Thursday, June 23, 2011

Remarks at the Native Daughter Award

Yesterday there was a wonderful reception at the Norwich Holiday Inn honoring Maureen Sullivan, a native daughter of this community and incoming president of the American Library Association. From her remarks it is clear that she is the sort of insightful, energetic person ALA needs at its helm. She understands that the status quo for libraries, based on assumptions about our role as community assets, is categorically untenable. I was honored to be among those asked to address and congratulate Maureen, and I would like to share those remarks with you:
Maureen credits her time as a teenager working at Otis Library for her success. “I remember being able to go and have the whole world of books open up for me,” she said. “It made me attuned to the ways libraries contribute to every child’s education, but also how a library contributes to a community.” As a consultant and educator, and as she proudly acknowledges, a “real librarian” she is a catalyst for change and innovation, sharing her knowledge and skills with others who share with her the same love of reading and learning. That is an important commitment and essential to being a real librarian. There was a time, not that long ago, when the status of libraries as community assets was unquestioned. Libraries were in so many respects inviolable institutions. There was an implied consensus about their importance to the common weal, to education and the maintenance of community fabric; they were unassailable. That consensus has frayed. Being, through your actions a catalyst for change is integral to the definition of being a real librarian.
Being a real librarian describes a commitment of time and energy to planning, assessment and advocacy, based on the understanding that not making the investment of time in these areas leads to awful consequences. We at Otis have learned from two years of retrenchment, reductions, furloughs and pain. That pain was a great antidote to the assumption that we could conduct business as usual, or that as an “acknowledged community asset” we would always have enough, do enough and know enough to survive. The new mantra is test, probe, identify opportunities, collaborate, advocate, think in terms of the library as a community center, and NEVER assume anything!
Acknowledging the need for change, questioning and eschewing the status quo are essential to the definition of a “real librarian,” and we are pleased to offer our congratulations to Maureen Sullivan, a deserving recipient of the Native Daughter Award in recognition of her achievements.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Reflections on the 2010-2011 Fiscal Year

Last night was the final library board meeting of the 2010-2011 fiscal year. It was a year inadequately defined as challenging. That word does not contain enough nuances to fully describe the strains placed on staff and board as we absorbed another six figure budget reduction and the specter of yet another two week staff furlough and two week summer shut down. Yet we survived, and if we did not quite thrive, we persevered, we learned, and institutionally and professionally we evolved. The following is a slightly revised version of my comments to the board last evening:

2010-2011 has been the occasion for considerable reflection on the future of libraries in general, and in particular the role of Otis Library as a community asset. There is an existential element to be considered: about our immutability as an institution and the value of our contributions to the common weal, especially in light of the decisions made about what constitutes an essential service and what is determined to be expendable. We spent the year balancing daily operations with the need to prepare and plan for the future. The general solution is a commitment of time and energy, based on the understanding that not making the investment in planning leads to awful consequences. All the pain endured during this past year and the year before was a great antidote to the assumption that we could conduct business as usual, and that as an “acknowledged community asset” we would always have enough, do enough and know enough to survive. The new mantra is test, probe, identify opportunities, collaborate, advocate, think in terms of the library as a community center, and NEVER assume anything!
None of this commitment to change would mean much without a dedicated staff willing to participate in an arduous and frequently stressful planning process. I must not only thank them for agreeing to commit to it but also for arguing that we needed to assume responsibility for our future rather than hunkering down and hoping the bad times would just go away.
Last year I believe outgoing Board president Keith Fontaine remarked that almost everyone loves libraries, but libraries cannot live on love alone. We certainly have ample examples of friends and supporters willing to provide both love and money. Thank you to the Evening with an Author Committee and its peerless chair Millie Shapiro! Kudos to the Edward and Mary Lord Foundation for believing, correctly, that books and materials are at the core of our mission, and supporting us so generously. Thank you to the Friends of Otis Library-Ann Lathrop and the Friends Board- for their generous support for materials and special projects and for stepping up in hard times and giving so generously when it counted. Encomiums to the Sachem Fund, the Esther Gilbert Fund and the Lafayette Family, the Sayet Family; the Elsie Brown Fund for programming, The Norwich Rotary Club and AHEPA for materials, and Bahria Hartman and the Last Green Valley for the support of special projects. A special thanks to Tucker Braddock for bringing us Barry Clifford as a guest speaker. I have undoubtedly left someone out, but this list speaks volumes for the inherent value of libraries to their communities and specifically to the continued importance of this institution to a vibrant, educated Norwich.
Finally, I want to briefly note some of the ways in which our commitment to planning, identifying opportunities and investing in collaborations are already manifesting themselves: This summer, thanks to a Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut grant we begin a pilot reading program with the Wequonnoc School that ensures that reading and libraries remains an integral part of the summer for hundreds of students. Thanks to Sachem Fund we will begin an internship program to cultivate the next generation of librarians among young adults. Working with the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board, library staff will create a guide for libraries on how to interact with young adults who have mental health and substance abuse issues. It is modeled on the behavioral standard set by this library, which includes accepting mental health and substance abuse services. Working with the Southeast Mental Health Authority its staff and clients, we will collaborate on a book group designed to decrease the stigma of mental illness.
I think these and initiatives yet to be envisioned are part of our role as futurists. To borrow from Dr. Steve Matthews, WE are committing to a new model exemplified by inquiry and innovation, thereby acknowledging that the Otis Library will be prepared when called upon to contribute to a future where schools are preparing 21st Century students for jobs that don’t currently exist. We will be using technology that hasn’t been invented to solve problems we don’t yet understand. At the Otis Library we will be testing, probing questioning and identifying needs perhaps even before they are widely recognized as such.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Evening with an Author 2011: Memorial Day Weekend 2011

Friday's Evening with an Author fund raising event featuring Sebastian Junger was enormously successful. Mr. Junger's reflections on Afghanistan and the conflict there, as well as his discussion of his friend and colleague Tim Hetherington killed only a few weeks ago while covering the fighting in Libya were eloquent and affecting. I also wanted to share with you a portion of my remarks. The proximity of Evening with an Author to Memorial Day, the subjects of the evening's remarks, and my later attendance at events commemorating Memorial Day seemed to speak to several matters raised both during the evening and over the next several days.

When the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend was first discussed as the date for Mr. Junger’s appearance there were some misgivings voiced over the wisdom of scheduling EWA on the cusp of a holiday weekend. Personally, given the subject matter of WAR and the experiences we will hear of this evening, I could think of few more appropriate dates. Your presence as part of a capacity audience confirms the efficacy of selecting the date we did. There was also the subject matter, the War in Afghanistan, a conflict that sizable segments of the population are dubious of, disconnected from, or have filtered out of their daily lives. A frequently cited statistic augments this statement: less than 1 percent of the population serves in uniform at a time when the country is engaged in one of the longest periods of sustained combat in its history. "One percent of Americans are touched by this war.” Regardless of your attitude towards the war keep those statics in mind as you listen to Mr. Junger’s discourse, read WAR or view the film Restrepo. Contemplate the profound implications of that imbalance. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it “"[T]here is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend." That sentiment was echoed by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who cited that same 1 percent statistic, and continued "I worry that we could wake up one day and that the American people will no longer know us, and we won't know them." I hope that after listening to tonight’s presentation, reading WAR and watching RESTREPO, you will better understand and appreciate those who defend the remaining 99% of us, and the potential consequences of that ominous 1% statistic.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Otis Library and the 2011-2012 budget

Last night was the last public meeting on the proposed 2011-2012 city budget. There may be more such forums, in as much as state government and employee unions are engaging in a game of brinkmanship that John Foster Dulles would envy. What the final state budget will look like remains a matter of speculation. I took the opportunity to speak on the library's behalf, and wanted to share some of my comments with you. I addressed the impact of the $50,000 allocated to the library for 2011-2012, and ended with some observations regarding the municipal budget process:

The addition of $50,000 to the library’s allocation is welcome, and much appreciated. The immediate effect, an end to the 2 week summer furlough is particularly gratifying. For two weeks during each of the last two years the public was denied access to essential services and every staff person faced the prospect of two weeks without a salary. I know I speak for the staff and board of the library in expressing relief and thanks that the end of this dismal period is imminent. I would be remiss if I did not remark on the status of the library even with the restoration of these monies. I do this while keeping in mind the mantra which now appears in every discussion of budgets, be they Federal, state, or local: “shared pain.” What follows clearly establishes that the library has born it share of pain.

The 2011-2012 allocation, $936,228, most closely resembles the 2005 allocation for the library, $917,000. This was at a time when the library occupied its former, smaller site at 261 Main Street and its equally modest temporary site at 2-6 Cliff Street. Those facilities, converted department stores, were half the size of the current library, 20,000 vs. 40,000 square feet. In addition, the former site attracted less than half the annual patronage of the new facility.
Per capita support in 2005 was $29.06. This coming year, based on the latest census information it will be $21.77.
If our allocation is approved our operating budget will reflect a 5% increase over 2010-2011, versus a 6% increase for the city’s general operating budget, and is still $185,000 less than the 2008-2009 operating allocation. We will account for .58% of the city’s budget at a time when library services on average account for 1% of municipal operating budgets.
My point here is not to overstate the condition of the library, or appear insensitive to the conditions in other departments which face cuts and the pain and stress that induces. Keep in mind that the library experienced plenty of the latter over the past two years: lost public service hours, lost staff, lost resources and two weeks of inaccessibility each summer. We have to be empathetic. It is not to overlook the angst of tax payers. This year the library operates on a budget that is less than 8% higher than its budget for fiscal year 2005-2006, the last year in our smaller, antiquated facility. Our per capita operating expenditures over that time have increased by $2.00, from $27.50, to $29.50.

I note that on page 7 of the proposed city budget there is the following statement: “From fiscal year 2002 to fiscal year 2011, non-education expenditures have grown only 13.6% compared to the 26.4% increase in the Northeast Consumer Price Index from July 2001 to July 2010 – that is just a little over half the rate of inflation!” An estimable accomplishment, but over the same time the library has accommodated itself to even tighter financial discipline. We felt the effects of the pain and fiscal stringency before it was shared.

Regarding the budget process, and its relationship to the vision of Norwich’s future. I would like to see a few additions made to each year’s budget process. First, I would like to see a clearly stated vision for the city at the beginning of the budget document. There are succinct city wide goals included in the opening pages of the budget, and these are a good beginning, but they need the added energy of a statement that clearly identifies the fiscal year budget as part of a long range strategy to resuscitate the city. We have been through two horrific fiscal years in Norwich. Those budgets reflected deep and painful rescissions, and a diminution of services in several areas. It behooves city government to say we know how difficult these budgets were to accept, but you need to know that we have learned, we are taking the requisite steps to ensure that these parlous times teach us how to better prepare for the future, the importance of articulating priorities that the public can accept with confidence as a reflection of a long term strategy for sustaining and where necessary rebuilding the fabric of the community. Those goals and objectives should be reiterated at every opportunity, and proposed actions both operating and capital should clearly reflect the contents of the goals and objectives. In closing, people are willing to follow and support planning based on clearly defined priorities building substantive, positive change. It will take a bit of reflection and planning but the results will be invigorating.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tim Hetherington

This posting is a departure from my normal subject range, which consists of musings on libraries, Otis Library in particular, or the general field of librarianship. However, the recent death of British-American photojournalist Tim Hetherington while covering the Libyan conflict, and his close association with Evening with an Author speaker Sebastian Junger led me to this unscheduled detour. His work with Mr. Junger would be reason enough to warrant a post, but other intersections and commonalities made this essay necessary and in some ways unavoidable. On the day Mr. Hetherington died I was reading James Brabazon's memoir My Friend the Mercenary a recent addition to our collection which recounts Brabazon's experiences as a photojournalist during the ineffable horrors of the Liberian Civil War, and his evolving friendship with his South African body guard and sometimes mercenary Nick du Toit. One of the other protagonists featuring prominently in Brabazon's memoir is Tim Hetherington.

The second connection was Hetherington's Directorship of the Academy Award nominated documentary Restrepo based on the time he and Sebastian spent in Afghanistan's Korenghal Valley embedded with the 173ed Airborne Brigade at the eponymous base named for medic Juan Restrepo. That film, and the companion book WAR have personal resonance. My eldest son Jon served with the 173ed in the valley and was acquainted with both Sebastian and Tim. For Christmas, Jon's gift to me was Tim's book Infidel a photo essay composed of images taken during the 173ed's deployment.

Clearly, there are many connections and the sense of loss evoked while not based on a personal relationship is something more than the predictable emotions triggered by the death of a well know public figure or personality. It may be his relative youth-he was only 40-or the disbelief that someone who had escaped so many physically proximate encounters with death would perish as the result of a anonymously launched projectile meant for no one in particular. My emotions may also reflect a profound belief that wars ought not be and their coverage a moribund or extinct profession. Whatever their genesis, I firmly believe that the world is a lesser place without Tim Hetherington in it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Social Media

Recently I began following a site dedicated to discussing social media. On my last visit I encountered an effusive post encouraging readers to "Be Real and Be Credible." It ended with the following call to action:
"The days of talking at people are over. It’s time to start talking with people. In order to do that, we have to take down our walls, step out from behind the desk and podium and (in the wise words of an MTV series) 'start getting real.' It’s time to show our humanness.

(Personally, I would much rather talk with someone than post 140 character summations of my eating habits or current status in the coffee machine queue.) The core message of this post seemed to be, based on a survey of college students,that "scholarly" posts are less palatable and human than squibs that describe yesterday's lunch buffet. My response, which I hoped would elicit a riposte, was as follows: "There is something troubling about this line of reasoning, or I am missing a point. Is the point that saying something intelligent or using multi-syllable words is 'talking down' or pontificating? My biggest complaint with social media is its tendancy to oversimplify, or default to plainly vacuous commentary. I do not equate simplicity or banality with humanness." No responses thus far, but I am hoping for some. Honestly, this is not a cheap shot at social media. I am just not sure what it is supposed to accomplish. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had ceased putting posts on Facebook. I still have a personal Twitter account, but I am beginning to feel much the same way about it. Before putting it on hiatus too, I am going to explore my use further.

I recently read an essay in the book Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? that concluded the Internet is facilitating a "shift from information scarcity and low levels of interpersonal interaction to an environment of information abundance and high levels of interaction and feedback." I concur, to the extent that we are awash in information and opportunities for interaction and feedback. I can find enormous quantities of information, and often I feel like I know bits about many things. Have information access and social media vehicles improved the content of our discourse? A surfeit of information enhanced my knowledge, to borrow a thought from T.S. Eliot? That remains to be seen. While reading an essay on the poet Wallace Stevens reflecting his empathy with an observation by Henry James, I identified the type of satisfaction I have not achieved from social media, and more generally from my reading and research experiences on the Internet:

"To live in the world of creation-to get into it and stay in it -to frequent it and haunt it-to think intensely and fruitfully-to woo combination and inspiration into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation-this is the only thing" I am looking for that "thing" using the Internet, and while dissatisfied with the results to date I continue the search.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Socrates, literacy, and the 21st century library

Part of the planning for the future of Otis library involves assessing the services we provide, including the technologies. This is especially important now, in a time of complex transition from the unquestioned dominance of print to one where the common wisdom is digital formats will predominate. Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain compares our current situation to the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, a time when questions about literacy were raised by Socrates and mirror concerns equally resonant in the protean environment of the early 21st century. As she eloquently observes, the questions raised more than two millennia ago by Socrates about literacy in the context of the transition from an oral society to a literate one are similar to her own concerns about the immersion of our children in a digital world: “Like the ancient Greeks we are embarked on a powerfully important transition-in our case from a written culture to one that is more digital and visual.”
Socrates felt passionately that written words posed serious risks to society, and posited 3 critical objections that deserve thoughtful consideration as we examine our own intellectual transition to new modes of acquiring information. I will discuss one in this post. Socrates embraced the probative value of orality, specifically its efficacy as a dynamic means of expression, “full of meanings, sounds, rhythms, ready to be uncovered through examination and dialogue.” Written words by contrast were mute, incapable of riposte. This inflexibility of written words doomed the dialogic process Socrates saw as the heart of education.
With the benefit of 2 millennia of evidence Socrates misgivings were demonstrably unwarranted. The process of reflection, writing, revision and committing ones thoughts to paper creates an inner dialectic similar to that he espoused and valued so highly. The dialogue remains, albeit in a modified form.
Whether the essence of the dialogue persists or mutates in the “interactive dimension of communication in the 21st century” as Wolf phrases it, remains a matter of speculation. Perhaps, like Socrates assessment of literacy versus orality it is too early to judge the efficacy of communications often circumscribed by a few hundred characters. There is no sin in brevity or glory in prolixity. I do like Wolf’s closing comment on this matter: “whether [the essence of dialogue] are being developed in ways that sufficiently reflect the true, critical examination of thought would be for Socrates and for us the essential question.”
Socrates articulated a second, more subtle concern which resonates with Wolf, the illusory nature of words. Words, he feared, would be mistaken for reality. Shorn of the probing and modifying effects of the dialogue, written words would delude people into “empty arrogance, leading nowhere, contributing nothing” because words “seem…as though they were intelligent” While the dialogic component of writing is demonstrable, the same remains unproved for the digital environment. In this worry Socrates anticipated the misgivings of “thousands of teachers and parents who watch their children endless hours before computer screens, absorbing but not necessarily understanding all manner of information.”
My purpose is not to deny the need for or usefulness of digital formats vs. analog. However, Socrates fears and Wolf’s open ended speculation regarding the “powerfully important transition” described above are part of the equation we must contemplate as we plan and implement our vision of a responsive, responsible and sustainable 21st century library. Our planning requires a carefully framed and forthright dialogue, featuring decisions based on examination, discussion, and understanding rather than by default, on the allure of new formats and platforms.