#andypoll – 10/12/10

So, I sent out a Tweet this morning that simply asked this:

#andypoll: So, what library issue is on your mind today?

And I got a tremendous response from Twitter. I have taken screenshots of the replies with the #andypoll hashtag and made one giant image. (I don’t think I made it big enough, but as someone who doesn’t need glasses, I can still read it.)

Click to embiggen

I was going to write about what I see in this jungle of replies, but first I want to know what do YOU see in these tweets? I’ll share my thoughts tomorrow.

Leave a comment with your observations and thoughts or if there is something in particular that caught your attention.

Customer Service is NOT Advocacy

As tempting as it would be to make the entire body of the post only two words (“see title”) or just the graphic, I reckon there would be a call for further explanation as to what I meant by the title. And here is what I mean: excellent customer service is not advocacy for the library. I’m writing this post because I believe that there is a certain level of complacency and a false comfort in the idea that by simply providing good customer service people will take action on behalf of the library.

This is simply not so. 

The terms “advocacy” and “customer service” are not synonyms nor share the same definition nor are interchangeable. Libraries will not remain open because the staff in the library were nice or friendly to their patrons. No decision maker will be swayed by such proclamations of good care by staff. What is required is the ability of the patron to demonstrate the value of the library to them. Customer service is just the fancy frame that encompasses the importance that the library holds in the life of the patron.

While providing good customer service will certainly assist in making people more receptive to being asked to take action (which is what advocacy is), by itself it is not advocacy for the library. It’s dangerous for the future of the library to confuse these two actions; customer service does not lead to effective patron action. In providing the patron with an excellent customer experience, that creates the opportunity to let them know how they can help the library maintain its funding, keep staff members and hours, and (in some cases) keep their doors open. Customer service is important as an avenue for the advocacy that is required to illustrate the value of the public service institution.

In case people need a reminder, I made a graph. Enjoy and use liberally.

cs-advocacy

Shine like a Star, Star

Over my vacation week, I caught this post "The Librarian IS the Rockstar” over on David Lee King’s blog. It’s a great post about the library looking to showcase the talents of its employees, the people who work their magic and make the programs and services possible for their community. Libraries have talented staff members who (too often) remain in the shadows, unnoticed by the public and unacknowledged by the library. So why not elevate them to where people can see and appreciate the skills, knowledge, and talent they bring to the library?

Like all of David’s work, it’s an excellent post. But it was the comments that put my teeth on edge (and this comment in particular).

rockstarOther people refuted the commenter in their replies, but I think this kind of comment (and the thinking behind it) is a real problem in the library world these days. Why not indulge in a reasonable amount of self promotion? Why not highlight the talents of staff for the general public? Why not make one of the attractions to coming to the library a staff member?

There seems to be a recognition gap between showcasing the collection and the staff. Of course the collection should be highlighted for its unique holdings and, yes, there are a wide variety of services that a staff member can assist with. But as technology improvements continue their rapid ascent, people will be looking for what these innovations cannot grant them: person to person contact. (Everyone has heard the lament, “I don’t want to talk to a machine! Why can’t I get a person on the phone at [X]?”, right?) This is the sort of connection that people are looking for and one that the library can provide. Why not take that advantage and use it to greater effect by highlighting a staff member through publicity (either the library’s website, library print publicity, or local media)? Give people a person, not a place, to think about when they think about the library.

I’m not indifferent to the privacy desires of staff or the potential ‘stalker’ type of issues that can arise from people having their information. There is a fine balance between the two and I certainly wouldn’t want to put someone out there who was not comfortable with the exposure. But for those who don’t mind the exposure, the promotion pays in branding dividends. If you can put a human face to the library (and not a picture of a building, as is commonly done on Twitter and Facebook), then patrons can make the better connection to a person than simply identifying the place. In thinking beyond the immediate, when it comes to advocating for the library, it’s an easier emotional connection to say “Miss Jessica at the library needs you to write to your representatives” than “The library needs you to write to your representatives". Patrons will be doing it for the people at the library, not simply the library itself. It’s that kind of identification that the library really needs; that personal connection that emphasizes that we are a people business. 

Given the choice, I’d rather subscribe to the rock star sentiment than to the alternative Tyler Durden-esque mindset that seems to rear its head anytime the notion of breaking out and tooting one’s own horn in librarianship becomes a topic of conversation. Promotion is not akin to narcissism, especially when dealing with communities that simply have no idea what we do as an institution.

(This feels like it should segway into a conversation about the “celebrity librarians”, another topic that I feel is overdue for another round of discussion. I don’t understand the full fledged resistance to the application of the term, nor to having someone stand out enough that the general public would be aware of their existence. To me, it is folly to frown upon the idea when librarianship is in a struggle for recognition. We cannot hang on to this strange notion of professional egalitarianism while bemoaning our lack of visibility in the greater public realm. To have someone who can capture the attention of the media and general public on library issues is someone who can work to turn thoughts and opinions regarding libraries. That’s something that we could use right about now.)

Vacation Mode: Oct 2010

I'm not there. I wish I *was* though.During this vacation week, I’ve been relaxing, visiting friends, doing some writing, and playing a lot of video games. Sure, it’s a staycation, but I’ve been looking forward to some unstructured time. I have some things I’ve been wanting to work on, so it gives me some time to do so.

One of the things I’ve been playing with is a Tumblr blog called “Idea Lab”.  It’s hooked into my Twitter feed so that any updates I make on it are tweeted; I’ve refrained from integrating it to Facebook since it doesn’t feel like a proper fit to it. Plus, I’d like to offer people a filter for how much content from me they get.

A couple of features that I like about the blog so far:

  1. It’s more personal and spontaneous than this blog, allowing me to send pictures, record audio, and dump whatever articles and links I want to share.
  2. It has a feature to let people ask me any question. I’ve left the option on to allow for anonymous questions so I’ll have to see how well that goes. If you want to give it a go, try it out here.
  3. It gives me a nice place to store idea seeds for further posts and hopefully (maybe) ignite someone else’s creativity. I do enjoy a nice discussion.

Since the Tumblr interface so damn easy to use, I have some other collaborative blogs in mind to make. When I put them out there, you’ll be the first to know. If you want to suggest one, I’d love to hear it!

Banned Books Week 2010: Footnotes

“[I]f a parent wishes to prevent her child from reading a particular book, that parent can and should accompany the child to the Library, and should not prevent all children in the community from gaining access to constitutionally protected materials. Where First Amendment rights are concerned, those seeking to restrict access to information should be forced to take affirmative steps to shield themselves from unwanted materials; the onus should not be on the general public to overcome barriers to their access to fully protected information.” – Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, 121 F. Supp. 2d 530 (N.D. Texas 2000).

Photo by wajakemek | rashdanothman/Flickr Tonight, I was driving up to Princeton to see Revolutionary Readings at the Princeton Public Library to cap off the end of Banned Books Week. I was winding my way through one of the roads off of Route 1 into the main street area when I noticed a couple holding hands and walking in the same direction on the opposite side of the street. They were two college age men, smiling and talking, making their way down the street as I drove by them. I think that on any other night it would have been wholly unremarkable to me, but in the context of the readings I was going to attend for the second time (I had seen them at the Burlington County Footlighters back in August), it took a different significance.

At first brush, it was certainly something that I take for granted. The most stressful part of holding a woman’s hand was the act of doing it the first time, not where the hand holding was taking place or who might be observing it. Nevermind other simple acts of public affection for that matter. I certainly can’t imagine being a gay teen, even though my relatively liberal high school was gay friendly. I’m probably remembering this through the kaleidoscope of recollection, but I remember the early 1990’s as being a time where gay issues and acceptance were starting to hit the mainstream (with “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act being a response to this particular time period’s movement.  There is a good chance someone will correct me in the comments; please keep in mind that this is what I remember so be gentle.) But even modern more accepting attitudes have a long track record to overcome against the stigma of centuries of bigotry and hate. Although there is progress, there is still a long road ahead.

While I was driving back to my apartment after the reading, I found that there was a question that kept asking myself: what are the true consequences to keeping or removing a GLBT title such as Revolutionary Voices or Heather Has Two Mommies or Boy Meets Boy? In other words, what are the actual ramifications that challengers and supporters would endure if the book was kept or removed? What are the beneficial or detrimental effects associated with either choice?

In examining each side in purely objective terms, I find that the supporters of a title have a more compelling case. Perhaps it is undocumented or less reported in professional, trade, or traditional media sources, but I have yet to hear of the personal, emotional, social, or physical consequences suffered by a challenger when a book was kept on the shelf. In the absence of readily available evidence (anecdotal or otherwise), I would have to presume that there was some sort of negative effect since such a title was so patently offensive in the first place to warrant such action. I am not being facetious in the slightest; I want to know how a challenger was suffered when an objectionable book is not removed from patron availability in its respective community (regardless as to whether it is a public, academic, school, or other kind of library).

On the other hand, supporters of a book tend to be able to demonstrate the value of a title through the benefit it brings to its target audience. Whether it is presenting a tough subject, using the book as a means to answer questions for a young mind, or providing someone with a similar experience to let them know they are not alone, the benefits provided by supporters of having the title available are greater than the detrimental effects (if any) to challengers.

Now, in considering the opposite: what are the benefits to the challenger when a book is removed? I would surmise there is a satisfaction in the successful removal of the title, perhaps relief as to its removal from public availability, but I am perplexed as to other short and long term benefits. What are the benefits, if any? On the contrary, supporters can argue that the lack of access to the book is preventing the benefits they have described in keeping it. Granted, it is not the strongest causation argument. The absence of the book does not necessarily mean that potential users would suffer without it; they might find other books that would do the same as the book in question. However, the loss of benefits argument feels feel more compelling than any benefit a challenger may reap from being successful.

While this objective examination is good fodder for high minded blogging and discussions, there is an undeniable reality. Undeniable they were, two young men enjoying each others company walking hand in hand along the chain fence of the golf course as the setting sun made its way behind the trees in a cool autumn air. And I in the driver’s seat of my car, passing by them unnoticed, wondering if a book like the one I was going to hear would have helped them be comfortable with who they are a few year prior. For them, I will never know. But I do know that it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

Social Media & Library Advocacy

In the most recent New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell examines the social activism in the age of social media. If you have any interest in library advocacy, you need to go read it now. The gist of this article is that social media is excellent for reaching a multitude of people, but it lacks some of the strong bonds that turn interest into action.

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Over at the New York Times “Room for Discussion”, an assortment of pundits have been offering their take on Mr. Gladwell’s article. I can’t possibly sum up all of their articles, so I highly recommend reading all of them. I’ll quote some to hopefully entice you to look closer.

Timothy Lee, “Power of a Personal Message”:

No social movement can succeed without activists willing to take serious risks for their cause. But other factors are also important. These include a critical mass of ordinary citizens who are at least sympathetic to, if not yet actively supportive of, the activist’s cause, and a strategy to reach and persuade as many of those citizens as possible. What makes the Internet revolutionary is not just that it makes it easier for activists to communicate with one another, but that it provides them with powerful new tools for informing and persuading their fellow citizens.

Evegeny Morozov, “Virtual vs. Real Protests”:

But we should not confuse mobilizing with organizing. The Internet excels at mobilizing people to rally behind political causes (obviously, not all of them democratic) – but someone still needs to engage in long-term strategic organization.

Michael Anti, “In China, Even Weak Ties are Crucial”:

When 1.4 billion people have a chance, however slight, to think and talk directly without censorship and self-censorship, it’s obviously revolutionary, even if it’s not a revolution.

William Powers, “Digital and Traditional Tools”:

Twitter and Facebook aren’t going to save the world. But when used alongside other tools of human connectedness — including some very old ones, like the face-to-face conversations, meetings and protests that drove the civil rights movement — the new technologies can be extremely useful. I’ve learned a lot from my digital life and made real friends there. But if I never turned off the screen and brought those gains to bear in the rest of my life, what use would they be? Digital networking and more traditional forms of communication aren’t mutually exclusive — they feed into each other.

Burt Herman, “New Media’s Trust Sources”:

Rather than the mass media of before, where audiences were grouped together based on how far radio waves reached or the distance newspaper delivery trucks drove, curators find audiences with shared interests. They filter the most relevant information and add context through their commentary and insight, like the explanations on the gallery walls of an art exhibition. The most successful curators build a following based on knowing what their audiences want.

Howard Rheingold, “Following and Leading Online:

The Web can be a morass of grossly uncivil discourse and misinformation, and it can be an accessible and inexpensive medium for community-building and political activism. The difference lies not in the technology but in the literacy — know-how is the critical difference. Lots of people have the know-how to organize demonstrations and riots, get out the vote and shut down institutions. Those who gain the know-how to transform networks into movements might gain the keys to power — for better or worse — in coming decades.

In reading all of these wonderful pieces, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences with social media. It has been roughly a year and three months since I started a Facebook group with the name “People for a Library Themed Ben & Jerry Ice Cream Flavor”.  Since then, I’ve been involved in other Facebook groups, used Twitter hashtags in conjunction with passing library advocacy news (such as #saveohiolibraries), watched the creation of an library advocacy website, marched on the State Capital, used CapWiz to generate emails to my representatives, hand written letters to government officials, and advocated to patrons at my own library for restoration of budget cuts. If someone was to ask me what out of those things works, I’d have to give an honest answer and say “It depends”.

When it comes to online advocacy, it really depends on what you are asking people to do. The Ben & Jerry’s ice cream group was rather easy: join the group! That’s one mouse button click on the interface. From there, I encouraged people to send in their flavor choices through Ben & Jerry’s flavor submission interface. People could suggest their ideas on the group’s wall. It gave any Ben & Jerry people a very easy way to gauge interest in the group: they could visit the page or check on the flavor submissions. Overall, not much was being asked of the people who participated except to join and share. There was an aspect of library advocacy attached to the group in raising awareness for library funding issues. For those who were really taken with the idea, they took the further steps of adding their own.

In contrast to the Save NJ Libraries group, it was a widely different group for its aim and purpose. There was funding, jobs, and entire library locations at risk if action was not taken. It was more than just join the group and share it; we wanted people to write, call, email, and demonstrate their support for the library. We shared information, developments, and stories playing within the local media to build morale and keep people in the loop as to how others were faring around the state.

For myself, it was wonderful to see that over 15,000 people joined the group; but in the back of my mind, I had my doubts. How many of those people are fellow librarians joining in solidarity? How many actual New Jersey residents are actively monitoring the group? How many NJ people are sharing the information to their friend? How many people in the group are contacting their elected officials? For these questions, I had no answers nor hunches; there is no way to measure it and my gut feelings did not feel reliable. While some would argue that the larger the number the higher the probability of active members, I would answer and say that probability does not translate into measurable results. It also relies on the false premise that each person who joins the group has an equal chance of taking further action. Each person who comes into the group has their own level of potential involvement; where the group makes a difference is whether they can provide the energy and engagement necessary to overcome those who have (for lack of a better term) less than median potential involvement.

In my opinion, this is what can make or break a social media campaign. It’s not about the believers, it’s about getting the fence sitters to hop on over and toss in their effort. And, from what I have experienced and read about, it’s certainly not easy. To those who organized or were activists before the arrival of the internet, this fact is nothing new; what is new is the perception that the ease of online information sharing and activity should make this easier. It does make the organizing easier, but there is still the action and energy requirements to make any campaign work. I can put something on the Facebook wall that 15,000 people should be able to see, but what I really need is for them to act. (I think there is still a strange reluctance for librarians to ask people to act on their behalf, but that notion needs its own blog post.)

At the 2010 ALA Midwinter Conference, Sara Kelly John told me a story about telling Al Gore (who was speaking at the conference) that she was running for ALA President and if he had any advice for her campaign. He replied to her with a modified Poor Richard saying: “Early to bed; early to rise; work like hell; and or-gan-ize.”  Organization, as it was then and as it is now, will always be the spine of activism. I think that what will distinguish people at social media activism will be their ability to pick out which bonds are strong and which ones are weak. Their ability to recruit people, recognize the type of activist that they are (information sharers, recruiters, coaches, cheerleaders, influencers, and so forth), and utilize them in that role will be the key difference between success and failure.

For myself, I have taken each new campaign (whether small or large) and started applying these lessons. Social media is a powerful tool in the advocate toolbox, but an oversubscription to reliance on it for solving every problem is one of its pitfalls. Not every Facebook group or Twitter hashtag will get you where you want to go; but there are important lessons in their success or failure. It’s up to this generation of library advocates to treat each tool available to them equally and use them in a specific role in support of each other, all under the banner for the change or action they are striving for. The revolution may not be tweeted, but social media is an excellent tool in getting the revolution going in the first place.