My School, My Corporate Partners

I went shopping the other day for school supplies. For the first time, the folders and binders weren’t for me, but for my daughter, who’s starting preschool next week. After collecting the incredible amount of paints, markers, Kleenex, glue sticks, paper cups, and other things on the supplies list, I browsed through some of the sheets of colored paper from the school’s information packet.

Public and independent schools are different in many ways. For instance, in order to operate and thrive, independent schools rely on greater enrollment fees, varieties of fundraisers, and healthy community partnerships. One program I find particularly interesting involves gift cards. From the school, a person can buy a monthly gift card of a selected value that’s good as cash at one of a number of local businesses. A percentage of the money paid for the card supports the school. The higher the value of the card, the more money to the school. For example, I know I spend at least $50 per month at Target. So I can buy a $50 Target card from my school, no fee or surcharge, and a portion of that $50 supports the school. I can also buy a card for use at my grocer or any number of corporate retailers with whom the school is partnering.

Again, public and independent schools differ in many ways. Revenue laws may limit or prohibit publicly-funded institutions such as schools, libraries, and colleges from creating programs of this type. Yet I’m curious to hear from people whose libraries or schools are able to participate in these kinds of fundraising measures. What type of organization is it and how do local and/or state laws limit your abilities to partner and raise funds? How much leverage does your institution have? How measurable are the benefits?

Decay of Discovery

For all the accessibility, storage, and bells and whistles that come with eBooks and eReaders, there are also clear drawbacks. Among them is the loss of opportunity for discovery inherent in stack perusal. Whether casual browsing or focused searching, libraries and readers have always counted on accidental discovery to augment reading and enhance the user experience.

eBooks rather squelch discovery. The reader may be given suggested titles and authors, but how meaningful are those suggestions? After all, anyone who understands fundamental cataloguing and information management knows that books are organized on shelves according to method and explicit criteria. Volumes tend to be related in very specific ways. Can a for-profit digital bookstore account for that? A library’s digital catalog?

And what about children? Emergent readers and younger kids rely on their parents to purchase or download titles. Without shelf perusal, the experience of spontaneous discovery is completely lost to children. Jaime Hammond, a thoughtful librarian, Library Journal Mover & Shaker, and mother of actual (not virtual) children, tweets:

Thoughtful parents will fill the void left by digital books simply by bringing kids to the library; by letting them have their run of the children’s and YA departments. Kids love finding their own materials. They do it by themselves. How are educators addressing the issue? Are they? How are libraries accounting for the loss of discovery?

The Mansueto Library

I’m often curious to gauge the consensus feeling when something significant happens or, in this case, where a facility of consequence is erected. If you haven’t read about it, the University of Chicago has opened The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, with its colossal automated retrieval system. On first glance, it’s an impressive system, to say the least. (In fact, I think it’s pretty awesome.) Yet given the growth of digital materials collections and perceived print exodus, I would imagine the development of this system has sparked interest and criticism among people in and out of the library field.

I’m particularly curious to read others’ evaluations of the library’s creation–what people think about the establishment of the library and its retrieval system and the incredible investment that facilitated the project. Certainly, while many will praise the University of Chicago for its implementation, many others will deem the system a glorious waste of resources–an ultramodern warehouse for print materials.

The University of Chicago is among the country’s foremost academic research institutions. Is the Mansueto Library and its retrieval system a state-of-the-art testament to UC’s enduring commitment to libraries and academic excellence? Perhaps you feel differently? Please share.

Please Play

Since subscribing to comments on Will Manley’s blog post the other night, my phone has lit up more than the chainsmokers in a LaSalle, IL, tavern. That’s what happens pretty much every time Will posts something new. On this occasion, Will chimes in on the ALA READ campaign. I have two thoughts on the subject. Well, three, really. But I put one of them in the comments section of Will’s post. It had to do with my love of John Fante’s books and my willingness to appear as a Fante torchbearer.

Whether you noticed or not, I posted a piece recently in which I made some suggestions regarding the classic and very popular READ posters. Fortunately, Will suggested to me that he liked that piece, so I count myself out of  a certain crowd he mentions in his current post. Will writes, “It’s very fashionable among bloggers to dump on the American Library Association.  My guess is that if ALA didn’t exist, library bloggers would have to invent it in order to have something to write about.” It’s well said, for sure. And I’d like to read the ALA-critical literature that inspired Will to write his post. (Will, if you’re reading this, please slip me some links.) Will and the commenters make many points–some salient, some salient and funny, some eyebrow-raising. Do check it out and leave your remarks.

The only critique I’d make is regarding one of the words Will states he wouldn’t want to see on an ALA poster. He writes, “READ plays to our strength and the reason why we exist.  I hope ALA never succumbs to the temptation to put out posters that say PLAY; LISTEN; COMPUTE; SURF; or DOWNLOAD.” An editor and grammarian of sorts, I don’t particularly enjoy semantic arguments. But when you’re talking about a marketing plan based on, essentially, a face, a book, and a single capitalized word, semantic discussions are to be expected.

As I mentioned in that earlier post on the READ ads, I like word play as it relates to the missions of public, school, and academic libraries. “Play” has different meanings for different people and different age groups. If cognitive studies of gaming have shown us anything, it’s that the library style of play promotes learning and growth in very special ways. And that doesn’t even begin to tell what cognitive strengths are exercised by adult play or forms of play involving young people who simply aren’t into traditional gaming. People of all ages make their own play, just as they decide what types of literature most appeal to them. Another word for play is fun. We make our own fun, no matter what age, and more often than we realize, we learn something or strengthen specific cognitive skills each time we create and have fun, even if the activity’s initial appearance doesn’t immediately suggest its value as an educational or even constructive activity.

Libraries are about many things–among them, an amalgam of freedoms, including freedom to play. COMPUTE, SURF, and DOWNLOAD? Those are services that should be pushed, certainly, but never in a READ-type graphic. The READ graphics aren’t about services. They represent, as Will writes, “the reason why we exist.” They’re about the availability and importance of materials and freedoms that serve fundamental human desires: literacy, connectivity, knowledge, growth, and, yes, play.

Anatomy of a Trick

If you haven’t seen it yet, have a look at the “Anatomy of a Librarian” graphic from master-degree-online.com.

Insomuch as it’s a representation of what librarians are all about, this graphic is not necessarily worth getting all bent out of shape about. Yet it is cause for some concern regarding the bigger picture. Many LIS people, including PC Sweeney and Stephen Abram, are poking at the thing with sticks to see what it is and whether it’s alive. And with good reason.

My concern with this graphic is not one of misrepresentation. I’m sure some research (possibly unscientific) was done to corroborate the list of librarians’ interests. And while many librarians’ salaries haven’t yet approached the halfway mark, the average here surely includes salaries of library staff in large metropolitan areas where costs of living are reflected and where funding has long been relatively safeguarded. In the City of Chicago, it doesn’t take a public librarian a decade to reach $60K. Notable is the fine print beneath the salary stat. The disclaimer states that the average salary is specific to librarians with ALA-accredited degrees, while I suspect many of the online library programs supported here don’t enjoy ALA accreditation.

For the most part, I’m fine with the infographic’s content. It’s rather benign in and of itself. My primary concern regarding this graphic and any graphic of this kind is with its intent and its potential effects. This graphic wasn’t created by a library entity. It’s a corporate graphic created for master-degree-online.com, a website paid to sell online degree programs. While some universities associated with the site are fully accredited ones like Northwestern and USC, most are for-profit schools. I’ll assume the general differences among for-profit schools, nonprofit private schools and public universities are common knowledge and leave dishonest recruiting practices and accreditation shortcomings for another post.

Purely as a persuasive advertisement for online degree programs, this stylized graphic supports for-profit LIS degree programs using misleading information to market potentially empty degrees to an already-flooded market. And that’s a problem. Clever word choice also skirts the issue of the greying profession. The ad states that “a large number of librarians are likely to retire in the coming decade.” The operative word here is decade. Ten years is a long time. Historically, it also takes a nation a long time to recover from prolonged recessions. So unless our government gets us out of the financial sewer we’re currently in, that large number of librarians may not be enjoying retirement until the second half of that decade.

My advice is to the target demographic–the potential students who may be swayed by this kind of ad: be vigilant. For-profit schools serve a niche market. For various reasons, many people don’t make the cut at public and private universities or can’t procure tuition funds. For-profit schools get you the money and put you in a seat. Do your homework about for-profit degrees, online schools, accreditation, and employment markets. It’s awfully difficult to pay back an expensive student loan when you’re at the bottom of the heap in a frozen market.

What Are Words For?

readEverybody loves ALA’s classic celebrity READ posters. And for good reason. Multi-age, culturally relevant celebrities inspiring multi-age people to read books and get literate. They’re popular and possibly even effective. Still, the READ poster is alone in its work. It wants a family. It needs siblings.

Libraries continue to evolve and struggle against their own underrepresentation. They seek ways to break the mold. The READ campaign advocates literacy and promotes the library as a literacy center or, from a non-LIS perspective, a place to get free books. But isn’t that the very stereotype we’re trying to conquer? For all the good the READ posters may do toward promoting literate communities, they may concurrently, from a library science point of view, perpetuate the traditional stereotype of the library as “a place to get free books.”

LEARN. PLAY. CONNECT. ENGAGE. CREATE. These are the sibling marketing terms that libraries and ALA should advertise along with the classic READ poster. These are the terms that help represent what libraries are all about. What terms would you like to see on that ALA poster at the bus stop?

Writing the Wrongs

In my travels around the blogosphere and LibraryLand, I’ve been somewhat troubled to find people pooh-poohing the importance of writing skills. One misguided person, whom I’ll call Tweep, checks in on Twitter with this: surprised so many ppl still talk abt writing skill, what abt freedom of expression! Right on, Tweep. The humanities are all about freedom of expression and so am I. Like e.e. cummings wrote, “feeling is first.” But poetry aside, the freedom to express oneself is no excuse for poor grammar, spelling, and mechanics, especially when writing anything of a professional nature. Why do we still talk about writing skill? Well, maybe we’re not talking about it enough.

Textese and other budget-conscious SMS language have created a serious devolution among American language arts learners where there already existed widespread deficiencies in student writing abilities. You can read this as, Kids weren’t writing well. Now they’re even worse. The influence of technology is always growing and spreading. Now in an age of digitization and mobile communications, educators have had to adapt and develop methods of teaching literacy skills to students who want lightning-quick communications and on-demand connections. And here comes the funny part: Texting, IMing, Tweeting, e-mail, Facebooking, blogging, and other cloud applications have everybody writing all the time. Multi-age writers of every skill level are writing for more reasons in more formats than ever before. That’s good. Writing, sharing, and getting involved in written conversations are all great ways to strengthen fundamental writing skills. All this writing–this transliteracy, if you like–can make people smarter. Great! We love smart. Smart is good.

Still, constant engagement with the typed word doesn’t necessarily mean an emergent writer is getting better at the craft of writing. She has to be conscious of what she is writing. She needs to be not only writing, but practicing writing. In order to learn, writers must have some awareness of the fundamental guidelines that, when followed properly, can be the difference between an acceptable product and an unacceptable product. Otherwise, all this writing amounts to nothing more than useless repetition. Many people like Tweep have been engaged in multiple forms of written communication outside the classroom for years. Yet they still don’t get it. To many, Textese is more than a cheeky budgetary consideration. It’s an acceptable means of communication. It’s second-nature.

So I can’t help feeling a bit worried when I bump into literacy humbugs like Tweep in LibraryLand. They are students in graduate library programs. They are librarians. Sometimes–and this is the uh-oh part–sometimes they are blogging about libraries.

Increasingly, educational technology pushes literacy instruction beyond traditional learning methods. Computing technologies and the Internet give students and library people power to communicate worldwide in many formats, and the need for strong reading and writing skills is greater than ever. By altering how information is processed, interconnected, and applied, technology is changing how people read, write, listen, and communicate. It can be a tremendous instrument for teaching and learning. Misused, it can be spell failure and embarrassment.

I’m all for using digital media of every kind to promote literacy and make stronger, more confidant writers. Many hep, progressive teachers and professors encourage student writers to use blogging as a means of practice and growth. How they suggest students manipulate the public accessibility of those blog posts, I wouldn’t know. Different strokes, I suspect. But people in the library field–in fact, people in every field–should hold themselves to a higher standard of quality when adding their two cents to the professional cashbox. Particularly in a field like library and information science, one that aligns itself with educational institutions of all types and all levels, bloggers of professional content should conduct themselves as professionals and understand who they represent. Most bloggers, like me, write and publish on their own time and are accountable to no one. So it should move any professional contributor to hold himself accountable to his colleagues and his readers.

I’ve met all kinds of professional people in LibraryLand, but I’m sure not one of we smartypants librarians would dare submit a résumé and cover letter without first making sure those materials were proofread and free of error. Professional bloggers should consider their public blog posts in the same regard: your posts are professional documents submitted for the evaluation, education, or even casual perusal of your peers (and a hell of a lot of peers, at that). Many of those peers are close readers and may even be gifted writers. They may not be snobbish literary elitists or armchair editors, but they will hold your work to a higher standard and they do want to be impressed. Try to impress them. Don’t be a twirp and don’t be like Tweep. Why are so many people hung up about writing skills? Don’t find out the hard way.