TTW Interview Series: Vanessa Morris, Part II

This is the second and final installment of my interview with Vanessa Morris. Part 1 was posted on Wednesday, July 13th and is available  HERE.

- TTW Contributor Ben Lainhart

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BL: I know that you have both a professional and personal interest in virtual worlds and and social media. You mentioned their usefulness in relation to education. What are some other purposes they could serve? Do you think they are changing how we interact with others or how we view ourselves? 

VM: Social media is definitely changing how we interact with others and how we view ourselves. For those involved, it appears that people are activating connections that were dormant, for example, high school buddies, and long lost relatives, in beneficial and positive ways. For me, it has been an interesting journey as I have been able to keep in touch with family members in ways that I never did before, and this has been wonderful. Also, through social media platforms like gaming (i.e. Zynga on Facebook) people are establishing global friendships that are proving to be very real connections.

In my own life, I met one of my very best friends through gaming. We met while playing an RPG back in 1996. We’ve been friends for 14 years now. After meeting in the role-playing game, we moved to chat via AOL instant messaging, from there we moved to Facebook and Zynga, from Facebook, we moved to Second Life. We are literal neighbors in Second Life – our homesteads are right next to one another. In real life, we talk on the phone, send pictures of our life events back and forth via email and video, and we exchange gifts for birthdays and Christmas via US Mail. She lives in Hawaii, I live in Philadelphia. I have been trying to go visit her, but it is very expensive, especially since I am actively raising a large, young family. But we know that we will get together in person in this lifetime. It’s a done deal. We don’t even worry about when. I talk to her as often as my local friends, and my family has as much consideration and regard for her as an aunt. I have online friends from all over the world – Canada, the Philippines, Europe, and Australia – people that I have been interacting with, for years.

I just read a news story yesterday where a journalist talked about how Facebook has opened her father up to a whole group of friends who genuinely care about him. The writer talked about how her father was due to undergo a surgical procedure and that she knew that while at the hospital there were 200+ angels praying and waiting in the wings to hear of her father’s recovery and be there as means of emotional support: she was talking about his Facebook friendships. (See: My Dad Has More Facebook Friends Than I Do, and That’s OK | GeekDad | Wired.com http://bit.ly/q7y8TO).

As for Second Life, I believe it is still in its nascent stages (it launched in 2003), so this is an important time to get on board with it and be a pioneer in this technology as it applies to possibilities for education. Second Life (and other similar virtual platforms) has the potential to really make an impact on educational discourse with classes meeting in 3D settings, and students having sentient interactions with instructors and classmates across distances. Second Life also holds enormous possibility for co-op kinds of job experience opportunities that student librarians could have in 3D digital libraries. Indeed, this work is already going on in library schools like San Jose State University and University of Hawaii where student librarians work the reference desk, perform collection development activities, write scripts, build virtual objects for user interaction, participate on committees, and more. I believe this is excellent experience for working in a digital library environment.

There is a lot of research going on exploring the possibilities of virtual world platforms like Second Life. Many universities across the globe are invested in virtual worlds and are conducting educational research  – The Open University in the UK is one example of a distance education institution doing some really interesting work. In terms of library schools, San Jose State, The iSchool at Drexel, and the University of Hawaii, for example, are active in Second Life. Of course, as with anything, there are critiques and debates to be had with something as new and groundbreaking as virtual world platforms, particularly in librarianship.

However, I believe such debate and analysis helps to create resources and experiences that works to benefit the widest landscape of users. Indeed, the company that just recently purchased the distance education CMS, Blackboard, (see: http://wapo.st/qN9XzA) has investments in gaming and education software companies. I anticipate seeing some kind of collaborative development between these various technologies, for the purpose of making distance education even more interactive and immersive.

BL: It is really annoying when someone asks me about my degree or laughs about my job hunt because they believe some form of the “librarians and libraries are outdated thanks to the Internet” argument. Of course, you and I know this argument to be lacking on many levels. However, the idea still seems prevalent. How can we better address this both as a profession and on a personal level? 

VM: Well; I feel that this issue stems from the original image problem that we librarians have. This may not be a popular thing to say, but I believe that as a profession, we have a self-esteem problem. In my observation and opinion, we do not actively stand up for our profession, and it seems we’re passive in claiming our value in the world. We are an ancient profession that has educated humanity for millennia. Universities were formed based on libraries, and societies weren’t considered literate if they didn’t have a library (see: Lionel Casson’s Libraries in the Ancient World, 2001). And as we know, in today’s times, the public at-large is involved with digital technologies because of the access they have to computers at the library. Whatever is the educational standard of the times, it is the library that creates the space for people to connect with those standards. It is librarians who facilitate the public’s learning of new ways of navigating in society. This has been true since the invention of writing.

How do we address this claimant of social value professionally and personally? Well, I rightfully do not know. I don’t know if there is a definitive answer to this conundrum. The reason I say this is because, if we’re being realistically pragmatic, librarians want their jobs. We want to work, earn a living, pay our bills. If standing up for open and equal access to materials and formats, or for the right for everyone to read what they want to read, or against censorship, interferes with people having a job, then voicedness becomes silenced. People will not stand up if they fear they have something to lose. With library budgets constantly on a carrot string, I don’t know if we librarians ever really feel safe in who we are and what we do. Sometimes I wonder if it is an infrastructural control mechanism to keep libraries under-funded and on the perpetual budget-chopping-block in order to keep librarians afraid to stand for social justice for everyday literacy – because once the people feel supported and empowered – well, they start demanding justice – socially, and economically.

I really worry about the corporatization of libraries. I feel this is where the value of the library has really spiraled downward, because the library is no longer valued as a socio-cultural community institution, but instead, is seen as a tool for commodifying information exchange for the purpose of profit. In a corporate approach, librarians aren’t seen as professionals who have an expertise in their craft, but instead are seen as shift workers who are to follow foreign policies and rules. I realize that what I am saying is possibly controversial and some will see it as unfair and untrue, but I stand for what I am saying here. This is my view based on observation and my own professional experience.

BL: I am glad you brought up the idea of social justice as a part of librarianship. Information is empowering and libraries provide it (for free!) to people regardless of social status, wealth or any other discriminating factors. This is why I also tend to think of libraries as somewhat subversive (my use of that word is in no way pejorative). It is no coincidence that totalitarian regimes either ban libraries or use them as one of their instruments to exercise power. For example, under USSR influence Mongolia’s libraries only collected materials based on Communist reading lists and the general population was discouraged from visiting. This created a stigma that libraries in the country are still dealing with twenty years after independence. That said, your point about librarians fearing for their jobs playing a part in keeping them from fighting for certain things (speaking in general terms) is particularly scary. Am I stating this in too extreme of terms? Is there anything that you think newer librarians, like myself, can to do make sure our voices remain heard in the era of budget cuts and corporatization?

VM:  No, I do not think you are overstating the situation at all. I believe that librarian job security is a very real issue. Many may not want to admit to this for fear of other things, but bottom line – we all want to earn a living in this profession and feel safe in doing that. Sometimes the flavor of our professional practice is dictated by bureaucracy, other times by the community, and prescriptively, we’re all beholden to the agendas of a combination of both the community and a larger bureaucratic infrastructure. Thus to be a librarian is a socially political stance, and therefore risky, and therefore can feel unsafe at times. There are times when we may fear admitting that. Indeed, there are times when we may be too weary to admit it. However, as liaisons between infrastructure and community – we are political beings. That said, I believe that newer (and all ) librarians can take advantage of the new media that is at our disposal to bridge any gaps between community and infrastructure, and to also strategically situate ourselves as toll-takers of that bridge. To get our voices heard, as 21st century librarians, I believe the following need to be true:

1.       Community Savvy: Librarians are clear in their stance as community members, leaders, and foremost, community educators. This means that librarians have to perceive that what they do on a daily basis promotes the education and literacy of library users.

2.       Politically Savvy: As community educators, librarians qualify themselves to speak for the library as a vital and necessary community institution for lifelong learning of all people. This means that librarians have to be willing and able to educate stakeholders on the value of the library.

3.       People Savvy: Librarians strategically collaborate together to bring the best of information resources to the community. To me, this means public, school, academic and special librarians all working together in various ways.

4.       Tech Savvy: Librarians continuously engage in media outlets (online and offline) that reiterate the library’s community value as a socio-cultural educational institution. This means promoting programs and services on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets, including the library’s website.

To be heard in community discourse, newer librarians have to understand that what we do is not just a 9-5 job; it’s a professional career. As such, there are times when we are working after hours to participate in community meetings and events. There are times when we bring work home to meet ordering and publication deadlines, conduct research, and independently learn new skills for our professional practice. There are times when we are traveling beyond the community to promote the library and to handle our continuing education. I believe that if newer librarians understand the socio-cultural-political essence of who we are and what we do – and are courageous in carrying that tradition of professionalism within a digitally connected world, the profession will continue to be relevant and sustainable for the times, and librarians will enjoy continued social value. I’m not guaranteeing that politicians will vote to fund libraries bigger and better; but I do believe that all stakeholders, when consistently educated about the library by librarians, make more informed decisions for the common good. Forgive me if I sound too idealistic, but I believe this is possible.

Now I know there are going to be people who say, “Um, we already do that – Um, we know that.” I am reiterating the tried-and-true here to say this: it never stops and it never gets old. When on the front lines, we have to consistently be community advocates and community educators. I believe this has always been the case and always will be. I believe that like the policeman, fireman, and teacher, the librarian’s stance in the community is a necessary constant that does not and should not change.

BL: You mention that libraries are not necessarily just “quiet spaces” anymore. I completely agree and I think that a lot of other librarians feel the same way (TTW Contributor Justin Hoenke recently ended his This Week in Libraries interview by saying “Let them be loud.”). Do you think libraries are at risk of losing anything by moving towards louder, social spaces? On a related note, I spend a lot of time at Starbucks or Barnes and Noble drinking tea and talking with friends. What do they offer that libraries do not? What can librarians take from their model? 

VM: No, I do not think that libraries are at risk of  losing anything by moving towards louder, social spaces. In truth, contemporary libraries have an ebb and flow to them in terms of noise and social space … as in different times of the day are more active and louder than other times of the day. Nowadays, with digital technologies in libraries, I think most librarians do a great job establishing protocol so that the library best serves the needs of everyone in terms of space for engagement and quiet. I was just reading on a listserv today how one librarian and her staff makes sure that those quiet times of day are quiet (during school hours) and that patrons are aware of those peak times. They have signage in their library that lets patrons know of the peak quiet times, and the peak active periods. Also, libraries today provide contained spaces for various interactions. There are meeting rooms, conference rooms, and designated study spaces to accommodate varying levels of privacy and space. For example, you can have a children’s puppet show going on in the meeting room of the library while high school students are simultaneously engaging in silent study in the YA section. I’ve seen everything in the public library from marching bands to yoga classes.

As for the bookstore phenomenon, we talk about this issue in the Public Library Service class I teach. My thing is this: let bookstores be bookstores; let libraries be libraries. There’s room enough for everyone, and neither has to adopt the identity or practices of the other. I think we have to be mindful in public libraries about the kinds of social spaces we offer our communities, and not readily adapt mainstream social engagement models into every community.

Social spaces in the public library, in particular, need to be specifically tailored to the interests and lifestyles of each community. For example, in the neighborhoods where I used to work, a coffee station would have been culturally incorrect because residents didn’t see such spaces as socially engaging. Also, because they were lower-income neighborhoods, local merchants didn’t appreciate the competition. However, we did used to do a weekly storytelling program every winter holiday season that featured hot chocolate where attendees could keep the mugs. This was always a successful program because parents and grandparents could come in with their children and enjoy the program;  and since it wasn’t a sustainable program or service, local merchants supported the event with product and supplies rather than having issues with the library as a market competitor.

In terms of a sustainable social space in the public library, each community will value something different that serves as a catalyst for social engagement. These preferences must be taken into consideration when planning such services. For example, I know in one large city system, some branches have coffee stations sponsored by the Friends Group as an ongoing fundraiser, while less than a mile away, other library locations did not have a coffee station, but instead, because it was a busy-busy branch for young children, had penny candy and school supplies as an ongoing fundraiser. Basically, I think that’s the idea that librarians can take from bookstores: thoughtfully and mindfully plan your social space to be custom to your community’s unique approaches to social engagement.

BL: In addition to being a librarian and educator, you are also a Street Literature scholar. I admit that is a genre with which I have very little familiarity. But, from my research, it is evident that Street Lit is expanding and growing in popularity. Can you give me your definition of what Street Lit is and what you think the educational possibilities are for schools and libraries? What are a few titles of which librarians should be aware? 

VM: Street Lit is a pulp fiction genre that has been popular in public libraries for about 12 years now. To quote my blog post,“Towards A Def’n 4 Street Lit” (November 24, 2010):

“I situate Street Lit as a sub-genre of the larger literary genre of Urban Fiction. For me, “urban fiction” is  fiction about urban experiences and settings. Street Lit is definitely about urban experiences and settings, albeit, specific urban experiences and settings that self-defines itself based on the shared socio-economic status of a citizenry. Many conflate Street Lit with the “Black/African-American experience.” However, this conflation negates the historicity of Street Lit as represented in historical (and at times canonical) novels chronicling European immigrant experiences in a new America during the early 20th century, southern migration experiences in a new region during the Harlem Renaissance period, or the daily street experiences of British urchins and the London poor during Victorian era England, to name a few other locations for Street Lit, within a historical context.

Contemporary Street Lit is not just a “Black/Latino thing” just because Blacks and Latinos predominately populate low-income city enclaves in current times. Street Lit chronicles the urban narratives of whoever is populating low-income city enclaves in certain times and places. …

There are many educational possibilities for Street Lit in schools and libraries. There are many teachers in various school settings, particularly high school teachers who are working with Street Lit and literary elements of hip hop culture in the English classroom (see Hill, Perez & Irby, 2008; Hill, 2009). I have had teachers and librarians tell me ways in which they have juxtaposed Street Lit titles with canonical works. I have had teens talk to me about how Street Lit was an entry for them acquiring the reading habit to even be able to think about reading a canonical work (Irvin Morris, forthcoming 2011).

There are many, many titles in the street lit genre. Perhaps the best way to recommend quality street lit as this point is to share a pantheon of authors who would be appropriate for classroom settings (depending on various factors): Sister Souljah, Teri Woods, K’wan Foye, Treasure E. Blue, Ashley & Jaquavis, Shannon Holmes. To get a full list of the top Street Lit authors whose books would be readily available at your local library, you can check out my blog post, “Top 10 Street Lit Authors: Urban Booksource.com,” June, 10, 2011.

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Thanks again to Vanessa Morris for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully and with such detail.

Again, if anyone has suggestions for future interviews,please contact me at bclainhart [at] gmail [dot] com. Include “TTW Interview Suggestion”in the subject line.

- TTW Contributor Ben Lainhart

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