Why Closing More Public Libraries Might Be The Best Thing (…Right Now)

Photo by bigoteetoe (CC)In Roman times, there was a uncommon military discipline practice called decimation. Meant as a way to punish cowardly or mutinous soldiers, it was a brutal practice in which groups of ten would draw lots; one man would be selected to be killed by the other nine men through clubbing, stoning, or only with their hands and feet. This ‘removal of a tenth’ punishment sent a clear message to the survivors: your actions (or lack of action) put you at risk for a disgraceful death. It was warning to all, a vicious lesson that the cruelty of the battlefield is nothing compared to the cruelty of your fellow countrymen.

With this emergence of a seemingly constant cycle of state and local budget crises occurring around the United States right now, this would be the perfect opportunity for the library profession to engage in some introspection. There is no better time than the present to engage in critical evaluation of the librarian as a profession, the public library funding models, the state of advocacy, and the current vision and path of the public library. I do not believe that the status quo of these aspects create a stable future continuity. This is the right time to get our proverbial house in order so as to secure the future of the institution in ten, twenty, fifty, and one hundred years from now.

Photo by Lorianne DiSabato (CC) First, there needs to be a philosophical shakeup in the librarian professional ranks. Quite frankly, let’s face it: there are librarians working out there right now that are poor representatives of the profession. I’m talking about the people who actively exclude a particular group from receiving their attention or service. For example, librarians who serve children and adults but not teens (as if teens, once they would advance to maturity, would magically return to the library). Or those who have no time or empathy for the computer illiterate or others who require attention effort. I’m also talking about librarians who are incapable or unwilling to try new things. Whether it is online services or a different way of arranging the physical collection, this conservative mindset of “This is how we’ve always done it” permeates and stifles any attempts at better practices.

Personally, in the future, I think that the main focus of librarianship will rest on two areas: transliteracy and customer service. For me, transliteracy is the best umbrella concept to the multi-disciplinary knowledges that the future of information will require. With information storage occurring in a multiple of mediums (audio, video, and written recordings, for example), the ability to navigate the formats will become a necessity. As to the latter, customer service is perhaps our most touted and most overlooked professional criteria. People skills are a sorely overlooked basic requirement of librarianship. A librarian could be well versed in every item in a library, but it wouldn’t matter a single bit if they lack the social skills to communicate this information with the patrons. Our jobs exist because of the people who come there, not the materials; otherwise, they could just hire a watchman to mind the building. I’m not aware of any library programs that teach any aspect of this vital skill, whether it is managing different personalities, conflict resolution, or other forms of social diplomacy. And this needs to change.

This aspect extends to our paraprofessional and support staff. In a nutshell, checking in and out materials and maintaining patrons records is trainable; finding someone who will act as an advocate for the library at the desk that most patrons interact with is not. And yet, we hire on the basis of the first part without much thought or consideration as to the face that we are giving the library by putting this individual at our most prominent position: the circulation desk. This simply cannot continue as a hiring practice.

With less public libraries around, it is my belief that there will be greater emphasis on the aforementioned skills when it comes to hiring. A tighter job market will (in theory) place bad and mediocre librarians at a hiring disadvantage. In turn, librarians who do not meet muster will be weeded out and replaced over time. Over a longer timeline, the profession can work towards attracting people who possess the transliteracy knowledge and customer service skills that will be vital to the future of the library as an institution.

Photo by TechSoup for Libraries (CC) Second, the current public library funding models need to be re-evaluated (and in some cases, restarted completely). Whether it is a dedicated tax line or levy, allotment of public funds, greater care and consideration need to be established between the library and those who write the checks for the funds. While this is not a universal issue in libraries (there are libraries that enjoy a good relationship with their respective local governing bodies), what is not universal is the knowledge or determination to establish and maintain this important relationship through all types of economic and political climates.

One of the lessons that I am learning in New Jersey right now is that the majority of elected officials do not have an ounce of a clue as to what the library does and how it impacts their constituents and communities. It is not a stretch of the imagination that, since they are voting for expenditures that fund programs and services for which they know nothing, they would not have an equally hard time cutting or eliminating such funding from the budget. These are the people that libraries rely on for the money that will keep their doors open. It is our failure to educate them as to the importance of library funding, the return of taxpayer investment in materials and services, and the overall impact on the people and the community. It is up to the profession to work towards better funding models by establishing and maintaining better relationships with their governing bodies.

In the absence of this commitment, there are inherent benefits to the restarting of library funding after being completely eliminated. While some may object to a complete loss of funding under the notion that re-establishing funding is an near insurmountable obstacle, this ignores the longer timeline of the institution and the greater benefits of (for lack of better phrase) fresh funding. It can offer a clean slate for the construction, layout, materials, and overall design of the library facility. I cannot imagine that there is not one librarian out there who cannot think of a library that could use a fresh start. The overall “feast and famine” years of library funding have a created locations across the country that reflect a mishmash of time periods and renovation expenditures. Personally, I’d rather have a library eliminated from a budget, return under a swell of community support, and begin anew than limp along with fickle cyclical funding and mediocre support.

With less public libraries, it will be the time to see which funding models thrive or flounder. These financial schemes can be evaluated and replicated in places that are looking to start or restart their libraries. Furthermore, it can create a chance to examine the relationships which impact library funding. In studying this aspect further, the profession can look at ways to instruct librarians (both old and new) as to how best to pursue their government financial minders. With perpetuity in mind, the profession can work towards creating the relationship that will result in a lasting funding scheme.

Photo by thelibrarygeek (CC) Third, library advocacy needs to move to a more consistent feature as part of the profession. The present prevalent format (desperate reactionary advocacy) should not be the status quo. It cannot continuously be an act of survival, content in the notion that the library get just enough funding to fight another day. While generally on a longer timeline, it begs compassion fatigue as the library funding needs to saved yet again.

Advocacy needs to be placed at the forefront (in both job duty and as a core graduate class component) as an active relationship between the library and the surrounding community. Set aside from the funding bodies (covered in the previous section), this activism seeks to maintain relationships between the library and active supporters (people who use the library) and passive supporters (people who support the library as an institution) [Otherwise known as my parents.] It benefits the institution to promote and cultivate this relationship in order to direct collection development and services, but acts as an additional system of political and/or financial support when the library/funding body relationship is less than stellar.

With less public libraries, there will be more emphasis placed on advocacy as a outreach approach, advocacy as a job skill and job duty, and advocacy as a more prominent and integral part of the profession. It is a shift from a completely reactive activism paradigm to a more proactive one. Without a renewed importance on these community relationships, the library as an institution will continue to dither, moving from one crisis (funding and public support, or lack thereof) to another (tripe existential “Are we still relevant?” blathering) in a non-constructive ceaseless pattern for a very long time. The activism that the profession embraces now as a larger core value sets the model and ground work for future librarians and their community relationships.

Photo by luzer (CC) Fourth, the current vision and path of the public library needs some prolonged and serious discussion. This is already occurring in different places at different levels, but even with the amount of communication technology present, there seems to be people missing out on these dialogues. Even then, there is emphasis on particular aspects (such as Web 2.0, specific forms of outreach to niche communities, age based collection development, and so forth) rather than the library as an institutional whole. This is the conversation that really needs to happen before those in the profession attempt to fill in the details.

For myself, I don’t feel that there is a coherent macro-level debate. Maybe I don’t read the right blogs or trade publications or have the right connections, but what I read and hear is generally wrapped up in keeping libraries running or trying to modify an existing feature. It’s not that these smaller talks don’t have a place in library discussions, but it seems slightly out of step. It’s like trying to value how much gold will be extracted from the ground without knowing where you will be mining, nevermind whether there will be any gold to be found. The question for me remains as this: what will the libraries of the future look like, act like, and what is their place in the community? The closing of public libraries should bring this question into sharper focus. And the answers, when discussed across the profession as a whole, should give better direction and purpose to those in the public library profession.

In my reckoning, it will take a catalyst such as the closing of more public libraries to reach this time in the wilderness. This modern decimation of our shared public institution should be the time to draw a new lesson: that it is not the end of the dreams of Franklin and Carnegie, but it is the beginning of a new era in the public collection and dissemination of knowledge. To step forth into this future, we must break from some practices of the past. If it takes the closing of libraries today in order to secure the future of libraries tomorrow, as painful as this would be, it just might be the right thing for the librarian profession.

Additional thoughts on this idea: The World Without Public Libraries

Edit: I added a link to the Libraries and Transliteracy blog, run by librarians Bobbi Newman, Buffy Hamilton, Brian Hulsey, and Tom Ipri. In their About section, they state that the blog is “a group effort to share information about the all literacies (digital literacy, media literacy, information literacy, visual literacy, 21st century literacies, transliteracies and more) with special focus on all libraries.” As I feel that this skillset will become vital to the profession in the future, please check out their blog. It has some great posts; for certain, they are food for thought and you may just end up learning something new.

The Infernal Sunshine of an Overactive Mind

19371730147_ORIGTonight, I went through my notepads and organized them. As you can see, I have a little love affair for the legal pad. If I forget to bring one, I will deputize another one to take its place. This creates multiple notepads on the same subject and can make the statement “I don’t have my notes in front of me” more ominous as I have to pore through multiple notebooks to find what I seek. Even then, some notepads get pulled into other services in a pinch. Tonight’s effort was to take pages from the pads and match them to the right ledgers. While loose paper is not an ideal solution, it is better in the long run to have it organized than to have it neat and tidy.

If it’s not obvious, I love a good legal notepad. Combined with a decent pen (none of those disposables, this pen better have some grip to it), it’s my tool of choice for conferences, meetings, and working on thoughts and ideas. As I looked through some of the filled pads, I can see inklings of stuff that eventually came to fruition. These are in the minority compared to the sum total of the ledger; there are many other jottings that never came to pass, whether it was from change in direction of thought or not enough time or simply left aside. It makes me think about the amount of castoff concepts and ideas that get left behind everyday. I know I can drag out these notepads and go over them as a reminder of what I was thinking at a certain time, revive past concepts, or find inspiration for something new. With the notepads, I can block out any of the usual online distractions that take away from my writing and really focus on the words, sentence cadence, and paragraph fit.

(Just a quick aside: this is not a repudiation of the smartphone, netbook, or other device people use to take notes, tweet, or post blurbs about conferences. It’s just that it doesn’t work for me. There is something about having the words enter my ear, go to the brain, then translated into writing that makes the experience more memorable. I’m not worried about getting the right hashtag or the wifi dropping me and other aspects that really distract and derail my train of thought. I can just write, make notes in the margins, and let stuff just flow out onto the paper.)

Some of my blog posts are born on these pages. There are snippets of sentences and paragraphs that I wanted to capture before they disappear. Jumbled on the page, I think it might give one a glimpse of the disjointed thought process that sometimes plays out in my brain. It is a strong start and a strong ending looking for a middle, or a essay in search of a stirring conclusion, or blog post in search of a catchy title or introduction. I can get hung up on a phrasing or word choice so easily that there will be parts in brackets just so I can keep writing the rest of the thought and agonize over it later. Even then, it’s just me, the pen, and the paper trying to hash something out.

At this moment, the notepads are a reminder of all the things I want to write: blog entries that have been hovering around my mind, a (long overdue) blog post for 8 Bit Library, perhaps another entry for the Young Librarian Series, thank you notes to speakers, and letters to all sorts of people. The list of prose grows, for certain, and there is much to write, read, edit, and send. And, hopefully, with a little luck, I can keep all those notes in order.

Here’s hopin’.

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.

Analog Advocacy

I saw this TED talk a couple of days back and posted it on my Facebook account. But it stuck with me over the days since I first saw it (and not just because I’m attending TEDxNJLibraries at the end of this week). Because as much as I work with using blogs, email, Facebook and Twitter to promote my work and connect with other people of similar mindsets, this talk really made me think about how much of advocacy comes back to the personal connection. Whether it is face to face discussion, the pencil or pen written word, or a craft made with one’s own hand, there is still so much power to those objects and encounters in which time is invested.

Don’t get me wrong. The internet is a powerful communication tool. With Capwiz, email lists, Facebook groups, Twitter tags, message boards, and chat interfaces, you can move an idea or concept or call to action very quickly from your desktop to hundreds (if not thousands) of people within your digital reach.  There is still a disparities between internet action and real world action. If someone got 10,000 people to send an email on behalf of libraries, that’s a lot, right? But how does it compare to 10,000 people writing a letter? Or 10,000 people protesting library cuts? The physical presence of the number of letters, nevermind the number of people, provides an assertion of purpose that the email cannot (short of causing an email server to crash, but again, that’s something physical in the act of failing). In the end, the internet is just that: a communication tool.

I’m sure there are people who are reading this and saying, “Yes, but XYZ did this and stopped land development/saved a little girl with cancer/made a government think twice”. My contention is that the majority of those types of online campaigns are merely the exception, not the rule. It tapped into the right kind of public outcry, but I’m willing to bet most cases had a physical “I-called-the-office-of-the-[insert title here]-to-complain” type of component to it.

My overall point is that human beings put greater meaning and value onto things in which we know other people invested their time and talent. As much as we try to direct people to websites, Facebook groups, and preprinted postcards, we should always be working towards that Holy Grail of Advocacy: the person who take time to communicate something personal on behalf of the cause of the library.

The Three Simple C’s of Librarianship

If the three L’s of buying a house are “location, location, location”, then the three C’s of librarianship should be “communication, communication, communication”. I don’t think what I’m going to list is anything revolutionary; I do think it might be a novel way to remember the basic interactions that keep the library moving forward.

(1) Communication with Patrons

There is a symbiotic information cycle at work here. Patrons ask for things from the library collection; in return, we ask them what they want for future collection development. A no brainer, right? But take a moment and think about how it’s being accomplished in your library today. Is it done through face to face staff interaction? On the phone? On the web? Text or Mobile? Or [shudders] Signs? (How many library “issues” do library staff try to solve by posting signs? Seriously.) What medium is being used to facilitate this staff-to-patron interaction?

I think libraries can tie themselves up into knots attempting to solve this riddle. They want to be sure they have staff on hand to handle any issues that arise or to be available for those patrons who prefer human-to-human contact, but they try to make the system as accessible as possible for the “Do It Yourself” crowd. We’ll never be able to completely satisfy the multitude of potential interaction points, so we just try to present as many as possible.

There is no proper answer for what medium is best; it’s wherever your patrons prefer. What is important is that this communication be as open as possible.

(2) Communication with Staff

You can call it whatever you want: staff awareness, staff buy-in, staff communication, or some other term with connotations of togetherness. It’s the communication that happens across the organization planes, whether it is horizontal (within a reference department) or vertical (from the janitor to the director).  What matters is that it is an important and integral aspect of running a library.

Librarians tend to separate staff around organizational function: circulation, reference, adult, children, programming, serials, subject specialties. But there are details and points of information that need to be mentioned outside of the function. It helps the circulation staff to know about programs for children; it helps a reference librarian to know about changes to circulation policy; it helps subject specialists to know about catalog alterations to their field.

It’s organizational knowledge, plain and simple. Do you know what is going on in other departments that could affect what you are doing? What information are you sitting on that could allow others to help you do your job? We’re not exactly spies; we don’t need to operate on a ‘need to know’ basis.

Otherwise, it becomes a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

(3) Communication with Governing Bodies

And by governing bodies, I mean the people who write the checks for your institution. Whether it is a mayor, town council, freeholders, county administrator, state assembly, or another political body, it’s up to you to keep them informed as to the value of the work you are doing.

And this is not a call to shower them with statistics. Five thousand people visiting the library in a month doesn’t mean anything without context; what does a number like that mean? Even so, it helps to put a human face on it. Show them who is using the library and what it means to them. This is a time to shine on your behalf (by showing them how the taxpayer money has been well spent) and their behalf (for continuing to fund you and making a good investment).

As local and state budgets tighten, it is critical to show what the library means at the constituent level. Even in better times, it is the maintenance of a good  relationship that will see the library through the bad times. Let those who watch over your budget know the meaning and value of what the library does for the community it serves.


As I said at the start, I don’t think I said anything really revolutionary here. But a good and timely reminder never hurt. It’s up to librarians everywhere to keep the channels open and maintain healthy relationships within and throughout the institution.