Howdy-ho, wild and wandering drongos! Here comes another issue of the newsletter named for the most fearless freewheelers known to exist.
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Today's interview guest is Drew Jackson, an old friend from college who's as tall (6'7", ladies!) as he is taken (sorry, ladies!) I've convinced him to spill vast torrents of beans on everything from working in academic libraries to early modern nation-states. Listen carefully: here comes Drew!
Hi, I'm Drew! I currently live in Portland, OR, where I work as a manager in the access services department of a university library. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to Portland to attend Reed College, where I majored in History.
I’m currently pursuing my master's degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Washington, through their online program. When I’m not studying or shuffling books around at work, I love to play games with my friends and bang around on the guitar and bass.
The Drongo: Drew, it's great to have you here. I recall a conversation we had in Portland, in which you said librarianship was enjoyable, and had decent career prospects, but did not rise to the level of a passion. With your degree in library science underway, has that opinion changed? Why or why not?
Drew Jackson: That's a really interesting question – the answer is yes and no. There are aspects of library work that I am passionate about: big things like access to information, information literacy, and making the field more equitable, and small things like helping connect a user to that one resource they really need. That last one especially is what drives me. Working with a student to help them find the articles they need to make their research paper click – watching them get excited about their topic as you tease out their thesis and what they're actually asking – is a singularly gratifying experience.
That said, there are aspects of library work (and librarianship specifically) that don't exactly reach the levels of passion. "Librarianship" itself as a concept basically exists only to gatekeep (though saying that will piss off a lot of librarians).
For those that don't know, in libraries there are basically two categories of employee: librarians and staff (also sometimes called professionals and paraprofessionals.) Librarians tend to be department heads; in academic libraries, my field, they are often granted tenure-track positions and can teach classes. Staff do everything else, from staffing the front desk to administrative tasks to purchasing and cataloging books (though in some libraries librarians will do this as well.) Already one problem with this presents itself: how is a position like the head of the circulation desk (the front desk in the library that checks books in and out, and often is responsible for all day-to-day operations) "para" professional? They are not an assistant to a librarian, and often have a much better idea of what it takes to actually keep the place running than a new librarian fresh out of grad school (who makes 1.5-2x what the circ manager does.)
Well, the answer is that that librarian has a master's degree in library and/or information science (MLIS), which is basically required to advance above a certain level in libraries (financially, that level is ~$40,000-$50,000/year.) It is possible to become a librarian without an MLIS, but it usually requires a decade-plus of experience, and you still might lose out to some 26-year-old with a brand-new master's. This presents a pretty clear issue: those who can afford to go to graduate school get slotted into the positions where they make more money, and those who cannot afford it are put into positions where they make less money, thus reinforcing class divisions. Pair this with the fact that librarianship is OVERWHELMINGLY white and, well, you get the idea. (This is not to say that the MLIS is entirely useless, but I would trust one of my student workers with 3 years of library experience over a freshly-degreed librarian to run the place.)
Wow, what a digression. This is one of the things that makes it hard to be passionate about the field, and something that contributes to this culture of whiteness that is present in libraries overall (many libraries are working to counter this and make our field more welcoming to everyone, but that work is slow and meets a lot of resistance.) A less big-picture thing is that the day-to-day can be uninteresting; I spend a lot less time working with students face-to-face than I'd like, and a lot more time in various committee and policy meetings (libraries love committees and policy.)
So, uh, short answer: yes and no.
The Drongo What aspect of library science do you wish more outsiders knew about?
Drew Jackson: Besides that whole discursion in the previous section, I wish more people knew what actually went on in libraries, and what library workers actually do. I think a lot of people think that libraries are these stuffy, dusty towers packed with tomes that no one is allowed to touch. Some libraries might still be this way, but the vast majority have changed in the last century.
Increasingly, libraries are hubs, not repositories. When the ongoing global pandemic is done, go check out a library makerspace and learn how to use a 3D printer! See if your local library has a "library of things," and check out a board game, or even some power tools! Many libraries now offer streaming services so you can watch movies for free with your library card! Libraries are constantly innovating – take advantage of it.
Behind the scenes, library workers are constantly fighting for user privacy (increasingly an uphill battle), working to decolonize collections and curricula, and trying to counter increasingly strict and costly licensing norms in order to ensure equitable access to information. Ever wonder why you need to "check out" e-books, or why there are limited copies? The publisher limits the amount of simultaneous users each e-book can have so that the library needs to either purchase more than one, or shell out a ton of money for an unlimited simultaneous-user copy. It sucks, and your library workers are trying to fight it!
The Drongo: "Suck" isn't strong enough, Drew. Coming from the computers side of things, it's beyond frustrating to see the norms of the print publishing industry being copied for digital texts with fundamentally different distribution characteristics, such as zero-marginal-cost reproduction. I can only hope that collaborations between technologists and librarians continue to bear fruit; the Internet Archive, which backs up the whole Web and digitizes a lot of the world's literature, is a prominent success story in that area.
For now, let's move on to something with a little more joy in it. What was your thesis topic for your BA in History?
Drew Jackson: My title was London's Burning: Riots and the State in Early Modern London (yes, I regret starting and ending with "London," but I wanted to include the Clash reference.) In the early modern period (~1500-1800), London was infamous for its high volume of riots. The people of the city were incredibly ready and eager to take to the streets for all manner of grievances, for a lot of social and political reasons.
The formation of what we recognize as modern state entities is what marks the early modern period in Europe. I examined the interplay between that culture of collective action and the process of state formation, using the Weberian lens on violence and statehood under which only the state can enact legitimate violence (that legitimacy is key here.) Are riots, a form of collective violence, considered a socially legitimate expression of power? That is, even if illegal, does society largely treat it as an acceptable form of action? Is the state's response legitimate? How do the answers to those two questions change and butt up against each other as we progress through the early modern period in England?
All these questions and more, poorly answered in about 100 pages!
The Drongo: I'm sure it wasn't all that bad, Drew, but perhaps you'll have an opportunity to revenge yourself on history with a paper or two during your remaining graduate studies.
I sense an opportunity to test your historical knowledge in a most drongular way. Suppose I cursed you to live in the past. Assuming you were able to live to old age in relative peace, to what place and time period would you most like to be banished, and why?
Drew Jackson: As absolutely ass-garbage as our world is right now, I genuinely think that the 21st century is probably the best time to be alive. A lot of the problems we have now (rampant racism on a global scale, climate change, a wealthy ruling elite who don't care about us, etc.) have been true throughout history, but back then there were no TVs or refrigerators, and you were way more likely to be stabbed by some guy while just out doing errands or whatever.
That said, as a white dude my options for temporal banishment are alright. I think I would probably pick pre-Revolution 18th-century France. I think I could really fit in with the effete, fainting-couch, salon-going bourgeoisie of the mid-1700s Paris of my imagination. See some good art, eat some nice foods, poop in a chamber pot, retire to the countryside. Not bad, but I would definitely miss watching anime.
The Drongo: Ah, but just imagine the possibilities, Drew. If you brought a collection of carefully-prepared transparencies, you could introduce anime to Europe hundreds of years early!
The Drongo: My sources tell me you enjoy games of all kinds. What are your favorite categories: Eurogames, RTS, shooters, puzzlers?
Drew Jackson: I like a lot of different kinds of games. I enjoy some shooters like the Halo games (90% nostalgia) and Titanfall (because of the big robots) and puzzle games, but my true loves are boring video games that are mostly menus, sprawling tabletop strategy games that take forever to learn, and tabletop roleplaying games with very few rules.
The first two are beloved for similar reasons. I find that once you are able to crack big, obtuse games, you can really make them sing and get experiences that no other game will provide. I think both of these qualities, the difficulty to learn and the emergent narrative, are due to the fact that games like this contain so many overlapping systems.
My favorite example of these are the Crusader Kings games, which simulate medieval European politics. Once I was playing as a relatively inconsequential duchy in Italy and somehow, purely by accident, ended up inheriting all of the Empire of Lombardy, comprising all of Italy. Normally this would be great, if a pain to manage, but my character had the "homosexual" trait, which a lot of 12th-century feudal lords aren't crazy about. Suddenly all of these Italian nobles have a new, young, unqualified, gay emperor who they HATE. And what does my character do? He decides to have an affair with the wife of his vassal who hates him the MOST (so much so that he declared me, the emperor, his "rival.") Yeah, my gay emperor character slept with this guy's wife, who he wasn't even attracted to, mechanically! Not only that, the emperor then had ten illegitimate children with her. Ten!
Eventually this vassal challenges the emperor to a duel, after trying and failing to assassinate me a handful of times … and loses! Poor guy. The succession struggle that followed after the emperor died was a nightmare, since I had legitimated all of those children born of my affair just to really rub it in. Great game.
In the complete opposite direction, I love tabletop roleplaying games that have basically no rules. In my video games, I like seeing what story can be generated for me through my inputs into these crazy systems, but in RPGs I love creating a story collaboratively with my friends as we're guided by the game's systems. There's this sweet spot where the intentionality of each player making decisions that they think are interesting for their character or for the world (not optimal, but interesting) interacts with the randomness of the game system. It leads to story beats that no one person at the table planned for, but that everyone had a hand in creating, and I think that's beautiful!
The Drongo: Have you tried your hand at game design in any capacity?
Drew Jackson: Sort of! Nothing with video games, as I am not very computer savvy, and coding absolutely makes my head spin. However, good friend and fellow Drongo subscriber Matt Unger and I have been working off-and-on on our own homebrew RPG system for a while now. We're taking the "Powered by the Apocalypse" system (used in games like Apocalypse World and Dungeon World) and adapting it for use in a setting inspired by mecha anime, drawing on our shared love of things like Mobile Suit Gundam, Super Dimension Fortress Macross, and Gurren Lagann. It's been a really fun process!
The Drongo: You've sent giant robots are dancing through my head on impossibly tiny rocket feet. It's almost too good to be true, and it's all thanks to you.
The robots are now doing a synchronized routine to The Drongo's official outro music. We've reached the freeform response zone. Perhaps you'd like to ask and answer your own questions? submit a recording entitled "Banging on the Bass?" draw something? write erotic fiction about your workplace?
Drew Jackson: I wanted to write and perform "Banging on the Bass," but unfortunately ran out of time. Maybe that can feature in a future issue of The Drongo?
The Drongo: Certainly! Don't hesitate to send it in.
Drew Jackson: For now, I'll answer my own question inspired by a recent conversation: WHO ARE YOUR TOP 3 WIZARDS?
- Gandalf (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings.) A real wizard's wizard. Staff? Check. Big hat? Check. Beard? Absolutely. Rolls around dispensing wisdom, smoking, setting off fireworks – but do not mistake him for some conjurer of cheap tricks! He can also make bright lights, fling people around, and fight with sword good. I like that he lets others be the main characters, but is still instrumental in completing the quest. That's a good wizard! Also he's a literal, actual angel (or angel equivalent) which counts for a lot.
- Ben Kenobi (Star Wars.) All versions of Obi-Wan Kenobi are good, but my #2 wizard is specifically the Ben Kenobi that hangs out in the desert watching over Luke from afar. He's both wise and vague/cagey about great truths, which are great traits for a wizard. Don't think he counts as a wizard? At one point Uncle Owen says, "That wizard's just a crazy old man."
- Howl (Howl's Moving Castle.) Very attractive wizard. Also he can turn into a big bird monster, which rules.
The Drongo: scribbles notes A classic wizard list to be sure. I'm partial to the Jack Vance wizards, like Mazirian the Magician or Rhiallto the Marvelous. Nothing says "wizard" like cloning creatures in vats, memorizing spells like the Excellent Prismatic Spray and Phandaal's Gyrator, and lusting after IOUN stones.
That'll have to be the end of our interview. I hope you found participating in this interview to have been even half as fun as designing RPGs and thinking about wizards.
Readers and subscribers, Drew is ready for your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org. He's "not very active on social media," but you can also follow him on Instagram (@therealdrewjackson) or Twitter (@librarybimbo).
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