On Privatization

There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.”


A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.” –New York Times

The quote is troublesome to me for a couple of reasons and I’m not even referring to the surface ones. First, rather than exalt how wonderful his business is, Mr. Pezzanite is being quoted saying how craptactular other non-LSSI managed libraries. Which, for the curious, is roughly a ratio of 63 LSSI locations versus 16,608 non-LSSI locations; or, expressed differently, means that 99.7% of public libraries suck and 0.3% of all public libraries rule. Sure, I’m being literal about the term “a lot”, but since this is antagonistic hyperbole rather than telling the interviewer how they are going to amaze the citizens of Santa Clarita with the wonders they are going to bless them with, there certainly is room for taking some liberties. My advice in this vein would be that the takeaway quote (“They suck and we don’t”) is not exactly a viable marketing strategy unless your target audience are fans of professional sports. It’s a weak jab which doesn’t appear to be made from a position of strength.

Second, if my town is going to hire someone to run the library, I would want someone who would tell me, “This is a sacred place and we are going to continue to keep it that way.” Same goes for schools, police & fire, the post office, and whatever governmental activity the private company was taking over. Why? I wouldn’t want someone with a ‘ho-hum’ attitude managing this government service; I want someone who will treat the library like the damn cathedral of knowledge that it is. Mr. Pezzanite’s offhand dismissal of this type of regard for the library ignores an inherent strength of the library (an institution of learning and knowledge)

Third, in rushing to throw the public employees under the bus, Mr. Pezzanite misses a larger point. Pension management and funding is handled at a government level that is higher than a library staffer. To say that the pension plan and unionized employees are the major problem in this equation misses the point regarding mismanagement and inadequate contributions to the pension fund itself. With that being said, it’s not a stretch to see the benefits (no pun intended) in having the city of Santa Clarita privatize the library system, thus relieving themselves of onerous contributions to health and retirement plans.

I won’t even address the “do nothing” portion of the quotation since it’s just such an ignorant and inflammatory display that it doesn’t warrant a proper reply.

The bottom line is that LSSI is going to take a library system currently costing $5 million down to $3.8 million. LSSI has stated that they will hire existing employees at their current salaries, provide ‘generous’ benefits, and educational reimbursement ; on the other hand, they have stated they will reduce costs by reducing overhead and replacing unionized employees. So, that leaves a lot of questions as to where this $1.2 million reduction will originate. I’d be interested to hear more about how that gap is going to be closed. Certainly not through cutting hours, as they have been proposed to expand. Will it be through materials? Services? Or is there enough administrative bloat to remove to make up the difference?

Time will tell on this one. For me, I place myself with others who will be watching a private profit company delivering a public service very closely.

(Norman Oder at Library Journal has a good write-up on the whole deal. Go read it for the full spectrum.)

Banned Book Week 2010

I got inspired by the new “iPad is” ad so I made a riff on it for Banned Books Week. I hope people enjoy it. (Details about the video are on the YouTube site.) What is hilarious to me about it is that I had the option of encoding in High Definition 720p so I went for it. It’s so deliciously low tech that it couldn’t possibly hurt to make it crystal clear, right?

At any rate, I was re-reading what I wrote last year at this time, an entry entitled “Banned Book Bullshit”. Oddly enough, even with the difference of a year’s experience, I stand by what I wrote. I don’t know how others still might feel about it, but that’s where I am: still standing where I was before.

Fear and Licensing in Las Library

In reading about the Netflix/library hubbub[1],  the issue in my mind is not how Netflix was used. I believe that the actions of these libraries and librarians are a symptom of a larger issue for the profession: the coping (or non-coping) with the expansion of licensed content as part of the collection.

This run-in with Netflix is just the tip of the iceberg that is slowly bearing down on the libraryland ship. We are moving from a collection model where we would purchase and lend materials to where we act as an access point for leased or licensed content. The relatively safe model protected under the first sale doctrine is being eroded and replaced with agreements where ownership rights stay with with the provider. In forgoing ownership, libraries must abide by a series of contractual rules and terms that have been created by an outside entity. As the number of vendors offering these kinds of business increases, librarians are obliged to enforce a variety of contractual clauses, terms, and conditions.

Libraries are surrendering content ownership at an alarming rate in exchange for convenience. In doing so, the library moves toward a future where the collection is no longer owned and maintained but leased and licensed by entities that operate in the best interest of their shareholders, not the patron community. It’s a future in which final determination of access is taken out of the hands of librarians and placed into that of outside third parties.

If this doesn’t bother you, it should.  

So what can be done? Just as business models regarding digital content are being shaped in the marketplace right now, the library has a role in what that model will look like. Libraries are no longer act as a receptacle at the end of the information production line; they are now active and involved in content creation. In addition, we retain a very important business model chip: money. As it becomes a rarer commodity due to budget cuts, it becomes a more valuable one in terms of buying power. 

So, this begs the question: why aren’t companies like Netflix, Amazon, Apple, or Sony working with libraries? (Redbox does; Starbucks does; I am eager to find other examples but I wanted to post this sooner.) I have a couple of answers in mind, but the one that strike me as being the best is this: companies don’t want to give up any level of control of their content. In creating terms for libraries to use their content, they would have to cede some level of control to us in order to make their product available to our patrons. With the current bevy of EULAs, TOSs, and other agreements that allow them to retain absolute ownership, there is no reason to make a any sort of accomodation or deal with libraries.

(Still not convinced? Check out the quote in the ReadWriteWeb article from Steve Swasey, Netflix’ vice president of corporate communications:

Netflix "frowns upon" this type of use, said Steve Swasey, Netflix’ vice president of corporate communications, but indicated no plans to enforce the rules. "We just don’t want to be pursuing libraries," he said. "We appreciate libraries and we value them, but we expect that they follow the terms of agreement."

“Appreciate” and “value” sound like the words used before that boy or girl you have a crush on in high school tells you that they just want to be friends. They won’t sue libraries for misusing their service, but they sure aren’t lining up to come up with something that is a better deal for both parties[2]. And that’s a problem that libraries need to address and quickly. Libraries risk losing out on the next generation of content management and the ability to write their own destinies when it comes to collection development. We need to renew our efforts to take control of our content as well as to work with businesses in creating new opportunities and ventures.

The clock is ticking.


[1] In roughly this order: Tame the Web, Chronicle of Higher Education, Information Wants to Be Free, Read Write Web, Fast Company, LibraryLaw Blog, with a good overview from Librarian.net.

[2] Here’s an idea off the top of my head: Netflix creates a site license for libraries, up the number of DVDs that can be borrowed from Netflix by a library, and give Netflix a share of overdue fines collected from their DVDs. Libraries move less well known movies off of the shelves of Netflix, Netflix gets nearly free advertising as a service within libraries (“we don’t have it, but we’ll Netflix your request”), patrons get movies, libraries share overdue fees with Netflix, everyone wins. (Yes, I know I just railed against licensing and not owning content, but since Netflix is in the business of lending and not retailing, I think this better fits their current business model.)

Vertical Advocacy in Libraryland

CC Photo by becketchai/Flickr From my readings and observations, there is a visible disconnect between library types when it comes to advocating and action. When the state budget battle was being fought in New Jersey this past year, this lack of affiliation was readily apparent.

When it came to the news that school librarians were being cut from many districts, the anger and the outrage over the news was pretty intense. But when it came to taking a step to act on the issue, the refrain was something akin to “Well, what is the NJASL (New Jersey Association of School Libraries) doing?”, a question left hanging most of the time without further inquiry.

During the advocacy effort, I went to a meeting of academic librarians at Rutgers. As the state’s largest university and with a lot to lose regarding the cutting of internet service, databases, and interlibrary loan delivery (all proposals in the Governor’s original draft), Rutgers would take a big hit with the proposed budget passed. While the majority of their meeting concerned strategy discussion and type of action to take, there was a brief exchange about public libraries towards the end. As a public librarian, it was intriguing to hear some of the ideas and perceptions of what the people advocating for public libraries should be doing. Most of it were things that had come and gone as ideas, whether rejected or being put into use.

While I freely admit that I did not have much of a clue as to what the academic librarians were contending with in their simultaneous struggle, it struck me that there was a lack of basic information exchange going on between groups that were engaged in the same cause. Even this simple one hour meeting brought me much closer to not only what academic libraries in New Jersey were up against, but also informed me as to their course of action as well as avenues of advocacy.

“Vertical advocacy” would be the best way to describe this phenomena; the practice of lobbying on behalf of one type of library while offering little or no help to other types of libraries. I am not without guilt in this matter; I should be paying more attention or even working to advocate for other types of libraries. But when the majority of your contacts are in the public library field, the overall information intake is going to be skewed towards the public library. To compound matters, from conversations and reading blogs and other anecdotal evidence, library advocacy is heavily favored towards the public incarnation of the institution. How or why the other library communities tolerate this is beyond me; but in writing this, I’m looking for a recourse.

The question that this entry leaves me with is this: is the creation of different subset organizations (such as SLA, PLA, ACRL, & AASL) the library world equivalent of “separate but equal”? As in, there are organizations that are supposed to be on top of issues for those types of libraries but often (too often, perhaps) it turns into a place to pass issues that never return to the light of day? Where has the communication broken down? What (if anything) can be done to change this?

Because this is a status quo that needs to be changed.

BBAW Week Questionnaire

From browsing my Google Reader in the last couple of days, I see that this week is Book Blogger Appreciation Week. This is a week to, as the site puts it, “recognize the hard work and contribution of book bloggers to the promotion and preservation of a literate culture actively engaged in discussing books, authors, and a lifestyle of reading.” This comes on the heels of the cover article by Library Journal, Every Reader a Reviewer, which discusses the explosion of online reviews and its impact on the book market. It’s a great article and I suggest taking a couple of minutes to read it.

Now, I have a confession to make: as much as I subscribe to book review blogs, I really don’t read them very faithfully. It’s not that these blogs are bad, but I’m just not a big book reader. (The majority of my reading is online sources.) So, I really don’t know what makes a book blog tick. For those who are willing, I’ve have a series of questions that I’d like to ask so that I could get a better understanding of this blog genre. Please answer as many or as few as you’d like; you can answer in the comments or on your own blog. But I’d love to hear your answers.

  • To you, what defines authority? How does one establish it? And what do you use as a measurement for examining other book blogs?
  • How do you get your review materials? What do you consider to be the best source of review materials and why? Are there sources of materials that you won’t accept and why?
  • When it comes to a review, what’s the main point you try to get to people who read your blog? Do you only publish ‘good’ reviews? (I mean this in different senses: “I read a lot and this one stands out” or “I only publish those things that I would recommend”) Do you publish ‘bad’ reviews? How do you feel about those blogs that publish one or both?
  • In reviewing and making a recommendation, I have noticed that some blogs are written by people who are Amazon associates. If you see what they have reviewed, click on a link through their blog, and purchase something on Amazon, they get a small cut of the sale. In your opinion, is this a good thing or a bad thing? (On one hand, I can see an argument in favor of that arrangement because the small cut is a ‘thank you’ for taking time to review material and write a recommendation the material. It’s a small compensation for a service rendered. On the other hand, I can see an argument that, by placing a financial stake in the matter, it can make a review suspect since there is monetary motive.)
  • Finally, what got you into book blogging? What is the joy you get out of it? And what do you predict is the future of book blogging?

In the effort of fairness, I figure I’ll offer my own book review. So, bear with me.

100916-221309 That’s me holding my copy of Anthony Bourdain’s 2001 memoir, Kitchen Confidential. It’s a delightfully vulgar, obnoxiously intelligent, and extraordinarily witty recount of the life and times of a rising chef and the behind-the-scenes look of the nitty gritty of what goes on in a restaurant kitchen. Bourdain cuts nothing out (pardon the phrase) in revealing what sort of time and dedication to art is required to be a premiere chef in the New York scene. It’s sex, drugs, and rock & roll with a culinary edge. To me, I could feel the heat and smell the mixture of spices and sweat that goes into making a high end meal. His storytelling style hooks you in like a night out with the guys swapping bar stories. It’s fascinating, it’s fun, and it has given me one of the best cooking tips I could ever hope for:

“Good food is very often, even most often, simple food. Some of the best cuisine in the world – whole roasted fish, Tuscan-style, for instance – is a matter of three or four ingredients. Just make sure they are good ingredients, fresh ingredients, and then garnish them. How hard is that?”

Perhaps they go behind cooking. It’s a life lesson right there.

The reason I chose this book is that I’m pretty biased in favor of it (I love his show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations) and that I’m planning on mailing this sucker to one of my favorite MLS students, Jessica. Jessica maintains her own blog at Miss Short Skirt which is one of my “must read” blogs on Google Reader. Her stories about the life and times of a MLS student reminds me of what my wife and I went through as we made our way through our own graduate programs. There are entries about the life and times of a poor graduate student that made me say out loud, “Holy shit, I’ve lived that!” It was great to meet her in person at ALA and I try to send up care packages when I can to make the semesters go less crazy. She’s going to make an awesome librarian and (hopefully) an even better children’s author.

Ok, that was two reviews. Now I’d like to hear some answers!

The Library Reloaded: The Catalog

[In previous editions of the Library Reloaded series, there has been discussion about what materials make up a collection, different ways to approach fines, and alternate forms of library cards. Unlike those previous posts, in writing and thinking about the catalog, I have found that my thoughts have lingered on what the catalog of the future should do and look like rather than offer alternatives to the catalog. So, this post will have more of a sandbox feel to it in listing what I’d like in the next generation of library automation. Also, since I’m vastly unfamiliar with cataloging, I am hoping that any cataloger reading this will write their own blog post to fill in that aspect so that I can link to it. –A ]

There’s a quote that is attributed to astronaut John Glenn, remarking on his space flight:

“As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind: Every part of this capsule was supplied by the lowest bidder.”

There are times when I can’t help but think that when I’m navigating through my library system’s automation program. As a public entity, I understand that there are limitations; there is the balance of funding versus the options available and the degree of competitiveness that vendors will undertake to land a deal. And certainly, on the average, this is no different when it comes to selecting an automation system.

When I’m on the reference desk, every time I turn the monitor to show someone their record or a listing in the collection, I always refer to it as “the ugly backend”. This is only a partially truth; I find the front end (the side that patrons see) to be equally ugly and perhaps worse in terms of misleading people as to what we have the library system. I sometimes cringe on the inside when I see how results are displayed since any variation from the exact title, subject, or author will send people off with the impression that we don’t carry it.

While I could go on and on about the shortfalls, I’d rather shift the attention to what the next generation of library automation should look and act like. As I really only interact with it on a reference (and sometimes circulation) capacity, my commentary will be more focused on that aspect.

Without further ado, some of the things that the next generation system should have (please bear in mind that my thoughts are based entirely on my experience with my system’s automation program):

Front end:

  • Display, display, display – Any query into the catalog should create an explosion of possibilities with the most likely front and center & at the top. To cover all the bases, I’d like to see other potential results as a link on the side. “(“Do you mean titles with John Doe? Authors with the name of John Doe? Subjects with the term John Doe?” as a series of side links.) In addition, offer close alternatives as another list. (“Do you mean the author Jon Doe? John Doh?”) Make the display as interactive as possible; consider how much you can look, touch, and move at the shelf level and

This is not a call to reinvent the Google or Bing display. This is a call to make the resulting search more intuitive to the patron’s eye and offer easy suggestions as to other possibilities. A ten line text output laying bare on the screen is pretty damn stark and relentlessly unforgiving. It can be made to reflect both people who know exactly what they are looking for and those who have an idea of what they are looking for. Put exact matches right where people are looking and the “close” results nearby.

  • Holds & Requests – An interface that would allow for a patron and drag & drop materials into a request bucket would be a nice step up from tiny boxes, especially those stupid little check boxes. Think of it akin to moving icons on a desktop. That’s how easy it should be. There isn’t much that can be done for logging in and logging out, save for making that box bigger so people aren’t wrecking their eyesight squinting at the screen.

When people are in their accounts, it really needs to be a command center. Show them a summary of everything with tabs that go into specifics such as items out, requests, fines, and messages. As to this last bit, having a simple message system in which general library reminders, news, and announcements would be a good way of creating interaction with the patron. Also, the ability to send and receive messages between staff and patrons creates a new point of contact.

  • “I NEED HELP” box – Both at the location and offsite, there will arise a time when people simply need help. The ability to page a librarian onsite to the catalog computer for additional assistance would be a giant plus; it saves time for the patron walking around looking for help. Offsite, an ability for someone to get a person to chat, call, or email with the option of sharing a screenshot and the list of last couple of actions within the catalog so as to give a responding librarian an idea of what has been attempted so far. (I’d also say screensharing, but I would have concerns about the logistics as well as the privacy.)

Of course, these capabilities can be tailored to staff ability and availability. I wouldn’t want to create an expectation of instant service if the possibility doesn’t exist.

  • A variety of methods of contact – In addition to calling or emailing, I’d like to give patrons the option of receiving texts. While this brings up other issues (such as how many per week), allow them to choose which alerts would generate a text message and the maximum number they would get in a week (with overflow messages going to email or a call).

Hell, while we’re at it, why not have the capability to send a Facebook message or send you a tweet (either @reply or a direct message)? More options for how people are contacted would be a major bonus.

  • Mobile display – The capability of navigating the catalog through the screen of a smartphone should be included. And (since this is a wishlist) the ability to import some of that functionality into an mobile app would be a major bonus. While not every library would consider creating an app, the option is always an attractive one.

Alternatively, to offer an app as an additional option for an automation package could be another viable service. I’m not sure what the mobile or tablet market will look like in five years, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say that it will be more sophisticated.

Back end:

  • Better patron data manipulation options – If someone misses a hold, I’d like to be able to put the hold back on in a few clicks. I’d like to be able to identify the patrons that haven’t been to the library in the last couple of months and send them an email saying, “Hey, what’s up?” (Someone was tweeting something about this the other day, but I can’t find the tweet to attribute it to. I will add that once I find out; I think it was you, David Lee King. -A) I’d like to be able to queue up multiple holds and place them all at once rather than the tedious cycle of placing each hold one at a time. And, while I’m holding the brass ring, I’d like some more intuitive menus for those operations that I don’t do on a regular basis (such as suspending a hold, changing the delivery destination of a hold, or adding particular notes to a patron’s file.)

For all the steps taken to smooth out the patron/collection interface, that’s more time I can spend providing service to patrons and (in a seemingly paradoxical way) patrons can spend less time with me waiting while I navigate the system. Personally, I’d rather be smiling and chatting than furrowing my brow as I reach through the computer labyrinth that resides on the screen in front of me.

  • Complete collection integration – The ability to look at the entire holding of a library in one go. Databases, magazines, serials, physical holdings, and subscription services all on one search. It doesn’t have to give me the specific results from each source, but I would like to be able to say to a patron, “Ok, under that subject heading, we have 20 books, 5 ebooks, and 400 database articles. Which format should we examine first?” People want to know all their options and I, as a librarian, want to be able to show them all their options. Integration of all the subscriptions and purchases into one central display is the only way to achieve that.

I realize that what I am asking in this particular bullet point is pretty much proprietary and against the nature of current material providers. But my job, as I see it, is to provide the richest and greatest amount of access and materials to the community that I serve. This option is for them, the end user; it is for the people who ultimately benefit the most from such an integration. My interest is their interest: to be able to survey all possibilities and make the best information decisions. Only through a complete collection integration will one get an immediate sense of the possible results from all connected resources.

The catalog. It’s our method of organization, our means to carry out the work of the library, and the ultimate source of the knowledge contained in a library. It should be working for us, not against us.

(If there are any vendors or open source developers out there, feel free to add your comments to the mix. And if you take something away from this post, please at least attribute either myself or the commentator who made it. And if you do take it from me, I look forward to some swag love at conferences.)

Previous Library Reloaded entries: Collections, Library Cards, Fines.

Reference Desk Reverence?

In my own experience (and somewhat amplified by the Master’s Degree posts (first, second), there is a mystique that is lent to the reference desk like no other place in the library (save for closed stacks, the final mystery of the library world). It is the sacred space for the librarian immortals and perhaps the paraprofessional demigods who prove themselves worthy of its station. From behind this lauded furniture, answers are dispensed to all who seek wisdom within the walls of the library. It is the desk of last resort for those who continue to question, the deliverer of information redemption, and start of many journeys into discovery. To hear some of my peers talk about the reference desk, you would think that the desk was made of wood cut down by God, carved by Jesus, and blessed by his library apostles, Dewey and Ranganathan.

Ok, that was a bit of enjoyable hyperbole, but for me, I really don’t see the reference desk is such a lofty position. Sorry folks, but while the desk is a good central point for people to come to for questions, I’m in the camp that believes the following things about the reference desk:

  1. It creates a unnecessary barrier to patron-staff interactions (some of these desks are not the most approachable);
  2. It creates a refuge for librarians who, rather than get up and walk around and see about helping patrons in the library, sit on their butts;
  3. It represents an older ideology in librarian thought regarding the passive role of the librarian out on the floor
  4. And it is a bunch of dead space that could be utilized for another set of chairs or table, sometimes in front of outdated reference material (not a great image boost there), and is sometimes aesthetically displeasing.

Now that I’ve dumped my opinion about this, what’s your take on the reference desk? Keep? Dispose? Or evolve into something else?

September Blog Banner

I made a new one tonight since I’m somewhat overdue for one. I know it is Library Card sign up month and Banned Book Week is at the end of it, but when I read this entry from the.effing.librarian, that quote stuck out for me. I plucked it out of a larger passage, so some context may help. However, I think I managed to save the meaning of it in the illustration.

As someone with a biology background, the notion that evolution doesn’t mean trial and error, risk, or loss is absurd. When it comes to the librarian profession, it is without a doubt something that is going to occur. But from the flaws and failures of others, I believe a hardier librarian will emerge.

What that really means I can’t say for sure. But I’m excited to find out.

The Master’s Degree Misperception, Ctd.

Based on some of the reaction that I have received, I think I should try to provide a better example as to the point I’m trying to make. The easiest way for me to illustrate a point is with a metaphor, so bear with me.

Imagine libraries as being like the Army. Some people (paraprofessionals) enlist in the army while others (librarians) go to West Point or Officer Candidate school. Each group is taught the same set of skill basics that are needed to carry out the core mission of the Army. Once they have graduated from their programs, they are arranged into military units in which officers and enlisted operate in the same field space. Though they are seen side by side and can perform some of the same operations, they have different backgrounds and training.

In my perspective, what is happening in libraryland would be the equivalent of the constant comingling of the duties of the officers and enlisted. For librarians like myself, it arises to the question “Why did I get an MLS for this?” (or, to continue the Army metaphor, “Why did I go to officer training when I just could have enlisted?”) It’s not a matter as to whether or not the duties or skills of the paraprofessional are valuable or not; it’s a matter of the investment of time and resources by a librarian to allow them to step into higher library organizational functions. I don’t think I’m alone (and judging from some of the notes I have received, I’m not) in being someone who believes that because I spent the time, energy, and money in getting the advanced degree that my duties within the library should reflect that.

One might easily point out that there are no guarantees in this life; that the degree does not confer a magical ascent up on the library hierarchy to where a person “believes” they should be. But I don’t think it’s an unreasonable, pompous, or elitist presumption to believe in. And why not? If I was training for long distance running for the Olympics, I would think a high school track meet is beyond my level of training. It’s not because the high school track meet is terrible or unworthy of my attention, but because my training is not on the same level.   

Yes, there are paraprofessionals who can (and have) stepped into these roles and done well; that aspect is beside my point. I’m sure each librarian of this post can point to the positive and negative aspects of their paraprofessional and support staff (and likewise with paraprofessionals thinking of librarians). This might strike some as a startling revelation, but there are a broad numbers of situations out there in libraryland. Not every staffing is going to be the same, nor the duties or levels of competence of any of those staff members.

But, to put this gently, this isn’t about the paraprofessional. This post is about the librarian. If you want to invoke the saying, “Shit rolls downhill”, then you’re right. What is discussed here and in the previous post has broader staff implications. I leave that for the other excellent paraprofessional blogs out there to discuss. But, for my blog, that’s the topic du jour.