Don’t Fear the Library

Borrowed from computersafetytips.files.wordpress.comIn a recent post on Tame The Web, Carrie Straka shares an experience in which a patron offered that she was intimidated by the library. Carrie assured the patron that libraries are nothing to be afraid of and sent her on her way with the book she wanted. It later occurred to her:

That was the wrong response. I should have asked her “How can we make the library less intimidating?” I could have gained a lot of insight had I just thought to ask that question.

We’ve all had some experience with this notion of library intimidation. In fact, I suspect there was a time in most of our lives that we, too, felt intimidated by at least some element of a public or school library. And why not? A new hire on her first day at the office, a new student on his first day at school, a young immigrant whose heard she can get ESL assistance at the library. They walk in the door, see many other people engaged in myriad activities, and really don’t know what to do first. I’ve been there many times–the guy with the question mark above his head.

Kathy Gould, director of the Palos Verdes Library District, wrote about a conversation she had with a community member who cited issues of usability and inattention among her reasons for avoiding the library.

She wasn’t talking about a generally unwelcoming environment, or unfriendly staff. She was talking about a set of systems and service models that discourage her from even trying to use our services.

With minimal instruction, much of this intimidation can be alleviated. Navigating the computer catalog, searching through call numbers, and downloading digital materials are easily attainable skills. Questions about who is a librarian and other roles can be addressed in any number of ways that may help alleviate trepidation among new library patrons. As for inattentive staff, well, that’s a can of worms for another day.

What are your experiences with intimidating libraries? In what ways are libraries intimidating and how are these matters resolved? These are issues that should be addressed before the patron walks in the door. How do we ensure that our welcoming nature is among the motivations for people to become regular library users?

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Guest Post: Chicago Library Cuts

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed the elimination of 363 positions from the Chicago Public Library. These cuts would include 60 professional librarian positions and likely involve the demotion of many librarians of lesser seniority. Following is a thoughtful piece written by one dedicated Chicago librarian who prefers to remain anonymous.

The public library is a perfect manifestation of our culture’s core democratic values. From the very beginning, the institution has been a resource for people from all walks of life to improve, inform, and educate themselves. Today, even as technology changes, we remain relevant to people and continue to provide the help and resources they need. As a librarian in one of the city’s most economically depressed neighborhoods on Chicago’s west side, with extremely high unemployment, crime, and poverty rates, low levels of education, and under-performing schools on academic probation, I feel that my work is more crucial and relevant than ever. Every day, my colleagues and I assist people who have neither access to the internet, nor computer skills. They need to fill out forms and apply for jobs and learn how to create email accounts, and they have no where to go but the library. At least once a day, we hear a comment about how grateful people feel for the library and how much they appreciate the help they receive. Our storytime programs for babies and children are well-attended and parents are very appreciative that they have such a warm, friendly place to bring their kids- with knowledgeable staff who help them select the very best books for children.

It has been implied that people don’t use the library that much anymore. That suggestion strikes me as almost funny at times because my branch is downright bustling. We have a line of people waiting outside every day and our computers are almost always full. Our librarians provide a variety of programs for children and adults throughout the month. It is not uncommon to have a line at the circulation desk. The library keeps track of the number of people in and out of our doors, the attendance at our programs, and circulation statistics. All of these reflect what the studies show- that Chicagoans, like people around the country, are most definitely using their libraries. It is well documented that in dire economic times, library use goes up. Record unemployment and increasing layoffs have left Chicagoans with tighter belts and fewer luxuries and they are turning to their libraries for internet access, books, DVDs, author events, books discussion groups, classes on job searching, and a variety of free programs for children.

This past Saturday, I was the only librarian on staff in my branch and there were a lot of elementary school students there working on projects. I helped one boy find biographical information on Descartes. He had been looking at an article on Wikipedia and said he couldn’t really understand it. I showed him how to find kid-friendly articles in SIRS Discoverer. Another boy was in with his uncle and grandmother, doing a report on the seven continents. After working with them for a few minutes, I realized that the adults with him couldn’t read. I was able to help him find all the answers he needed in an almanac. Last week, a mother and daughter were looking in the cookbook section and they seemed overwhelmed. I asked them if they needed help and found out that the child was working on a project about food in various European countries. I showed them Culturegrams, a great children’s database with information about what life is like in different countries around the world. They were so relieved to have the answers they needed. I have helped people create resumes, fill out online job applications, find information about health and legal matters, search for jobs and apartments. I have suggested great age-appropriate kids’ books for parents who look around at all the children’s books and don’t know where to begin. As an avid reader, I find it easy to recommend books to adults who are simply looking for something interesting to read. And librarians are doing these same things every day in every neighborhood of Chicago. People come to the public library for help of all kinds the staff there help them. It really is as simple as that. Without staff, the building means nothing.

The Chicago Public Library has experienced ups and downs through the years- times of plenty and times of scarcity- but never in its history has there been a threat to its very existence as serious as the budget proposed for 2012. The library is currently functioning with a significantly reduced workforce due to attrition and unfilled vacancies. Things are tight but we’re surviving and we’re serving our public. However, if the proposed cuts go through, we will lose about 30% of our staff. The budget calls for the elimination of all library pages (the people who shelve the books so you and I can find them) and a drastic reduction in the number of professional librarians. These are the front-line people who staff the library branches- the people who are there, working with the public day in and day out. These are the people who plan and perform the storytimes, buy the books and DVDs that their patrons want, help kids find books and articles for their homework projects, and help adults find information on a tremendous range of subjects. These losses will have a devastating effect on the quality of service we are able to provide. With no one to shelve the books, the remaining staff members will need to help people register for library cards and check books out while trying to get all the returns back in order and on the shelf. This leaves no time for all the other work: showing patrons all the wonderful databases we subscribe to on every conceivable subject, helping them figure out where the books they need are located, assisting them on the computer. What about our outreach? We currently have built relationships with our local schools and community organizations. Every library has professional staff presenting storytimes in our buildings as well as in a variety of other locations- reaching those kids who can’t make it to the branch. We also work with teachers to get their students library cards and give tours to introduce kids to the library and teach them how to use it. The proposed cuts will make all of these services to children impossible. Currently, almost every library hosts a book discussion group for adults. Often attended by seniors, these regular meetings offer people a chance to reflect on literature and their lives while connecting with people in their communities. Without staff to run them, they are sure to fade away, too.

I find it offensive that the public library, with its noble legacy of helping those who most critically need assistance, is being attacked so aggressively. We make up a small percentage of the total number of city jobs, yet are about to absorb the vast majority of the layoffs (363 of the 500 city jobs scheduled to be cut are at the Chicago Public Library). It is unfair to rob the public of such vital services at a time when they are relying on us more than ever. Please speak out on this urgent issue. The city council will vote on this proposed budget in a few short weeks and budget hearings are currently underway. The only way to stop the budget from taking effect is for the aldermen to vote it down. Many aldermen spoke out on behalf of the library at the budget hearing but it is crucial to continue reminding them how vital our libraries are. We need to call for NO reduced hours and NO layoffs. So please, write, call, and email your alderman and express your concern about the loss of staff (and thus, services) at the Chicago Public Library.

On behalf of all library patrons who use our services, I thank you.

Use this link to find your alderman: http://chicago.legistar.com/People.aspx

Ubiquity and Overbranching

Chicago city administrators have taken care of the city’s libraries. As of today, the Chicago Public Library boasts 79 neighborhood branches throughout 77 community areas. These communities are comprised of some 200 individual neighborhoods. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods–often demographically opposed neighborhoods, butting and scraping against one another like tectonic plates. One may suppose the inherent diversities in culture, ethnicity, economic status, and available community resources would substantiate continual presence of the public library in each of these areas and demand that facilities, collections, and services are maintained and kept up-to-date. That seems to be fundamental to CPL’s mission–to be available to all parts of a wildly diverse city. And I can dig it. The internet is invaluable to any library seeking hyperlocality. But nothing is as local as a community-centric physical facility.

Yet some have theorized that libraries, like plants, flourish best with regular trimming. The idea, of course, is that less is more: shutter those old rented storefront branches with the least circulation and lowest gate counts and put that extra cash into more stressed branches. And that’s a fair argument, at least, superficially. Others offer a more shortsighted view, pointing to the costs of erecting a new neighborhood library. To build an 8,000-square-foot brick, LEED-certified structure in any part of Chicago is a seven-figure investment or more, depending on location. These conservatives need only consider the return on such an investment vs. the alternative. But that’s another post altogether.

Flatfunded and overbranched, the Portland Public Library closed branches and went portable. While some argue the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library system was overfunded and overbranched before last year’s major cuts and closures, others believe data may show otherwise.

I’ve even seen the occasional library blogger from Somewhere, USA make the claim that there are too many branches in general. My question is how can that be? Is there really a national sentiment that library systems are bloated?

Overbranching and overbuilding are certainly possible. Though any community is fortunate, in prosperous times, to be targeted for a new or improved library branch, the fact is that funds allocation may not always be practical for the long term. Growth within may very well trump expansion. Still, there remains no substitute for the physical space. The localized library, dedicated to finding, creating, and connecting, is still the most tangible and most accessible element inherent in a library’s model of ubiquity.

What’s the word in your town? Do you have too many libraries? Not enough? How important is it to have a library branch in walking distance from your district school? What are your thoughts on overbranching and hyperlocality? Is a smaller library system a stronger one? Is a larger system built for longevity? Please share.

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?

Let’s Make a List: Foursquare in Libraries

Back in June, I read a piece about how the Brooklyn Museum is using Foursquare to make connections among visitors to the facility. I wondered whether other institutions, particularly libraries, have done something similar–designated an entire web page to Foursquare activities.

So I tweeted a Google doc and asked how libraries are using Foursquare. The limited response suggests that either no one is reading my tweets, or not many libraries in my network are using Foursquare (or both). In any case, here are the replies I received:

  • My first introduction to Foursquare was through a webinar sponsored by the Connecting to Collections Initiative given by Nancie Ravenel of the Shelburne Museum in VT and blogger Colleen Dilenschneider.  Shelburne uses Foursquare, but to my knowledge, it is not incentivized.
  • Surprise giveaways: Via Twitter/Facebook, first five people to check in get an ebook
  • We give away a flash drive or other small techie prize to the first 10 people to check in.
  • Our public library gives prizes to people who check in on certain days or at events. We’ve gotten more people to show up for certain programs this way–giving away ebooks, signed book copies or other autographed materials to people who check in at author events or other programs.

  • You can give out things with library logo/slogan (shirts, iPad/iPod covers?, totes, pens/pencils, mousepads, mugs, calendars, etc.)

If these replies and the several tweets I received are any indication, awarding users with schwag appears to be the prominent use of Foursquare in libraries.

Care to add to the list? Have you found more creative ways to use Foursquare in the library or other institution? How successful have your programs proven? How have they failed? Please share.

Facebook and Branding

Bubble Room is a blog written by Alison Circle, a marketing professional under the employ of both the Columbus Metropolitan Library and Library Journal. In yesterday’s post, Alison briefly points to several reasons library systems should commit to a single Facebook page, rather than create individualized pages for each of the system’s branches. Her reasons plead for consistency.

How will it be possible that each branch page reflects the overall library brand? You’ll have different messages, different voice, different strategic focus. This is confusing to customers.

When we talk about using social media in libraries, it’s important to remember who are the benefactors. Putting aside the inadvertently condescending nature of the passage above, I find myself wishing Alison had written a much more thorough evaluation. The original question is an interesting one and deserves examination. However, the post addresses Facebook’s value solely to the library’s brand and does so only cursorily. It fails to explore the utility of localized Facebook pages in two ways: their value to the brand and their value to the user.

I’m willing to entertain an argument for the boilerplate philosophy of the brand. That methodology is part of what makes the corporate world go round. It’s what allows Anheuser-Busch to continue to tell us their product is the best product for everyone. Yet, for the most part, libraries don’t have a product. As many say, the library is its own product. And in systems where needs and expectations differ from branch to branch, a library may not be able to be all things to everyone, but it should certainly address diversity. Can a Facebook page using a “Locations” tab accomplish this? Branch pages for the Columbus Metropolitan Library would suggest the ability is limited. They offer hours, a map, the manager’s name, and a link to the library’s event calendar. Functional? Sure. Offering users an interactive, community-specific Facebook presence? Not so much. A well-branded library is a well-connected library–one that goes to where the users are and makes itself at home. It’s local. It’s hyperlocal. It gives its branches the keys to the neighborhood.

A regular Bubble Room reader, I can tell you that Alison’s thoughts on branding and marketing would be invaluable to any librarian. Yet, when it comes to limiting Facebook to a branding tool and denying users a participatory relationship, it’s easy to remember I’m reading the sentiments of a marketer–not a librarian.

Changing Roles: Degreed Prototypes

Writing my last post, on changing roles of reference librarians, it occurred to me that I was topically in the same room as degree relevance and deprofessionalization. And while I generally try to stay away from that room, I felt compelled to acknowledge the presence of those looming subjects and apply them to changing and developing librarian roles.

In that last post, a commenter expressed a preference (in all caps) that altered reference positions be filled by librarians, as opposed to non-librarians. Well done. After all, libraries have a responsibility to information literacy, and we can only reasonably expect that responsibility to be fulfilled by librarians. Yet, while this may seem like a no-brainer to you and me, our libraries and our profession are constantly threatened by deprofessionalization, privatization, and a seeming litany of other problematic zations.

In discourse regarding evolving LIS roles, these topics surface almost invariably, and with good reason, particularly in the public sector where funds allocation is ruled by so many circumstances. And if Jeff Trzeciak’s recent presentation at McMaster University is indicative of anything, it’s that professional librarianship faces pressure and scrutiny not only from the outside. Whether the CS degree might obviate the MLIS, the paraprofessional might replace the librarian, or any number of anxieties related to the forced obsolescence of the degreed librarian, there are always concerns when we talk about librarian evolution.

While academic libraries are at the center of the McMaster brush fire, we’re all part of the same profession. As such, we continue to discuss and to adapt and create. The more I see of prototypical librarian roles, the more encouraged I am that public libraries have the right people in place to affect change. In my odd little world, professional librarian roles aren’t outsourced or pushed to non-LIS people. That’s to say nothing of veteran library staff without a library degree or self-avowed shambrarians. There are plenty of non-degreed people who’ve held down reference desks or whole libraries for 10 or 20 years without the “librarian” title. I’m concerned here with job descriptions–altered professional functions and developing positions.

And while the profession is flavored with people who question the necessity of a master’s program in library science, I find their arguments largely counterintuitive. New professional librarian roles should be performed by people who function with the unique perspective and particular knowledge base of the degreed librarian. Again, no matter the myriad services our institutions offer, at the end of the day, we’ve got to be sure we’re serving information literacy.

As expectations of libraries change, it’s natural that the expertise and functions of the degreed librarian will change synchronously. The MLIS is the minimal requirement and should be regarded as such. Its sustained relevance and its value to developing librarian positions is the onus of library school administrators. They’re smart people. I trust them.