Won’t you be my patron?

This is for my librarian friends who wondered (some out loud, some with raised eyebrow or the digital equivalent of same) why I’d leave the turbulent but every-interesting world of public libraries, where I was seemingly thriving, for the calm, quiet halls of academe. Turns out, different library, same issues.

One of the interesting things I learned today as a number of our staff met to go over our database stats and discuss renewing or replacing various subscriptions is that academic libraries must market their services and resources just like public libraries. I think there is a misconception that we have a captive audience. Which is partially true. But unless our audience, no matter how loyal, knows what we have, they will be shelf sitters, or whatever the equivalent term is for digital subscriptions.

Strangely, I find this exciting, because this is something I’ve worked on a fair bit and feel like I can help with immediately. My LC classification may be more than rusty (I haven’t thought about cataloging since library school, if I’m honest), but I know about outreach and marketing. Some ideas we tossed around today included personal outreach to faculty, giveaways for students, and speaking with our sales reps about other academic libraries’ success stories.

If you’re an academic librarian, how do you market your materials to students and faculty? What has worked or not worked for you?

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Back to the beginning

Today I went to my local public library. As a patron, not a staff member. It was, admittedly, a strange sensation, not least because I couldn’t find my hold, which turned out to have been cancelled (yikes! I’ll have to read those emails more closely) but one I will have to get used to. I’ve left the public library world to return to the place where Nocturnal Librarian began — a small private liberal arts university where I’ll be the assistant director of the library. It’s a good move for me, career wise, and I will enjoy serving the academic community again. But of course, I will remain a champion of public libraries, and I’ll be in good company.  I know of at least two colleagues at the university who serve as trustees at their own local libraries.

Educators are big library fans, and at my interview I actually got into a great discussion with some professors about the future of public libraries and their role in society. I love that kind of discourse, which is one reason I feel good about making this change. I also love helping people find the information they need, and am looking forward to those “ah ha” moments with students that I remember well from when I was a night reference librarian at this same college a few years ago. Universities are pretty much entirely staffed by members of the book tribe, which I love. So I’m pretty excited to start!

Stay tuned to hear about my adventures in academia. And see what I’ve been reading between jobs over at bookconscious.

 

 

 

Diversity in libraries

I subscribed to the recent ALA Reference and User Services CODES (collection development and evaluation section) conversation on diversity. I think of myself as someone who is concerned about all kinds of equality, and is aware of my privilege as a white middle class professional. Certainly I’ve championed libraries as egalitarian outposts in an increasingly divided society. I get that “we need diverse books.” And that even my very white state has become much more diverse in the last ten years.

What I hadn’t thought about is the bias in the way I’m marketed to, as a collection development librarian. Yes, I primarily make my purchasing decisions based on reviews in professional journals, but those journals are written and edited by, and feature books published by, people who are mostly very much like me, demographically. Some of the participants in the conversation online noted that it’s hard to even find reviews of books by diverse authors in genre fiction, like sci-fi or mysteries.

Andrea Gough of Seattle Public Library wondered if librarians are even biased in the way we think about diversity. She noted, “perhaps because we’re a largely white field, or because our culture normalizes a white viewpoint as a ‘neutral’ viewpoint, when we talk about diversity it’s often presumed the direction is from white to POC.” In other words, the entire conversation about diversity starts with making libraries and their collections less white. But that oversimplifies diversity and overlooks the complexity of contemporary American society.

As I read I made a mental list of some of the non-racial diversity in the community I serve: homeless people, former inmates, addicts, people with less than the average amount of education for our area, immigrants, transgender people, gay or lesbian or bisexual people, various religious minorities, and a wide range of people who are differently abled, physically or mentally, just to name a few. Yes, it’s important to consider the whiteness of publishing, and of the library profession, but that doesn’t mean we should overlook the other types of diversity in our communities.

Another fascinating point in the conversation was that it’s too over-simplified, and frankly, biased, for collection developers to simply purchase more “diverse” materials. One person told a story of a new library branch in an African American neighborhood where the music buyer had purchased a wide selection of rap and hip-hop. One of the first questions at the desk was whether there were any opera CD’s. Someone else pointed out the reverse is true as well — people in more homogeneous communities assume library patrons won’t want to read books with protagonists of a different race, religion, ethnicity, or cultural background and yet that there is no evidence of that, and it’s often just plain untrue. Think of novels like Things Fall Apart or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or The Kite Runner and of nonfiction such as Between the World and Me or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. All enjoyed a wide audience.

One of the best things about books, of course, is that they take us into lives we’ll never live. And with that in mind, one of the contributors pointed out that the goal of a good library collection is not only to meet the existing needs of the library’s patrons but also to present materials that will affirm our common humanity and expand patrons’ experience beyond the walls of the library or the boundaries of a town.

This issue is obviously too vast to be covered in a blog post, but I intend to keep considering diversity and the ways my own “frames” need to be expanded or even better, abandoned, in order to best serve every person who comes through the library’s doors.

 

 

 

 

 

Adult Summer Reading

I’ve had yet another article on the future of libraries on my desk for weeks; yesterday as I was dusting around it for the zillionth time I glanced through it and saw a few phrases that sapped my will to re-hash this topic (“management practices of the creative economy,” “the scale of disruption,” using the right metrics”). In the “five ‘right’ approaches for libraries” section of the article the author, Steve Denning, suggests librarians must consider “What needs could libraries meet that users haven’t yet even thought of?” On my desk at work I have another article of about the same age (published a couple of months ago) noting that the reason so many new library services and programs flop is that librarians need to think more like start-up entrepreneurs by ensuring what we offer actually fills an existing need, otherwise our patrons won’t know they need it and won’t come or use the nifty new thing. Yep, they directly contradict each other. Lovely.

I admit being a little fatigued by the “do this and you’ll succeed in taking your library into the future” arguments. So instead, let’s talk about something I’ve noticed that might be a profession-wide response to all this business philosophy gobbeldygook: Adult Summer Reading programs. For some time, the Collaborative Summer Library Program has included an adult program, tied to the themes for the children’s and teen’s programs. Maybe people have been embracing it for years, but this is the first summer I seem to see it everywhere.

Libraries large and small are handing out prizes to adults for reading books during the summer. Yes, there is much more to these programs. South Brunswick Public Library in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey is creating a community mural and includes a service project in its program, inviting people to send care packages to military members. Chapel Hill Public Library in North Carolina includes adults in its teen program, a simple way to be inclusive — but the feedback from our teens has been that they don’t want adults at their programs and in the teen area.

Dozens more libraries seem to just be handing out prizes. In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, adults who read three books this summer get a “prize pack” and qualify for weekly drawings. Seattle Public Library is one of many incorporating a bingo card into the fun, challenging readers to read outside their usual tastes — here in New Hampshire, Hooksett Public Library created one that includes some library services, which is a clever marketing idea. A few of us at my library are considering these ideas for next summer, mainly because one of our regular patrons suggested it was unfair not to have prizes for adults.

But is it? Somehow this all seems silly to me. Do we really have to bribe grownups to read? I like the idea of bringing the community together to create a mural or to get behind a service project (something we are in essence doing, since our children’s summer reading program this summer includes donating items the local S.P.C.A. needs, and the adults in the the family are the ones buying and bringing donations). But I feel a little grumpy about the notion that the only way to get people excited about summer reading is to make sure there’s something in it for them.

Maybe a bingo card or a challenge to read a certain number of books or attend a certain number of programs  or try the library’s services is just fun and gets people in the doors. Certainly anything that increases circulation or cardholders is good. But what’s the world coming to that we can’t get people to come in unless we give something away, when the whole idea of a library is that it’s free and open to all in the first place?

Which brings me back to the same problem all these articles that pile up on my desks address: are libraries so preoccupied with offering new services and being maker spaces and tech hubs and “relevant” cultural institutions because people don’t get what our core mission is (connecting people with books and other reading material and information)? Or do people get our core mission until we start complicating it with all that other stuff?  I’m not sure anyone knows.

My grandmother became a librarian thanks to the New Deal. I can hear her saying, “It sounds like nothing but bread and circuses.” She wasn’t a luddite — she admired technology and all it could do. But she believed fervently in the power of books to educate and entertain, and she also believed that a thing done well was its own reward. I think librarianship could use a little less bread and circuses and a lot more doing “our” thing well. It’s harder to evangelize about reading than it is to invest in tablets or 3D printers or streaming media services. But it might be the thing that sustains libaries into the future.

The Good the Bad and the Snowy

It’s snowed an awful lot here in northern New England in the past two weeks, as you’ve likely heard in news briefs. We’ve had feet of snow and the forecast is for snow today, snow tomorrow, snow right into the next day.  It’s a good time to read, all snug and warm inside. It’s not so great for slogging off to work, but we all manage.  Today my library is hosting an “Over the Rainbow Songfest” (we’re singing along to a film with Dorothy, Toto, et all, but our movie license forbids me from revealing the title). We’re hoping people are tired of staying in and will come out in costume to have a good time despite the white stuff falling from the sky.

In the library world, there’s been good news and bad this week. Close to home for me, in Brattleboro, Vermont, a janitor left millions of dollars to the benefit of others, including his local public library. Woot! In Great Britain it’s National Library Day and the Guardian‘s books blog is celebrating with shelfies.

In Wales, cuts threaten to reduce library services in Cardiff but people came out in large numbers this weekend to voice their support. Across America, there continues to be strong public support of libraries as well — 95% find them important, according to Pew — but municipal leaders do not necessarily reflect this value in their budgets. It’s budget season in many library systems, and as we all work to make our numbers as lean and workable as possible, we hold our collective breaths and also dream a bit of what we could do if funding reflected the love of libraries we share with so many of our fellow citizens.

That said, just as we manage to muddle through storms and carry on with the job at hand, we’ll carry on, in libraries large and small, the world over. I posted a review of When Books Went to War this morning on bookconscious; author Molly Guptill Manning describes how librarians came together during WWII not only to provide books to servicemen through a national book drive, but also to champion the books and author banned in Nazi occupied Europe and here at home. Librarians are resilient and books cannot die. I salute my colleagues in Cardiff and hope the tide will turn for them.

Everyone’s a little bit weird

It’s been a very busy month — almost two — since I last posted here (if you are ever wondering what else I’m up to, visit my review blog, bookconscious, which I tend to post to more frequently). One of the challenges we’ve been facing at my library is that although it hasn’t been truly “wicked cold” yet, as they say here in northern New England, it’s cool and wet enough that people are looking for a place to be warm and dry. And as I’ve written here before, that’s an important part of a public library’s mission. Personally, I feel good knowing we help people stay safe and comfortable.*

But what about those regular patrons, regardless of their reasons for coming to the library, who are “difficult” in some way. That’s a catchphrase that can mean everything from “hard to please” to mentally ill. Public libraries serve a broad cross section of citizens, and we experience every kind of “difficult” you can imagine. We train regularly to deal with everything from complaints to outright paranoia. Lately we’ve been talking a great deal at my library about mental illness, because some of the behaviors we see every day seem to go beyond eccentricity (much as I’d like to explain, for privacy reasons I am not going to go into detail).

And some of our staff feel like they’ve had enough — they want someone else to take this on. Unfortunately, that’s usually not possible. We’re very fortunate to have a couple of caseworkers we can call and talk to and last week I did that twice. The advice they gave on engaging with people who seem so “out there” as to be a little scary to other patrons and staff was very helpful.**  But what they can’t help me with is reassuring the staff of something I heard Steve Inskeep say on Morning Edition today: “everyone is a little bit weird.”

This is something I’ve been telling my kids for years. They laugh, but I’m serious. In some way, every one of us does things that to another person seem strange, different, hard to understand, maybe even off-putting or alarming.  Most of us are only just a little bit weird — we have a quirk or habit, a mannerism, or a personality trait that is close enough to the mainstream as to be mostly noticeable. But all of us are somebody’s weirdo. It helps to remember that.

It also helps to combat compassion fatigue to remember that every person I engage with at the library, from those who are pleasant or “normal” to those who seem painfully strange or even a little threatening, is someone. Each of them is someone’s relative. Each of them is a person, not a problem. Each of them is looking for what we’re all looking for on any given day: a connection with another person. I’ve noted before that working in a library for me means being fueled by both “the conviction in my heart and the ideas in my head” (Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative). If I can do anything at all to reassure and equip staff to deal with difficulty and difference, and also be present to patrons and coach staff to do the same, both my heart and my head tell me that’s my job, even if I didn’t learn it in library school.

 

* To those who say libraries aren’t the place for sheltering people from life’s troubles, I generally point out that we have services many underprivileged people need: computers and internet access, job hunting resources, public restrooms. Even more importantly, we have newspapers, so people can stay informed, and books, so people can learn and even just escape.  Neil Gaiman notes that reading is escapist in the best sense: “If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”

** The most effective advice seems to be to to listen, smile, thank the person for sharing their thoughts/concerns/suggestions, assure them (and actually do) pass those on to your boss, and then politely get back to work. This gentle approach offers presence and validation to the person for a moment, but allows the staff member to extricate him or herself from what can often be a lengthy ramble or tirade. It lets the person be heard, but doesn’t promise particular outcomes, which is key if the requests are beyond the library’s means or mission.

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.

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 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.