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!