Thursday, January 25, 2007

Censorship and teachable moments

At an intellectual freedom luncheon some years ago, the speaker encouraged us to develop public library collections that included something to offend everyone. She felt it our duty to build collections such that we personally found at least 25% of the material offensive. That's hard for me as I'm not easily offended, but I try to be an equal-opportunity offender.

In a recent post The Caged Bird Sings a Song of Civil Discourse, in a local political blog FoxPolitics.net, writer (and former library board member) Jo Egelhoff discussed a recent controversy in a nearby school district over Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. What seems noteworthy in this case is that there was a good dialog between the schools and concerned parents, resulting in an apparently satisfactory solution for all parties.

I appreciate that before she wrote about the incident in her blog, Jo took the time to contact her local public library (us) and ask about materials selection policies and complaint procedures. Hey, there's nothing like media scrutiny to help you review the ol' procedure manual. Fortunately, we were in pretty good shape and Jo said some very kind things about our public library in her blog entry.

This nonetheless prompted me to stick my oar in and write a comment noting some of the differences between schools and public libraries in matters of selection and de-selection. I was able to discuss the whole thing with my favorite Young Adult librarian, and she had her own interesting story to recount.

It seems that in recommending a book to a teen, she inadvertently recommended one that was a bit more sophisticated than either she or the teen knew at the time. She soon heard about it from the parent, who actually thanked her for the opportunity to have a difficult discussion with the the teen. Would that it were always so. We're never all going to agree on what's appropriate, but exploring those differences can be enlightening. And between children and parents, it's essential.

An excerpt from my comment on FoxPolitics:

...communicating is key. Parents have to shelter young children, but give them strong wings to fly when they leave the nest. Parents cannot leave the teaching to the schools nor the ideas to the libraries. We cannot always protect children from books or ideas we find disagreeable or distasteful, but we can give them our values to hold and teach them to judge with discernment. Talk to your kids. Talk to your kids' teacher, talk to your librarian ... and then talk to your kids some more.
May librarians never shy away from having materials which challenge us, and may we always seek to promote conversations about books -- especially within families.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Movies to change the world

Recently, I've watched three films from the library collection which unashamedly advocate for social change on a global scale. Two were documentaries and one an affecting pointed story. One was also a library program and another one was almost a program last year, but we couldn't arrange rights.

Nobelity is a personal reflection by film-maker Turk Pipkin, who interviews nine Nobel Prize laureates about problems affecting our world. While far from objective, as one could probably cherry-pick living Nobel laureates to support a wide variety of views, it is moving and ultimately surprisingly cohesive. Loosely divided into segments entitled: Decision, Challenges, Disparities, Change, Knowledge, Persistence, Peace, Reason, and Love. Each section features an interview with a Nobel laureate, juxtaposed with contextual scenes of areas of the world and montage sequence illustrating issues. The final montage, leading up to the interview with Bishop Tutu, is breathtakingly fast and emotional.

Showing this film would make a great public library program, as it lends itself well to discussion. Unfortunately last year, it was in limited release and the distributors did not really want to see it shown for free in public libraries, but were interested in university venues and non-profit groups that would share admission revenues. Now that the DVD is widely available, public performance rights may be easier to come by.

Girl in the Cafe has a screenplay by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral). It features the wonderful Bill Nighy playing the sort of uncertain bloke that Curtis has so often created as a Hugh Grant character. Grant is till too young to play this role, as Nighy portrays an aging civil servant, who may have just found love -- but has a significant part to play at the G8 summit in Reykjavik. The film asks good questions about doing the right thing and being willing to sacrifice for the greater good, as Nighy's personal and professional dilemmas run tangled parallel courses. A terrific, sweet and moving story. Unsurprisingly, an extra on the DVD is the video for one.org ("the campaign to make poverty history") that aired on TV last year.

An Inconvenient Truth is the film we showed at the library last week, and needs little introduction or explanation, since Al Gore's campaign on global warming has been high profile. We had about sixty people attend, and the film was followed by a lively discussion, moderated wonderfully by Joanne Kleussendorf of the Weis Earth Science Museum at University of Wisconsin - Fox.

This is the sort of program I would like to see our library do more often, combining education, community development, library media and a social issue.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Building community

There are lots of ways in which public libraries do community development. By "community development" in this context, I mean working to strengthen and improve the communities they serve. We do this in many ways, including:

  • educational and informational services enabling self-improvement
  • strengthening businesses
  • collaborating with other community groups and agencies
  • selecting materials relevant to community issues
  • preserving local history
  • providing programs which bring people together, especially to exchange ideas, with the library as a gathering place
  • encouraging staff involvement with service clubs & community groups
Personal involvement outside the library should start -- though not end -- with the library director. In Appleton, I've been fortunate enough to be involved with a number of community organizations. But in this week of Martin Luther King's birthday, it seems right to talk about Toward Community: Unity in Diversity.

Toward Community is a grass-roots diversity organization. A number of other organizations are members, but mostly it's composed of individuals. Their mission statement reads:

Toward Community: Unity in Diversity builds connections and community among groups and individuals in the Fox Valley through celebration, education and advocacy for the broad spectrum of human diversity.

I'm an individual member of Toward Community, but the library is an organizational member. For several years, the library has been one of the co-sponsors of Toward Community's annual Martin Luther King celebration (picture above). We've also co-sponsored international films with Toward Community, and they've helped promote some of the library's multicultural resources. Likewise, the library has a membership and seat on the board in our local multicultural center.
IMHO, these multicultural community groups are singularly consistent with the notion of public libraries representing all points of view. It's therefore natural and appropriate that we should support them, as well as market our services to their members.

It's a special case of a general principle. We are similarly involved in our downtown association and Chamber of Commerce. If you want the community involved in the library, the library has to be involved in the community.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Intersecting trendlines

Tasha Saecker, on Sites and Soundbytes, posts a note referencing a study of Generation Next:

The new generation of 18-25 year olds is called Generation Next. I think that their experience with technology and its social aspects is an important part of what libraries need to be looking at with their websites. Pew Internet has done a large survey of this generation and it is filled with data that every librarian should be looking at. This is our next generation of adults. Are you prepared to serve them?
They use technology in new and distinctive ways.
They are the "Look at Me" generation because of social networking.
They embrace new technology, but many say that technology makes people lazier.
They support immigration, gay rights and interracial dating.
It's worthwhile reading, and coincidentally, Karen Schneider, en route to ALA, has posted her trend predictions with implications for library technology:
People increasingly rely on and trust the web for news and information.
It is increasingly difficult to function without email, and even easier to function with it.
Many more people have IM than you might think.
The bookstore is going away. (That makes me sad, and yet I buy from Amazon, too.)
The film camera is an anachronism.
Wifi is an assumption in many settings.
Everyone has a cell phone. O.k., only 203 million Americans have cell phones, and only 2 out of 3 global citizens. Most of those citizens are teenagers and college students, for whom the cell phone must be attached to one ear for at least 80 percent of the waking day, as far as I can tell from observation.
It is now pretty much a given that anything you do in a public setting can potentially be blogged, podcast, or uploaded to YouTube in a matter of minutes. (Privacy is increasingly porous.)
Library vendors' customers (that would be us) are expecting more for their users, and asking harder questions.
There seems to be an interesting confluence at work with implications for planning.

If I were to add one, it would be downloadable video. Several things make me feel this is an area we should be attentive to:
- the way DVDs have fueled growth in library use
- Google acquisition of YouTube
- Apple Computer's newest video devices
- iTunes' acquisition of Paramount and Sundance titles
- the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium's experiment with Overdrive Videos
Change is happening, and we have stay attentive, remember our core values and roll with it. This will mean being nimble without being hasty, and deliberate without being hidebound. Can you tell I'm heading into a major planning cycle?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Taken for Granted

In a Albuquerque Tribune commentary "Just like libraries", writer Stevie Olson compares public transit as a public good, like libraries, which should be funded because it's a public good. OK so far, but then she says:

Public libraries never bring in revenue, but we do not scream to have them boarded up, shut down and the contents auctioned off. Instead, voters continue to support libraries as essential resources and important institutions, even if the majority of us rarely set foot in one.
I replied, in a comment to the newspaper website:
Transit is certainly deserving of support, but let us not take public libraries for granted.

To say: "voters continue to support libraries as essential resources and important institutions, even if the majority of us rarely set foot in one" is fallacious in two respects.

First, voters see libraries as essential resources, yet many libraries are seeing year after year of budget cuts despite continuous increases in library use. Second, most people, at least in my town, use libraries. That does not stop politicians from cutting library funding nor the many cries of the ignorant that libraries are obsolete and irrelevant in the Internet age.

Maybe it's just Friday, but it's a bit discouraging to assume that we're getting the support that we need, when we know we're not, and even more so when people assume we're going unused. I must be ready for the weekend.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Year in Review

Michael Stephens on Tame the Web, has posted one of the best "year in review" entries that I've seen. He highlights not only some of his own favorite posts but some real gems from around the biblioblogosphere (say that three times fast) of 2006. He includes a nice one about "Why don't library directors blog?"...working on it!

There's a number of things there I will encourage colleagues at my library to read. Good job, Michael -- thanks!

Should libraries ditch the classics?

Mike at Techdirt asks this disturbing question in response to all the uproar about Fairfax County's weeding. Somehow, "should libraries ditch the classics" seems to turn into "should we ditch libraries?" It's not enjoyable reading, but librarians should pay attention to the comments -- we're dealing with perception as well as reality (if there's a difference).

Mike states: "It would really be great if libraries could set themselves up as guardians of an intellectual inheritance, but if no one cares about that inheritance, it's difficult to see how that helps very much."

In fact, most of us are dancing the line between "give 'em what they need" and "give 'em what they want." We try to do both, as well as we can. We know if we just had the classics, many of our libraries would become as little used as people think we are. We know if we just had popular media, we'd marginalize our own value.

But although our library circulates lots of DVDs, we're no competition for Blockbuster. We balance the limited copies of high demand titles with unique items you can't find elsewhere. But we fight the problem of perception.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Hey, it's cool to be us

Bookshelves of Doom reports on this story from U.S. News & World Report (well-known bastion of ultra liberal bias) that librarian is one of the good jobs to have. It's one of the "Get Ahead Jobs of 2007." Apparently we have a future ... whoda thunk it?

Thursday, January 4, 2007

2006 Children's and YA Bloggers' Literary Awards

Tangognat notes that the finalists for the Cybils have been posted. This is a great example of a 2.0 project. The lists of nominees and finalists are worth reading, and I'm looking forward to checking out several of the titles -- though I join Tangognat in mourning the absence of manga in the graphic novel finalists.

Overall, a good source of both collection development and just good reading!

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Fear the children

It's impossible for too many blogs to talk about this NY Times article. Faced with too many teenagers after school, the Maplewood, N.J. public library will close two buildings from 2:45-5:00 PM daily.

I'm sure it's a problem and a big problem, but it's what I like to call a good sort of problem. Too many patrons is a challenge and an opportunity. By responding to the challenge by closing, Maplewood would seem to have lost an opportunity, and maybe their next generation of citizens and taxpayers. A damned shame they had no better choices nor enough community resources to deal with the problem. A lot of teachable moments are lost.

The Mapleword Trustees have posted a response to the concern. It's hard to fault the Maplewood Library -- they have an active teen group and lots of young adult collections and programs. It appears they have been trying everything for a long time, but not getting sufficient parent or community support. If it takes the entire village to raise a child, it's apparent the library can't do it alone.

My favorite young adult librarian favors the "duct tape" approach. Each middle schooler hanging out in the library should be approached by a burly volunteer with an extra-wide roll of duct tape. The child then has the choice of joining a duct tape craft project or being duct taped to the wall. It could work...
UPDATE: the Maplewood Trustees voted to rescind their earlier action. As explained on their website:

The Township, working with community leaders and school district officials and the Youth Task Force Committee presented two new programs that we believe will eventually help relieve past problems and provide middle school children with alternative places to go in the afternoons. Morrow Church has expanded its Hang Out Haven program from one to three days a week. The school district has engaged Family Connections, which currently operates a program at Columbia High School, to structure and implement an after school program in the Middle School. In addition the Township will provide funding for security officers at both branches of the library.

The Board of Trustees and the library staff recognize that we have a role to play in providing appropriate library programming to this age group. To that end the Trustees have requested funding for a full-time Young Adult Librarian to work directly with the middle school age group and a space planner to examine facilities at both library buildings and offer recommendations for better utilization of existing space. One direct result of a space evaluation report will hopefully be the creation of a computer lab at the Main Branch. In light of the effort that the Township and the school district have made to address the problems and provide solutions through concrete programs and funding, the Board reversed its decision and the library continued its normal hours of operation.

This sounds like a healthy, responsible, broad-based community response. It still leaves us asking (not just about Maplewood): why don't more parents take and teach responsibility? and why does it take a disaster to validate a crisis?

Good on you, Maplewood!

Innovators suffer under HAPLR

In this article in the Montgomery Advertiser, Montgomery Library Director Jaunita Owes observes that Hennen's American Public Library Ratings provide a biased measure. She is correct; the HAPLR needs to be taken with a large dose of salt. Far from measuring the "best" public libraries, it measures the libraries which best meet the criteria Tom Hennen is able to -- and chooses to -- measure.

Owes specifically notes that the HAPLR neglects to include electronic services, increasingly a significant and cost-effective service delivery method. Hennen acknowledges this omission and, in his defense, correctly notes that there are inadequate standards for objective measurement in this area.

Another entire area missing in HAPLR is programming. With libraries increasingly adopting the roles of community centers, use of meeting spaces and attendance at library programs is a significant part of many libraries' efforts. My workplace, the Appleton Public Library is one of these.

As Owes rightly states, "Only through a complete picture of a library, its services, and how the needs of a community are met may the public library be viewed." While the HAPLR can be valuable for many libraries in gaining well-deserved credit, it can wrongly be cited as evidence that a library heavily invested in electronic services & community programs is worse than one heavily invested in high circulation and traditional reference.

Because measurements lag behind services, standards lag behind measurements, and comparative analysis lags further, it is nigh unto impossible for any system such as the HAPLR to be up to date. Problems arise when library critics point fingers due to a low "score", without keeping in perspective both this lag and the somewhat arbitrary nature of choosing and weighting some criteria and excluding others.

The Montgomery City-County Public Library has a 2006 HAPLR score of 21%; the Appleton Public Library's 2006 score is 90%. I still think it's unfair. The true measure of any library is the community it serves. Arbitrary measurements like HAPLR have their use, but they cannot determine how any library is doing relative to the vlaues and needs of the community it serves. You can measure by standard criteria, but not judge by them. If we don't understand the difference, we're just hapless.