Tag Archives: libraries

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.

Towards WE, Away from ME

1 Sep

I was speaking with my boss, the associate director of my library, today about an upcoming supervisors retreat we’re planning. Earlier she asked those of us attending for comments and suggestions to help plan the day – to make it a day we’d feel invested in. The deadline was yesterday and before the day ended, I sent her a note saying I wasn’t ignoring her request, but that I honestly had nothing. Nothing to offer. Nothing to add. No fun or engaging exercises I hoped we could do together. I’m usually very good at this kind of thing. I like retreats to spark and reinvigorate work. But I can think of nothing right now.

Perhaps I’m tired. Perhaps everyone is. The world seems tired to me. If you read or listen to the news, there’s so much anger and meanness, bickering and selfishness, war and strife, and a pandemic that simply won’t quit – or at least one that has left us with so many signals that things will never be what they once were. It makes me weary.

It also makes me sad. My boss said this morning, “It’s a kind of an ennui we’re experiencing.” She said, “ennui” but I heard, “un-we.” And I said, “That’s exactly what it is. UN-WE.” We’re a very productive library, ticking off boxes and accomplishing projects and providing services, but the further we get from March 13, 2020, the further we get from the collective sense of team – of “WE” – that I once took for granted. Our virtual and hybrid working worlds have not and do not take away from productivity, but they have taken something – something that’s not easy to log in the reference services database.

A few weeks ago I attended the annual Boston Library Consortium Forum. Once called “Networking Day,” this year’s Forum was the first held in person (with a virtual component) since 2019. Per the BLC’s announcement, it was a day “dedicated to uplifting and celebrating our community” and being together in person at the University of Connecticut did much to achieve this goal. The keynote speaker was Charles Vogl, the author of “The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging” among other works. He is a sought-after speaker on the practice of bringing people together; helping people to not feel disconnected and alone in life.

His talk was virtual (hmmm…) but engaging and insightful and funny. He also led us through some activities that helped people share honestly and openly about times we’ve felt alone, and during the Q&A time, he asked individuals to volunteer to share their stories and experiences with the larger audience. It was an excellent talk and the activities were helpful, personally. However, when I asked Vogl his thoughts on how we can rebuild community at work, I was sad to hear him jokingly say, “No one really wants to be friends with the people that they work with.” People laughed, but to me it was disappointing. It’s a serious question. Maybe we don’t look to find our best friends at work, but given the amount of time we spend working, it sure seems to me that we’d benefit from being a community. If community is about belonging, I believe we do better when we feel we belong at work.

I’ve heard from a number of people – from friends and colleagues in my profession, as well as friends who do very different work – that it seems there’s a trend where we’re all doing our own thing. Plenty of times we’re doing the things that we do well, but we’re doing them in our own silos, our own homes, our own pods. We’ve lost some of that collaborative spirit among colleagues.

I’m at a loss for what to offer for retreat planning, but I hope some of our work together helps us come up with some ideas and actions to address this. COVID affected and exposed so much in our societies. I imagine we’ll experience the fall-out for years to come.

Vermont farm with silos. Image by David from Pixabay

Candy Cane No. 9!

9 Dec

 December 9 – Go, Libraries, Go!

I love a mobile library, a bookmobile, and biblioburros! Several years ago, my neighbor introduced me to the Mobile Library Mystery Series by the Northern Ireland author, Ian Sansom. The Case of the Missing Books got me hooked! I love the Little Free Library movement and book trading posts. I loved James Whitmore’s character in the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, as he pushed his book cart down the prison rows, stopping at each cell to ask, “Book?” Yes, I love any and all of the creative ways that libraries and librarians and plenty of plain citizens (or fictional convicts) bring books and literacy to their communities. 

Today’s Candy Cane celebrates the beauty of mobile libraries. Ebook Friendly’s list of the 10 Most Extraordinary Mobile Libraries is a real treat. As the website notes:

From donkey-drawn trolleys to huge ships, you’ll see here outstanding vehicles that are designed to carry the most important cargo in the world – wisdom.

Take a moment out of your busy day to marvel at these and celebrate the wonderful gifts of literacy and books.

More tomorrow …