How Rural Librarian Jessamyn West is Alleviating the Digital Divide
June Thomas: This Ad Free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. When?
Speaker 2: A lot of times people want to be like, why does the computer do this? And it’s like, why does your cat do that? You can’t know some things. But knowing how to refer people, knowing how to say no in a way that isn’t just kind of a crappy I can’t be bothered is its own skill.
Isaac Butler: Welcome back to working. I’m your host, Isaac Butler.
June Thomas: And I’m your other host, June Thomas.
Isaac Butler: June. This is like our fifth recording session in seven days, so I almost feel like we’re back in an office together or something.
June Thomas: Isn’t it blissful? If only there were free snacks and a freshly changed wi fi password that we had to hunt down.
Isaac Butler: Yes, that’s true. June, even longtime Slate podcast heads might not know that Shasta Leon are most famous for reading emails on mom and Dad or fighting, who’s also the head of I.T. at Slate used to change the password every month to something new, and every time it was delightful and whimsical and will put a smile on your face and make you happy for the first of the month.
June Thomas: Yeah.
Isaac Butler: But enough about that. Whose voice did we hear at the top of this week’s episode?
June Thomas: So that was Jessamyn West. She is a librarian and a rural tech evangelist, and I’d never spoken with her before this interview, but I feel like I know her because I’ve been reading her Twitter feed and a blog that she keeps about her reading for many, many years.
Isaac Butler: You know, I think this might be our first librarian guest, which I’m excited by because my younger brother is a librarian. Many of my friends are librarians and I’m happy to see them represented here. But so what did you all talk about for Slate yesterday?
June Thomas: So we spoke about Wikipedia. Jessamyn spent ten years on the Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board, and she still spends a lot of time creating and improving Wikipedia entries. And I wanted to know why she does that and how and why she thinks Wikipedia improves people’s access to information, which ultimately is her big passion.
Isaac Butler: Well, that sounds delightful. And I don’t know about you, but I could use all the delight I can get, which is why I subscribe to Slate. Plus, I did it even before I had a podcast for Slate, and let me tell you, it’s only gotten more worth it. You get full access behind the paywall bonus segments on shows like this one exclusive episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Big Mood, Little Mood, and you get to support everything we do right here on working. Sign up today at Slate.com, slash working plus.
Isaac Butler: And now for some more delight, let’s listen in on June’s conversation with rural librarian Jessamyn West.
June Thomas: Jessamyn West. Thank you for coming on working. I usually begin these interviews by asking my guest to describe what they do, but you have such a fantastic Twitter bio. I wonder if you could sort of explicate it if I read it aloud. This is the first section rural tech geek researcher, proud member of the librarian, resistance collector of Mosses and Joy of Postcards. And then you provide your P.O. Box and pronouns. So what does all that mean?
Speaker 2: I sort of grew up in the time where it was important to make your resumé interesting if you wanted to get a job. And over time, I just, you know, on Twitter doesn’t give you a lot of space. And so I wanted to sort of synthesize it down to both the things that were true and the things that were interesting.
Speaker 2: So I live in rural Vermont. I work with computers, which is more interesting and unusual in rural Vermont than it might be other places. I like to look things up and so often I’ll help people do that, and that’s why I put that there. I need an offline hobby and my offline hobby is building mass terrariums a lot of times. So I’ll go out in the woods and get moths and come back here and stick it in a jar.
Speaker 2: Basically, I like the mail, so I enjoy when people send me stuff in the mail and I enjoy sending things in the mail and the library and resistance is a thing that kind of started up under the previous administration and is still necessary, regrettably, in this administration. And I think it’s important for people to know in a general sense that librarians are willing to help you with your problems, even if the government thinks you don’t deserve help with those problems. And that’s a signaling way to let people know that it’s a thing that we as librarians tend to value.
June Thomas: I was really struck that you began the list with rural tech geek. We’ve never spoken before, but I’ve been following you on Twitter and reading your book reviews for years, and I identify you first and foremost as a librarian. So I was just curious that librarian wasn’t just the first word that you said.
Speaker 2: For me, it’s part of kind of what it signals, right? I think if the first thing I said was that I was a librarian, you might have certain things you thought about me. You probably get my hairstyle right, and you’d probably get the kind of sweater I’m wearing. Right. But you might not sort of fully understand what my thing is. Whereas, you know, the fact that I live someplace rural and I grew up someplace rural and except for a brief foray into Seattle, I’ve lived in rural locations and that’s sort of a central part of my identity. And that and the intersection of that and technology is more unusual than you might think.
June Thomas: Yeah. Okay. So let’s talk about what that work is. As I said, Keen, follow her on Twitter. And my favorite recurring feature, if you can call that something about someone’s life is drop in time. Can you explain for people who don’t yet follow you what that is and what you do there?
Speaker 2: Sure. I’ve lived in Vermont since the late nineties and. I originally thought I wanted to live in Vermont because I wanted to be like a solo librarian. You know, I wanted to work at the tiny library where I was the person and I would help people with that. And then I moved to Vermont and met many of those people and realized they do a lot of things that I don’t do and can’t do. I’m not good at.
June Thomas: Like, well.
Speaker 2: I’m not great with kids, I don’t have any and I enjoy them. But I am not great with figuring out what they want to see in a puppet show. For example, programming, doing events. I’m not great at because I know what I like, but I’m not always great at understanding what other people will like. Okay. And running a building is challenging. I’m not great at running my own building, so I don’t know if I’d want to take another building.
June Thomas: Yeah.
Speaker 2: But you know, my strengths, which were kind of doing computers, making computer stuff very clear and working with people, even people who are very bad at computers, if I’m being honest without being judgmental, was my special skill. And so after some work doing outreach work in libraries, which I very much enjoyed and a lot of special projects kind of stuff, I wound up with a job locally doing sort of local rural library assistance kind of.
Speaker 2: I was an AmeriCorps volunteer through a local tech aid school, and one of the things that we realized was we had a bunch of basic technology classes in the adult education program, and we would have people showing up to a basic technology class like Microsoft Word, what is it kind of thing? And people wouldn’t even have the skills that they would need to be able to take that class. They couldn’t use a mouse. They didn’t know what a right click was. They didn’t know what a menu was. And no big deal. Right? You know what? You know when you know it.
Speaker 2: But we found that we needed a more remedial way to get people ready for those classes. And what that turned into was what we called drop in time, where it would basically be me hanging out in a room at the tech center couple hours a week. I mean, at first it was probably 4 hours a week. It was big. And, you know, it’s fluctuated over the last 15 years and people could just come in with their questions. And it wasn’t a class. And part of the deal was always there were going to be other people there, so you had to share and we would try and help you with whatever your thing was.
Speaker 2: And so, you know, that could be. Learning to use a mouse or figuring out how to type a resume or what people think of as computer skills. But sometimes it was just like, I need to set up a dating profile and I don’t understand what these words mean in this app, or I’m trying to get this email sent and I don’t know why it isn’t sending or any number of things. And I’ve been doing that in some variation through the schools, through the libraries, through my own self funding, depending on how that worked since 2005. And it’s my joy, you know, it is it is where I am my happiest, even though it is also deeply frustrating. Yeah. Just because sometimes the problems are hard. But also it just makes me mad at how technology could have been better and isn’t. You know what I mean?
June Thomas: Yeah.
June Thomas: One of the things that we often discuss on working is conflicts and like how people resolve disagreements when they’re collaborating together. Now, it’s one thing if you’re talking about, you know, people in a band or, you know, a theater director and a writer. But in your case, you know, I wonder what happens when you’re unable to help someone. Like what happens when you’re stumped?
Speaker 2: I should be clear. I am never stumped. But I tend sometimes get to the end of a road and tell people this, you can’t do this. I mean, for instance, I had drop in time yesterday and there is a woman who has a blog that she did and she’s got 150 postings and it’s on Wix. Right, which is a platform that you can build stuff on. She now wants to get off that platform and onto her own WordPress blog. Simple, right? Computers. It’s just data, right? No. Which doesn’t have an exporting feature. And so there’s two answers to this woman’s problem, right? The one answer is there’s no built in tool where you can do this yourself. Mm hmm. That’s a hard message. Yeah.
Speaker 2: But then the second message is. But with heroics, a person could do this. Now, that person’s probably not going to be me because I’m a shared resource, and I tend not to do heroics if it’s not an emergency. But realistically, she could pay a guy or a lady or a kid, most likely.
Speaker 2: Yeah. And actually solve that problem. And so the biggest thing I found with. Having to have the answer be no right is explaining why the answer is no and what the texture of that no is right. Because with computers it’s so rare that something just can’t be done. But it is often the case that it is not worth. Yeah. Doing it. And people have to make those individual calculus for themselves. You know, I had somebody once who had like an old cell phone and it had a voicemail and he couldn’t get it. And it was the voice of his dead sister. And he wanted it to be on his computer. Right. That’s a big deal. And it might be worth some money or some time. And I’ll be honest, I went a little extra mile for that guy because with this woman with the blog. She could do the copying and pasting.
Speaker 2: Mm hmm. You know, and the other thing is, I wind up with a lot of kind of mantras, you know, where I tell people I can’t tell you or explain what happened before I showed up on the scene. You know, a lot of times people want to be like, why does the computer do this? And it’s like, why does your cat do that? You can know some things you just can’t you can’t know. But, like, friendly, supportive. But sometimes people’s problems with computers aren’t technological. They’re emotional. And and then that’s not my my zone, right? That’s not my lane. But knowing how to refer people, knowing how to support people, knowing how to say no in a way that isn’t just kind of a crappy. I can’t be bothered. Yeah, it’s it’s own skill. Yeah.
June Thomas: Well, you know, when I go to my local library, I, you know, I don’t always interact with librarians anymore or not kind of directly, because if I’m just going to borrow or return books, you know, there’s a lot of self-service options now. But so when I’m in the library, if I do have to talk to someone and I’m in line. I hear a lot of the other patrons questions, and I admit sometimes they’re my questions, too, and they’re about technology. You know, they’re very rarely about a book or about, you know, getting access to, you know, a journal or something that’s a little bit pointy headed. But it’s about more things like how to print or how to access a database that it says is, I can get on the library from the library, but I can’t figure it out. Like, and I sometimes get a little bit mad on the librarians behalf. You know, they went to library school, not help their school. Like, how do you feel about this particular evolution of the librarians role?
Speaker 2: I mean, in my dream, World Library School would partly be helpdesk school and those would be professional jobs, like help. Desk jobs are professional jobs that you can get paid for and work your way up a food chain of doing better with increasing responsibility. But instead, there’s this kind of snotty attitude among, I find technology workers that this is self-serve. If you can’t self-serve, you’re an idiot. And we don’t provide support because our tech is so great that you don’t need it and it’s free, so you don’t get support anyhow. Like, I feel like over the last two decades maybe we have been, as technology consumers, kind of groomed into this position where we believe if we can’t use it, it’s our fault.
Speaker 2: To which my response is, how dare you? You know, that is shocking. And sometimes this is honest, like conflict where, oh, that’s supposed to work that way. And we didn’t know it did. And so let us the technology builders fix that. Sometimes it’s hey, you get what you pay for. This is free or cheap or whatever. And sometimes it’s a clash rate, like you mentioned printing, right? So you’ve got a printer and the printer does something normal for printing if you have a normal situation.
Speaker 2: Right. But what if you’ve got this big networked situation you want people to print wirelessly? Oh, but the wireless networks on the other side of the firewall, yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda. And whose fault is that? The firewalls fault, the printers fault. The person with the iPad’s fault like. And determining blame actually doesn’t help get that document printed right, but it can help troubleshoot for the next time you have to work on that issue. And so I think part of it for me is learning how to be able to look at this, understand kind of what’s going on.
Speaker 2: Like I said before, the texture of what is happening, how to address the short term problem, how do we fix this, but also how to address the long term problem? Why is this so freaking broken? And one of the reasons I do drop in time tweets on Twitter, which, you know, five people in my town are on. Really? So nobody here reads, though. So that’s not for my neighbors. In fact, sometimes I talk about my neighbors, let’s be honest, and is because the people who build technology are on Twitter. Yeah. In general. And so sometimes they can see that and be like, oh my God, it would never have occurred to me that something something, something. Because, like, maybe Wix doesn’t export blog posts as a business strategy and that’s fine. I mean, you can make whatever dumb decisions you want and again, it’s free.
June Thomas: Yeah.
Speaker 2: But maybe it encourages somebody else to build a wix exporting tool because there is an RSS feed underneath there. You could do that. This is a thing that people could build, and maybe that helps make the world a little bit more technologically just for the people who need it and can’t build those tools themselves.
Isaac Butler: We’ll be back with more of June’s interview with Jessamyn West after this.
Isaac Butler: Hey, Slate listeners, it is Isaac Butler here. I just wanted to say real quick that if you’re enjoying this podcast, please take a moment and subscribe. Click that subscribe button wherever you get your podcasts, and that way you’ll never miss an episode of working.
Isaac Butler: Also, you might have noticed we have a new bi weekly bonus show called Working Overtime, where we are heavily featuring emails and voicemails, correspondence, ideas and requests for advice from our listeners. If you would like to be part of our show, please email us at working at Slate.com or call us and leave a voicemail at 304933w0rk. We really loved the emails of voicemails we’ve gotten so far. We’re taking lots of people’s requests and putting them to work at the show. And so we look forward to hearing from you. All right. Back to the show.
June Thomas: So you seem to do a million things and you talked about doing drop in hours at the tech center. How much of your time is spent in a physical library these days?
Speaker 2: Two and a half hours a week. Whoa. Probably. I mean, the joke is drop in time. Originally was just flat out through the tech center. Technical education, which is like, you know, 11th and 12th grades for kids who are learning more trade type jobs and less go to college type jobs, although that’s rude and no longer true. But that’s how I think people can be like, Oh, I know what that is. Yeah. And they supported me because it was part of educating the workforce.
Speaker 2: Right. Time passes. There’s no longer an adult education program in my tech ed program. I had to scramble for money. I wrote a bunch of grants. The library kept sending people there, and I was the sub at the library. Right. I get paid as a library assistant. Roughly what I would make at McDonald’s to help people with this kind of stuff.
Speaker 2: And over time and then really when COVID hit, they were like, people can’t get on Zoom. And it was the same thing, right? We can’t have a Zoom program if people can’t get on Zoom to see it. And so they were like, Why don’t you bring your drop in time skills to the library that already employs you? And, you know, we will find some regular hours for you. And during COVID, when the library wasn’t open, my library was closed significantly more than other libraries because of reasons I would just do email tech support, or I would meet somebody in my driveway and pick up a laptop that wasn’t working, you know, and I would leave it in my driveway and then there’d be a bag of cookies there when I went back outside again, like, like you make it work great people figure it out.
Speaker 2: And so now I do a regular drop in time at the library weekly, but only two or 3 hours. I probably do twice that, maybe a little bit more over email or zoom or in person. Now that covid’s a little less of a thing where I am now, I can do a little bit of sort of in-person stuff if people are willing to mask up and be reasonable. But yeah, it’s a small part of all the hours that make up my day.
Speaker 2: Some of what I do is like this talk to other people about what I do. Some of what I do is public speaking about digital divide issues and rural technology issues, because the larger issue is, you know, people in like big cities on lots of social media, extremely online people are used to not only telling their stories, but have other people hear their stories and people from marginalized groups, whether that’s, you know, broke off line, historically disadvantaged populations, people with disabilities, whatever, don’t get their stories told us much. Right. And they they become special interest stories. They’re not mainstream stories. And so part of, you know, what I like to do is be like, well, let’s talk about digitally divided people who can’t export blog posts from Wix.
June Thomas: Yeah.
Speaker 2: You know what? What’s that about? And what do you need to do as technologists to make the world a more humane place for people who struggle?
June Thomas: Yeah. No, truly, I’ve noticed that a lot of librarians are a little bit in love with their profession in a way that doesn’t seem to get diminished from actually working in libraries. And I think maybe more than of the career path, you know, usually in most jobs, I think people sour or get kind of jaded after a while. First of all, am I wrong about that in your experience? And it sounds like your commitment to libraries and the services they provide is rock solid.
Speaker 2: It’s a thing we talk about in the profession a lot. We call it vocational, or which was a term that Saba’s Ed, who’s a writer on this topic, talked about. And it’s kind of a good news, bad news thing, right? It’s really good to love your job, but it’s bad if you love your job. And then that becomes an excuse for not getting paid enough or not getting treated well at work.
Speaker 2: Right. And I’ve been really lucky that I do a lot of kind of independent consulting. And so my entire identity isn’t the time I spend inside the building. But I’ll be honest, it’s challenging sometimes, you know, it’s both challenging because I often don’t find sympatico people within my profession locally who share my technology love, who share my kind of to the vanguard like, you know, political back story.
Speaker 2: But it is also a little hard because. If librarianship turned on me, which, you know, you have to kind of think about, you’d want to still have something else. Like I worked in technology directly, you know, helpdesk kind of stuff, right out of library school and it was good in some ways and bad in some ways, but ultimately it wasn’t. For me, it was a very male profession. I didn’t I didn’t feel like I had a role there. The people there didn’t read books like I did. I mean, and it’s an it sounds crappy. Like, don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite friends are technologists, but the culture as an overarching culture was different from the culture I wanted to be a part of. Yeah.
June Thomas: Yeah, totally. You seem to do a lot of very creative things to encourage library use. I saw that you made it possible to sponsor a racecar that I think had a message on it that said, use your library or something like that.
Speaker 2: I’ve got a need to read. Go to the library.
June Thomas: I’ve got a need to read. Go to the library. Okay, that’s good. So how did that particular sponsorship come about? And also why do you do that? I mean, don’t people just know what libraries are and what they’re for? You know, what’s your thinking there?
Speaker 2: Couple things. I guess the race card thing in specific is basically because there’s a guy in my town and my town’s got 4500 people and he drives race cars just like not like he’s not a NASCAR guy, at least I don’t think I don’t exactly know what NASCAR is, I’ll be honest. But but it’s popular around here and I know that. And and part of it is we ignore that at our peril.
Speaker 2: Mm hmm. If you’re the public library, you should theoretically be for all the public. But realistically, there’s certain kinds of people you’re a lot more likely to see in the library and other kinds that you aren’t. So everybody probably knows that the library is a thing, but they don’t necessarily know it’s for them. Like, Hey, maybe you can get like wild game hunting magazines at your library. One of the other libraries I work at has many, you know, hunting and fishing subscriptions and like those costs, real money. And maybe you just want to read them and then put them back, you know, hey, your library can do that for you.
Speaker 2: And so there’s this guy in my town, he runs the water department. He posts a thing on our little neighborhood mailing list asking for sponsorship for himself and his daughter, who is, I believe, in high school, maybe just getting out of high school. And she’s a race car driver. And I think this is stock cars like like, you know, like a car that’s kind of an off the shelf. I should not talk about this. I don’t know anything about you.
June Thomas: And I know nothing. I know nothing about cars.
Speaker 2: But they race at Thunder Road, which is a, you know, a track that’s not that far from here. And he was looking for sponsorship and I emailed him and was like, how much? And he told me. And it was shockingly cheap compared to just everything in the world. Like it’s a joke that I kind of live in 1950 here in Vermont in good ways and bad ways.
Speaker 2: Yeah. And so he and I connected and that was last year. And then he contacted me this year and I was like, Oh hell yeah, I’m totally doing that. And on Twitter, I was like, Who wants to chip in for the race car? And people donate it. They donated so much money that I also got her a gift certificate at the local, you know, chefs the like farmstand because like people love that idea. And so partly it’s an Internet thing, right? Internet people like to see that because it makes them happy. But partly it’s a real thing, right? Because, you know, that young woman and her dad and their friends now feel that the library knows they exist, thinks that what they do is cool, acknowledges that they’re part of our community. Yeah, because I think a lot of times we can just sit in our building, wait for people to come in, and if they don’t come in, be like, Oh yeah, I guess they didn’t want to come in. That’s their problem and it isn’t their problem.
June Thomas: So you mentioned it a little bit earlier, but you know, pretty much every workplace was affected by the COVID pandemic. But libraries are physical spaces that have traditionally at least relied on face to face human connections. You know, how did the way that library works change? And do you think that any of the sort of solutions they found will stay in place after the pandemic ends?
Speaker 2: I was just literally talking about this earlier today because there’s a Vermont working group on the status of libraries in Vermont, and they’re collecting testimony and kind of learning about how libraries deal with some of this stuff. And, you know, one of the things that we found and this is true with digitally divided stuff, generally we have a lot of mailing lists and different. Ways that librarians can share information but not close the libraries or on those mailing lists. And so the ones that were connected got better connected and had better information and were better prepared and had more ideas. And the ones that weren’t connected remained kind of isolated.
Speaker 2: And, you know, my particular library, you know, did a ton of curbside brisk business. That was cool, but they didn’t do some things that like and whatever. Everybody’s like backseat driver with this kind of stuff, but they didn’t do this kind of stuff that like for me, being a very tech forward person would have done like we saw libraries in other states, like they had a zoom room and they would share it. Do you need a zoom room? You can sign up for our zoom room for some time and then you’ll have it. You know, they would do, you know, outreach. You could write letters to pets at the library and they would write back. Because, remember, a lot of us were bored and frightened. Right. You know, at the beginning. And having a library that recognized those needs and not just your information needs was huge.
Speaker 2: But like when Omicron started ramping up again at the end of 2021, my library closed the doors again and they were just like, Nope, ventilation, we can’t do it. And I did not agree with that decision because I felt like people were exhausted and I felt like people needed a library. They needed a place to go inside. You know, if you’re in a situation at home that’s not stable, we have a lot of kids who come to the library after school and kind of stay there until the safe parent gets home. Like, that’s crappy when you tell them you’re not going to be open.
Speaker 2: And they opened again in April. Like, just I have concerns, but like, you know, I worked through channels and talk to the people on my board and tried to get other people on the board to help sort of make that work. And I think for some people, maybe curbside solves a problem for them in in various ways, right? Obviously, COVID is not over, but also maybe it’s easier for you to just drive up and have something dropped off in your car and like, the hugest thing at my library. Curbside printing.
Speaker 2: Printing sucks. Yeah, it always sucks. And being able to just have an email address, you can email a document. Not the easiest thing for everybody, but I think it’s a thing a lot of people can do. And then just going and picking up your document, throwing some money in a box. Awesome. Right. And then you don’t have to use public access computer. Great. And then, you know, you do have to trust the librarian, like to look at your stuff, which you did, kind of. Anyhow, let’s be honest.
June Thomas: Yeah.
Speaker 2: And so I think looking at those kinds of things and seeing like what was good, like book groups, Zoom book groups. I have a friend whose death book groups have always been kind of difficult for her. She goes to zoom book groups, turn the captions on which my library didn’t know how to do for the first year of COVID and didn’t ask. I’m not sure why. And now she can interact with her book club safe at home and read along. It’s even easier than being in person, especially with masks on.
Speaker 2: I think a lot of these things, the accessibility thing, you ask any person, well, not almost any person, but many people who are disabled and like they got. More access, in many cases, access that they’ve been clamoring for for decades. And that’s crappy that it took everybody becoming temporarily, you know, incapacitated in a way for this to happen. But it did mean, I think more people became aware of accessibility issues and hopefully some of that stuff is going to stick. Right. I don’t ever want to go to a Zoom program where I can’t turn on captions again and I shouldn’t have to. But again, it’s a person by person situation and solution there.
June Thomas: Now, I have to tell you, just before we got on this call, I was trying to figure out if I could print something at the library because I’m going to miss the coffee shops hours. And so even though I’m, you know, I would be happy to pay. I don’t know, like, well, can I do it at the library? You know, so, like, that’s just a thing that a lot of people need is a real. Because printers just suck.
Speaker 2: Yeah. And I mean, I’ve got a printer that works, okay, but like, even I use the color printer at the library occasionally and in my dream utopia, right? Like I’ve always been a bit of a collectivist kind of anarchist to begin with. Why is everybody buying a printer? Yes, it’s so stupid. Like, why don’t we buy one or two good printers, share them collectively, and share the costs associated with it? And that’s really what’s happening when the library buys, you’re a printer, presuming then there’s not a staff person standing in the way of you using it or otherwise problematize it. Because, you know, I’d be the last person to be like, Oh yeah, libraries are amazing. And if you don’t think so, it’s you are the problem. Some libraries aren’t great with this. Did it turn out that you could print anything at all?
June Thomas: I actually only thought of it just before we came here, so I don’t know about. I’ll let you know. Jessamyn West. This has been really, really fascinating. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Speaker 2: Thank you for letting me talk about what I love.
Isaac Butler: June. I just loved your conversation when Jessamyn West. And I think even though her profession isn’t a quote unquote artistic one, it’s still chock full of useful, creative advice. So I want to spend a bit of our time now highlighting it. And the first big one for me was Know who you are and what you are good at. Jasmine No, she’s not good with kids. She doesn’t love planning events. She’s not really hyped up to run a building, but she is great with and knowledgeable about technology and she’s exceptionally talented at teaching people how to use it. And so she’s really focused in on that in her job. But you know me, I’m going to complicate everything. So I wonder, how do you figure out when you need to work on expanding your repertoire or toolbox or what have you, and when you need to go deeper on what you already know and are good at?
June Thomas: Isaac This is something that I think about a lot, and one of the things that I’m bad at is delegating, which means that I tend to hold on to tasks that I really should hand off. And I also will take a long time struggling to accomplish tasks that someone else could do pretty easily and definitely quicker. But I also hate giving up too soon because it feels cowardly or lazy or some other label I don’t want to own.
Isaac Butler: Yeah, I’m familiar with that.
June Thomas: So I’m always trying to analyze my own resistance to learning new things or doing things I don’t enjoy to figure out if it’s just that I haven’t gotten into a groove yet, or is it something that I really should try harder with? I mean, we often resist learning new skills because we don’t like feeling like beginners at something, especially if we fancy ourselves experts in other areas.
June Thomas: Let me give you one very silly example. Back in the days of working in offices, there was a meeting for podcast producers that I quote unquote owned. And even before the pandemic, we had producers in different cities. So this was a Zoom meeting. And no, we of course, we all know how to do a Zoom meeting, but do we all know how to set up a Zoom meeting in a conference room where there’d be a lot of people sitting around a table and where you wanted to have the image on the big screen or for everyone to hear and be heard. Well, I never really got it down, but I also couldn’t stand to be the kind of person who couldn’t figure out the technology, and especially like as a woman who was a good deal older than everybody else in the meeting. So on one level, it was completely excruciating. Every single week it was a different issue. But I also could not bear to give it up. I probably should have, but I just couldn’t.
Isaac Butler: That’s interesting, because there’s like two different kinds of potential embarrassment there. Yes, right. One is just admitting you can’t do it, but then the other is trying every week to do it and being embarrassed at your inability to.
June Thomas: Do it, you know, but it became a really good bit. That’s my excuse then.
Isaac Butler: Yeah, I got it. I got it. Yeah. You know, another really useful thing she talked about was the value of the word. No. I feel like in both creative and corporate cultures, we are just too afraid of the word no. And I think it has a lot of value. You know, we like to talk about getting to yes or saying yes and to develop ideas, but actually getting to know is extremely important. It helps you focus in on what your project is. It helps you refine your idea. And let’s be honest, you shouldn’t be saying yes all the time.
Isaac Butler: And this interview raised for me another important point. You know, thanks to the improv comedy world, we have this kind of binary between. Yes. And which means building off of someone’s suggestion and no, but which of course, means negating it and not leaving the improv exercise or the business meeting or whatever anywhere to go. But like all binaries, this is actually a false one. There is such a thing as no and which is a no. That then opens another door. No, you cannot do this particular thing in this particular way. You cannot click a button and have all of your blog entries exported from your Wix website. But there might be other ways to get what you want if you’re willing to spend the resources. What did you make of that?
June Thomas: Yeah, I think that was super smart and I think it’s a really big part of the service element that Jessamyn brings to her work. You know, a company, especially a tech company, can say, Oh, sorry, you can’t do that with our software, or that process isn’t supported and you know, we just accept it, which I don’t know how we got to that point, but anywhere but most technological challenges and other kinds of challenges. But we’re talking about technology right now. They actually do have a solution. It might be more complicated and probably more expensive than people would like. And it definitely requires a bit more finagling, but mostly it requires a different mindset. And if you embrace that, I think no, but which I actually do think is a real thing, can be like really generative. It can just help you come up with wacky ways of doing things.
Isaac Butler: Another thing that she talked about is that part of what helps her keep her focused in her job and on her job is mantras, which is another way of saying scripts. You know, it helps reduce your cognitive load if you’re not coming up with original ways to say the same things over and over and over again. So like when Gabe Roth, Cho two, and I were working on Lend Me Your Ears. One of our mantras that came up a lot is we are struggling with this because it’s hard. You know, it was just a reminder that we’re not uniquely bad at making a podcast. This podcast or trying to make is difficult. And so we’re going to wrestle with it a lot. And, you know, I think this whole thing is true, even if the person you’re talking to with this script is yourself.
Isaac Butler: June You and I spend most of our days writing, which is a kind of conversation with yourself. Are there mantras that you’ve been developing that you use in your work?
June Thomas: Great question. Before I answer it, I want to mention that Jessamyn has several of these mantras, I guess, that she repeats on a regular basis. One of my favorites is her Friday afternoon Twitter reminder to not clear out your own inbox at the expense of someone else’s, or, as she puts it, schedule it for later. Help other people with their work life boundaries.
Isaac Butler: A friend of mine has as her email signature on her work email that you should reply to her email during her own work hours. It says something like My daily schedule is not the same as yours, and just because you might be getting this at night doesn’t mean you have to answer it tonight or something like that, which I think is really wonderful and generous.
June Thomas: Yes, I’ve seen similar signatures and it is amazing how much of an impact that can have. It certainly made me think, oh, okay. Yeah, good point. Yeah. So one thing that I have been struggling with, it’s been coming up a lot. So in fact, so frequently that I know I need to figure out a script for it is when a research rabbit hole is really fun and it gives me like an intellectual buzz. But I also know that it’s almost certainly not the right use of my time. At least not, no. You know, maybe later in the process when I’ve got a first draft of everything. Sure. Enjoy yourself, knock yourself out. But I’ve been trying to develop some kind of tests, like something to help me determine. Do you have to do this now? And, you know, sometimes the answer might be yes, because if I’m in the thick of a topic and I know the resources and the sources and they still remember me well, that’s maybe a time to do it. But it isn’t always as anything like that come up for you.
Isaac Butler: Oh, yeah, all the time. I mean, I think any time you’re doing research, it’s going to inspire other things that you could possibly research. You know, you look at the end notes, be like, Oh, maybe I should read that book. And then you actually look up the book and it’s 900 pages long, never mind, you know. And so to me, that’s why whenever I’m doing research, I actually always keep a notebook or a yellow legal pad or, you know, something devoted to the project next to me. And then I just jot down a note like, Oh, think about this. And then it’s just gone for my brain and I don’t have to think about it anymore. And I can go back to reading. That’s, that’s how I personally handle that. But, yeah, I find these things really helpful, you know? Yeah.
Isaac Butler: Is is this the best use of your time as a great mantra or, you know, just reminding yourself of where you are in the process? You know, that, that it might be confusing because it’s early days and you don’t know what the whole story is yet or just get your work for today done. There’s one that came from one of the subjects in the book, the method that I think about all the time, which is the purpose of today’s rehearsal, or I guess we could say today’s creative work. The purpose of today’s creative work is to prepare for tomorrow’s creative work so you don’t have to actually worry about completing anything that day. You’re just trying to move it along enough that like as you go to sleep, your brain’s going to do a lot of work and then get you ready for the next day. And I find that is a really helpful way to be generous with yourself, because when you’re in a long term project, no one day’s work feels like you’ve done enough right?
June Thomas: And you know, sometimes to the world will come and say, You know what? Yeah, you should. So I really have been thinking about this. Like, this is too much detail. This might be a footnote. That footnote might get cut. Don’t waste your time on this. And then today I was in one of those like really basically study sessions. And I came across a fact that actually was, you know, I had written in a line like, you know, this thing existed. I never found any evidence of this being used against a lesbian bar. And then this exact legal, you know, loophole thing showed up in like some random piece in a feminist newspaper in 1982 that I knew I was going into much too much, you know, time suck to to be looking at but it was absolutely right on point. And you can’t help thinking the universe is trying to tell me, no, you go down the rabbit hole, it’s fun down the rabbit hole.
Isaac Butler: I will admit, I do worry a little bit because you are so good at staying on task and so good at organizing and so good at your, you know, product of. Schedules that you might not allow yourself to do that enough. I’m going to be I’m going to be honest, because I actually think part of working on something the size of a book or a documentary film or or whatever is actually you’ve got to pursue a lot of those things and you’ve got to just be willing to get lost a little bit because you’re going to find something that’s really interesting. But the other problem is, is that, you know, like with the method, the subject that you’re talking about is an infinite one. You could spend the entire rest of your life researching this book. And so you’ve got to find the balance between those two things.
June Thomas: Right.
Isaac Butler: Another way to balance things. Ooh, that was a good Segway. Wasn’t another way to balance things that came up in this interview, was Jessamyn discussion of the concept of vocational or which is, you know, a concept I know a lot about. But I had never heard that term and I’m going to use it from now on. It’s something we talk about in the arts all the time, which is, you know, that you are so immersive with your job that that creates a certain level of fulfillment beyond the ways that it contributes to your life, like, you know, money or prestige or whatever.
Isaac Butler: Most of us take a pay cut to work in the arts or in media. Right now, frankly, you can make more money doing almost anything other than working in the non-profit American Theater, for example. And yeah, we do this because the work is personally fulfilling. We believe in it. We think we are contributing to the greater culture at large. It’s meaningful to us, but holy shit, does vocational or opened the door to exploitation and abuse? I think it’s not as bad in the librarian world because the supply of labor doesn’t so vastly outstrip demand like it does for actors or freelance writers or whatever. But still it’s a problem.
June Thomas: Yeah, it’s a problem and it’s an amazing concept. And obviously, as you mentioned, it’s definitely also true of journalism. You know, people who are able to think up story ideas on a regular basis, perhaps a daily basis, research them quickly and turn what they find into a compelling story. Those people have gifts that would almost certainly earn them a lot more money in just about any other field.
June Thomas: And yet there’s a romance to the profession that sucks. People in me most definitely included. You know, we’re adults and we don’t always have to do the sensible thing, the rational thing. But I have very often felt bad about this at events where, you know, there are people who are really trying to break in and you can kind of see it in the way they hold their mic up to someone’s mouth or they ask if things are on the record that like we’re just actually having coffee, but sure, it’s on the record. Yeah. You know that they’re living a fantasy as much as they’re doing a job. And you know, again, that’s fine. Work should be exciting, but those same people are often struggling really hard economically. And I wish that they could take that zeal and direct it into something that would put, you know, a bit more money in the bank.
Isaac Butler: Yeah, it’s like how we talk about the exposure dollars, right? Oh, I’m being paid an exposure that will really help me by my cabbage for dinner tonight or whatever it is. Yeah, it’s such a tricky thing because, like, I’m glad that I work in a profession that I find so meaningful, you know? But the truth of the matter is, that’s made somewhat easier because, you know, like my wife has a good job and things like that. And and b, the truth of the matter is, is that often the people were paying less or the fields were paying less are also treated with less respect. And that’s the difficult thing is like how do you also create which in my experience it’s late slates in a very good job of don’t get me wrong. But yeah, how do you also create a working environment that is fun and positive and respectful? Because no one’s making a lot of money and we’re all doing this in part out of love. That’s a that’s a that’s hard, I think. Yeah.
June Thomas: Yeah, it is.
Isaac Butler: Well, that’s all the time we have for the show this week. If you enjoyed this episode, please remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And as we always do at this time, I am going to pitch you once more on subscribing to Slate. Plus you’ll get full access behind the paywall bonus episodes, extra segments, a delightful newsletter and more.
Isaac Butler: Go to Slate.com, Slash Working Plus to sign up today.
June Thomas: It really is a delightful newsletter. I think that’s a perk that is just not mentioned enough. It’s a great, great newsletter.
June Thomas: Thanks to this week’s guest Jessamyn West and to our stupendous producer, Cameron Druse, who will be hosting next week’s show. Make sure to tune in for his conversation with Alex Sue John Loughlin, producer of the Normal Gossip Podcast. Until then, get back to work. All right. So this is for our slate plus members. Thank you for your support. Slate Plus members. So, Jasmine, I would love to learn more about your work as an editor and contributor to Wikipedia. I know you spent ten years on the Wikipedia Foundation Advisory Board. And again, judging from Twitter, which is where I get all of my information about you and your news, your various newsletters, it’s still something that you think about a lot. Like, why does Wikipedia matter to you this month?
Speaker 2: I’ve been heavily into Wikipedia more than usual, even because there’s a program called 100 DC Women, which is just a campaign somebody started to try every whatever month this is may, May every month of May to try and get more articles. You know, they want to get 100 new articles about women in the D.C. area. So, D.C., Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware. On Wikipedia. And it’s it’s partly to address Wikipedia’s historic inequality problems of all kinds, you know, inequality among editors, inequality among article content, inequality among quality of articles, etc., etc.. Like, you know, if you’re a porn star or Pokemon, you’re definitely on Wikipedia. But if you’re, you know, a famous woman from 150 years ago, maybe you’re not.
Speaker 2: You know, and I think for me, again, I’m certainly not an apologist for Wikipedia stuff that I don’t think is cool. Like there’s definitely some problems there, but I think there’s problems with everything, you know what I mean? And I feel like it it sort of depends whether you want to focus on those and get grumpy about them, focus on them and try and fix them, ignore them and do something else or ignore them and still interact with the thing.
June Thomas: Yeah.
Speaker 2: Tricky figuring it out. Everybody’s got to find their own path according to their own moral compass. And for me, I like the idea of Wikipedia and I like most of the way it works, but it’s fun to work adding to the world’s knowledge. Wikipedia has very high rankings in search engines, so if you make an article for a lesser known woman from 150 years ago, suddenly she’s a lot more Google able, not just a little more Google able or DuckDuckGo able, which is how I find stuff. But either one, I feel like you can with a very low amount of effort achieve. More justice.
Speaker 2: Yeah. You know what I mean? I think one of the things I really like to do is add pictures because I like working on biographical articles the most because they’re straightforward for me there. There’s not a lot of, like, room for ideology. Just kind of talk about the person and what they did. And here’s your citations. But adding images to those articles is important. And so one of the things I did last year, I guess, was I you can you can do a lot of data massage in Wikipedia. So I was like, show me a list of every article about a black librarian that doesn’t have a picture. Oh, and they have to be dead because there’s a fair use exemption you can use. If somebody is deceased, you can put one image, even if it’s copyrighted, as long as it’s small on a Wikipedia article with a fair use justification.
Speaker 2: I could go on and on about this, but I was just like more especially librarians of color because, you know, they’re underrepresented in librarianship as it is and we should see more of them. And that is not just having articles about them, but it is having pictures of them and tracking them down. Sometimes it’s like going to dig around in yearbooks at the Internet Archive or, you know, special collections. But it’s fun, right? And I mean, maybe not, right? Maybe it’s not fun for other people. It’s good that I find it fun if you don’t. But, you know, winter is long here and having a thing that you can do when you can’t go collect moss or go for walks in your neighborhood, or when there’s a giant pandemic and you can’t visit your friends.
Speaker 2: Yeah. Is useful. And for me, Wikipedia. You can do a little. You can do a lot. You can help. And, you know, a lot of people, maybe it doesn’t work for them because, oh, you can get into a fight about somebody over anarchism every day of your life if you want to. And I just decided not to do that part of it and do the other part of it. You know, I try to do my same thing that I do and drop in time at the library, which is, well, how are we going to work on this problem? Let’s try and be constructive. What can we do? I get that this is a problem. Let’s figure it out. Kind of slightly low affect and let’s make it better. Yeah, because, you know, hope is like the things we have when things are hard and it’s good to find a way to exercise that little muscle and not just let it atrophy.
June Thomas: So, I mean, just a very general question. You know, I think the general perception of Wikipedia has changed a lot over the years. You know, I remember I think I was aware of it in its early days, and it was very much like, oh, my God, it’s nonsense. And I mean, certainly as a user, I find a lot of really good stuff there. You know, I do know how to check if I see something that seems like, wow, that’s an amazing statement. I know to check it. And I have a sense of how to do that. So I get that you can’t take it on face value perhaps, but in a general sense, how do you feel about the kind of the accuracy and and how much attention we should pay to Wikipedia these days?
Speaker 2: I mean, it’s the same as what you said. Right. If you’re curious about a thing, I recommend dropping to the references section, figuring out where that fact came from, and learning more about it. If you’re in over your head, you know, if you’re reading like a medical article or about medicine or about some kind of, you know, thing that might affect your life very seriously, check it with somebody who’s a specialist. But I think, again, it’s a kind of a just so story that everybody has access to quality, medical care or quality. Anything, right. Information in a general sense or aren’t getting misinformed by people in their lives and so.
Speaker 2: I do think part of being on board with Wikipedia is acknowledging that there’s problems and I think being willing to talk about them openly. Like one of the things about Wikipedia is even if there is like a weird carbon statement in an article and you’re kind of looking at it, you can at least figure out who put it there. Are they a long time editor who, you know, usually does stuff in this area or are they kind of an IP address, non logged in user who’s just maybe putting it in there for a joke because oh my gosh, can you find little populations of people on the Internet who, you know, admit that they mess around with Wikipedia as a as a joke? Right. And that’s frustrating. And that’s very high profile when it becomes, you know, hits the more mainstream media.
Speaker 2: But I think the mainstream media doesn’t know what to do with Wikipedia. Right? It doesn’t fit into any of the conventional roles. And it is kind of a litmus test for me when I talk to library workers, what they think about it. Right. Because sure, you can’t take stuff at face value, but is it still useful? Absolutely. And, you know, in some cases, it’s more accurate than print sources. And it’s definitely easier to use the databases in almost every case.
June Thomas: Yeah. And I can check my, my the citations on Wikipedia. I can’t in a printed publication. I mean, maybe again, potentially, but it’s so much easier on Wikipedia anyway.
Speaker 2: Yeah, exactly. And you know, the big joke that we have in the world of librarianship is that librarians like to search and everybody else likes to find. And Wikipedia is where people actually find stuff like, I don’t mind digging around in old high school yearbook photos to try and find a picture of, you know, Thomas Fountain Blue, who was an old African-American librarian. But like most people, aren’t me. And it’s really important for people in knowledge professions to understand that most people aren’t you. And if you’re working with and for those people, if you serve those people, it’s really important to understand that and really know that more fully. Don’t just be like, well, works for me. So it works.
June Thomas: That’s another sleepless segment. Thank you again for another week’s membership and another week’s listening. We appreciate you.
June Thomas: So.