Features – Commentary: A Librarian Blogger at the DNC

Jessamyn West is the owner of librarian.net and an outreach librarian in Central Vermont. She writes frequently on the intersection of libraries, technology and politics.

“As the public sphere goes, so goes the nation.” That was the line I would parrot to people when they asked me what I was doing at the Democratic National Convention as a “credentialed blogger”. I’m not a registered Democrat, but I tend to side with the political left more than the political right. As I’ve gotten more involved in politics, both via activism and working within the system as a Councilor in the American Library Association, I’ve become fascinated with national-level politicking in a can’t-look-away sort of way.

I work in a public library in Vermont and have been quite concerned lately about the declining role of public libraries in the lives of Americans. I also worry about how this is being reflected in the funding crises many libraries are finding themselves in. Legislation like the PATRIOT Act and CIPA have actual or potential effects on public library services at the same time as libraries are fast becoming one of the few indoor places that still belong to “the public.” I wanted to see if my concerns were shared with others, and if they would be reflected by any of the people or events at the DNC.

The Time – Starting Out

My only previous experience with large scale political events has been as a protestor, outside. This time, I wanted to be inside and compare the experiences. When I heard that the coordinators of the DNC would be inviting bloggers, in addition to more traditional print and broadcast media, I saw my opportunity. My application consisted of a short essay and a security clearance form. The beginning of my essay said this:

“I run a library-oriented weblog and this year there are some library issues that play large roles in the 2004 election, and US politics in general. I’d like to attend the DNC in order to cover the attention [or lack thereof] given to such issues as the USA PATRIOT Act, Digital Rights Management, any news of what’s going on with CIPA, or what people have to say about it, and discussions about wage and workplace issues in general.”

I applied — not really expecting much — and got a pleasant rejection letter. Two weeks before the event I got a phone call basically un-rejecting me and asking if I could make it. There was some talk that perhaps there had been a bit of a dust-up over the overwhelming 20-something-white-guyness of the original credentialed blogger list spurring some eleventh-hour invites, but I got no confirmation of this from my hosts. From what I heard, about 15-20% of the credentialed bloggers were women — similar to the percentage of women who applied — but there was never a final official list printed outlining who was invited and who showed up. This was the beginning of my realization that the term “organized politics” was not going to be a good descriptor of my situation .

The Trip – Preparing and Motivating

In order to prepare, I started doing some serious research, where serious research means “starting to read political blogs.” I knew that I was going to be working next to some political blogging superstars, such as the folks from Daily Kos and Talk Left and Talking Points Memo. I wanted to at least be familiar with their blogs if not versed in their ideologies. The whole idea of blogging a live event was antithetical to my more reflective and relaxed method of blogging where I would ruminate over ideas and stories and then try to summarize and present them — all while wearing my pajamas.

I registered the email address [email protected] and started using it for all my DNC related communications, including the PR Newswire. The Newswire was a nifty little tool which funnelled DNC specific news including copies of all the speeches — most before they were actually given — into my inbox. I also registered the IM handle dncblogger but wound up reverting to my usual handle at the DNC since I didn’t find a graceful way to use two handles at once. IM was really the hidden express lane for exchanging information in and around the Fleet Center, and good for quickie interviews. This purpose is served by cell phones for many, but they don’t work where I live in Vermont. There was never a line for the pay phones in the Fleet Center in any case.

The Tech – What I Carried

Te chnorati and Dave Winer set up separate aggregators that tossed all the convention bloggers’ posts [credentialed and otherwise] on the web so that people could read along at home. I set up a sub-blog on my site specifically for the DNC and decided for the first time to accept comments.

On-site, the bloggers didn’t have any way to store things, so all of our gear had to be schlepped back and forth each day, fortunately this was not difficult. Here is the list of “technical equipment” that I brought with me daily.

  • Mac laptop with wireless card
  • laptop power cord
  • digital camera
  • card reader for camera
  • battery charger for camera
  • spare mouse
  • spare ethernet cable
  • headphones
  • reading material for subway ride
  • MP3 player [I ditched this after day one, totally un-useful for me]

Other crucial non-technical gear included lots of energy bars and snacks of various sorts and a refillable water bottle and coffee cup. Bringing snacks to share is always a good way to endear yourself to the locals. I know that this doesn’t come up frequently in our day-to-day librarian jobs, but I’ve always thought that being a good packer is a librarianesque skill.

The Team – The Treehouse

Every day began a trip to a hotel nowhere near the Fleet Center to pick up my daily press credentials. This was a bit of a hassle, and way out of the way. The good news was that the hotel was quite near the Boston Public Library with its free wireless access and quiet, peaceful cafe. The other good news is that my daily credentials fetched me $15 on eBay, post-DNC. During the day there were delegation meetings and various PR events to attend and special parties for people who know what they were doing. With the exception of one day when I went to check out the grassroots organizations’ press briefing [very worthwhile, saddeningly sparsely attended] I generally headed straight from BPL to the Fleet Center. The over-the-top security which scared the pants off of me the first day became gradually less noxious as it became more perfunctory and probably also less effective.

You had to get to the Fleet Center before things started happening at four pm or else you wouldn’t get an actual chair, just a bleacher seat. It was fun to get in before then anyhow to watch people practice singing the Star Spangled Banner. The location reserved for the bloggers was one little pair of tables with 5-10 chairs and an area of stadium seating that the wireless network reached [pictures here and here] way up in the nosebleed section. The wireless was terrible for many people the first few days, and pretty sound thereafter. As a result day one mostly involved meet and greet, helping people with their wireless, loaning out my laptop so people could blog something and trying to get the lay of the land.

I was lucky to have friends who were working at the DNC in other aspects of the production. I had a pal who is a radio reporter for NPR, I had a friend working in the press office, I had another friend ushering around celebrities for Rock the Vote. We’d get together and compare our experiences often. As my most popular pull quote implied there are no spectators at events like this. You’re either a delegate, a politician, a press person, a staffer or volunteer, or you’re basically not there. Finding a place to just “be a blogger” was a challenge.

The Task – What I Found There

Finding my way around was an even bigger challenge. There was an elaborate set of passes which gave the pass holder access to different areas of the Fleet Center. It was tough if not impossible to figure out how to get access to locations that required a different color pass. When I found out that one of the delegates from Massachusetts was a retired librarian, I endeavored to track her down and ask her some questions. I’d been feeling a little out of sorts since the majority of the bloggers were acting like political reporters and I didn’t quite know how to act. I’m not much of a political reporter and I’m certainly not a journalist. I tend to sit and think about things which was almost impossible here.

My attempts to figure out how to get on to the floor of the Fleet Center where the delegates were located was an exercise in total frustration. The volunteers there rarely knew the meta-procedures once they learned the “Don’t let anyone through this door without a dark green pass” mantra. No one was in charge of explaining or allocating access. Everyone had their own little “Well I heard that yesterday you had to do this…” urban legend to pass on. After 55 minutes and nine different people pointing me different directions, I finally wound up in a basement office where someone told me they would email the guy in charge of floor access to help me figure this out. She then asked her colleague “Do you know if Compuserve is .com or .net?” This was the beginning and ending of my DNC attempts to play Jessamyn West, cub reporter. I fled.

The strange thing about blogging live from an event is that, besides the hubbub and general chaos, you are actually at the event which makes you fair game for other people to report on you. This was a real turnaround from the usual distance, both real and metaphorical, that I usually have from the things I talk about online. Since, at some very real level, there is nothing going on at these things — people you can barely see give speeches you’ve already read, you hear sound clips of songs you’ve already heard, people tell you things are important that you already know are important — the media just sort of waits around for something to happen. Since “bloggers at the convention!” was something that was new and different, and because we were pretty much a captive audience, lashed to our laptops, we got a lot of people wanting to ask us a few questions. This is when, in my opinion, I started feeling useful.

The Talk – What’s It All About Anyhow?

The line was “I’m not from any organized party, I’m a Democrat.” People would say this and smile do a little “where is my brain?” pantomime when you were trying to point out a problem [no WiFi], ask a question [are there any librarian delegates?], or ask for some tangible thing [can I get a chair?]. As a librarian — not a political blogger, not a politician, not a teenaged door guard, and not in a good position to answer people’s questions — I was gnashing my teeth. However, once the press came sniffing around I figured out that a bored press corps is a library activist’s best friend. A freelance librarian knows how to use any and all available resources to help solve the problem….

I worked up a little “Why libraries are important.” rap that included words that people would expect to hear at events like these, words like “democracy” and “freedom” and “informed citizen.” I explained to anyone who would listen that I was dismayed at the lack of attention, even lip service, being given to big issues like the USA PATRIOT Act, dismal funding of schools and libraries, and encroachment of civil liberties by our current administration. I used the speech archive in my gmail account to do quick searches for words like “gay” and “library” and “Patriot Act” to highlight for reporters I talked to — and readers at home — how little these issues were mentioned. The list of listeners was long, and got longer.

It’s not like any of this was an intentional ploy for media attention, I’m just sort of a chatty person who smiles a lot with that librarian “open face.” Plus, I was one of very few women in the area and I think this always equals “approachable” in an unfamiliar environment, for better or worse. While the word libraries may have only been heard twice from the podium [Obama discussing snooping feds, Kerry talking about a whole library on a chip] I certainly talked about libraries a lot, wrote about them a lot, thought about them a lot, and even visited one or two while I was in the area. In the mornings, I’d sit in the cafe at the Boston Public Library with my Blogger shirt and my laptop and press passes visible and people would ask me about what I was doing, and off I’d go again. I met some nice Kucinich delegates and showed two people how to get on WiFi just while I was checking email and drinking coffee.

The Tale – And I Alone Escaped to Tell Thee

The upshot? I hope to never blog a live event again. I even feel a little silly that I use the word “blog” as a verb now, even though I’ve been doing that blog thing for more than five years. I didn’t try to go to the RNC in New York and I supported my radical reference comrades from the sidelines as I went back to my outreach librarian job in Vermont and things returned to normal. I felt like I’d been part of a huge PR machine for the Democrats, not a reporter but certainly not a disinterested observer. Almost by definition, no one there could be disinterested, and yet, I wasn’t hearing the messages I wanted to hear about public spaces, and free access to information, and privacy.

I know that national-level politicking requires some broad brush strokes when conveying ideas, and I know that swing states matter to the current Democratic Party more than almost anything else. I know that freedom of speech is rarely sexy, and potential threats to civil liberties don’t play as well as potential jobs. I am painfully aware that funding has more to do with the prime time appeal of your ideas than of the merits of your arguments. And yet, amid all the disorganization and frustration of that event, I saw people wanting to believe in something big — not in the little minutiae of the working WiFi, or the security, or the inscrutable system of access and privilege — but in some really big ideas about not being afraid; about being happy again. I feel that what those people got was image, writ large and booming on 200 televisions and complete with an appropriate sign for every prime-time speaker. More than once I was told “this event is for television” as if to explain why all the other parts of it didn’t work quite right. I felt like what I had to offer was information, and access to it, and I wasn’t sure if that was what people wanted. I asked myself then and continue to ponder “How do we make people desire the information and not the image” I think once that question is answered, we may be able to start talking seriously about funding and supporting our libraries the way they should be supported.

Posted in: Blogs, Features, Libraries & Librarians, Patriot Act