ALA also rhymes with “astray”

When I was writing the previous post about the ALA, there was something else that was sitting in the back of mind that was bothering me. I had written something for it at the end of the previous post, but then decided against its inclusion since it put the post in a different tone. After reading and re-reading it, with the intention of posting it as its own entry, I realized it was reading as something very familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

It took some due diligence, but I realized that it was a similar take to the Annoyed Librarian’s post “Another Annoyed Librarian”. For those who get skeeved out by reading that blog, I’ll summarize the post: AL says that, by sticking its nose into issues such as torture, war, health care, and same sex marriage, ALA needlessly politicizes the organization and diverts time, money, and energy away from more immediate forms of action for subjects as outlined in the ALA constitution, mission & priorities, and key action areas.  These non-library related resolutions by the ALA Council distract from the actual mission of the ALA (to champion libraries and library issues) and makes the organization appear out of its element. For all of the points, I agree with the AL.

But what compelled me to put fingers to keys and write this entry was something in the comments for that post. John Berry of Library Journal posted a reply that made me sit up and take notice. His comment, in full, was as follows:

I joined ALA to amplify my voice, and to help SRRT and others make the case that librarians have a responsibility to participate in the political and social battles of our society. I’ve been a member so long I get membership free. Long before me the great library leaders like Jesse Shera saw the same needs and formed the progressive librarians caucus of their time. I was proud when ALA supported the equal rights amendment, fought racial segregation (including segregation in libraries), and opposed the Vietnam War and took sides on a host of similar issues. I do not think ALA must be neutral, like a library, and I am proud that its meetings are open to every member, and that it is run democratically, by an elected Council which very infrequently does vote to put the Association on record on "non-library" issues. Since the cost of healthcare for many libraries I use has risen 30 percent or more in the last few years, I think that one is a library issue. Indeed, you could make a pretty good case that gay rights, women’s rights, and war and peace are all library issues, but I won’t go down that path. ALA is a democratic organization, so the members can vote for candidates who believe ALA should take some positions on some social issues. I will continue as a member of ALA and continue to vote for and with those who agree with my position. A great many of ALA’s presidents have come out of the social responsibility movement, and others have supported it. I will support them and cheer them on.

(Emphasis mine.)

As to the first part emphasized, I find it peculiar that an organization that proclaims free access and dispassionate objectivity in the collections of its member libraries would also seek to take sides on some of the most hotly debated issues. What kind of message does that send to the membership, let alone the communities that these libraries serve? While it could be argued that this is an entity removed from the immediate determinations of collection development at the individual location or system level, the proximal relationship between the library and the national organization creates an unnecessary implication of bias. While I sincerely hope that no one in an acquisitions position would be swayed to exclude materials due to a resolution, it still sends out the wrong message about the ALA, its purpose, and its role in the promotion of information objectivity and intellectual freedom.

I am not certain as to Mr. Berry’s definition of “very infrequently”, but my scouring of the ALA website for resolutions suggests that this is far more of a regular occurrence (if only recently). Perhaps we are at odds about the definition, but here are the resolutions I found combing through the ALA site.

(There’s also an unadopted resolution about the Boy Scouts of America that keeps popping up regarding their exclusion of atheists and gays.)

I went through all of the ALA Council Action online (going back to 1997) and did a Google site search for resolutions (where I found some of the older ones). Just as noticeable to me were a number of defeated resolutions regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since those wars began. The only marginal case in the linked resolutions above is the one regarding standardized driver’s licenses, but I find the rationale outlined to require a triple jump of logic. It takes six “whereas” statements to reach how it relates to the library. (“They want to standardize what appears on a license nationwide. You need a license to get a library card so it could be used as a tool to see what they are borrowing. We’re against that, even though it’s a remote possibility, so we’ll urge the government not to do that. Yeah.”)

As to the rest, there is the only most circumstantial of reasoning to link them to being ‘library issues’. By adopting many human rights documents into the organization (such as Article 19 from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights), everything has the opportunity to be championed as a library issue by virtue of being a human rights issue. The slippery slope of transitive logic begins with any usurpation of free expression or intellectual freedom, thus degenerating the litmus test of organization involvement that resembles a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon style of reasoning. (“Whereas, war is fighting. Whereas, fighting happens between people. Whereas, when people are fighting, they stop going to libraries. Whereas, if they stop going to libraries, they are denied their right to free expression. Resolved, we are against it.”)

As to the second part emphasized, Mr. Berry implies that the cases can be made for all sorts of social and political issues as library issues. To this point, I agree. If you set aside the key documents that govern the ALA (aforementioned constitution, mission & priorities, and key action areas), then any issue can be made into a library issue. If there’s a one eyed Albanian albino celiac leper working in the library, under the apparent system of logic in place, the implicit support of this unique librarian gives carte blanche for ALA to write proclamations on former Soviet states, gluten free products, skin diseases of the 19th century, and Cyclopes. Under such willy-nilly buffet logic, any group could easily qualify as having their intellectual freedoms disrupted and thus should be supported by ALA resolution. I wouldn’t break a sweat coming up with rationale for any number of groups:  Birthers, Truthers, Scientologists, Flat Earth believers, Creationists, Humanists, organized crime, the Tamil Tigers, the Taliban, and members of Team Edward or Team Jacob. In this way, the bar for becoming a library issue is set so low that it is completely laughable and virtually non-existent.

The question missing in this resolution process is not which side to take, but whether it is is important to the purpose of the ALA to take a position. Otherwise, it’s an exercise in needless politicization of an organization that, considering the track record of the last year, surely has better things to do. For an association seeking to speak on behalf of the library community, there really is no need to take positions on third rail issues that are not library related. It’s a disservice to members of all philosophical and political stripes who are bound together by the stated unifying mission of information access, intellectual freedom, and service to all people and community.

To be frank, I’m a supporter of health care reform, same sex marriage, and the ending of the wars abroad. (I did a little cheer on Christmas Eve when it passed the Senate.) But I also know that you don’t ask Sal the produce guy what the catch of the day is down at the docks. In other words, for my support of these issues, I turned to organizations that are better suited for rallying for them. I look to groups that have reputation and expertise in the subject matter of the legislation being debated to work for the ideals that I believe in. No one gives a crap what the National Rifle Association thinks about childhood education or what the American Medical Association thinks about deployment of missiles in Turkey. Why? Because they are talking outside their immediate and apparent sphere of influence. This same thing applies to the ALA.  

By having the ALA presenting and passing these politically charged issue resolutions, people are putting all of their social agenda eggs into one proverbial basket. That does not bode well for the issues that they are trying to bolster, nor for the organization stepping outside its bounds. The matter does not get the proper attention or support it deserves. To make matters worse, it is a waste of time, money, and energy that could be applied more readily to current library related matters. If I was a member, I would be mad as hell that my money was going towards such polarizing non sequiturs. As I am not, I will simply have to content myself with outrage for an association that does not properly represent the profession I have grown to love. I hope that it will, one day soon.

ALA rhymes with “Pay”

In the latest issue of Library Journal, there was an article by John Berry that caught my attention called “ALA MidWinter Preview 2010: The Price to Participate”. In particular, there were a couple of passages at the beginning and at the end of the article that stirred something in me.

From the beginning:

While the library economy continues its downward slide, the cost of attending the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting seems as high as ever. That is the price of professional participation. These days it seems a bit too high and tends to limit involvement in the old association to librarians in the higher echelons of the field. Many of them are subsidized by their employers, but the young from the lower ranks are not.

And from the end:

It does cost a lot to participate in and to attend conferences like ALA’s Midwinter Meeting. You must decide for yourself whether you can justify it as part of the price of being a library professional. While few resent that many in ALA’s higher echelons are subsidized for their participation, people in librarianship’s lower ranks need more help with the costs of conferences. If you find a job during Midwinter, or learn new skills and make important professional contacts, it will be worth the price. If you meet your spouse or lover, even better. But for the young in our field, the price of professionalism is too high. It is time to seek ways to make participation much more affordable. If you go to Midwinter and can afford it, take a young librarian to lunch or dinner and help a little with that process. We’ll be in Boston, and we plan to do that, too.

(Emphasis mine.)

Mr. Berry has struck upon something that has been lingering on my mind since the ALA annual convention back in the summer. I don’t understand how an organization which is actively seeking to recruit young librarians would create a (literal) paper barrier between themselves and the demographic they so desperately want. They even formed a group called the Young Librarians Working Group (formerly the much better named Young Turks Task Force, but cool fun names don’t seem to survive when there is a better bureaucratic sounding more politically correct name out there) to address the issue of attracting young librarians. And in one of their discussions, a commenter spells out that he is “super bummed” at the expense of the conferences. From both online and offline discussions, it’s the same theme from those I’ve talked to: it’s pretty damn expensive for a nebulous return. When you have people plead with you not to join because of this when you tweet about it in passing, then the organization has a real problem. But, like Mr. Berry’s article, the expense is like the weather: people complain about it all the time but no one does anything about it.

So, here’s a potential radical solution: give away new memberships.

Even drug dealers and web tool creators know that you can give the first dose of a product away for free if you know (1) your product is good and (2) they will come back for more. Sure, it won’t solve the aforementioned nebulous benefits, but it will bolster membership numbers, conference attendance, and organizational reach. The idea would be to bring in these new members and show them the benefits of ALA membership (though they may want to work on the list of personal membership benefits; first, it takes ten clicks to get to the page; and second, most of the benefits are being emphasized are monetary in nature.) I’d also waive the first year’s section fees as well. If you want people in and active, remove all the monetary barriers for participation.

And if the idea of free memberships still bugs anyone, consider this passage from a blog post on AL Inside Scoop:

ALA does important work. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here. But ALA is its members, and we the staff and member leaders need your support, at whatever rate you can afford, in order to do that work. If you can afford zero dollars, your moral support matters too. I’m curious about what else ALA should be doing to strengthen its value to members who are going through a job crisis, and I welcome your comments.

Even though the post strangely answers the concern about ALA job hunting benefits by stating that there is cheaper rate for joining (an eye rolling attempt at consoling), it does show a willingness within ALA to consider a limited membership waiver. Anyone in retail marketing can tell you that, once you get the people into the store, you can pitch any or all of your products to them once they are there.

This is certainly not a silver bullet for the overall monetary issues that young or poor librarians face for ALA event costs, but I think it is a step in the right direction. A structured tier system for membership and section fees for the second year and beyond would also make inroads towards the retention of new members. I’m sure there will be some grumbling about this kind of solution, but unless there is a radical change of course, there will be very few people left to grumble to. Even now, as a non-member, the benefits of ALA presented to me do not exceed what I am able to do with Facebook, Twitter, and a bit of social aptitude. As such, for me these free tools are way ahead of an organization that I would have to pay $65 just to get through the proverbial front door.

I will confess that, even with free memberships, I’m not certain I would be interested in actually paying to join ALA. The complexity of the organization is staggering on a level that would make the Architect of The Matrix slightly confused. While members would argue with me that things are happening and moving, I just don’t see it as an outside observer. I can justify my membership with NJLA to myself because I can actually see the organizational machine in motion. If I don’t feel like something is moving, then I’m not going to hang around. Perhaps I am the product of my generation, but I don’t have time to hang around while people spending time discussing about the type, number, and colors of their ducks rather than getting them in a row. So long as my ideas have legs, I want to keep them moving.

I certainly hope that the monetary aspect of ALA participation gets serious consideration, actual discussion, and reaches a definitive decision. I fear that it will actually get bogged down and swallowed up in the cogs of a dysfunctional organization slowly marching its way towards the sunset. I’m not sure this will happen, but it is a distinct possibility based on what I have heard and observed for myself. If all else fails, hopefully, at this coming Midwinter, someone will recognize me from my Facebook or Twitter picture and take me out to lunch or dinner.

Now there’s a benefit that I can get behind.

Some say the world will end in fire…

15"!

That’s the official account of our snowfall, taken from the side of the driveway. Today was a bit of an obstacle course as I wrestled the snow blower out of the shed to clear the driveway and sidewalks (and that of our neighbors), then go out and grab enough take out to ensure a lazy afternoon and evening, and then send out seventy five emails and Facebook messages for the Online Holiday Secret Santa Extravaganza for library folks to their respective people (lots of ideas for next year on how to do it better). Tonight was a raid night for World of Warcraft so I and twenty four of my fellow game friends punches monsters in dungeons for loot (or tried to at least).

Click here for more snowstorm pictures! Yesterday was good day off, though I wanted to write a blog post but our power went off at 10:30pm. Kathy and I hunkered down in the family room by the natural gas fireplace and candles and read a bit. Of course, once we had stacked the bed high with blankets and snuggled in, the power returned. Lest we sweat to death, we undid our mountain of quilt mass and finally passed out.

I did not get a chance to finish the blog post that I wanted to write (I hope to do that tomorrow), but I did apply for a job. I am very happy with my current position, but the words “once in a lifetime” danced through my head when it came across the Twitter feed. This is certainly more for the ability to say “I applied for this job” than getting it, although I’ll just have to see how it goes. From what I have heard, there are people who are better positioned to get it (people who are currently federal employees), but you never know.

(By the by, the post title comes from a line from the Robert Frost poem, Fire and Ice. (Forgive the ads.) Take that, Whitman!)

With partial apologies to Walt Whitman

This is the not the first time my family has crossed paths with Walt Whitman.

In my family’s lore, my grandfather would tell a story about how his grandfather (a judge in Camden prior to the turn of the century) once sent the famous and highly debated poet to jail for public intoxication. His grandmother and her friends would cross the street if they saw ole Walt stumbling their way, drunk as a skunk, for they did not want to be on the same side of the road as he passed. Their recollections, as retold by my grandfather, were singularly unimpressed with the man who has been called “America’s poet”.

Even in death, my mother’s family cannot escape some sort of proximity to the poet. Harleigh Cemetery, where my maternal grandparents, their siblings, and both sides of my grandfather’s family have family plots, is also the resting place for Walt Whitman. When I visit the family gravesite, I can see the Whitman mausoleum about one hundred and fifty yard away hidden in the trees that have grown over it. The only way out is to go past it. You can see the slots of the Whitman family behind a heavy barred gate with little knickknacks, flowers, and other minutiae left outside.

So it was less of a surprise when I found out that some irksome commercial was using one of his poems to sell jeans.* Initially, I simply ignored this annoying ad campaign but it was hard avoid catching sight of it, a plethora of pretentiousness and artsy-fartsy high school fantasy imagery. But once I wondered which poetry treasure was savaged in the name of corporate America, I found out that an old family rival was back.

(“So, Walt,” I said, leaning back in my computer chair, fingers forming an evil finger steeple. “It’s on again, I see?” The only thing to make it more complete would be a twirling of a moustache and a cat sitting on my lap to slowly pet.)

So, with partial apologies to Walt Whitman, I have written my own version of “Pioneers! O pioneers!” out of contempt for stupid commercialism, my own love of parody, and of course, to spite Walt Whitman in the grave.

I hope you enjoy it.

Librarians! O librarians!
    COME, my pasty white children,
    Shelve well in order, get your carts ready,
    Have you your patience? Have you your sharped-edged wits?
    Librarians! O librarians!

    For we cannot story time here
    We must shush my darlings, we must bear the weight of weeding,
    We the well read masses, all the curious on us depend,
    Librarians! O librarians!

    O you grads, MLS grads,
    So, full of questions, full of many tweets and Facebooks,
    Plain I see you MLS grads, see you scrounging for the jobs,
    Librarians! O librarians!

    Have the elders admins retired?
    Do they sneer and end their shift, wearied over by years of policies?
    We update the eternal catalog, and the MARC and the LOC,
    Librarians! O librarians!

    All the practices left behind
    We debouch upon a newer information world, a 2.0 world
    Tools and websites the urls we collect, world of texts and the computers,
    Librarians! O librarians!

    We libraries steady growing
    Down the spinners, through the stacks, up the bookcases steep
    Reviewing, buying, cataloging, shelving as we go about the days,
    Librarians! O librarians!

There are certainly more stanzas, but I only did as much as the stupid commercial did. Maybe some day I’ll finish it out, but I think it’ll get lost at some point.

 

* I refuse to link to the ad because I despise it SO much. It’s on YouTube and there are enough clues here so as to find it on your own.

Nominations & Conference Destinations

I’m very humbled to announce that I have been nominated by my friend Buffy Hamilton for the 2009 Edublog Awards in the category of Best New Blog. I’m very flattered to be considered and I take it as a great compliment. (Although, as I look through the other sites nominated, I see a lot more teacher oriented blogs than librarian oriented blogs.) I do get a fancy badge for the blog, which gives it some color. Check it out!

 

In other news, I am gradually being peer pressured into attending ALA Midwinter 2010 next month in Boston. While it will certainly be very damn cold, the social opportunities to meet with other librarians that I have been Twittering, Facebooking, and Friendfeeding with is a powerful lure. (FriendFeeding sounds somewhat off.) I have to check as to whether I can get credit for a day worked for Friday since I will be paying my own way otherwise.

4179350993_2b806ab77e_o[1]And since I’m interested in the social opportunities more than what else is being offered (not that I can decipher it and have been encouraged not to as well), I’ve made a special blog badge for myself (linked to the left and in the sidebar).

I have an idea for something to do while things are going on; all I can say is that it involves a flip camera and some hustling around. Right now, I’m trying to figure out where I would stay (with friends or get a room) and a basic itinerary. I hope someone organizes a blogger meet-up. I would offer, but I have enough on my plate as it is!

Library Text Message Notification Hack

If you have an email notification system in place through your calendar and/or library automation system, you may not know it but you also have a basic text message notification system. What it takes to make this work is some basic knowledge of email to SMS gateways, how it works, and a little finagling with the wording of your email notices. This may not work for every system (and there is certainly a question or two I can’t answer towards the conclusion of this post), but it could offer libraries another notification method to customers with only a little extra staff work.

In case you didn’t know it, every cell phone number has a corresponding email address set up by the mobile carrier. This allows a person to send an email to a specific address which is then converted into a text message for the destined recipient. This is what is known as an email to SMS (or text) gateway. The rubric for discovering this email address is devilishly simple.

The first part of the address (the user name) is the person’s phone number. The second part (the domain name) requires consulting a list of Email to SMS Gateways, for each carrier has its own unique address. Here is a list of carrier gateways from mutube dated December 12, 2009.

Carrier Email
Teleflip n@teleflip.com
Alltel n@message.alltel.com
Ameritech n@paging.acswireless.com
ATT Wireless n@txt.att.net
Bellsouth n@bellsouth.cl
Boost n@myboostmobile.com
CellularOne MMS n@mobile.celloneusa.com
Cingular n@mobile.mycingular.com
Edge Wireless n@sms.edgewireless.com
Sprint PCS n@messaging.sprintpcs.com
T-Mobile n@tmomail.net
Metro PCS n@mymetropcs.com
Nextel n@messaging.nextel.com
O2 n@mobile.celloneusa.com
Orange n@mobile.celloneusa.com
Qwest n@qwestmp.com
Rogers Wireless n@pcs.rogers.com
Telus Mobility n@msg.telus.com
US Cellular n@email.uscc.net
Verizon n@vtext.com
Virgin Mobile n@vmobl.com

(If you want to double check for a carrier, you can enter “email to sms gateway [insert the name of the carrier here]” into a search engine.)

So, by taking the person phone number and finding out their carrier, you have found out their email to SMS address. For example, if my phone number was 856-555-1212 and my carrier was Verizon, my email to SMS address would be 8565551212@vtext.com. (Phone-number@carrier-domain.com)

Now that you have this address, what can you do with it? Here’s the tricky part.

When converting an email to a text message, the conversion can take the first 160 characters of an email and dumps the rest of the message. In testing this out with my library system’s calendar, it turned this regular calendar registration notification email from this: confirm-email

to this text message (two pictures, one text message):

notif2notif1

As you can see, it cut the message right at the word “Wii”.   In doing my own testing on my cell phone by sending myself multiple messages from different email addresses, the way that it converts the email to the text message is this: sender email, the @ symbol, subject line, then the rest of the message. Judging from the notification I received, the number of characters used from the above pictured example broke down like so:

  • support@engagedpatrons.org @ (27 characters)
  • Subject: Library Event Registration – Confirmatio (49; it cut off the ‘n’ of the word ‘confirmation’)
  • You are registered for the following Burlington County Library System event: Wii (80)

What this means is that, if you have a very email notification address and a long subject line, you won’t have very much space for a message with this hack. While the numbers above add up to 156, my educated guess is that there are 4 spaces that can not be counted within the retyped message as it appears on my phone screen. However, the important information here is the number of characters in the notification sender email and the subject line of the email. Once you know the number of characters they use up, you can structure the body of your email to ensure that the information you want people to get in a text message is received while not completely unintelligible for people who receive regular email notifications.

In using my notification as an example, since I know that the email and subject line are going to take up roughly 76 characters, I can structure my notification email to have the event be at the top so the resulting text message body would end up looking like this:

Wii for Seniors!

Bordentown Library

Wednesday, Dec. 23 10:30AM

That’s a total of 60 character spaces, putting me at 136 characters for the message. A blank line of 40 to 50 spaces below the last line of the event in the email notification template will ensure that they will not get any of the lines at the conclusion of the email (which would be cut off anyway by the character limit.) It should be noted that there is an additional 24 characters available for a longer program or library name. (It would not work for a program named “Understanding Addiction and the Impact on the Family” at a whopping 52 characters without cutting off the date, but it could remind a customer about the program name and location to suffice.) However, it would still achieve the goal of being a text message notification of a program registration and reminder.

What this hack boils down to is playing with the known variables (the email address, the subject line, and the total number of characters left) and seeing whether they would work for your library. For my system, it would take a restructuring of our event confirmation and reminder emails, but that is well within our grasp. It might even be possible to make this work with our automation program, but that would require more investigation.

The GIANT CAVEAT that would loom like a specter over this hack are any legal notices that are required with text messaging. With the text message pilot program, we are required to put on all of our advertising materials two statements: first, that standard text message rates apply; and second, the number of messages that a person will receive a week. The possible mitigating factors (read: upside) is that this is not an opt-in subscription program, it’s a one time notification process at the discretion of the customer, and that it could cost the customer $0.10-0.20 (the usual cost of 1-2 text messages) at most. The bottom line is that it is worth checking to make sure you are legally in the clear before going through all of this effort.

If anyone tries this out, let me know. I’m curious to hear about potential uses and results from actual field testing. I’ll keep you updated if The Powers That Be decide to use it in our library system. For me, I’m glad to share the idea because, at no additional cost, it adapts existing technology with just a little extra staff effort to give a customer a valuable and requested service.

Isn’t that what being a librarian is all about?

(Edit: Be sure to read the comments!)

The search for the next big thing, ctd

As the Christmas shopping season officially began over the Thanksgiving holiday, I have been thinking about what the next big thing will be for librarians and libraries in the near future. It’s possibly the right time of year for this type of meditation as business put out their latest and greatest wares for the seasonal marketplace buying frenzy. What is the “must have” item for libraries in this coming year? Is it mobile platforms? Open source programs? Google Wave servers? Lendable e-reader devices? While these certainly have their appeal to the technophile in me, I think the answer is more basic than these contemporary offerings. Like the holidays of this season, I believe that the next big thing in the coming year is a focus on people. Ourselves, our staff, and the communities that we serve: it is a matter of advocacy.

As it has been storied across LISNews, Library Journal, and other news media, this past year of the library has been about the economy. The first half of the year saw stories of how public library usage and statistics were up across the country. As the economy tightened with job and business losses, people sought to curtail spending by eliminating luxury spending and unessential household expenses (such as magazines, newspaper, and internet subscriptions). To fill in these gaps, the library filled the space in their lives. Library staff also helped people process unemployment claims, seek social services and foreclosure assistance, and assist with job hunting.

As the year progressed, states, cities, and municipalities sought to close their deficits by slashing library budgets and other “non essential” services. As previously mentioned in this blog, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan saw funding battles in which libraries were fighting for their very existence. At a time when our social service side was being sorely tested, our survival was dependent on how quickly we could articulate our value to the community and rally them to our cause. In some cases, the established credentials of the library restored most of lost funding; in other cases, it simply did not materialize.

This was not limited to the public sector; state funding and endowment of community and state colleges and universities shrank as well, putting academic libraries under sharpened budget scrutiny. (Louisiana Tech & Grambling State; University of North Carolina; University of Arizona & Northern Arizona University; and Virginia Tech, to name a few.) Anecdotally, from my few acquaintances in special libraries, I’ve heard tales of cutbacks directed towards the corporate library in the form of materials and staff. In looking ahead to the next year, where the budget battles are shaping up to be tougher, the tough lesson learned from these course of events is this: in this new information culture, the library must be able to consistently demonstrate our superior value as a community intellectual and recreation resource. 

With that said, there are advocacy efforts currently underway. Sites like Save Ohio Libraries, I Love NJ Libraries, and ALA’s I Love Libraries are but a few online efforts to educate, recruit, and energize the public about the importance of the public library in society. I’m trying to refrain from sounding like gloom and doom in terms of the possible consequences of inaction or insufficient action. However, I do believe that if we do not act in a timely and effective manner, we will be burdened with even more catching up (modernizing through technology plus regaining the trust and support of the general public). Now is the time for concerted action.

 

In looking ahead to next year, the other thing I would like to see is for us (the library community) to do is to reach out and start forging better relationships with others in the “getting people to information” business. I’m thinking of our database and journal subscription providers, but also search engine companies (in particular, Microsoft and Google). What I would like to see is a lowering of these barriers between us and these groups.

We have these wonderful collections locked up in catalog software, invisible to the search engine eye. Wouldn’t it be great if our catalog listing for a book, magazine, movie, or audio book to come up as a first result for a Google or Bing search, above other results? Or it gave you a World Cat style listing of the 5 closest libraries that have it? With a more universal library catalog interface, can we make it so that an ILL request is a simple click away? I think we can.

If I’m in a database such as EBSCO, and one of my results is a citation for a journal article, wouldn’t it be cool if it told me where the nearest library holding was? Make a button so that I can do a photocopy request within the interface if the holding is too far away. (You already have my card number since I needed that to get into the database in the first place.) I don’t think we lack the technology to make this happen either.

This is where our customers are looking for information first; this is where we should be looking to be. And why not? We are all in the “getting people to information” business; we just happen to be the non-profit end. This is a win-win for both sides where we get our catalogs and holdings onto higher profile platforms while they get to offer better varied results to their users. Our library automation vendors certainly aren’t offering us new ways to be able to market our holdings or be able to glance around our area to see what other libraries might have an item. Hell, the idea of adding text message hold and overdue notifications seems like onerous task to them despite the explosion of text messaging as a communication medium.

The truth is that libraries are uniquely positioned as the most universal and diverse “middle man” in the information matrix; we are the best human resource for people to have for all of their questions and intellectual and entertainment needs. We are where the big corporations and our vendors are not: in a position to evaluate information interface effectiveness at the human level on a scale far larger than their focus groups and in real life settings. This is what we bring to the information table and this is why it is important to look to share it with the others. There is nothing to lose, only tools and resources to gain.

Those who hang onto their data fiefdoms do not progress in this information age. They are anchors, relics of an old age where thoughts and ideas must be chaperoned rather than be freed. Only be removing any shackles or obstacles between people and what they seek can we move forward in our mission to provide universal information access. It is where we need to be heading in the new year: proving again our value to the general public while eliminating the virtual distances that keep us separated from the others who work with information. Both of these connections exist; let us strengthen them and forge ahead.

Deep Thought Thursday Night

In libraryland, there are a lot of statistics that are measured: door counts, circulation of items, computer uses, reference questions, and so forth and so on. As I was getting ready for the end of the year marketing committee for my library system, I couldn’t help but think about some of the things that cannot be tracked. Specially, I wondered about the number of conversation opportunities that are missed by staff members.

I’ll give an example: I’ve watched people come in for a library card, fill out the paperwork, get the card, and thank the staff member and walk away. The staff member was courteous and pleasant; the patron was not problematic; and the overall process went smoothly. But at no time did the staff member offer the customer a library calendar, inquire about interests so as to link them with current programming, ascertain whether they have children within the age ranges of our programs, or otherwise engage in small talk that makes the library sound more welcoming and familial.

I know that all staff can’t be mind readers nor salesmen nor social butterflies, but within the broad range of personalities, they could do something. As we are a service economy with people holding high customer service expectations, is it wrong to think that we have to step up our game as well? I don’t have a ready made solution for this, but it has been rattling around my brain since it occurred to me this morning.

In any event, it’s something the Marketing Committee will be working on next year. Any thoughts or comments would be helpful.

1st Annual Holiday Online Secret Santa Extravaganza

I’d like to take a shot at arranging an online librarian Secret Santa. It’s been a rough year for the national library community as a whole and I’d like to end the year with some holiday cheer.

So, here’s the skinny:

  • Sign up between now and 11:59PM Saturday December 19th. (Form embedded below.)
  • You will receive your gift target’s information on December 20th.
  • Gifts should be received around December 25th.
  • $10 gift limit (Go over at your own discretion.)

I’ve set up a Google Documents form to collect information from interested individuals. With the advent of internet shopping, the least amount of information you need to share is an email address. (As a good librarian, I will not share any information with anyone but your gift giver. Plus, I will need to contact you to let you know who you are giving to.)

(Apparently, WordPress doesn’t like iFrames. Here’s the link to the live form while I find a workaround. Sorry about that!)

Let’s make this a rousing end of the year success! Be sure to pass the word on this event! I will be making a Facebook event and tweeting on it as the days go by (I haven’t thought of a clever hashtag yet).

Happy Holidays, whatever that holiday might be!

The Law of Stackable Hamsters

Picture by jpockele/Flickr

On Thanksgiving, my brother was talking about one of his creative writing classes. He’s on the English faculty at a local college and, as a published author, he is tasked with teaching writing to incoming freshman and sophomores. I’ve certainly heard a lot about his students, both the good ones and the not-so-good ones, and some of his classroom experiences. But when he was telling a story and tossed out the term, “The Law of Stackable Hamsters”, I made him stop and explain that one.

When my brother is teaching creative writing, one of the aspects that he covers is the construction of a scene. Within a scene in a story, a reader will suspend disbelief to a certain degree in order for the author to tell their tale; however, there is a limit to the number of coincidences you can create within a scene in the book. Or, as my brother explained in an alternate way of considering the number of coincidences to include, there is a limit to the number of hamsters you can stack. You can stack two hamsters and they will generally stay in place; three hamsters and the underlying structure is very wobbly and possibly won’t hold; and you can’t try four or more hamsters because there is no way to stack that many without it falling over right away. Thus, my brother created the Law of Stackable Hamsters in the field of creative writing.

This explanation (and the accompanying mental images) had me giggling for hours afterward. When he was finished, I told him straight out, “I’m totally going to steal this.” With a giving shrug, he replied, “Go for it.”

So, without further ado, I’d like to propose the Law of Stackable Hamsters for libraries.

The premise is very simple: limit the number of steps that your customer has to take to get from a starting point (such as your homepage, information desk, circulation desk, or reference desk) to get to the information or service they are trying to reach. Consider the number of clicks that it take to get through your website to the content beneath, the number of referrals to other desks for service, and some of the forms and hoops that we make our customers go through for program registration and service requests. Beyond two or three steps, I believe customer’s experience suffers at an exponential rate. They aren’t going to think about whether they got their answer or not (although it will factor in); they are going to be thinking about how much effort it took to get to the conclusion.

For example, I inwardly groan when I hear a patron being told by staff that they have to go to another desk when I know that the person will just be sent right back because they need to do something here first before they can do over there. In one sentence from a staff member, they have just sent a customer on a journey that will end with visits to four desks. I grimace at the thought that customer may up feeling like they are getting the run around for no reason or that we don’t know what we are doing here. Another example: I don’t like the fact that it can take up to SIX clicks to get from my library’s main page to a program registration (it takes three if you know what you are looking for and use the search function). For myself, I can’t remember many websites where I had to click that many times to find what I was looking for without feeling like I was on a web archeological expedition. If I’m feeling a bit put out, what will the patron feel like as they navigate through the pages? For these two examples, it presents a column of stacked hamsters that will simply topple over.

(Yes, I know this isn’t a very new concept here. But I think it is a much more fun way to imagine it.)

For me, it embraces what I feel is a core value of the library: ease of access. As I work towards a more Star Trek information utopia, it is the barriers of access that concern me the most. Whatever we can do to make it easier, we should consider doing and/or working towards. From larger concepts (net neutrality and freedom of inquiry) to smaller ones (better web interfaces and universal staff training), ease of information access should be a priority that we strive for from our vendors, our professional policies and peers, and ourselves.

Please. Think of the hamsters.