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

The slow march towards ALA Annual 2010

Today, I registered for my first ALA Annual conference. It went along smoothly for the most part, save for when I went to pick a hotel. I had to scramble to get a map to figure out what was where from the slim pickings left. Even then, I ended up doing a virtual eeny-meany-miney-mo and selecting a hotel. As it turns out, according to Google Maps this hotel is right next to the building that houses Fox News. I personally really don’t have anything against Fox News, but I’ll be able to tell my fellow conference attendees if the presence of thousands of left leaning socialist ‘give away the materials for free on taxpayer dollars’ librarians has any effect on the station. Or maybe the proximity of the conservative network will mask my liberal presence in the city the same way that the cave that was strong with the Dark Side of the Force hid Yoda’s from Darth Vader and the Emperor on Dagobah. In any event, I found the registration for the ALA website to be a bit stranger.

You see, when you register, you have the option of a prefix. Normally, this is limited to a select few choices: Mr., Mrs., Ms., maybe Dr., and a none of the above blank one. Apparently, these few are simply not enough choices for the ALA.

A title for all occasions!That screenshot is a composite of the many, many prefixes you can choose. Captain? Lt Commander? Rabbi? Senator? Sister? I know I’m going to go back and swap them every month just to see the faces on my coworkers when they get the mail. What I can’t figure out is why they have some military ranks and not others. Who wouldn’t want to be a Rear Admiral in the ALA? The jokes practically write themselves! (Personally, I’m leaning towards Judge or Professor.)

lol newbsIn more serious fare, I have started a Twitter list for other ALA first attendees. If anyone wants to see what fresh eyes see (and tweet) when they attend the conference, I highly suggest you follow this list. It will be growing, I presume, as more people announce their newbie status. I asked for advice for people new to the annual conference on Twitter today. The collected wisdom of the day was:

I also highly recommend Erin Dorney’s blog post "Conference Attendance Advice”. It has her own conference tips as well as links to other posts with advice. Check out additional tips in the comments, too!

I’m looking forward to this summer. It should be a good one!

ALA Midwinter Meeting 2010 Recap

4289596648_e2ebdef4b5_b[1] 2010 ALA Midwinter Exhibit Hall panorama composite (click to see the original size)

As much as I have written about the ALA, I was still curious to see the organization up close and in action. I’ve talked with librarian friends and certainly read enough online (both positive and negative) about the organization. But there is something about going, seeing, and experiencing it for myself that requires satisfaction. So I set hotel reservations, rummaged through the social events calendar of various subgroups, and excitedly drove by way to Boston, sensing adventure in the air.

My objective was to put everything out of my head and just examine everything anew. It’s difficult to set aside the compliments and complaints I have heard for this organization, but I gave myself a simple strategy of objective questions. I’ll outline my approach (please consider answering them in the comments if I did not speak to you personally).

  1. “Are you a member of ALA?” (If no, why not? If yes, continue to 2.)
  2. “Do you serve on any committees, roundtables, and the like?” (If no, why not? If yes, continue to 3.)
  3. “What does that committee/roundtable/whatever do?”

In listening to the answers, I was also taking into account word choice and tone. While my polling size and choice was not very scientific, I found the answers that I heard to be most enlightening. With a few exceptions, most answered that they felt rewarded by their involvement with the organization. However, this group diverged between feeling effective and frustrated. Cheery explanations were tempered by acerbic rants, each providing clues to the bigger picture for me.  With an organization as large as the ALA, these many glimpses from the top on down gave me much to think about as I assessed the organization on the way home.

If I was to liken the organization to something, I would say it is a Rubix Cube. Some of solved how it works, its meaning, and purpose; others struggle with the apparent complexity and mechanics; and a minority simply don’t get it and/or won’t try to get it. (And, for the more cynical out there, some are arguing about appropriate colors on the cube. Or as one person put it when I mentioned this idea to them, “I’ve solved it and I don’t care for the answer.”) What I would say is true and apparent is that, despite how people feel about the organization itself, I did not meet one person who was not passionate about their career in librarianship. This speaks well for the true potential of the organization should it ever overcome its inefficiencies. From what I understand, talk of reformation has been going on for awhile and that it is a matter of action and resolve to see it through.

Even with this new knowledge in hand, I am still reserving judgment on the organization. Part of this is that I still disagree with the politicization of resolutions, but the other part cannot help but feel compelled by those who strive hard for the profession within the association. From my experience in organizations run by member volunteers, it is no light undertaking to produce results. Where others might make light of their efforts, they have my respect. There are additional discussions ahead, I feel, so I await more input and information.

Beyond my own inquiries into ALA, I really had a great time meeting and socializing with many of the people who I have been communicating with through Twitter, Facebook, and blog comments. It is extremely flattering to tell someone how much you love their blog and they reciprocate in kind. I even had a couple of people tell me my name and/or my posts came up in various meetings, though I’m not sure whether the context is favorable or not. It is heartening, for certain, to have the personal conversations reinforce your choices of inclusion in readers, followers, and Facebook friends. I left with a renewed sense of community and a strengthened feeling of professional bonding.

Photo by Peter Bromberg/Flickr My only actual obligation of the Midwinter Meeting was to co-present “Set Sail for Fail” with Karen in the Networking Uncommons area. For those who missed it, you can watch it the entire thing either through Buffy Hamilton’s raw footage or Jenny Levine’s Ustream clip. I was not certain how many (or if anyone) would attend, but I was pleased to see at least a dozen people interested. As time went on, this number easily doubled. It was a good natured lively discussion about what hasn’t worked out for people and the lessons in evaluation that could be applied in the future. It also provided Karen and myself with some feedback about the type of topics that could arise as we plan out a FAIL conference for the future. I’d like to thank everyone who attended, tweeted it, and shared their stories.

(You can also read about it on the American Libraries Inside Scoop blog or listen to Karen and I talk about it in the video interview linked below.)

(I’m not exactly sure what is going on with my face in this frozen moment, but I assure you it is not permanent.)

As I drove back to New Jersey, my reflections upon this experience have induced me to give the annual conference a try. For those with suggestions as it pertains to the annual conference, please do not hesitate to add your comments. This was a good time and I’m eager to see what waits for me in Washington.

set sail for fail!

setsailforfail

Have a good story of a program, event, or service that didn’t work out the way you thought it would? We want to hear from YOU!

SET SAIL FOR FAIL” is a Networking Uncommons event on Sunday January 17th at 2pm. This moderated discussion/commiseration will be lead by Karen Klapperstuck (Virtual Branch Manager, Monroe Township Library, NJ) and Andy Woodworth (Librarian, Burlington County Library System, NJ).

What we are looking for are additional volunteers to shares their stories of programs, events, and services that ended up in the FAIL bin. Without additional people, this will probably end up with Karen and Andy talking about how an impromptu discussion group about failing… failed. (In case of an epic fail [NSFW link], they will be talking about it just to each other.)

For those interested in sharing their tales, please arrive at least 15 minutes early so you can sign up on our speakers list. (Here is what we look like via our Twitter accounts: Karen, Andy.) Every story of fail should include:

  • the name of the program, service, or event
  • the purpose of the program (e.g. to attract new patrons, etc.)
  • what happened to make it result in failure
  • and what you think made it fail

One lucky(?) speaker whose tale is chosen the most epic of fails by our judges (Karen and Andy) will be given a $25 gift certificate to Barnes & Noble. 

Attendance does not require participation. (But you know you want to.)

Come for the morbid curiosity, come to lend moral support, come to try to figure out why one of your programs failed in the past, but if anything, come because there is much fun to be had talking about failure!

Dead Wildebeests and the Self Conscious Crocodile: Pres4Lib 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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