I know it when I see it

Watching the evening news tonight, once again the theme was something like “are we in recession yet?” Sort of reminds me of driving long distances with a small child. “There” is relative, but arriving there is inevitable. Living in the north like I do, I’m also thinking about the inevitable blizzards that will happen in the next few months. When a blizzard happens, I sit in my house, listening to the wind howl and I wonder, is it a blizzard? Is the blizzard here yet and will it get worse?

So, how does one know when recession, or a blizzard, is a certainty? The weather service defines a blizzard as sustained 35 mph winds which lead to blowing snow and cause visibilities of ¼ mile or less, lasting for at least 3 hours. As for a recession, the National Bureau of Economic Research defines recession as “a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales.” A simpler definition is that recession occurs when real gross domestic product (GDP) growth is negative for two or more consecutive quarters.

So, what is the significance of declaring a recession? Does it need to be made more real for the nearby real estate developer who lost his 70 partially finished houses to foreclosure? And what if the winter storm misses the mark of being a blizzard? Does it bring back the one who became stuck in wind-driven snow and lost her way and her life?

I can’t definitively define recession or blizzard, but like pornography, though I can’t define it, I recognize it when I see it. We are seeing increasing numbers of people coming into the libraries. Public computers are full and I’m hearing frequent complaints from people who have to wait to get on to access life-sustaining information (like jobs, unemployment benefits, etc.)

Last week I waived a fairly large overdue fine for a woman who was calling from a payphone (she doesn’t have a telephone) to plead her case that she and her partner were out of work and couldn’t afford the fine (the materials had been returned). She thanked me sincerely and promised that she would only check out a couple things and return them promptly. She was just happy to be able to get some books to read again, now that I had cleared her record. I hung up the phone and wept.

Dear Abby,

You called and asked if you could interview me for your Saint Catherine’s Library School assignment. Being asked for an interview is sort of like an invitation I received to speak at a 25th high school reunion in a school where I used to be a teacher. Not only are my students 25 years out of school, they’re inviting me back as an old teacher (do they expect me to use a walker?). Sort of makes me feel older than dirt – or at least an elder of the tribe. But anyway, I take my commitment to the future of our profession very seriously. So seriously, that while I readily gave you answers to your list of questions, after some thought I’d like to change (or at least re-arrange) my answer.

You asked, “What problems and challenges does [my] library system face?” Of course, my number one answer addressed not-enough-funding. I responded, “Demonstrated increasing service needs in absence of corresponding increasing funding.” Continuing, my answers 2, 3, and 4 respectively addressed delivering techy services simultaneously with traditional services, finding new ways to provide outreach services, and providing a diverse high quality collection. And my very last answer (#5) was, “Employing, inspiring, and equipping visionary, customer service-oriented library staff – both in leading current staff and hiring new staff.”

4 days after giving you that answer, I’d like to rearrange my responses and move #5 to #1. Yes, funding is important, but I propose that our greatest resource is our staff, and the care and feeding of staff resources is the job of the Director. Take care of the staff, and the staff will take care of the business.

Staff leadership is a daunting task. Modeling energy and enthusiasm is a real challenge some days. Sometimes you lead from the front, more often from alongside and occasionally from behind. Even terrific employees need continual nurturing through support and training to equip them to carry out ordinary tasks in extraordinary ways and inspire their visions of how to provide services better. And when people move on, the challenge of finding the right person to bring in a fresh perspective is too often not easy, but a real opportunity. We get many applicants, but many misunderstand or ignore the minimal requirements for the job. But at the end of the day, it’s a real reward to see the staff functioning as a team, in tune with the community and each other.

Funding problems will always be here (or at least they’ve been with us as long as I can remember). But I really believe that an efficiently staffed organization, maximizing the resources we have to provide the most appropriate services we can, is the best possible marketing tool to prove that we’re worthy of the funding we get — and hopefully to inspire the trust to continue to receive.

So, thanks for asking. It gave me a real opportunity to reflect and remember why I love this job. Good luck in your library career!


Having spent all day yesterday in the MLA MEMO legislative session planning forum, I found the Influencing Politicians blog post from the Changing Minds Blog right on. He says that politicians like things that make them look good — doesn’t everybody? Long ago, while working for the Air Force, a commander’s favorite line was “make me look good.” Great advice, and I’ve found it useful . . . concentrate on making my boss look good, whether that’s a middle-manager, a board of directors, or ultimately the stock holders or tax payers. Doesn’t matter as much how I look as how the boss and/or funders look.

Thanks to Stephen’s Lighthouse for pointing out ChangingMinds.org, which includes the Changing Minds Blog. Great common sense stuff, all pulled together in a neat package. Really useful index of topics on management, everything from job analysis to storytelling, two topics very close to my priority list lately.

Leaving with dignity

Most job training programs give lots of attention to getting a job — finding the right job, writing a resume, getting and succeeding at interviews, and negotiating terms of employment. No skills are offered in leaving a job. Yet, as surely as most workers have multiple jobs through their careers, they will leave just as many. I think that the indicators of character and professionalism in how someone leaves a job are just as valid as the person’s actions when newly hired.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this in the last year as I’ve changed jobs and several family members, friends, and professional colleagues have also left one job for another. I’ve had deep discussions with a number of people about leaving a job. The classiest exits I’ve seen are well-planned and executed. The leaving employees invest time and employ appropriate counsel in accepting a new job and planning their exit. They treat the losing employer with utmost regard in delivering a timely and respectful resignation notice. They treat the colleagues they are leaving and the time they spent working together with value and let them know it. (even when they don’t mean it)

On the other hand, I hate to see employees leave a business with a “stick it to ’em” philosophy. They wish their former employer no good will, and in truth hope they’ll fail. Why on earth would you want anywhere you worked to fail? I would hope that continued success for my former organization is due in some small part to residual effects of my contributions. Besides that, as I go on my merry way, part of my resume is my former employer, and I would want to continue to look good for having worked there. And as for my former colleagues, the good ones I’d like to hire or work with again. And as for the others, I don’t want them undermining my efforts.

The same goes for mutual decisions that an exit is best for the organization and the employee. Some relationships are just not a good fit. And even if it’s not a mutual wish, it’s going to happen. Get over it and take the high road. Make it look like it’s your idea. Keep the complements and thanks genuine and the complaints unspoken. Set the example and hopefully the employer will do the same.

Some employers have exit interviews. Someone asked me this year what they should say. I said, if I were them I’d say it was one of the best places I’d ever worked. They don’t really want to know the dirt, or the bad feelings you may harbor. You’re history from the day you hand over your resignation form or letter. Anything you say is only sour grapes. And remember, the hand that accepts your resignation and hears the exit interview gives your next and possibly several more recommendations. Remember the good things, and forget everything else as soon as possible.

No one can afford to burn bridges. If the next job doesn’t work out, and lots don’t, you’ll need your professional network to find the next next job, and the next next recommendation. And besides, who wants to hear all the negative baggage you’re carrying around. Reference the analogy of when you point an accusatory finger, there are 3 more pointing back at you. Bad-mouthing a past employer may raise questions about your ability to fit in. And most importantly, in almost all jobs, as a new employee you’re on probation for the first few months. Don’t suggest that you might have been the problem in the bad fit of your former job.

And what if you find out you’ve made a mistake? Well, reference paragraph 2 of this post about planning before the resignation letter is written. Once in another career I had an employee who wanted to rescind a resignation. After considerable deliberation at the management level, we discouraged the employee from staying. From the moment a resignation is offered, accepted, and announced, the organization is moving on. Management immediately takes action to offer other employees new opportunities afforded by the vacancy. Leaving a good job is a huge decision. I’ve experienced the 2:00 a.m. panic attack accompanied by a determination to sneak into the boss’s office and tear up my resignation. But that doesn’t work (at least it didn’t for me). Resigning is pretty permanent, and time to move on.

Why am I thinking so deeply about this tonight? Well, unless you’ve been under a rock in the last few days you know about the Green Bay Packer dilemma. Allegedly, the storied QB Brett Favre (in his words) “prematurely retired.” While he did it at a time of exhaustion and stress, he did it. His second thoughts are causing a huge chasm in the green and gold tundra and mortal pain in the hearts of us faithful followers. Will Number 4 play green and gold? Should he? Is his personal and the Packer management’s dilemma any different than any business?

Part of the process

I am ever so glad to add my congratulations to Pillsbury Baptist College, Crossroads College and SELCO/SELS on their Go-Live Day. See the SELCO/SELS website for the story and photos.

This project has been a long time in the making . . . perhaps longer than even I am aware of. Getting 2 academic libraries online is a pretty substantial task. Even getting to the point where they were ready was not an over-night process. Implementation of a collaborative automation project began with several visionaries.

About 8 years ago when I was working at SELCO, I got a call from the Dean at then Minnesota Bible College (MBC), now Crossroads College, inquiring about getting their library online with a larger entity. I met with the librarian Dr. Mahan about the possibility. Along with other staff colleagues, we talked about possibilities, and had another meeting with the college’s technology staff. Their network infrastructure could not handle the demands an integrated library system required. Furthermore, SELCO was then in the midst of selection and ultimate migration to a new library automation system. Certainly not a good time for anyone to think about such a formidable venture. And soon it appeared that the dreams for a connected college library were not going to happen when the college was sold.

Meanwhile, Pillsbury Baptist Bible College (PBBC) was also looking to enhance and expand library service to its students through joining the regional and state library catalog. With the leadership of new librarian and visionary, Nancy McGuire, this library also was preparing to join the broader library network. PBBC had the foresight to affiliate itself with OCLC and coordinate through MINITEX a barcode schema that would eventually readily integrate into the MnLINK network. When I first met Nancy at a SELS annual meeting, she shared her wishes for the library to be integrated into a larger network, although tempered her remarks with caution that the time was not yet right for such a big step.

Over the next few years, the lines of communication stayed open and librarians from both colleges participated in regional library events. The region supplemented their interlibrary loan service and the colleges and the region collected data to use to substantiate the benefits of network integration for both libraries.

I like the biblical term “in the fullness of time” which is particularly appropriate with these religious colleges. So, in the fullness of time everything came together that the college library catalogs would be incorporated into the regional catalog, and through that into the statewide MnLINK catalog.

Jim Godsey became the new Crossroads College librarian. Through his previous experience with consortial catalogs, Jim knew the benefits his students would receive, so he made the initial phone calls to meet with SELCO Executive Director Ann Hutton and me to get the ball rolling in the summer of 2006. I had also been talking with Nancy recently, and she too had indicated that PBBC was ready for the next step in library service.

So, we submitted a grant application in early 2007 to bring the 2 college libraries into the SELCO catalog. I, along with Nancy and Jim and everyone else who had been involved were elated when the project was approved. I was really pumped and looking forward to the next year’s hard work.

And then came another career opportunity. I agonized over the possibility of not personally seeing the project to completion. In the end, I knew the plan and structure of the project was laid and strong enough to carry it through successfully. And that’s where my part of the story ended, but all went off well!

I guess the point of all this reminiscence is that all my career efforts are links in something much bigger. While I don’t always feel that ideas are going anywhere quickly enough if at all, some projects need to percolate through time and often several vestiges of leadership. I can’t bring everything to fruition, but I am honored to be part of the process. And sometimes, life moves on and somebody else gets all the fun of accomplishment – and that’s good. A military NCO I once knew used to say “one monkey doesn’t stop the circus.” But the show indeed does go on.


Sometimes I have so much to do that I do nothing. I go over and over the list of must-dos in my head so many times that I panic when I forget one (or several). I have a knot in my stomach and succumb to the paralysis of panic.

A couple months ago I found the Prioritizer from the Idea Sandbox. It’s so elementary that it’s embarrassing I couldn’t come up with this on my own. I’ve been using it for a while now, and it results in a printable, manageable list.

I just had a phone call from a friend who’s been in similar straights. I had shared my secret prioritizer weapon with her about a week ago. She said she just didn’t know why I hadn’t blogged it. So, now I share it!

So, do I have it all together and prioritized now? Well, now I’m prioritizing all the lists I’ve printed out.

Idea Sandbox: Prioritizer

Open source – why?

Once upon a time technology was an awesome mystery and we were amazed just to watch what it did. We put those geeky gods who made it work on pedestals and carried their coffee. Technology made any job that involved keeping track of stuff easier.

Libraries were particularly thankful for automated procedures that tracked the hundreds of thousands of pieces of stuff that we entrusted on loan to thousands of people. We were so mystified by how it worked and thankful that it did that once we found a program and learned how to use it (another monumental task) we didn’t want to think about picking out something different or learning new tricks to use it. Besides that, librarians are by nature collectively a cautious bunch who don’t welcome a great deal of change.

So, a few vendors developed logistics type software to manage library materials and procedures and everyone was happy. The vendors didn’t do a lot of research and development and library systems didn’t change much.

During the next 20 years, technology changed the way we managed business and lived our lives. Since I’m a late arrival librarian, I wasn’t in libraries during the early technology implementations. I was involved in automating processes in several other businesses, also related to keeping track of and assigning accountability to things. I automated processes in hospital logistics and later on in grocery store sales operations. In both cases, the end results of the processes and procedures were not so different than libraries’ implementation of technology management systems.

While technology vendors in many areas have made refinement and development a priority and the systems in use now don’t look much like the early legacy systems, library automation systems have changed not so much. While most businesses do not tolerate clunky procedures or incomplete responses, the performance and results of library automation systems does not come close to other systems. Library automation systems cannot deliver the kind of interactive performance that is standard in most other industries. Furthermore, library automation vendors do not deliver the responsiveness in customer service that libraries need to remain viable in a competitive economy that sometimes marginalizes the value of library services.

There are reasons for library automation vendors’ failure to deliver desirable performance or service. First of all, I don’t think that libraries initially asked for a lot. Furthermore, with minimal profits to be made off from libraries, I don’t think that development of library systems was very lucrative for systems developers, and there wasn’t a lot of competition out there. Effective customer support doesn’t seem to be a priority and in recent years, company mergers have resulted in fewer viable choices for libraries to go where the service is better.

Enter the realm of open source options, where “they” becomes “us.” My library’s options for automation services do not have to be driven by what my vendor offers. There are choices my organization can make where we could potentially have more influence in the development of service-point utilities. And most importantly, there are other options for my organization to consider in deciding who would really understand and respect us as a customer for their services.

MINITEX is sponsoring workshops this month to allow libraries to look at open source options for integrated library systems. At the first session this week the room was packed with library managers and system administrators. The sizes and capacities of our organizations varied considerably, but we hold in common a desire for better systems and service than legacy library vendors provides.

My friend DL did an excellent job summarizing the first session on Koha, which means I don’t have to . In his summary, he discusses the question on whether buying open-source from a vendor isn’t just another vendor. Yes, it is, but with a difference that there is a different relationship with an open-source vendor. The underlying program is as open and available as we wish it to be, constrained only by our own limitations. Indeed, my systems geek has already downloaded his own copy of Koha to experiment with and learn from.

Will all of us who are educating ourselves through the open-source workshops rush out and implement a Koha or Evergreen based ILS? Most likely not. We have varying abilities and budgets. Some have the capacity to dive right in, others will build cooperatives, others will make a decision to remain status quo. But through our discussion, we’re becoming better informed and more discerning about the potential for library automation solutions to equip us to provide the most cost-effective and best possible customer service and access.

Another day in the life of a librarian

As I’ve said before, when something comes up twice in a short period of time, it’s appropriate to take notice of what the universe would like me to learn. Not sure what this one means, but it’s worth recording. This post also comes under the “never a typical day” category (wait, I don’t have that category — yet).

I’ve been here 8 months, and throughout this time we have not had enough technology staffing. There have been days when there are no scheduled technology staff and nothing has gone down (yeah!). In truth, I’ve been comforting that little worry in the back of my mind with the knowledge that I can hopefully handle anything, drawing on my past experience as an automation librarian.

So, last Friday when Pine City called and said their Internet was down and our PC guy was off, I looked around and discovered that the closest help at hand was at the end of my own arm. I hopped in the van and headed north and fairly quickly had them connecting to the Internet. I congratulated myself and was back in the office in just over an hour.

Today, when a similar help-desk call came in, this time from Wyoming, I had exactly the same help available (0). I was beginning to feel a little spooked. In my first 8 months I’ve not had any “Internet down” calls, and now I have 2 in less than a week. So, again I hop in the same van, head out on the same highway, but this time headed south. This time the problem was not so quickly apparent, but I wiggled and jiggled, and reset connections, and powered down and powered back up. And voila — all is well.

So, I’m feeling quite thankful that I’ve brought a wide range of experiences to draw on, and maybe the lesson of the universe is not to let any of my skills get rusty.

Oh yeah, the other part of this post is how atypical any day in this career field can be. While my raison d’etre is to provide leadership, I am often surprised by what I end up doing when I’m planning on doing something else. Besides being a de facto geek twice in the last week, on Saturday I got a crack at being the Bookmobile driver. What a gratifying experience — to bring the world of the library rolling down the street to a town full of waiting patrons. I wrote about this humbling experience on the library blog. And to memorialize that first Bookmobile trip – a photo:
Bookmobile in Onamia

Thank you Peace Officers

Today is Peace Officers’ Memorial Day as proclaimed by President George W. Bush*. May 11-17 is Police Week. 181 peace officers made the ultimate sacrifice in 2007, an increase of 20% over 2006 and one of the highest fatality figures in recent years.

Librarians are particularly thankful for the services provided by our local heroes. Because our business is to guarantee access and serve anyone who walks through the library doors, many of us have had the experience of feeling vulnerable or threatened at times. Standing instruction to all my library staff is . . . when in fear or doubt call the police. And they are always right there to stand between the library staff and possible danger.

Recently I had occasion to dial that police number when an individual was causing a problem outside the library’s front door and inhibiting entrances. It was a busy night for the city cops and evidently for the county deputies. Imagine my surprise when a Minnesota state trooper walked in to help us out. When I thanked him, he said they’re always ready to back each other up. Wow!

Thank you, Peace Officers from libraries.

Officer Down Memorial Page
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial

*authorized by a joint resolution approved October 1, 1962, as amended (76 Stat. 676), and by Public Law 103-322, as amended (36 U.S.C. 136-137)