (something I get in my email each morning) was the word “officious.” Honest, I didn’t know all of the meanings to the word. My initial thoughts were along the lines of something to do with official folks, and sure enough that IS a meaning. The unofficial meaning. But the official meaning is, “volunteering one’s services where they are neither asked nor needed MEDDLESOME.” And I have to admit, it is/was oh-so-appropriate of a word following my time at last week’s annual meeting of the Medical Library Association (in conjunction with the Special Libraries Association).

We met in Detroit, Michigan – a place I’d never visited beyond the airport – this year. Detroit is a city working very hard to build back, showcase, recreate its heritage as a place of invention, innovation, and inspiration in industry, music, and more. I’m really happy that we decided to hold our meeting there this year. I truly enjoyed exploring the city and would love to return for another couple of weeks to experience all that I could never see and do in a few days outside of the meeting. But I did get to a Tigers’ game, ate Buddy’s pizza, had breakfast at The Dime Store, tried MULTIPLE Coney’s (Lafayette being my favorite), sipped fancy cocktails at The Shelby (speakeasy), and more. AND I soaked up content from one of the best MLA meetings that I’ve attended in a long while.

Last year, we met in-person in New Orleans (like this year, a hybrid meeting) and it was great. I vaccinated in every way possible and packed my bags for the Crescent City fully prepared (and accepting) that I’d catch COVID. And I didn’t care. When else was I going to get to go to one of America’s greatest cities for a work event? When was I going to hear the amazing music and eat such incredible food? I weighed my pros and cons, did my risk assessment, did the math and came to the evidence-based conclusion of “Hell yeah!” I was going all in. And that sentence, despite its somewhat flippant tone, is the complete truth. After 2+ years of a global pandemic, following each and every swaying guideline, going to work in a medical school attached to a hospital both unvaccinated and vaccinated, I was DONE with that expletive virus. Yes, I know it wasn’t done with us, but in terms of everything we teach our medical students, when it comes to evidence-based practice, I was 110% ready to put my actions behind my teaching.

And I went to New Orleans and had an amazing time (can’t wait to return). The meeting was good and the culture of the city better. I won’t trade it for nothin’. Some attendees DID get COVID, despite everyone following the masking rules and other regulations put in place by the City’s public health department. But thankfully one of the requirements for attendance was current vaccination status and so while some people did catch the virus, no one got terribly ill. THE POINT OF VACCINATION.

A year later, we were set to head to Detroit. COVID is further behind in the mirror, thanks to global scientific efforts to develop vaccines. Are people still catching the virus? Yes. But the devastating death tolls are factually (very much) on the decline and life as we knew it pre-2020 is popping back up like crocuses in spring. And quite frankly, this is something to be celebrated. In each and every way. We are, as a global society, putting the pieces of our collective self back together.

And in this context, I headed off to Detroit, SO looking forward to attending a professional meeting in as close to “normal” sense as I’d known in the past 3+ years. It was a celebration of survival – physical, mental, emotional. We made it!

I arrived on Monday and slowly bumped into friends/colleagues (frolleagues). I shared some hugs, some laughs, some sort of difficult-to-describe elation at returning to normal. It was – AND IS – a moment of celebration and gratitude. As medical librarians, how can we not be grateful for the unfathomable efforts in science and healthcare that got us to today? Maybe we had a small part. Maybe not. But regardless, we got here. We watched biomedical research and medical practice – the disciplines that we support in our work – come together in perfection and deliver us a vaccine in record time. Despite politics, misinformation, crazy-assed everything, we are here today – a society that successfully addressed the pandemic and, despite countless losses, came out the other side.

And during the opening session of our meeting last week, with all of these thoughts and feelings built up in my heart and mind and spirit, I tweeted this:

It WAS wonderful. It was a celebration to be back together. It was a feeling of huge accomplishment – or maybe relief – that we made it through. We were still here.

But no sooner had I tweeted this that others on Twitter (known and unknown) felt the need to judge, to draw attention (to themselves or us, I still don’t know), to all-the-way-back-to-yesterday’s-vocabulary-word, be OFFICIOUS. Meddlesome. Offering their opinions and their advice, and quite frankly NOTHING asked of them, to my tweet.

Why? Because the attendees of this year’s meeting informed themselves of the current rates of COVID in Detroit, they informed themselves of the current guidelines provided by public health officials – local, state, federal, international. They opted to weigh the risks/benefits of attending. They behaved in manners that allowed them to do so as safely as possible (masking if needed, current on vaccinations). The fear-based judgement to my simple tweet of celebration remains a mystery.

Because my tweet was one of celebration. For all of the rightfully-so precautions that our society took over the last few years to survive a global pandemic, the same that linger even today in the negative, “COVID SPREADER!” responses to my tweet, the reality is that the social isolation caused by COVID was as debilitating as the physical toll. We human beings are social creatures. We NEED contact with others. Some surely more than others (count me in that camp – I take daily medication to keep my mental health in check), but bottom line, the saying is true: No one is an island. No human survives alone. We need one another. The mental health tolls of this pandemic are no less costly than the physical.

And so, yes, measure yourself and your situation; take into account your experience with the virus; take in the whole of your health – physical, mental, and emotional; and seek out the facts – public health data, group behavior, policies and practice. And then make for YOURSELF the best decision(s). Weigh the risks/benefits. Practice what you preach as medical educators.

And stop judging others when their conclusions do not match your own

I end this with a story that’s been on my mind since all of this started last week (because what happened on Twitter last week really did put a damper on what was a wonderful week). When I was home for Christmas break during my junior year of college, my mom died suddenly in a car accident. It was devastating to every layer of my being and it it sticks with me to this very day.

That spring, my best friend and roommate had plans to go to London with her mom over Spring Break. It upset me in all kinds of ways. I wanted to go. I wanted to be with my best friend. I wanted to not be alone.

I wanted to go to London with MY mom.

But that wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t possible. It was a fact of life. And when my best friend and roommate said to me, “I am going on this trip. I know your mom died, and you know how hurt I am for you. But my mom didn’t die.”, it was a moment of truth that I wish those Twitter naysayers could absorb.

We are struggling as a profession, as a society, as a species right now (except maybe in Florida or Texas) to reconcile being a people in existence that supports diversity and equity and inclusion. And all for the very best reasons. But to achieve such, we have to remember that life, in and of itself, isn’t innately fair. And we have to be able to accept our own decisions and limitations, in the same manner as we accept others. And/or vice versa. And please, for the sake of one another, learn to celebrate the good things in life. For yourself AND others.

Countdown to Detroit

5 May

The annual meeting of the Medical Library Association is almost upon us. This year we’ll be meeting in Detroit, MI and be joined by our colleagues from the Special Libraries Association. I’m very much looking forward to both of these aspects of the meeting, along with all of the expected great networking, seeing old friends, making new friends, finding new ideas and energy for the work ahead. But I’ve also never been to Detroit (other than stops in the airport and once shuttled through on my way to Ann Arbor) and I really appreciate the membership of SLA. During my time working for the UMass Center for Clinical & Translational Science, I joined SLA. I found it a great home during those years. The work I was doing in evaluation and the aspects of clinical and translational science coincided with those members of SLA who are rooted in pharmaceuticals, biotech, biological sciences, and other related industries. I believe having our two organizations together in Detroit will bring a lot to all of the attendees.

And thinking of MLA annual meetings, a friend reminded me that it was 10 years ago today that I gave the “Welcome to New England” bit at the opening of the meeting in Boston that year. I was the president of our regional chapter of MLA that year (NAHSL) and thus got the chance to do the welcome. So I wrote a little poem. My friend posted a video of me reading it and I had to go look it up. It was a stroke o’ genius, that one. Clearly came to me from some other realm! 🙂

I’m scrambling today to finish up a presentation for this coming Monday’s annual meeting of the Massachusetts Library Association. They call themselves MLA, too, but that confuses me. My presentation is on the interplay between creativity, empathy, and justice. I’m needing another one of those genius strokes to pull it together. I have so much material that I’m having a hard time getting it to come together the way that I want it to. But I still have the weekend!

It feels so good to be thinking about and attending meetings again. I find the in-person connection to be vital to my mental health, as well as my professional growth. The pandemic opened our eyes to new ways of doing conferences that do make them more accessible to everyone, but I’m just not a person who gets as much from virtual meetings. I’m happy to be back together with my frolleagues. Looking forward to seeing folks soon!

Back to that presentation!