The Age Old Institution Trumps All

American Libraries e-newsletter pointed me to this piece by Geoffrey A. Fowler at the Wall Street Journal website.

From the headline to the following quotes, there was so much to love:

“As E-Book Subscription Services Grow Their Catalogs, the Age-Old Institution Trumps All.”

“A growing stack of companies would like you to pay a monthly fee to read e-books . . . . Don’t bother. Go sign up for a public library card instead.”

“It isn’t very often that a musty old institution can hold its own against tech disrupters. But it turns out librarians haven’t just been sitting around shushing people while the Internet drove them into irrelevance. More than 90% of American public libraries have amassed e-book collections you can read on your iPad, and often even on a Kindle. You don’t have to walk into a branch or risk an overdue fine. And they’re totally free.”

OK, I take umbrage at “musty old institution.” But Fowler goes on to explain how he compared e-book bestseller and other book lists (including Stephen King’s favorites) on three subscription services, including Amazon, to the e-book holdings of the San Francisco public library and his own childhood system, Richland County, South Carolina. The verdict? “Libraries, at least for now, have one killer feature that the others don’t: e-books you actually want to read.”

He explains the business reasons for this (and Fowler knows his stuff — he also explains why the terms publishers give libraries for e-books aren’t great), and then he says this:

“Like many, I hadn’t used my library card much since I started reading books on screens. But in the past few weeks, discovering my library’s e-book collection helped me reconnect with the power of the library card I felt when I was young.”

Yes!

He goes on to explain why there are long hold lists for popular library e-book titles (again, he’s done his homework), and his closing argument is dynamite:

“But libraries serve nobler purposes than just amassing vampire romances. They provide equal access to knowledge, from employment services to computer training. And in an age where getting things “free” usually means surrendering some privacy, libraries have long been careful about protecting patron records.The rise of paid subscription services is proof that there’s demand for what libraries can offer in our Internet era.” Except we’re not going to sell you stuff based on what you check out. And that’s a very good argument against libraries allowing “buy it now” buttons in their catalog, which violate two core values of our profession — free access for all, and protection of privacy.

This is one of the best outside-the-profession articles I’ve read about why libraries are not only relevant, but as important as ever today. And why even for those who like their books virtual, we can be a vital resource. I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on the future of librarianship with a diverse group of community leaders yesterday, and one message I tried to impart is that we can serve everyone with prudent management of our resources — we can be a home for people who want stacks of picture books for their kids, senior citizens who want large print and a chance to login to Facebook and see what the grands are up to, and everyone in between.

For the generations who often seem to be absent from libraries — who have left school but don’t have their own kids yet — e-book service is convenient, free, and available wherever they have wifi.  Whether they come in to the building or not.  Our website can be their branch, 24/7.

Geoffrey Fowler, thank you. Your mother (who retired from the Richland Country Library system) must be very proud of you. You’re a smart cookie. Probably from spending time at the library when you grew up. We’re good for growing — and grown up — minds.

Public Libraries in the US

The Institute of Museum & Library Services published its latest report on public libraries in the U.S recently. I went straight to the state stats. Looks like New Hampshire is in pretty good shape. More evidence that the demise of libraries is not imminent.

Meanwhile, we’re ready to start new projects for the new fiscal year at my library. One thing I got started on today is radically reconsidering the reference section — I’d like to circulate some books, move others to storage, and weed the ones that sit gathering dust, their spines indicating they’ve rarely been cracked open. It’s painful, because many of them are wonderful resources. But I’d like to make space for materials our patrons do want to use and check out.

A colleague of mine pointed out that this brings up a philosophical dilemma: should expand our offerings of popular materials like movies, even if it means decreasing our purchase of something else, like reference books? Some folks I’ve known in the library world lament that for some patrons, we’re just another video outlet. It can feel like what we are as libraries is in danger if we know some people only come in for movies. Or if we jettison reference materials.

If we want to continue to encourage literacy and a love of knowledge and learning, maybe the answer isn’t to buy interesting but rarely used multi-volume reference sets but to choose appealing books and circulate them. And maybe even pair them with movies to encourage cross-circulation? Say someone takes out the Harrison Ford film Witness. Why not offer some Amish fiction (very popular at my library) or a memoir about growing up Amish or a coffee table book about rural America? It’s hard to quickly pull together related materials on the spot, but a display area is a good place to do this. And catalog tools may be going that way. We use Novelist, which recommends related titles when a patron looks at a book  our catalog. It would be cool if it pointed people to books when they looked at movies or music as well.

Whether our reference section shrinks or our dvd section grows, I’m happy to live in a region and a state where libraries are valued and well-used.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

World Cup of books

These are my new earrings, courtesy of scbeachbling on Etsy:

USA bling

I’m a fan. And I’m finding some patrons are too, but many, like the majority of their fellow Americans, are not too sure what all the fuss is about.

I made a display of the few books we have about the beautiful game and Brazil, and some books have checked out. I also posted this guide for keeping up with the World Cup on social media to the library’s Facebook page. But I saw this cool Booklover’s Guide to the World Cup from the Scottish Book Trust and realized my teeny display is child’s play. I would love to do something like this for our patrons for an Olympics or World Cup in the future.

What do you think of Friday Night Lights as the choice for the USA? I think it would be hard to pick one book as quintessentially American. Maybe something by Twain? Or Hawthorne? Or Toni Morrison? What about The Great Gatsby? Or Fahrenheit 451?  Or Emily Dickinson’s poetry? Or to highlight what’s hot now, the Game of Thrones series? What would you pick?

I’m sure readers from other countries have looked at the list and wondered about the selections too. To be fair it does say this is a “country-by-country guide to great books in translation from each of the countries competing at Brazil 2014,” and maybe Friday Night Lights is great (I haven’t read it). And the World Cup 2014 Literary Sweepstake is fun. I don’t think office sweepstakes for the World Cup have caught on in the USA, but I like that there’s both a booklist and an activity, with a way to tweet along. So many library activities are for kids, but the kid in all of us likes to play.

Have you tried a World Cup of books at your library, or a book Olympics? How did it work? Leave a comment to join the conversation.

Personal librarians

One of the things we’re working on at my public library is increasing our personalized readers advisory services. We’re planning to use a form, and I hope we can also do some staff training to increase readers advisory at the information desk as well. Multnomah County Public Library is taking personalized service in a slightly different direction with My Librarian, an online service that allows patrons to get to know the readers advisory staff. I have noticed that our patrons love it when we sign reviews, make a display of a particular staff member’s favorites, or otherwise connect in a personal way. For National Library Week, I invited staff members to join me on booksecret.org, and one of them also made an eye-catching display of our booksecret submissions:

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Just about every day I hear a patron comment on how much they enjoyed seeing what we like to read.

But I recently heard about a library where the staff didn’t want to include their names on recommendations or reviews. I have mixed feelings about that. I get that some people are private or shy or have concerns I perhaps haven’t even thought of regarding using even just their first names in a public space.

On the other hand, I think humanizing what we do, and making sure people feel personally connected to their library and librarians, is beneficial. It can only be good if people see us as familiar members of their communities, not just as anonymous public servants. I’d like patrons to leave the library feeling we are part of the same happy book tribe (which is why I think it is important to encourage staff to chat a bit with patrons, so that they feel welcomed and cared about, but that’s another post).

In an interview, the Multnomah County library director Vailey Oehlke explained that people could get book recommendations on Amazon.com (or I would add, the library catalog online, if like ours, it includes Novelist Select or another discovery tool), but that’s ” a pretty transactional experience . . . . It’s not a conversation, it’s not a relationship that develops with a back-and-forth personal connection.” Reporter Kelly House notes that when people go to their local library, “familiar faces greet patrons daily.” My Librarian is an effort to replicate that experience for online library users.

Which brings me to a common theme here at Nocturnal Librarian: libraries, like other service organizations, may change their delivery methods or search tools, but the basics of what we do — like make reading recommendations to patrons who we get to know — are what we’ve always done well. I’m all for reaching people in new ways, but instead of touting how much we’ve changed, I think there is real value in reminding people that what they’ve always counted on libraries for, like help finding a good book, is still what they can count on us for.

And I believe that Vailey Oehlke is correct, our patrons trust us because we are familiar to them, and that’s something else unique to libraries. People could get books anywhere; they come to us in part because libraries are a community service, and both parts of that term should be at the heart of what we are and do. I plan to keep putting my name on whatever I recommend, and to encourage my staff to do the same, so we remain, for our patrons,”their” librarians.

Future libraries

Last week the Slate article “What Will Become of the Library” by Michael Agresta burned up bookish social media circles. Much of what Agresta discusses I’ve written about on Nocturnal Librarian as well; he even mentions “book mountain” in the Netherlands.

He posits that bookless libraries are “almost inevitable” and goes over all the ways libraries are “reinventing” themselves. He covers maker spaces and innovation stations, and the “interventionist” role public libraries have in serving the “dispossessed of the digital age” – namely the homeless. And like so many others he asks whether “patching the gaps of the fraying social safety net” is or should be libraries’ role. (Agresta wasn’t alone on that topic last week — several newspapers covered recent ordinances prohibiting bathing, anti-social behavior, and sleeping in libraries across the country. I can report that in my library’s case, very few homeless patrons actually engage in those activities. A few hard cases make bad law, and always have, but I digress).

Stop yawning.

Having recently read Alfie Kohn’s excellent book The Myth of the Spoiled ChildI’ve become hyper-aware of how some media outlets are a sort of echo chamber of unsupported theories. I don’t know about your public library, but mine is nowhere near, now or in the foreseeable future, becoming a bookless downloadable maker space. There are a few exceptions, but I would guess, having chatted with a broad cross-section of my fellow public librarians at PLA 2014 last month, that most American libraries are much as they were a generation or two ago, albeit with more technology for both staff and patrons and new material on their shelves.

While journalists crow about our impending demise, we are frequently welcoming more people than ever, and not just the homeless; we serve, as we always have, every demographic, rich and poor, old and young, recent immigrant and Mayflower descendant. Are some libraries experiencing lack of growth? Yes. Is that caused by the coming digital smiting of traditional library services? A classic error of assuming causation. Sure, some libraries are losing patrons, for any of the reasons any service oriented business loses “market share,” like poor management or inadequate marketing.

People do visit their libraries for social interaction, as Agresta notes, but they aren’t all printing 3D gadgets or collaborating in a computer lab. Lots of people are attending lectures and classes, story times and book discussions just as they always have, and checking out physical books. Very few library patrons (or any other readers) choose ebooks exculsively — just 4%, according to the Pew Research Center. Many folks still want a quiet space to read or study, and we have that too, just as we always have.

Why the endless chatter about how different we are and how much we’ll have to keep changing when we are in fact, in cities and towns across America, essentially the same? I will allow that I am speculating as well, but I do have the benefit of a network of professionals whose anecdotal evidence indicates that issuing library cards, lending materials, providing information, recommending good books, and putting on programs are still the bulk of their daily work. Just as they were when my grandmother was a librarian. Pew notes that the presence of a library (in the traditional sense I’ve described) is highly valued across generations all over America. Will some communities choose new and different library services? Sure, but I’d bet even those still check out books, every day.

As for Agresta’s “book-oriented library, where it survives in defiance of the digital shift, tends to take on the aspect of a temple for this sort of focused, old-fashioned study and contemplation?” My reaction ranges from “get over yourself ” to “temple, schmemple.” Come browse our romance novels, our large print westerns, our People Magazine and Mother Earth News, our dystopian YA, zombie and horror paperbacks, our Value Line and Cat Fancy and cozy mysteries and chicklit and Amish fiction and inspirational memoirs, our self-help and car repair guides, our cookbooks and comics, and DIY, and then we’ll talk.

Now hear this: Real people, of all kinds, read all kinds of stuff they checked out at their local public libraries. It’s not a catchy lede, but it’s reality.

 

PLA 2014 from ideas to action

It’s one thing to attend a conference and report on what you learned, and it’s another to put it into practice, but both are fun. The week after PLA, I wrote reports on each session and an executive summary of programming, marketing, and administrative ideas for my city and library administration.

And then I rolled up my sleeves. So far, I’ve tossed out monthly activity reports for my supervisees in favor of one on one meetings, and started being much more deliberate in my use of email: only for imparting information and updates, not for conversing, asking questions, or fostering exchanges of ideas. It’s tempting to engage in email threads, because we work different shifts; it’s harder to see people in person to get their feedback but worth the personal exchange and improved communication.

I’ve worked on making displays more inviting and available — adding a simple sign, designed by a talented staff member who is a graphic arts whiz, that invites the public to check out the items on the display (seems obvious, but patrons might not realize this). And encouraged the use of photos instead if clip art in signs.

In conjunction with a poetry display for National Poetry Month I set up a “passive” program, or interactive activity — blackout poetry — and invited staff to try it first. For an upcoming Skype author event, I took posters around to area coffee shops and other places where book-lovers might hang out (we’ve mostly postered in house for events) and invited staff to share the poster with friends.

And I’ve been thinking about how the Adult Services department can incorporate even more PLA 2014 ideas in the coming year. I’m hoping we’ll offer community conversation events (from “Coming to America” open mics to discussion forums), book club activities, more interactive events as well as traditional ones. That we’ll video and post events on the website to increase attendance, make concerted staff-wide marketing efforts 6x a year, add a Tumblr blog to our website for Readers’ Advisory and a Pinterest account for showing off all kinds of cool library stuff.

I also hope to incorporate patron requests into our collection development guidelines (we do this but haven’t stated our intentions), market to patrons who just come in to pick up holds, do more to attract both Baby & Echo Boomers, expand community partnerships, help staff to see themselves as “embedded librarians,” look into inviting social services professionals to work with our patrons next winter, create a spotlight display area right up front near the circulation desk, make our marketing more personable and fun, and focus on affirmative customer service.

In short, 3 weeks later I’m still energized and excited and I can’t wait to start sharing my hopes and goals with my coworkers during our annual planning process so we can put some or all of these ideas into action. I’m a little tired, honestly, from the long winter and from catching up after being out of the library too much in March (besides PLA I attended Supervisors’ Academy locally and cheered on my daughter’s FIRST Robotics team in Rhode Island). But I haven’t lost the delight I felt when surrounded by 8,000 smart, engaged, interesting librarians and I haven’t lost sight of our profession as hope-filled, narrative-changing, empowering, egalitarian, and just plain awesome.

PLA 2014 impressions, the first post

I got back late last night from Indianapolis and PLA 2014, my first. My synapses are still firing furiously. Everything you’ve heard about learning as much in the hallways at a conference as you do in the sessions is true. I went to very informative sessions, but looking over my notes this morning, I realized the random jottings I stored on my phone as I chatted with people in lines, at meals, and between sessions are a fascinating trove.

I’ve read about some of the things I learned at PLA in professional journals. But meeting someone who is acting on an idea — be it  putting “the community” at the top of the library’s org chart or  or using Twitter to forge partnerships or embedding librarians on community service boards or putting cutouts of staff’s faces on recommended reading– is more powerful than reading about those same ideas.

I need to do some post-conference processing, culling my notes for ideas I want to put into action with our own local twist, allowing them to percolate. And I need to think about the best way to communicate all the exciting things I’ve learned to my colleagues without sounding like a jerk who doesn’t appreciate what we’re already doing or an impractical dreamer who wants to implement a bunch of changes at once.

But mostly what I need to do is remain infused with the joy I felt at PLA. What we do is awesome. What we do is community-building. What we do is hope-fueled and potentially narrative-changing. What we do can fill in the broken spaces in our communities, in our lives and the lives of those we serve. What we do is empowering — people can learn and grow and be their best selves because of the books and services and programs and presence we offer.What we do is shepherd the most egalitarian places in America. Our libraries when they are at their best are the very best of what our society can be.

And I feel delighted and grateful to be a part of this profession.

As I headed to work today I looked forward to the task opening session speaker Bryan Stevenson charged us with:  being fueled by conviction in my heart for the ideas in my head. Thank you to all the incredibly talented, smart, engaged, generous, kind librarians I met for inspiring me and sharing ideas.

Give ‘em shelter, and then what?

It’s winter and libraries across America are full of people sheltering from the weather. There are a variety of responses to this “mission creep.” In Detroit, the public library is feeding kids snacks after school and lunches in the summer. In Tucson, six branches of the library have public health nurses on staff. I wrote a post here last year about San Francisco Public Library’s social worker.

If your first reaction is “oh, we could never do that, we don’t have the resources” — and I’ll admit I’ve thought that myself — consider this. In Tucson’s “main library, emergency calls seeking police help dropped 14 percent last year; at another branch, 911 calls dropped 60 percent.” Having had to call 911 yesterday, I know that it disrupts service to patrons (and other work) when we have to deal with a crisis. And it has an insidious impact as well: have enough experiences like this and the staff begins to feel entrenched against forces it can’t adequately respond to. That hurts morale, which ends up hurting customer service. I’ve seen it this winter: we’re becoming so accustomed to saying “no” to patrons when we have to, that it becomes easier to say it when we don’t have to. Which costs us goodwill in our community.

And we’re already doing social work. People come into the library to have a need addressed, whether it’s the need for a book or article or today’s newspaper, space to hang out with friends, a computer to check email or apply for a job, or a warm, safe place to spend the day. We provide resources for all those needs, without judging their “librariness.” Having a social worker or health worker in a public library is a bit like having specialist reference staff in an academic library; hiring people with subject knowledge is efficient.

Still there are those who say, we’re libraries, we should stick to our core mission. Lend books and other materials to promote literacy and foster a love of reading. Offer quiet space for study. Help people find information and resources. But the director of the Detroit library noticed the systemic relationship of their mission and their patrons’ needs. They weren’t able to achieve their mission because kids were coming to the library too hungry to concentrate on the programs being offered. 

One of my favorite nonprofits, Partners In Health, is the ultimate model of this holistic approach. Paul Farmer founded PIH to work in solidarity with the communities it serves. “Partners In Health strives to achieve two overarching goals: to bring the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need of them and to serve as an antidote to despair.” Which means PIH goes beyond what most would consider medical care. They provide what their patients need (schools, sanitation, housing, water, food), so their medical work succeeds.

Detroit and Tucson decided that in order for their library work to succeed, they needed to go beyond what most would consider library services to provide what their patrons need. It’s a model I’ll be watching with interest, and with hope that they succeed in being antidotes to despair.

What is a library? Mission, vision, and inner workings.

I’ve recently started a new position at my public library, managing adult services (reference and circulation). Along with my colleagues, I also select materials (fiction in my case), plan and market our services, and help patrons. Our director is retiring soon, and our city is considering whether to renovate or even build a new library. Since librarianship is already a giant clockworks with many moving parts requiring perfect timing and maintenance to run smoothly, anticipating change is a challenge.

What’s so complicated about a public library? To begin, scheduling over two dozen of us, most of whom work part time and have other jobs as well, over seven days a week at two branches and a combined 80 open hours a week. Then there’s selecting, ordering, receiving, processing, cataloging, shelving, and checking out books, magazines, CD’s, dvd’s and e-books, and managing the non-circulating items. Signing up new cardholders, maintaining databases of cardholders and holdings, tracking where things are, what’s overdue, what needs replacing or repairing, etc. Managing our technology resources — the website, social media, online catalog, and subscription databases, staff and public computers with internet access, printers, copier, scanner, microfilm readers, circulation and self-check stations, and even a typewriter. Plus planning, promoting, and running programs.

We do all that in addition to our everyday work with the public. Yes, answering questions, teaching people to find and use materials and technology, assisting with research or helping someone find a good book to read. But also, as you’ve read here and elsewhere, public libraries are a de facto social service as we deal every single day with homelessness and mental illness and try to make the library pleasant and safe, as well as useful, for every person who enters.

One thing I’ve learned is that if your name tag says “manager” people tell you their views.  Some are concerned about the library being a gathering place for the marginalized in our community, or are upset about unpredictable or unusual behavior, unpleasant smells, or sleeping (all of which we do our best to deal with). Others worry that some people only come to the library for free computer time. Or that we have too many movies and tv shows on our shelves. Or not enough. Or the wrong kind. Each person who offers his or her opinion is really trying to get to the bottom of what a library should be.

According to our mission statement, the library “connects individuals with resources in order to enhance lives and build community.” Our vision statement calls for our library to “be a dynamic place, promoting the love of knowledge and the joy of reading.”  Dynamic — change is part of what we do, at the heart of responding to the needs of our community. Knowledge, reading, resources — we provide these in many forms, connecting people with books and quiet study space, email access and tax forms, literature and pop culture, and each other. We enhance lives by serving everyone, no matter how difficult that sometimes is. We build community — some days just by smiling and making eye contact with people who aren’t often treated with respect.

So what’s a library? An energetic, ever-changing public space, open to everyone, devoted to knowledge, reading, services, and resources that enhance lives and build community. And that makes all the difference whether we are keeping the clockworks running or planning for how to make it bigger, better, stronger, or more intricate.

2013 in review

Thanks to all (in 69 countries!!) who read The Nocturnal Librarian, shared my blog with others, commented, or just stumbled across it in 2013. 2014 will bring new adventures in librarianship for me — I’m transitioning to full time work at my public library as Adult Services Manager. Stay tuned!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,600 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 60 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Happy New Year, everyone!