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!

The case for the written and printed word

A few weeks ago I was driving to Vermont to see my college-student son, listening to NPR, and heard this interview with Texas judge and former San Antonio mayor Nelson Wolff, the man behind “Bibliotech” the “bookless library.” As I’ve written here before, Wolff clearly doesn’t know much about the obstacles publishers place on library e-books: burdensome pricing structures, limits on the number of check-outs, etc., which result in long waits for popular titles. He promotes his model as fiscally prudent, but seems not to worry about spending tax dollars on e-books licenses, which expire, unlike physical books, which are libraries’ to keep for as long as they can be mended. And let’s not forget that e-readers and tablets break, wear out, or become obsolete as new technologies come along.

In the interview with Scott Simon, Wolff noted one goal of Bibliotech, to “bring technology to a area of the city that is economic disadvantaged, highly minority, and do not have access to the Internet and the various modes that we have to access it. So we provide eBook readers that they can check out.” If the readers are pre-loaded with e-books, this makes a little sense, but it doesn’t explain: a) how people without internet access benefit from borrowing a device that requires an internet connection to maximize its use and b) why providing internet access and devices has to exclude access to printed books, which are also not common in low-income households. Also, nowhere in any of the coverage of Bibliotech have I read anything about whether librarians or library patrons were asked about their needs.This is one man’s dream, and that’s how it should be reported.

Wolff,  like  much of the press, is also behind the curve on e-books: the Pew Research Center notes that younger library users (16-29) value technology but also read print books at higher rates than older Americans (75% of Americans 16-29 have read a print book in the last year), and studies show e-books sales have leveled off or are declining (Nicholas Carr offers insightful reasons for this at that same link). In Canada, they have fallen to 15% of the book market. In the UK, e-books are 9% of the book market, and in the U.S., e-books are just under 25% market share. That’s it. But you didn’t know that, because the reporting is “1 in 4 books are e-books” not “3 in 4 books are printed.”

That hardly sounds like something to devote an entire new library building to, does it? I think the smarter way to go is to incorporate technology into library offerings, and to respond to the actual needs of local library users. Many of whom are looking for more than technology. They want places to meet and connect with their neighbors, according to sources as varied as the Pew Research Center and the people of Effingham, New Hampshire, who are delighted with the improvements made to their public library and are flocking to events, the most popular of which is “Writer’s Night,” in which “the community turns out to hear presentations by writers,” then “play music, recite poetry, read a passage from a favorite book,” during open mic.  Bravo to Marilyn Swan, the resourceful library director who is working on making her library — and the written word —  a vital part of Effingham life.

Another story that cheered me a bit: in England, students used 400-year-old maps from the British Library to create authentic and very high tech 3D gaming worlds for a competition. These young people, steeped in technology, are seeing library collections come to life in their work. Well done, British Library and city of Nottingham, which sponsors the GameCity “festival of video game culture.” The Daily Mail reports, “The primary objective of the competition was to inspire innovation among students and merge rich visual sources from the past with industry-leading technology.” Not to mention getting them into the archives of the venerable British Library, and giving them reason to value preserving print materials.

Elsie the Library Cat

This week I bring you an outside the box solution to a crummy problem: St. Helena, California’s public library had a rodent infestation. These critters were so bold they were scurrying through the staff office during working hours. While many municipalities would have called in a pest control service, St. Helena called in Elsie.

Elsie The Library Cat

Elsie is the library’s official cat. I read about her in a library journal, but my favorite article ran in the Napa Valley Register. I love reporter Jennifer Huffman’s account of the no nonsense way the library director, Jennifer Baker, installed her newest staffer.

Of course in many towns there would be outcry over alienating people allergic to cats, or making the workplace uncomfortable for the cat-averse, but in this case, staff seem happy not to find mouse droppings or feel tiny feet running over their own. And just as the famous Dewey put his library on the map, Elsie has also generated feel-good publicity for her home. You can find her on You Tube and Facebook, where she lists her biography as “unauthorized” and her job description as “greet staff in the morning and give night report, investigate file drawers, help unpack boxes, management by walking around, direct staff in maintaining my celebrity lifestyle.”

This nocturnal librarian would like that job.

Actually I discovered that a website from the UK devotes three pages to American Library Cats. I was surprised to see how many there are, but it makes sense. I have long thought cats would be perfect additions to dormitories: pets have a soothing effect on the frazzled, stressed, rowdy, or homesick, and they are relatively tidy and self-sufficient. For the same reasons — and the clear benefit of providing 24-7 pest patrol —  library cats likely provide a calming presence for both staff and patrons.

Plus, they’re pretty darn cute.

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Fifty shades of furniture?

British media recently reported that charity shops (which, if my husband’s aunt and uncle’s town Hayward’s Heath is anything to go by, seem to be on nearly every street), which do a brisk trade in used popular books, cannot get rid of the glut of Fifty Shades of Grey. The books can’t be recycled because of the type of glue in the binding. And recently the library where I work discovered that the charity which used to take our unsold sale books and discards will no longer pick them up.

My friend Manda sent me this cool article today from WebEcoist, about ways books can be made into “furniture and functional decor.” Check out this bookstore counter. I think discards would make a very novel library service desk!

The piece also suggests making chairs and sofas, bookcases, and accessories (even planters!) from old books. This would seem to solve the “what to do with 5.3 million copies of Fifty Shades” problem, and also the trouble libraries have with both budget cuts and discards. Also with space issues: what library doesn’t occasionally wish they could re-arrange service desks? Built in sections, these counters could be re-fit when needed.

When I visited Austin, Texas a couple of springs ago I enjoyed the library system’s shop, Recycled Reads. They offer craft classes on upcycling and also sell recrafted books at the shop:

Imagine what you could charge for a book chair.  So maybe this is an untapped revenue stream as well. I wonder if we put out a call for crafty volunteers whether we could auction off a set of  book furniture to benefit the library?

I for one would bid!

Books via bike

Recently I’ve read about two library systems trying a new outreach tool: bikes rigged to pull mobile libraries. Denver Public Library’s DPL Connect is a “tricked-out trike” and wifi hotspot “designed in partnership with Joe Crennen, a local custom bike builder.”  According to their website, “The librarian riding DPL Connect, armed with a tablet and an internet connection, will provide traditional library services, helping customers with digital downloads (eBooks, audio books, and digital magazines), offering reading suggestions, assisting with research and registering new customers for library cards. Down the road, we’re working on DPL Connect’s ability to operate as a full-service library, complete with the ability to check out materials.”

Library Journal reported on Seattle Public Library’s Books on Bikes, which also provides free wifi and features biking librarians pulling a “trailer was developed and constructed by Colin Stevens, who runs Haulin’ Colin in Seattle” that can carry 500 pounds of materials and can hold an umbrella in case of rain.  Books on Bikes services include everything patrons can do at their library except paying fines and returning books. Books on Bikes librarians can check out books, making Seattle’s version a bit more like a traditional bookmobile. They’re even doing book talks and story times, and have a dedicated collection of 400 books to rotate on the trailer.

Living in a bike-friendly community, I love this idea. I think a bike-powered mobile library unit would work well in Concord for festivals, the weekly farmers’ market, parks, and perhaps even school visits to interest kids in the library’s summer programs. Our main branch is close enough to parks, community centers, and downtown festival and market sites, that we could easily pedal there. A unit based at the City’s recreation department for visiting nearby neighborhoods and sharing library services at city camps and other programs would also be cool. I hereby volunteer to pedal!

I like the full service version allowing people to check books out as well as sign up for library cards, but I wonder if we’d have trouble with materials being returned. Has your library taken services into the community by bike or other mobile units? How have you handled returns and other logistical issues? If you’ve done library marketing by bike, what has the reaction been in your town?