Blatant Berry Bottom Line

In leafing through the issue of Library Journal from earlier this month, the latest John Berry article made me sit up in my seat. Entitled “Half Way to ALA”, he discusses the true cost of conference attendance in terms of dollars and (more importantly, in my estimation) professional advancement.

As to the first part, the financial estimates that Mr. Berry tosses out ring true to me. Even in taking transportation out of the equation (Boston and Washington DC, the locations of the past Midwinter and Annual, are within driving distance for me), the sum total of hotels, meals, and other expenses puts it easily well over $1,500 for an attendee. While some of my friends have worked out ways to save money by sharing rooms or seeking alternative housing venues, the other costs still remain the same and leave it hovering around $1,000 to attend. Not exactly small change by any stretch of the imagination.

The more important and salient point that Mr. Berry references in his piece is that of the cost of professional development to younger librarians. The statement made by Mr. Berry is that the conference is attended by those who get the least use out of it: directors, top management, and others who are well established and well compensated through their position. It creates a ‘generation gap’ in which the new librarians are generally shut out of the professional development opportunities that would benefit them the most in their nascent career. I can’t illustrate it in terms other than horticultural: when you plant something new, you take care to make it grow. You give it water, ensure that it gets the right amount of sun, fertilize the soil to provide essential nutrients, and protect it from predation and temperature extremes. This is no different than the ideal treatment for our up and coming librarians in providing them with the professional development and networking opportunities in order to create a stronger and smarter profession.

This is not meant as a vilification of the older generation of librarians. I’m certain that there are some that would consider the benefits of compensated attendance as a perk of their position and their work to reach such a place. Nor is there an easy answer for providing the financial support that would be necessary to allow young librarians. You’d have to be living under a rock for the last year to not know about the current state of library budgets. This puts some library vendors in the same boat with us as their revenues are partially married to our own expenditures.

The question that this post leaves in my head is this: what are the options that remain for younger librarians to attend conferences? In attending ALA annual this year, I heard a raffle over the convention loudspeaker giving away trips to the conference next year. That sounds nice, but it doesn’t specifically address young or new librarians. I know ALA has a list of travel grants and scholarships, but that helps a handful of librarians (and I see one of the travel grants is not available due to lack of donors). Not exactly overwhelming, but I have not given the subject a rigorous inquiry.

The thought did cross my mind: what would it take to someone to sponsor someone like myself to attend a conference? Could I wear one of those NASCAR jumpsuits and sell advertising space on it? Could I sell sidebar space on my blog? Endorsement deals? Booth appearances? Appear in advertisements? What would it take for someone to put up the money that would pay the way to attend?

I’d wonder what people thought about ‘selling out’ (either for me or themselves) and what would be an offer they couldn’t refuse. I’m not sure what would be the line for librarians. I have a feeling there is a strict adherence to objectivity even when none is called for. I’d like to hear from people on this, so please leave a comment with your thoughts.

(And if anyone is looking to sponsor a librarian, I’m all ears for your offer. I think I’d look decent in one of those NASCAR jumpsuits.)

TEDxNJLibraries Takeaway

cropped-tedxnjlibraries[1]This past Friday, I had the privilege of attending the TEDxNJLibraries conference at the Princeton Public Library. The theme for the conference was “Culture and Community”, a pair of topics that was deftly addressed by the speakers chosen. As the afternoon progressed, I heard passionate speeches about people, places, and circumstances that moved the speakers. As the world shifts and the lines of connection grow thicker, in the days afterward, I found myself asking, “What does culture mean? What does community mean?” The amount of isolation that exists in the world is dimming as the means of communication grows faster, cheaper, and more prevalent. This is not to say that culture and community are disappearing, but the walls between different forms of them are becoming translucent and permeable.

One of the talks that stuck with me was by Francis Schott, one of the Restaurant Guys. He was talking about the value of places where people can meet, interact, and enjoy each other’s company in the time of the meteoric rise of online communities and social media. In our rush to connect the world, we are touch with some of the things that go with socialization: empathy, emotional cues, and some social norms of civility in interaction. As someone who has followed different stories about New Jersey libraries in the news, I cannot help but wonder as to some of the commenters on some of the news pieces. It is hard to imagine that anyone would actually speak the things that are written if there was a actual human being physically present at the other end of the conversation. In thinking on it further, some of the comments left on library and librarian blogs that I frequent really have me shaking my head. For a more specific example, the people on both sides of any given issue on The Annoyed Librarian blog over at Library Journal really concern me as these commentators are (I can only presume) professional peers. Regardless of how you might feel for the AL, if someone were to say to you some of the comments that are left on that blog, you’d think they were a deeply disturbed or a sociopath.

Even without anonymity, there seems to be some breakdown of social norms. My monitoring of the “Save NJ Libraries” Facebook page has given me a few examples of people actively engaged in attempting to incite people within the group via derogatory comments and inflammatory statements. The practice, colloquially referred to as ‘trolling’, has induced me to keep a close eye on what appears on the page and remove uncivil or inappropriate postings. Even with their real name and picture, it will not deter people from associating themselves with the most ignorant and/or hurtful pronouncements. Likewise, I have seen similar uncivil behavior on Twitter. On one occasion directed towards me, I was told that I was an asshole and blocked by the offended user simply for questioning the basis of their opinion as to a particular stance on a library issue. (I’m not the only one to have a run-in with this individual, as some of my Twitter friends have been told how awful they are for holding differing opinions and subsequently blocked by this individual. It’s a nice validation to know that your experience is not alone and that this person is the issue.) I think this is the rough equivalent of having a near stranger walk up to your seat at a conference, scream obscenities at you, and then ban you from their library in perpetuity for asking them why you put the fiction on the left side of the library rather than the right. And this is supposed to be a professional colleague, one for whom you are looking to rely on for larger national library issues and other important matters.

Even with that said, I think the state of the library blogosphere is pretty civil overall; it is these aforementioned cases that are the exception to the rule. And I’d rather not think that the TEDx conference left me on a sour note for the state of discourse in the librarian social sphere and the greater societal realm. There were great talks about what microfinance is doing here in the United States and in countries around the world. I got to hear about taking jazz to school kids around the country and taking rock music to the Middle East are bringing new perspectives to the next generation. To me, the power of the communication and transportation technologies lies in allowing people to share and celebrate in the other cultures and communities in the world. Even with the advent of the television bringing images of far away lands into people’s living rooms, the instruments and tools of media and mobility today take it a step further in allowing for more immersive travel experiences. You could watch it on television, or you can hop a plane and be there within a day: those are radical experience choices that are becoming more accessible every day.  

As a fleeting thought, I wondered if the library experience is our remaining attraction. In the same way that Starbucks does coffee and Five Guys does burgers and fries, people will pay more for a premium quality product and experience. Translate this over to a tax line or levy and you get roughly the same equivalent. Our competition is not the bookstores, the internet, Google, or coffee shops; rather, our competition is ourselves. It is up to libraries to provide an experience that is reflective of the communities served; I think people want something that reminds them that this is their library in their hometown. While the majority of our materials and resources are national and international in origin, it is the local staff and materials that make the local library experience unique.

Depending on the Budget

While the chosen theme of the 2010 New Jersey Library Association Conference was “Everyday Advocacy: Libraries are Essential to Your Community”, the actual more accurate tagline should have been “…depending on the budget”. This phrase because the punctuation and sentence modifier for most of the conversations I had with people over the course of the two days. And when you are staffing a two full day conference feature, you get to have that conversation many times.

The overall conference felt more like a three day hospice, where all the attendees had the same financial relative who was on its deathbed. When statements about future endeavors was not being modified by the aforementioned phrase, the budget and its effects were the principle inquiry between old friends catching up and new acquaintances learning about each other. “So what does the budget mean for your library?” might as well been written on our nametags, a riff on other types of icebreakers used to encourage people to talk to each other.

At times, the answer was mild; most of the time, the answer was depressing. Layoffs, service cuts, hour cuts, financial difficulties with municipalities, and other tales of woe dominated the types of answers. For those not playing along with the home game, this would be in opposition to the Governor’s recent remarks about the state budget library funding cuts saying that it would not result in library closings or service cuts:

It’s not like because of this, public libraries are going to be closing. Municipalities are required to dedicate a stream of funding to libraries in their towns. And we do not believe you’ll be seeing any libraries close or any significant diminution of services for people to be able to utilize.

(This is where the semantic debate would begin. The state budget didn’t cause libraries to close, the municipalities that have funding lines did. Because when you close a $10 billion budget gap, it couldn’t possibly make municipalities scramble for other ways to close their own gaps caused by the removal of state assistance across the board that won’t result in layoffs, diminished hours or services, or even closings in institutions like libraries that have dedicated funding. [Cedar Grove, Edison, Neptune, Fair Lawn, Rutherford, Jefferson Township, to name a few.] Or, in other words, the stick of dynamite that was tossed into the avalanche zone didn’t kill the skiers, the giant wave of snow, ice, trees, and bad timing did. I would ask where people in other departments who are getting laid off will go for internet access, unemployment assistance, and job hunting help, but I digress.)

As much as I paint a picture of gloom and doom for the conference, I think the fairer assessment would be restrained hopefulness. While the budget boogeyman would feature in conversations, there were people looking and planning ahead to the future. It was fun to talk to people who were enthusiastically thinking about adding gaming programs, video game collections, and using or lending gadgets at their library. In relating my own personal anecdotes and others, you could see people making the deeper connection about how these programs can create stronger patron bases by bringing in new library users as well as creating more opportunities to educate them as to what else the library does. Even with the budget caveat, people were still looking to expand library offerings. That was a good reminder that library life is still going on in lots of places.

For myself, the mood went somber only when I was sitting in larger groups in the ballroom. I wondered how many people would be here next year at different times. But it was at one of these larger gatherings that one of the more interesting things of the conference happened, in my reckoning. It was right at the beginning of the NJLA award dinner, a myriad of awards recognizing both librarian and non-librarian accomplishments from the past year. When the MC was introduced, someone shouted “Long live the Highland Regional Library Cooperative!” and a group of people cheered. (Library cooperatives would be completely eliminated under the Governor’s budget proposal. They work to negotiate group contracts, find grants for innovative pilot programs, and provide continuing education and training to the libraries they serve.)

What drew my attention and made it a memorable moment for me was the complete lack of reaction to it from the rest of the room. I’m not sure if it was a matter of people not hearing it, not registering what it meant, or just not sure how to react in the quasi-formal setting, but nobody I spoke about it unless I brought it up. I’m really not sure what to make of it; I wouldn’t want to assign it more meaning without further conversations. But it was certainly something a bit different than the norm.

As this post starts around the phrase “depending on the budget”, I’d like to end with that phrase. It’s one thing to use it as a modifier for conversations about future library programs, services, and materials at the library; I think it has a better life being used to press the case for library funding. There are more people than directors, librarians, and staff that are depending on this state funding. It’s the members of the communities served that are depending on this budget line being restored. It’s the people who walk through the door every day, every week, and every month. It’s the moms and dads, children and teens, and seniors and grandparents. It’s students of all ages and walks of life. It’s those dealing with job loss and those on the job hunt. It’s information access at a critical economic time. It’s a government service that is a community linchpin.

There are more people depending on the budget than just us.

Advocate accordingly.

 

savenjlibraries-jl

May 6th Rally

SaveMyNJLibrary.org

Dead Wildebeests and the Self Conscious Crocodile: Pres4Lib 2009

The Library is a learning place!On Friday, I went to the Pres4Lib conference organized by the bloggers of Library Garden. It was a conference for presenters and trainers and focused on ways to improve presentation skills and use of media aids. I generally don’t do a lot of presentations in a month, but I do run programs and classes so any sort of help for talking in front of people is a boon to me.

After a good night’s sleep and a glance at my notes, there is a theme that emerges for me: presentations are the product of a human and media symbiotic relationship. While it is true that a person can present without any outside aids (slides, handouts, and the like), the norm for presentations has shifted to a multimedia experience. At a minimum, there should be a visual aid to go along with the speaker’s dialogue. This is the axis point that the relationship of person and technology revolves around, for one can dramatically impact (even overshadow) the other. This isn’t something new to presenters, but it is more of a cautionary tale as presentation tools gain new features.  In addition, each factor is radically different: the human is subjective, the media is objective.

In the Birds of a Feather groups that I attended, there was a lot of talk about the personal aspects of presenting. It felt more like an informal presentation support group in which people swapped stories and traded tips about what works for them. The psychological value of these sessions was innumerable as reminded me that (1) I’m not the only one who gets butterflies, “ums” and “ahs”, and is trying to be comfortable in front of an audience and (2) that presentation style is unique to the person. As for the first, the conference has given me a network of fellow presenters that I can reach out to for advice, encouragement, and commiseration. A little confidence that can come from peer encouragement can go a long way. It also gave me additional ways to think of the audience that my presentation anxiety had not allowed me to previously consider: that the audience does not want the presenter to fail, that they want to get something out of it (even if it means not being uncomfortable during the whole duration of their disinterest in what you have to say), and that they should be treated as passengers in your presentation. To this last aspect, the mere mental image of being a driver giving a tour of a town to his passengers is an oddly soothing thought for me. It erases the notion of adversarial intent and puts me on the same side as those who are hearing me speak: a journey of sight and sound, if you will. 

As for the second point, it is about becoming comfortable with your own personality as a presentation style. A soft spoken introverted nature can be as powerful as a boisterous energetic extrovert when the speaker appears (for lack of a better term) natural. It is the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” of presentation skills: working with your personality strengths while minimizing your “weaknesses”. While not all personality types are equally suited for engaging an audience, it is through using your unique combination of traits that can make the presentation memorable. The comfort of being in your own skin combined with the appearance of confidence in rhetoric are distinguishing features that an audience can latch onto and appreciate. I don’t want to break down into clichés such as “You are a beautiful little snowflake”, but for each speaker, the presentation style is personal. Find your comfort zone, be confident in the expression of your concepts and ideas, and let that move your audience to follow you.

The role of media in a presentation is devilishly simple: it is to drive home the talking points of the speaker. And the Devil, as they say, is in the details. There are a number of potential aids in the speaker’s toolbox these days: slides, movies, audio, pictures, whiteboards, and handouts are but a few items to be used. But which ones truly work to support the point you want to make?

Steven Bell’s lightning talk about using video in presentations was my major eye opening experience for the conference. The incorporation of video into a presentation opens up fresh and bold avenues of supporting the presenter’s dialogue. It’s more than just something to keep the audience awake, it is an attention-grabber-and-never-let-go-er. With interview style videos, you can create co-presenters who repeat or reinforce your talking points. It’s the ultimate in "But don’t take my word for it!” type of persuasive speech. The weight and credibility that people lend to a third party is a powerful tool that should be utilized more often when telling a narrative. In addition, it is more exciting than a graph, figure, or other non-moving visual demonstration. Don’t let a chart say it if you can have a real person proclaim it. The ability to use video to show people what you are talking about is an incredible tool in this increasingly visual society.

A close second was John DeMasney’s talk about Picasa presentation slides. While PowerPoint is a standard to most speakers, the flexibility of Picasa in image generation was exciting to me. Static pictures can be used to suggest themes and ideas to get the audience thinking about something before you even say a work about it. With Creative Common images, there is a massive multitude of copyright safe images that can be used in slides. Let the pictures be the accompanying visual to your words. It’s so simple yet so powerful for a speaker; for me, it was a reminder that even the most simple of visual materials can create the desired audience reaction and engagement. 

(Note: Each of the Lightning Talks was excellent. I could talk about all of them but I wanted to pick the ones that got me all aflutter. Check out the video archive on the Pres4Lib wiki to see all of them. I highly recommend it.)

The lesson here is to marry the presentation media with your style in a way that compliments each aspect the most. In mentioning marriage, the rule of thumb attributed to bridal parties might actually explain it best: the bridesmaids (your accompanying media) should look good, but not as good as the bride (you). The right kind and amount of visual and auditory aids should intertwine and support your talking points. Every additional material should move the audience closer to the goal of your talk, whether it is to inform, train, or otherwise. It should also compliment the presenter’s style and manner which is (as stated above) uniquely their own. It is the symbiotic relationship between person and media that makes the presentation a memorable full sensory experience.

I am very thankful to the Pres4Lib organizers for putting this together. And I am certainly looking forward to another shot at Battledecks next year. I plan on improving upon my previous effort.

As to the title of the this post, I offer you the following convoluted anecdote:

I have been reading the book “Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life” by Len Fisher. In one of the chapters, he talks about a game theory scenario called The Volunteer’s Dilemma. This situation entails a group that is facing a problem in which an action needs to be taken but the person who volunteers to take the action opens themselves up to a greater risk of a negative effect. However, if no one takes the action, the entire group suffers. In the book, Len describes a herd of wildebeest crossing the plains of Africa. To reach new grazing lands to sustain the herd, they have to cross rivers. These rivers are the domain of very hungry and territorial crocodiles. If the herd doesn’t cross the river, they will surely die of starvation from the lack of adequate food. So, the first arrivals stand on the edge of the river until the pressure behind them builds to a point where a wildebeest “volunteers” (pushed or of own volition) to start crossing the river. This brave beast risks being the crocodile’s first meal, but the rest of herd can now cross at a (relatively) reduced risk.

I told that background story so I could tell you this story as it relates to Pres4Lib.

So, in the first Bird of a Feather session in the morning, the topic of discussion was called Getting Started. We’ve talked about “hooks” (grabbing the audience’s attention), about introducing any elephants in the room as an icebreaker, and had turned the topic to transitions (moving between different talking points and formats). Amy Kearns had asked about what to do when you ask a question of the audience and no one answers. Someone said that you just leave the question out there till the audience actually answers when I rather “brightly” said to the group.

“Oh! That sounds just like The Volunteer’s Dilemma!”

After explaining what this was, I related the presentation situation to the dilemma. The audience is the herd of wildebeest, the crocodiles represent the feeling of being self conscience, and the river is the question posed by the presenter. While it is true that the presenter can get the audience off the hook by answering the question, they have all lost a chance to open up a dialogue with the presenter. A fear of being wrong or awkward or other possible negative outcomes in answering in front of a group is “the self conscious crocodile”, the thing preventing people from freely answering the question. No one wants to get eaten by that dinosaur throwback and so they stand at the proverbial river bank shifting in place. Even so, with a taciturn audience, you could even mention this scenario as a secondary icebreaker and a means to further elicit an answer.

So, there is no need to think of your audience naked. Unless, of course, the thought of a room full of naked wildebeests is somewhat soothing.