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.

Newtown

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)

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.

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?

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.