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.

My Catalog Conundrum

Today I helped a person who had called about a book they had placed on hold. They had placed the hold a month ago and were wondering why it was taking so long since (1) it was a title just coming out of popularity and (2) we have a ton of copies in the system. Since she had done it online, this is what the catalog looked like from her perspective:


She had clicked on the first option and made the request on that copy. Unbeknownst to her, since there is only one copy of that edition in the system and it has holds on it, she was placed on the wait list. If she had selected the next one down, she would have hit the checked-in jackpot for her request. I brought up one of the other editions, grabbed it off the shelf for her, and left it where she could come pick it up later.

I can understand why there are multiple entries in the screenshot above; they represent different editions of the book that may have their own unique characteristics and properties. (I’m not talking about the large print or audio book ones; I’m talking about entries 3, 4, 7 and 8.) That makes sense to the librarian part of me. I’m just wondering why the hell we don’t make it easier for our patrons. Something more in lines like Amazon:


It gives you the title and then shows you the format options. Hardback, paperback, mass market, and so forth along with additional options underneath them. It could work as to whether someone wanted just the first book available regardless of the format, a particular kind, or in the case of certain books a particular edition. As the need gets specific, so do the pop-out menus on the item.

I did a little poking around in catalogs from local libraries around me before I wrote this post. From what I can tell, it looks like it depends on the automation software. To me, it begs the question of why anyone would make it harder for people to borrow things from the collection.

To be honest, I’m totally prepared to be told that this is an outdated way of doing things and that the new software handles it better or that it really needs to be addressed. So, please leave a comment and drop me a clue as to where I am in this situation.

Apple Takes A Bite Out of the eBook Market

From Teleread, a message from the non-deceased iFlowReader app:

The crux of the matter is that Apple is now requiring us, as well as all other ebook sellers, to give them 30% of the selling price of any ebook that we sell from our iOS app. Unfortunately, because of the “agency model” that has been adopted by the largest publishers, our gross margin on ebooks after paying the wholesaler is less than 30%, which means that we would have to take a loss on all ebooks sold. This is not a sustainable business model.

For further background and context, Apple changed their policy about selling products through apps. This means that any app that sells a product through it must pay tribute must give Apple a 30% cut of the payment. As such, it reduces the number of competitors in the Apple based eBook market to the major players who are selling through either the iBookstore or the Safari portal or those that can afford that margin. And, if you read the whole message at Teleread, it was done in a rather unsavory way.

In any case, it’s an interesting story in the evolving eBook market. It does beg questions about retailers changing the rules about what eBooks they carry and if they withdrew any from their sites. What do you think?

Bikes, Branding, and Bellyaching

The other day I read this post by Phil Davis on Scholarly Kitchen:

Libraries take scholarship seriously, and its profession ensures it. Most academic libraries in the United States require MLS degrees or some equivalent. Many librarians have second Master’s degrees, and a good number even have doctorates. The institutional culture of librarianship respects scholarly behavior, and most librarians are required to go through tenure or similar academic review process. While they may not have teaching or research responsibilities, librarians view themselves as academics.

But this is not what the patron sees.

Patrons generally are unable to distinguish information assistants (or paraprofessionals) from professional librarians. The person checking out your book, pointing you to the restroom, helping you with a reference question, pulling an espresso, and now checking out your bike lock and helmet is, from the perspective of the patron, a librarian. When you are 18 or 19 years old, anyone with graying temples and bifocals is a librarian. Experience and professional status is only something that colleagues see.

At first glance, it reminded me of the quagmire that was my post “The Master’s Degree Misperception” which elicited a very strong response both for and against the points I was making there. The lesson that I’ve learned from that post is the same one that I’ve learned from teaching basic computer classes: no one gives a damn so long as it works. And when it works, it might just be you and your staff that knows what is actually going on in terms of who has what duty and what title. From the outside, patrons might not know what is going on; from the inside, you know how the organization model shakes down. I’ve come to terms with it by looking at it that way and keeping on eye on the final product: customer service, materials, and a place for people to get help.

Does it really matter if people think that the library assistants are actually librarians? Absolutely not, in my mind. Their mistaken identity doesn’t cheapen what I do.

But I understand that Phil and I are in different library settings. While my overall brand is service to the public, his brand is academic scholarship. He pines for students to gush about the quality of the scholarly assistance they received at the college library rather than the quality of the coffee or gaming program or even bicycle borrowing. (I would surmise he might raise an eyebrow at the lending of a therapy dog as the Yale Law School library is doing.) From Phil’s post, anything that distracts or takes away from that brand is an issue that has be addressed.

Personally, I don’t see the issue with these extraneous activities and amenities. They will be the first to go with budget cuts as the library will rally around its core mission: providing academic support and materials to faculty and students. If there is a problem with how the provost or dean perceives the library, that’s a failure to inform those individuals about the big picture. Too often it seems (and this goes for all types of libraries) there is a mindset that one can simply prove their value through practice without taking meaningful steps to contact and educate decision makers about everything that the library brings to the table. A bike renting program or coffee bar or gaming program would be a footnote on a report containing statistics, testimonials, and other evidence of value that would show how the library is serving their academic community. It does not carry equal weight to the service and materials of the core mission; it’s a reasonable luxury that makes student life just a bit easier and fun.

My question to Phil would be this: what is it that you are doing now that doesn’t promote the academic and scholarly value of the library? The bike program is just a scapegoat if you’re not articulating these values in the first place. If you are having trouble competing against coffee as a reason to go to the library, it’s not something that getting rid of these kinds of amenities will solve either.

(And, for the record, this might be the first time I’ve read that someone has singled out comfortable seating as an unwelcome trend on the basis of how a minority of students use it. Really? That’s an issue? I’d say it’s a bit draconian, but only because I have Game of Thrones on the brain.) 

Beyond 26 Checkouts

On Monday, I got an email from Carol Scott at telling me that they were happy with how the HarperCollins petition was going and were going to send it out to a larger segment of the website’s membership. Ok, cool!, I thought, closing up my phone and putting it back into my pocket. At the time, I was setting up for the New Jersey Library Association conference and the signature count was around 3,000. Later that afternoon, I got a text message from a friend. 

“What’s going on with your petition?” “Why do you ask?” “It’s jumped from 3,000 to 4,200 in like an hour. I just refreshed it and it went up another couple hundred.”

Then I started checking it from my phone. Over the course of two days, it went from 3,000 to 50,000. Whoa. As of the time I am writing this, it has 63,525. Library Journal wrote an article about it the other day for which I was interviewed. There’s one quote I gave that I’d like to highlight.

"The long term goal is to have authors, publishers, and libraries come together and talk about ebook circulation and lending models that make sense in a digital age."

Which brings me to the purpose of this post.

While the outpouring of support for the petition is incredible and much appreciated, there is still a matter of finding better eBook lending models that work for both authors, publishers, and libraries. I’d rather not have this petition be completely perceived as a finger wagging at HarperCollins, but as a conversation starter for other eBook lending models. I would not want the dialogue to entirely consist of reactions to publisher trial-and-error introductions of new formulas, but a collaboration between a business industry and a public institution with mutual interests.

In earlier statements, HarperCollins has called the 26 eBook checkout limit an experiment. In that case, I would like to propose additional experiments in eBook lending models. This is not limited to just HarperCollins, but a call to every publisher who allows libraries to lend eBooks to try something new.

If I was to advocate for any kind of experimental lending model, it would be around the idea of multiple simultaneous borrowers. I’ll outline my reasoning and rationale as I see it below.

First, and it has been said in many places, eBooks are computer files. They embody the digital notion of abundance. The idea of expiration or artificial scarcity is an affront to the global information network that has been built around computer files. It is a quality of the medium that should be used to its advantage, not as something to be contained. The question should be not be “How can we limit the very thing that makes it extraordinarily flexible and unique?”, but “How can we use this to get it to as many people as possible while making money?”

Second, the ability for lending to multiple simultaneous borrowers should be considered in the light of immediate book release market share. In stealing a sentiment from Seth Godin, the book itself is not as important as the conversation around it. People talk about what the book makes them feel, how they relate to the content within, and the desire to share these aspects with others. With the rise of social networks and acquaintance relations on them, that kind of sharing goes beyond the immediate family and friends. It becomes a crowd experience, one in which people will seek out other find people who have read the same book. 

In other words, what I am suggesting is that by allowing multiple simultaneous borrowers, a book can potentially control social network conversations during those first crucial weeks when it hits the market. It could generate more reviews and buzz on sites like LibraryThing, GoodReads, Shelfari, and Amazon. There will be more check-ins on social sites like GetGlue which feed into bigger sites like Facebook and Twitter. It’s the power of numbers idea when a person sees that a large number of their personal network talking, blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, GetGlueing, and reviewing a book at the same time. Certainly some have purchased the book while others have borrowed it, but their combined social media output has marketing value. It’s an advertising campaign that money can’t buy when consumers are the ones talking about their product of their own accord. This word of mouth marketing could and should be nurtured through more permissive lending models.

Third, in making multiple simultaneous copies available to libraries, I would propose that it could have a curbing effect on piracy. By providing an easier alternate route to published content, it could bring people with certain types of pirating behaviors (e.g. lack of convenience, too high a price point) into a legitimate system. In bringing those people into the legal side of the equation, it strikes a blow against existing pirates at their revenue sources (from pirating works and advertising). Also, it could translate into less money being spent fighting piracy overall (which, as noted in this article, could prove to be a substantial and costly endeavor to the detriment of authors). Furthermore, there are better datasets to be gained from their inclusion in overall usage statistics. That translates into better planning practices for both the publisher and the library (in other words, more money saved through efficiencies).

While some may see this as a type of capitulation to piracy, I completely beg to differ. I think it’s a bargain to expend a little money subsidizing this kind of lending model at the front end rather than chasing down people downloading illegally on the back end. (As the RIAA can tell you, courts aren’t cheap.) There is a public goodwill value to be considered (I don’t know how it could be quantified or calculated), there are benefits to both publisher and library in engaging in this arrangement, and the fact of the matter is that brand new markets like eBooks need a new and radical approach in the new sharing culture. A little work on the front end here could save a lot of headaches later on.

Fourth, this is a very unoriginal thought, but the very nature of eBooks allows for tiered purchasing models. Whether it is ‘per use’ or ‘x simultaneous borrowers’, it’s just a matter of figuring out the right pricing. It can and should be more expensive than a physical book because it does more than a physical book. Tiered models embrace the flexibility and portability of the eBook as a computer file.

The largest and more persistent objection to simultaneous borrowers is the notion that it undermines the eBook market. I call shenanigans on that. The people who come to the library as it is now are the ones who are not purchasing first edition hardcover books. Even if it did attract eReader device owners who regularly purchased content, they’d have to register with their library to do so (not quite the same as click and buy, I assure you). And if there was still concern about the potential impact on sales, there is a relatively simple mechanism can be put into place: limit the number of times it can be borrowed in a calendar year. For example, if someone can borrow an eBook only twice in a calendar year, they get four weeks to read it (on the basis of a two week loan). After that, they either go without or buy it. This should assuage the fear of people permanently borrowing material while making it available to them in the short and immediate term. (Perhaps longer borrowing periods can be determined over time, especially in other settings like high school or college.) The eBook market will continue onwards and library lending does not pose a viable threat to it.

In essence, I believe there is a financial decision here: one could allow for a more permissive library lending system in which, yes, there will be lost sales but less piracy and greater market penetration OR a publisher can continue to limit lending, discourage digital collections that put their eBooks into the hands of readers and drive the social sharing marketplace, and spend money to track down and fight pirates both professional and casual. There is no perfect system for lending eBooks nor will there ever be one, but that fact should not stop experiments towards progress from occurring.

So, let the other experiments begin.

Four in Five Librarians Do Not Rock the Vote

One in five.

That’s how many ALA members voted in this year’s annual elections for positions ranging from President to Council. One in five is also the ratio of voters to non-voters for the previous year’s election. For a profession that likes to reach back and quote individuals going back to the Founders about the importance of information in a democracy, it falls a bit short for its own professional organization.

To get some insight into this phenomena, Oleg Kagan has created a ALA Non-Voter’s Survey for the four in five members to fill out. It offers a range of explanations to choose from as well as providing space for people to type in their own. Participation in the survey is anonymous, so please take a moment to add your explanation if you did not vote.

In looking at the excuses, my own personal guess would be between “forgot” and “I don’t know enough about the candidates to vote for one”. I’d also be curious as to how the number of voters compared to the number of people committees, roundtables, task forces, Council, etc. (aka people who are actively involved in the organization at present.) 

If you voted, how did you make your decision as to who to vote for? If you didn’t vote (and you want to share), why didn’t you vote? And how can the organization get more people to vote?

(h/t: Patrick Sweeney)

Would you pay $100 a month for instant access to every book on any device?

Tim Carmody would.

It’s a short read, but I think the replies he gets from Twitter as well as the comments are worthwhile. It brings up other issues such as being able to copy content, different access models, tiered plans, and pricing. Take the time to read through.

(h/t: Daily Dish)