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.

NJLA Conference

I’ll be gone for the next couple of days attending the New Jersey Library Association annual conference. Last year, I was co-presenter of the Information Technology section “Tech Lounge”, a gadget and gaming petting zoo. Attendees can come get hands on time with different game systems and a variety of gadgets (iPads, iPods, Kindles, Nooks, and whatnot). It was a success last year and I’m hoping to duplicate it again this year.

In addition, we schedule people to hang around the Tech Lounge to answer specific questions about different topics. This year, I’m happy to once again have Justin and JP from 8bitlibrary who will be answering questions about teen gaming, gaming programs, and video game collections on Tuesday between 1pm to 3pm. Doug Baldwin will be there on Wednesday at 12pm about alternate reality games and the very cool mystery game his library did with patrons. Karen Klapperstuck and Cynthia Lambert will be doing hands on eBook demonstrations (as in, how to download it to various devices) on Wednesday from 2pm to the start of Battledecks. I’m also very pleased to announce that Kenley Neufeld will be spending an hour at the Tech Lounge on Wednesday from 1pm to 2pm to talk about social media platforms. The talks allow attendees to ask additional questions and have longer conversations about certain topics; it was a great success this year and we have a variety of people this year. I’m looking forward to it once again.

In mentioning Battledecks, I am the slidemaster for this year’s competition. I have some truly wonderfully bad decks made for the contestants. I look forward to seeing how everyone does, considering how many random internet image searches it took to get all the pictures that I needed. I’m also thinking that the better description is “PowerPoint Improv” rather than “PowerPoint Karaoke”, since karaoke implies that they know the tune ahead of time.

I may or may not be able to squeeze out some blog posts (I’m leaving the laptop at home), so I’ll leave you with the official Battledeck competition design that I made with GIMP and Inkscape.

 u mad?

Behold it in all its terrible glory.

KIA for QandA NJ

So, even though there has been no budget cuts to state level New Jersey library funding, earlier this month the New Jersey State Librarian Norma Blake informed the New Jersey library community that the award winning and role model online reference service QandANJ will be ending June 30th this year. This was announced on possibly one of the saddest PowerPoint slides created for a library presentation.

PICTURE OF ACTUAL SLIDE (WASN'T KIDDING)

From the press release on the LibraryLinkNJ listserv (since I wasn’t at the webinar; for non-NJ library folks, LibraryLinkNJ is the remaining NJ library regional cooperative):

Even with all of the volunteer assistance, the program still has the fixed costs for a coordinator, public relations and marketing and software licenses to name a few. When state budget cuts were enacted last year, the decision was made to keep QandANJ active at least through June of this year in order to incorporate NJLA’s South Jersey Works initiative. With local libraries experiencing budget cuts it has become more difficult to allow staff the work time to participate. These reasons have resulted in this very difficult decision being made by the State Library and disseminated by the grantee, LibraryLinkNJ.

(Here’s some context for people who might need it.)

QandANJ is supported by the New Jersey State Library, an affiliate of Thomas Edison State College, managed by LibraryLinkNJ: the New Jersey Library Cooperative, staffed by member libraries in the New Jersey Library Network, and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an independent federal agency whose mission is to create strong libraries and museums to connect people to information and ideas.

But when it came to the actual decision to end the service, there was no consultation with any libraries involved in the project. Months passed without a future determination of the project until the Conversation with the State Librarian webinar on April 7th. The State Library basically held onto the ball as the game clock ran out, then declared the end of the service as a casualty of the local budgets.

It’s a pretty ignominious end to an incredible program, especially after years of praise from the State Librarian office.

Infolink, October 31, 2003:

QandANJ celebrated its second full year of service on October 1, 2003. For the occasion, State Librarian Norma Blake presented an award to each of QandANJ’s 37 participating libraries for their excellent service to the residents of New Jersey.

During a special luncheon ceremony, Ms. Blake thanked the participating libraries and their staffing librarians for all they have done “to make QandANJ one of the most important library services in New Jersey and the best Live Reference Service in the United States.”

Library Journal Librarian of the Year, January 15, 2008:

Featured on New Jersey governor Jon Corzine’s web page, another NJSL initiative is QandANJ, a virtual 24/7 information system through which librarians answer inquiries from across the state in real time. Karen Hyman, director of the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative, came up with the idea and was about to start the program in her region.

One of the most important things a state librarian must be is someone who knows a good idea when they see one,” says Blake. “I thought Karen [had] a very good one that would have statewide impact, so we came up with financial support to take that system statewide.” It is clearly a case of mutual admiration. “It has really been a golden age for all of us,” says Hyman, referring to library service after Blake’s arrival.

NJ State Library, September 2, 2009:

“QandANJ is certainly a New Jersey success story and we are glad to continue our partnership with the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative, which has pioneered the service from a pilot project with a handful of libraries to a program that now relies on the expertise of librarians from across the state. As an online information service, QandANJ is a model for the rest of the nation,” said Norma E. Blake, New Jersey state librarian.

(Emphasis mine.)

QandANJ is listed as the number one initiative accomplishment on the New Jersey State Librarian’s page.

norma-blake-qandanj

And on a related note, Norma has ‘liked’ it on her Facebook page. (This is visible to anyone; you don’t need to be logged into Facebook to see it.)

normablake-fb

So, what gives? How can it go from being so highly praised to a “budget” casualty? Did it outlive its value?

I did some napkin math. Using the library value calculator modified by the Mt Laurel library, an average reference question is valued at $15. In 2010, the service had roughly 26,000 reference sessions. I’d estimate that each session probably resulted in 2-3 questions, so for the sake of this post I’ll use an average of 2.5 questions per session for a total number of questions estimated at 65,000 questions. Plugging the numbers into the calculator,

image

That’s a value of $975,000, a number that is a return of investment of 325% of the $300,000 grant awarded to LibraryLinkNJ to run the service. It can’t be a value thing when it is a bargain of a service.

I find it very odd that 26,000 reference sessions is considered too low a number of value to a state population of 8 million, yet the 80,000 postcards collected during the 2010 statewide library advocacy effort was considered a triumph (or, stated another way, 0.325% of the population versus 1%) in the NJLA meetings I sat in on. Consider also that that these 26,000 sessions occurred during an incredible budget fight across the state of New Jersey, both at the state and local levels. There were libraries being closed, layoffs all over the place, and yet, YET, this number of sessions with this estimated amount of questions were handled by the remaining QandANJ volunteer staff. (The NJ proposed budget was announced in March and an actual budget was passed in June. This should give a time frame for the period.) The number of participating staffing libraries has gone from 50 to 43; not exactly a paralyzing drop as expected by the press release.

So, what’s the deal?

For myself, the decision is a complete technological step backwards. It represents a move that isolates portions of the New Jersey population that came to rely on the service and/or lacked the local resources to handle the inquiries. At a time when local libraries are still dealing with the deep cuts from the past year, a service that transcended those local cutbacks is being snuffed out. It’s just not right.

As it is funded by a grant, it doesn’t mean that the program has to stay with LibraryLinkNJ. As it moved from the now defunct South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative to LibraryLinkNJ, so I believe it can be moved again to an institution that wishes to carry on the service for the benefit of the citizens of New Jersey. Yes, it may not be in the same form as it was before, but the infrastructure is already in place. It can be rebuilt elsewhere.

The sadder part is that it has become an issue within the New Jersey Library Association. There is pressure to put off discussing the fate and future of QandANJ before our conference in two weeks. I’m not sure the underlying reason short of putting on our happy faces for each other like some sort of dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner. But I think that’s equally wrong.

To my fellow NJ librarians, I wish to beg to differ to this sentiment. In fact, I think that the conference is a perfect time to get together to discuss this face-to-face. In looking at the NJLA schedule, it doesn’t look like there is anything going on after 8pm on Tuesday. The Ocean Place has a nice lobby and a bar right there.

What do you think?

UPDATE: The Reference Section of NJLA will be having a meeting on Friday May 13th about the fate and alternatives of QandANJ. With all due deference to Michael Maziekien (the chair of that section), I’d still like to meet informally on May 3rd as a show of support. I’ll see about tossing something like that up on Facebook.

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