Content vs. Container (The Library As a Whole Edition)

For those of you who recall the “content vs. container” discussions of recent memory around eBooks, that was just small potatoes to what is being reported online these days. Why argue whether a book is really a book if it is online or an eReader or written on a grain of sand when you could be engaged in a meta discussion on the “library as an institution” scale? Why limit ourselves to arguing over one type of typical library material when it could be expanded to, oh, the identity of the library itself?

Exhibit A is a “no books” school library in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. School Library Journal had an article about this private school covering grades 7-12 that emptied out its library in favor of collaborative spaces. Here’s what happened to the print collection:

Before distributing the library’s print stacks to local centers and donation sites in Africa, says Skinner, she had teachers comb through the physical books and pull anything they wanted for their curriculums into classrooms. Then she allocated additional funding towards purchasing new and used fiction books in physical form, since her students, Skinner says, actually prefer to read this genre on the printed page like many adults do. These titles, too, went into classrooms.

So, there are books in the school but they are distributed throughout the classrooms. The article doesn’t mention if there is any system in place to track the books from the classroom shelves nor if there is a way for students to be able to ‘borrow’ books from other classrooms (either fiction or non-fiction). The principal of the school does point out that they rely heavily on the multitude of local public and academic libraries for books that (presumably) they don’t have on campus. It’s not clear as to whether this is a partnership with those libraries or an unfortunate parasitic relationship upon the publicly funded local library system and public universities. I wouldn’t want to guess how taxpayers and alumni would feel about their local library or campus library being used as a book resource center for a $12,000 a year private school, but I think that is a whole other can of worms.

“Bookless” school libraries aren’t new after the Cushing Academy removed a majority of their print collection in favor of collaborative work spaces and digital resources and eBooks back in 2009. They retained some of their print collection but shifted their focus towards providing literature and textbooks in any format. As of time of publication, it would appear that they have not reverted on their decision.

Exhibit B is “bookless” public library in Bexar County, Texas. It is the start of a countywide system outside of San Antonio and, well, if you ever wondered what kind of library a judge would build, you now have your answer. From the MySanAntonio website:

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is an unabashed book lover with 1,000 first editions in his private collection, but even he sees the writing on the wall.

Paper books have lost their allure, and future generations may have little use for them, Wolff contends.

So when he embarked on a mission to create a countywide library system, he decided it should be bookless from the start.

Today, after months of planning, Wolff and other county leaders will announce plans to launch the nation’s first bookless public library system, BiblioTech, with a prototype location on the South Side opening in the fall.

If you want to get an idea what it looks like, go into an Apple store,” Wolff said.

Yeah, that’s right: an Apple store. It’s not a terrible vision considering how Apple is noted for its in-store customer service. But nothing in that store is inviting me to get so comfortable that I should pull up a chair and take some time to check my email and social media stuff. Granted, the purpose of the store is to draw you in, take your money, and then toss you again, so it may just take inspiration and not implementation from the Apple store kind of model.

But wait! There’s more:

Inspired while reading Apple founder Steve Jobs’ biography, Wolff said he envisions several bookless libraries around the county, including in far-flung suburbs.

“It’s not a replacement for the (city) library system, it’s an enhancement,” Wolff said.

“People are always going to want books, but we won’t be doing that in ours,” Wolff said.

I presuming he means physical books because there is a passage further down the article that mentions eBooks.

Commissioners will decide whether to seek a contractor to complete the design of the library and another to provide e-book titles; hire staff; and create a seven-member advisory board.

At least $250,000 will be needed to gain access to the first 10,000 book titles, Wolff said. Costs for design and construction aren’t set, but the county will save by using a county-owned building.

We wanted to find a low-cost, effective way to bring reading and learning to the county and also focus on the change in the world of technology,” Wolff said. “It will help people learn,” he said.

As to the first statement I highlighted, I’ll be very curious where they will purchases titles at an average of $25 a pop. Given that Douglas County just spent $40,000 for 10,000 titles from Smashwords, I don’t think it’s an impossible prospect. By the time this experimental branch is built, who knows where eBooks will be in the library universe. However, given its current trajectory, I think their number is rather optimistic. 

As to the second statement, it has been a long time since I’ve seen the terms “low cost” and “world of technology” appear in the same sentence especially in light of the Apple store mention. Something just doesn’t seem right about that at all to me. Perhaps the Devil is in the details, but that’s going to be one hell of a Devil (pun somewhat intended).

So, with these recent examples in mind, it brings us around to the question: what makes a library a library? Is it the contents of the collection or the purpose of the mission? This might be the Super Bowl of navel gazing for the librarian profession, but it may well be worth re-examining in an introspective fashion.

If I accept the concepts offered by St. Louis Park, Cushing, and Bexar County, then my living room could be designated as a library. It has a desk, a internet connected computer, Wi-Fi access, a bookcases with a small selection of books, DVDs, and game materials, a couch (otherwise known as a social collaborative space), and a table with four chairs (a group collaboration area). It is “staffed” by a librarian, yours truly, and despite being a relatively small apartment I still get questions as to where the bathroom is.  What more would I have to do? Could I post hours and then apply to join my library system? The original library for my town started in someone’s apartment back in the late 1800s, so it wouldn’t be anything too strange when you consider the history. But is it a library?

If I reject those concepts of a library, then what is required to satisfy that ideal? How big of a collection is needed? And of what materials, either physical or digital? I presume it would be contextual to the type of library and community it seeks to serve, but even that gets mired very quickly. Or is it centered around reading and literacy? Or research and knowledge seeking skills?

What do you think?

Censorship in Greenville

I’ve spent part of the afternoon and evening trying to unpack this story about a book removal at a library in Greenville, South Carolina. Neonomicon, a graphic novel written by Alan Moore, was challenged by a parent back in June after letting her 14 year old daughter check it out from the adult section. By the mother’s own account, she had leafed through the book before allowing her to check it out (I guess people don’t read the backs anymore). When her daughter asked what a particular word meant, the mother did a proper investigation and found the content to be (for lack of a better term) unsavory.

Fast forward to December when the decision was made by the Executive Director Beverly James to remove the book from the system. This decision overruled an internal review committee that had voted to keep the book. (Note: the articles are hazy here because one says they voted to keep it and the other says they provide recommendations for the director to make the final decision. I can’t tell which is the actual procedure.) Otherwise, the challenge process had been carried out as per whatever policies they have in place.

Normally, I’m disappointed in the result but respectful of a challenge process. Such policies are there for a pretty obvious reason and should carry out an objective review (I am hopeful enough that something like that happens). Greenville apparently gets an average of three challenges a year. Over the course of the last twelve years, they have removed a total of five items. You can see the other four items that have been removed in this time period in the side bar of the article. They are as follows:

  • Southern Dreams & Trojan Women (adult novel): challenged author’s character and his use of the book to gain a teaching position at a private school. Withdrawn from the collection for lack of literary merit or patron interest.
  • Memoirs of a Survivor (unrated foreign film): challenged on the basis of sexual content involving teenagers. Removed on the rationale of being not appropriate for the library system’s collection.
  • Film Geek (unrated film): challenged on the basis of sexual content. Removed on the grounds of not enough artistic merit to keep it in the library’s collection. (Here’s the IMDB content entry for the movie.)
  • Secret of Loch Ness (foreign film for children): challenged for strong language better suited for an adult audience. Withdrawn because of the poor technical quality of the dubbed-in English and lack of the content’s appeal to adults.

I can’t say I’m really upset by any of the reasons given, but I’m not thrilled about them either. Something still doesn’t sit well for me in this case. Here are my problems with this story.

First, if you watch the short video in the latest article, Ms. James talks about how material is removed all the time and then goes on to give standard weeding examples. Not how the material has been removed under similar circumstances drawing on examples of the previous twelve years, but the very mundane practice of regular collection removal. This is not a parallel situation. It is one thing to remove a book because it doesn’t circulate anymore, it has fallen into disrepair, or that it is making way for other material; it is quite another to remove it on the basis of a challenge for its content. I don’t know if Ms. James answer was simply dodging the question or conflating weeding with book challenge removals, but her answer stinks.

Second, as reported in the article, Ms. James read the book and stated that, “it was disgusting”. While she didn’t call it pornographic or obscene, this simple statement raises a giant red flag for me. It feels like that was the moment where librarians principles and practices around intellectual freedom fell apart. Whereas the Greenville collection policy states, “The library recognizes that many materials are controversial and that any given item may offend some. Only individuals can determine what is most appropriate for their needs,” and that the library has other titles that contain sex and violence, one cannot take back their own visceral reaction to the material. The title was doomed from that moment forward, regardless of what the committee determined. The objectivity captured in the collection policy went out the window for a book in which “the pictures gave her pause”. The ideals of the policy lost out to the shocked reactions to the content by the person who had the authority to make a final decision.

In one sense, I don’t think the outcome is unusual. Librarians are not robots, but the same human beings carrying around their own biases and beliefs. It’s a lot to ask someone to suspend these innate characteristics and become detached and objective in evaluating a piece of material. Sometimes it happens, other times it won’t. I wish I could say that we could draw a lesson from this story, for I don’t really see any aside from “don’t be an Alan Moore graphic novel in the Greenville Public Library”. It’s just a shame, a real shame.


I remember where I was when I heard about the Columbine school shooting. I was in the dorm room of some of my friends (L302 at Stockton State College) when the news came across on CNN. I can’t remember if we were heading out to lunch, but I can still see that small television sitting on the top of the bureau. The horror of those early reports was coming across the screen. It was one of those moments that changed everything.

Last Friday, I was driving away from my parent’s place after having lunch with my dad when I turned on the radio. NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday was on… and they weren’t talking about science. I called my dad and asked him to turn on the TV to find out what’s going on. He told me that it was a school shooting, a number of people were dead, and that it was in Connecticut. I thanked him and hung up the phone. The day had already been a banner day for personal stress and this just finished me off. I went over to my girlfriend’s apartment and just sacked out on the couch, waiting for the day to be over.

The erroneous media reports are now starting to finally taper off as the broader factual picture is starting to emerge. The transition has been made to grasping at straws in order to find a reason or rationale behind this madness; this invariably draws the nutjobs and wackadoos out of the woodwork to present their baseless theories that do nothing more than affirm their worldview. There is much to be said about checking sources and ignoring people who are using these tragic events to push their ideological agenda, but my thoughts for this post are heading in other directions.

It’s not the first time I’ve ever had the thoughts, but I have wondered what I would do in the case of a shooter at my library. Normally these considerations are bundled up into a larger emergency preparedness line of thinking that includes fire evacuations, water damage, and medical situations. It’s a contest of inner wills as part of me really doesn’t want to think about it in light of the circumstances while the other half is pushing to make certain that some kind of plan is in place. Part of being prepared is working out a plan of action and a backup plan so that those thoughts take over rather than incapacitating fear or terror. Even then, the plan I have sketched in my head only covers me, not anyone else in the library.

Events like these make it easy to forget the joy of working with the public and how every day is a bit different than the next. I’d rather not consider everyone who enters the library to be a potential assailant. I don’t want to inwardly cringe when someone comes to the desk upset or angry about an issue with their account. I don’t want to evaluate interactions or modify my actions through the potential-yet-incredibly-remote danger filter. I know a sense of normal will return eventually, but that dark thought will be in the back of my mind for awhile.

I’m not naïve enough to think that something possibly couldn’t happen at my library, but I am comfortable with the idea that it would be highly unlikely. Not because my community is special in some magical way, but that the statistics bear out that other more common gruesome events are more likely. Still, I know I’m going to be on edge for awhile in the hopes that there will be no copycats to this monstrous act. I’m trying to remember how much good there is in the world and how I am working to be part of that. It’s the best thing to hold onto in tragedies like these.

The Collection Quagmire

At first reading of this story, I was pretty horrified:

A representative of Frederick County Public Libraries will come before the Board of County Commissioners Thursday to discuss the books, CDs and DVDs the system has acquired in the past few months. The county commissioners will also decide whether to free up funds for the next three months of library purchases.

Commissioner Billy Shreve, who has already started poring over the list of recent buys, believes some of the materials might not be worth taxpayer dollars.

“Why should my tax dollars pay for someone else’s recreation? Why should my tax dollars pay for someone to watch ‘Charlie’s Angels’ or ‘Battlestar Galactica’ or read about Lindsay Lohan?” Shreve said in a phone interview. “It’s funny looking through here, and it’s also sad, because it’s money we could be using for schools, money we could be using for our police and firefighters.”

Library officials and the public should start asking the same questions, Shreve said. In his view, the library’s mission should center on education rather than entertainment.

Then, after a few hours of letting it roll around the brain pan, I relaxed and looked at it for what it was: the shifting of old bones into new graves. The library version of this canard, the “why should my tax dollars pay for [insert thing I think is frivolous] that the library buys”, has proven to be a well worn path for critics who look at one aspect of the collection and declare the whole mission either as not worth it or misguided. This is examining less than $600 of a quarterly materials budget that is over $250,000  (0.0025%, to be precise) in just the items mentioned. While I’m sure a fine tooth combing of all of the purchases could push that price tag higher, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it is still a fraction of the overall budget.

But, really, Shreve stepped into a philosophical quagmire here, one that is special to libraries and perhaps our best defense on collections. The logical follow-up question to his stance is, “So what do you think should be in the collection?” Here is a partial answer to that:

Critics have objected that the commissioners’ scrutiny of detailed purchase lists could lead to censorship of certain library materials. However, Shreve says he is just trying to start a conversation, not control what goes on bookshelves.

So, the conversation is whether or not entertainment items should be on library shelves which in no way controls what goes on the shelves. Uh huh. I suppose it won’t have a chilling effect at all. As Commissioner David Gray points out, removing entertainment would take out the entire fiction section.

From here, one could just continue to pose questions and let the person beat themselves up with the answers they give. “What is entertainment?” “What is educational?” “How can the library tell the difference?” Vague comments about how the library should be centered on education and not entertainment do not a policy make, even if it scores points with a constituency. I’m not sure how any of those items drag it away from being centered on education, but I’ll let that one go.

What makes this story interesting to me is not so much a standard knucklehead approach to securitizing the collection for any whiffs of weakness, but that I’ve actually been to that library. My girlfriend’s parents live in Frederick and we attended a wedding there a few months ago. They took me by the library as part of a tour of the downtown area. It’s a great big beautiful building right along one of the canals that goes through town.

No, the interesting part to me is that the library has computer center that is closed due to a lack of staffing, at least according to the sign on center’s door during my visit. I was told at the time that it had been like that for awhile. I find his quibbling about a couple thousand dollars to be breathtakingly short sighted if the library can’t even staff their computer labs. This has a ripple effect in terms of being unable to offer classes to the public for programs that can be used to improve job skills and/or help with job hunting or resume building. Although, I guess it’s easier to fight over a couple thousand dollars each quarter than to expend way more money hiring people and providing them with benefits and salaries so that the library could be properly staffed.

Honestly, the best response to statements made by people like Shreve is just let them flail away. The more they struggle to articulate their position, the more the quagmire sucks them in. I can safely say that buying a biography on Lindsey Lohan (as loathsome as that may be) is cheaper than a constituent lawsuit brought about by the restriction of library materials (which, in this case of an elected official acting in his government capacity, does meet the definition of the word, “censorship”). If anything, I hope this issue illuminates how the library could use more support from the commissioners of Frederick County.


(h/t: Infodocket for reporting it and Amanda Goodman for pointing it out on Twitter)


Update: Mike makes an excellent point in his comment below. Don’t miss it.

Thoughts on Library Programming for Adults

About a year and a half ago, I took over the responsibilities for adult programming at my little library. At the time, it was a mixture of a few regular monthly programs along with the occasional one night special class or presentation. I set out to offer a wide range of topics and programs; as an ongoing endeavor, I’d say I’m successful. As I’ve been wanting to write a post on the topic for awhile and got a nudge to do so from the Zen Master of Adult Programming Janie Hermann on Twitter, I’ll give it a shot.

Programming is a lot like juggling.

You have keep a multitude of objects aloft at the same time. Like the plethora of items that people juggle, each has its own needs to remain aloft and can require a certain level of care in doing so. How you catch and toss a tennis ball doesn’t matter as opposed to a bowling ball, knife, or chainsaw. Likewise, programs can be an easy booking with not much setup or a series of protracted steps to arrive at the final product you want.

Booking a program isn’t always the first step. Finding programs, free or paid, can be the first real time consuming activity that goes into this endeavor. There are plenty of free programs out there between governmental agencies and non-profit organizations. The local health board or a group like Habitat for Humanity have staff members who make presentations for the public, either as part of their public service duty or as a means to spread the word of their mission. From my own experience, I have found local residents who are subject experts who are willing to come to the library to share what they know (both paid and unpaid). It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.

It’s also a matter of being receptive to those approaching from the outside. Program proposals come in all shapes and sizes, from an in-person presentation to letters and emails to library member word of mouth. I’ve gotten some great presentations from all three sources. It’s important to verify their credentials and references (really, you don’t want some random guy babbling on about trains because he liked them when he was five), and ultimately it can be an excellent source of library programs.

Once a program is scheduled, the juggle continues on with publicity. It’s important to advertise in your own place as well as in local media outlets and relevant community spots. Flyers can take many forms from the letter sized ones that you staple to a bulletin board to quarter page handouts you give people when they check out material. The local and regional newspapers sometimes have community calendars either in print or online that people use to find out what is going on in their area. A press release is a snappy introduction to the program that you want people to attend that gives them all of the details about the program as well as the time, date, and location. If a program is geared towards a certain group (teen, seniors, kids, etc.), the ability to put publicity out in those areas is also key. This includes social media outlets and go beyond any library Facebook page or Twitter feed; some communities have their own online groups. I post regularly on my town’s Facebook group to let people know what is going on at the library.

If the program is a paid gig, this is where the fabulous payment paperwork happens. Since there are different policies in place all over the place, I’ll just say “Do it in time so the people are paid on time.” Whether that it before the program, the time, or afterward depends on your situation. Otherwise, even with an unpaid gig, you may want to consider an honorarium or gift card to compensate people for their time if they are really going all out for you.

At some relevant point between booking and the actual date of the program, be sure to find out any seating, tables, or AV requirements for the presenter. This information may need to be relayed to another who is setting up the space for the program (or in my case, me). Getting the space ready is a small but important step in the programming juggle.

As the date approaches and if the program has a registration, it is important to remind people of their attendance. Taking the time to write the email or make the call can insure that people will actually show up especially if they signed up for it more than two weeks in advance. I have never had anyone yell at me for providing them with a reminder so it’s a good practice. Also, if there is a waiting list, it can lead to last time cancellations that move people into the program.

Whether you are physically there for the program or let coworkers handle it is a very contextual situation. Certain programs really do need you there to make sure everything goes off right; most of the time it can handle itself. It really does depend on what the program is, who the presenter is, and how complicated it is.

In wrapping up the program, you can analyze it for the future. Did it get the attendance that you hoped for? Was the time and day of the week good? How was the presenter? Was it a good use of staff time and library resources? Should I arrange for this person to come back again? There are a ton of other questions that can be asked, but these are the most basic.

Even this analysis, it is a matter of wrapping up. For any program (paid or unpaid), I always make it a point to call or email the presenter to thank them. I get some feedback from them about how it went and any questions they have for me. If payment arrangements still need attending to, I make sure it’s all set.

And then, as they say, it’s on to the next.

Programming is like juggling. The more you do it, the more things you can keep going at the same time. You will drop some things, you will completely miss, and you will mishandle something. It’s just the way it goes and the lessons that you’ll get over time through practice. But once you get going, you can take any budget and make it into something amazing for the whole community. There is programming out there for everything. It’s just a matter of grabbing and getting it.

If you have tips of your own for programming, add them in the comments.

The Spaghetti Sauce Moment for Libraries

This isn’t the first time I’ve featured this TED talk on my blog. To summarize the salient points for the purposes of this post, Gladwell talks about the epiphany of multiple “perfect” spaghetti sauces. While researchers were baffled by the feedback regarding what constituted the best sauce, it was only when the data points were clustered into groups that the realization that there were multiple answers became apparent. It’s one of the reasons we have a variety of flavors and types in our food products these days and extends well beyond the spaghetti sauce market.

I think it is long overdue that the same epiphany should be applied to how the profession imagines the role and design of the public library. The traditional model of library service relies heavily on formats and mediums as the product or service of the library. Even recently, deviation from this approach leaves to the professional outcry when libraries go bookless or turn more towards community center facilities and offerings. For all the lamenting and teeth gnashing that goes into the condemnation, there seems to be little (if any) thought given as to whether or not these changes are meeting the needs of the community that they serve. In whining about the death of the traditional library, what is overlooked is whether this meets a core principle of public librarianship: serving the changing needs of the community.

This brings me back to the idea of multiple “perfect” spaghetti sauces. For all the standardization that occurs within the profession and the tired call of “All libraries should do X” of the conference circuit speakers and presenters, public libraries are still very local reflections of their communities. In trying to be ‘everything to everyone’, the public library is in danger of becoming important to no one. Our professional loyalties should be with access and service, not formats and mediums. Our core constituency are the people for whom there are gaps in information and knowledge access. If these needs can be met by turning the library into (what some would call) an internet café, then so be it. If it means ignoring ebooks and digital resources in favor of print books and materials, then so be it. What matters here is the community, not the expectations or opinions of remote colleagues or antiquated notions as to what a public is or is not.

We as a profession have arrived in an age when one size no longer fits all when it comes to information access. Rather than looking to the outside for validation, librarians need to look into their communities and adapt accordingly. Just as there is no single perfect spaghetti sauce, there is no single perfect design and execution of the public library.

Gorman Gaming Gaffe

There’s an article in the Los Angeles Times about libraries reinventing themselves for digital content when this quote popped out at me:

Some traditional librarians worry that experiments aimed at making libraries more accessible could dumb them down.

“If you want to have game rooms and pingpong tables and God knows what — poker parties — fine, do it, but don’t pretend it has anything to do with libraries,” said Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Assn. “The argument that all these young people would turn up to play video games and think, ‘Oh by the way, I must borrow that book by Dostoyevsky’ — it seems ludicrous to me.”

For me, there are a couple of things wrong with this quote. First, when the library can attract anyone into the physical building (teen, adult, kid, senior), you are given any number of opportunities to market other materials and services to them. The teens might not borrow that Dostoyevsky book, but it works to build a relationship between the library and that age group. These relationships and experiences carry forward beyond the teen years in adulthood. This relationship model applies to the other groups I’ve mentioned and works towards the life long relationship that libraries as a whole want to build with people.

The shortsightedness of Mr. Gorman’s quote is that it relies on a notion that there exists an instant or short term conversion of a single interest patron (only checks out DVDs, only attends video game programs, etc.) into a multiple interest patron (starts borrowing other materials or attending other types of programs). That the single purpose of forming a relationship with a patron is to move them into utilizing as many materials, services, and programs as quickly as possible without regard for their current needs. It’s the equivalent of asking someone to marry them on the first date. Just as we look to the future of the library with longevity, so must we give the same consideration to patron relationships. It doesn’t mean we can’t do a hard sell every once in a while, but keeping perspective on the relationship as an ongoing and growing connection over decades.

Second, the tone of the quote is rather dismissive of experimenting with new formats and ideas. The game rooms that Mr. Gorman is lamenting today might be gone in a few years from now because they really don’t further the library’s mission, they fail attract people to the library, or they are simply be untenable for continued funding. Some experiments work, some don’t, but not trying is also not discovering and stifling to innovation. Even in failing, there are insights to be gleaned for future attempts or avoidance of certain strategies.

I would not consider dismissing Mr. Gorman’s quotation because he has only worked in academic libraries all his life (and not in a public library) so I would hope he would give a little more consideration to different ideas being attempted in public libraries for attracting patrons. It is this process of change that leads to a better overall service and product, but there are going to be many missteps along the way. It may be a game room, it could be video games, but it’s going to take many ideas to figure out which ones are good or bad. Hopefully, in the end, this will bring the results that these libraries are looking for: people walking through the door, ready to see what the library has to offer them today.

(h/t: Resource Shelf)