KIA for QandA NJ

So, even though there has been no budget cuts to state level New Jersey library funding, earlier this month the New Jersey State Librarian Norma Blake informed the New Jersey library community that the award winning and role model online reference service QandANJ will be ending June 30th this year. This was announced on possibly one of the saddest PowerPoint slides created for a library presentation.

PICTURE OF ACTUAL SLIDE (WASN'T KIDDING)

From the press release on the LibraryLinkNJ listserv (since I wasn’t at the webinar; for non-NJ library folks, LibraryLinkNJ is the remaining NJ library regional cooperative):

Even with all of the volunteer assistance, the program still has the fixed costs for a coordinator, public relations and marketing and software licenses to name a few. When state budget cuts were enacted last year, the decision was made to keep QandANJ active at least through June of this year in order to incorporate NJLA’s South Jersey Works initiative. With local libraries experiencing budget cuts it has become more difficult to allow staff the work time to participate. These reasons have resulted in this very difficult decision being made by the State Library and disseminated by the grantee, LibraryLinkNJ.

(Here’s some context for people who might need it.)

QandANJ is supported by the New Jersey State Library, an affiliate of Thomas Edison State College, managed by LibraryLinkNJ: the New Jersey Library Cooperative, staffed by member libraries in the New Jersey Library Network, and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an independent federal agency whose mission is to create strong libraries and museums to connect people to information and ideas.

But when it came to the actual decision to end the service, there was no consultation with any libraries involved in the project. Months passed without a future determination of the project until the Conversation with the State Librarian webinar on April 7th. The State Library basically held onto the ball as the game clock ran out, then declared the end of the service as a casualty of the local budgets.

It’s a pretty ignominious end to an incredible program, especially after years of praise from the State Librarian office.

Infolink, October 31, 2003:

QandANJ celebrated its second full year of service on October 1, 2003. For the occasion, State Librarian Norma Blake presented an award to each of QandANJ’s 37 participating libraries for their excellent service to the residents of New Jersey.

During a special luncheon ceremony, Ms. Blake thanked the participating libraries and their staffing librarians for all they have done “to make QandANJ one of the most important library services in New Jersey and the best Live Reference Service in the United States.”

Library Journal Librarian of the Year, January 15, 2008:

Featured on New Jersey governor Jon Corzine’s web page, another NJSL initiative is QandANJ, a virtual 24/7 information system through which librarians answer inquiries from across the state in real time. Karen Hyman, director of the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative, came up with the idea and was about to start the program in her region.

One of the most important things a state librarian must be is someone who knows a good idea when they see one,” says Blake. “I thought Karen [had] a very good one that would have statewide impact, so we came up with financial support to take that system statewide.” It is clearly a case of mutual admiration. “It has really been a golden age for all of us,” says Hyman, referring to library service after Blake’s arrival.

NJ State Library, September 2, 2009:

“QandANJ is certainly a New Jersey success story and we are glad to continue our partnership with the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative, which has pioneered the service from a pilot project with a handful of libraries to a program that now relies on the expertise of librarians from across the state. As an online information service, QandANJ is a model for the rest of the nation,” said Norma E. Blake, New Jersey state librarian.

(Emphasis mine.)

QandANJ is listed as the number one initiative accomplishment on the New Jersey State Librarian’s page.

norma-blake-qandanj

And on a related note, Norma has ‘liked’ it on her Facebook page. (This is visible to anyone; you don’t need to be logged into Facebook to see it.)

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So, what gives? How can it go from being so highly praised to a “budget” casualty? Did it outlive its value?

I did some napkin math. Using the library value calculator modified by the Mt Laurel library, an average reference question is valued at $15. In 2010, the service had roughly 26,000 reference sessions. I’d estimate that each session probably resulted in 2-3 questions, so for the sake of this post I’ll use an average of 2.5 questions per session for a total number of questions estimated at 65,000 questions. Plugging the numbers into the calculator,

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That’s a value of $975,000, a number that is a return of investment of 325% of the $300,000 grant awarded to LibraryLinkNJ to run the service. It can’t be a value thing when it is a bargain of a service.

I find it very odd that 26,000 reference sessions is considered too low a number of value to a state population of 8 million, yet the 80,000 postcards collected during the 2010 statewide library advocacy effort was considered a triumph (or, stated another way, 0.325% of the population versus 1%) in the NJLA meetings I sat in on. Consider also that that these 26,000 sessions occurred during an incredible budget fight across the state of New Jersey, both at the state and local levels. There were libraries being closed, layoffs all over the place, and yet, YET, this number of sessions with this estimated amount of questions were handled by the remaining QandANJ volunteer staff. (The NJ proposed budget was announced in March and an actual budget was passed in June. This should give a time frame for the period.) The number of participating staffing libraries has gone from 50 to 43; not exactly a paralyzing drop as expected by the press release.

So, what’s the deal?

For myself, the decision is a complete technological step backwards. It represents a move that isolates portions of the New Jersey population that came to rely on the service and/or lacked the local resources to handle the inquiries. At a time when local libraries are still dealing with the deep cuts from the past year, a service that transcended those local cutbacks is being snuffed out. It’s just not right.

As it is funded by a grant, it doesn’t mean that the program has to stay with LibraryLinkNJ. As it moved from the now defunct South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative to LibraryLinkNJ, so I believe it can be moved again to an institution that wishes to carry on the service for the benefit of the citizens of New Jersey. Yes, it may not be in the same form as it was before, but the infrastructure is already in place. It can be rebuilt elsewhere.

The sadder part is that it has become an issue within the New Jersey Library Association. There is pressure to put off discussing the fate and future of QandANJ before our conference in two weeks. I’m not sure the underlying reason short of putting on our happy faces for each other like some sort of dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner. But I think that’s equally wrong.

To my fellow NJ librarians, I wish to beg to differ to this sentiment. In fact, I think that the conference is a perfect time to get together to discuss this face-to-face. In looking at the NJLA schedule, it doesn’t look like there is anything going on after 8pm on Tuesday. The Ocean Place has a nice lobby and a bar right there.

What do you think?

UPDATE: The Reference Section of NJLA will be having a meeting on Friday May 13th about the fate and alternatives of QandANJ. With all due deference to Michael Maziekien (the chair of that section), I’d still like to meet informally on May 3rd as a show of support. I’ll see about tossing something like that up on Facebook.

Houston, We Have A Problem

I’ve been thinking about the Overdrive/Amazon announcement that will bring the Kindle into the device fold for library eBook lending and I have to say it raises concerns for me. In addition to the questions raised by Bobbi Newman, Jason Griffey, and Sarah Houghton-Jan (all very sharp queries), I think libraries are poorly positioned for this kind of move. Here’s why:

Kindles has the largest eReader market share at roughly 41%. As the breakthrough device along with the pricing practices of Amazon, it’s hardly a surprise even with the addition of Nooks and iPads to the market. It’s still the touch-and-go no-fuss-no-muss dedicated eReader out there, perfect for any age and reading desire; the gadget that anyone can use without regard to computer skill. You pick a title, you hit a button, you get the book, it’s done. It builds an expectation as to how eBooks should work and it has been building it with the largest audience so far.

By the end of 2011, this large consumer base with its giant market share will meet the “Pretend Its Print” model of eBook circulation that has been developed.

What do you imagine the reaction will be?

If the “1 eBook to 1 patron at a time” model is that best we still have when the Kindles come to Overdrive, I think it will be a serious problem. It’s not simply a matter of sending eBook wait lists skyrocketing (which it will for new releases), but that it will fail to meet patron expectations as to how eBook content should be managed. I think it will leave libraries on the hook to explain a very limiting policy to our patrons, making us look like technological fools (or worse, incompetent).

Why? Because we are perceived as experts on books and literature and I believe this perception extends into the digital world. Patrons won’t see it as a file (even though it is) but as a book, and wonder why we can’t “fix” this so that it works more in line with what they have already experienced using their Kindles. And to throw in HarperCollins here, we’ll still have a publisher insisting on limited checkouts but now with the largest eReader device in the market in the mix.

Personally, I believe that if we really want to move ahead with Kindles and Overdrive, it’s going to take a much better lending model than what we have now. And libraries are now on the clock to find a better solution.

There is a silver lining to this in my estimation. Amazon is the first device manufacturer and retailer to make this library lending deal. That’s a departure from the previous Overdrive partners which consist entirely of publishers. Given Amazon’s 300 lbs. gorilla status in the eBook game, this could make 2012 a very interesting year for eBooks and libraries. Hopefully, it won’t be the gorilla deciding to club us to death.

For All the Content in the World…

From the Monkey See blog at NPR:

You used to have a limited number of reasonably practical choices presented to you, based on what bookstores carried, what your local newspaper reviewed, or what you heard on the radio, or what was taught in college by a particular English department. There was a huge amount of selection that took place above the consumer level. (And here, I don’t mean "consumer" in the crass sense of consumerism, but in the sense of one who devours, as you do a book or a film you love.)

Now, everything gets dropped into our laps, and there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you’re well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender.

It’s an excellent read and a reminder of the increasing stream of content that is generated and available on the market. With the barriers to content creation (and more importantly distribution) falling, there is less interaction with a middle man to complete a transaction. That, in essence, the content stream will only get bigger as time goes on.

I think the post also invokes the notion that, as a library, not only can we not purchase every piece of content that comes out (nor be able to store it if we could) but it places an importance on collecting that which matters to our patron communities. For all the books, music, newspapers, journals, magazines, and sheer data that is created on a daily basis, it’s up to librarians to make the most sense of it for their patrons. That is something that will matter more as time goes by.

(h/t: Daily Dish)

Roadtrip!

Today, I went up to the Darien Public Library in Darien, Connecticut on a roadtrip. I had been invited by my fellow 2010 Mover & Shaker Gretchen Caserotti to come up and see the library (and when you throw in lunch, well, I’m no fool). I got the full-on tour of the place from the study rooms on the top floor to the fabled materials management system on the bottom floor.

The word that I would use to describe this library is ‘intimate’; I mean it in the warm, cozy sense. There was something about the arrangement of the rooms and spaces that made it feel like whatever I was looking for was nearby or a place to sit was close at hand. That each room was the place to be. (I might not be conveying the feeling very well, but it’s one of those nuances that may not translate this time around.)

I will say that there is a great pleasure in visiting other libraries. Mainly, I like to steal their ideas. And by steal, I mean gloriously rip off and use at my own library to my own great delight. Although, if I was a better thief, perhaps I wouldn’t given attribution to the people I had stolen from when asked about things I’ve used; perhaps I’m more of a Creative Commons style of bandit. I left Darien with some ideas for my own library and I’m looking forward to giving them a go at my own library.

I’d like to thank the Darien staff for their time and hospitality; I’d especially like to thank Louise, Alan, John, Sally, and Alex for an afternoon of library conversations that touched on just about everything. And, last but not least, to Gretchen for her generous invitation that brought me from southern New Jersey to that part of Connecticut that I used to skip by taking the Merritt Parkway.

In exchange for the tour and lunch, I brought a tray of home made chocolate chip cookies. Based on my experiences today, I think this might be an excellent way to get more invitations to tour other libraries. So, I’ll make this offer:

You invite me to your library and if I come I will bring you cookies (chocolate chip, from scratch).

cookies

Yep. Those can be yours.

Once again, thanks to Gretchen and the Darien staff for a great day.

Murder by the Numbers

support_your_local_library

The graphic to the right was passed around the online library world during the recent National Library Week. My reaction to the infographic was a bit different than others; specifically, I was a bit perturbed. While it is pleasant to look at and certainly has good design to it, it’s the data represented that made me wonder why anyone would think that this was a ‘good’ library support graphic.

I’ll explain it in sections.

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First, take a look at the list of most popular topics. Then, take a look at program topics at your local public library. Or you can do what I did and take a very non-scientific randomly chosen look at the programs being offered in the public libraries of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Denver. With cooking as the #1 most popular topic, only Los Angeles had anything with cooking in it consisting of three programs with two of aimed at younger audiences. I personally only know of one other library that has done cooking programs and that’s the Princeton Public Library. For a topic that two-thirds of the public say they are interested in, we are missing the programming boat on this one.

Health or medicine is a hit-or-miss affair as well, depending on the topics covered. There were at least a handful of programs ranging from finding health information online to children and mental health to (I’m not kidding) ancient secrets to looking & feeling younger. For my own library, we’ve had flu shot clinics and occasional programs for health and well being but the attendance for that is sporadic. As to politics and current events, I can’t find any events whatsoever. (Given how charged the political atmosphere is and the proclivity of librarians to think that it is a professional obligation to be politically neutral, I’m not really too shocked on this one.)

The four major public libraries turn the corner when it comes to business and careers. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a job resume class or business plan assistance. Finally, a topic we can say that we are addressing even if it only covers one-third of those people polled. The same can’t be said for travel/vacation and self-help/psychology programs which simply drop off the chart. (Not that we should consider dabbling in the self-help area given our basic difficulties helping ourselves to take action on a number of topics.)

Back to the question at hand: are public libraries actually in touch with the topics of interest? Our programming doesn’t reflect the interests as collected by the survey. While I will concede that a cooking program could require equipment not generally found in libraries, I would counter and say that either the equipment can be brought in or consider reaching out to the community and finding a kitchen (restaurant, culinary college program, or otherwise) that could host a cooking program. It’s just a matter of some ingenuity to start matching our programming to the topics that patrons are most interested in.

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Second, this section of the graph leaves me a bit perplexed. Is it a cut of 56% from the 2009 number? Or is it a 56% total cut from a year not shown (presumably when funding was at a high point)? If I was to read this literally from left to right, it’s a 40% cut of the 2008 allocation followed by a 56.4% cut of the 2009 allocation followed by 62% cut of 2010’s. (Translated: If 2008 was $100 million, then 2009’s cut would leave $60 million, 2008’s cut would leave $26.16 million, and 2011’s cut would leave $9.9 million or 1/10th of what allocated in 2008. This cannot be.)

Also, where are the actual dollar numbers? While percentages are nice, numbers give a better sense of context to the cut. Otherwise, this looks like a USA Today bar chart graphic.

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*sigh* And now we arrive at the 30 Helens Agree* section of the graphic.

Third, to me this graphic section represents a disconnect between statements and action. I am guessing I could get the same high agreement numbers with phrases like “Birthdays should be fun” and “As an adult, I should be allowed to eat Oreos for breakfast”. Everyone might agree to these statements, but I don’t see these numbers translating into political support. Hence, there is a disconnect between these saccharine sweet statements (“I love puppies!”) and getting these so-called library supporters to call their school board, administration, or town or state officials.

Considering the high amount of agreement, you would imagine that some budget decision makers fall into that overwhelming majority (whether they are superintendents, deans, or politicians). The advocacy job should be easy in theory, but across the country librarians and their supporters are getting pounded at the decision making level. While some have been able to rally support for ballot questions for public libraries, that’s not a slam dunk either as the agreement percentages might suggest. I can’t think of any school libraries that have been saved due to the belief that “school library programs are an essential part of the educational experience because they provide resources to students and teachers”. Although, you could nuance it and say that the statement references school library programs and not school librarians. (If someone has evidence to contradict this last point, please share. I’d rather like to be proven wrong on this one and that school librarians have been saved because of this or a similar belief.)

Considering how abstract the context of the statements are (so, how much tax money would it take?), it’s hard not to agree with them. It goes to prove that people like libraries in theory, they just aren’t thrilled when they get the bill. To me that represents a dangerous area for touting those agreement percentages for it lulls library advocates into a false sense of security when it comes to drumming up actual financial support for the library. People will agree to a statement like that but it doesn’t mean they’ll actually carry out the steps required to support it.

And, I have to wonder aloud, who are these people who disagree with these statements? Are they the ones who were just honest enough to say “No, I disagree” by actually thinking about what would be required? Are these the same one out of six dentists who say that you don’t need to brush after every meal? They can’t all be old cranks whose idea of government spending is “anything so long as it is on me”. Who are these people? They walk among us!

 

So, there we have it: our program offerings do not match those topics which are the most interest to our patrons, the numbers just tell us that we are down from where we were before, and that flowery pro-library statements are nice for people to agree to. I can’t hold the infographic creator Archives.com entirely responsible for this since the data is coming from our own sources (Library Journal, Institute of Museum and Library Services, and ALA). But rather than simply passing a feel good pretty graphic, a little consideration should be given to the contents. It might have more than what it appears to say.

 

* 30 Helens Agree was a recurring sketch by the comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall. Here’s a clip that will get 30 librarians to agree.

Salem Press Blog Awards 2011

This year, I will be a judge for the Salem Press Blog Awards. I won First Prize for Best Public Library blog last year and I was thrilled when Peter and Mirela asked me to judge the contest this year. I look forward seeing the nominees (as well as adding them to my ever increasing Google Reader feeds).

If you want to see the winners from last year (as well as the other blogs nominated), Salem Press has left them up on their site. You can also see who else was nominated in the various categories.

Not to co-opt this post with another contest, but TED is having auditions for TED talks. You need to create a one minute video to start (due April 25th) and they are looking for crazy fun uses of technology. So, take your chances with either/both!