This post is a summary of my presentation at the ALA Annual Conference entitled “So You Want to be a Director: Fleas, Death Threats, Budget Cuts, and Prison Wardens.”  Good title, right? (Thanks Nicolette!)  Several people asked me to write up my thoughts article-style, so here ya go.  One ginormous caveat: I am figuring out this whole Director thing as I go along, but that was rather the point of this presentation and this post.

In February of 2011 I was hired as the Assistant Director at the San Rafael Public Library, a two-library system for a town of 60,000. I was moving into an administration position after working for a decade in technology and technology management in large system libraries.  The Library’s Director left for another job after I’d been there for nine months (November 2011), and I was appointed Acting Director.  Six months after that (May 2012) I was selected as Director after a recruitment process.  I have now formally been the Director for over a year.

When I first became Acting Director, I had visions of rainbows and pixie dust. Wow, I was finally in charge! This was my home library (I’d lived here for many years but always worked elsewhere). I could make things happen! I could effect change within my hometown! I could guide the direction of an institution and make it one of those kick butt libraries that energizes the community and inspires other libraries!

Then reality hit me like a cement truck.

During my first year, these are some of the challenges I faced. Trial by fire took on a whole new meaning for me:

  • substantial increase in homelessness, substance abuse, and untreated mental illness in our town which unsurprisingly spilled over into the library population
  • 2 written death threats directed at me
  • inability to fill the assistant director position, so I had/have no back-up
  • needing to complete a community needs assessment and strategic plan for the library sans any outside help
  • a 20% budget deficit in our parcel tax budget (which makes up 1/3 of our overall budget)
  • numerous FOIA requests for public records
  • a lawsuit filed against the library
  • a staff member wrote a letter of “no confidence” in me before I even took over as Acting Director
  • a “friend” of the library wrote numerous letters similar to the one above, again before I even took over at all
  • facilities issues ad nauseum, all unfunded and adding to the budget hole, including black mold, more ceiling leaks than I can count, major repairs to the main library’s HVAC system, federally mandated (and unfunded) lighting replacements, and fleas and other pests in and around our two libraries
  • a physical assault from a San Rafael resident while on break and another physical assault from a librarian while at a speaking gig
  • Getting the San Quentin warden upset because our Friends of the Library accidentally listed his direct line as their # in some publicity materials (whoops)
Also keep in mind that this whole time I was in the middle of a divorce. My brain was not in the happiest of places.
I was left questioning my decision to take the job, questioning my decision to become even an Assistant Director, and doing a lot of self-examination in between solitary hikes and weekends of intentional social isolation.
I came up with “10 Things I Wish I’d Known as a New Director” as a way of trying to help people thinking of becoming an administrator realize A) what they’re getting into and B) not to feel as alone or isolated as I did.
1. Fear is Normal
I was terrified as an Acting Director. By the time the actual Director appointment rolled around, a lot of that fear had dissipated. I went into this without enough time with the previous Director for training, without enough time to bone up on management issues and city policy, and (quite honestly) with no career drive to ever be a Director. But I tried it anyway. I reached out to a small network of library administrators whose opinions I trusted, seeking advice as a newbie and help with specific issues when necessary. Everyone was super helpful, especially in letting me know that each of them had gone through a period of fear as well.  Being new at something is usually scary, especially when you have naysayers attacking you from all sides before you’ve even begun the job.  The trick, as with any fear, is to acknowledge the feeling, make a plan to move forward, and act on it.  Everything else takes care of itself.
2. No Money = No Love
I walked into a negative budget situation, as I discovered many new Directors do. I had to say no to pretty much every request and was cutting materials, substitute staffing, and other budget lines from day one. Need a way to make yourself hated very quickly? That’d do it. I didn’t have a choice, but I wish I’d realized ahead of time that there was no winning in this situation. I had hoped that all of our staff would understand that this wasn’t me being mean or stingy for the sake of it, but trying to fix a very real budget problem that had landed in my lap. Most did understand, as did most of our stakeholders and support groups. The few who did not, however, were quite vocal about how I wasn’t as “nice” as the last director, didn’t let people get what they wanted, and was an awful person. I had hoped for universal understanding but settled for almost universal begrudging acceptance.  Also, do not become a Director if you need to be loved. You will be hated by someone for something pretty much every day.  It’s the nature of being in charge.
3. There is No Magic Pill
I had hoped that I would find one magical thing I could do for the public to make them happy. Likewise, I wanted that one magical thing to win all the staff over. There is no magic pill. A thousand things have to be done to appeal to the thousand different priorities and interests of our diverse populations, including staff.
4. Avoid Burnout
I made the mistake of trying to do both the Assistant Director job and the Director job for the first year or so. Big mistake. Working 80 hour weeks burned me out quickly. I did get a lot done and kept the ship floating, but at a great personal cost. My health suffered as did my sanity and my ability to remain mentally dedicated to the job.  I saw myself fast approaching true burnout where I’d need to take an extended leave of absence, and so gradually dialed back my working hours to a more sane 50 or so. I know it’s tempting to just keep going when you’re trying to fix a broken situation.  But I work better in the hours I work now and my mental and physical health are surely improved.
5. Get Ready for the Angst
I’d been a manager for several years before becoming a Director but I truly did not appreciate how much of this job is listening to negativity and being reactive to one negative situation after another.  Personnel issues, complaints from staff and public, things breaking, someone disagreeing with pretty much every decision you make, being the one to ban the really awful patrons, go to court, withstand personal attacks, and the list goes on.  When you’re Director you have a big old target painted on your back. Be ready for the fire and brimstone to rain down. I wasn’t, and the shock of the “Holy Ceiling Cat, isn’t there anything positive right now?” feeling was a lot to handle.  I’ve gradually learned not to internalize as much, though I still do internalize a lot.  As more happens I do find myself becoming desensitized to the smaller issues and feeling free to say to my staff “You know what? You can handle that. You’ll do great.” (instead of jumping in to fix every last problem brought to me).  There are still sleepless nights and panicked moments, but far fewer.
6. People are More Important than To Do Lists
I was so focused on getting things done (balance the budget, write a strategic plan, keep the peace between support groups, go to all my meetings, write all my reports) that I focused less on the people factor at the library. I focused less on individual patrons, on individual staff, and that was a mistake. I am trying to step back and focus on the people in the library more (after all, what is a library but its people!) and finding it challenging with the workload still doubled up as it is. But, hey, at least I’m trying.
7. Morale is Fussy
Just as I was focused on getting things done, I was also overly focused on trying to control my own reactions to things. I didn’t want to paint a rose-colored picture of our budget situation. I wanted to be as direct and transparent with staff as I could be, which I did. But the side effect of that was a whole lot of not-so-great news showering down on all of the staff members…which meant that they ended up internalizing a lot of the same grief I was. I can see pros and cons to sharing information with staff, but I think I may have over-shared. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing I did. I was so concerned about being a good transparent manager and not making the mistake of the silo-ed, closed-off administrators I’ve worked for in the past, that I forgot to pay attention to the morale of the staff at large.  And unfortunately a whole lot of morale-damaging stuff was happening in quick succession. Morale is a hard one. There’s no magical solution, but with some constant attendance and a few key boosters, it can be kept healthy at least. This is another area I’m working on, particularly now that we’ve been able to have a stable budget year looking forward to 2013/2014, and are starting to be able to make some of the major changes staff have waited decades for.
8. Ask for What You Need
Our library was in such a mental state of scarcity that people had ceased to ask for what they needed.  When I became Director, I started asking.  We needed stepped up police patrols.  Check.  We needed freedom to re-allocate end-of-year remaining funds to replace non-ergonomic staff desks and chairs from the 1950s.  Check.  We needed to stop charging for DVD check-outs like we were stuck in the 90s.  Check.  We needed new carpeting to replace the nasty, torn stuff in the library that’s the same age as I am.  Check.  I personally needed support and advice from the other department directors.  Check.  So far, there’s only one thing I’ve asked for from our parent organization and partner departments that I haven’t gotten (and I’m working on that thing too).  Lesson? Ask! (and bring visual aids – they help)
9. Timid Librarians Are Not Allowed
I’ve been called a lot of things as a Library Director.  The nice ones include scrappy, feisty, go-getter-y, and my favorite: “She don’t take no crap from nobody.”  I’m glad that I entered this fray with an assertive personality.  If I’d been timid, I think I would have been eaten alive, spit out, and ended up with a nervous breakdown or abandoning libraries altogether.  You simply cannot and should not be a library administrator if you are timid.  You truly will not be able to do your job well if you’re afraid of conflict, avoid confrontations, can’t deal with raised voices or criticism, and want to be friends with everyone.  It won’t work.  Either you or the institution will break and no offense, but I’d rather it was you, because your institution is more important than any single individual.
10. Do It Your Way
Something I was massively worried about when becoming a Director was having to conform.  I am not good at conforming. In fact, when asked to do so I usually do the opposite and become more non-conformist.  I didn’t want to have to schmooze with people, to lie and smile, to go to events I would hate like the Plague, or to dress and speak like the majority.   I made a conscious decision not to do so from the get-go and in my final interview with our City Manager told her point blank that I would continue being me and doing things my way, and that my “being me” would probably get me into trouble at some point in the future, but that I couldn’t pretend for 10 hours a day to be someone else.  She still hired me (bless you for your openness, Nancy).  So I do my thing the way I do it.  Yes, I meet with council members and the mayor.  But I’m me at those meetings.  Yes, I go to Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce, but I also go to the Community Media Center events, GLBTQ fundraisers, and nerdy local meet-ups.  You know, stuff that’s a natural fit for me and my strengths.  I don’t schmooze and lie, but I do smile. Because when I’m talking about why libraries matter, I automatically smile. I love libraries and it shows.  I dress the way I dress, listen to electronica full blast at my desk, dole out espresso shots to tired employees, and send out irreverent and sometimes funny items in our missives to City Council and our Board of Trustees.  Basically, I’m just me.  I don’t have to put on a mask.  I can be me and still do this job well.  And so can you.
For those of you who are new-ish directors, what lessons have you learned?  What things do you wish you’d known before you started?  Keep the conversation going!!!


For 99.9% of us, working in a library was not our first job. I worked an extremely odd assortment of jobs between high school and finishing my MLIS, each and every one of which has continued to help me in some small way with the work I do today.  Even jobs that are seemingly completely unrelated have yielded some practical skill, knowledge, or experience.  Below are some of the jobs I worked over the years and what each of them taught me that I still use today.

  • Calligraphist: My first job at age 13 was doing calligraphy for an art store on commission. What I learned: A good work ethic is critical to success. You create quality work, you get more work. You turn in your work on a timely basis, you get more work. You treat your employer with respect, he’ll talk you up and get you more work (child labor laws be damned).
  • Hostess: I worked as a hostess at a Chicago-style pizza restaurant. What I learned: The lowest paid positions in an organization often have hidden caches of power. I got to decide which waiters and waitresses got which tables, and how many tables. I got to help the delivery staff I liked and be apathetic toward those who weren’t nice to me. No matter where you are in an organizational chart, you do have control over certain things, which you can use (or abuse if you become cranky and jaded).
  • Waitress: I worked as a waitress a few times. I am not a good waitress.  I lacked the upper body strength and the ability to schmooze with people who were nasty all in the name of getting a better tip. What I learned: Not everyone is good at everything. You think you’ll be good, but maybe you won’t be. And you know what? That’s ok! If you were good at every last thing you’d be some kind of prodigy mutant being and I’d be afraid of you. If you’re not good at something you probably won’t like it, so why keep doing it? Find something else as soon as you can!
  • Bartender: I was a bartender a couple of times at very different types of bars, from the diviest frat bar dive to a splendid dinner club. What I learned: Besides how to make excellent drinks, I learned a lot about how to listen to people.  People at bars often just want to be heard. They might not have another outlet for telling their story and hope that you’ll listen to their girlfriend woes, frustrations at work, and feelings about their best friend’s significant other. Bartending is one job where you learn to listen. It’s like a psychology practicum on steroids. Listening, and especially active listening, comes in handy a lot in libraries. We need to listen to each other and we need to listen to our patrons.
  • Secretary: I have been a secretary (and I was called a secretary – not an administrative assistant) more times than I care to remember…for a car dealership, a small telecomm, Sears, a dot com start-up, etc. What I learned: More than any of the other jobs I worked, my secretary jobs reminded me why I was going to graduate school–so I would not have to do that job forever. Being a secretary works for some people, and I say good for them. For me it was perfect torture. I felt that I was set up as eye candy, was sexually harassed more than once, and expected to perform degrading tasks in addition to “normal” work.  But being a secretary taught me some useful skills too. I learned how to multitask way before it became rote.  I learned basic accounting. I learned business writing. I learned that a smile really does travel over the phone lines.
  • Planned Parenthood Counselor: For a year in college I provided abortion counseling for women. What I learned: Two semesters as a psychology major do not prepare you for the reality of some situations. Theoretical coursework and group discussions cannot and will not prepare you for the reality of the workplace. Being told to “be ready for X” is not the same as actually being ready. Job shadowing, mentoring, internships, and practicum work are really the only way to get boots-on-the-ground experience so you know what you’re getting yourself into.
  • English Composition Instructor: While getting my MA in literature and mythology I taught freshman composition for three semesters at WSU.  What I learned: Teaching people who are learning because they “have to” is way less fun than teaching people who actually want to learn. But this job also taught me a ton about presentation skills, coursework and training organization, student engagement, useful feedback, and how to take criticism gracefully. I taught the first semester as a total hard-ass out of fear that I wouldn’t be respected (I was only a year older than most of the students) and was told to chill out for the next semester. I did, and it worked much better despite my own intuition that it wouldn’t.
  • Flooring Salesperson: This was a job taken purely for the money to pay the bills. What I learned: I learned a lot about flooring! (quick, ask me anything)  I also learned that not only do I not like sales, I am not good at it in the slightest. This reaffirmed for me that working in a job that didn’t have a profit-basis was very important, solidifying my desire to work in education. I have used my flooring knowledge a few times to offer advice on flooring choices for new library buildings, surprising the salespeople with the random vocabulary I can still pull out of my head 15 years later. This is actually a practical set of knowledge now that I’m a library manager. Go figure.
  • Amateur Tequila Shot Contest Competitor: OK, this wasn’t actually a real job, per se, but I did earn money doing this. What I learned: If people underestimate you, exploit it and show them what you can do. A 115 pound woman can drink a 300 pound man under the table and take home $300 as a result. If people want to underestimate me now, I let them. If they choose to believe I’m naive or inexperienced or stupid, I let them. Then I do what I need to do and watch the jaws drop. It’s a very satisfying moment…the jaw-dropping-ha-ha moment.

Think about your own work history and what skills and talents you bring with you that are unique to you.  It is those things that make you marketable, that you should play up during interviews, that you should remember make you so perfectly wonderful as a library staffer.  We love you because you are you!

This will be my last cancer post because…

I am happy to report that yesterday I received news that the pathology reports show that they got all the cancer with the surgery and I am officially now in the “cancer survivor” category. Give me a moment…


saveahorseOK, I’m back.  I am extraordinarily relieved to be done with this. I have more medical follow-up and check-up appointments over the next several months, but as long as I heal okay, this is over. A total knock-out fight and cancer lost. Take that, cancer! I am admittedly a little worse for wear, but all things considered, it was never a fair fight. With all the positive vibes you were sending me, cancer never stood a chance. And I just wasn’t ready to die yet.

I thought that for my final post on this topic, I’d try to answer some of the many questions that I’ve been hearing a lot.

How did you do this so fast? It’s only been a few weeks since you were diagnosed!

We caught the cancer super-early. That only happened because I get regular exams at my OB/GYN. I’ve been so pleased with the number of women contacting me saying they traditionally avoid their yearly exams, but scheduled an appointment after reading what I’d written. Paraphrasing an Australian PSA poster someone mentioned to me: “It’s a few moments of discomfort for an entire year of peace of mind.” Another factor in my speed-cancer-killing is that my doctors were eager to get the surgery done quickly (as was I), and I told them to be aggressive with what they removed…to err on the side of “too much” just to make sure we’d get it all and I wouldn’t have to endure another surgery or radiation, the two likely next steps were this surgery to fail.

Did you really live-Tweet during your surgery?

I did indeed. I had to stop part-way through due to an allergic reaction to the anesthetic, so it wasn’t as “blow by blow” as I’d hoped to achieve, but I did as much live as I could and caught up once my arms and hands stopped shaking violently. I am still somewhat baffled that I was left conscious for this, but apparently it’s standard practice.  I would recommend to others that you may want to inquire about a general anesthetic if you have to do it (which I hope you never do).  If I ever had to do it again, I would mandate a general.  I left out most of the gruesome details believe it or not (my choice), but have openly discussed them with anyone who’s curious or looking at facing a similar procedure themselves. Below are my Tweets from right before, during, and after the surgery. Read from the bottom up.


How did the surgery go?

The surgery was successful and the cancer’s gone–so the surgery did its job. They had to remove far more tissue than they’d planned, which made the procedure take longer. Unfortunately, I had an unpredictable allergic reaction to the cervical block (read: several injections with a BFN (big fucking needle).  I was violently shaking, nearly seizing. But they wanted to go ahead with the procedure so we did. I had two female nurses holding me down to keep me as still as possible (and a female doctor).  And in true Sarah fashion I made a lewd joke to cover my fear and freaked-out-ed-ness. I said “If all three of you were hot naked guys and the doctor was holding a vibrator instead of a cauterizing gun this would be a great porn film.” At least it made the nurses giggle.

What has recovery been like after the surgery?

It’s been difficult.  I didn’t really move much at all for 72 hours. I gave myself one more day off work than I thought I needed, then I could only do a half-day my first two days back and am home working today to give myself more recuperating time. My energy level is low and I get tired super easily. But I suppose that’s to be expected after having chunks cut off of you, being burned and charred, and losing a lot of blood.

Who did you have to help you?

I could not have gotten through this by myself. My bestest friend Carol helped me with the surgery and immediate aftermath (stuffed animals in the car FTW).  I’ve also had help and support from a few other local friends–making or bringing me food, scooping the cat boxes, or simply stopping by to say hi.  But I especially want to thank Michael who’s done much more than he had to.  And really, anyone who gets me out of the house for the first time to see Henry Cavill with his shirt off gets bonus points for life.  For *life* I say!  I have also had remote encouragement and help from hundreds of family and friends, revealing to me a support network that I didn’t know existed.  It’s heartening to think that in the worst case scenarios in our lives we have people to reach out to.  Of my remote “spirit-keeper-uppers” I want to send a special thanks to Nicolette and Andy whose humor and practical advice helped make things tolerable.  To all of you: MWAH!

How are you feeling now? And you’re seriously going to ALA? Are you insane, woman?

At the present moment I’m feeling good, but I’ve also been working from bed all day. I still hurt but it’s tolerable. I’m still weak, but if I pace myself it’s okay.  I was cleared to travel so I am indeed going to ALA for 5 days.  I’m presenting three times, pre-recording one additional presentation because they double-booked me, and competing in ALA Battledecks (I will bring the hurt, people).  I have a ton of parties and evening events lined up as well.  I’m going to see how I do and not push it.  If I can’t stay for your whole party/event, or you see me sitting on the floor in a corner nodding off, cut me some slack and/or bring me a Red Bull.  And yes, I am most certainly insane, but that has nothing to do with this particular conversation.

To close – goodbye cancer and hello future 🙂

Update: Surgery *is* happening today at 2:20pm PST. Thankfully I can get it over with. Think happy thoughts of kittens & rainbows.

Hello all. I want to begin with a heartfelt expression of gratitude and amazement at your outpouring of support, shared cancer stories, and advice. I have been stunned by how “not alone” I have felt as a result of sharing my story. I figured I’d get a couple of messages from close friends or an “oh yes, I had that ten years ago” story or two, but the magnitude of your kindness has humbled me greatly. I’ve had a few hundred contacts and messages, which is astounding. Thank you!

To the few people who have contacted me saying that it’s horrible/shameful/shocking/icky that I’m telling people that I have cancer of the lady parts, you can go die in a ditch. I am genetically female. I have lady parts, including a cervix. Saying I have cervical cancer is no more horrible/shameful/shocking/icky than saying I have liver cancer or skin cancer. If you can’t deal with the fact that ladies have lady parts, perhaps you should reexamine your own prejudices and shame. And really–please do absorb all of that awful karma you just self-inflicted by criticizing and trying to shame someone with a disease. Just soooooooak it up.

My surgery was scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday the 13th in the afternoon (2:20pm PST). However, some complicating symptoms have arisen and the surgery may be delayed until Monday the 17th at 2:30pm PST.  I won’t know until tomorrow morning whether I’m on for surgery or not.  I will update here, on Twitter, and on Facebook when I do know.

More updates:

  • Whenever surgery happens, I am still planning on live-Tweeting it out (and feeding it into Facebook) as long as my hands can stay steady enough to type on my phone. You can follow along on Twitter with the #SarahVsCancer hashtag that I’ve been using.
  • My doctors have said that this cancer is “an aggressive little bastard.” I have also been called that, from time to time. I think I’m aggresive-r (yes, that’s a word) so I will win this little tête-à-tête.
  • I was offered the opportunity to watch the surgery live on a monitor. I declined.
  • I’ve had inquiries about exactly what I’m having done. Without going into too much detail, I’m having a LEEP procedure to remove the cancer. If body part or surgery stuff grosses you out, don’t click on that link.  I’m lucky that we caught the cancer early enough that we can use this procedure instead of a more invasive one.
  • And finally, check out The image below came from them. They’re using social media as a way to raise awareness about cancer among young people. I like their approach. Be aware, get all of your tests and screenings, and remind those you love.


I have bad news and I have good news. You should probably read both.

Bad News: I have been diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 36.

Good News: We caught it very early and the cancer is small enough that a surgical procedure will get rid of it. My doctors are optimistic about my prognosis and all of my insane middle-of-the-night librarian research tells me the same thing. This is highly survivable thanks to catching it early in a regular exam. My friends and family have been extremely supportive and I am thankful for all of their positive energy and snarky humor that’s helping me get through this difficult time.

fuck cancer

One of the things that helped me feel less scared between my biopsies and “finding out I had the BIG C” was remembering the experiences of Xeni Jardin a little over a year ago. Jardin decided to live-Tweet her first mammogram, after which she was told that she had breast cancer. She’s since Tweeted and blogged her experiences with cancer very openly. What she did was one of the first things that came into my head and she helped me to realize whatever happened, I could beat this. I obviously have a much smaller readership than Jardin, but I want to pay it forward and do the same thing.

I will be having surgery next Thursday afternoon. I will be Tweeting (and cross-posting to Facebook for friends there) about my experience.  I also plan to live-Tweet during the surgery, as I will be awake for it.

If by being an open book I can help make people less scared about cervical cancer, encourage other women to get screened and tested regularly, I want to do that. If I can turn this negative situation into a positive one for someone else, all the better.

Yes, I’m scared.  But don’t worry. I’m going to be okay.

Update: I’ve now deleted seven comments off of the blog (and three emails) that had no discursive value, no points to be made, no arguments or positions taken, but were just pointed name calling and insults. I’m all for open and free commenting, but what you write has to fit the two simple guidelines listed on the site: No spam, personal attacks, or rude or intolerant comments AND Comments need to actually relate to the blog post topic.


An interesting discussion happened today on Twitter about clothing and librarianship. It all started with Jaime Corris Hammond (@jaimebc) posting the following:

“Let’s talk about perceptions of leaders. How did you change your appearance when you became a manager/director?”

My response was a truthful:

“Bwa ha ha ha ha….ha ha ha ha ha….*gasp*sputter* I DIDN’T :D”

A smattering of conversation involving a dozen people then followed, with some themes coming out that I feel are worth commenting on.

Sarah Houghton

photo by Ticer Summer School

Style counts: Above all, stay true to who you are. Don’t dress a certain way because you think someone else expects it or you believe it will somehow make you seem more authoritative.  Dress in a way that’s appropriate for work but comfortable. For me that includes some combination of funky tights, high heels, spikes, velvet, lace, satin, vinyl, 50s style dresses, chokers, straps, ruffles, corsets, and cardigans (I know…yes, cardigans–they’re practical and comfortable so shut it).  For you it will be something else. But *be you*. A velvet suit jacket is just as dressy as a polyester one. I dressed this way when I got the job…so I figure why change? I think my look is part of what helps people remember me in the community – and being remembered isn’t a bad thing (usually).

Dress codes: If your workplace has a dress code, by all means adhere to it.  Several libraries I’ve worked at required closed-toe shoes. Others said no shorts and no bra straps could not be showing (e.g. under a tank top).  Adhere to the rules.

Dress and gender: Some commenters purported that there’s a double standard for men and women on dress.  Men can get away with dressing more casually and be thought of as “cutely sloppy” but a similarly dressed woman would be looked at as “frumpy.” True? Probably. Can we control how other people react to our appearances? Nope. Stop trying.

Who do you dress to match?: This is a great question. If you’re in a position of leadership, do you dress to fit in with other library staff or to fit in with on-par colleagues in other departments? My answer is “Don’t dress to match anyone; weren’t you listening before?” But if I had to vote for one, I’d say dress to match the “dressiness level” of your on-par colleagues.

Dressing seriously so people take you seriously: I expect people to take me seriously because of my ideas and professionalism. If they’re not going to listen (and some haven’t) because I’m wearing tights with stars on them or a skirt with unnecessary zippers then their opinion isn’t worth worrying about.  Some people are not going to like me and that’s just dandy. If you’re in a position of leadership realize there are going to be a fair number of people who don’t like you for all sorts of reasons. You’re not in this to be liked; you’re doing a job.

Combating looking young with dressing old: This one I understand. I was a manager in a library when I was 28. I looked 21. I understand the desire to look older, at least your age, so that people will stop with the “Are you old enough to blah blah blah…” comments.  As I joked on Twitter, what made those comments stop coming at me was the plethora of wrinkles I’ve developed after being a library director for a year and a half. So–get more stress in your life and continue to dress like a rock star.

Dressing up for certain events: Dress a little more seriously for City Council? Sure.  For a job interview? Yep. Wear skinny jeans, combat boots, and a sparkly tank top on a Friday when you’re going to be at your desk all day writing reports? Yep. Speaking of which, I’m gonna go finish up those reports.

We’re looking for a security system here at the San Rafael Public Library–some kind of remote way to indicate “Hey, something’s definitely wrong with staff member X who’s dealing with the public right now – go help!”

Staff at our various service desks at the Downtown Library (Circulation, Children’s, Adult, Administration) have no way to communicate to each other when something’s wrong at one of them (e.g. threatening individual, etc.).  The Library has two different floors and all of the desks are visually separated from each other – there is no line of sight from one to another – and in one case a door separates that desk from the rest of the building.  We were envisioning a flashing light system or something similar, easily, covertly, and quickly triggered with a button or a switch, and that would show the other desks which desk it was coming from. Our building does not have an intercom system, and staff are not always at their computers (often out on the floor), so something they can hold as a trigger, clip to a belt or a lanyard, would be more useful.  In short, we’re looking for something with multiple site-specific triggers and multiple output devices showing what’s been triggered.

Instead of spending hours researching this topic that I know nothing about, I put it out to the ALA Think Tank group on Facebook – knowing that the wisdom of the crowd would be faster and more extensive than anything I’d come up with on my own.  I thought I’d summarize the suggestions here for anyone else seeking out a similar solution. And hey – if you have another suggestion, bring it on!

Wireless call bell systems – These are like those little light-up vibrating things you get at some restaurants, such as these. Verdict: Might work; need to research more, especially re: how one triggers various models.

Centurion – I just like this for the Battlestar Galactica reference 😉 Seriously, though, this is another version of a wireless call system but this one can transmit out messages on multiple platforms simultaneously once triggered: two-way radios, pagers, phones, and email. Verdict: Might work; need to research how the triggering mechanism works more.

Instant Messaging – A number of people suggested having every staff member have IM up while at work and to use that to send out a quick “911” or some similarly short message. Verdict: Need a trigger that could stay with the staff member. Also, not very covert.

Computer Help Button – Several people said they have a one-click “call for help” button on their computers, usually used to call for back-up staff because it’s busy, but which could be repurposed for crazy town incidents.  A 2008 Code4Lib article was helpfully linked to (oh, you librarians!). Verdict: Once again, I don’t think the computer-based idea will work well for us as so many of the problems happen when staff are away from their computers.

Intercom – Some folks suggested saying your own name or the department’s name over the intercom as a signal for help. Verdict: If only we had an intercom system. Also, not very covert.

Vocera – A number of people are using or otherwise recommended Vocera.  These small portable transmitters and receivers could work really well for what we need. Verdict: Pricey. Need to research more on what kinds of money we’re talking about.

Phone System – A few different version of using the existing phone system were suggested. Setting up a mass-call option and using a code word to indicate a problem. Verdict: Our phone system is VOIP and we’ve been told before this isn’t possible (though I’m guessing it probably actually is). Also, unless it was a single-touch button I don’t think it would be covert enough.

Doorbell System – A system like this could work–basic doorbell. People suggested different ring-tones or a different number of rings depending on which desk it was (e.g. 1 for Adult, 2 for Circ, etc.). Verdict: Need to research more. This could be covert if the bells could be carried easily in one’s pocket and we could have multiple transmitters and multiple broadcast speakers too.

Walkie TalkiesLots of these out there and pretty cheap. Buy the small headsets to pair with the actual units, push the call button to beep everyone else.  Again, a coded number of beeps could work to indicate location of problem. One person suggested buying repeaters to help with the thick-walled-ness of our very old building. Verdict: Need to research more. Covert, yes. Would staff actually wear the headsets? Don’t know. – This was suggested (in lovely detail; thanks Brian!) as a kind of multi-pronged approach. Device, software, and desk-transmitters.  Verdict: This could totally work. Need to research pricing and implementation (e.g. our thick freaking walls).

Arduino Home Panic Button – This was suggested as an open source solution, which made my heart all warm and fuzzy.  Verdict: Need to research implementation more.

EDSMay is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Awareness Month. What is that, you may ask?

If you’re a longtime reader of my blog, you’ll know that I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

You can read my posts from previous years (20092011, 2012) for details on what EDS is and how it has affected my life.  In short, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a connective tissue disorder. My body makes collagen that is messed up on a fundamental level. Collagen is everywhere–skin, internal organs, tendons, ligaments–so bad collagen = bad lots of other stuff.

What is EDS like for me? I live every day in pain. Every joint hurts. I just don’t notice it so much anymore, but if you stopped me on any given day and asked “Sarah, does your X joint hurt?” I would undoubtedly say yes after thinking for a moment. I can feel every joint at every moment of every day, some more than others. I get fewer dislocations than I used to but rib, wrist, and knee dislocations are still common for me. I have to be careful with how I sit, move, and interact with other objects and people. I bruise easily and my skin tears easily, and subsequently it takes me forever and a day to heal. My digestion is pretty jacked up. I have quite a few allergies and chemical sensitivities, one of those weird side effects of EDS.

There is no cure for EDS.  All I can do is manage the symptoms.

As I wrote last year, I am still off of all pain medications. YAY! Want to know which pain medications? Almost all of them. I tried dozens and was on several for a very long time and at very high doses. And the meds made me, well, not me. I’m so glad to be off of them.

Recently a doctor tried to give me oxycontin for a bunch of dislocated ribs and when I turned it down he got this look on his face like I’d just turned down a few million dollars. I explained why: that it had been so hard for me to get off of these medications and I never wanted to walk down that road again. He rolled his eyes. Such is the common reaction I get in the medical community. Exhibit EDS symptoms without an official diagnosis and they think you’re either mental or that you are a drug-seeking fiend. Have the same symptoms with an EDS diagnosis and turn drugs down and they think you’re an idiot.

I have to be very selective with doctors and other medical practitioners, finding people who either are familiar with treating EDS patients or are willing to learn. Case in point: I drive over 90 minutes to get to my dentist, the only person in the SF area I’ve found who knows what she’s doing (EDS also has lots of dental, jaw, and soft tissue symptoms). The good news is I have a great primary care doctor, dentist, gynecologist, and chiropractor. Still looking for a new massage therapist after my last one changed careers to rehabilitate abused horses (but how can I be mad at him for that?).

In the interest of keeping positive, here are some positive things about having EDS:

  1. Through posting on my blog and on local and international EDS support networks, I have communicated with hundreds of other people with this disorder.  Sometimes they support me and sometimes I support them. They’re a second family, of sorts–a family that inherently understands what my life is like without ever having met me.
  2. I can do fun/scary party tricks with my joints that freak the living hell out of people, especially people under the influence of something. It’s my ace in the hole for the “Wait, wait…watch this” game.
  3. My skin is simply amazing. Take that, skin creams and face lifts!

As with past posts I want to make clear I’m not asking for pity in any way. I’m asking for understanding and awareness. If you see people, especially children, in your life who dislocate joints, have chronic pain, digestion issues, heart problems, or who bruise or cut easily–ask the doctor about EDS. Since I went public with my diagnosis in 2009, I’ve had 9 librarians and 11 other readers come to me and say they or a family member have now been diagnosed with EDS after asking their doctors (and going through the usually months-long process of referrals, tests, geneticist consults, etc.).  And that’s why I talk about it–so fewer people have to wait until their mid-twenties or later to get a diagnosis.

To learn more about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, check out the Ehlers-Danlos National Foundation , Ehlers-Danlos Network, and a resource list built by fellow librarian Rick Roche: Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome: A Reference Librarian Looks at Consumer Health Reference Sources. Or, you know, you could always just ask me 😀

So about a month ago I got really icky sick.  I was off from work for a week and a half, and then back only half time for a while…  It’s been a nasty series of flus and colds and sinus infections.  The upside was the fun hallucinations I had with the high fever.  I only had one scary one (spiders) but had a lot of interesting and one plain-old-useful ones.  Yay for fever-induced delirium!

Why does this matter?  Well, I manage our library’s Facebook and Twitter accounts and don’t have a back-up.  So when I got sick, particularly in those days when I was so ill I couldn’t even focus well enough to read a sentence, nothing was getting posted to our social media accounts.  The results?  See below for our library’s Facebook page stats.


You don’t post? You don’t get people liking, commenting, or visiting.  You post half-heartedly because the codeine was affecting your brain?  You don’t get interactions.  Your audience is sick? You don’t get interactions.

Surprising? No. Good as a reminder that posting is important, responding is important? Yes.

Follow-Up (4/22/13)

And here’s what happens when both you and your community aren’t sick anymore and posting and reading gets back to normal.


4th Amendment WearBack in February, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a Department of Homeland Security report on laptop searches at U.S. borders.  The DHS had posted the executive summary of the report on its website, but nothing else.  The ACLU is still waiting for the complete report.  The executive summary basically says that upholding the Fourth Amendment, protecting against unreasonable search and seizure, is a pain in the ass and that reasonable suspicion or warrants are too much to ask in the case of seizing people’s electronic devices at our borders.


As someone who has had (unfortunately) extensive experience with the TSA, the DHS, and customs officials while traveling for both work and pleasure, I will share those experiences here along with some advice to protect your information.

Sarah and the Brass Knuckles

And here begins our story.  I have flown a lot in my lifetime.  Between personal and professional trips, I average one or two dozen trips a year.  About three years ago, I was flying from the Rochester NY airport to Grand Rapids, Michigan – going from my step-son’s graduation to my grandmother’s funeral.  I was stopped by the TSA screeners for having “brass knuckles” in my purse — in reality a 1 1/2″ cat face cheap metal keychain that did not resemble brass knuckles in the slightest.  I was pulled aside, my wallet was taken, and my bags thoroughly searched within my view.  I got mouthy…probably not my best choice, but I was pissed.  This was some over-zealous, bored Rochester TSA flunkie messing with me for no legitimate reason.  I was live-Tweeting it as it was happening.  I was asked to stop.  I said no.  I was asked to hand over my phone.  I said no.  I was asked to hand over my laptop.  I said no.  Eventually they let me go, confiscating the keychain that had made it through security in a couple dozen other airports, and with a warning that I was now on “THE LIST.”  I let fly a few F-bombs and boarded my plane for my grandmother’s funeral shaking from adrenaline and anger.  I wrote complaint letters to the Rochester Airport administration and to the TSA and got no reply from either (surprise, surprise).

Know Your Rights

So what did I do?  I did my research like a good little librarian.  I figured out what the TSA could and could not do within the U.S., and since I travel internationally I looked into what was legal at border crossings, particularly at airports.  Here are documents I suggest everyone read if you travel within the U.S. or internationally.  Know your rights.

Cheat Sheet of TSA Screenings and Your Rights (PDF) – This document gives good advice of what to do, what not to do, what to ask, and what your rights are.

ACLU’s Know Your Rights When Traveling – This covers everything: interviews, body scanners, pat-downs, searches of bags and electronics, confiscation of items, medication, children, etc.

Defending Privacy at the U.S. Border: A Guide for Travelers Carrying Digital Devices – Written for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), this is a good guide whether you’re traveling internationally or just within the states…or if you just plain want to know how to secure the data on your devices.  This covers electronics searches at the border but also provides instructions on backing up your data, minimizing the data you carry, encrypting your data, and specific tips for different types of devices.  I do all of these things and more…as I’m more than a bit paranoid now.

What Can They Do to My Electronic Devices?

U.S. Customs and Border Protection say that they can not only search but also confiscate your electronic devices at the border–laptops, phones, cameras, you name it.  And they can do it all without any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing or warrants.  The ACLU, EFF, and other organizations are fighting this – but it’s a slow process.  What you can, and should do, if you are asked to hand over your electronics is outlined in this document–but at the bare minimum ask to see the supervisor, get a receipt for your device, and have the search conducted in front of the supervisor.  What tends to happen, especially to people on THE LIST, is that they take your electronics out of the room, dump a copy onto their own hard drives, and then give them back to you.  They just copied all your data–files, browsing history, contact lists, everything–and you had no ability to stop it.  I call bullshit, and thankfully so does the ACLU.  This is why many people who know they are on THE LIST no longer carry their own devices, instead handing them off to trusted travel companions or mailing them from place to place.

So Then What Happened Now That Sarah Was On THE LIST?

After the Rochester incident I was pulled out of line for “special screening” literally every time I flew, and seven times I was taken into back rooms for additional questioning and searches.  I never agree to go through the full body scanner–not enough science or privacy protection behind those to make me feel safe.  I always demand the manual pat-down, which thrills them to no end I’m sure.  I feel badly for them sometimes–what a crap job to have to stick your hands down people’s pants and feel up their legs and armpits. Almost as unpleasant for them as it is for me, but I always make them do it in a public area and I always loudly proclaim why I won’t go through the scanner–hoping to educate more people about the lack of privacy and safety testing on some of the devices.

No one ever tried a full body search on me – which is a good thing because if they’d tried to make me strip and do a cavity search at least two people would have emerged from that room bloodied and needing medical attention (and I probably would have been arrested).

So to reiterate–we’re talking me being pulled out of line every time I flew anywhere, about 30-40 times in a row.  I tried dressing differently (more conservatively, more casually, more dressy), being quiet, being loud, being polite, being indifferent,…it didn’t matter.  Don’t tell me there isn’t facial recognition software being used in TSA screening lines, because there is.  There’s no other way to explain my being pulled out every time.

Fortunately, I came prepared.  I won’t go over everything I did to protect my data (a girl’s gotta have some secrets), but here are some of the things I did.  I had partitioned and encrypted my laptop up the yin yang.  There was one partition that booted up to public stuff–my personal email account that I use for nothing serious or secret, no work-related stuff, boring web browser history, etc.  Then there was my “real” laptop–a partition that only booted up with a secondary password and which would shut down on a deadman switch unless I re-entered a password every 20 minutes.  I also installed Paranoid Android on my phone (one of many reasons to have an Android device instead of an iPhone).  I have since performed similar security measures with my Android tablet, which I now travel with instead of a laptop.  If anybody wants to know the extensive security measures I take with my data, let me know.  I’m sure I still have gaps, but am happy to share what I do know with others.  Email or DM me and I’ll help.

Taking a cue from Jacob Appelbaum (a personal hero of mine who I knew before he became all famous and hunted by the feds), I also started carrying around a single USB stick with the text of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights on it and nothing else.  Whenever the TSA or customs officials would ask me for my electronic devices, I’d give them that.  The funny thing is they wouldn’t ask what was on it–just walk away with it and come back, hand it to me, and make some snarky comment about socialists, hippies, communists, or liberals.  And I would sweetly smile for an uncomfortably long time until they looked away.  That is always my favorite part.  Sarah’s “gotcha” smile.

Every time they demanded to see my laptop or my phone, I said no. I said they had no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing and therefore would be violating the Fourth Amendment were they to seize my belongings.  I wrote down the names and ranks of everyone I dealt with in each encounter.   I live-Tweeted if I could get a connection where they had me stashed.  I always asked for a supervisor to be present, I asked why I had been pulled aside (never got an answer), and I told them they could not detain me and make me miss my flight or I would be entitled to restitution and they didn’t want to explain that to their bosses, now did they?  I was usually polite, though in a couple of cases I admit to getting so frustrated that some name-calling did occur.  When one agent tried to swipe my phone from my pocket while I was mid-sneeze, I grabbed his wrist in a death grip and said “Over my dead body, motherfucker.”  The look on that guy’s face was priceless–but also one of the scariest moments in my life when I thought “Oh, I’m gonna end up in Gitmo, aren’t I?”

On the lighter side of things, I also bought some Fourth Amendment Wear (I got the bra and panty combo) which displays the text of the 4th Amendment in metallic ink over your private bits so if you are going through the scanner it shows up in the scan (I never go through the scan, but it’s still funny).

What About International Travel?

Twice crossing the U.S. border — once coming in from Montreal and once coming in from Amsterdam — I was pulled aside, searched, and again they tried to seize my electronics.   I said they were perfectly entitled to rip them out of my hands, but that it was unreasonable search and seizure, I would take them to court, and they really didn’t want that.  The most fun time was in Montreal when I was asked what I’d been doing in Montreal I said I’d spoken at a librarian conference and was headed straight to another one in Michigan.  The guy looked me up and down (and granted I was dressed rather punky–combat boots, zipper-laden skinny jeans, fishnet shirt) and said “Yeah right–come with me.”  This was when I most lost my temper.  I produced my ALA membership card, my staff ID card for my library, and I still had my frigging conference badge on.  And yet that wasn’t enough.  That was the time I got the mouthiest and was likely most at risk for some serious blowback for not cooperating.  When I finally convinced them that I was a librarian (stereotype much?) they let me go.  But in both of these cases, I gave them the USB drive but refused to hand over anything else…and they didn’t force the issue.  Perhaps I was lucky.  Perhaps knowing my rights made me a less easy target for them.  I honestly don’t know.

Aaaaaand The White House

The most fascinating thing about all of this was in January 2012 I was asked to go to the White House to live-Tweet the State of the Union address.  This was *awesome* but I was convinced I wouldn’t pass the background check because I was on THE LIST.  But I passed.  And when I left to fly to DC a couple days later, miraculously I was not pulled out of line.  Not on the way back either.  Or any of the times I’ve flown since then (except the time in Montreal, which I am convinced was based on how I looked, not who I was).  So…apparently if you get cleared to go to the White House, you magically get to be off of THE LIST, or so I assume.  Only time will tell.

My Advice

You could say I’m paranoid. You could say the surveillance state is real and I should just accept it.  You could say nothing I do is that interesting or important to get me in trouble so why do all of this (but you don’t really know me or what I do, do you?).  But this is real, people.  Your data is being mined, and when you’re traveling with data you’re at serious risk.  There’s no reason to make it easier for law enforcement to screw you over and violate your rights.

Read the documents I linked to.  Know the risks, and know your rights.  The risk of search and seizure of your data is real.  You know Facebook already owns your ass, as does Amazon and Google and all the other mega-corps who we sadly willingly give our data to.  But you don’t have to hand that stuff over to the government just because you’re traveling.  Minimize the data you carry with you.  Get yourself a USB drive with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights on it.  And, alas, try to be more calm and polite than I ended up being during a few of my altercations.  I do not respond well to arbitrary authority, and I’m sure that ended up prolonging my stay in a few airports.  Be smarter than I was.  Be firm, but polite.  But overall–be educated.  Know that the TSA and DHS can pwn you and your data if they so choose.  And do you damndest to prevent them from doing it.

Power to the people.