Amanda Pegg-Wheat is a children’s librarian and branch manager in Quincy, Massachusetts. In addition to books, movies, video games, and Internet access, Amanda offers her patrons another service: Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. As the DM, she guides young adventurers through the fantasy world of Theros — even when the pandemic keeps them from gathering around the gaming table in person.
In this podcast, Amanda and I chat about what made her want to pursue the children’s librarian track of library science; the value and services that libraries offer in our digital age; what kids can learn from Dungeons & Dragons; whether parents ever object to their children playing D&D; why librarians also need to be community managers; how libraries have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic; and the joys of reading aloud.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Amanda Pegg-Wheat on Twitter
- Thomas Crane Public Library, Wollaston Branch
- Amanda on the Star Trek podcast Transporter Lock
- Roll20: Online virtual tabletop for pen and paper RPGs and board games
- Moral panics over Dungeons & Dragons
- Susan Arendt live-tweets the Super Bowl
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello, and welcome to the Polygamer podcast episode number 110 for February 2021. I’m your host, Ken Gagne. The pandemic has had a significant effect on all kinds of businesses. And one of my favorite businesses I love to go to, even more than restaurants, is libraries. I often go to libraries every single week to check out movies, books, and video games. Yeah, they got those, too. And so I thought it’d be interesting to talk today about somebody who is at that frontline working at libraries both before and during the pandemic, who can tell us all about the value that libraries bring, and some unexpected bonuses that they offer. Join me in welcoming Amanda Pegg-Wheat. Hello, Amanda.
Amanda Pegg-Wheat: Hi! Thank you for having me!
Ken: It’s such a pleasure to chat with you. Not that we haven’t done this before. Full disclosure: we’re friends!
Amanda: Yeah, we know each other.
Ken: Yes, we met at PAX East courtesy, another former Polygamer guest, Susan Arendt.
Ken: Susan’s great.
Amanda: Susan is awesome. I recently introduced a friend to Susan’s live tweet of the Super Bowl.
Ken: And if you just missed it, which was yesterday, at the time of this recording, it’s still out there on Twitter. So Amanda, you are a librarian whereabouts now?
Amanda: I am a children’s librarian in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Ken: Got you. Well, in fact, you just answered one of my first questions, which was I spent a semester in graduate school for library science, and I was asked to choose a track, which was children’s librarian, archivist, et cetera. I was going to ask what kind of librarian you are. You are a children’s librarian, which entails what exactly?
Amanda: So first of all, the children’s librarian track where I went to school, and I’m not sure if where I went was where you did your semester, but I suspect it was so?
Ken: It was.
Amanda: The children’s librarian track, there is actually the media specialist track, which requires one that you do student teaching and get your teaching certification. Because a media specialist in a school has to be a certified teacher. I knew I didn’t want to do that so I didn’t officially take the children’s media specialists track. I created my own children’s track by looking at what courses were being offered, and looking at the job that I was already doing, because I had already been hired as a entry level children’s librarian, and tried to figure out what would be most applicable and useful in my long term career goal.
Amanda: So I ended up taking classes in children’s programming, children’s literature, web development, the history of the book, online resources in the school setting, not because I wanted to be dealing with a school setting but because I knew that online resources yeah, okay, they’re used in schools, but we’re going to have to deal with those in the public library, too. And I want to know what they’re about, just how I ended up with a Twitter account as long ago as I did. And yeah, I ended up sort of creating my own track. I did a young adult lit course, which was great. The history of the book ended up being probably one of the most useful classes, which I hadn’t been expecting. I took it for fun.
Amanda: But my job entails doing a little bit of everything that the library has going on because in some children’s departments in some libraries, the children’s department is there to do programming, and readers advisory, help kids find books. They don’t do their own search. I know that’s true in San Francisco, because I visited the San Francisco Public Library, and they have a dedicated circulation section that handles circulation for the whole building as far as I could tell. That’s not the case in my library. In my library, we do all of our own circulation out of the children’s room so we’re handling the processing of returns, checkouts, holds, all of that.
Amanda: And we do programming, and we maintain our collection, and we maintain our part of the website that ended up falling to me because I knew HTML way back in the day. And yeah, we do a little of everything. I am also a branch manager. So at my branch, I oversee day-to-day, the sort of everyday stuff. I maintain the entire branch collection, and delegate sort of the collection management stuff. If I need someone to go pull a list of books that haven’t gone out in over four or five years, then I can print that list off and have someone go do that. I don’t need to be the one doing it. But then when it comes time to actually make the decisions of do I keep this or do I get rid of it, that’s me. That’s all on me. So we do computer instruction, we do programs, we do technology instruction. I run adult programs at my branch, I run children’s programs, teen programs, a little bit of everything.
Ken: What was it about being a children’s librarian that appealed to you that made you choose that career as opposed to a different kind of librarian?
Amanda: There are a couple of reasons. One, I love children’s literature. And you don’t have to love children’s literature to be a children’s librarian but it’s a good idea. If you don’t like kids’ books, then it’s hard to keep up on them and know what to hand to kids. I also really like working with kids. My mother was a elementary school teacher throughout my entire childhood, and then she was an elementary school principal. And my very first official get a paycheck job was working as a teacher’s assistant at a summer science camp in my city. And I loved it. I absolutely love it. I love doing children’s programs.
Amanda: I was doing storytelling at the Falmouth Public Library as a teenager. And it was one of those things where they had hired someone and I went to all of her programs. And then she was like, “Hey, do you want to do some storytelling?” I was like, “Sure.” I’ve always loved reading out loud. I’ve always loved children’s literature and young adult literature. And I love being able to hand a kid a book and see their face light up. It’s just so cool.
Ken: So it must be very challenging during the pandemic when you can’t see their face and hand them the book.
Amanda: Yeah, it sucks, to be quite honest. I’ve said frequently, it’s like working in a vacuum a lot of the time because we’re doing circulation out of my library. We’re doing to go circulation so curbside pickup. That’s great, and we do get feedback from families. We get messages from them saying, “Thank you so much for these books. They were great. We’ve read this one over and over.” We get wonderful responses from people. But you don’t have that same kid comes up to the desk and says, “I’ve read all the good mysteries.” And you go, “Oh, well, have you read Skulduggery Pleasant?” And they go, “What’s that?” “Well, Skullduggery is a walking talking skeleton who throws fireballs, and solves supernatural mysteries. He’s the sidekick.”
Amanda: And you see them sort of go, “Oh,” and their eyes widen. And you take them to the shelf, and you pull the book off the shelf, and you hand it to them, and they read the inside flap. And then they don’t look back up at you because they’re taking the book to a table and sitting down and reading it. That’s a wonderful feeling. That’s an amazing, amazing feeling to know that you have now connected a person with a book that speaks to them. And we aren’t getting that feedback. We get it verbally, but we don’t get to see it in action in the same way. And that’s hard, that’s really hard. It’s hard to find the motivation sometimes. Because you’re like, “Is anyone liking what I’m pulling? Is anyone enjoying what I’m reading out loud?” So that’s hard. It’s been tough but we do know that people are checking out the books and coming back for more so we must be doing something right.
Ken: Well, I imagine a lot of the other services that a library offers during pre-pandemic time, such as access to computers for people who need to look up jobs or apply or do online research. Those are probably even more curtail. Not only are you not getting feedback, you can’t even offer them.
Amanda: Yeah, we did offer appointment based computer use for a short time. We were able to offer that for a couple of months over the summer when our city was low in transmission, but we spiked in the fall. And we’re only just starting to maybe come back down from that. And we were advised by the city’s Health Commissioner, that we needed to not be allowing that anymore. And that was really hard. It’s really frustrating. We do our job because we love it, and no one gets into this job for fame and fortune. We get into this job because we care about it, and we care about connecting people with information that is at the root of everything we do is connecting people with information in one way or another.
Amanda: And having to say to people, “I’m sorry, but you can’t come in and get that information,” that’s so frustrating. It’s frustrating for them. It’s frustrating for us, too. We don’t like not being able to offer that service safely but we can’t offer it safely right now, unfortunately. We do as much as we can with phone reference, and letting people sort of walk us through what they want us to look up. But there are things we can’t do. We can’t sit there and do a job search for you. So it’s rough, it’s very rough. We know that.
Ken: Yeah, they’re not going to be printing anything out and going home to research it further?
Amanda: No. So yeah, we have had to curtail a lot of that. We don’t have any real in-person services. One of the branches has some very limited browsing allowed because they have a lobby where they can do that that is very well-ventilated. But the buildings just weren’t built for that, no one was thinking about that when they built these buildings, because who would be thinking about that sort of stuff long term? So yeah, we’ve had to very much limit the services that we offer. But we’ve moved as much as we can online, and we’ve moved as much as we can to curbside. And our circulation keeps picking up every month, and attendance at our programs is ridiculous. So we had people from all over the world at our programs within the past couple of weeks.
Ken: What sort of programs are those?
Amanda: We run story times four days a week, two on Wednesdays. We have a music program two Fridays out of the month. We do special story times on Saturdays that alternate because we have different staff. So we run a lot of story times. We also run a Coding Club, a book read-along sort of program, they’re doing a choose your own adventure read-along. And I run a Dungeons & Dragons program. The Coding Club and Dungeons & Dragons are registered programs because if we made them open to all, open to all with D&D is unmanageable. I’ve run a 15 person table when we ran it in person. And that’s not fun in person. Trying to run that online would be absolute chaos. So those are registered so they have limited attendance. But the story times we don’t register, we don’t limit. And we hit our max on the Zoom limits pretty frequently at this point.
Ken: If you don’t limit attendance based on say, geography, what distinguishes your library’s offerings from the many other Zoom activities people can now find during the pandemic?
Amanda: I wish I knew. That seems like such a ridiculous answer but I think it honestly, it is that we don’t limit. It’s that we are upbeat and positive and welcoming to all. And we also heavily moderate our chat, and the participants learned early on, and this was something that I knew going in because I spend a lot of time online. I’m a very on the internet person. I knew going into this, if we’re going to be doing things online, if we’re going to be doing Facebook Live, if we’re going to be doing streaming to YouTube, if we’re going to be doing Zoom, we need to be keeping an eye on participation because we will get trolls.
Amanda: And this is speaking as someone who spends a fair amount of time on Twitch, I stream myself. I’ve gotten trolls, I’m the tiniest streamer in the world. I have a regular audience like three. But I have gotten bot armies trolling me. So I was like, “We are going to need moderation.” So I was very clear, right from the outset to my boss, to my coworkers, that we needed someone to be keeping an eye on the chat who wasn’t the person telling the stories. We’re not relying on the performer to also be the moderator. Fortunately, we have enough staff that we can do that, we have enough people on at any given time that we can have someone sort of babysitting the chat and keeping an eye on it, making sure that no one puts anything inappropriate in there.
Amanda: We make sure that no one has changed their name to anything appropriate, we make sure that no one has any inappropriate backgrounds. And that leaves the performer able to just relax and be the performer. It’s a live program so kids get to interact with us, and it’s a safe program because we moderate it heavily. And that has worked out fairly well for us, which is really nice. But it’s not the experience of a lot of libraries because a lot of libraries don’t have the staff to be doing what we’re doing. It’s very much a privilege for us.
Ken: It sounds like librarians really need to also be skilled at being community managers. Is that a new overlap since the pandemic began?
Amanda: It is. Online community management, we always sort of had to be the real world’s version of community managers in that when you have live programs, you need to be aware of who’s attending your programs, you need to constantly sort of be keeping an eye out for conflict happening. Because if you have an open program where anyone can come in, you do need to pay attention to who’s attending and any problems that might arise in person. But being an online community manager is a whole different creature, and you very much do need to pay attention to that these days.
Amanda: And it’s a skill that we’ve had to build very quickly. And we’ve had to master social media publication, and being really consistent with what we post and when we post it. I know other libraries that aren’t getting the response that we’re getting but they also don’t have the staff to be moderating heavily. They don’t have someone who’s dedicated to getting stuff on Facebook. One of my coworkers, she is doing like a hero’s job keeping our Facebook content constant, and looking good and responsive. And not all libraries have the staffing to do that, which is a bummer.
Ken: So you talked about offering DND at your library. I’m curious about the mechanics of that. But first, I want to get to the foundation, which is how is Dungeons & Dragons and libraries, how do those interact? That’s not something that most people might expect to find at a library.
Amanda: Gaming in libraries is actually something that’s been happening for a long time. And one of the reasons behind that is libraries very much serve not just as places to get information as in media, but a place to get information about the world around you and the people around you. They serve as kind of community centers in a way, and that is encouraged by game playing. Games give people a structure to converse and interact so they’re wonderful mediums for people who might otherwise be anxious, or not understand social interaction. In the same way, they give you a script, they give you a framework. And so gaming definitely helps in that way. We’ve had video game programs, we’ve had board game programs, because they do allow people to come together. And that’s one of our purposes, we consider that connecting people and information. It’s just not quite the same way most people envision that.
Amanda: But we’ve also identified that community building is something that our community wants from us so we’re happy to provide that. Games also, in general, board games, card games, video games, they do allow for, and this is something that I am very passionate about, they allow for people to experience the world through play. This is actually something I was talking about before we started recording, the idea of learning about the world through play, it seems so silly to some people but it really is a wonderful way for people to learn about the world around them, because it’s a fairly low pressure learning environment. If you’re playing a game, especially with kids, but adults, too, that involves manual dexterity, that involves pattern recognition, anything like that, manual dexterity is the literacy skill. Pattern recognition is a literacy skill. Math is a literacy skill in its own way.
Amanda: A lot of games involve counting, involve pattern recognition, involve manual dexterity, those are all things that we want to encourage, those are all early literacy skills that we want to encourage. Those are all skills that everyone can do a little bit of brushing up on sometimes. Board games help a lot with that but video games do, too. Dungeons & Dragons, on the other hand, involves math. It involves reading comprehension, because goodness knows you got to read a heck of a lot to keep up with your character sheet, and understand what your abilities do. What does that ability mean? What is turned on dead? How does that work? So you have to read that and you have to understand what it means and you have to understand the context of it.
Amanda: All of those are literacy skills. All of those are reading comprehension skills. It’s a sort of sneaky way of teaching literacy at the same time as letting kids have fun, but it also lets kids encounter new experiences. It lets them learn about different points of view because they have to be in a character mindset, and work with other characters. It encourages teamwork, and sometimes a lack of teamwork. And finding creative ways to deal with challenges and problem solving. Creative problem solving is one of my favorite things. It’s a ton of fun. Sometimes the kids try and get a little too creative but every once in a while you get a kid who makes a hammer out of cheese and that’s super fun.
Ken: Is this a skill you brought to the library? Or did they say, “Hey, we need somebody to run D&D.” Whose idea was this?
Amanda: This was a skill I brought to the library. There was, several years ago, one of our summer reading themes was an imagination and fantasy theme. There’s a nationwide summer reading theme every year. And they range from, like, this coming summer is Tales and Tails, T-A-L-E-S and T-A-I-L-S. It’s all animal themed, animal stories, so that’s our summer reading theme this year. We’ve had nighttime as a theme. We’ve had sports as a theme, we’ve had music as a theme. Several years ago, fantasy was the theme. My husband and I were like, “Oh, we could do a D&D program. That would be fun in the libraries.” I proposed it to my boss, and she was like, “Sure.”
Amanda: We did a one time D&D program, and the kids really enjoyed it, and wanted to do it again, and wanted to know when we were going to do it again. I was like, “Oh, when will we do it again? Let’s look at the calendar and figure that out.” It was something that I brought to the library, but it also is a good fit with what we’re doing. It fits into our goals. It fits into our aims and our mission and our purpose. So I’m glad I’m doing it.
Ken: So Dungeons & Dragons, like video games, have experienced their own moral panics. Do you ever get any pushback from the parents about offering these?
Amanda: I really haven’t. I haven’t had anyone get on my case about it, which is nice. I was kind of wondering if we would, but I haven’t had anyone really give me any trouble, which is nice. I’m prepared for it but I haven’t had to pull out any of my arguments. I’ll just keep them, keep them tucked away waiting.
Ken: And under what condition would you feel the need to argue that as opposed to if the parents don’t want their kids to play it, and the parents don’t want their kids to play?
Amanda: If the parents don’t want their individual kids to play, we’re not going to fight them on that. Much as I would love to champion every kid’s right to play a game, we can’t fight parents on the decisions that they’re making as parents with their minor children. But if a parent wanted us to not offer the program to anyone, yeah, I would fight that.
Ken: So what edition of D&D do you play?
Amanda: We play fifth edition. It’s the newest, it’s the easiest to find material for. And certainly, right now that we’re doing it online, it is the easiest to find online information for in a way that makes playing smoother. Roll20 offers a fifth edition, character sheet and compendium that make my part of the job as the DM so much easier. It’s so much easier to do than trying to do it all from scratch. If I was trying to do 3.5 or something, I would really be kind of on my own, I would have to be doing a lot of setup manually. I don’t want to have to do that, I don’t have time for that.
Amanda: I’ve got to be pulling holds, I’ve got to be checking things out to people, I’ve got to be prepping other programs or moderating someone else’s program. So the more streamlined I can make the prep for it, the better. That said, I have allowed my groups to convince me to let them play in some of the settings that I don’t have online materials for so I have to type things in manually. The group that’s meeting tomorrow is playing in the Theros setting, and I don’t have that on Roll20 so I’m typing things in manually. That’s fine.
Ken: And being a DM requires, as you said, a lot of prep, sometimes more time to spend prepping than sitting at the table. Is this time you set aside at the library to get ready for these games?
Amanda: I’m gonna be honest with you. I am an improv DM. I’m very much an improv DM. I get a certain amount of prep done. I usually get a couple of hours the day before. Today, I had a couple of hours in the afternoon to get character sheets ready for the kids because character generation takes time. And especially when you’re playing in a setting that you don’t have all of the information online to just drag and drop, you’ve got to type things in, and that’s so time consuming. So much as I would like to let the kids generate their own characters, there would be so much that I would have to type in manually that the first session would just be making characters.
Amanda: And we only get three sessions a month, because we only have a couple of weeks before I need a break, and we need time to do other things. I don’t want to waste one session just on character generation, I’d like to give them three full play sessions. We do it as a monthly three-week campaign so that we can skip around with settings, we can try something new, the kids can try different character types. It lets them experiment a lot, which is really cool. But it does mean that we have a limited amount of playtime. I make the characters ahead of time. I’ll ask them, if they’re returning players, I’ll ask them what they want. But if they don’t get back to me, then they get a pre-generated character, and they’re just going to have to live with that.
Ken: Campaigns can last years and years. What sort of adventure can one have in just three weeks?
Amanda: I look for inspiration in one shot adventures, which are built largely for one, six to eight-hour play session where you get together with your friends and spend a day playing. If you parcel that out over three weeks, you’ve got three two-hour sessions, you’re probably good to go. I take some inspiration from those, I’ll look some up, take a peek at what they’ve got for difficulty level, how many monsters they’re looking at, what sort of puzzles they’re dealing with. Then I’ll look at what maps I have available to me, what map packs have I bought on Roll20, what creatures do I have available to me.
Amanda: I’ll get a bunch of creature profiles ready in my sort of DM folder. I’ll get a bunch of maps ready, and I’ll build them characters. Then I give them an adventure hook, and I let them go. I follow them, in large part. I had a group, they were at an abandoned temple, and I thought I had made this temple like the description of it really enticing. And they spent half an hour in the graveyard out front that I hadn’t built anything for. There’s where the improv comes in. It’s like, “Oh, well, they’re paying attention to the graveyard, got to make the graveyard interesting now.” I let them lead me in large part, and I have an idea of where I want to leave them.
Amanda: What is the climax of the campaign? What big monster? Who are my players? Are they players that want puzzles? Are they players that want to fight things? if they’re players that want puzzles, what’s the ultimate puzzle for them to solve? If they’re players that want to fight something, what’s the ultimate battle for them to fight? I’ll usually try to maneuver them at the end into dealing with that one way or the other. But up until that I just sort of let them call the shots. They don’t know that I’m letting them call the shots, but they are calling the shots. None of them are listening.
Ken: Now, if you were offering this in person, which you used to do pre-pandemic, the kids would be sitting at the table, they’d be rolling the dice, you mentioned Roll20 as a website, what is the minimum requirements for a kid to join an online D&D session at your library?
Amanda: So they need to be able to use Zoom, and they need to be able to use Roll20. So roll20.net is a website that offers a virtual D&D experience. You make your character sheet in Roll20. There are ways to make your character sheets in other services and import them or make use of them but I actually find the character sheet generator in Roll20 to be perfectly fine for my purposes. You make your character sheet, and what’s nice about their system is if you make the character sheet right in their site, you can just click on numbers. If you need to make a strength saving throw, you click on strength saving throw, and it does it. It’s really nice. It’s very streamlined.
Amanda: On one hand, it feels like a little bit of a cheat almost. But on the other hand, I have found that it actually helps the kids get to know the structure of their character sheet better than they normally do. When we do it in person, they have the character sheet in front of them but you’re constantly you’re saying, “Okay, roll this or roll that,” and they’re like, “What die do I roll?” And you go, “You roll D20,” and they go, “What do I add?” And you go, “Okay, look at your thing and look at look at this number,” and they go looking for it and then they roll it. Now I say, “Okay, roll a strength saving throw,” and they go to their sheet and they know where that is. They know where to find that information because they’re actively using that information as opposed to passively looking at it.
Amanda: I like that. The reason they need to be able to use Zoom is because we found that wonderful as Roll20 is for a lot of things like their map packs and character tokens and spells and the character sheets, their voice chat is not great. We did a test run with a couple of my regular in person D&D kids right at the beginning, and it was dropping them left and right. But it wouldn’t tell us that they had been dropped. They looked like they were still there. So we decided, “Nope, you know what? We’re going to use Zoom. That way, we don’t have to worry about it.” And at this point, most of the kids can use Zoom because it’s getting used for schooling anyway. We figured we’re making use of technology that they’re already fairly proficient with, I guess.
Amanda: So we haven’t had any bumps with that, it’s worked out pretty well. The only real trouble that we run into is that running both Zoom and Roll20 on a tablet or a Chromebook, it’s a little taxing for those machines. And so sometimes the functionality is limited but the kids still seem to have a good time. I’ve got several kids who still show up who run into those problems. And it’s not enough of a problem to keep them away from the program.
Ken: Are these some of the same kids who used to come to the program in person?
Amanda: A handful, yes. And some no. I think some of it is that the in person programs, we used to run on Tuesday evenings because on Tuesday afternoons it was so busy in the children’s room and at my branch, I couldn’t be spared to be away from the desk. Right now, there’s no one in the room but us so I can be spared from the task. So on one hand, the pandemic has really been difficult, it’s forced us to be very creative in figuring out how to run our programs. On the other hand, because we’re not busy in the room doing circulation, that gives us more flexibility in scheduling programs. So a silver lining, wish we didn’t have to deal with it but there it is.
Ken: I’m sure not only has your availability changed, but so have the students. Some kids are going to have easier access to Zoom, maybe they couldn’t get a ride to the library, or they were just weren’t comfortable sitting down at the same table with the same people. But conversely, some kids, they may not have a computer who’s up to specs, or they may not have access to it at the same time because there’s only one computer in the house.
Ken: It goes both ways when you move something that’s offline to an online format.
Amanda: Yeah, you’re always going to encounter accessibility issues. This is something that we talk about in the library field a lot, which is the digital divide. And well, it has closed a fair amount. It hasn’t closed completely, and you still have to worry about internet access. It’s not just having the computer, it’s having access to internet that’s capable of doing a Zoom call. One of my coworkers lives in kind of a Wi-Fi dead zone, and it’s really hard for her to connect with Zoom for meetings if she’s at home. If she’s somewhere else, she’s fine, but the Wi-Fi in her area is just not great. And that’s going to be a problem, that’s going to be a problem for years and years to come. We’ve seen a lot of the inequalities in access laid there in ways that weren’t as obvious before. We always knew in the library that we were the place where people had a printer.
Amanda: A lot of people don’t have a printer at home. Or if they have a printer, ink is expensive, toner is expensive, or they only have black and white but they need to print something in color. We’ve known that for a long time that we are the place you go to print out your stuff. And we aren’t available for that now. We will do printouts on demand, you can send us a file and we can print them out for you but you can’t come and sit down and work on your project and then print it out. You have to work on it at home and then send it. A lot of people don’t have internet access at home. There was a very well-publicized situation I want to say in California where there were a couple of kids sitting outside like at Taco Bell to use the free Wi-Fi. And there was a bit of a frustrating narrative going on there where every comment I saw was like, “This is why we need public libraries.” Just imagine the heaviest sigh possible.
Ken: I think I just heard it.
Amanda: Yeah, but the problem being that that’s not the ultimate fix, that doesn’t solve all the problems because then you still have to get the kids to the library. And in a pandemic, the Public Library can’t be that for them. It’s not safe. So the actual answer is housing and internet access as rights as opposed to privileges. We’re not there yet in this country. We aren’t there but there was this attitude of, “The public library will save us,” and we can’t be that. We can’t bring internet to your home.
Ken: Well, people want to point to institutions that we already have, as opposed to considering socialism.
Amanda: And you’re right about that, and you’re also … It’s easy to say, “I support my public library,” and it’s a little harder to say, “I support housing for immigrants and homeless people. And I support Wi-Fi that is low cost or free.” That’s a little harder for people to sort of stomach and yeah, it’s harder to stomach saying, “Oh, it’s socialism.” But even if you don’t put the label of socialism on it, it’s harder for people … Libraries are an easy thing to say you support. They’re a feel good support thing. You say, “I love my library,” and everyone’s like, “Oh, of course, you love your library. Libraries are great.” Well, you know, what about the social services that are trying to connect homeless people with housing? What about people trying to get kids’ laptops for free. Those are also services that need funding, but they don’t have the long history of libraries to point to and be respectable in the same way.
Ken: Right, we should support libraries, but we shouldn’t support only libraries as a solution for everything.
Amanda: Like, yes, please fund libraries, I would love you to fund libraries. It keeps me in a job, and I get to keep doing the thing that I love doing. But please also fund these other things because we cannot be everything to everyone. We can’t be social services to everyone. And we all care about people, and this is one of the pitfalls of the job, you care about people that’s why you work in a public library. Then you care so much about people that you want to help them. You want to be the one who fixes the problem and does everything, and you can’t. You can’t do it. You’ll burn out. You don’t have the time, you don’t have the funding. You don’t have the people. That said, there are libraries that have social workers on staff now for just that.
Ken: Really? I did not know that.
Amanda: Yeah, it’s an evolving service. It’s something that’s still relatively new but it’s a topic that comes up in professional conferences a lot.
Ken: I feel like there are so many things libraries do that people aren’t aware of. I mean, even nowadays, I still get people saying, “Why do we need libraries now that we have Google?” But you’re not going to be able to get connected to information from somebody who actually understands what you’re looking for. You’re not going to be able to go to the library and borrow video games, which is one of the things I often promote. Or even my hometown library before the pandemic, they were lending out board games and gardening tools. And the random is things that you would normally go to Home Depot for.
Amanda: Cake pans. Cake pans are one of those things. There’s a library in New York that has a doll collection that they loan out, they have an American Girl Doll collection, and those get loaned out. They have funding for that, they get donations to fund that. They started with one doll, and they had it in the library for kids to play within the library. One of the librarians realized that there are kids who just don’t have dolls at home. Not even expensive ones, like American Girl is pretty pricey, but they just didn’t have any. She let one of the kids take the doll home. And when the child brought it back, her mom had made it a new dress.
Amanda: So she started doing an informal lending of the doll, and it would come back with its hair in cornrows or in elaborate styles and curled or have new outfits made for it. She realized that this doll was performing sort of a service to kids so she asked for some funding to buy a couple more. She’s had to have them sent in to get hair replaced or a limb reattached every once in a month, you know, wear and tear. But it has been so valuable to her community to have the ability to borrow that level of play, a toy. It’s imagination is such a huge part of how children learn, and having a doll aids in that. Doesn’t matter who you are.
Amanda: So, yeah, collections, the library collections of things have become very popular in the past couple of years. We were starting to talk about doing that at my library pre-pandemic. Back in January, before the pandemic, we were discussing if we were going to do this, what sorts of things would we want to have? What sorts of things would we want to loan out? What would be the difficulties in loaning them out? What complications would we have to foresee ahead of time so that we were prepared to cope with them when they came about? So for example, like cake pans. Okay, we’re loaning out cake pans. How do we make sure they’re sanitized when they come back? How do we make sure they’re stored in a sanitary way? How do we make sure that they’re clean?
Amanda: If someone brings one back that’s got batter caked on and baked on to it, how do you cope with that? How do you charge someone for a cake pan that’s ruined? You got to think about the logistics behind that, you can’t just put something into place and hope it works. You want to plan for it so that you’re not scrambling when something comes up. You want to minimize the amount of scrambling that you’re doing. We were thinking about what we wanted to do with that sort of collection, and then we just didn’t get a chance to do it. We’ve shied away from board games in the past.
Ken: Too many pieces.
Amanda: So many pieces. We actually had several years ago, gosh, it must have been like 15 years ago, there was a phonics game. And it was like a Hooked on Phonics sort of thing but it was a board game, and it had like 200 pieces with it.
Ken: That’s a lot.
Amanda: And we did not carry it, but another library in the network did. A woman came in and asked for it so we put it on hold. And the other libraries sent it, and when it came in, she came to pick it up, and I had to count every single card, every single piece. There were so many bits and pieces, not just the tokens and stuff, but there were four decks of cards. There was a mirror and there are all these odds and ends. It was like mousetrap. It was a nightmare. I’m counting all these pieces, it’s just, “Do you have to count all those?” I was like, “Yes, because I want to make sure that if something is missing, you don’t get blamed for losing it.” You got to mark that down so that when it gets back to its home library, and they count everything, they don’t call you going, “What happened to cards five and six out of this flashcard set?”
Amanda: She asked me why we didn’t keep it on hand, why we didn’t buy it. And I was like, “Well, let’s say you lose some of the cards. Can you play the game without them?” And this is when she brought it back. She said, “No. You really do need them all.” And I said, “Okay, well, if you lose the cards, how do we replace them?” She said, “We call the company.” I said, “No, you don’t. You buy a new copy of the game. They’re not replacing just the cards.” Yeah, board games we have shied away from loaning out. We do have board games in the library, and we have run library board game days where we keep the games up at the desk and people can come up and browse through them and choose one to take out to a table and play. And then when they’re done with it, they bring it back up to the desk and they can pick something else. That’s a lot of fun.
Ken: I am amused to hear you say that you need to anticipate the issues that come up with letting things out so that you’re not scrambling later. Compared with what you earlier said about being an improv DM.
Amanda: I’m not saying in improv that I have no planning whatsoever. I’m just not scripting out my entire adventure. I’m prepared to handle what the kids throw at me because I know what monsters I have available to me. I know what puzzles I’ve got planned. And I sort of keep a little catalog of those, so that whatever they end up doing, I can pull out whatever is the best response to it. For example, this was from December, I think, December’s game, I had put them in a room that had multiple doors. And my thinking had been that they needed to find a door that they could all pass through together. And there was only one door that was going to open for all five of them.
Amanda: And instead, each one of them was like, “Oh, well, this door lights up when I go near it, and this door lights up when I go near it. And this door lights up when … Let’s each go through a different door.” “Okay, they’re going to split the party. They’re going to split the party into five.” Suddenly, I had to have five maps, one for each of them and five monsters one for each of them. And the thing they were going to encounter as a group was not going to be the right thing because a solo level three character is not a group of five level three characters, so they’re going to face down something entirely different.
Amanda: Suddenly, instead of them fighting a thing that had been left to challenge them, each one of them had to fight something that was sort of emblematic of what they were afraid of. After they finished fighting it, they disappeared and turned out to be illusions. So none of them were actually in danger, danger. It turned out that they were all in the same room all the time. They just had been hidden from each other, and unable to see each other.
Ken: So it’s kind of like Wesley Crusher applying to Starfleet. He was never really in danger.
Amanda: No. No, he’s fine. There was never any coolant leak.
Amanda: But yeah, it’s very much … Okay, yeah, I’m thinking on my feet but I’ve already planned for this. I already have a little room that I can use as a map that contains each one of these characters individually. And it takes a matter of a few seconds to copy and paste multiple copies of that room into a single map, and then transport the tokens onto that map. So you got to think on your feet. You work with kids, you got to think on your feet, anyway.
Ken: I’ll take your word for that. I’ve managed to avoid them so far.
Amanda: I do enjoy working with kids. I’ve had opportunities to move out of the children’s department and I don’t want to. I like what I do.
Ken: Good. Not everybody can say that.
Amanda: I truly do love my job. I love what I do. I’m passionate about it. I love the reaction of kids at story times. I love hearing that a kid loved a book that I handed them. I also love hearing that a kid hated a book that I handed them, which I know is a really weird thing to say. But I would love to hear when a kid doesn’t like something because it helps me tailor what I hand them next. If they’re afraid to tell me that they didn’t like something, then one, they don’t trust me. And two, how am I ever going to give them something they enjoy if I don’t know what they like and what they don’t? So I usually have to get my book club kids. It takes a couple of months to get the new kids to realize that yes, you can tell me you hated something. Please, tell me you hated it.
Ken: No, I imagine that we both had a similar experience when we worked at Blockbuster, which we’ve both done, although we didn’t know each other at the time. I had my regular customers, and I would suggest movies to them. And they’d come back and say, “I hated that movie.” I’m like, “Great. Now I know what not to recommend to you next time.”
Amanda: Exactly. Yeah. If I know what you didn’t like, then I know not to hand something like that to you again. If I don’t know that you didn’t like it, and this is definitely a thing that happens with kids, they’re used to, in school, having to write that book report about that book, whether they liked it or not, and having to find something worthwhile to say about it. And then they come to my book club and I’m like, “Did you hate it?” Like, “Well, kind of, yeah.” I’m like, “No, really, tell me how you feel about it. Tell me what you didn’t like.” And suddenly they have all of these thoughts and feelings about these books that they were afraid to express because they thought they were going to get in trouble for it. They thought the adult in the room was going to say, “How could you not like this? It’s so worthwhile.” Well, he didn’t like it. Taste is subjective.
Ken: Well, I always thought I didn’t like horror movies. But then our friend Susan launched a horror podcast. And I thought, “Well, if it’s so good that she wants to do a podcast about it, maybe I should try it.” So I watched several horror movies, and most of them I didn’t like, but there were a few that I did. I started to figure out what’s common about the ones I liked, and what’s common about the ones I didn’t like. I’ve realized that there is a sub genre of horror that I do enjoy.
Amanda: Isn’t it fun to discover something like that?
Ken: It is, especially when you realize I could have been enjoying this all along. I just didn’t think I would.
Amanda: I’ve definitely, I found that with children’s literature, you pick up a book because, well, I should read this so that I know what it’s like so that I know who to hand it to. And then suddenly, you’re reading this book, and you’re like, “Oh, this is really good. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book. But here I am, absolutely glued to it.” That happens to me frequently. I’ll read pretty much anything that comes into the room. My to-be-read stack is always a mile high.
Ken: Are you favoring physical books over eBooks?
Amanda: I personally favor physical books over eBooks. I find that I read more comfortably when I can flip back and forth between the pages. I’m also a really fast reader. I have a lot of imposter syndrome stuff going on but being a really fast reader is something that is quantifiable, and I am a very fast reader. And I find I read faster in a physical book than I do with an eBook. There’s just something in an eBook that slows me up.
Ken: When you say you can quantify being a fast reader is that … I know from myself reading an eBook, when I’m done reading, it tells me how long it took me to read the book. And it takes me about a minute per page, I am guessing you’re faster than that.
Amanda: I am probably faster than that. I don’t tend to time myself on eBooks but I also know that with most children’s books, I can probably whip through about three in an afternoon. And that’s like chapter books for seventh, eighth graders. Now, an adult novel that’s going to be longer, would take me probably an afternoon.
Ken: And are you on Goodreads?
Amanda: I am but I don’t really use it. I don’t know, the format of it I’m just not super into. It’s hard to keep up with that sort of thing when you’re also keeping up with giving your boss the things that you liked and giving a coworker the things that you liked for a newsletter. Eventually you just sort of go, “No, I can only keep track of this in one place.” If that one place is my email that I already have up, then that’s the place where I’m going to track it. It’s going to be a draft email. And then when someone asks me for it, I put their address in it.
Ken: The reason I ask is because every year in January, Goodreads encourages its members to take a challenge or a goal of how many books they’re going to read that year. And a few years ago, I spent a day volunteering at a dog shelter, and after I’d walked all the dogs, one of the activities they offered me was to basically lock myself in a kennel with a dog and read books to him. It was great. It was like two of my favorite things. But at the end of the day, I mean, these were children’s books with lots of pictures, and I had to ask myself, “Do these count toward my goal?” I just read three books in one day, that’s a month’s worth of my goal.
Amanda: What did you get out of the books, would be my question. This is actually a discussion that I’ve had, which is reading is reading is reading. Did you glean anything useful? Did you learn anything? Did your mind get inspired by any of the books that you read even on a minor level? If it did, then I would count them.
Ken: What I most remember about that day was that the dog was not a very attentive listener. He kept wandering in and out of the room.
Amanda: Yeah, some dogs are good listeners. Some dogs, they got to move. You don’t know, he may have been listening the whole time and just had to move around.
Ken: That’s true.
Amanda: Kids are like that sometimes.
Ken: You read books every night on Twitch.
Amanda: Yes, I do.
Ken: And what inspired that?
Amanda: So I love reading out loud. I have always loved reading out loud. It is one of my favorite things in the world to do. I’ve been reading out loud for as long as I can remember. As soon as I could read, I was reading things out loud to my parents. I had read the Tamora Pierce books, which is what we’ve been reading on Twitch. I had read those out loud to Andy, my husband several years ago. So I’d already done them out loud once. And when the pandemic hit, and we realized that we were going to be locked down, that we were going to be keeping our distance from friends and family that it may be a long time before we were able to get together with friends and family.
Amanda: We wanted to find ways to connect with people, and I thought, “I have a Twitch channel. Why don’t I use that?” I thought about it, I looked into it. I said, “I might as well do some reading aloud.” I don’t save the VODs, I’m not making money off of it. So we sort of skirt the fair use policies. But I wanted a way to connect with people, and one of the best ways I know to connect with people is to share a thing that I love, and reading out loud is a way to do that. I started reading out loud, and I don’t know, it’s a nice routine as well.
Amanda: It’s a nice thing to be able to look forward to every day. I get to see my friends in the chat such as yourself. My friend Will hangs out a lot. My friend Jules hangs out a lot. My father-in-law comes every night, which is great. Yeah, and I’ve made a few new friends, people have wandered in and ended up sticking around, which is great. We’ve got a guy from, I don’t know, Denmark or something, who shows up every once in a blue moon. It’s really late where you are, why are you here?
Ken: It’s great that you offer this alternative way to consume content because some people are visual learners. Some people are aural learners. I happen to be a visual learner so audiobooks aren’t entirely my jam but I love just hanging out with you and your friends in Twitch.
Amanda: Yeah, and you get to see my cat.
Ken: That’s right, who is a very attentive listener, unlike my foster dog.
Amanda: I mean, she has been recently. She’s been hanging out on the couch during read aloud time. But there was a point about a month ago where she was just a little wild lady. Off and on the couch, running around. But she is welcome to do that.
Ken: Your Twitch stream is rather late at night. It’s 10:00 PM your time, which is 7:00 PM for me. So usually, I have dinner, I watch your stream, and then I have time for a full movie, and then I go to bed. You’re usually like having dinner though when you’re streaming. That’s a late dinner.
Amanda: I work 1:00 to 9:00 two days a week.
Ken: Oh, I did not know that. That makes a lot more sense now.
Amanda: Yeah, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I work 1:00 to 9:00. The library is open for services from 9:00 to 9:00 Monday through Thursday, and 9:00 to 5:00 Friday and Saturday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I’m working till 9:00 PM and boy, it is a rush to get home, eat something, and then get on stream. But that was one of the reasons why we picked 10 o’clock was we knew that friends who have game streams and stuff would usually be done around 10:00 PM. And that we knew that once I went back to work back in the building, and had to be working evenings as opposed to working evenings by choice, we knew that 9:00 PM was going to be the earliest that I would be available. I would want to have a little time in between getting out of work and turning on the camera.
Ken: How long have you been back working at the library in person?
Amanda: Oh, gosh, it looks like we went back in around May or June.
Ken: Wow. That long ago?
Ken: Because there are other companies that are not as customer facing, that aren’t expecting their employees back until say, this September.
Amanda: Yeah. I mean, we haven’t really been allowing the public into the building, and we’re all very spaced out in the building. When we go in, I’m not sitting right next to a coworker. I’m sitting across the room from a coworker, and I may pass by a coworker, but I’m not spending much time within 15 feet of them. We’re very spaced out. We went back in late spring, early summer, we started putting people back in the building. And part of that was just materials processing. It was just checking things in and getting things dealt with. But we had been doing online programs well before that. We started running our first online programs at the beginning of April. I had been doing online D&D from home. We had been doing online story times. We even did online science programs. And we started doing that right from the get-go. That was a very early thing we did. We said, “Okay, I guess we’re home now. who’s got a laptop with a camera that works? Let’s see what we can do.”
Ken: When you say the library is open for services, you’re primarily referring to as far as in person services go curbside pickup?
Amanda: Yeah, curbside pickup is what we’ve got right now. So you can definitely come up and ask for your holds, you can place things on hold, you can call us, and we’ll put things on hold for you, or we’ll go and grab things for you. You can send a file to be printed, or a request to print out something from the internet, and we’ll do that. You can come and pick that up curbside. You can ask us for magazines, anything that we normally circulate, you can put on hold. And you can ask reference questions. I’ve had people call up and ask me reference questions, and I’m perfectly happy to do that over the phone.
Amanda: You can ask for advice on reading, even if you’re not going to get the books from us. You can still ask for advice on, “I’m interested in this, can you find me a good book to read?” Okay. Do you want me to put it on hold? No, I’m going to buy it. Okay. Cool. No problem by me, I still hope you find it. I’m still happy to have helped in that way. We’ll do phone services, and we were doing phone services even before we went back into the building. We were using a web phone app so that if people call the number for the building, it would get forward into whoever was on duty on the web app. So like, I did a couple of shifts. I did a shift a week for a few weeks out of my dining room where I was on the phone, when people could call and I would answer from my dining room.
Ken: People asking you for book recommendations, or the phone reminds me of how at Blockbuster we all thought we were film critics. The difference between now you actually have a degree in the stuff you’re recommending.
Amanda: Yeah. I mean, I have a degree in librarianship, it doesn’t make me an expert in all things literature. Fortunately, there are some very good readers advisory tools out there that we can use for when we’re being asked for something that we are not familiar with. I’m way more familiar with children’s lit than adult lit. I read more children’s books because it’s part of my job. Then adults will ask me, “Hey, I’m looking for a really good psychological thriller.” And I’m like, “Not my genre, and not my age range. Let’s go to the internet.” And we have some really good readers advisory tools, which help with that. We use an EBSCO service that we use something called NoveList. And NoveList is amazing. This is not a paid endorsement of NoveList. I’m just saying it’s real good.
Ken: Good. I’m glad you have those tools available to you to help fill in those gaps because I can imagine it’d be frustrating for a patron to call in and say, “Hey, I just finished 50 Shades of Gray. What should I read next?” And you have to go around to all the other librarians and say, “What’s like that book, what do you recommend?”
Amanda: Now, you can definitely go online, and there are a ton of tools out there that people can find. It’s not like you have unique access to it as a librarian, but we know about them, and we know how to use them. We’ve had training sessions in how to use them effectively, which I feel like is, I don’t know, 90% of my job is knowing how to use the tools effectively. Not everyone has the time or the patience or the wherewithal to sit down and learn how to effectively use something like NoveList. That’s fine. They don’t have to. It’s why I do it. Let me do it for you. I’m happy. That’s why I’m there. I’m not an algorithm, I can actually tailor your results to what you want, not what I think you need.
Ken: And you’re not trying to sell them anything either.
Amanda: Yeah. So there are two different terms used largely in dictionaries. There’s prescriptive and descriptive. So a prescriptive dictionary is going to tell you, “This is how you should use this word.” A descriptive dictionary is going to tell you, “This is how this word is being used in language right now.” And I like to describe myself as a descriptive librarian. I’m not going to tell you what you should read, I’m going to hear what you’ve been reading and find you something that you want to read.
Ken: So you would recommend a book even if you personally disliked it?
Amanda: I have done so multiple times, constantly.
Ken: Do you just sort of grit your teeth, bite your tongue, and say, “Here’s the book.”
Amanda: I mean, I don’t even really have to grit my teeth for it. I will say personally, speaking, 50 Shades of Grey does irk me. There’s a particular author who I’m not going to name because I do not want to bring that drama onto your podcast. But there’s a particular author who has a real reputation in fandom circles for some very bad behavior. And said author has gotten quite a following. Every time I see that person’s books come through, there’s a little bit of a grinding of my teeth, I will admit. But if people are enjoying them and getting something out of them, then you know what? That doesn’t hurt me in any way, and they’re getting something out of it so they’re benefiting. I take that as the positive there. When someone comes in and hands you something like, say, 50 Shades of Grey, and uses that to try and hit on you, that’s a different story.
Ken: Well, fortunately, my very little customer interaction these days.
Amanda: Yeah. Fortunately, if someone comes up and says, “Hey, I really enjoyed this book. Can you recommend something?” Something that’s popular, like 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight, anything that’s a big popular book, even if I don’t like it or I have problems with it, I guarantee someone out there has put together a read-a-like list. And most likely, there’s something that I like a lot better on that list. So if someone comes in and says, “I really liked this book, what should I read next?” I can go down that list and recommend to them a number of other books that are going to make them happy, and that I would love to see someone check out. I mean, if someone came in and described to a tee what something I don’t like is, I would still hand it to them because I would know that that’s going to make them happy. It doesn’t hurt me to hand it to them. Still circulation.
Ken: I’m very glad that librarians are not filters. I’m always been a fan of the libraries that carry the banned books.
Amanda: Yeah, we definitely want to make sure that those are available. It’s a fine line to walk though because it’s very easy to say, “I’m non judgmental. I am not going to bring my biases to work.” Well, of course, you bring your biases to work. You’re human, you have to. That’s just part of who you are. Then you’ve got the whole paradox of tolerance, and do you really want to be handing out books that espouse things that you find hateful? And that espouse violence against other people? No, you don’t. There’s a very fine line to walk there between tastefully objectionable and hate. You don’t really want to promote the latter but you have to be able to promote the former.
Ken: Which can be a whole another topic for another podcast.
Amanda: Oh, God, yeah. It’s a really difficult line. One of the classes I took in grad school was on intellectual freedom. And it was a debate that did not stop all semester. It was just a constant debate. And there’s no one easy answer. You just have to do your best, and I try. I’ve definitely had people come in and ask me for suggestions, an entire reading lists of things that I’m like, “Wow, this is super not in line with my personal beliefs.” Doesn’t matter. I can definitely make this list. And it’s going to be really helpful to this person. I know that they’re not using it to hurt someone else so I don’t feel bad about it.
Ken: And that’s the key thing is, who is it hurting? And are they consenting?
Amanda: Yeah. So you try and just be as welcoming as possible. And one of the reasons I try to be as welcoming as possible is I don’t want anyone to have a reason to keep their kids from coming to the library. If they let their kids come to the library, then their kids can discover the world for themselves.
Ken: I think that’s a wonderful philosophy and I’m looking forward to the day when, in every sense of the word, kids can come back to the library.
Amanda: Me, too. We miss them. I was watching story time this morning on Zoom, and seeing all of our regulars and also seeing people from Canada and India, and being like, “Oh, look at all these kids. Look at all these kids. Look how big that one’s gotten. Look how tall. He was a baby last year. Oh my God, he’s walking.”
Ken: You’ll see them again soon later this year, I hope.
Amanda: I’ve got my fingers crossed. I’m really hopeful that we’ll be able to bring them back in.
Ken: And unfortunately, in the meantime, I probably will not be seeing you at PAX East.
Amanda: Probably not.
Ken: So Amanda, where can people find you online?
Amanda: So you can follow me on Twitter, @ajp23. That is my public Twitter account. I don’t post much there, but if I’m going to talk about library stuff in a public forum, that’s the place to see it.
Ken: Well, Amanda, it’s been so lovely hearing from you, hearing about one of my favorite institutions, which is the library. I’m so thankful that the library has somebody like you advocating for it, and I look forward to seeing you in the library again soon.
Amanda: Thank you so much for having me. This has been great.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at polygamer.net.