Social Media & Library Advocacy

In the most recent New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell examines the social activism in the age of social media. If you have any interest in library advocacy, you need to go read it now. The gist of this article is that social media is excellent for reaching a multitude of people, but it lacks some of the strong bonds that turn interest into action.

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Over at the New York Times “Room for Discussion”, an assortment of pundits have been offering their take on Mr. Gladwell’s article. I can’t possibly sum up all of their articles, so I highly recommend reading all of them. I’ll quote some to hopefully entice you to look closer.

Timothy Lee, “Power of a Personal Message”:

No social movement can succeed without activists willing to take serious risks for their cause. But other factors are also important. These include a critical mass of ordinary citizens who are at least sympathetic to, if not yet actively supportive of, the activist’s cause, and a strategy to reach and persuade as many of those citizens as possible. What makes the Internet revolutionary is not just that it makes it easier for activists to communicate with one another, but that it provides them with powerful new tools for informing and persuading their fellow citizens.

Evegeny Morozov, “Virtual vs. Real Protests”:

But we should not confuse mobilizing with organizing. The Internet excels at mobilizing people to rally behind political causes (obviously, not all of them democratic) – but someone still needs to engage in long-term strategic organization.

Michael Anti, “In China, Even Weak Ties are Crucial”:

When 1.4 billion people have a chance, however slight, to think and talk directly without censorship and self-censorship, it’s obviously revolutionary, even if it’s not a revolution.

William Powers, “Digital and Traditional Tools”:

Twitter and Facebook aren’t going to save the world. But when used alongside other tools of human connectedness — including some very old ones, like the face-to-face conversations, meetings and protests that drove the civil rights movement — the new technologies can be extremely useful. I’ve learned a lot from my digital life and made real friends there. But if I never turned off the screen and brought those gains to bear in the rest of my life, what use would they be? Digital networking and more traditional forms of communication aren’t mutually exclusive — they feed into each other.

Burt Herman, “New Media’s Trust Sources”:

Rather than the mass media of before, where audiences were grouped together based on how far radio waves reached or the distance newspaper delivery trucks drove, curators find audiences with shared interests. They filter the most relevant information and add context through their commentary and insight, like the explanations on the gallery walls of an art exhibition. The most successful curators build a following based on knowing what their audiences want.

Howard Rheingold, “Following and Leading Online:

The Web can be a morass of grossly uncivil discourse and misinformation, and it can be an accessible and inexpensive medium for community-building and political activism. The difference lies not in the technology but in the literacy — know-how is the critical difference. Lots of people have the know-how to organize demonstrations and riots, get out the vote and shut down institutions. Those who gain the know-how to transform networks into movements might gain the keys to power — for better or worse — in coming decades.

In reading all of these wonderful pieces, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences with social media. It has been roughly a year and three months since I started a Facebook group with the name “People for a Library Themed Ben & Jerry Ice Cream Flavor”.  Since then, I’ve been involved in other Facebook groups, used Twitter hashtags in conjunction with passing library advocacy news (such as #saveohiolibraries), watched the creation of an library advocacy website, marched on the State Capital, used CapWiz to generate emails to my representatives, hand written letters to government officials, and advocated to patrons at my own library for restoration of budget cuts. If someone was to ask me what out of those things works, I’d have to give an honest answer and say “It depends”.

When it comes to online advocacy, it really depends on what you are asking people to do. The Ben & Jerry’s ice cream group was rather easy: join the group! That’s one mouse button click on the interface. From there, I encouraged people to send in their flavor choices through Ben & Jerry’s flavor submission interface. People could suggest their ideas on the group’s wall. It gave any Ben & Jerry people a very easy way to gauge interest in the group: they could visit the page or check on the flavor submissions. Overall, not much was being asked of the people who participated except to join and share. There was an aspect of library advocacy attached to the group in raising awareness for library funding issues. For those who were really taken with the idea, they took the further steps of adding their own.

In contrast to the Save NJ Libraries group, it was a widely different group for its aim and purpose. There was funding, jobs, and entire library locations at risk if action was not taken. It was more than just join the group and share it; we wanted people to write, call, email, and demonstrate their support for the library. We shared information, developments, and stories playing within the local media to build morale and keep people in the loop as to how others were faring around the state.

For myself, it was wonderful to see that over 15,000 people joined the group; but in the back of my mind, I had my doubts. How many of those people are fellow librarians joining in solidarity? How many actual New Jersey residents are actively monitoring the group? How many NJ people are sharing the information to their friend? How many people in the group are contacting their elected officials? For these questions, I had no answers nor hunches; there is no way to measure it and my gut feelings did not feel reliable. While some would argue that the larger the number the higher the probability of active members, I would answer and say that probability does not translate into measurable results. It also relies on the false premise that each person who joins the group has an equal chance of taking further action. Each person who comes into the group has their own level of potential involvement; where the group makes a difference is whether they can provide the energy and engagement necessary to overcome those who have (for lack of a better term) less than median potential involvement.

In my opinion, this is what can make or break a social media campaign. It’s not about the believers, it’s about getting the fence sitters to hop on over and toss in their effort. And, from what I have experienced and read about, it’s certainly not easy. To those who organized or were activists before the arrival of the internet, this fact is nothing new; what is new is the perception that the ease of online information sharing and activity should make this easier. It does make the organizing easier, but there is still the action and energy requirements to make any campaign work. I can put something on the Facebook wall that 15,000 people should be able to see, but what I really need is for them to act. (I think there is still a strange reluctance for librarians to ask people to act on their behalf, but that notion needs its own blog post.)

At the 2010 ALA Midwinter Conference, Sara Kelly John told me a story about telling Al Gore (who was speaking at the conference) that she was running for ALA President and if he had any advice for her campaign. He replied to her with a modified Poor Richard saying: “Early to bed; early to rise; work like hell; and or-gan-ize.”  Organization, as it was then and as it is now, will always be the spine of activism. I think that what will distinguish people at social media activism will be their ability to pick out which bonds are strong and which ones are weak. Their ability to recruit people, recognize the type of activist that they are (information sharers, recruiters, coaches, cheerleaders, influencers, and so forth), and utilize them in that role will be the key difference between success and failure.

For myself, I have taken each new campaign (whether small or large) and started applying these lessons. Social media is a powerful tool in the advocate toolbox, but an oversubscription to reliance on it for solving every problem is one of its pitfalls. Not every Facebook group or Twitter hashtag will get you where you want to go; but there are important lessons in their success or failure. It’s up to this generation of library advocates to treat each tool available to them equally and use them in a specific role in support of each other, all under the banner for the change or action they are striving for. The revolution may not be tweeted, but social media is an excellent tool in getting the revolution going in the first place.

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.

The Boiling Point

Photo by ell brown (off to Italy) [Flickr]“What is your boiling point?”

For my part of the “Social Media and Advocacy” presentation that I did at ALA annual about two weeks ago, that was the question I posed to the attendees. During the train ride down on that Friday, I had decided to change my original talk. The compromise for the New Jersey state budget had just been announced earlier in the week and the implications of funding restoration lines were just being determined. The night before I left for the conference, I felt the emotional tension of months of pushing, writing, and advocating resolve itself in the course of a few hours. Having been without word of news or developments from anyone in the know, it had been a rough time wondering what was working, what didn’t, and what was left to be done.

I will say now, upon further reflection, I am disappointed that more funding was not restored. I’d like be happy about the restorations that were made and the programs that were saved but, quite frankly, I’m not. I don’t believe it was from a lack of effort. However, if the library advocacy campaign was the second most contacts that legislators received during the budget negotiations, and the library funding went from 74% to 43%, New Jersey libraries still have a very serious problem. It represents a ton of further education that will need to be accomplished to reach legislators and the general public as to the importance of library funding.

As I sat on the train as it lumbered down the track towards our nation’s capital, my original talk felt a bit short of the mark. I didn’t want people to leave the talk with a list of sites; I wanted them to leave with a fire in their belly. While the talk I gave was not as polished (and at parts, I struggled a bit to make for smoother transitions between points), I was satisfied that I was able to get my point across.

When it comes to library funding, the boiling point is the moment at which library cuts are no longer accepted and a call to action is demanded. In other words, how much tolerance do you have for library cuts? How much of a reduction of materials, services, and hours are you willing to accept on behalf of the communities that you serve? In people’s hearts, I’m sure the answer is none; but when it comes to the reality, my non-scientific observations of reactions to library funding cuts would indicate that this pushback point exists at a much higher levels (or sometimes only if the existence of the library is threatened). This is something that needs to change.

Cuts to library funding need to be seen in a different light: as an attack upon the institution and what it represents. Some might find this imagery as a bit overblown, but one cannot ignore that the denial of resources reduces the effectiveness of the library and its ability to serve its community. It is marginalizing the work by librarians and staff everyday on behalf of their patrons; it is limiting the ways in which the library can act effectively to provide materials and services to any who seek it.

This is a call to action. This is a statement that says, “Yes, you can and should resist any funding cuts.” That such resistance is productive and that you should fight for every dime for your library. It’s not simply that you are depending on it, it’s your patrons and your community that are the benefactors here. Any cut, however small, impacts the performance of the library. Librarians must become cut intolerant and continue to expand the actions and steps for securing funding in the future.

Lower your boiling point.

 

(While this may pose as an unreasonable position for political realities, I don’t think being reasonable under these same conditions has been serving the library community very well either. -A)

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.

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.

Library Budgets in the Perfect Storm

Just about a month ago, New Jersey Governor Christie proposed his version of the FY2011 budget. In addressing a $10 billion budget gap, he sought to make dramatic cuts to state spending. As part of this self-proclaimed new day of fiscal responsibility, he made a 74% cut to state library spending. Cut is a bit of a misnomer for this action; the better term I have heard used is a decapitation. The reduction of state library spending would result in the complete elimination of valuable library services and support programs such as intrastate inter-library loan, the Talking Book and Braille Center (formerly the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped), group purchasing contracts for internet access and databases, and the library cooperatives whose exemplary efforts provide libraries with additional savings through grant finding, tailored group contracts, and innovative pilot programs.

Going on concurrently, there have been dramatic cuts to state aid for education budgets. School districts have been scrambling all over the state in order to find budget solutions through layoffs, program or service reductions/eliminations, and cuts of aspects that are deemed "non-essential". Within this framework, the school librarian and library has come under the budget knife, resulting in the elimination of these entities from many school districts around the state. I would presume that the duty to teach research, technological literacy, and information vetting will presumed to be passed onto teachers (in addition to their other primary teaching duties, that is). I’m uncertain as to who or how the library would be maintained without a librarian or materials budget, but that topic is better suited for someone with more expertise. But what I do know is that library resources will be greatly diminished within this new school setting on the whole.

Academic libraries within the state face similar circumstances, though have a different set of solutions for them. Increasing library fees can compensate for the loss in state funding, but it is carefully balanced against the rising costs for students. The needs of professors and students in their fields of study and publishing will be scrutinized under a smaller information resource pie, potentially denying or delaying data for their studies, projects, papers, and research. Colleges and universities will no longer have “the best” resources available to their students; they will simply have “the best” they can afford under the new funding scheme.

In taking on the teacher’s union and perceived state budget largess, the Governor has made collateral damage out of information literacy. While I’m certain that this is not the Governor’s intent in making these dramatic cuts, it is the result that will happen. Under the mantra that he has been making cuts because the state cannot afford it any longer, he has sacrificed one of the few fiscally responsible government services that works throughout the state on an extremely cheap $1.25 per capita. Unlike many other agencies, libraries in the state of New Jersey have been fiscally responsible and budget streamlined for many years now. We fit within the Governor’s self proclaimed financial disciplines, yet we lose the most under the budget knife.

How is the reasonable? How is this fair? How is this a shared sacrifice?

More importantly, I am concerned by the results of this perfect storm. With the reduction or elimination of school libraries, the information resource pressure will be shifted to public libraries (as seen in Philadelphia libraries). With the reduction of state aid, the materials and services in the public library will be diminished as well (for the libraries that didn’t cut back their hours or close). This doesn’t change the same demand for library computers, services, and materials from people still looking for work, filing for unemployment, or seeking assistance for other government services. Nor does it change the increase in the amount of people who rely on libraries on a regular basis, whether it is for literature, education, or entertainment.

What government services covers all of the aspects that we do?

Where will these people go?

At this point, to be honest, all I am left with are questions:

Where will elementary and high school student go to get homework help and research their reports and papers? Where will these students go to get away from bad influences in their neighborhoods?   

What about the college students? Will they tolerate higher fees to make up the loss? Will they tolerate a smaller resource pool for their academic studies? Will they pass on New Jersey schools in favor of other colleges that have better information resources and materials? What about the professors that teach them? Will professors opt to teach at other non-NJ institutions because they won’t receive the same level of professional research support?

What happens to the vision impaired and other fellow residents with disabilities? Without the state funds (and the federal matching funds), the Talking Book and Braille center will close in 2012. Where will they go for their special materials, ones suited for their disability?

What happens to people looking for employment? Who will provide the same time and attention to these job seekers with their online applications? Who will provide basic computer classes to assist them to get off of unemployment and back to work? Who will provide them with a place that can be part of their routine, to provide friendly help, and to suggest new places to look?

Which staff members in the library, both great and small, are going to be tasked with finding or teaching training as a rate as cheap as the library cooperatives once did? Which staff members will be searching for grants, the same ones that the library cooperatives found and got for years? Which staff members will work towards negotiating a group price, the same way that library cooperatives did to save local taxpayers money for years?

(Note: While I have been told that there is a plan to consolidate the library cooperatives into one, I think that all the cooperatives are worth fighting for as they exist now. Consolidation is a compromise position, one that I do not accept right now.)

==

Despite it all, I believe that New Jersey libraries are worth fighting for. Hell, I want to demand 110% funding restoration. After being flat funded for 20+ years, we deserve a raise. We’ve done wonders with the limited funding ascribed to us this long, imagine what we could do with a million more. But for now, I gather my strength and my wits for the funding fight ahead.

April is almost gone. May is upon us. June is close behind.

There is no time like the present. Surely, these are trying times. Let them test our mettle and resolve, for we will pass since our cause is the patrons we serve. We fight not for ourselves, but for the greater good of the society around us. We know that intuitively, for we do it every day when we step through the doors into our libraries. We are public servants dedicated to the common good that all libraries represent. This is our chosen calling. Together, we can weather this budget storm.

It is the right thing to do. And it is the thing to do right now.

Onward, I say!

Who is with me?

All (Advocacy) in the Family

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I’d like you to meet my parents. This is my current favorite picture of them; it was taken during their formal night out on a vacation cruise. With all of the advocacy meetings and talk I’ve had in the last couple of weeks, I have been thinking about them. For me, they represent the two tiers of library supporters that are needed in order to preserve (or possibly even expand) library funding in the future. Allow me to elaborate.

mom-cruise

This is my mother Ann. She is a regular patron of the Cherry Hill Public Library. On any given week, she is borrowing books, movies, and television series. When I was growing up, she would take my brother and I to the library to borrow books and movies. In hearing about the cuts to library funding in New Jersey, it has inspired her to write a letter to the editor that she is going to send to the local papers. To my knowledge, she has never done anything like this before. I was so proud of her when she read me her rough draft; I certainly hope they publish it.

 

dad-cruiseThis is my father Bill. Unlike my mother, he is not a regular library user. This is not to say that he would not use a library, but it’s not a regular deal. However, he is also a library supporter. He sees the value in the services provided as a community good; he understands the importance of information access. With a background in finance, my father is also appreciative of the positive rate of return for taxpayer money invested in library services and materials. I know I can count on his support not simply because he is my father, but that he is informed as to what the library does for the community that I serve.

I’ve been thinking of my parents as they represent the two important types of library supporters: overt and latent. In practical terms, my mother is the person that libraries have coming through their doors everyday. They would be the low hanging fruit of advocacy since they already understand what the library has to offer. It’s not a giant step to connect them to our funding cause and encourage them to take action.

The library supporters like my father, on the other hand, present a different question. How do libraries reach the people in the community who support the library on ideological grounds yet never grace our doorsteps? While I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can educate my father about the value of the library, there are many others out there like him who do not have an advocate for a wife, son, and daughter-in-law. 

So, here’s the question: how do we reach people like my dad?

Quick Note on Advocacy

As mentioned in a previous post, there are things afoot in response to the devastating 74% state funding cut to libraries in New Jersey. After starting the Facebook group, I’ve been looking for new and additional ways to spread the message and get people active in saving their libraries. In gearing up for this fight, there are some things that have caught my attention.

First, while the fight is statewide, the real efforts are local. As in, being able to explain to my patrons what the cuts means to them. Overall, my library system is not in bad shape; these cuts will not result in shorter service hours, layoffs, or other reduction in quality of service. The real cut is that our materials budget will be reduced by 25% along with finding money to replace the databases. My colleagues and I are working on the best way to portray that to the public in order to make our case. As the saying goes, “All politics are local”; so here we are in a position to show our patron what the cuts mean to them. It’s hard to ignore how this will negatively affect other libraries beyond my county (since the cuts felt will be more dramatic), but that’s a secondary case to be made.

Second, for a group of people who can make recommendations for materials and services, we really don’t seem to be comfortable with making a case for our own continued existence. I’m not sure what the deal is, whether it is a case of modesty or sense of political neutrality, but when it comes to articulating why libraries are essential to communities in an age of information (and the information economy), we seem to get all tied up in knots. Perhaps it is because we as an institution have never really been put to this sort of test. In any event, I certainly hope that people can get over their hang-ups and begin to speak up.

For myself, I try to make the case for libraries with each patron. It may sound silly, but I try to treat every request as being the utmost importance. I think of it this way: they have taken time out of their day to come to the library so it’s my job to make it a good experience. Sure, it doesn’t always work, and not everyone leaves with a smile, but I try to make their time at the library worthwhile. It’s something no publicity campaign can really do for us; it’s all about the individual and making that time spent in our walls valuable.

What more can librarians do?

The actual future of the library

This past Saturday, Buffy Hamilton sent me the link to Seth Godin’s new post, “The future of the library” as well as some reaction blog posts. (I’ve put the links at the bottom of this post.) It’s the opening line that really started the ball rolling on this post and has lead me to take issue with Mr. Godin’s post (hereafter quoted in blue).

What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?

And this is my answer: Nothing. Why? Because we are already relevant in the digital age. The general population as a whole (more or less) believes that a public depository of knowledge is a necessary component for the common good. There’s no fact based rebuttal to this belief; I have yet to hear an argument with merit opposing the continued operation of the library. They prophesized the end of libraries with the rise of computers and, once again, they roll the bones and see the end of libraries in e-readers, Wikipedia and mobile technology. With all of the hoopla for the portable wonders, they are poor replacements with licensing agreements, DRM, and proprietary software. Wikipedia, while the netizen’s encyclopedia with proven accuracy, still has overhead to pay for despite legions of volunteers. Mobile technology has wonderful merits to it, but it is a very long way to go from its touted potential of putting a whole library into one’s hand without the required telecommunication infrastructure, increased display and computer power of the mobile handheld, and price structuring that allows anyone (read: the working poor) to have a data plan. This is not suggest that the library should not change or evolve, but the pronouncements of our imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated.

To say that libraries are irrelevant is a statement about the individual perception but not the greater societal whole. What is more important in such a statement is that raises the issue of how general apathy and indifference for the financial fate of the library really harms cogent funding arguments. The “everything on the internet” perception is easy to handle and is relatively innocent; the real dangerous perception is “I don’t use the library so I don’t see how losing it would affect me”. There is no recognition that this person receives a second hand benefit from the library from the people in the community who do use it; there is a disconnect from the notion that the improvement of the individual is an improvement of the greater whole.

That’s where our advocacy efforts need to be applied. We already have people who believe in us, whether they use the public library or not. It is those on the outside who do not see the benefit on the community as a whole that we need to reach.

They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.

Ah, but we can survive as a community-funded repository for books that individuals can’t afford to own (or for reference books that have no internet counterpart). While the latter is becoming a scarce creature (and rightfully so), the former harkens back to the concept that the library is a public institution for the common good. And, on the whole, I’d say that that a majority of my customers at the public library could afford the materials that they check out, but opt to borrow instead for whatever reason. But my library is in a mostly middle class area; any shift in demographics on the education or pay scale would dramatically change the underlying reasons.

What I really take issue with is this notion that there are different tiers of entertainment. Reading for pleasure? Good. Watching a movie for pleasure? Bad. But why? One is a story written on paper and the other is a visual presentation of a story. While purists may sniff at a film production of their favorite author, are they not both acts of telling the same story? Where does listening to the audio recording of a story fall? It’s a slippery slope of information judgment. (Or, to use the words from Lori Reed’s reply on the theanalogdivide post, “It is also one of the core tenets of librarianship that we do not judge the information people seek. It is our job to connect people with information whether we personally agree with it or not.”)

To the librarians lamenting the borrowing of DVDs, I can think of three things. First, place your DVDs are deep into the library as you can while still preserving their security and reasonable access. This makes your patrons have to walk through the library and pass by other things you have to offer. Second, place advertising for services, programs, and other offerings in and around this DVD area. Third, get over it. I’m sure there are patrons who just use you for your large print collection or newspapers or magazines or even just databases when they have a paper due. In that way, the library is acting in its intended capacity: to connect people with information.

Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.

Initiative is really not the problem. The internet search engines have made it easy to look for something on a whim. Librarians already encourage people to delve deeper into the topics that interest them. From my observations, the real issue is one of online information source vetting.

Here is where the library rubber meets the road. The information on the visible web presents an mixed bag of accuracy; this is not to say that it is wrong, but it means that some resources lay on the cusp of academic dubiousness. The challenge for librarians and other information professionals lays in getting people to examine the source of the information as well as looking beyond what is immediately within reach (translation: the first page of a Google search). This can lead to information exploration in the invisible web in areas beyond search engines (e.g. databases, subscription content). This is one area where our librarian expertise lays; not simply in search assistance, but also in providing guidance and coaching for people in their investigations. It is the training and teaching of people to use critical thinking in information source examination that is part of the bigger package of developing research tools as a life skill.

Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

Alas, information is not truly free. The communication revolution has increased access to information to the point that it gives the illusion of being free. That would be akin to find an apple tree along side a country lane and declaring that it sprung up from the aether. Someone or something planted the seeds along the road; the conditions were conducive to its growth and survival; and on a long enough timeline, it grew into the fully formed tree that appears before the observer. The fruits of the tree are the end products of time, energy, and effort. Information on the internet is no different; someone had to take the time to write and create the content. Bobbi Newman’s answer to Seth Godin reply on the theanalogdivide post is more succinct to this last point:

Information is not free. As an author and a blogger you should know better. Even the often [cited] Wikipedia has had a plea up for funding recently. We all know Google isn’t scanning books out of the goodness of their heart. Even the simplest things on the internet cost time. With the plethora of information out there the skill to determine if it’s accurate (or crap detection as Howard Rheingold puts it) is even more important that ever. At the very least information takes time, something so many seem to be short of these days.”

(Emphasis mine.)

As to the last sentence in Mr. Godin’s post (the one mentioning sherpas), I think there is something there that is much bigger than libraries. While I mention that the library is a public institution that has arisen out of the idea of a common good, there is a silent caveat tacked onto the end of it which states “so long as it is not too expensive”. To me, libraries exist in broader scheme of public education, another community expense that falls victim to this same silent conditional.

For me, this nation and society is not serious about education. Our spending priorities give us away on this issue, from the federal budget down to the family budget. Our country’s well documented altruism towards humanitarian causes is strangely tempered by the bottom line when it comes to our own next generation. We as a society provide the ideals, dreams, and testimonies of academic success, yet we do not provide the required money, tools, or educational infrastructure to make those lofty objectives more accessible. We want the best results but are hesitant about the material cost, ignorant or indifferent to the fact that the success of each generation benefits the greater whole.

When it comes to the library, it is no different. An intellectually based public institution, created under the ideals of a common good for all who seek it, a home for honest and free inquiry, is tethered by layered bureaucracy and constant budgetary inadequacies. I’m not asking for a blank check or a complete free hand here, but some financial certainty and community pledge of support would go a long way.

While I admire the aspiration that Mr. Godin creates in this final sentence, what I think needs to happen is a broadening of the education commitment. This is not a simple of matter of money and materials, but a paradigm movement by the community to commit to the better education of the next generation through all the means available. Knowledge has always been a valuable commodity. There is no time like the present during this information revolution to raise our voices and make it a greater priority in the lives of our fellow citizens. I believe that the lifting up of an individual lifts up the community; to this end, I believe that the library fulfills this exalted ideal.

Other blog reactions to Mr. Godin’s post (by no means a complete listing):

theanalogdivide (complete with Seth Godin comment), SarahGlassmeyer(dot)com, Digitization 101, Lucacept, Neverending Search, Blue Skunk Blog, Schooling.us, Justin the Librarian, A Curious View of the World, The MLXperience, Cathy Nelson’s Professional Thoughts, Library Idol.