Birthday Memento

This is the telephone message that was waiting for my grandfather at the New York City hotel he was staying at the night I was born. His mother (my great grandmother) had called and left the message. After my grandfather died, I found the notice in his Bible. He had kept it for all those years.

And I’m really happy he did.

“Bring Me the Head of Seth Godin!”

Or so it would seem the mood would be in some parts of libraryland upon reading his latest blog post, The future of the library. (Not be confused with the other Seth Godin post by the same name written back in 2010.) In reading some of the other reactions and comments, it seems like another trip on the professional self-esteem merry-go-round. We want non-librarians to talk and write about the library (in any sense of the word) yet completely despair when it is not a full throated praise of the institution. If it invokes any stereotype, it’s considered a step backwards for the entire continuing conversation. (Cue the wail of lamentations and the gnashing of the teeth.) If it challenges current practices or principles, we give the author a dismissive pat on the back while marginalizing their words by telling them essentially “thanks, but you don’t know what you are talking about”. We’d rather accept bland praise over anything of substance that pushes our comfort levels written by people who are friends of the library institution, then quietly mutter to ourselves why more people don’t talk or write about the library.

Another spin on the merry-go-round we go.

This isn’t a pass on what Seth wrote, either, but I’m going to work to avoid stepping into the some pitfalls as listed above. A civil and well reasoned challenge deserves response in kind.

If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be trying to brainstorm clever ebook lending models. I would prefer to dump a wheelbarrow full of cash on the desks of the six major publishers and say,”My associate Mr. Franklin thinks you should lend to public libraries. Does this cover your intellectual property worries?” It would be convenient to buy our way out of their insecurities, but alas, the current state of budget affairs does not allow for such things. Libraries don’t have that kind of cash so instead we have to be clever. Personally, I think it is the silver lining of this funding catastrophe for it makes people focused, creative, and innovative. But it’s a bit hard pill to swallow since it is coming at a huge cost of libraries, jobs, and the communities once served.

I agree that the prices on eBooks and eReaders will keep coming down; they’ll become like disposable razor and blades as Seth wrote. But that is not the present situation and is predicted to happen further down the timeline (five years is mentioned). While I can plan, work, and hope for that day, I still have to work with what I have right now. Right now I have patrons asking for eBooks. It might be thought a poor excuse, a fool’s errand, and a waste of taxpayer money to collect these eBooks now, but I need to reasonably act on today’s reality more than tomorrow’s speculation. I mean, what’s the alternative? Tell my patrons, “Come back in five years when the publishers and eBook market have their shit together”? That’s not exactly the best customer service practice out there, even if the predictions come to past. I’m looking to the future, but I still need to act on the present.

On top of that, even if they become that cheap, there will still be a digital divide. Those are the people the library seek to serve: the information have-nots. I know these eReader-less people will exist because I know there are care packages and boxes sitting in shelters, churches, and other aid group offices that have a disposable razors and blades sitting in them. They may be cheap, but there will still be people who can’t afford them. Since libraries are in the knowledge business, we’ll be working to serve this small section of the population as well. To that extent, a portion of our collection will always be linked to their fate.

I agree with Seth about the birth of the modern library and how it was created for a different time. In looking at that period of time in the 19th century, there are the values of the Age of Enlightenment (egalitarianism, for one) combined with the emergence of the Second Industrial Revolution (machines replacing manpower). On the heels of the recent establishment of public education was the further societal need and desire for self-improvement and self-education (along with some entertainment for the new middle class literate). As Andrew Carnegie steps into the picture, the library as a public institution takes off across the United State (and the world as well). To that end, yes, it was a public institution built for another time in the history of the country.

And now we are in the digital age.

So far, this digital age has been an uneven balance between proprietary and open source paradigms. While the President talked in this year’s State of the Union address about winning the future through innovation, Congress has introduced a heavy handed bill in favor of copyright holders. Apple has taken steps to keep you from poking around the devices you own with special screws to secure their hardware. The Kindle and iTunes outline clearly how limited your rights are to the content that you own lease. Pharmaceutical companies work to reformulate the same drugs so that they can re-patent them and extend exclusive protections along with the higher asking prices. DRM puts a giant lock on literature and prose, the worries of the piracy outweighing the greater conversations and influences that could await them. For all the mentions about the overabundance of data out there, there is a mad scramble to lock up as much as possible and as fast as possible. The visible web is the proverbial tip of the iceberg compared to the deep web, where bits of information are locked away under passwords, firewalls, and IP authentications. Seth mentions The Mesh, but according to some of the most popular content companies, the future of business is sharing only when they will let us share. And that does not move any conversation forward.

Librarians are working to change that.

We are in tune with an emerging sharing culture. We strive for information access for our constituent communities. Despite moments of inanity with our funny little rules at times, the profession works to give information away as much as humanly possible. We work to put books in hand, answers at fingertips, and ideas in minds. And we’ll dance with The Devil to make it possible. It’s not a noble profession, intellectual and aloof; it’s a wholly maddening, sometimes frustrating, fraught with uncertainty, second guessing working-on-your-own-time profession to which the practitioners love deeply. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either drunk or nuts.

In coming up with the blog post title, I thought it might grab’s people attention (nothing quite like a little cheap ‘Gotcha!’ advertising ploy, right?) but also serve two functions. First, librarians can’t keep trying to kill the messenger when it comes from outside libraryland. Putting Seth’s head on a proverbial pike does nothing but tell people that librarians (oddly enough being the strangely open minded intellectual freedomniks that we are in defending divergent viewpoints) are not interested in outside opinions. That does not serve us well going into the future for those looking to lend a hand and offer an outside viewpoint.

Second, to paraphrase a line from Braveheart, the trouble with libraries is that they are full of librarians. There were libraries before I was born and there will be libraries long after I turn to dust. It is static in purpose and principle and mutable in practice and presentation. Don’t let the former blind you to the latter; let the library loose to evolve into the digital age. We are still honoring the past while ensuring its continuation and future librarians will thank us for it acting responsibly at the birth of the new information age.

And if we are really going to headhunt, Seth Godin should be waaaaaay down on the list of scalps to attempt to claim right now. Think about it.

The End of the Public Library (No, really, I mean it!)

Tuesday will be my birthday. Saturday will be Judgment Day.

Since The Rapture will take place on a Saturday, I’m a bit concerned for staffing on Sunday (although from my own experiences at conferences I believe it is safe to say that the reference desk will still be fully manned). And, unless I’m picked up in that Rapture as well, it looks like I’ll still be presenting at the Northeastern Pennsylvania Library Association Spring Workshop on May 27th since the world won’t actually end till later that year. This wouldn’t be the first time around for such absolute certainty about the end of the word. October 22, 1844 is called The Great Disappointment since it did not actually mark the Second Coming of Jesus. Heck, you can’t swing a Google cat without hitting results about other end-of-the-world predictions that date back hundreds of years. And let’s not forget what awaits us in 2012 (note: the website features a countdown clock!)

I would guess that the majority of my readership would think that these kinds of events are completely unfounded and/or silly speculation, but I’m wondering why some of those same people get all riled up by people who write the same sort of dire pieces about the demise of the public library. I have yet to read a strong argument for closing public libraries; most revolve around “everyone” having Kindles, Google, and the internet. That sort of reasoning doesn’t even make me get up from my seat anymore. It’s usually a cover for the real argument of “I don’t want my tax money being spent on things that I don’t personally benefit from” which is a whole different ballgame.

So, why do librarians give such credence to any person who writes about the end of the public library? Is the profession really that insecure? Or do librarians have our own irrational fear of an impending public library apocalypse?

LA School Librarians: Endangered & Moving Towards Extinct

Last year, many New Jersey school districts sought to close their budget gaps by laying off school librarians. It was heartbreaking to hear about the layoffs as those school librarians were let go as a way to reduce “administrative overhead”. It’s one of my hindsight regrets of last year that I did not try to do more to bring their plight out into the open as part of the greater statewide advocacy efforts.

This morning, I got a link posted to my Facebook wall by a friend pointing to an article in the LA Times entitled, “The disgraceful interrogation of L.A. school librarians”. Here’s a snippet:

Some 85 credentialed teacher-librarians got layoff notices in March. If state education cuts end up being as bad as most think likely, their only chance to keep a paycheck is to prove that they’re qualified to be transferred into classroom teaching jobs.

Since all middle and high school librarians are required to have a state teaching credential in addition to a librarian credential, this should be an easy task — except for a school district rule that makes such transfers contingent on having taught students within the last five years.

To get the librarians off the payroll, the district’s attorneys need to prove to an administrative law judge that the librarians don’t have that recent teaching experience. To try to prove that they do teach, the librarians, in turn, come to their hearings with copies of lesson plans they’ve prepared and reading groups they’ve organized.

It’s when these teacher-librarians are under cross examination by the Los Angeles United School District attorneys that the real outrage commences. The strives that the lawyers take to attempt to prove that time spent teaching in the library does not qualify as classroom instruction is truly extraordinary and despicable. It is an affront to the proven role that school librarians play in the overall education process. If these attorneys can prove that teaching in the library does not count as classroom teaching, what sort of fate awaits other similarly situated school librarians around the country when the budget comes up?

Reading through the article, it makes me sad, frustrated, and angry. There is a myopic vision of education at work here that is absolutely maddening. It’s an emphasis on the rigid classroom format versus the more open ended exploration and curiosity of the school library. I’d go on about teaching towards tests and standards, but I think it might result in me tearing my keyboard in half like a phonebook. (Yes, I did consider how that might work and still thought it would be possible. I am a creative guy.) It’s just damned stupid.

There is also a first hand account of the proceedings by blogger Mizz Murphy entitled, “Settle in. It’s a Long One.” I won’t even quote it; you just have to read it. After I read the part labeled Scenario One, I thought I might just lose my mind. Really, go back up the paragraph and click on the link. It’s worth the read in its entirety.

After that, settle in. The fight for school librarians looks to be a long one.

QandANJ: Further On

This afternoon, I attended a special meeting of the New Jersey Library Association Reference Section addressing the future of QandANJ and virtual library service overall in New Jersey. I had written before about how the service was being cancelled but can say that now that has been given a nine week reprieve. Today, at the Princeton Public Library, sixty librarians from all over the state representing both public and academic libraries as well as the State Library came together to talk about the future of the service.

I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The emotions have run high in the last couple of weeks as the state conference allowed people to talk face to face about the service. I’ve had people thanking me for writing about the subject and how they didn’t feel like they could say anything on the topic. I’ve also heard secondhand accounts of people who are in favor of the service closing but don’t want to speak out on it either. I find either position discouraging for it doesn’t bring everyone to the table for an open and honest discussion.

With all due deference to my good friend Beth Cackowski who is the project coordinator for QandANJ (and whose job is on the line here), if you put things into perspective this is but one service in the entire state and has an operating budget of ~$350,000 a year. It seems a bit foolish to let this one service define relationships between peers; it should not be a litmus test for professional relationships. There are still plenty of other statewide projects and offerings that the community agrees on continuing for the good of library service.

At the same time, I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to marginalize it either. Virtual reference is important now and will be in the future as internet access and mobile technology continues to expand into the population base. I believe it is a vital and valuable service which suffers from a lack of awareness in the overall population (the same could be said for a lot of library materials, services, and programs as well). It represents a part of a shift in library services models which go to where the individual is whether it is text, chat, web, or otherwise.

In getting back to the meeting, I can give those interested a broad update:

  • There is strong support within the NJ library community to continue the service. Even if QandANJ shuts down in September (that the new cutoff date), the next step will be looking to create a new virtual reference service in one way or another. Those kinds of statements made received applause and approval from those in attendance.
  • There will be an NJLA taskforce charged with examining all types of solutions, alternatives, and options. I don’t know the details of the timeline for them to report, but from the talk to today it sounds like a very short turnaround. We will not be waiting till next annual conference to see what they turn up.
  • There were breakout discussion groups that brainstormed a good number of ideas and possibilities for how to continue the service. Sponsorships, alternative grant funding, donations, letters asking for money, and finding other cost saving means were put on the table. (Personally, I think that the new Atlantic City gaming zone should sponsor it. If they want people to come to AC to gamble, they might as well advertise to the people who are closest.) It’s a matter of visibility and what we can do to increase it. There was even some talk about getting together with other virtual reference services in order to combine negotiating power.

Overall, I felt like it was an excellent time investment for all who attended. After last year’s cuts (both state and local), the NJLA membership seems to have become acutely aware of budget and budget formulations. Perhaps the protests of last year have transformed some people from passive observers to active participants with interests in how statewide services impact the local level. Or, with all the local cuts, the reliance on the State Library has grown to attempt to fill in some of the gaps and that includes services like QandANJ. In any event, it looks like the membership is involved in anything that changes services at their library, no matter what is it or where it originates from.

In the end, I have cautious optimism. As it was observed at the very end of the session, it is not what happens now but what happens in six months. With this kind of showing of support, I have no doubts that virtual reference will live on in New Jersey. It’s just a question of what it will look like. 

And for those who want a say in this unfolds, now is the time to show up.

I’ve started a Facebook group called “Friends of QandA NJ” for people to join if they want to continue the conversation on a casual basis. It’s an open group so anyone can join. Feel free to add to the conversation, ask questions, and have your say.

Jobs: Dirty & Otherwise

Mike Rowe, host of the wonderful television show Dirty Jobs and the other unknowing half of my secret bromance, testified in front of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Wednesday this week. He was testifying about the importance of skilled and vocational education in the United States. Salient quote:

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of "higher education" to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled "alternative." Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as "vocational consolation prizes," best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of "shovel ready" jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.

In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a "good job" into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber if you can find one is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we’ll all be in need of both.

It’s worth reading his entire testimony if you have a chance. It’s very short and to the point.

As I was reading his words this afternoon, I was thinking back to when I was a teenager and my parents had me tested for an aptitude or career or whatever it was called. The testing was done over at Drexel University and had all kinds of problems on it: word, numbers, shapes, logic, and so forth. When the results came, there were two occupations that scored highest.

Before I reveal them, go on and take a wild guess as to what they could be. I don’t think anything will guess either of them. Seriously. Go on and guess.

From their extensive testing, my intellect, talent, and abilities were judged to be best suited for… plumber or advertisement executive.

Now, upon hearing this news, imagine two adults and one teenager simultaneously giving each other the squinty eyed “WTF?” look. This was news to all of us for at the time I had an interest in the sciences (even though I was taking honors math and AP history, go figure). Even as a kid, I had never showed an interest in anything like that; my previous kid ideas for a future career before the science interest were auto mechanic and architect.

Plumbing? Marketing? What?

In reading that testimony today, I thought back to that career aptitude test. I think I would have been happy (and certainly more school loan debt free) as a plumber; I’m not sure I can say the same about advertising executive but I’d like to imagine that I’d be good at it. Perhaps I have found ways to use those aptitudes for the field of librarianship. (Isn’t finding and making hidden pipe connections behind walls kind of like making connections between two resources that aren’t necessarily obvious? Isn’t building brand and reaching out to different markets a lot like the advocacy we do [or try to do] at the library?)

What Mike said reminds me of the Ken Robinson “Do schools kill creativity? TED Talk that I’ve linked to before. There is an emphasis on pushing toward academic achievement when the individual’s interests and talents indicate otherwise. And now there is evidence that we are doing it to the detriment of the trade skills and the future of manufacturing in this country.

For myself, I’ve always advised people to go after what interests them; if it doesn’t lead to college, then so be it. College is nice and I certainly had a good time but it is not necessary for all the different talents and careers that are out there. It might take require taking the year after high school to wander, but it’s a year well spent if it gives a person a better sense of career direction. The idea that there isn’t time, that people need to hurry up and start their lives by going down this rote academic path, is absolutely ridiculous. And I hope within my lifetime that will change.

When I was talking with my father about the Mike Rowe testimony, he recalled what the commencement speaker said to his class at his graduation from Williams College. It went something along the lines of saying that “while [they] were lucky to get this liberal arts education, it was not something that should allow them to look down upon people who did not have it. The world needs philosophers, but it also needs plumbers. For if the philosophers tried to take up plumbing and the plumbers tried to take up philosophy, that neither would be able to hold water. Each role is important and necessary to the continued functioning of society at large.” I thought that was a marvelous sentiment.

There was certainly a “Road Less Traveled” moment for me in thinking about this. Would the term “mover & shaker” be a term for a pipe that vibrates violently when the toilet flushes upstairs? Would I still have an award winning blog, even if that award was coming from Marketing Today? Perhaps. At any rate, I still get to investigate strange smells reported to the staff (it can never smell like lavender, can it?) and I do get to write press releases and design publicity materials. I guess that’s close enough. It may not be a dirty job, but it does work for me.

(Note: Mike also wrote an op-ed piece for Politico.)

Open Thread Thursday: Save Our [fill in the library name here]!

In the last twenty four hours, I’ve been asked to save two different libraries. The first was the Brooklyn Public Library from a blog post by Rita Meade (if you are not reading her blog, you should be). It has the familiar budget-pocalypse to it that reminds me of the fight in New Jersey last year. The second was a link on Facebook to save the Oaklyn Public Libraries by Amy Sonnie (another librarian who I had the pleasure of meeting at the NJLA conference last week). There’s certainly more budget news around the country in the past month, but the way these came across my feeds like a one-two punch inspired me to write about it for the open thread.

I can remember back a year ago being chest deep in the New Jersey advocacy efforts. By this time last year, we had the rally at the State Capitol buildings (a first for the organization) and were pressing hard to get people to sign postcards, call, write, and do whatever. I can remember passing news back and forth from Twitter and Facebook as people shared every shred of news that came out.  It was a tough time to think about losing the regional library cooperatives and just trying to climb back from a 74% cut. School libraries got creamed all over the state as the education funding was cut back severely; it was cringeworthy as school librarians (considered administration, not teachers) got chopped left and right.  Academic libraries held on but I’m sure there was less materials on their shelves and less services offered overall. NJ libraries did relatively well this year (with some very notable exceptions going on right now), but it makes me think of the road ahead.

That brings me to the topic: what do you think we should do to get off the yearly budget drama cycle? What are you doing now to accomplish that? What are the trends you see coming out?

Just a reminder: even though I have suggested a topic, this is an open thread. Anonymous comments are allowed as well as other topics. Now, share what’s on your mind.