Friday, June 15, 2007

Superstars @ the Library

The redoubtable Tom Pease helped kick off our Summer Library Program in good form. Our Children's staff and volunteers do a great job of promoting and managing the events. We had attendance of 1,058 for three concerts in one day! Tom is a terrific entertainer who really gets and promotes libraries and reading. He's become a tradition for starting our summer out right. He even managed to get the Library Director up on stage to help with a song.

Tom & the APL Children's crew

Detox / rehab / vacation

Work does get intense sometimes, and I'm going on vacation for a couple weeks. I'd recommend this post on the Slow Leadership blog to library directors, supervisors or anyone in need of serious time off. There are some good thoughts about the importance of making a clean break from work to effectively relax and recharge. The summary notes:

Do you have trouble “switching off” when you are away, so you spend time worrying about what you’re missing, and constantly checking-in? The path that descends into serious workaholic behavior has deceptively gentle slope.
I get it -- so I won't blog here while I'm on vacation. Now I just have to make myself stay out of Irish libraries. Do I need to avoid the Book of Kells and the Long Room in the Trinity College Library? There are limits to this detox thing....

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Libraries and lewdness

A report in the Columbus Dispatch talks about increasing problems posed by lewd behavior in libraries. "Based on the reports, no community appears to be immune." Many public libraries, including ours, have seen inappropriate or lewd behaviors, including Internet porn, masturbation, public sex, people exposing themselves. and people who stalk.

Where does this rash of lewd incidents come from? A few thoughts...

  • Societal problems have marginalized more people and weakened social pressures and opportunities for normative behavior. Examples:
    • the growth of poverty
    • the reduction of social services
    • untreated alcohol and other drug abuse
    • a lack of mental health care
    • the increasing criminalization of America
  • Even among healthy affluent people, changing norms and a growing acceptance of lewd & licentious behaviors in context means that "socially acceptable" has changed. By enforcing standards, we're bucking a social trend:
    • the "seven words you can't say on TV" are now down to three or four, but on many cable channels, zero
    • the NY Times reports that in ruling against the FCC, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York has noted: "If President Bush and Vice President Cheney can blurt out vulgar language, then the government cannot punish broadcast television stations for broadcasting the same words." Our conservative leaders are not helping the cause here.
    • porn on demand is available in many, if not most, motel rooms
    • the AP reported on June 3 that 'more than a third of the U.S. Internet audience visited sites that fit into the online "adult" category' this year
    • Paris Hilton? Britney Spears? Need we say more?
  • Public library Internet access for those without other means of accessing creates a small but disproportionate group of library users with "special concerns." Some use the library only to use the Internet, and some of these use the Internet less for research or for communication than to indulge the sociopathic or obsessive behaviors that some websites pander to. While the vast majority of public access Internet is entirely appropriate, the temptations available online provide a focal point for lewdness. We have to be tolerant of difference, but give some thought to what crosses the line and how to enforce standards.
One perspective is that libraries -- and other public places -- have always had some level of "lewd behavior" problem, and the above factors have accentuated frequency and visibility, helped by media eager to sensationalize. As long as we're a public place, and open to everyone, these problems will continue. We had problems with inappropriate sexuality, fetishism and harassment in libraries where I worked 35 years ago. No surprise that in the current climate we still have these problems.

Since almost all human beings are sexual but not all are well-socialized or possess self-control, we can expect more of the same. This does not make our libraries dangerous, but it does mean we need to be vigilant to enforce standards and maintain a good environment to work in and visit. The really dangerous behaviors -- such as stalking, flashing, etc. -- require us to nip them in the bud.

We can also be careful about how we position ourselves. I was recently taken to task by a patron for not having the HBO series Cathouse in our collection. As far as I'm concerned, they can keep waiting. We may be a popular materials library, but that's no reason to spend tax money on soft-core porn in the guide of documentaries. A reputable study of brothels? OK. But customer reviews of Cathouse on Amazon.com are telling:
This is one Hot show. ... If hookers, sex, nudity, and documentaries interest you..then this no doubt is an entertaining look ... A place like that will put strip clubs out of business.
It's not too surprising to me that few libraries stock this title. We should carry demanded quality titles even if they are edgy and not for all tastes. thus we carry the HBO series Deadwood and feature films like Eyes Wide Shut. Nor is it surprising that some public libraries filter the Internet so their staff doesn't have to deal with so much porn. Most of us don't need security guards, thank goodness. But we do need to keep our values and our wits. And keep our eyes wide open.

Management, innovation & budget

David Lee King's blog is generally worth reading; I check it at least weekly. But I'm concerned about the tenor of a recent discussion. Writing about barriers to new tech and 2.0 in Four Things to Consider When Changing the Unchangeable, David asked about:

  • Steps to take to convince administrators that the library world is different than it was in the 1970’s?
  • How to convince administrators that constant change and innovation is good, and that it’s also a necessity in our new millenial world?
  • How can we become change agents in a field that’s apparently not used to changing?
and posed the following response:

Looks like there are approximately four things to consider when hoping to implement new technology (at least, these four things came out of your comments). They are:

1. Management problems
2. Finding champions
3. Creating a Vision
4. training Administrators

1. Management Problems: You guys mentioned some interesting problems, including budget constraints, no follow-through on an already-created strategic plan, the organization being slow to adapt to anything, and the “too much work too little time” mantra.

I see these problems as poor management. The “too much work too little time” thing can be dealt with by changing job descriptions, responsibilities, etc. But this needs to be done in conjunction with a new direction (see Creating a Vision below).

Same with budget constraints - most emerging technology doesn’t cost any actual money (just time and staff resources), so budget isn’t really an issue.

At least one respondent said these all boil down to management problems. Where there's a lack of management will, interest and follow through, you might justly call it poor management. But it's altogether too simplistic to characterize all budget problems as poor management. To say that it take "just time and staff resources" ignores the fact that time and staff resources comprise more than 75% of the budget and they're all devoted to providing services.

Many Massachusetts libraries are closing or curtailing service like Internet access and children's story hours. You can say this is poor management if you include statewide political processes as part of management. Here in Wisconsin, TABORlike law has meant that municipalities cannot raise budgets even at inflationary rates, though utility and health insurance costs grow rapidly. Thus our library has cuts in staff despite double digit increases in circ & other output.

In this environment, the staff is hard-pressed to shelve the books, answer reference questions, maintain computers and keep the same library hours. So when administrators encourage them to go to conferences, play with 2.0 resources online, and develop innovative proposals, staff is understandably skeptical. You can't arbitrarily change job descriptions, you have to change service priorities, and management skills can only go so far in the political arena, where boards and elected officials can be recalcitrant.

And while some staff may chafe at lack of management support, there’s also some management that may chafe at lack of staff interest in seeking new solutions. Either way, managers should provide leadership & opportunity, but need to respect staff professionalism and participation in decisions. So I take issue with the statement "constant change and innovation is good" as overly broad. Management needs to recognize that the environment is constantly changing, but that doesn't mean pursuing change for its own sake. There are limits to staff capacity to absorb changes. It's tempting to say "it's just time -- try it, and if it doesn't work, we'll do something else", but you can really only say that about your own time.

We need to keep pursuing the mix of public and private funding to stay afloat, while pressing governing authorities like library boards and mayors to make the tough choices. We need to innovate, but it's an uphill fight. Yes, management is responsible, but management authority is limited -- for better or worse --by real-world constraints.