“Food for Thought”: My First Keynote

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of giving my first keynote to the 2014 Lehigh Valley Spring Workshop. It was one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended and many thanks to Courtney Eger and the other Lehigh Valley Executive Committee Board members for having me. Unfortunately, a family emergency arose and I could not stay to the end of the final session. I’d like to publicly thank and commend Daniel Huang for going above and beyond the call of duty in escorting me to the highways I needed to get to for the trip home. It was really appreciated and a sanity saver.

As you might observe from my blog output in the last couple of weeks, my writing efforts had been focused on this keynote. As I note early on, it was a real challenge. I wanted to convey a message that would resonate with every kind of librarian and also give some specifics for people to chew on on their way out.

In my mind, I ended up with a sequel to the “Big Tent Librarianship” piece I wrote for Library Journal a few years back. I would call this the “Little Tent” speech since it focuses on the unique nature and circumstances of every library out there as well as how our principles and ideals intersect with the needs of our communities. I had been kicking around the Little Tent idea for awhile (a long while, to be more honest) and this is how it manifested itself. Big Tent Librarianship was written when I was a bit more optimistic and still very young in the profession; the Little Tent reflects someone is a bit older, a bit wiser, but still an idealist. I think it’s a bit more pragmatic since it addresses what I think are the bigger needs of librarians: the self-confidence in their choices and the determination to follow through in turning principles into practice. To me, what matters most at this intersection of time and purpose is how we believe in ourselves.

Before I get to my keynote, the day before I was to speak there was a new post by Hugh Rundle on In the Library With the Lead Pipe. His excellent post raises some extremely thought-provoking questions about the future of the library regarding the intersection of technology and librarian values. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.

In giving the keynote some context, the theme of the workshop was “Gearing Up for the Future” and the speech was to take place during the lunch hour. I’ve taken my talking notes/script and have edited them into something coherent for the reader, adding and removing words and details where needed. It’s not an exact transcript of what I actually said, but it’s close enough. I’ve also inserted my slides as well as linked to stories that I told during my keynote.

I hope you take its message to heart because that’s where I was aiming.


 

Food For Thought.pptx

Good afternoon, thank you for having me, and what an incredible workshop it has been. I’m so pleased that I was invited and the sessions I have attended have been incredible.

 

I’d like to tell you something about myself from the outset.

When I’m teaching a new computer class for the first time at the library, I like to tell the students this: they are my guinea pigs. They are my experimental group, the ones I get poke, prod, and test things out on. Some things work, others don’t, and we will overcome any obstacles together. It’s meant to put everyone at ease and give a casual vibe to the class, to lower any apprehension between teacher and student, and it’s a decent icebreaker.

So you know, you are my first keynote audience.

However, unlike the class, my purpose here isn’t teaching but to come up with something that would be compelling, inspiring, and wonderful as to relates to the theme of the workshop, “Gearing Up for the Future.” It was a challenge to which I had moments of doubt.

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In finding the words and flow for this keynote, I had my own issues.

First, I personally loathe the question, “What is the future of libraries?”. The root of my distaste is based in the critical thinking and problem solving skills imbued in me from my undergraduate biology degree. That’s like asking the question, “What is the next step of human evolution?”, a nebulous question that could give rise to a range of answers.  (Which, based on current climate change trends, I hope the answer is “gills”.)

Be that as it may, our peers do try to answer that question. But even then It tends to be brushed in broad strokes, a “one size fits all” mentality that feels more like the frustration of finding the right size between different fashion labels.

I read an article about a year or so back about a man who went shopping for a pair of pants. I don’t remember the exact detail, but let’s say that his waist size is 36. He went to one store and tried on a pair of pants which fit perfectly. He then went to another story, got a pair of a pants marked as a 36 waist, and he was swimming in it. It made him curious as to the difference of the sizes so he took a measuring tape and went from store to store. He found that not every store brand of pants that was marked as a 36 waist was actually a 36. The worst culprit was Old Navy in which the pants measured 42 inches, a full half foot larger. I mean, there are misses and that’s a big one. [The article in question. –A]

The market, society, and culture change so quickly these days combined with the disruptions of the last ten years make me hesitant to prognosticate (although I’ve been known to make a few predictions, so I’m guilty as well). 

So, I tried to do what I was taught to do back in those lab days: break everything down and examine the pieces in order to come up with a possible strategy that will help obtain a solution.

My problem? Too many variables.

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Personally, I believe that libraries are extremely contextual to their communities. Some of these measurable data points are the tiny variances that make the world of difference between the libraries that are represented here today.

To the outside observer, it forms the basis of review that makes people wonder why X library is thriving and Y library, a few miles or school district or college or university, is not. What is happening (or, conversely, not happening) at X that makes it a community gem whereas Y is just, well, there.

So can we begin to answer the question the looms before us,  a monolithic presence that casts its shadow across our professional lives and discourse.

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I had the notion of trying to make it more exacting but even that lead to it own complications.

“What is the future of your library?”

“What is the future of your library in your community?”

“What is the future of your library in your community if all current trends remain the same?”

“What is the future of your library in your community if all current community trends remain the same but library funding is increased?”

Get the picture?

In adding condition after condition, it dawned on me that this might be the beginning of a solution; that, it is not a matter about how narrowly we can tailor the question, but the question we ask ourselves. Specifically, that we need to not to ask vague questions in general, but asking the right questions of ourselves that reflect our values and beliefs. “What is the future of libraries?” will invoke dozens if not thousands if not millions of answers, but asking “How does my library show the community the value of literature or discussion or imagination or understanding?”

That brought me to another stumbling block. Even as we are changing the nature of the question we ask ourselves, what about the solution? And now THAT began to bother me. I can’t stand in front of these nice wonderful people and say, “Hey, look, let’s rephrase the question, but damned if I know what the solution could be! Enjoy your lunch, have a nice day, and, um… I need something from my car…. yeah….”

In figuring out the path to a solution, I felt limited by the libraryland data before me as well as my own professional biases. I needed a fresh start, a different perspective, and a new approach.

So, I looked elsewhere.

In imagining that the core element of libraries is built around what I will vastly oversimplify as “information storage and services”, I looked for other ubiquitous human resources. Something in which I could examine how people interact with it so as to make observations and suggest equivalents that could lead to different ways of thinking about how libraries approach their respective futures. 

And I think I found a good parallel that can make answering this question more intuitive.

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Consider some of the immediate common traits between the two:

- It evolved with us [short version: the establishment of agriculture was followed shortly by the invention of writing; as we domesticated crops, we also created systems for retaining information such as stories, speeches, and other information.]

- It’s a daily need. You literally cannot live without either. Food drives biological processes, information drives decision making ones [I gave an example of living in the Yukon which in calories equal life and information of finding food and constructing clothing and shelters are vital. -A]

- it is an integral part of our human experience in the world. [short version: I can eat Chinese food while watching Chinese movies and reading Chinese news. The world is connected along cultural lines in exchanging food and information. The internet has ratcheted this up to a near instantaneous experience. I mentioned a story my dad told me that a hundred and fifty years ago, JP Morgan was the richest man in the world. But for all his wealth, he could not have a fresh pineapple. Now, there are no more food seasons (for better or worse) and we can have any food we want at any time. The exchange of food and information are unparalleled.]

Let me share some of my observations that I believe can help us address the question of the future of libraries.

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Food is hospitality. It is the one of the most basic social conventions of welcoming a person into a room, event, or a home. Can I offer you a drink? Can I offer you something to eat? It’s the mint on the hotel pillow, the drink placed in your hand when you arrive at a dinner party, and the offer of bread and cold cuts after a long trip.

Food as hospitality is a codified social norm in places like Iran and China in which such offers take on an elaborate ritual for both parties. It is a weaving of offers and refusals leading to an ultimate acceptance or gentle rejection. But my grandmother would put these cultures to shame with her near continuous offers of sandwiches after we arrived in Connecticut after traveling from New Jersey.

The conversations would sound something like this:

“Would you like a sandwich?”

“No thanks, Gram.”

“…well, we have some roast beef, chicken, and ham I think.”

“No, that’s ok, Gram, I’m not hungry.”

“…we have white or wheat bread.”

Yes. It was relentless hospitality.

Now, I wouldn’t say that we should start offering food or drinks (ok, maybe drinks) at our libraries, but what is in your library right now that welcomes people? A display? A person to greet them? A sign with the rules on it telling them that they can’t use their cellphone and don’t move the furniture and have your ID ready and OMG THIS IS A QUIET AREA.

In the last fifty years, the United States has moved towards a service economy. How we are treated is a leading indicator as to whether we will return to a restaurant, store, or event. Libraries, despite our non-retail purpose, are not immune to these kinds of retail judgments. Nor should we be indifferent to the physical comfort of our patrons. When your community looks at your library, what is the hospitality that you are extending to them? Comfy seating? Personal attention? Something that lets them know that they are welcome to come, to stay, and to enjoy?

When you are welcoming someone to your library, are you offering them something of yourself?

It’s only years later after she was gone that I realized that my grandmother’s offers weren’t just food, but of herself. It wasn’t simply a sandwich, it was Gram’s way of showing care and concern for her family. She wanted us to feel at home, even if it drove us nuts.

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Food is a shared experience. It’s the focus of family gatherings that have become American traditions like Thanksgiving, the overly cliché ‘dinner and a movie’ suggestion that operates as many a first date between two people, the way we mark special occasions of birth, weddings, graduations, and even death. It’s one we are having right now as I talk to you while you eat lunch.

For years, starting roughly when I was in middle school, my maternal grandparents hosted my parents, my brother, and myself for Friday night dinners. And I can tell you what was for dinner just about every week: London Broil steak, steamed peas, and my grandmother’s special mashed potatoes.

Every. Week.

Occasionally, we would have pizza. But that meal brought us together almost every Friday with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas for years on end, well into my college days. My brother and I loved it. Even when we  were given the option of picking our own birthday meal, we usually asked for that. Why? Looking back, I would say that that meal was an integral part of our intimate bond with our grandparents; it was our shared experience with them.

Libraries have a leg up on the shared experience since nearly everyone can relate a story in which they were urged to read a particular book or see a certain movie. In the same way we tell our family and friends, “you simply MUST try..” this dish or restaurant or wine or whatever has tickled your palate, the same holds true for those cultural objects that move our emotions and minds from the page or the screen.

In looking at your library right now, what is the shared experience you want to your community to have? Is it between people and books or movies or materials? Is it between staff and patrons? Or what about between patrons themselves?

It was only years later that I learned that those dinners weren’t simply for the benefit of my brother and myself, but it was to help out my parents as well. My dad had been fired from his job after his bank merged with another and while we as a family were not in dire straits, those meals were how my grandparents made life a little bit easier for my parents. Through a financially troubled time, they shared some of our burden.

We are a sharing culture. It’s in our social norms, our social media, and social outlets. We lend material, but what can we do to make it a shared experience?

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Food requires skill. When we think of great chefs, the tendency shifts towards the ones we can relate to immediately through pop culture: celebrity chefs such Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsey, and my favorite, Anthony Bourdain and television chefs like Julia Childs and The Frugal Gourmet. But there are multitudes of talented culinary professionals across the globe, from the local breakfast joint to the burger stands to the trendy food trucks. Television shows like “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” take the viewer to small and medium sized eating establishments across the country to showcase local talent and flavors. The skill of food preparation surrounds us.

Despite their best efforts, I didn’t learn to cook till I moved out my parent’s place. Even then, I learned the same way my father had: I got tired of eating out and frozen dinners. Through trial and error (with lots of trial and lots of errors), I was eventually able to put some dishes into my dietary rotation. My mindset in trying was remembering that if I botched things so bad I still had the option of ordering out. That was my safety net in case of absolute disaster. Of course, having a safety net also a drawback since it let my experimental side run wild with trying out things like adding cinnamon to hamburgers. No, that did not work out well and I ate every single one to spite the comments my first wife made about them. That is not recommended either.

In making observations regarding the top rated restaurants to the best hot dog stand in town, my takeaway is that there is no one key element to offering the best collection, programs, classes, service, or ambiance to your community except the desire to do so. To invoke Hemingway’s reply to a criticism by Faulkner about his style of writing, “Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Do the best libraries come from the biggest budgets, the most expensive staff, extravagant programs, and luxurious classes?  We tend to think that bigger is better in terms of budgets, staffing, purchasing, and programming, but it is not a silver bullet here.

Just like cooking, this is about your skills in using the ingredients available to you. This is your MacGyver moment in which you can turn papers clip and gum into a makerspace or death ray or whatever you need. With the resources that are available to you, what can you do with them?

In my previous position, I had a very limited programming budget, limited staff options, and a medium sized program room. In one year, I was able to squeeze out approximately sixty five adult programs, an average of one per week, well within my budget since most were free, and with a minimum amount of staff time. Because I looked at this way:

No budget? AWESOME. No paperwork or purchase orders to fill out.

No staff? AWESOME. No payroll or scheduling to worry about. I can find stuff that is lead by others or require no additional people.

No space? AWESOME. No clean up! Ok, I had space but I was certain to make sure that my programming was relatively clean.

My programming encompassed a plethora of interests, from local history to gardening to health to authors to artists to chocolate tasting to cooking demonstrations to financial presentations to a bunch of other things I can’t remember in addition to regular monthly programs such as an adult book discussion, yoga (paid for by the friends of the library), meditation, and a crafting class. [Here is my article on library programming that I wrote for LJ. –A]

With the resources that are available to you, what can you do with them? What do you pay for and what do you find for free? What needs staff to be present and what can run itself? What requires space, how much space, and can it be found in other places?

The ingredients are important, but what you do with them is even more so. It’s a skill that anyone who works in a library can develop.

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Food is nourishment. It feeds the body as well as the mind, both in the most literal of senses and figurative. In the most literal sense it is the wonder of our digestion system, although my recollection of the exact processes leaves a lot to be desired: food goes in, some miracle occurs, waste is released. Not exactly the material for a Schoolhouse Rocks song.

Figuratively, food is a catalyst for healing our mental and emotional states. Think about comfort foods, a term in which actual nutrition is set aside for the benefits it brings us emotionally. Mac and cheese, sloppy joes, chicken nuggets, and milkshakes are all kinds of foods that bring us solace when we are feeling despondent. There are also foods that remind of you of people and places, so powerfully attached to our senses that even a whiff can cause a flood of  memories. One of mine is for a particular kind of cookie made with chopped walnuts and covered in confectioner’s sugar that goes by a bunch of different names: Russian tea cakes, Mexican wedding cakes, and as they are known to my wife’s family, nutballs. (Yes, it’s a giggle-worthy name.) One whiff and it’s Christmas again, for it was the cookie of the season.

The common notion reflected in many a quotation about the library is that it is a place that nourishes the mind. This is still an important value to the library as an institution, the librarian as a profession, and of course the communities that we serve. What has changed are the delivery vectors for this kind of nourishment. People look to libraries for education, both in the passive sense from materials and in the active one from classes, talks, and workshops, as well as entertainment, social engagement with others, and a place for volunteer and local organizations to meet.

How do you “feed” your community? What do you “feed” them?

There’s a quotation for which I could not find the original source but was made in reference to Christian beliefs: “We are not called to judge, but we are fruit inspectors”. I believe that the same sentiment could be said for librarians. We do not judge people on their library material, but we do want to make sure that what we offer is meeting their educational, emotional, spiritual, social, leisure, and enjoyment needs. I acknowledge that this is a vast gray area, but one in which we rely on our knowledge and instincts in navigating.

Nourishment comes in many forms and we have many minds to feed.

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Food is local. You do not get a cheesesteak outside of the greater Philadelphia area. I don’t know where the exact line is, but eventually such a request turns into a rib-eye steak with some weird cheese on it. In my travels, I have seen a Philadelphia cheesesteak described in many an inaccurate fashion, mostly in terms of the cut of the beef.

The same notion is true for the paellas in Spain, the beers of Australia, the curries of India, and nuanced differences between Kansas City and Carolina BBQ. (Kansas City: tomato based with sugar, most notably brown sugar or molasses. Carolina: thin and watery from either mustard or vinegar, noted with hints of spices that make it tangy and peppery.)

They are a culmination of the events and influences on a culture or people throughout the years. It is a sprawling picture that captures what plants grow there, what animals roam through, the kind of weather, how long people have been there, whether they have been occupied or not, and so forth and so on. It’s the history of a people wrapped up into grains, fruits, vegetables, and meats.

When I talk to people who have never been to New Jersey about the diner culture, there is a certain kind of fascination that gets invoked. You mean you can get a cooked meal any time of day? A menu that has cheese sticks, coffee, and lobster tails on it? (Although I would never ever ever EVER recommend getting the lobster tails, they are still there.) It’s a place that sits in a unique position in New Jersey culture, a hybrid between restaurants and fast food joints with an eclectic menu, nostalgic ambiance, and a loyal following. 

Sound familiar?

In looking at your library and its community, what are the events and history that have brought it to this point in time? Who settled, who left, who stayed, and who is just arriving? What are the local aspects and elements that make it different than the next town or school or college over?

What is vital here is that community identity cannot be overlooked nor set aside. That which is thought of as local, be it an image, attitude, or way of life, is integral to your service population. You will lose if you fight it, but you stand to gain so much more when you embrace it, celebrate it, and foster it. This is not to maintain the status quo for your library, but to mold the changes you make along the local norms and image.

Libraries are not simply buildings surrounded by communities, but the common good a community has invested in that reflects its local values, assist local goals and ambitions, and satisfy local information needs.

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And so we arrive back at the original question: what is the future of libraries?

Well?

Is the future: books, eBooks, bookless, print on demand, makerspaces, collaborative spaces, community centers, quiet zones, remote storage, coding, computer labs, programs, webinars, seminars, mobile apps, mobile websites, workshops, embedded, super PACs, Minecraft, Amazon, paraprofessionals, or self publishing, to name but a few things?

Yes… and No. It depends.

I’ve always liked this quote from Sir Ken Robinson: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” But I feel that “wrong” in the librarian world is defined as “wrong for all libraries”, not as it should be interpreted as “wrong for their community”. That ill and awful notion of the “perfect library” smothers the original ideas and concepts that would work and flourish within the unique circumstances of a single library which I will say for the purposes of naked hyperbole could be YOUR library. Lack of scaling or repetition of results is not a fatal flaw to any collection or program or service that only works at ONE library. For all the times that library science isn’t actually a science (at least by this trained scientist), this is not when it should act like one.

So, if I was forced to answer this terrible question, what would I say is the future of libraries?

It’s a nod to the past, a meeting of current demands, and room for the future. Sometimes we catch up, sometimes we follow, and sometimes we lead. And it’s the way it is meant to be.

What matters is merging our professional values with our communities.

What matters is what fits within our own set of variables.

What I ask of you here today in this room at this very moment, when you are driving back, when you arrive at your library tomorrow and the next day and the day after that is to keep this phrase in mind:

“The future of libraries is what I am doing today to best serve my community.”

 

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(That slide should have a giant “THANK YOU” across the top, but Google Drive would not cooperate. -A)

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ALA Midwinter 2014 After Action Report

I should start off with a confession: I have been bored with library issues for awhile.

It’s not that there isn’t anything interesting going on in the library world, just it’s not interesting to me. Or it involves the act of dragging old bones in new graves on topics that I feel have been talked to death (eBooks and libraries, for example). Or, most recently, if I can succinctly add my input to a conversation on something like Twitter or Tumblr, I do it there. When others have better insight or commentary on topics, it’s much more satisfying to share their posts or articles.

And, let’s face it: there are far fewer librarians writing these days online, most conspicuously in blogs. I remember the leading advice of 2006 being to start a blog to get noticed online; now, if I heard a professor say that to their students, I would tell the students to flee. Even the Annoyed Librarian has been relegated to writing about last week’s news that was sent (I guess they can’t be bothered to find it) to them or “interesting” comments in previous entries. For myself, it’s slim picking for content or commentary without sounding like I’m recycling previous entries.

In attending ALA Midwinter in Philadelphia, I was hoping for rebirth, rejuvenation, and other “re” words that signify the rekindling of interest.

I was not disappointed.

Granted, since I’m not a member of ALA and therefore not on any committees, roundtables, or interest groups, that makes my schedule completely free for lunches and dinner with drinks anytime. My only “official” obligation was attending the EveryLibrary board meeting which was in full compliance of the “drinks anytime” portion. (More on that later.) In spending time with friends, both old and new, and sharing a meal or a drink, I found (for lack of a better phrase) my mojo again.

You see, the aspect that brought me back from my ennui to put fingers to my keyboard was the people. The best conversations I had during my time came from conversations either one-on-one or in small groups that lasted longer than a half hour. These were the times when people (myself included) let loose, spoke frankly, shared ourselves, and had meaningful and thoughtful discussions. The online librarian world is rich in many ways, but it is but a simple façade for the living, breathing people behind the internet avatars and nom de plumes. 

My takeaway from ALA Midwinter was not a million ideas, but a handful of good ones. Really good ones. The reasonable, totally possible worthy of attention kind. (I can’t help it, I’m a bit of an idea snob.) Also, as an ongoing advisor to EveryLibrary on their social media strategy, it renewed my commitment to the organization in attending the annual board meeting. It gave me the insight into what I see as their big picture: that they are an organization that nimble enough to work at the local level for library ballot matters as well as on issues of national library importance. I won’t mince my words that as a political action committee (a dread PAC) they need our financial help to accomplish that. (You can donate here.) I hope I can count on your support for this worthy cause.

For the naysayers, the few words I have for you right now is that denying the reality of the impact of the ballot box on public and school library funding is ‘the earth is flat’ madness. The political reality demands a breed of librarians who are willing to step into the issue based forums and persuade others to vote in favor of library issues. To act otherwise is just plain folly.

But, as I fondly reflect on the events of the last few days, it came down to a matter time. There was never enough time. I didn’t even catch a glimpse of people I’ve grown to know over the years. Even at some of the social events I attended, for the most part I didn’t spend more than five minutes with anyone. It was “hello, how are you, what are you up to” before the flow of socializing carried us away from each other. Perhaps this is a sign of my shifting social priorities as I grow older, but what I really wanted was the chance to sit, visit, and have those longer and more in depth conversations.

Over the course of three days, I drove into Philadelphia in the hopes of finding my passion for the profession again. I am happily renewed in my faith, in the direction and the people who make up libraryland. I don’t know if this will translate into more posts on here, but there are certainly things afoot behind the scenes here.

It’s good to be back.

Programming Unconference Northeast 2013

I’m proud to say that I’m one of the unconference unorganizers (as we have dubbed ourselves) for Programming Unconference Northeast on September 27th at the Darien Public Library in Darien, Connecticut. It should be a great day of meeting and discussing programming topics and issues with my fellow librarians as well as hearing Lisa Carlucci Thomas give the keynote. Since I helped organize a school librarian conference a year and a half back, I’ve grown to love the format. It really helps to connect with other librarian and learn from their experience as well as provide your own knowledge to them.

My partner in crime is Erin Shea from Darien PL who has been gracious enough to put up with my pestering over the last couple of months. The original idea for a programming unconference originated from her and my friend Janie Hermann from Princeton PL. With any luck, there is going to be a Jersey one in early 2014 , but this was a good way to give it a trial run. I’m really looking forward to it and I know it’s going to be a blast!

For those interested, there is more information (including registration) on the website. This is a free conference which will also be providing a lunch for attendees. Yeah, it’s full of lots of win!

Hope to see you there!

Roll the Dice

This past week I had the chance to attend a day of the New Jersey Library Association Annual conference down in Atlantic City. In its own way, the location is somewhat apropos as a setting for a librarian gathering. The glamour of the Boardwalk Empire days lives on as a fiction of television, depicting a time when the city was America’s choice destination resort of the 1920’s. The legendary acts of Frank Sinatra, Martin and Lewis, and Sammy Davis Jr. at the 500 Club in the 1950’s would influence and entertain generations of people. But the city has been in a slow decline since the 1980’s as gambling and vacation dollars have slowly slipped away from the America’s Playground to brighter, fresher, and more attractive venues. It’s a city in a labored transition yearning to recapture the magic of the past while stepping into a very different future.

Sound somewhat familiar?

I arrived at the end of the first day of the conference ready for an evening of social events. From what I’ve been told by librarians from other states, this doesn’t happen at their state conferences. They are in bed by 9pm, 10pm at the latest, and everything shuts down. New Jersey librarians are a separate breed. My evening stretched into the hours after midnight, starting with dinner, a formal conference event, a reception, an informal meetup, and finishing with a room party. Perhaps this is what happens when the state conference is held at a casino full of alcohol serving venues by the beach in the summer, but at the previous venue we’d shut down the hotel bar at 10pm and then head upstairs for the room parties. So, if you ever come to our state conference, you had better manage your energy levels and warn your liver: it’s going to be a fun night.

My only mistake was not rehydrating after an evening of steady-but-very-controlled alcohol intake with no food and then soaking in a hot hotel bath. (Being a six foot plus tall man who likes baths, you have to take them when you can fit into them.) I had some pretty weird dreams over the course of a restless night, ending with a constant renewal of my alarm snooze button till I reached some semblance of feeling human. Or at least human enough to get up, shower, dress, check out of my hotel, and head back to the conference.

In its own roundabout way, this is another way that reminded me of libraries and vendors. The conference hotel was $177 a night (I don’t know if that included taxes); I stayed at the hotel casino next door for $40 with taxes. One option is convenient but expensive, the other requires a little money, more work, but ultimately offers you the same thing. This was more prominent when it came to dining at the conference casino; $14 sandwiches and $8 beers was the going average. I could have sought other dining options that would have taken me off-site, but the casino ones were right here. I paid for the convenience even if the quality wasn’t always the best and was subject to the limited selections. Now if that isn’t a good metaphor for libraries paying for convenience over quality or customization in their services and products, I don’t know what is.

As for the conference sessions, I wasn’t disappointed in the ones I attended. The highlight for me was the keynote given by Stephen Abram which was joyful and simply rejuvenating. I haven’t felt much in the way of morale or sense of purpose in a long while. Some of his points I’d like to save for later blog posts, but the ones that I’ll mention here relate to the long view of libraries as a whole.

There are shifts in content (digital collections continue to rise), shifts in services (the addition of non-traditional classes, trainings, and workshops), and shifts in access (the prevalence of smartphones and the continuing slow expansion of broadband). His point is that shift happens; we too often cling onto structure that inadequately supports our principles. We believe in reading and literacy and let the container (book, eBook, etc.)  be damned. We believe in information access and look to provide through an app or an internet terminal as well as an encompassing collection policy. To paraphrase a political operative, it’s about the end user, stupid. The important internal discussions cannot be allowed to completely paralyze the external patron-facing outputs. Shift happens.

It was the message I needed to hear. I’m feel like I’m in a professional rut, trapped with an idea board in my apartment full of ideas but no inclination to follow up. I’m not finding the inspiration to write these days either and it is something that I miss. I’ve felt adrift and disconnected from my immediate library community, my friends and colleagues in New Jersey. Combined with seeing and talking with people I haven’t seen in awhile and meeting new librarians, it’s been a good jump start to wake myself from this hibernation.

In rousing myself from dormancy, it is also driven by a sense of shared responsibility towards this generation of new librarians and library science graduate students. The most striking observation in meeting them is how damn young they look; in doing the age difference calculation, I’m now old enough to be their fun uncle. Though I am a relative newcomer to the libraryland scene (class of 2006), it’s imperative to me that libraries don’t fail in massive, fatal ways on my watch. (Smaller, non-lethal failures are completely expected and encouraged; they are the risk to the natural course of trial and error.) I feel the need to leave them with a legacy to carry on, to expand their possibilities and potential in an information centric world, and to leave the profession just a little bit better than when I started.

In driving away from Atlantic City, I made one last observation as to why it is the perfect setting for a library conference. The city itself was a gamble, constructed as a health resort before morphing into a working class getaway alternative from the social elites of Cape May in the late 1800’s. It would go on to offer attractions, dining, and housing to all social classes; it was a destination that sought to satisfy a desire (and in some cases, a vice). Atlantic City has always been a customer driven economy; those who can bring the people through the doors get to stay and those who can’t get to make way for the next developer.

In similar respects, libraries are no different; we are also people driven entity and a continued calculated gamble on the idea of communal resources. It is the interactions that matter, be it face-to-face, over the phone or email, or now online. The prevalence of individually tailored information access gives the illusion of independence when there is actually a greater need for interconnected networks and the infrastructure to support them. We lose out when our primary focus becomes the collection, policies, and other behind-the-scenes oriented minutiae. We lose out when the discussion shifts away from the value we bring to our respective communities. These are the factors that will determine our continued collective existence.

Crossing the marshlands between Atlantic City in the mainland, I saw the skyline against the perfect blue of a cloudless summer day. It’s a place of dreams and fantasies and an escape from reality, not unlike the image that is sometimes projected from public libraries. Unlike some of the hard luck cases perhaps driving along side of me, I left as a winner. Once again, I feel a renewed sense of purpose in the profession that I love. I will be able to wager once more on the public library, a gamble based on finding new and new-to-me ways to help people. It’s a risk, but the best odds and a payout that can’t be ignored.

So, roll the dice.

Raiders of the Conference ARC

jones-and-the-idol

This librarian related story about conferences and ARCs (Advance Reading Copy, for those not familiar) blew up on the blogosphere and Twitter to the point where it got its own hashtag (#ARCgate). You can read the blog post that started it all on Kelly Jensen’s blog, Stacked. It’s good background material for this post so you may want to take a few minutes to go through it. For the lazy or those in a hurry, I’ll sum it up.

Kelly, a librarian and YA book blogger, attended the most recent ALA annual conference last week. She had multiple commitments to various committees that held meetings there in addition to giving a session presentation. After attempting to navigate the exhibit hall crowd on both Friday evening and Saturday, on Sunday she went back to meet with publicists as well as get some ARCs that publishers give away as part of their book promotion strategy. The majority of the books she was interested in were not there after being given away over the last day and a half. She was able to get the publicist to send her copies of the ones she was interested in. Otherwise, she did leave the conference with 23 books (according to her post conference blog entry detailing the books she got at the conference. I’m not sure how many books are being sent to her by publicists as she did not elaborate so I don’t know how many books in total).

We now fast forward one week. After posting said blog entry, Kelly did a Google search for “ala book haul” and found a 22 minute video in which a book blogger shows off approximately 150 ARCs she got from the same conference. (The blogger’s sister appears in the video as well and got the same books, bringing the total number of books procured to roughly 300.) Needless to say, Kelly is understandably not pleased with this discovery.

In writing her post, she is calling for a different system for ARC distribution at ALA. As she is a due paying member, Kelly feels a bit cheated to have given up time and money to do things that run the organization as well as educate her peers and missed multiple chances at talking with publishing industry folks and getting some advanced copies. As a solution, Kelly is calling for exhibits only passes to be allowed only one day admission at the end of the conference. That way, people like herself can get first shot at the books and face time without as much competition.

Ok, that sums it up.

On its face, I totally understand and get the outrage factor. That $25 pass that the book blogger purchased netted her around $2,250 in books. (I’m using a conservative average value of $15 a book; at $20 a book it goes up to $3,000.) Given what both sisters got, that puts their total score in the $4,500 to $6,000 range, a 9000%+ return on their initial investment. Compared to Kelly’s $345-$460 ARC value after spending money on conference registration ($220) and association memberships (my guess is about $290 in total on the basis of her blog post detailing her memberships), there is a dramatically smaller and even negative rate of return. In pure economic terms, it’s a slam dunk case.

Alas, this is not a simply case of economics. It has turned into apparently another row between book bloggers and librarian book bloggers, an ongoing epic struggle of book lovers fighting over their mutual object of affection. In looking at it from a step back, it’s a set of opposing forces competing for the same limited resource, the coveted ARC. Publishers can only bring so many a conference or trade show, therefore competition for them is inevitable.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: go read Kelly’s post. Some see her post as an excellent way to ensure that a professional conference serves its members first on a perk that matters most to them. Others see her post as an expression of whiny entitlement in the same vein that every government worker will eventually hear, “I pay your salary, therefore you must meet all my demands”. I invite you to draw your own conclusions. I’m not inclined to share mine since I’d rather move on and focus on the meat of the matter that interests me the most.

The first question: is this “book haul” behavior typical or a fringe case? This isn’t limited to book bloggers or librarians, but it means everyone who goes: how common is this sort of greedy behavior? If it is a minority whose actions are impacting the larger whole of interested individuals, then yes, there needs to be a corrective action taken. I can agree that 150 books is pretty excessive and an unreasonable amount for any one person to take away from a conference. If enough people did that, then it would take away from others.

But if it is a fringe set (the proverbial bad apples in the bunch), then why would an organization like ALA have to completely revamp a system on the basis of the actions of a statistically insignificant few? If one person out of ten thousand fell down a flight of stairs and died each year, it would not make sense to mandate that everyone has to live in a one story house. (For the sake of comparison, your chances of dying in an automobile accident are roughly 1 in 23,000, a risk people take everyday.) To create and implement a more complex system on the basis of a tiny minority element is simply not the best use of an organization’s time and resources. Even at 1 in 1,000 incidence rate with 20,000 people attending this year’s conference, that’s only 20 people. Somebody who is better at crunching numbers would have to figure out the point at which is becomes an issue on the basis of the number of available ARCs and the number of ‘greedy’ types.

The second question: how do you quantify or measure such behaviors? I’m guessing that registration statistics are out since they are not a true measurement of those who are interested in ARCs. What’s left is recorded observations of such behavior (like the YouTube video) or reported observations from attendees. While the former is excellent in being able to be easily shared and evaluated, the latter is subject to its own human observation bias. No one taking over 100 books is going to report themselves. Those who do not get all the books they wanted are more likely to report their dissatisfaction as well as the behavior of others. It would require door checkers observing who leaves with how many books and something to measure it over a couple of days. (Consider the fact that the book blogger got her 150+ books over 3 days, not one.)

It’s not impossible to measure, but currently there is no data set for this issue. There is always personal anecdotes that could attempt to gauge the prevalence of the behavior. Corroborating stories build on each other and create a better picture as to the incidence and prevalence of the “book haul” types. Larger number of reports are harder to ignore or otherwise dismiss when you are trying to convince colleagues to take action. I realize this might sound a bit crazy to ask for data (whether in the form of stories of numbers), but it might one of the few times that there is actual ‘science’ in ‘library science’.

The third question: in presuming that there is enough data to support action, what is reasonable and fair? I’d say that Kelly’s proposed solution is a reasonable one to consider in theory, but not in practice.

My solution — and note this is my solution and mine alone — is that bloggers/non-professionals who pay the minimum amount to attend the convention be limited to one day attendance at the end of the convention. That they be allowed to attend but that their attendance is after librarians and other professionals using this convention to develop as such have the opportunity to get what it is they need and what it is they want out of their own convention. If they choose to pay the full conference amount or are themselves members of the organization, then they can have full access just as anyone else does. I don’t think this is hard and I do not think it’s at all unfair on any side of the equation. Those who would find this disagreeable are part of the problem. (Emphasis mine.)

That’s quite the discussion squelching closer. “Here is my solution. You are either with us or against us.” Nevermind how one determines the difference between a blogger or non-professional and a librarian or professional; I presume Kelly’s solution includes checking that people are from the libraries that they say they are from. (It would be logical to presume that if it is restricted to only librarians/professionals for the first few days, people will give fake information so as to continue to grab books.) Or there is some sort of qualification checking mechanism that is developed, implemented, and run by the organization. If it turns out that fellow librarians are part of the problem, then there will be some other system put into place.

I’m not certain what other solutions are being offered given how recent this development is, but I’m guessing they will embody a “members first” mentality. That’s not a bad thing, per se; we grew up hearing the motto of a credit company that told us “membership has its privileges”. Given the time, energy, and efforts of the membership to keep the wheels turning, it can be an added and advertised perk of joining the organization. In game theory terms, solutions like Kelly’s are a move to not only get to cut the cookie in half but to get first pick of the pieces. This is not the conditions for creating a fair solution in terms of the societal concept of fairness but fairness as it relates to proportional contribution. Given the general mood of neutral egalitarianism in the ALA organization, it would be an interesting fit.

Regardless of what happens, my final question is this: what do publishers think of this entire issue? Slipping into their shoes for a moment, this is an issue about who gets access to things they are giving away for free. For free. As corporate members and conference sponsors to varying degrees, they have already paid for the chance to display their wares, flown in their sales and marketing people for face-to-face time, and utilize the books as marketing and public relations tools. How does implementing an ARC giveaway system of any sort benefit the publisher?

If I was in a publishing house, a question I might ask myself is whether or not it is worthwhile to give an ARC to a casually interested librarian (free is still free, right?) versus a very interested book blogger or other non-librarian professional. I can’t imagine anyone from the industry reading anything that has been put on blogs or Twitter and really feeling too terrible about this ‘issue’. Nor can I imagine other vendors who give away swag to bring you to their booth will be ready to shed a tear.

This whole #ARCgate affair just makes the librarian profession look bad when it boils down to an argument about who gets access to free things. Conference fees and membership pay for many things, but they don’t put a dime in a publisher’s pocket when they print out those ARCs. That point cannot be lost in this mess. One could argue that their reviews drive traffic and sales, but I would say that it is a risk that publishers take on. Changing that dynamic is changing that calculated risk for them, not for librarians. It deserves consideration.

For what it’s worth, the book blogger posted about her conference experience. And she had a great time. I was originally going to post a link to her blog post, but I’d rather not have someone go from this page and be shitty to her. It would not be the professional thing to do.

Update: I redacted the name of the book blogger. I debated

on including her name but since I went over and found a couple of unkind comments on her blog I dropped it.

I’m certainly glad at least two people took “professionalism” into their own hands and set her straight. I do hope some other more supportive people would send her a message and be a bit more constructive. For a profession that touts the value of education, it certainly doesn’t seem interested in providing one in this case.

Circulating Ideas & Upcoming Speaking Engagements

My interview with the Circulating Ideas podcast came out today. I had a wicked good time talking with Steve during the interview and felt like I could have talked for another hour. It was a nice enjoyable interview/conversation and I’m thankful to Steve for asking me to participate. As you can see from the show notes, we hit a wide range of topics. I hope you take a listen to my interview as well as the other great people Steve has talked to in previous episodes.

I’d also like to take a moment to say that I’ll be speaking at Computers in Libraries 2012 next month. I’m part of a group of speakers entitled “Ebook Trends: Info Pro Perspectives” with Sarah Houghton and Michael Porter. Given the latest actions by Penguin books, this should be a jolly ole time for the audience. I’m looking forward to it and I am working hard to hold my own in the company of such excellent speakers. Hope to see you there!

Two Nights in Philly (Visiting SLA 2011)

On Monday and Tuesday evening this week, after a long day at work I hopped on the train to meet and dine with my fellow librarians in Philadelphia. The Special Libraries Association annual conference was in the area and I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to meet with a whole new set of librarians that I generally only know through Twitter, Facebook, or the blogs. Monday was a chance to meet students from Pratt at the Hack Library School meetup and then onwards to the people I consider to be my tribe, Library Society of the World. Tuesday, I will say, was the night I was really looking forward to as I got a chance to share a meal with Ned Potter. We’ve been corresponding back and forth for months on various library advocacy things so it was great to actually meet him. Later on, I was glad to meet Laura and Bethan as well as the other British librarians who had made the trip over (Chris, Sam, and Natalia) at the SLA Dance Party.

In reflecting on two days worth of conversations (both sober and slightly less than sober), I will say that it was a nice change of pace to hear about libraries that don’t face the same obstacles as public libraries. While socializing with the SLA Pratt students, the range of environments in which they were operating their libraries was fascinating. From hospitals to government agencies to non-profits, each person brought a new set of difficulties and challenges to the table. As someone who works in a public library and is generally surrounded by public librarians, it was like visiting a different culture which spoke the same language but had different customs. It was fun to question and explore what these students were doing and how their library experience was radically different or surprisingly the same as mine.

To me, it poses it’s own conundrum: how does one advocate for special libraries? This was uncharted territory for me; on top of that, it is very contextual. In some cases, it’s not an issue when the company, agency, or business has an output or product based on knowledge resources. In other cases, it’s a matter of convincing an executive or government bigwig that the library is not a cost center and has value on its own merits. In assessing it in the scope of Big Tent Librarianship, it begs its own question: so how does it fit under the tent? Where is the give and take as it relates to other libraries? These are things I’m going to have to think on now, but I welcome other insight.

It was a couple of great nights in Philadelphia. I hope to be able to see everyone again; in the meantime, I’ll see you online!