Sunday, December 21, 2008

Making connections, gaining perspective

I was reading a bit further in Michael Kammen's American Culture, American Tastes, when I came across the following passage from Middletown, a study in contemporary American culture, by Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd. The original version appeared in the leading paper of Muncie, Indiana: "The American citizen's first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but that of consumer. Consumption is a new necessity." It reminded me of President Bush's exhortation to America following the September 11th attacks: "Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don't -- where we don't conduct business, where people don't shop." [Italics mine]. I offer this juxtaposition of quotes because while they seem contemporaneous, only one dates from the 21st century. The Lynd's quote appeared in 1929. There is plenty of criticism in the media of our consumer culture and its pernicious impact on society. There was a fair amount of criticism leveled at the banality of a major presidential statement, following an horrific act, which implied that shopping was patriotic and an important rebuke to terrorism. We also incline to the belief that somehow this was another indicator of the superficiality of modern society. Yet, here is a quote from 1929 which resonates, and which, shorn of an identifying date could very well have appeared in a contemporary speech or monograph. Or, what of John Dewey's observation from 1930 that the need to buy had become as much an American duty as savings had once been? The point is not to defend the 2001 statement, but to observe the importance of understanding that the mind set it represents is not new, and is not simply the product of conditions or attitudes peculiar to the present. Rather they are the result of incremental changes visible for decades, recognized, analyzed and commented on by trenchant observers . Not surprisingly, all of the materials necessary to make these connections, and develop a cogent case for or against the validity of my statements originated in a public library. The quotes, the books and the individuals cited all come from resources, either electronic and print, accessible at no extra charge. I hope you will join me in using them.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Odds and Ends

A short post today, really just a few observations and a few recommendations. One recent discovery is a site called Slow Leadership. I encourage any of you who are involved in management, aspire to be a manager or work in a supervisory capacity to subscribe. Their ‘credo’ can be summed up in these words from the Buddha:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But if, after observation and analysis, you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

We have also added several link to the library's home page under the heading "Why Are Libraries Important?" These were mentioned in a Twitter posting last week. I hope to add to and refresh these links on a frequent basis. Ironically, even as the importance of libraries is validated by the increases in patronage, circulation, computer use and diversity of services expected, funding has become problematic for many libraries, including well respected systems such as Philadelphia's. For many of those people hardest hit by the convulsions in the economy and most in need of the resources to address their predicament the library remains an essential resource. I thought that the recent NBC Nightly News segment on libraries made that very clear.

On an unrelated subject, I have been reading Michael Kammen's
American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change in the 20th Century. While it is not a book about libraries, there are some interesting references to books and reading, and specifically the popularity of murder mysteries, self-help books, and books about health, during the Second World War. Those are three of the genres most popular among our patrons now. I would guess that these choices might be reactions to stress and uncertainty, the allure of escapism in mysteries, and the search for solutions to large and complex problems in health and self help. It might also help explain the dominance of nonfiction titles over all other material types except video feature films in our circulation figures.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Addressing some survey responses

The library is currently conducting two surveys, one via our electronic newsletter, and a second using the services of an intern from Three Rivers Community College. These endeavors are part of our commitment to providing the best possible service to the community. While both surveys are ongoing, the results of the electronic version reveal some topics which can be addressed now. (I might add that a slightly different version of this letter will appear in the next e-newsletter).

Not surprisingly, parking and security remain two topics eliciting many specific comments. While I will address both once the survey closes, at this juncture let me offer some observations regarding these issues:

Parking is a chronic concern, and references to the paucity of convenient city parking date to the 19th century. In the recent survey it was cited frequently as a deterrent when contemplating use of the library and local businesses. As many of you may know parking is a challenge for both patrons and staff. It costs the library approximately $10,000 a year to provide sufficient parking spaces for the staff, even with the city generously providing several staff spaces free of charge. I will not mention in detail the preemptive actions required of the staff to ensure that these spaces are available on a daily basis.

As for the public, while it offers no panacea, many of you may recall the survey conducted by Rose City Renaissance earlier this year. This lists a number of public parking locations in the general area of the library. Among the most convenient are 26 public spaces available in the Cliff Street Lot, 7 slots by the railroad station, all available for 2 hours at a time, free of charge, and 32 public spaces at the YMCA which are equipped with meters, and available for up to 8 hours at a cost of .25 per hour. One continuing omission is the lack of handicap parking in front of the library. It is our hope, after several discussions, that the city will remedy this situation. A parking map is also available on the library web site, . Parking is a matter of concern to us, the business community, and the public. I will use the information gathered in the survey to inform city officials.

Security in the down town area evoked a number of comments from participants. Similar concerns were expressed in our previous surveys. In response to the disquiet reflected in those documents, the library now invests $20,000 annually in security officers who are stationed at the library Monday through Friday between the hours of 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. This is no small sum, and required the shifting of operating funds from materials purchases (books, magazines, audio and videos) and the few other budget lines where expenses are not fixed. In addition, thousands more dollars of capital funds were invested in interior and exterior cameras, and $10,000 will be invested to deter loitering in front of the building. The city police department has shown great responsiveness and cooperation with the library, and I meet regularly with representatives from that department, the city manager, human services, and the business community as part of the Downtown Enhancement Group.

The actions cited above are part of our efforts to provide substantive responses to your concerns. I will continue to advocate for programs that will enhance the use of the library and business area. Thank you for your support and patronage.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What’s a library worth?

Perhaps it is because the economy is sour, it is time to submit our annual operating request to the city, or simply because it is early morning, and that always seems a reflective time of day. Regardless, I want to draw your attention to two items which address the issues of a library’s worth. One, based on a calculator on the Maine State Library web site, offers some sense of what the services offered by a library would cost in the for profit sector. You might quibble with a few of the answers, but overall I think you will find it edifying. Go to our About Otis Page on the library web site,, and you will see the link at the bottom of the menu.

The second recommendation is a short article on the web site The Consumerist entitled “7 Ways Your Public Library Can Help You During Bad Economic Times.” I most enjoyed two of the 7, although all had merit. First, Make new friends. There are plenty of ways and aids which afford sanctuary from humankind-I am thinking of devices that involve headphones among others-but libraries actually encourage interaction, be it in a book group, public program or as a Friend of Otis Library. The other opportunity, Find a new Job is particularly salient given the shudder inducing economic news. It seems like no business wants to see a paper application anymore. The application form, your résumé, everything is channeled via the internet. Otis has the computers, the resources and the learning opportunities to help you navigate through the process, and as important, to help you minimize the tension and frustration involved.
Of course there are innumerable other good reasons to patronize the library, and I encourage you to view them or calculate their value at the locations above.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Surveys and Insights

In the near future we will conduct more patron surveys to gauge the use of our current services, determine what services we may want to add, and to get a better overall picture of the public we serve. There will be one survey done in conjunction with our on line newsletter, and with the help of an intern from Three Rivers Community College we will also actuate an on site survey of patrons. Surveys of both types are extremely valuable aids for better understanding what the public wants in the way of services, and exploring the ways in which the library is used. For example, a recent survey for the Chicago Metropolitan Library System revealed some very interesting pearls of information. Fifty-six percent of patrons spent less than 10 minutes in the library; two-thirds did not know what they wanted before they arrived. Fifteen percent of weekly visitors never borrowed materials from the library. Of those who borrowed materials, 70% checked out books while 51% chose AV materials. Only 12% of patrons viewed library signage, and of those who utilized signage 45% consulted stacks signage (i.e. signs designating the location of books and other materials). I do not know if our results will reflect the same patterns of usage, but the resulting information could be very useful in such functions as allocating financial resources, selecting programs, and identifying confusion points and bottlenecks. As the library evolves these types of information will help us be more responsive to patron needs, and in turn will help engage patrons more effectively.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Impact of Public Library Closings

Earlier this morning I was reading a report entitled "Why Public Libraries Close"conducted by researchers at Florida State University (June 30, 2008). Much of the contents is devoted to explanations of the research design, methodology, and an analysis of findings. What struck me, and summarized eloquently the centrality of libraries to community health and stability was the following observation:
"The socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of the population within the immediately surrounding 1 mile radius [of] the closed library tended to be poorer, less educated, and with more renters than homeowners when compared to the U.S. population as a whole...These characteristics are often associated with lower mobility and fewer alternatives for information access. Where these population characteristics prevail, closures could disproportionately impact potential library users who may need the public library more than most..."
This is yet another element of the story that libraries have to tell, to borrow again from Walt Crawford: their importance to under served communities as an immediate means of access to resources otherwise unavailable or available only tenuously.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Some thoughts on libraries and their roles

Over the past several weeks I have read a number of articles pondering the role of public libraries. Directly or indirectly all share a common theme, which is, to borrow the title of one article, “How to Future Proof our Library.” Personally I find that a rather ominous title, which conjures up images of libraries designed like Vauban fortresses or late nineteenth century armories with firing slits for windows and an intimidating, glowering massiveness. Which, mercifully the articles do not advocate or even consider!

One in particular struck me as addressing, albeit indirectly, a common misconception about libraries and their community role. Entitled “The Storied Library” by Walt Crawford, it actually deals with branding, or if a term from the world of marketing grates a bit, the stories a library has to tell about its community, the niches it fills, the ways in which it determines the community needs it will address and by so doing remains relevant to those it serves. So how many stories do we have to tell at Otis? There are several ways to frame the answer. We could count the number of on line data base uses per annum, the number of weekly visits, the number of books, CD’s and DVD’s circulated, programs offered, persons served by Literacy Volunteers, reference questions answered, and a myriad other quantifying factors. To paraphrase Crawford, our stories are in total the substance of what we are, what we do, and how we place ourselves in our surroundings and the lives of our patrons.

What I also like about Crawford’s approach is the reconsideration of information as the paramount library function. Heresy! No, not really. Designating or defining libraries as the information place is limiting and arguably leads to a narrow definition of what libraries and librarians do. We are certainly about information, which he defines as service designed to “bring resources to people for their education, enlightenment and entertainment.” That sounds more like the work of Otis Library and its staff. To that I would also echo Crawford’s addendum that “we serve as a safety net for the displaced and a primary place where young people learn to love reading and knowledge.”

This bountiful definition leads me to believe that we need to address the declivity between what librarians and libraries do and what users think they do. To use only the single element of information, in an environment in which profit increasingly shapes accessibility to information libraries represent just the opposite model, with digital and print, sources conveniently available, complete with a human resource for help. This is what one observer categorizes as the “quintessence of the sustainable information movement.”

Friday, August 1, 2008

Dealing with Distractions

A brief entry today, addressing the topic of libraries and distractions. I was reading Marcel Proust’s essay, appropriately entitled On Reading, and was struck by his descriptions of hours spent reading in profound silences, undisturbed by distractions, except for the distant sound of bells “carrying the time to distant regions, without seeing me, without knowing me, without disturbing me.” Juxtaposition this with Nicholas Carr’s article Is Google Making Us Stupid? cited in my last blog entry and more recently, the July 20 article in the Sunday Times (Great Britain) entitled Stoooopid .... why the Google generation isn’t as smart as it thinks, subtitled The digital age is destroying us by ruining our ability to concentrate. It is easy enough to categorize this class of complaint as mere crankiness, or resistance to change ( the oft mentioned Luddite analogy) on the part of a few benighted souls. However, it is an issue which arises at the library, and one that ought not to be dismissed. In a library environment the digital accessories of everyday life are numerous and potentially intrusive: mobile phones, various platforms for music, computer generated film and music clips, even normal speaking voices. What might seem an irritant outside the library magnifies into a noxious substance inside.

Personally, I do not think we will ever return to the allegedly pristine environment where the profound silences Proust describes permeate the library and distractions are minimal. Libraries are meeting needs and providing services that do not lend themselves to uninterrupted quiet, and distractions are part of that mix. That said, there are quiet areas in the library, especially in the carrels and seating adjacent to the adult stacks where quiet is the norm, and there are study rooms available, by reservation, through the reference desk. The use of cell phones is prohibited outside of certain spaces, and the list of discouraged behaviors is posted throughout the library. Listening to music don headphones and turn down the volume. Then too, on weekdays there are security officers on duty from the hours of 2-8 who will gladly show transgressors the error of their ways. These measures may constitute compromises, but they also reflect the changing nature of library usage, and the necessary balance between different audiences and their expectations.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Two articles worth reading

Two recent articles cover topics which library patrons and the reading public in general might find of interest. The first is Robert Darnton’s June 12 New York Review of Books article entitled The Library in the New Age. Darton is Director of the University Library at Harvard, and while he is principally concerned with the relevance of research libraries in the current information age, (he argues convincingly that every age is an age of information) some of his key points are equally applicable to public libraries. The whole article is well worth reading. His case for the instability of information is particularly good, with a wonderful example based on contemporary reports of Washington’s defeat at the Battle of Brandywine.

For those who value public libraries, there are some particularly resonant comments at the end of the article. I am especially fond of the following passages: “[D] on’t think of it [the library] as a warehouse or museum. While dispensing books most research libraries operate a nerve centers for transmitting electronic impulses…As a citadel of learning and as a platform for adventure on the Internet, the research library still deserves to stand at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy for the future.” I think these sentiments are equally applicable to public libraries. While dispensing books and other media, the Otis library is also a forum, and a conduit for information in digital and printed formats. It is a source for original research, a classroom, and a community center. This is as it should be. A key challenge for Otis and other libraries now and in the future will be maintaining their importance to the communities they serve. That requires adaptability to changing needs. Otis Library takes that challenge seriously, and strives to be a good example of what Darnton calls a traditional service moving with the times.

The second article of note, by Nicholas Carr is entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? and appears in the most recent Atlantic Monthly magazine (July/August 2008). The central theme is the impact of online searching and surfing on critical thinking and reading. Carr summarizes the perceived changes in the way he reads and his ability to immerse himself in books and lengthy articles: “[M]y concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, and begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” It is that ability to read deeply and analyze complexities that on line reading practices sunder. Quoting Maryanne Wolfe, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Carr wonders if “the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and ‘“immediacy”’ above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerges when an earlier technology, the printing press made long and complex works of prose commonplace.”

It is a good question, albeit one even Carr stops short of answering categorically. I suspect I see evidence of the symptoms in my own evolving reading habits, but I leave it to you to test his thesis after reading the article.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Cell Phones and Civility

Last week a visibly upset patron stopped me and expressed her deep and abiding frustration with cell phones, or more specifically, the way in which some patrons used these devices. What she articulated was a not uncommon phenomenon in libraries. As the nature and uses of libraries have changed, and especially as libraries attract larger numbers of nontraditional patrons drawn by computers, games, programs and other attractions the question of public civility becomes a pertinent and contentious point of discussion. I am not certain that cell phones are the core problem, although they are certainly a visible and justifiable target. (I played baseball on a team where our first baseman had the first few bars of Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida as his ring tone. I always liked that song, until the fifth or sixth time the phone went off during a road trip.)

Not to sound like a curmudgeon, but there seems to be a lack of consideration for others that manifests itself in certain behaviors. Cell phone tones, followed by extended and often personal conversations peppered with expletives and graphic descriptions are clearly obnoxious. Similarly, the folks who stand over the no smoking signs at the library entrance puffing away, the fatigued or unreflective folks who park themselves in front of the book drop, and the group conducting a full throated conversation oblivious to those in adjacent seats trying to read all merit attention and remonstrance.

As this list implies the problem is as much a matter of behavior as of technology. Therefore, we ask cell phone users to hold their conversations in the foyer, the Media Center or outside the library. There is signage making that request in several locations, but experience shows that signage mostly helps staff point out the policy as they address a violation. Few transgressors read the text before the issue is raised with them. As for the other forms of inconsiderate or anti-social behavior, we could post multiple bill boards inveigning against smoking, cussing, drinking and chewing, but the results would be homely. What we will do is point out the violations as they occur, refer to the copies of the behavior policies posted in multiple locations, ask for cooperation, remove the recalcitrant, and maintain a belief in the long term efficacy of behavior modification.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The hiatus ends

It is hard to believe that so much time has passed since my last post. In fact, I find the lack of further entries hard to explain. The most plausible explanation is lack of time. It certainly is not for lack of subject matter. One of the topics preoccupying me during this hiatus is security. This is not a topic peculiar to the library, indeed it is a subject long associated with the down town area generally. However, what occurs at the library is a manifestation of larger community concerns, and exemplify the types of issues requiring resolution on a community wide basis.

It has been clear for some time that the library is too large to be adequately monitored by staff alone. There are too many corners, obscured and unobserved areas in the library, not counting the special challenges presented by the entry way and exterior. There are also the quantifiable incidents of untoward behavior which frustrate both patrons and staff and detract from our role as a community resource. It is not that one particularly egregious incident provoked a strong response, rather it is the slow grind of often minor events. These will eventually overwhelm even those of the most equable disposition. Perhaps in a less inspiring environment some of this could be rationalized as reflective of the surroundings, but in a new and dynamic building with wonderful amenities for public use the lack of consideration and proper use become intolerable.

Therefore the library has embarked on a program resulting in new, visible and we judge effective measures. A closed circuit camera system is now being installed expressly to monitor the most problematic areas internally and externally. Security staff are being added to the library and will be a visible presence during the days and evenings. Other salient measures cover the window sills and rest rooms.

In conjunction with these enhancements, we are holding regular dialogs with city officials and departments. The mayor's office, city manager, police department and department of human services are all contributing to these communications. The response from Norwich city government is encouraging, and the willingness of city departments to advocate for improvements in housing, policing, and other services validate their commitment to a renascent down town area.

I am pleased to report that the atmosphere at the library has improved markedly. We are an urban library, and the events in and around the library are those facing other urban communities. The environment may never be idyllic, but with the cooperative spirit evinced to date, both the community and the library will benefit.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Library Updates

I hope that you have all received the latest copy of the library newsletter. If you have not signed up to receive our monthly update on activities at the library please contact Julie Menders at and we will be sure to include you on our list.

One of my goals for the library is offering a broad spectrum of opportunities that enhance our utility to the public. One of our most recent and successful innovations is serving as a community service work site for area high school students. We currently have 6 students from Norwich Free Academy and one student from the Academy of the Holy Family in Baltic. Each student is required to perform 20 hours of community service as part of their course requirements, and we are very pleased to be a work site. Among the duties performed are shelf reading-a time consuming but essential process of placing the collection in its proper order in the book stacks, shifting collections as books and other materials are removed from the collection and replaced with newer editions, and ascertaining the status of materials listed as lost or missing. We are also hosting an intern from Three Rivers Community College who will help us with a patron survey. This, I hope, will help us to be more responsive to the needs of the library's users, and help us to effectively allocate our resources.

Long term, building on these time constrained service programs, my goal is to use the library as a vehicle for training future librarians. A fair amount has been written over the past few years about the graying of the work force in general, and of librarians in particular. Otis is a good location for a program designed to attract young adults and I am currently working on a proposal to build a collaborative effort with Norwich Free Academy that would introduce young people to the librarianship as a profession.

If any of you are interested in establishing a community service program with the library, or have ideas for other community based collaborations please let me know. Feel free to call me at 860-889-2365 x 122 or e-mail me at

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Library as Dehumanized Supermarket?

Early this morning I read an article almost as gray and ominous as the weather. John N. Berry's column, posted in the February 15 on line version of Library Journal is entitled The Vanishing Librarian, The library becomes a dehumanized supermarket or a chaotic bookstore. After careful consideration I will describe it as a jeremiad on the "deskilling" of library jobs, the replacement of professionals with less skilled and less well compensated staff, and the wholesale transformation of libraries from humane, differentiated centers of learning and education to indistinguishable, impersonal "cookie-cutter" facilities reminiscent of standardized big box chain stores or mega-groceries. I took a quick mental assessment of our library, and then did a quick tour to reassure myself that this did not describe the Otis Library. I am satisfied that it does not. I cannot envision some of the more execrable innovations described by Mr. Berry, specifically the banishing of the reference desk, the displacement of the circulation desk in favor of self-serve check out stations, and the outsourcing of materials selection. Otis was designed as a community centered library, and these trends, if that is what they are, run counter to the spirit of service embodied in this library. Please let it always remain thus!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

If you build a new library they will come. But what will they do?

One of the important questions currently facing the library concerns it role in the community. At first blush the answer seems self-evident: this library has an historic mission to act as an information gatekeeper, that is to act as guide and provider, sometimes an arbiter for a population seeking particular types of information. Despite the acknowledgments paid to the evolving role of libraries in society, that their purpose may be changing, or is being altered, I think the common perception remains that information provider is a core reason for libraries in society: elucidating, educating, guiding inquiries in pursuit of knowledge, principally through books but by other means as well. That continues as a role for this library, especially given the realities of life in an urban library. Unlike some of the suburban libraries I have visited and worked in, the free public internet computers are not gathering dust. Folks need the 16 computers available in the reference/adult services area because that remains their only-or principal- access to the resources available on line, to job applications, government forms and other necessary items. The queues remain long, and few sessions end early. So, that role for the moment remains important.

As you might have anticipated, here comes the BUT. When I look at the monthly statistics, I wonder about the significance of the information role in the panoply of services accessible to the public. Empirically, we can substantiate the robust levels of patronage hoped for when the building program was conceived. Based on the sheer volume of visits, it is simple enough to quantify the use of the facility. In both our temporary location and in the previous, unlamented incarnation of the library at 261 Main Street, a day registering 300 visits was considered good, or average to good. Since January 1 of 2008, the average week day number hovers around 850. On an above average day, that figure surges to around 1,0000, and on an exceptional day, 1,800 visits were recorded. Looking at the number of new library cards registered at the library confirms the increase in use. Back in July a record 422 new users requested cards or had their bar code added to our patron date base. Subsequently, and not unexpectedly, that number has decreased to a less stratospheric but still impressive 200-plus additions per month. Statistically, that remains impressive, and confirms the importance of the library as a destination. And yet, while this may sound like an obsessive hunt to find the but among what appear to be sanguine indicators, I cannot help feeling that we need to identify future roles and reasons for the library, even as we bask in the knowledge that statistically, we are indeed meeting expectations and then some.

Some of the impetus for reassessment and identification of new roles is based on strategic changes taking place in the accessability to information. For generations the mission of libraries remained essentially unchanged. Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute neatly summarizes this immutable mission as follows: “ Leading up to today libraries have consisted of large collections of books and other materials, primarily funded and maintained by cities or other institutions. Collections are often used by people who choose not to, or can not afford to, purchase books for themselves.” Now, and in the future, the role of library as information arbiter and custodian is changing. From a time when information was scarce and defined as a precious commodity, we have entered irreversibly, a time when information is readily accessible in multiple forms, often as easily retrieved electronically while seated in a coffee house as in an archive, and no longer the preserve of librarians and arcane source materials. You can argue the efficacy of a Google search versus a search conducted with a skilled reference librarian, but as Frey points out, “the vast majority of people with specific information needs no longer visit libraries.” That's a generalization valided by the OCLC Report Perceptions of Library and Information Resources: A Report to the OCLC Membership (2005). Surveying 270,000 information users, the report confirms that "the library is not the first or only stop for information seekers." They are more likely to gravitate to search engines, especially Google, e-mail and instant messaging than the library, the librarians, the library web site, or our vaunted arsenal of databases. Yes, we will continue to attract readers, and it will be some time, if ever, before everything needed or desired in the way of information is available outside a library. I dare say that in our community there will continue to be a need for the information services currently provided. But the general message is not wrong. It should be acknowledged as a tocsin by those institutions determined to play a central role in their communities.

So, while I believe we will maintain our position as an information provider, and empirically, I have not no reason to doubt the importance of that service at this time, continued growth in patronage will be based on our ability to adapt to changing needs and a commitment to regularly reassess the mission of the library. I believe one of the contributing factors in the growth of the library’s user base to date is our willingness to embrace the changing nature of the library as a community institution. Some of this reflects a conscious effort, already underway, to find niches for the library to fill. Exemplary of these, the library has embraced a new role as a passport application center, based on the need for a site to replace the city clerk’s office. This was also a responsibility well suited to the library’s operating hours and constituent needs. With extended hours on Monday-Thursday, and Saturday and Sunday hours on the weekends, the library can accept and review applications outside of the usual 9-5 time frame, thus accommodating shift workers and persons with more than one job. Similarly, new initiatives, like a student internship program introducing high school students to the library profession, an online newsletter to inform and poll constituents on current performance and future needs, an advisory board for our Young Adult collection, are reflections of the transitional state libraries find themselves in, and the critical need to revisit and redefine the mission and responsibilities of community libraries with the participation of community members. On the staff level, there is regular solicition of patron opinions and suggestions, be it via informal chats, program assessments, or in the director’s case by conversations while practicing MBWA, or Management by Walking Around.

Despite some of the ominous tinges to the DaVinci Institute and OCLC findings, libraries are far from vestigial or artifacts. However the previously "assumed" role of information provider is no longer unchallenged. We, like other community libraries will thrive if we are willing to redesign library services to meet the needs and expectations of communities we serve. That will mean providing content in new ways, and in such as fashion that it will be used regularly. As OCLC notes, that means we do more than simply educate information consumers about the current library.It will involve dynamic missions, public engagement, dialogue, and new ideas, among other things. There will continue to be a need for libraries as meeting places, as vehicles for personal enrichment, as places to read as public forums, and as one of the few public spaces where all segments of the community find themselves in proximity to each other and on common ground. It is an exciting time to be a librarian, especially in this library!


Thursday, January 31, 2008

It's a great life if you don't weaken

It was one of those days when very little you learned in library school provided sufficient preparation for the problems encountered. It is an especially bad sign when the project you began with great expectations at 8:30 remains undone at 4:45, and the results cannot be attributed to personal indolence, or avoidance behavior. It is times like this when my grandmother's favorite aphorism seems eminently suitable: It's a great life if you don't weaken.

Most of today's issues involved personal behavior unfitting a public space or adjacent areas. A prime example: a gent who I ejected from the library last week for unsuitable behavior now sees fit to park in the spaces clearly reserved for staff. When asked to leave, he berates the staff and is generally abusive. (I ought to note here that parking in our downtown area is at a premium. Spaces are so scarce that I truly believe some residents spend more time looking for a space than they do attending to the errand they needed the space for). Just to provide enough parking for the staff we spend over $10,000 a year on reserve spaces. So, ejecting the gent from the precious library spots involves the police, the parking commission, yours truly, and time and energy. If we let it slide and let him leave with a warning he doesn't think we are serious and is emboldened, then shows up later and plants himself in another reserve spot until he is threatened, etc. Life is too short. Today's incident was black comedy, involving the exchange of particular hand signals-yes, that hand signal-acquisition of a name, license number and numerous other details, police reports, interviews, and on and on. It set the tone for a day that involved a gent drinking in the first floor men's room, several patrons well beyond the further limts of sobriety, and similar distractions.

We always hope the library will make a favorable impression, but we also acknowledge and address the less than favorable episodes which occur. Recently we conducted our first web based user's survey, and two issues proved particularly important to the experience of our patrons.Both have the potential to cause the greatest discomfort if not acknowledged.

The first is parking. The lack of public parking is not a new issue, and it is one that continues to bedevil much of the business district. For the record, the library now spends in excess of $10,000 a year just to provide enough spaces to accommodate the library staff. However, given the volume of responses indicating that parking is a chronic problem I will address the situation with the mayor, city manager, and the city council. I kmnow they understand the problem, but given the paucity of space down town, I am not sure how the matter will be resolved. However, we need to keep it at the forefront of public discussion, and we will make every opportunity to do so count.

The other long standing and equally contentious matters are loitering and behavioral issues around the library. Again, these are tribulations of long standing, and might better be defined as business district or down town problems. Most library users, regardless of their circumstances, respect, and acknowledge the sensibilities of the patrons and staff of the library. There is however a core group of inveterately problematic individuals who choose to abuse the library and environs, or conduct themselves in such a fashion that they make themselves obnoxious. When these individuals are identified they are dealt with, and if necessary removed from the library. Some are permanently banned when their conduct is particularly egregious. There are clearly defined rules of deportment posted in the library, and proscribed behavior that will result in ejection from the premises. In the entry way a no smoking and loitering sign is posted, and when contrary behavior is observed either the police or I will intervene. These are exemplary tactical methods for dealing with immediate problems.

The reality is this: as long as there is homelessness in our city, or insufficient means for integrating or caring for individuals with mental health and addiction problems, there will be patrons at the library who view it as a safe haven or a warm/cool refuge from a frequently hostile or indifferent world. As long as an individual’s deportment meets the library standards, they are welcome. The strategic solution to many of the problems which manifest themselves at the library is supportive housing. People with domiciles are less likely to conduct their lives in doorways and on sidewalks or to appear impaired in a public place. This is an issue the city council will debate in February, and I will urge as many patrons to attend as possible. As soon as a date for this discussion is announced word will be disseminated to the public.