An underappreciated librarian superpower?


I was at a writing meeting the other night, feeling very stuck with the progress of the novel I’ve been working on. So I tried a little exercise to try to unstick myself: writing book jacket blurbs from the perspective of different characters. My thinking (backwards as this may sound) was that a reader should have a reason to pick up the book — as a writer, shouldn’t I have access to at least the same motivation? Maybe boiling down my concepts would help me to refocus and redirect my story. Worth a try, anyhow.

The organizer, across the table (and — full disclosure — across a couple of glasses of beer) from me, mentioned that some writers she knows have friendly competitions to do this kind of thing, challenging each other to write blurbs with ridiculously low word counts, say 27. A few of us laughed. How was that even possible?

But then I counted the ones I’d already written. 32 words. 29 words.

No, I’m not a novel-writing genius with a special talent for boiling my own stories down to blurb length. But I’m a librarian, and we are trained experts at recognising the “aboutness” of publications. And at least back when I was in library school (and at least in a couple of the courses I took — other librarians’ mileage may vary), we learned a thing called writing annotations.

Librarians summarize things all the time.

So it turns out that there are a couple of obvious places where these librarian and writing skills overlap:

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 4.19.23 PM

Venn diagram creator courtesy of (which apparently doesn’t approve of the word “aboutness”)

Maybe this diagram doesn’t exactly capture the cool possibilities. But hang on. This can lead to exciting things!

Let’s start with academic libraries.

Every so often I read an article about how little most of us know about important research being done in universities. (Here’s an example I saw today: Academics can change the world – if they stop talking only to their peers.) Scholars are mostly talking to each other about their discoveries, in a language that’s mostly inaccessible to the rest of us. And media don’t cover it because they don’t know about it, and — not surprisingly — they aren’t usually scouring academic journals for possibly interesting stories that they can translate into approachable language for non-experts.

Where can librarians come into the story? At universities, librarians are encouraged to be aware of faculty members’ research areas — which is essential if we are going to make sure we have collections to support them, and if we are going to have well-informed conversations about topics like scholarly publishing, copyright, open access, and so on.

So once we have all this valuable knowledge, maybe we can do more by applying these annotating and summarizing superpowers — and particularly for “discovery” and curation, connecting researchers with our communities. One somewhat writerly idea:

  • Write regular features (published on our library webpages or blogs, or in newsletters if we have them) highlighting some of the work of researchers at our institutions, and link to the publications. (And post to social media.) Note: This one, in addition to being more writerly, requires more investment, and may overlap with other groups on campus (Communications offices and so on).

These three are all well within “usual” library and librarian spheres:

  • Annotate, highlight, and feature publications by local researchers in our library’s search results.
  • Edit and add Wikipedia entries with information about research done by scholars at our institutions (and add references).
  • Provide space and support for faculty and student activities that may arise out of the heightened awareness (Panel discussions? Workshops? Wikipedia editathons? Journal clubs?)

Do you already do any of these at your library? Do you have other ideas? Let me know!

And last of all, a Kate Beaton cartoon. Because I’d love to take a history or literature class from her.


The beauty of quick and dirty — loving garage rock and being a librarian, too

It’s funny how easily I forget that I’m crazy about old ‘60s garage rock. Months can go by without me thinking about it, until it’s almost possible to believe I’m a person of sophisticated tastes (after all, I read “serious” books and I’m picky about what TV shows I watch), but then I’ll hear an old, noisy, primitively-recorded 4-chord song (maybe The Troggs or the Count Five or ? and The Mysterions), and it all comes back to me. It’s not a poetic or romantic kind of love, it’s the sheer physical kind, the type that is electrifying and unbalancing, that hits you hard and makes you forget common sense and shame. If they were teenaged boys and I was a teenaged girl I’d text these guys in the middle of the night, I’d skip out of my afternoon classes so I could hang out in front of their school in hopes of seeing them come outside when the bell rang.

But never mind the not-quite-right metaphors, I’ll admit what actually happens when I hear them: I am compelled to jump up and dance and shake my hair around, totally forgetting that I’m too old, too uncoordinated, too graceless,  too much of a librarian to be able to pull this off.

If I had to choose just one first-generation favourite garage-rock band, it would be The Sonics, from Tacoma, Washington. Growing up in Vancouver and doing campus radio and going out to see bands in the ‘80s, I was introduced to them through The Pointed Sticks (who covered The Witch), almost certainly The Enigmas, my favourite local live band at the time, who did lots of garage covers, and ultimately the Sonics Full Force LP that came out sometime midway through that decade. (I bought mine from Zulu Records; you can still see the plastic wrap.)

sonics back sonics front

Like the whole punk scene (which was also already over by the time I was old enough to go see live bands), the garage guys* were proof that being loud and audacious and having just a few basic skills on an instrument was enough to make life-altering music. A boyfriend with serious music cred (and no formal music training) showed me how to play “Strychnine” — my introduction to barre chords, and not the sort of thing they taught us on our nylon-strung acoustics in the guitar class I took as an elective in high school. After that it was just a matter of months before I was in my own band, writing songs and singing and playing guitar — essentially because I was too naive to realise I wasn’t good enough.

But that’s another story.

The Sonics came to Vancouver in September — their first time playing here since their original 1960s incarnation. It could have been awful, and maybe it should have been awful, some guys in their 70s (!) who were never particularly huge, playing fifty-year-old songs. But the venue was packed — sold out or close to it — and with a mix of people who could have seen them in the old days, people my age, and people who weren’t even born when I discovered the Sonics in the ’80s. Somehow we all knew this was going to be special, and it was: Gerry Roslie’s voice was inexplicably even better than on the old records, there was a huge happy mosh pit, and everyone was blissfully soaked in sweat, including me. Yes, I danced and sang along at the top of my lungs, probably to the great amusement and pity of everyone around me. But I didn’t care. I was absolutely high from the whole thing.

This stuff makes me happy, and more than that, it reminds me of the beauty of quick & dirty and DIY, approaches that I have mostly unlearned through years of education and experience.

Librarians are notoriously obsessed with accuracy and even perfection — something that’s essential when we’re cataloguing items or answering reference questions. But there’s a place for quick & dirty in my work too, and I need to remember that possibility. How often do I find myself at work staring at a problem that feels like having to write, arrange, and conduct a symphony, complete with hiring a room full of musicians, when all that’s needed is a three-chord song that I can whip off in an afternoon?

I don’t have the answers, but thank you to The Sonics for reminding me to ask the question.


* There were women who did great garage rock too — see the Girls in the Garage series, for instance (unfortunately there isn’t a Wikipedia entry for those records yet — and I don’t know enough to be the one to create one Someday I would love to do more exploration of these old girl groups (and why and how they are mostly forgotten; certainly it wasn’t for lack of talent and visual appeal). For the moment, you can get tiny and delicious tastes on the web, including here: