Guest Post: Taking on the Special Library Experience via Independent Study

Greg Bem and Anna Nash have spent the past academic quarter working within the Ann Lennartz Memorial Library at the Seward Park Audubon Center. During this independent study through the UW iSchool, they have spent significant time visiting special libraries, researching special and small library experiences through academic articles, and have been engaging with the Audubon library on a weekly basis. The following post describes some of their adventures.

Part 1: Journeying through the Local Special Library Scene by Anna Nash

Mid-Fall quarter last year Greg Bem told me about a volunteer opportunity he was perusing at the Audubon Center in Seward Park. I thought it sounded so wonderful that I invited myself to join him in cataloging the library. When we were preparing to request that our work be considered an independent study, Greg added a goal of visiting other small and special libraries around Seattle as part of the class. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this was an inspired decision on his part. I have been to countless libraries in my life. Growing up I used no less than seven libraries, when I studied abroad I went to libraries in Rome Italy, Cork Ireland, and Kathmandu Nepal. I’ve worked in public, academic, and special libraries, and every place I worked and visited I learned something from.

When I was young I thought every library was just like the libraries I had used, that all libraries operated, basically, the same. They might use different classification systems but they were, in all other ways, the same. As I grew and worked in different libraries I found out that that is absolutely not true. In our tours for this class we visited the Northwest Mystery and Folklore Museum, The Henry Reed Collection Study Center, The KEXP Library, the Frye Art Museum Library, and most recently the Mountaineers Library. We learned something about our work at the Audubon Center and the Ann Lennartz Library at each of the libraries we visited. One thing  hat enhanced our experiences is that we were able to ask questions that were relevant to our project. When we came across an issue or a potential issue we were able to discuss it with people who were working in similar situations and find out how they had succeeded. Likewise we were able to avoid certain pitfalls from discussions about issues the libraries we visited had.

At the Northwest Mystery and Folklore Museum we learned that dedication and passion can greatly affect the longevity of an organization. We also saw that a small highly specialized library can be a great tool for an organization and that book and library material can operate as cultural objects as well as information sources.

When I visited the Henry Reed Collection Study Center I had no idea what to expect. The collection is based solely on what material the Henry Art Gallery owns in their collection. Again, the collection serves as a tool to enhance a visit to the Study Center. Staff gather pieces of art and show them along with books and pamphlets about the item and the artist. The same way a bird watcher might use a study guide to discover more about a specific bird, an art scholar can learn more about the piece they are viewing with the material in the Study Center Library.

The KEXP Library is closed to the public and does not circulate the same way a standard library might, but it still gets amazing use. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, KEXP DJs and volunteers broadcast to an audience around the world. The material used for shows are primarily grabbed from the stacks in the KEXP library so special collections are set aside to make grabbing frequently played music quickly. I was delightful to see that CDs are the top pick from DJs but that initial stages of a project to digitize the collection are underway. The same way it is delightful to see Audubon users on nature walks pull out books as well as smart phones. The other thing we saw at the KEXP Library was a strong sense of community and how it can affect the library and how it is used.

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Our visit to the Frye Art Museum was short but intense. We learned the history and use of the library pretty quickly and were able to discuss our concerns with the Ann Lennartz Memorial Library, specifically project hand offs. The Frye had had many volunteers and staff who have worked with and on the library and archive, in a similar fashion the library at Seward Park will not always have Greg and I hovering around on Saturdays. This visit in particular we benefited from visiting during our project. From our discussions that day we were able to formulate a plan that will, hopefully, ensure a successful hand off when the time comes.

The final visit of the quarter was to the Mountaineers Library at the Mountaineers Center in Shoreline. The library is in the middle of a downsizing project. Due to lack of use the History Committee has taken charge of the collection and the space will be transformed into a multipurpose reading room. Only the most current and topical material will be available to visitors for use. When I went most of the books were on their sides and bright tags and markers were placed all around the room denoting where the material would go. From this I learned that not all libraries will be able to fulfill their original intended purpose and that, when it comes down to it, a library exists to serve the needs of the patrons. I am sad that a library is being downsized, but if the patrons are only using the most topical and recent material then that is what should be available to them.

As Greg and I continue to work with the Audubon Center at the Ann Lennartz Memorial Library I am going to continue my visits to other small and special libraries. Our education isn’t complete just because the quarter is!

Part 2: Being Inside Seward Park’s Audubon Center by Greg Bem

The project started when I responded to a call for volunteers sent out by the Seward Park Audubon Center last fall. I inquired whether they had any information resources (like a library) and got an immediate enthusiastic reply from Ali McCarthy. Yes, they do have a library, and she and Joey Mansen were both excited to have any help with it. A conversation with Anna Nash, and then with Nancy Gershenfeld, and a pretty straightforward bureaucratic process led to the independent study getting approved!

Greg at the Audubon Center
During the winter break Anna and I met with the staff at the Center and conducted an audit of the library. We learned what needs existed and offered to assist in every way we could. We decided to start the independent study in alignment with the winter academic quarter. The first thing Anna and I did once the study was in place was research automation systems and security systems. Anna, having more practical knowledge about security  systems based on her time working in libraries with security gates, focused on the security systems while I, having researched proprietary and open source systems during the fall quarter decided to focus on the integrated library systems (ILSs). Both of us had a very intense first week taken up with webinars and communications with a variety of vendors, as well as research of open source options for ILSs. Along with the information on the security systems, Anna and I put together a comprehensive proposal and presented the proposal to the staff with our recommendations. Among the top choices for ILSs were LibraryWorld (costing roughly $400/year) and OPALS (which is open source and includes free external hosting for nonprofits).

The staff decided on going with OPALS (at least for the sake of this quarter) with the potential to switch to a proprietary system in the future. The staff also let us know that the security gates weren’t a possibility at this point. Another complication of the security system we discovered included lack of physical space in the center to fit the system. Once the ILS was decided upon, Anna and I surveyed the collection and created a workflow for managing the “creation” or “implementation” of the catalog. We visited (and continue to visit) the library every week. Due to the restriction of hours of the Center and our work schedules, we’ve only been able to visit on Saturdays, but we have also done a lot of work remotely. This is due to the ILS being a cloud platform, which means one can access the system as an administrator or non-administrator from any location.

Without going into too much detail, I will say that using the Z39.50 functionality of the catalog has saved us drastic time. We have, at the time of this writing, cataloged nearly every physical item within the library, which totals just over 1,300. There has been some original cataloging conducted (IE creating MARC records from scratch), which has been very easy within OPALS. We have used WorldCat, FirstSearch, and a variety of other tools to ensure accuracy and timeliness (efficiency). While the catalog is pretty much complete, we still have plenty to do: training documents, a collection development policy, and general “how-to” documentation still needs to be developed and/or finalized. We also have several books to mend, several “trouble books” that have some significant errors or lack of description within the system. Call number labels have not been applied to a good chunk of the books in the collection, and signage needs some major revamping. We are ready to transform this library and unleash its presence onto the public, but that release might have to wait for a few more weeks.

Overall, this experience has been incredibly valuable, incredibly rewarding, and incredibly intimate. It has been fun, too, as we have gotten to know Ali, Joey, and many others at the Audubon Center, from the volunteers to those participating in the Master Urban Naturalist program. These folks and the general public (many of whom love to browse the library—particularly the children’s books) make every foray into the library a lovely, adventurous experience. It’s been the kind of experience that will ensure we continue to volunteer there and continue to track the value of our services.

Oh and before I sign off, I hope everyone will take a moment and checkout the OPAC for the library! Maybe you’ll consider stopping by and checking something out, too.

Greg and Anna are second year online MLIS students at the iSchool at UW. Greg (gbem419@uw.edu) works in marketing and is a mover and shaker of the local poetry scene in Seattle. Anna (nasha@uw.edu) is a prison librarian and visual artist. They will both be continuing to volunteer at Seward Park following the conclusion of the independent study. You can visit their joint blog at http://sewardparklib.wordpress.com.

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