Monday, April 23, 2007

The ‘Fish Interview | Jessamyn West: Nothing Hushed or Placid about the Blogger & UW iSchool, ahem!, Library School Alum

Jessamyn West writes, a weblog that receives close to 7,000 hits a day. She graduated from the UW Library School in 1996, and during that time was, at one point, the Library School Graduate Students President and also served as the editor for The Sojourner, now The Silverfish. Her first job out of library school was at the Shoreline Community College library reference desk, which she liked a lot. What West does: speaker, teacher, librarian, writer, blog moderator on MetaFilter and sometimes technology instructor/consultant. If offered, she says, she'd absolutely consider a stint teaching at the iSchool.

In school, she was candid and vocal. Nothing seems to have changed much. In protest against the USA PATRIOT ACT, West created a number of notices that libraries can post (and have been sanctioned for use in Vermont libraries). One of them, for example, reads: "The FBI has not been here" and then in smaller font, "Watch very closely for the removal of this sign." (See image below.) In 2002 Library Journal identified her as a "mover and shaker," and she was profiled by Wired magazine in 2004. That same year she was invited to blog at the Democratic National Convention, the first year that such an event gave bloggers credentials. In 2003, she co-edited, Revolting Librarians Redux, a follow up to the 1972 original, Revolting Librarians.’s motto is putting the rarin’ back in librarian since 1999. She has been a member of the American Library Association Council. For more Jessamyn dope, check out her Wikipedia entry; tool around on or; or catch her at the ALA annual event this June, where she has a speaking gig. She now lives in Vermont.

What follows are two phone interviews compiled from 3/15/07 and 3/26/07. The context has not been jerked around. –JH

JOYCE: What was the best thing about being at the iSchool?

JESSAMYN: Well, when I was there, it was called library school.

JOYCE: Okay, the library school.

JESSAMYN: For me, the best thing about being at the University of Washington at the library school was that we were in the library. We were in the Suzzallo Library. Definitely, you felt a connection to the stuff. I fully accept that computers are a part of libraries, but it was really neat to be in the library with the books and the computers, the stained glass, and everything else—it helps to kind of remember what you were doing and why you were doing it. The second thing is the UW is just sort of an amazing place to go to school. It’s really well funded, it seems to me. The UW is a really well set-up institution.

I went to a tiny liberal arts school for undergrad, and just being in a big university with big computer labs and big libraries and lots and lots of people that work there, cheap bus passes, all the stuff—it was great. So it wasn’t just the resources in the program. We had a little computer lab in Kane Hall, and we had a little computer with a dial-up modem in the student study room, but being able to use all the big computer labs and have the shell accounts and getting web space back in 95, that’s a big deal.

That helped propel me into somebody who really cared about technology because I had access to it, and I could mess around with it. They really let us do whatever, and they try hard to give you good access to resources, and that was great.

JOYCE: Where was it that had the 24-hour computer lab?

JESSAMYN: Oh, gosh, I don’t remember. They don’t have it anymore, but it was down toward the waterfront. It was a hike, but it was a 24-hour computer lab. You go mess around with computers at two o’clock in the morning. They used to tell stories about it, how it had all these big main frames in it and then when they took all the mainframes out, they actually had to heat the building. The mainframes were putting out so much heat they kept the place warm, and I don’t really know if that’s true; everybody says that.

JOYCE: That’d be some big mainframes.

JESSAMYN: Yeah, well in the mid-1990s they were still kind of big.

JOYCE: So. On the other side of it, what was the worst thing for you?

JESSAMYN: We were in between deans, sort of. Dr. Van Orton was there when I was there, and I was there at kind of a weird time. It was a two year program. I went three years and I took a year off, and then I came back. I think I was there for an extra semester or something like that. I did a special project and stayed late, but we were sort of between deans. Dr. Van Orton was kind of new, and then she announced that she wasn’t staying so the whole time there was a lack of direction.

I think people felt like they weren’t sure what was going on. Everybody knew sort of the web and computing stuff was really changing the face of librarianship, but there wasn’t a lot of leadership to kind of push the school in that direction early. They did a search for a while, but we had sort of an interim director. Betty Bengston was there for a year, and I don’t even remember who was there right when I was leaving. There was kind of an interim after Dr. Van Orton before mike Eisenberg came in. It just seemed like there was a lot of stuff up in the air. There were a lot of faculty (positions) open that weren’t getting filled and so everybody there was working a lot. And they were moving to the new building, and that was taking forever, and it was just kind of a messy time to be in school. Everybody was doing a good job, but in a two-year program you got a dean who’s leaving. The whole time you’re there, everything’s all messed up.

JOYCE: And there weren’t as many professors there as there are now.

JESSAMYN: Seven faculty, eight, nine. It was teeny, and it was fun. Like I really got along with pretty much all the faculty, which was very nice. We had one faculty member who came in and left—Dr. Oh, Sam Oh. He was wonderful! Everybody loved him, but then he left. It was unclear what the problem was, but things were having a hard time getting off the ground.

JOYCE: What would you consider one of the most important issues that library science is facing or will have to face?

JESSAMYN: Well, I think there’s a set of them. One: librarianship is historically been almost like a social work type profession, and now that we’re in the information age and dealing with people that have to have a much, much wider skill set, being able to attract people with that wide range of skills is hard. A lot of libraries are ready for it. I work in the public library world here in Vermont, and the public librarians don’t get paid anything. As a result they don’t wind up attracting people who have experience working in libraries. It’s mostly like people from town, and that’s fine. I mean, people from town is really helpful for other things working in a library, but I feel like those libraries aren’t really keeping up with technology. Those libraries aren’t joining the information age at some level.

I feel like academic libraries don’t have this problem as much, and bigger public libraries have a different problem. They just have budget problems so the pay is lousy. The public library is known historically for hiring a lot of people right out of library school so it’s great: you get your feet wet, you get a real professional job, whatever, but the pay is like—you can’t live in Manhattan. It’s terrible, and that’s embarrassing. As a profession, it’s embarrassing that we expect people to have advanced degrees and we don’t pay them anything. You look at other people who have advanced degrees who do sort of similar professional level work, and they’re getting paid a lot more. You know, geologists. There’s a job where you need a master’s degree and a certain amount of training, and your average, entry-level geologist gets paid a lot more.

JOYCE: Do you think that librarians would have more of an advantage financially if they were working in a larger market?

JESSAMYN: You mean like moving to the big city?

JOYCE: Yeah.

JESSAMYN: I think it’s hit or miss. The best trained library jobs that I had were in a big city, for Vermont standards, but it’s 20,000 to 30,000 people. I got paid more there as an entry-level librarian with a degree than I would have gotten paid if I was at New York Public or Boston Public. So I don’t really know. Part of it’s also weighing benefits and how much rent costs and a whole bunch of other stuff. I can live here more cheaply than I could live in Boston or New York, and so that affords me different stuff. But as far as issues, money’s one of them, but I feel like just figuring out the technology stuff—for kind of a broad-based way of explaining it—I feel like computers and technology are changing really fast, and they’re changing how we access information and the profession isn’t getting up to speed as fast as the technology is changing.

In protest against the USA PATRIOT ACT, a sign designed for library use by West.

And people don’t retire because why would they? The jobs are good, but you wind up with—I mean they’re good, you know what I mean. They don’t pay well; they’re good jobs in many other ways. You wind up with this problem where you have a bunch of—you know it’s not necessarily an age-related thing, but it can be—where you have lots of older staff who aren’t either familiar or comfortable with or even like the new technologies. Libraries are starting to use it anyhow.

Consortiums are saying, here’s your new OPAC, and if you don’t have people that have kind of ‘I’m game for that’ attitude, they wind up passing them on to their patrons. We see libraries all the time where library staff pass on to patrons (the idea that) ‘computers are hard’ and ‘computers—you can’t really understand what they’re doing’ and ‘they make my job hard’ and ‘they make me unhappy,’ and I think that spawns a whole generation of people who believe that that’s an appropriate way to think about technology. But you never think, ‘Oh, cars are hard,’ ‘I can’t understand my car.’ You know what I mean?

JOYCE: They’re passing on this story.

JESSAMYN: Right, right. If you say that can’t understand your car, people are like, well, you’re kind of an idiot or get a mechanic or maybe you should learn—it’s a manageable thing to learn. And yet we hear people say it about computers all the time. I hear myself say it sometimes about learning to use my new cell phone like, I don’t understand this! But I’m not an idiot so I’m gonna figure it out and keep my mouth shut until I figure it out. I think we hear a lot of people—and it’s not just libraries—but I feel like librarians are the people who people go to to have a lot of stuff explained to them. It’s different if your accountant doesn’t understand the technology or doctor because they can hire people to solve those problems, but in libraries, you go to your librarian and you’re like, what’s up with MySpace? My kid’s on MySpace all the time. And if you have librarians being like, ‘I don’t’ know. It’s totally ugly, stupid web site—what?’ That doesn’t help people.

JOYCE: Also, you have these people who look up to librarians.

JESSAMYN: Yes, they totally believe you’re authoritative. So you’re talking to someone with a master’s degree and look something up on the internet—(phone’s dying) I think that’s my phone thing out of its little battery, but I can hop upstairs, jump onto the other phone because I understand technology! (Both laugh.) See, I could’ve just sat there and been like, what? it’s beeping; I don’t know why it’s doing that, what’s going on?

That’s the thing. Everything in our lives is technology based in some weird way or the other, but I think we single out computers because they make us feel bad about ourselves or whatever. I’m sure a lot of people can’t get beyond that for whatever reason, which is a leadership problem in the same way pay is a leadership problem.

JOYCE: Do you ever think you might come back out west? I see on your site you speak, but it seems to be more on the east coast.

JESSAMYN: I speak pretty much everywhere. I go where I’m invited basically. I was going to speak in Seattle at the end of March, but it didn’t work out. In the general sense, yeah, I would love to be back on the west coast. More specifically, I have no plans. I haven’t been back since I moved here.

JOYCE: And that’s been how long?

JESSAMYN: I was going back and forth between Vermont and Seattle for about three years, four years. And then I fell in love with a guy who eventually ended up going to law school so I moved out here for good when he was in law school, but then we split up. I just haven’t gotten back in the groove of going back and forth, and I have a local job here that I really like.

JOYCE: Three years is a lot of time. There have been a lot of changes in Seattle.

JESSAMYN: That’s what I’ve heard. I have a lot of friends that live there, but basically I left before they’d opened the new downtown library. They were building it. I’d seen it, I’d touched it, but I haven’t been inside.

JOYCE: It’s kind of like a cross between a theme park, an art gallery and a library.

JESSAMYN: Well, people seem to like it.

JOYCE: It’s not cozy, but I like it. I couldn’t believe Seattle did it. It’s like something you’d see in New York. You should come see it.

JESSAMYN: Hopefully, I can come out and speak again. I spoke in Oregon last year which was fun, but I was running off some place after so I couldn’t make it up to Seattle. I still feel a kinship with the west coast. I feel like I belong here. I grew up here and it feels normal to me, but I enjoy the west coast a lot.

JOYCE: Maybe we can get you out to the iSchool.

JESSAMYN: That would be fun. One of the first talks I ever gave, like three or four years ago, was there on collaborative information systems. It was kind of talking about blogs, but it was just talking about people working together to build content on the web. It wasn’t that high tech. It was more of a fun talk. Oh, my book had just come out, Revolting Librarians, and it was just really fun. I was wandering around like oh, my gosh, I went here 10 years ago. It’s totally different.

JOYCE: Are you going to write another book?

JESSAMYN: You know, people keep asking me, and I don’t feel like right now I really have a book in me. I love to write, but writing a book for somebody else is an awful lot of work for basically no return, if you’re not looking for tenure. I don’t really feel like right now there’s one topic where I really have a bunch to say, and I want to write it all down in a formal way, with footnotes. I can just write about it on my blog.

JOYCE: Would O’Reilly be something you’d consider or do they just do technical stuff?

JESSAMYN: I’m not sure if I’m geeky or techy enough to write for O’Reilly, but they’re a publisher I respect. Those books like nice. I learned HTML from reading their books.

JOYCE: Well, if you do, I’d love to know.

JESSAMYN: I’ll let you post it!

JOYCE: Thank you for doing this. I didn’t think it would happen after seeing that you were in Australia.

JESSAMYN: I hide from the school a little bit to be honest. Not on purpose. I didn’t join the alumni group. I asked not to be on their mailing list. I don’t want to get a bunch of junk mail from the University of Washington. I don’t mind hearing what’s going on in the school. I read the website sometimes.

JOYCE: That’s probably a pretty smart move. I’ll have to keep that in mind when I graduate. Thanks, again. It was great talking to you.

JESSAMYN: Yeah, likewise.

Joyce Hansen
Editor Silverfish,'06-'07
The Silverfish Blog, Feed & eNewsletter

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