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.