Perception is Reality

I attended the Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources presentation by Cathy DeRosa today. My colleague, Mary Beth, did an excellent job of summarizing Cathy’s remarks. I won’t rehash them – go on over to Newlyminted Librarian if you wish (the link will open a new window. Read NML and come right on back).

I’ll add a few more thoughts – MB captured Cathy’s opening questions. One of them was, if you had $$$ what would you spend it on, content or service? Interestingly, many librarians would put $$$ in content, but it appears that information consumers would prefer to have service. A library director just the other day told me proudly how her library had recently (when faced with a budget cut), cut library hours and staff, but increased the materials budget. This flies in the face of the study.

I suspect that this response may be skewed by the focus or mission of the library in question. A popular, browsing collection probably would better benefit from best sellers bought in multiple quantities. However, decreasing hours and staff would hamper service to customers who are coming to the library for help in finding information.

Customer service is the value-added aspect of libraries that gives us our niche market. No one else does that for the citizens of our community. When someone wants to find XXX and even Google can’t help, who ya gonna call? Not ghostbusters – but your library! Customer service is what makes libraries the education utility of the culture.

But we’re still faced with what all those people surveyed in the OCLC report think of libraries. My gut tells me that the report is pretty much on target with what most people think of libraries, and their perception is reality. Cathy quoted words like “sacred” and “the library of my childhood”, and we all cringed. Houses of worship are not too full (except on high holy days) and childhood lives only in memory. This does not bode well for support that will equip an alive, essential library.

How to change perception? Tonight I reach to grasp the perception defined in the report. Maybe after understanding how libraries are viewed, we can begin to edit the photo.

Depends on how you look at it

Reading my newspaper this morning, I was excited to see the headline . . . “Borrowing increases for college students.” As a librarian (and parent), I’m thrilled that all these college students are going to the library, and checking more books out. Turns out, those college students are “borrowing” more $$$.

Readers of the Lost Art

What a privilege I had today! Plainview High School was a national award winner in the Scholastic Book Fair contest – for the 2nd year in a row. The Scholastic Book Fair regional manager came to present a huge banner. The kids were there and some of their parents came too! The media specialist, Mike Cabaya, and the assistant, Deb Delgado, are very special people who make the library media center a fun place to be. The kids’ crew even had a name. First it was “The Library Club”, but creative bunch they are, they named themselves “Readers of the Lost Art.”

I was humbled to be able to bring congratulations from the region. I told them they are special, and then I told them how special their community is. Their small school maintains a certified library media specialist in each of their 2 library media centers. Their town has a most excellent public library. They are truly blessed.

After the short program, a young lady named Sasha came to tell me how much she agreed with my remarks. She is a foreign exchange student from Russia, and she related how much she appreciated the libraries in Plainview – both the school and the public library. She told me how she had been a little fearful of what she’d find in such a small town as Plainview, but how much she liked it there, due in no small part to the libraries.

Kudos to “Readers of the Lost Art” – you will make a real mark on our world, wherever you go!

What are you reading?

A recent commercial playing on television extols going to a vacation spot where you can read anything you want and not be embarrassed. Isn’t it too bad that we live in a culture that is so driven that some would view reading something light or recreational as a waste of time?

I think librarians are the worst. A few months ago, we started a meeting of the public library directors going around the room sharing what we were reading. This was done by way of introduction to the new SELCO Community Information Librarian. I was amazed at how many people apologetically said they were reading a fiction book. It seems to me that in the stressful world of being a library director, it would be admirable to demonstrate the sheer joy of the literature we collect.

I, on the other hand, have limited ability to read fiction (I have to work on that). I truly enjoy reading non-fiction, self-help, or management-related books. Tomorrow I am giving a book-review at the Harmony Public Library “tea time”. Being quite sure that no one would want to hear about my current reading project (Drucker’s Managing the Non-Profit Organization) I have been gulping down Grogan’s Marley and Me. Not a bad read! It reminds me of a couple furry friends that live in my house.

Organizational structure

When I came to this organization, my biggest bafflement was the organizational governance structure. Heck, I couldn’t even keep the meetings straight, which drove the Executive Director crazy (she probably wandered what kind of imbecile she had hired). There was the full Board, then the Executive Committee, which was not quite the full Board, but seemed at some times to have a lot more influence. Then there were lots of committees, both advisory committees (either bi-monthly or quarterly) and then other committees that just popped up on my schedule on an erratic schedule. And the prime puzzlement was that some people showed up at multiple meetings, while others came only to one kind of meeting and I guess would never come to some other meeting because that’s not their area of involvement. Even my staff colleagues confused me . . . “you should care about that, but that doesn’t involve you.” Whew!

I made a chart, and slowly got them in order in my mind. By the way, I’ve seen the same thing happen to everyone we’ve hired, and I’ve shared my chart with all of them. Even with the chart, it takes a loooooooong time to keep it all in order.

Part of my frustration with the governance-thing was that this was a whole new world for me. Having worked for Defense Department linked organizations for a large part of my adult life I was used to the chain of command structure, and was comfortable with it. There was a well-defined order. Someone was in charge. Sure, there would be committees, and we would discuss and advise. And we would always come to a decision, which would be in line with the position of appropriate rank (who was usually part of the process) to make the decided action happen, including making sure resources were appropriated. Some other person or group didn’t come back and question the decision, or possibly even create such a controversy that the decision was reconsidered, amended or possibly downright overthrown. And no one ever reached back into history to assess blame to a decided course of action that was jointly made and executed.

I understand our structure now, and I live with it. I even have come to believe in a representative governing structure that shares decision-making power. But I don’t think I’ll ever understand the propensity of fear that rears its ugly head all too often and manifests itself in the paralytic desire to second-guess, rehash, or analyze a proposed course of action to death and even more bewildering, to condemn past decisions and committees who made them.

I think it is important for everyone in a decision making position for a collaborative organizations, like ours, to keep in mind foremost the big picture. What is best for most is almost always best for all. If something hurts even one member, it is important to re-analyze and consider an alternative action. A proposed decision that expends a great amount of regional resources and benefits very few should be approached cautiously. And everyone should use the utmost diplomacy in controversial debate, and possibly agree to disagree – or even to support a conclusion that may benefit others far more than themselves.

Who’s in charge of education?

In the past couple years the hot new service for public libraries has been to provide homework help centers. More recently, I’m seeing news releases of libraries providing to their communities. Today it was the St. Paul Public Library announcing the service.

Though I laud the public libraries for stepping up to fill this need, I am finding this disturbing – on a multiple of levels.

I am disturbed that families are unwilling, unable, or possibly just plain abdicating their role to provide help with homework. Working with children on their schoolwork is a bonding experience for parents. It also keeps them in tune with what their children are learning and who they are becoming.

I am disturbed that schools are making assignments for which the school does not provide resources. When children need resources, parents either bring or send them to the public library both physically and virtually, where there is not necessarily a person helping them who is knowledgeable in school curriculum. Alarmingly, that help is then coming from a distance contract service over the Internet. Ironically, that is the same Internet where we tell children to assume an attitude of wariness and distrust.

I am concerned that public libraries are unilaterally assuming a responsibility for which they are not wholly qualified and that should be shared with other partners in the community. I hope that we as communities will seek to build local partnerships that include the K-12 educational system, academic institutions that may be in the community, businesses, and the public library with its cradle to grave responsibility.

The possibilities of that group working together are truly exciting. Instead of just the disembodied online help, we could collectively work to establish a system that could give our kids real human contact that cares about their success and walks with them through the educational process.

Should books have ratings?

A book loving acquaintance bought the book “Brokeback Mountain”. She says that she’d rather read a book-turned-movie before she sees the movie than after she sees it. I agree with her. With the many award nominations for the movie, she intended to see the movie.

Trouble was, she did not know anything about the movie, nor did she read the subject headings, where she would have read the subject “homosexuality.” She was genuinely shocked by the book, and took it back to Barnes and Noble for a refund.

I asked her if her reaction would have been the same if she’d seen the movie. She said no, because she would have seen the ratings and expected it.

I wonder what would happen if libraries put ratings stickers on books like they do at the movies.

Lunch surprise

My mother would say, “what a lovely lady.” And she was. But Mother (independent German stock that she is) would also say “what a lotta nerve she has”. And she does. But all in all, it was a refreshing chance encounter in an otherwise dull, grey day.

I went to the mall to get a book for my lover’s Valentine gift. Then I went to Café Court, bought a sandwich, sat down, and was about to have lunch with Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Heaven knows, at over 700 pages, I won’t get a chance at reading it for a while.

But there she was, as I looked up from the book, held far to the left of where I was munching on my dripping chopped steak sandwich. Didn’t really want to drip lettuce or onions on a gift book before it was even presented. Yes, there she was, holding her tray, smiling at me and asking if she could join me.

The tables were not crowded, less than half occupied on this Tuesday noon. I really don’t know why she asked, nor why I said yes, but she didn’t look crazy, or like she would try to save my soul, or anything threatening in this wide-open public space. So, she sat down and we chatted. I must admit, I enjoyed my lunch with this senior, mall-walking dynamo, who dropped into my life. We exchanged first names and other life facts like that she’s a retired nurse from Methodist Hospital. We talked about books and our children, especially her daughter who was killed by a drunk driver.

Then we flew off our separate ways as we bid mutual good wishes for a good day. I know mine was immeasurably better for having spent less than a half hour together. I hope hers was too.

The Librarian

When I worked for the Air Force, the director of the base library was known as the Base Librarian, not the library director, or director of the library (somewhat passive titles – where the position seems to modify the institution). When the Minnesota State Librarian was hired, she re-claimed that unique title that had been lost with the annihilation of the Minnesota State Library.

I like this acclamation – that there is a person in charge of all those things associated with the collective knowledge of the community the library serves. Sort of like the “Sheriff” of a county – not the director of the sheriff’s department, but the “Sheriff”. All the law enforcement personnel who support the work of that department are known as “deputies”.

So, let’s have the “city librarian” — a position to take their place with other important utilities, like superintendent of public works, fire marshal, chief of police, or city attorney.