Educators That Rock!: Sarah Houghton-Jan

Photo by Marc L. Gonzales, SFStation.

Before the holiday break, findingEducation spoke with Sarah Houghton-Jan, also known as the Librarian in Black, about her roles as a blogger, lecturer and the digital futures manager for the San José Public Library.

Houghton-Jan told findingEducation that when she’s teaching a customer or student something new, she tries to pretend she’s speaking to her mother because “the unknown is really creepy. And that causes me to show a certain level of respect and patience,” she said. “[M]aybe that will work for other people [but] only if you like your mother,” she added with a laugh.

Houghton-Jan was chosen as a Mover & Shaker by Library Journal in 2009. She is also a consultant for the Infopeople Project and a member of the Library & Information Technology Association’s Top Technology Trends Committee.

fE: Could you tell us how you became the digital futures manager for the San José Public Library?

SHJ: I started out not even wanting to be a librarian, and not being very techy. I was just handed our library’s Web site, at the university where I went to library school, and they said, “You’re responsible for maintaining this part of the Web site. Have fun!” I had no HTML training. So I did just a lot of self-training. And I took what few Web-based classes were available.

When I got out of library school, I was looking to relocate to the San Francisco area and one of the jobs that was available was for a combination Web site manager and technology trainer.

I’d been a teacher for a while, and I’d also now managed a Web site, so that was perfect.

fE: Library Journal named you one of 2009’s Movers & Shakers. In a profile from the Journal, a colleague described you as a person that helps customers feel both confident and competent. As a librarian, what tips do you have for interacting with customers?

SHJ: [Before working at the San José Community Library] I taught English Composition for two years at Washington State University, and was an English tutor for four years at both WSU & University of Illinois. When I first started teaching, I realized even though I was just a few years older than the kids in my college classes, they were terrified of me. And I think it’s the same in libraries. It’s so, so important to realize that that power dynamic has shifted automatically without you even doing anything or saying anything.

So you want to set yourself on the same level as your user, and make them aware that whatever it is they are trying to learn how to do is likely not as difficult as they’re worried it will be, and that they will walk out of there knowing how to do it. A lot of that is simply lack of exposure… And the unknown is really creepy.

When I’m teaching, I always try to do so as if I’m targeting my mother. And that causes me to show a certain level of respect and patience and really explain things at a lay level that might not otherwise be a natural impulse for me. Maybe that will work for other people [but] only if you like your mother. [She laughs.]

Also, it really upsets me when I hear librarians having a level of arrogance about whatever their area of specialty is. ‘I’m the techie and you’re not.’ Or even, ‘I have the Dewey Decimal system memorized and you don’t.’ Librarianship is about service. And I would really like us be mindful of that in everything that we do. The customers are who we’re here for.

fE: Speaking of mindfulness and acceptance, are people accepting of you as a Goth librarian?

SHJ: I’ve dressed in black for a long, long time. I’m kind of a neo-goth, the business professional kind of goth. A lot of people are accepting of it, but … some people think I’m scary, or mean or evil, or a Satan worshiper. And they definitely treat me differently. It’s interesting to me that they make that assumption. They put you in a box that they’re comfortable with and then that’s it. They’re done. [She laughs.] But I am still going to dress in black; that’s not going to stop.

fE: Do you have any specific tips for students doing research?

SHJ: There’s this big misconception with almost everyone, library people included, that search engines search everything that’s out there. I think the last estimate I heard was something like only one-and-a-half percent of the Web is being indexed by search engines. That’s all the search engines combined. So what I try to tell people to do is to think about using two or three different search engines, including maybe a meta search engine, or a lesser-known search engine. I still really like and Dogpile.

Also, I think most people are just not aware of the site specific search functionality that Google has, where you can actually use Google to search a site that may not have a search engine or may have a really crappy one.

And if you can afford the time, a lot of sites have live chat help now, and if they don’t, they usually have some kind of e-mail form. Getting help directly from the source instead of wasting your own time clicking around is often a better approach.

Also, try to think about who would know the answer to a question, and look for that. The other day I was trying to figure out how to steam tamales… My husband, who’s also a librarian, just grabbed the laptop off of my lap and went straight to YouTube, typed in tamales and the first 10 results were videos of people showing you exactly how to do it, step-by-step. I didn’t think of that. Videos are exactly what we needed, not verbal step-by-step directions, but somebody showing me. If you stop and think about your search strategy before just diving in, that can really save you a lot of angst later.

fE: Some people say that kids today are digital natives. Others say they have no clue how to search and depend on Wikipedia for everything. What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about teenagers’ use of technology?

SHJ: In San José, we have a huge Spanish-speaking population, a huge Vietnamese population and a Chinese population. And there are definitely differences between our different neighborhoods in terms of whether the teens prefer FaceBook or MySpace, whether the teens actually own iPods or not … and whether they have Internet access at home or not.

I just wish people would stop painting this generation with such a wide brush and making these huge generalizations. Usually it is what you just said, ‘They’re born with it, they’re experts, [and] we don’t need to teach them anything.’ And that’s just not true. Even for the economically advantaged, a lot of those teens have no idea how to use a search engine well [and] have no idea what Wikipedia actually is.

fE: On your blog you’ve written a lot about libraries that are on a budget. What are the main things that librarians can do to keep going when they don’t have a lot of funds?

SHJ: One thing would be definitely looking at open source and otherwise free software; for example, using a free content management system with statistical software to run your Web site. It seems we have this snobbish attitude that free is somehow inferior and in a lot of cases that’s just not true anymore.

Libraries also need to be a lot more effective about how they’re spending their staff time. Use tools that update multiple networks at once, or that let you monitor multiple virtual reference options all at the same time, so you’re not staffing them all separately.

fE: One of the posts on your blog was related to a staffless library. What is your gut reaction when you hear the words “staffless library”?

SHJ: To me you have to have some level of human intervention to have something be a library. What has stimulated a number of responses on my blog is that people who work in libraries have the same reaction … It’s not a true library. It doesn’t have a place for me to sit and read. It doesn’t have Wi-Fi. I think there is something almost insulting to the libraries that are out there, saying this one-room, locked-down closet with some books on the shelf is a library.

Sarah Houghton-Jan’s Favorite Sites:

Boing Boing

Related Link Resources
Librarian in Black
San Jose Public Library
Library Journal: Movers & Shakers: Sarah Houghton-Jan
Infopeople Project
Library & Information Technology Association: Top Technology Trends