On Rockstars, Foxes and Family Legacies

A Foxy Librarian

A very nice thing happened to me today. The Library Loon wrote a profile about me in honor of Ada Lovelace Day:

The Loon has not uncommonly pointed students to Ms. Walker’s writing and social-media presences. Any students who come to resemble Ms. Walker are impressive students indeed, and all the Loon’s students are fortunate that she is their example.

I’m not one to toot my own horn. I don’t (think) I chase notoriety, though I do take a certain amount of pleasure in being a sparklepony. I don’t think it would be wrong to say that my typical modus operandi is keeping my head down and avoiding (professional) detection. This is why not only was I surprised to hear about this profile, but it may explain why I felt it so deeply. Without going into detail, I will simply say that this profile came exactly when I needed to be reminded that the work I do outside of my library has a great deal of value; perhaps even more value than the work I do within the library’s walls.

On Rockstars

The concept of rockstar librarians seems to be on the radar (again). If you’re going to read anything about it, read Coral’s piece, because she makes the point that it’s irresponsible to wield power unwisely. Not only that, it’s disingenuous to deny that your status conveys power, but that’s another topic for another time.

The idea of rockstar librarians got me thinking. What qualities come to mind when you think of a rockstar?

  • Talent
  • Notoriety
  • Hard work
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Awards and accolades

You know what else comes to mind when I think of rockstars?

  • Sycophants
  • Distance
  • Bodyguards that are hired to keep rockstars away from the fans
  • Groupies
  • Excess
  • Debauchery (hi, library conferences)
  • Hubris

Also, if you aren’t selling out arenas, I don’t think you can legitimately call yourself a rockstar, no matter how many keynotes you’re invited to give at library conferences each year.

This isn’t envy or jealousy talking. I think people — especially women — should market themselves and be proud of their accomplishments. It’s just that the term comes with so much baggage, and it’s baggage that seems at odds with the stated mission and goals of the profession.

Family Legacy

Henry Louis Gates’ Finding Your Roots airs on PBS Tuesday nights at 8pm. Every time I see an episode, I become more and more convinced that I should quit my job to become a genealogical researcher. I need the steady paycheques so I won’t be quitting anytime soon. Instead I spent a few hours researching my family’s history. I’ve hit a brick wall with information from my mother’s side of the family, but I made a major discovery on my father’s side.

Screenshot of Census Record from 1900

This screen capture is from the 1900 US Census. The names you see here — Amous and Florence Walker — were my paternal great-grandparents. Amous and Florence were born in Georgia in 1864. This means that Amous and Florence were the first free people in my family. I don’t have the words to adequately describe how this made me feel, but I will say that it affirmed my place in history in a way that a thousand documentaries about slavery or the civil rights movement never have.

On Managing WordPress Development

I’ve used WordPress to run personal sites for almost ten years1. WordPress runs some of the library’s microsites2, but the development tasks were split between our graphic designers (HTML and CSS for child themes) and our web application developers (PHP, writing custom functions). In short: I never got to touch the code.

All of this changed with a couple recent projects. This time the application developers created WordPress instances, but all of the PHP, HTML and CSS development happened within my department. Design and implementation were handed off to our graphic designer with some pinch-hitting from me as needed. One site functions beautifully, while the other has been the bane of my existence for the last three months.

It isn’t anyone’s fault that things went dramatically sideways with one of the projects — these things happen. It’s a corporate cliché to suggest that this was a “learning experience”, but I did learn some things about managing website development among distributed teams, and how the process differs from working as a solo developer.

The Rules

  • Implement a content strategy for the website. Before writing a single line of code, take the time to gather and organize the content that will appear on the site. Create a sitemap and overview of all of the pages the site will contain.

  • Create a functional requirements document. This includes any plugins needed. For example, if your website requires a gallery, your requirements should state whether the site will use WordPress’ native gallery feature, or if you’ll require a third-party plugin. If you’ve never written a requirements document, here is a useful template.

  • Choose a simple yet robust theme or theme framework. Don’t choose a theme based on looks alone. Using your requirements document as a guide, research themes or theme frameworks, note whether required features are missing, and outline how you plan to incorporate any missing features (will you write custom functions, or is a plugin available?)

  • Develop locally, not on a live server. This should go without saying, but I mention because it emerged as an issue during implementation. Having a sandbox server environment that mirrors the live sever configuration is essential, and it reduces the amount of time you’ll spend moving the site from the staging server to a live site. I prefer MAMP for local WordPress development3, but the Bitnami WordPress Stack is also a good choice (and somewhat easier to set up than MAMP).

  • Use WP_DEBUG to test your code. Debugging code is an important part of any project. Use WP_DEBUG on your staging server to trigger the debug mode in WordPress and to ensure compatibility.

  • Outline your functions before writing the code. One of the best rules I learned as a novice developer was “Code tells you how, but comments tell you why.” Ideally code should be clean enough to be human-readable. Some developers think that commenting makes for cluttered code, but when you’re working with distributed teams, comments (and meaningful function names) ensure that everyone understands a function’s intended purpose. The image below shows how I map out functions using comments before writing code:

an image that shows how I map out functions with comments

As a manager, my job is to support my team as much as possible. I believe in empowering people to make their own decisions, and having structured yet flexible processes in place is an essential part of the process, and is one of the most important tasks for a manager. I’m still learning; hopefully you’ll benefit from some of my more painful lessons.

  1. Not this version. This site is generated by Jekyll
  2. Small scale websites that exist as subdirectories or subdomains of the library’s primary domain. 
  3. This is a case of do as I say, not as I do. The setup at work is different (and outside of my control), but if the choice were up to me, this is how we would approach local site development. 

You Are Beyond Compare

Comparison Shopping

I’ve just signed up for Lauren Bacon and Tanya Geisler’s Beyond Compare course. The focus of the program is to help women step away from comparing ourselves to other people, and “into celebrating each other’s successes.”

When I initially read through the course description, I didn’t think it would be relevant. “I don’t have a problem with comparing myself to other women,” I said. “What’s good for them is good for them, and what’s good for me is good for me.” But when I took some time to think about it, I realized that I do have a problem with comparing myself to other women, specifically:

  • Whenever I think I’m not polished enough
  • Whenever I think I’m not professional enough
  • Whenever I think I don’t have the right skills to make it into higher-level positions at work
  • Whenever I say to myself “I wish I could do that…”, no matter the skill or event
  • Whenever I don’t share my opinions or ideas at work for fear that they’ll be mocked, dissected, or worse, discredited

How Can I Be Better?

I’ve spent the last few years working out how I could be a better friend, employee, manager, person. I haven’t really reached any grand conclusions, and honestly, I feel that for every step forward I take in my development I’m still taking several steps back. We all stumble, but strength comes from our ability to pull ourselves up to standing once more. This is the step I need the most help with.

Lauren and Tanya believe it’s human nature to compare ourselves to other people, and challenging ourselves to do and be better is a fundamental part of growth and development. Where we tend to fall short is when we let these comparisons consume us and rob us of the ability to celebrate ourselves and our own successes.

Competitiveness and insecurity caused me to make some really unwise professional and personal choices. Maybe if I’d had a better handle on the my strengths, I wouldn’t have walked away from a job at a software development company with no notice. If I’d believed my plurality of identities were assets instead of liabilities, I might have spared myself from the psychological and financial repercussions of a decision made in anger. If I hadn’t devoted so much energy to thinking I could never measure up to her standards, I might have felt more equipped to go to my former manager and tell her how deeply her critical style cut me.

Get the Starter Kit

If you’re tired of looking outward at everyone else and finding yourself wanting, consider picking up the (free) Beyond Compare Starter Kit. Whether you work alone or as part of the Beyond Compare program, the Starter Kit will guide you through a series of exercises that challenge you to go deeper and promise to transform your way of thinking. You can get the kit by giving Lauren and Tanya your email address, and they’ll send you a link to the PDF download.

I’m excited to start this process, and I’m looking for a few other kindred spirits to join me on this journey. If you’re interested in forming a Beyond Compare discussion group, respond in the comments below. I think we would all benefit from being honest, being vulnerable, and being unafraid to tell the truth in a supportive atmosphere. When the heart opens, learning and love pour in.

The Murder Victim? Your Library Assumptions.

I’ve just been appointed to the editorial board of In the Library with the Lead Pipe, a peer-reviewed journal founded by a team of international librarians who work in various types of libraries. Lead Pipe publishes works by authors from diverse perspectives, including librarians, support staff, administrators, technologists, and community members.

Initially I’ll mostly focus on editing and on working on the site redesign committee, but I’m also hoping my participation will provide a much-needed kick in the pants to get me to write more long form pieces.

This is a great honour, and I’m excited to work with such a talented group of people!

My First Launch Center Pro Action

I’m a huge fan of Day One, the journaling app for iOS and MacOS X. Even though I’m not a very disciplined journaler (or blogger), Day One makes it really easy to quickly capture work ideas, stray thoughts, crazy dreams from the night before, and just about anything else I might want to refer to later.

One of the ways my journaling practice has improved is by using automated actions to create a template for a daily summary entry. If you’re using iOS, there are many options available for automating actions, managing snippets and building templates but one of the most powerful is Launch Center Pro. In brief, Launch Center Pro doesn’t just launch apps, it allows you to launch complex actions in a single click on your iPhone or iPad.

Josiah Wiebe‘s Launch Center Pro Daily Summary action is great for quickly entering data into Day One, but I didn’t like the rigid table formatting, and I needed a few extra options to help me keep track of days off (sick days, vacation days, days when the library is closed, and so on). So, armed with the original action , a text editor, and a Wikipedia entry that explained percent encoding, I created my first Launch Center Pro daily journaling action.

The formatting differences between Wiebe’s action:
Josiah Wiebe's Day One daily summary layout

and my version:
Cecily Walker's Day One daily journaling layout

I may revisit this action at some point in the future. I’d like to create an action for tracking my rheumatoid arthritis flare ups so that I can understand (and maybe predict) them better.

This is the very first time I’ve shared anything that sort of resembles code or an automation on my blog, and I’m pretty excited about it. As I wrote in my journal, all of the work (and money!) I’ve put toward working with Ruby, JavaScript, and WordPress is changing the way I think about writing code and how I use code and automations to solve problems.

Download my Launch Center Pro Simple Daily Summary action for Day One.

A Brief Survey: Library Social Media and Multilingual Messages

I’m trying to decide whether we should start promoting library events in multiple languages on the Library’s social media channels. Given that the number of fans/followers we have whose default language is anything other than English is quite small, I’m a bit on the fence about it. I know it isn’t purely a numbers game; we create printed events brochures in other languages, and it’s important to reach out to all communities. Still, I’m not sure whether this is the right strategy for our social media audience.

If you wouldn’t mind completing this very brief survey, you’d help me out a great deal. Sure, it’s anecdotal, but sometimes anecdotes are helpful.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Museums (and Possibly Libraries?)

How long does a person stay at a museum? A couple of hours? There are people who would want exhibits at a museum to have a whole lesson plan so you can poll people and ask them “What did you learn?” Then you’d judge the success of the exhibit based on how well people do on these exams.

I have a different view. The person is going to spend incalculably more time in a classroom than they ever will in a museum. So a museum shouldn’t be a supplement to a classroom. It should be a force to ignite flames within a person’s soul of curiosity. An exhibit should make a person say “Wow! I’ve got to find out more about this!” and trigger them to explore more advanced accountings of the topic, in books or science videos. Once the flame is lit, the learning becomes self-motivating. — (from “Why The New Cosmos Matters“)


With Great Exposure Comes Great Fear

I have been struggling with the amount of attention (and requests for engagement) that have come my way as a result of a couple of blog posts I wrote about intersectionality in librarianship. In an attempt to understand why I felt like I was slowly having the top layers of my skin flayed off, I started reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly.

You know how you can read a text and find so much that resonates with you that the whole thing glows with highlighter marks and is littered with post it notes? If I were reading a paper copy, this would be one of those books. Alas, it’s an ebook.

Anyway, Brown, if you aren’t familiar with her work, focuses on the ways that shame and a fear of vulnerability keeps us from achievement, whether in personal or professional contexts. Early in the book she relates the story of her journey toward accepting the increased attention she received as a result of her TEDxHouston talk. Her inclination had been to shrink from the spotlight, not because she didn’t believe in her research, but because she was afraid to make herself vulnerable. She writes:

In a culture full of critics and cynics, I have always felt safer in my career flying under the radar.

Seeing this in print had such an effect on me that I couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed and hobble over to my computer, I had to immediately peck this entry out on my iPhone.

I am as critical and cynical as the next person. That may be why I was attracted to UX work in the first place, and why I feel so comfortable with my position as the Merry Snarkster in #LibrarianTwitter. But if I’m being honest — and I think it’s time I do that for once — the level of cynicism I’ve seen on Twitter, blogs, and library publications of late is disturbing. It’s disappointing, and disheartening and the idea of opening myself up to these well-honed slings and arrows scares the shit out of me.

It isn’t because I don’t believe in what I have to say, or because I believe it isn’t important. I just don’t want to invite the negativity into my life, especially now when I feel ill-prepared to handle it in a mature and emotionally detached fashion.

I think the cynicism is dangerous, and I think it silences just as many people as the fear of racist, sexist, or homophobic reprisal does.

I don’t have any answers, and obviously, this is something I’ll have to keep working on in my own life, but at the risk of losing an audience who expects snark and sass from me, I’m going to do my best not to contribute to the bitter back channel anymore.

And while I’m at it, I’ll also work on stepping out from behind a persona and allowing you to see who I really am, scars, warts and all.

Letters to a Young Minority* Librarian

I’ve been thinking about what advice I’d give to a young librarian or information professional who was just starting out in this career, in part because Jessica Olin of Letters to a Young Librarian asked me to write a guest post. But I’ve also been thinking about it as part of my larger interest in recruitment, retention, and mentorship of minorities* in this profession.

If you are a library who self-identifies as a member of one or more minority or marginalized communities, what sort of advice would you have liked to hear before you attended library school? What advice is useful to you now that you’re working as a librarian? Comments are open below, but you can also respond via Twitter if you’re so inclined.

*I use the term minority not only to indicate racial or ethnic minorities, but also as a way of including LGBTQI-identified people, differently abled people, or any other identity that places you on the margins of the professional or societal centre.