Hurtling Towards Relevance

In the last few years, the navel gazing around the question of the library’s relevance in modern life makes an regular appearance. There isn’t anything in particular right now that made me think of the topic, but it crossed my mind towards the end of last week. In running errands last weekend, the thought occurred to me that the library isn’t pulling away from the information trends of contemporary society, but rather we are squarely in the path. It’s all in a matter of how you measure it.

In essence, I see it under the umbrella perspective as to how information is treated and managed. Copyright and intellectual property are the elephant in the room for the economic vitality of not only the United States, but the world. It’s a simple idea (the benefits of the creator versus the general public) that has become a deeply complicated global problem subject to the sway of money, politics, and power. It’s part of the emergence of the knowledge economy, one that is based on services that essentially collect, process, analyze, and package information. Manufacturing is never going to be what it once was in the United States, not when Chinese and Bangladeshi companies will do the same job cheaper. But the products of creativity and intellect are ones generally do not need geography, so rights and ownership are the hotly contested principles that should easily fall into the library realm. This is a chance for librarians to make the case on behalf of the public for laws and regulations that make sense in the digital world, both in rewarding the creator and in making their creation available as widely as possible.

This connects into the academic world with announcements such as the University of California faculty adopting an open access mandate. The elemental nature of this part and parcel to the librarian ideal of information access. The tide of Open Access (in its various incarnations) represents a breaking of the knowledge silos that keep knowledge within the confines of paywalls and embargos. It’s an exciting prospect in which researchers and academics have the possibility of getting new discoveries faster. It’s an opportunity for librarians to make new and better connections between research areas and data sets as well as the latest results.

There are other connections to make here, especially in the physical sense. Broadband access to rural locations are part of our information access ideals as well as essential in the aforementioned knowledge economy. This physical end of the digital divide plays a real role in the education and economics of the areas that are beyond the fiber lines. The triumphs of digital education are lost in the slower signal of the DSL or modem squeal. Libraries are common community focal points for those looking to reach the online world; this is our chance to push for them to meet this most basic of needs.

I’m certain there are others, but I think this illustrates my point. If we look to our old metrics for determining relevance, we are going to lose. But if we look at the issues that are pressing right now, we could not possibly be more relevant. A information professional in an information world; it really doesn’t get any more front-and-center than this. The only thing irrelevant here is doubt.

The Long Suffering Librarian

Beyond the intellectual freedom, information access, and other lovely sounding principles, I’m thinking that one of the common bonds between librarians is a masochism streak. I’ll take some liberties with this notion and accept one of the Merriam-Webster non-sexual definition entries that uses a great phrase, “a taste for suffering”. While we as a profession find common cause in working towards justice in its social, economic, and educational forms, it is our nature at enduring suffering that build the bonds between us faster than an open bar at a vendor social event.

Right now, you don’t have to travel very far to get antagonized. To the general public, the Internet is frontrunner for putting the library out of business as all that is needed to replicate the form and function of a library is an internet connection and Kindle. It’s a world that conflates information for knowledge, as if the prerequisite for performing open heart surgery is finding a video of it on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong, the internet is a strong contender as a reference desk killer for general and trivia kinds of inquiries like who won the 1958 Best Picture Oscar. But it has a long way still to climb in transitioning as an academic support model to full blown education program (MOOCs are a transitional state for this ideal, in my estimation). Even then, we know internet access is not universal whether we are looking at computer labs in urban areas or waiting for broadband in rural ones. Nevermind how the Kindle and eBooks in general are not panning out to be the paper killer, something an email account could have told them in the story of the paperless office. The information access haves seem to be perpetually surprised by the have-nots, even though the haves possess access to the resources that would tell them all about the have-nots.

Wrap your head around that enigma.

But the animosity doesn’t stop here. Public librarians get caught up in the loop of anti-government anti-tax sentiments that ignore the basic cost/benefit analysis that would reveal that their tax money is actually working. They are the soft targets of governmental budget crunches, a place where money can be borrowed or taken to pay off other outstanding expenses. School librarians get the unique disrespect of not being considered educators just like teachers, as if learning was dependent on the existence of a classroom setting. They are swept into the category of administration, the fancy term for overhead, and given their walking papers in lean times despite evidence about how they impact student achievement scores. Academic librarians face pressures for various angles, whether it is the deprofessionalization of their positions or static budgets with increasing journal subscription costs while publishers tangle with thoughts of print embargoes and open access. I thought I read an article relating how faculty have lowered the importance of the library as a higher education research, but I can’t find it. I don’t know what to say for special librarians, but I would guess it falls somewhere between funding issues and probably some prick out there who thinks that whatever they are curating and collecting isn’t worth it.

While we are at it, toss in the suffering at the hands of publishers and industry vendors. The strange and strained relationship with publishers is one in which they need us for promotion and purchasing but quietly lobby against our underlying principles: First Sale doctrine, copyright, and fair use. eBooks is just a quagmire of rights and licenses, wrapped up in schemes at both taking the most amount of money and control away from libraries. In terms of vendors, the vast amount of anguish comes through their concept of interfaces. If the ILS systems are the eyes into the window of the library’s catalog soul, they are the gaze of the damned, doomed to needlessly consume the user’s time. If I work there and I have problems finding things in the catalog, what chance does the regular person have? Why does this continue to play out this way?

The topper to this litany of disrespect are the well played out stereotypes and typical questions that come with being a librarian. The public image sways between a ribald sex kitten and bun headed shushing methuselah, readers who can’t tolerate any noise above a whisper. The men are gay or unusually effeminate, the women are secret whores, but hey, at least people think librarians are smart. Then the questions or jokes play out: Do you know the Dewey Decimal system? So, you like to read? And the king of these unmindful questions: Librarian is still a career? (Runner up: You need a degree to do that?) The astonishing, mind numbing part is that people think that it is a perfectly valid query and not the rude, obnoxious loaded question that it actually is. Are the rules of decorum suspended because one doesn’t think a career is real, despite strong evidence to the contrary?

But, personally, I think this kind of anguish pales in comparison to what the profession can do to its members and itself. This is well trod territory for this blog over the years and a recurring theme when I talk to librarians about the profession. These days, I don’t which is worse: the stuff that is said out loud or the stuff that people remain silent on. I was going to recount some of the behaviors that are poisonous, but I’d be cannibalizing my previous material. Needless to say, it is an extension of the suffering we endure.

I’ll concede that the whole job isn’t just suffering or that we take pleasure in suffering. But I think that there is a vast amount of suffering the profession will and currently does endure and I’m not sure how much of it is needless. Do we languish in our own agony? Is it easier to suffer than to stand up and make a change? And, if so, why is that?

Self-Censorship in Libraryland

When I was in Australia on a semester abroad, I remember watching some television show in the giant common room of the dorm where I was living. Imagine rows and rows of well worn red loveseat couches pointed towards a large television in a corner with college students liberally sprawled around the room, either in a seat or on top of each other. I can’t remember what we were watching, but I do remember a particular commercial that came on. I can’t remember what they were selling, but it was probably a soft drink or candy or something with an unhealthy amount of sugar in it.

In any event, the part I remember shows a boyfriend sitting in a dressing room when his girlfriend comes out of the fitting room in a very revealing skintight cocktail dress. (The Aussies don’t have the television morality police like here in the States.) The boyfriend is eating or drinking whatever product they are selling when the girlfriend asks a variation of the stereotypical question that has been getting men into trouble since the dawn of clothing: “Does this dress make my butt look big?” After a product placement moment, the boyfriend looks her up and down and says, “Yes, but it takes attention away from your face.”

Needless to say, there was a very mixed reaction to this punchline although it did not play out strictly on gender lines. In recalling this admittedly questionable anecdote that is certain to sour some of the moods of the readers, this was my very roundabout way of getting to the topic of self censorship. The ad reminds me of a instance in which the concept of keeping one’s mouth shut fails, albeit to satisfy a comic premise. However, I believe the concept enjoys a high success rate when it comes to honest dialogue in libraryland, especially in the online version of the profession. I keep wondering why this is so in a profession that is deeply invested in the ideal of freedom of speech, expression, and curiosity. Why is it that people feel the need to self censor when it comes to library discourse?

The biologist in me that has lurked there since I was an undergrad reminds that the big, beautiful organ that resides between our ears is a self-censoring machine. The body is in a constant state of information update, relaying every single update from the senses in what could only be imagined as the world’s worst news crawl. (“Feet reporting that there are still socks on them… Nose update: still no new smells yet… Teeth still touching each other…") Rather than be overwhelmed by all of these signals, the brain filters these things out to allow the important messages to make it through to the higher areas of the brain. As you can imagine, there are lots of good evolutionary reasons for this development that routinely ignores a lot of stimuli.

The amateur psychologist (sociologist? anthropologist?) in me wonders about the mental and social constructs that have developed over time that favor self censorship. The instincts that make you bite your tongue when you’re in a tense or emotional situation, the mechanisms that make people lie about positive outcomes in determinedly negative situations, and (unlike the gent in that commercial) the inward controls that make you ignore your first impulse to give an honest and possibly insensitive answer. How much do these kinds of social factors contribute to self-censorship in libraryland?

In considering external causes, the first factor that popped into my head is the librarian job market. For lack of a better term, it’s a buyer’s market; there are more librarians than there are jobs. Why jeopardize yourself by writing something in a tweet or on a blog that could hurt job prospects? The counterargument to that point would be that by writing online you are distinguishing yourself from the other applicants. But even that has its flaws because it encourages people to say things that are generally agreeable to popular opinion. A person would be less likely to take a stance about, oh, let’s say the inclusion of anti-gay children’s books in a collection if it was anything other than “Hell no”. Barring other normal collection development considerations (such as community, interest, and quality of product), a person could make a case for adding such a book to a collection under the premise of presenting differing viewpoints. But they’d need a flameproof suit in order to survive the royal drubbing they would receive at the hands of their peers. The easier action is to make a safe argument or not say anything, even if a logically valid but emotionally charged argument could be made.

Another factor that I considered is how much time and energy it takes to put something like a blog post together. In crafting a case for a controversial or unpopular opinion, do I want to be saddled with the task of defending it? This might seem like a surrender of principles, but as someone who has written things that get people snapping at me, it is a tiring process to gear up and do battle online for any longer measure of time. For myself, sometimes the choice comes down between putting forth the effort that will get people up in arms versus doing something else that’s fun like video games or spending time with family and friends. Part of this falls into the time honored tradition of “picking one’s battles”, but there have been instances in which I felt like I really should have said something at the time. The moment passes, the library news cycle moves on, and I just shrug and hope I can make up for it later. While it’s true that putting together a tweet doesn’t use the same of work, it also doesn’t say much nor allow for nuance nor work well in making the case for something. The 140 characters of Twitter simply doesn’t convey the same message or importance as a longer form of blogging.

A third factor that arises revolves around gender; as in, this is a female dominated profession and (speaking in the most generic tropes) woman are less likely to speak up or draw attention to themselves in a professional forum. I’m not going to trod down that road simply because I think there are other people who have written better blog posts on the topic.[1] (I’ve linked to them at the end.) I don’t think gender is the whole explanation for self censorship in libraryland writing and debate, but I do think it is a contributing factor.

Personally, I think the profession is tipped toward hiring “safely”, meaning employing people who won’t rock the boat, initiate any bold and scary projects, or stir any sort of controversy. As a manager, I can understand and respect that; you really don’t want to enlarge your daily challenges by adding staff challenges into the equation. The library members can be hard enough as it is to deal with on a regular basis, but having someone internally who is looking to make moves or change things can throw off the mojo for the entire staff. Who wants to make a bet adding an iconoclast when there is a safe choice who can ensure better workflow and dynamics? It’s better to hire a ‘book lover’ than a ‘book fighter’, the preference being for the person who will display their love for the book as an object rather than fighting for the important underlying aspects that the books represents.

But such practices come at a high cost in terms of experimentation and innovation. The profession seems to cry out for leadership and innovation but then hires followers and ‘best fits’ for the current work paradigm. It is the ironic shock of hiring someone who is (for lack of a better term) boring and then being surprised when they don’t step outside the role that they have been chosen. To be fair, not every position is one that is invested in creating ideas and change, but I believe too often the majority end up that way. It’s a cyclical arrangement in which the similarities trump the differences.

Even in writing that previous paragraph, I go back and forth on whether I’m barking up the wrong tree. But I’m putting it out there to test the response and get some feedback. Why do you think librarians hold back in discussions, articles, and blog posts? What’s keeping us from putting ourselves out there to our peers? If you agree that it is an issue, what can be done about it?

It feels very odd and wrong that a profession so deeply invested in the spectrum of intellectual freedoms has its own issue with punishing those who take advantage of it within the field, but that’s what it seems to be.

 

[1] If you want to read more on gender in this discussion, The Library Loon has been writing on similar vein with “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: what is silencing?” and “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: who can break The Rules?”. You should check those out.

How to Answer “So You Need a Degree to Do That?”

“You need a Master’s degree to be a librarian?”

This oft encountered, teeth grinding question is something of a rite of passage for every one who joins the librarian field and was part of Tumblr post that came across my feed. I’ll even admit it makes my eye twitch as I summon up the willpower to provide a rationale and polite answer to this query. Hell, you can’t even get out of the profession without it being a source of contention as librarians themselves wonder why an advanced degree (as opposed to a bachelors) is a requirement. Beyond that, it spirals into a conversation about what MLS/MLIS programs teach and their standards, but I want to get back to examining the original question.

To wit, I am thinking that the question itself is not necessarily an indictment of the profession, but an indication as to how much literature and information access is taken for granted in our modern society. The United States (as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK for my international readers) boasts a literacy rate of 99% for citizens over the age of 15.  Books are a short drive or a click away, depending on your preference of medium, and are relatively cheap. The same case could be made for movies and television shows, another lending staple of the public library, as people are able to get them on different formats, On Demand and premium channels, or by subscription (NetFlix or Amazon Prime). The internet killed the encyclopedia (and, in my opinion, your average reference collection) by creating a platform for people to be able to both search and share information on any topic that you can possibly imagine. Wi-Fi (specifically, the free kind) is rapidly becoming a staple of the retail experience, creating an consumer expectation and by proxy creating even more internet connection points. With their rapid technology cycles, cell phones now provide the instant access to both the internet and personal contacts to access information. You’d have to take yourself into some pretty rural areas to not be able to pick up any signal at all, be it Wi-Fi or cellular.

You get the picture.

That’s why I’m considering that the question is less about being a librarian and more about how much literature and information exists in the lives of people these days. It’s the kind of thing that librarians of the last century only dreamed about; being able to provide quick and accurate answers wherever the people happen to be. Even the computer novices that I teach are infected with this concept as they wait only a few seconds before re-clicking on a website link. (“Have some patience,” I tell them. “You do realize that the signal to the website is possibly traveling hundreds of miles if not thousands of miles on your behalf in only a few seconds, right?”) Information has become fast, cheap, and ubiquitous. Why would it take an advanced degree to curate, manage, and disseminate?

That is where the ignorance of the origin of information begins. Those Wikipedia articles? Someone had to write them. The internet browser and connection protocols? Someone had to program them. The transmission lines that carry information packets around the country and the world? Someone had to place them there. The modern ease of access gives rise to the false sense of ease of creation when nothing could be further from the truth. The generations of multi-disciplinary efforts have created this connected world where the benefits are so taken for granted that a lack of access is seen as unlikely, odd, and almost unrealistic. It belies the enormous effort to keep all of these things running, from server farms to metadata management to IT infrastructure. As anyone who has put together a project or performed knows, the time and effort it takes to make it look easy is tremendous.

In looking at the question again, I’m seeing it as less of an attack and more of a chance to demonstrate how the library comes together. Everything has been selected for the community, be it the materials, the services, or even the furniture. These selections have been made by educated professionals who have familiarity with the items in question. It’s an institute built around providing the best answers, not the fastest. The sheer volume of information that is being generated on a daily basis is staggering, nevermind the assortment of mediums that it comes in. Would you really want someone without an advanced degree sifting, sorting, curating, and maintaining it? Especially on your behalf for your benefit and future generations?

I don’t think so.

To Be Or Not To Be A Library Director

About two weeks ago, there was a thread on the Library Society of the World group whether or not people were interested in becoming a director (or for those are directors, why they chose it). At the time, my answer was that I wasn’t interested in the position, but I’d prefer to be a higher-up-but-not-apex position. That is, I’d want to be in administrative position of some kind, but I don’t want to be where the buck stops.

Currently, I enjoy being the second-in-charge at my branch. I get to be to the chief when my boss is out of the building, enjoy a certain level of autonomy, and don’t carry the bulk of the responsibility that would come with being the branch manager. My underlying rationale was that I like and enjoy working on the public desk and being able to interact with the library members. I love teaching classes, working on programming, engaged in outreach, and doing publicity, all those ‘librarian’ things that are most closely associated with the profession. In a library system like mine, taking steps up the administration ladder means less public interaction, more budget and behind-the-scenes-paperwork, and more of the political/diplomacy that is needed to keep the system going. It’s not that I can’t do those things, but it doesn’t appeal to me. The thought, at the time, was that I wanted to still be in touch with people and change their lives.

But, over time, that logic slowly eroded away.

Me: “I want to make a difference in people’s lives! I do that by helping out, one person at a time! I can do that in my current position!”

Brain: “But if you’re a director, then you can do things that will effect more people.”

Me: “Explain how.”

Brain: “Directors can develop and set practices and policies that affect entire communities, states, regions, and even be a model at the national level.”

Me: “Woohoo!”

Even with that Simpsons-esque inspired turnaround thinking, I still have some hesitance. The first is pretty basic: I don’t have much experience working with a budget or supervising a staff. (Or, in the case of the latter, supervising a library staff.) I know these are things I can learn with some help and experience, but it still hovers in the realm of unfamiliar territory for me. It doesn’t hold me back, but it does impact my resume in this tight library job market.

The second is less of my qualifications and more of the ones that I see in some of job postings for director positions. They aren’t so much looking for a director as they are looking for a unicorn (a phrase I really wish I could take credit for but someone smarter than me said it). I’m constantly amazed that none of these positions include “must be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”. The kicker usually arrives at the salary listed, a constant reminder about how much or little our job skills are valued. I’ve seen them range all over the place, marvelously unattached to the cost of living around the state. I understand that towns and boards want to find the best candidate, but at some point it just creates unreasonable expectations. That wouldn’t stop me from applying, though.

The third is something that arises out of my impending marriage to The Fiancee. Simply put, she is the breadwinner in the relationship. As such, this creates a geographic limit as to where I can look for a position, director or otherwise, within the Burlington or Camden county area. (Translation for people who don’t know the area: that area roughly across from Philadelphia and areas extending north along the river.) There are two county systems (one of which I work for already) and maybe almost a dozen town libraries in that area. This isn’t exactly the biggest area to pick from, but it does have some great libraries in it. Basically, I suffer from the same problem that some unemployed librarians deal with: moving is not an option for employment prospects. So I’m locked into this area so long as The Fiancee is still posted here. (This is not a gripe, just an observation.)

I’ll concede that I don’t have a complete picture as to what a director actually does. I have friends who are directors that I talk with on a regular basis; I get a good idea of what their work lives are like. But there is a vast difference between someone who is the director of a small rural operation that draws its budget from a foundation versus a large urban operation that is just another cog in the city wheel. Even in holding these two public library examples aloft, there are so many factors that morph the picture of the position. The demographics, the communities, the legacy of previous directors, the relationship with the purse string holders, and the public opinion of the library can shape it into a widely supported community asset or a begrudgingly funded specter of the institution. In listing these kinds of factors, I would hope that you don’t see them as ways that public libraries are different but as ways in which they are unique.

My reasoning for not seeking a director position was initially steeped in the public interaction that I enjoy, but I cannot deny the possibility of greater beneficial projects and efforts if I found myself in the position. So, setting aside the limitations for a moment, I find myself asking, “Can you get both?” I would imagine that you can and that is certainly something I will be looking out for in the future. (Although I have to yet to determine the wisdom of such a desire.)

To repeat the question that Martha asked: “[W]ho either is a library director (or dean) or desires to become one? Why? What draws you towards this work? What do you love about it?”

Housekeeping

Call it “spring cleaning in the summer”, but I recently went through my social media stuff and took the time to figure out what I wanted to keep or delete. I’ve gotten bloated in the sheer number of social media accounts I have and I took a hard look at where I’ve signed up, what I still use, and how I want these sites in my life. The divide for how I use these sites is somewhere in the middle between personal and professional; while I maintain good contacts with friends and family, I also use it to promote my blog (read: myself). So, with some of those factors in mind, here’s how it went down.

Gone: My accounts on Google Plus and Pinterest as well as my Facebook author page. The first two I never checked ever unless I was at the brink of web boredom death. I never really saw much traffic from Google Plus to my blog and it turned into yet-another-place to dump a link. Even then, there wasn’t much interaction from my links and more often than not the notices were telling me how people I don’t know had added me to their circles. Or worse, that they have invited me to an event that I couldn’t give two damns about attending. Google Plus was the large annoying fly in the room and I finally just had to swat it.

I liked Pinterest, but beyond uploading the funny pictures I made, it didn’t hold much interest for me. I never remembered to pin things to it nor did I ever want to do so. I mean, isn’t that what Tumblr is for? (More on Tumblr later.)

As for my Facebook Author page, the apps were starting to get on my nerve. I had something that would import Tumblr and WordPress posts, but it was asking and re-asking permission every few weeks. When I realized that it had not posted in a few weeks, I was just plain frustrated. It didn’t bring much traffic either, but I will miss posting pictures with all the sharing ease it possessed. But, after all the other Facebook crap of the last couple of weeks, I just let it go.

On The Fence: Oh, LinkedIn. You’re like that person from high school who thinks that after graduation we should all stay in contact with each other. I keep getting emails from them so every now and then I go clear out all my messages and invitations. There are some people I know who really know how to work that site in terms of getting consulting and speaking gigs. God bless them, but it looks more exhausting to me than I care to do. I updated my profile and added my TechSoup writing to my experience, but I don’t know what else to do. Sure, I’d like more writing and speaking gigs and be able to help out libraries create social media strategies, but I’m still not entirely converted to the value professed to exist (nor am I willing to pay for the upgrade). I’ll keep it for now, but only because it’s a good passive billboard.

Keeping: Twitter is by far one of my strongest online presences professionally, so that’s certainly going to stay. I have lots of good contacts on Facebook so that will remain as part of my online “personal” life (yes, even if it is being supervised by the NSA). I’m enjoying being on Imgur, but I still have my toes in the water on that one. There is another social media website that I’m keeping, but it’s my last bastion of online privacy (I know, har har) so I have to defend it by keeping it secret.

I’m going to take another shot at Tumblr. All those Tumbrarian/Tumblrarian posts have made me take another look at the service. I enjoyed using it for the New Jersey Library Roadshow back in the fall since it can handle any kind of post, but I’ve had a harder time getting into the habit of using/checking it. The shame for me is that I really like how easy it is, how many formats I can post in, and how the new interface has moved along. I’ve used it in the past for "A View from Your Desk” (a collection of pictures taken from people’s library workspaces) and “LOLbrarian” (homemade memes). Right now, with it being connected to Twitter, it has worked well for things I want to post that are longer than a tweet. I’ll have to get better at tagging posts and adding content on a regular basis.

For what it’s worth, this cleaning has been very cathartic for me. In deleting some accounts and out of date blogs, I’ve removed some of the internet debris I’ve left lying around. I highly suggest taking a close look at your online footprint and taking action where needed.

It’s good to do a little housekeeping.

Pride and Publicity Prejudice

In the Philadelphia radio market, there is a news station that has been on the air as long as I can remember. On this station, there is an advertisement for a marketing firm that has been playing for as long as I can remember. I don’t recall it completely without the prompts, but it goes something like this:

“A man wakes up and gets out of his advertised bed. He eats a breakfast of advertised coffee and advertised bread, toasted in an advertised toaster. He puts on advertised clothes, looks at his advertised watch, gets in his advertised car, and drives to work. But he refuses to advertise for his business because he says advertising doesn’t pay.”

You get the picture; this is the tale of someone who is bombarded by images, messages, and branding everyday yet doesn’t see it in his own life. It’s the advertisement equivalent of the cerulean belt in which we think we make independent decisions when it comes to product selection. But, in reality, we’re more likely to pick up a brand that we’ve heard something about (anything, really) because we have had some sort of encounter with its advertising. Familiarity, even in passing, is a higher favorable factor versus the unknown or when all other factors seem to be the same.

I’ve been thinking about advertising, publicity, and marketing in the library world since last week after viewing this TED talk by Dan Pallotta about the way we think about charities and non-profits. My enthusiasm for TED talks has cooled over the years, a result of seeing how much the events tend to be the focus rather than actually supporting (as the TED motto goes) ideas worth spreading. But I digress.

For those who want to skip to the chase here, one of the excellent points Dan makes is in regard to our misguided notion of how overhead should work in charities and non-profits.  In essence, spending money on the cause is good and spending any money on non-cause related things is bad (even if it raises more money/awareness). Overhead and administration are considered the anathema of the noble purpose and good deeds that these organizations are set up to do. But, in putting such restrictions and pressures on these groups, it ignores two important points.

First, in keeping administration costs as low as possible, it makes it hard (if not impossible) to attract the talent that would take the organization further into the future. Even if the organization is raising millions of dollars a year, six figure executive pay is considered outrageous even in a multi-million dollar charitable operation. The Stanford MBA isn’t going to join such an organization when he can work a regular job at his market rate salary and then donate generously.  This goes across the board with other organization talent (accountants, lawyers, marketing, etc.) because these groups don’t have the salary to make them attractive.

Second, the pressure to keep overhead low makes getting the message out harder. Spending $40,000 for a full page ad in the Sunday edition of the New York Times is considered an extravagant expense despite the fact that it brings in donations that cover the cost many times over. Publicity campaigns are considered wasteful when in fact getting the message out and finding more people to support the cause is vital to an organization’s survival. But, in the topsy turvy logic that is applied to charities and non-profits, that kind of spending is thought as a fraud of the donor’s intent when they gave to the organization.

I’ve experienced something like that first hand at my library a few years back. A gentleman came in and wanted to donate a bag of books. When they were shown to me by the circulation person, they were nothing new or popular and in so-so condition. So I took them out and put them on our ongoing book sale.

You would have thought I had run over the guy’s dog. He left muttering about how AWFUL it was that the library had put HIS donation out on the book sale. Those books were meant to improve the collection and he wasn’t ever going to donate to the library ever AGAIN. I would say that he clearly didn’t understand the functional definition of “donation” and what it entails, but my tale isn’t anything unusual in the public library world. I could write a treatise on the matter since people will donate (or attempt to donate, if we can stop them in time) the damned things that they would otherwise be embarrassed to put out at a yard sale. From that point forward, anyone who has offered a donation to me has been given the long version of the fine print about how we can do whatever we want with the donation and the many possible outcomes.

In thinking about that incident as it relates to the Pollotta TED talk, the expectations of donations and the perception of public libraries neatly dovetail together. Would people still donate materials and money to the public library if they were told that the money would be used to publicize programs, advertise services, or branding? To double down on this question: would be taxpayers be as supportive knowing that their tax money was going spent in the same way? I believe public libraries are caught in that Catch-22: we need to spend money in order to maximize our reach into the community, but every dollar not spent on materials is perceived as wasteful, unwarranted, or even unethical.

I don’t see this as a broad spectrum problem in the public library world, but an issue for medium to small sized libraries and library systems. Larger urban libraries tend to have their own marketing and publicity departments. But even those lucky organizations seem to focus on larger scope image and branding campaigns, not the nitty-gritty of your average monthly program cycle of storytimes and book talks at a local branch. I know that there are smaller libraries out there that have the kind of publicity staff that I’m describing here, but those arrangements are more of an exception to the rule.

Based on current funding trends, it’s hard to imagine that any sort of non-MLS staff will be added to the library payroll. Combined with depressed salaries, what reasonable marketing expert is going to accept such a position when they can be do much better in the private sector? In trying to keep such overhead low so as to minimize impact to collection budget lines, there isn’t any room to make to add that kind of talent to the staff.

But, with these factors in mind, here’s the bind I see: how are public libraries going to re-brand themselves for the digital age when the funding and the talent don’t exist? And for the people who want to argue as to whether the public library really needs a re-branding, I’m sorry to inform you that that ship has sailed. It left port once the line, “We are more than just books”, became a cliché within the field. (As I recall from Stephen Abram’s keynote at NJLA this year, we seem to say that line a lot and then quote circulation numbers to show how busy we are. What kind of stupid cognitive dissonance is that?) Hell, I still get people walking through the door who didn’t know we had internet access.

In looking at some of these lofty strategic plans that talk about providing services, creating community spaces, and all kinds of future babble, where are the points and plans for letting people actually know that these things exist? Who hasn’t worked a public desk and heard a library member exclaim, “I didn’t know you offered that!” Even now, after a year of lending museum passes, I regularly get calls from people who are just discovering it. I guess I should be happy that my current publicity efforts (which are also free) of press releases to the local papers, postings to the local Facebook group, and flyers all around the library (but not in town or anywhere outside the library) are slowly trickling through and find their way to people’s attention. Perhaps, in the days before I retire, my publicity messages will reach everyone in the community.

If those “libraries are in danger of not being relevant!” Chicken Littles want a new slogan to shout, it’s not that the public library will become irrelevant because we don’t offer the latest and greatest of bestsellers, technology, or 3D printing, it’s that people don’t know the extent of what we offered in the first place. Serendipitous discovery may be the allure of the physical bookshelf, but it should not be the primary method that the public learns about some of the lesser known aspects that their library offers. Doing a great job and hoping to God that we get noticed is not a strategy that will win the hearts and minds of our community in this cluttered, attention deficit driven world.

I have some solutions in mind, but I think that would be putting the horse in front of the cart. It has to be made a priority of the public library, not an afterthought or something that would fall into “other duties as assigned” on a job description. As much as I get compliments on the publicity stuff that I do, I know I don’t hold a candle to the real professionals. It can’t just be something that is assigned to a staff member who needs something to do on the desk; it has to be given to someone who knowledgeable in the field. If this means hiring outside the library or pooling money with other libraries to do it, then it needs to happen. Any solution I can think of will die on the vine if there isn’t the motivation to make it a prerogative.

So, with all this preamble, what remains to me is this hypothetical question for you, the reader:

Would you spend a $1,000 on items for the collection or would you take that money to reach 100 people who didn’t know that the library had a notary, offered training or computer classes, makerspaces, knitting groups, or other services, programs, and materials?

If you want to nitpick about the numbers, then cast them aside and break it down to its elemental components: money for collection stuff or money for letting people know about what is at the library? If we are an organization attending to the people of the community, then why don’t we make better efforts to communicate and educate what we offer to them? Even some of the most recognized brands in the world (Coca-Cola, Apple, Google, and BMW) advertise and the majority of people in the industrialized world know what they do without prompting. There might be more library locations than McDonalds in the United States, but I’m willing to bet that people could name more items off the their menu than tell me about the variety of materials and services are offered at their local library.

I’m sure there are parallels to be drawn to other library types, specifically whether students, faculty, teachers, parents, and administration are aware of what the library to offer. There are unique publicity challenges to be faced on those fronts as well, to be certain, as it should be made a priority as well. For what does it matter how much money is spent on a collection, resources, services, and materials if people don’t know it even exists?