40s at Work

Here is a transaction that happens at work that I like.

Patron: How many books can I check out?

Me: 40

Patron [ka-thunk jaw-drop]: 40?!

I want to say,

Yes my dear, the library is your oyster

I want to say,

And you only have 90 seconds! No bags or carts!  Go!

But I don’t generally say either of those.

Sometimes the patron says,

Who on earth would read 40 books!

I want to say,

You’re obviously not part of the club, ma’am.

Sometimes I say,

Imagine you have four small children and they each want ten picture books.

And sometimes I say,

Some people are really voracious readers.

And here’s the thing,

Go ahead.  Check out 40 books.  Just read the first page of each.  That’s only 40 pages.  Or don’t even crack them open.  Just lovingly stroke the covers, with your clean hands.  Put them under your pillow to see if osmosis works. Give yourself the luxury of 40 books, just for a few weeks.  You might like it.

I love giving people the possibility of 40 books.  40 books is a lot!

One time after I told a patron she could have 40 books, she said,

Has it always been 40 books? I feel like I didn’t get that many when I was a kid.

So I told her,

Sometimes I say,

You can have 40 books.

And Mom says,

You can have 2 books.

Sometimes Mom is the strictest librarian of all.

Woman with book and palm tree

**At the other library I work at, you can have unlimited books. But somehow it’s seldom as exciting as 40.

I’m in Your Library, Hugging Your Books

So the post I wrote (about being able to understand why the director of the Urbana library might have made her fateful decision) was recently maligned, misunderstood, and groused about on a FriendFeed discussion.

Among other criticisms, it was surmised that I might be

one of those who regards some librarians as ‘bookhuggers’ because they haven’t moved past those obsolete objects.


I might consider myself a bookhugger.  I love books.  Even though I’ve been reading almost exclusively eBooks for over two years, I continue to somehow acquire paper books and my personal library is overflowing.  Literally.  My bookshelves cannot contain the bounty. A month or so ago, I finally brought myself to get rid of about 15% of my physical collection – mostly things I already had an e-copy of, or that I knew were available virtually.  My husband, misty-eyed, told me he was proud of me.  Even with this culling, I’ve still got towers of books tucked away in various corners of our tiny apartment.  And aren’t I lucky that eBooks take up so little space!  No one ever need know what I’m hoarding digitally.

Here’s how I think about library books though, and this is probably kind of silly (another recent critique of my writing.  Guilty as charged).  Books in the library are like animals on the farm.  They may be cute and cuddly, but you still have to be able to dispatch them in order to make a living.  Books in the library need to work, or they need to go.

Books are the heart of the library.  They aren’t obsolete, they are the number one thing patrons associate with us.  And as such, librarians need to make sure they shine.  Collections need to be useful and interesting for their communities.  And the nonfiction books need to contain recent and accurate information.

Another thing I was criticized for, was for saying 10 years is old for a book.  I’ve been thinking about it, and I stand by what I said.  10 years is old.  Again, I don’t mean that all books older than ten are useless and outdated.  And I don’t mean that getting rid of all the books older than ten is a good way to start weeding.  It’s not. However, I do think you could look at a collection where 50-75% of the books are ten years old and say “this collection is old.”  I gave some reasons why in that post about the Urbana debacle.**

I did a cursory search in LISTA to see if any studies on collection age have been published.  Only one popped out, which had at least a few statistics on age:

Colom, H. M. (2010). Juvenile Science Nonfiction: A Comparison of the Collections of a Rural, a Suburban, and an Urban Public Library.Current Studies In Librarianship30(1/2), 79-94.

The researcher compares Juvenile science collections (500s) in an urban, suburban, and rural library.  Colom found that in the rural library, 42.19% of this section was 10 years or older, in the suburban library 44.9% of this section was 10 years or older, and in the urban library only 36% were ten years or older.  You can’t conclusively extrapolate anything for adult nonfiction collections from this single statistic from a single study of three juvenile science collections, but here at least is an example of collection age, which shows that in the same section of three different libraries 50-75% (ok, 57.81-64%) of books are less than ten years old.***

I’d be interested in looking at the ages of other collections, to see what an “old” collection really looks like.

Even though we make weeding decisions on a case by case basis, librarians should also be able to make generalizations about the state of their collections.  Being able to look at the big picture, can help librarians create vibrant collections, by having a vision for future selection and weeding.

You know, when they’re not busy hugging books.

in ur library, huggin ur bukz

**Here’s another thing I’m basing that reasoning on.  The CREW method is a pretty well respected and widely used set of weeding guidelines.  It provides rules of thumb for weeding the Dewey classes.  The criteria include copyright date, circulation figures, and characteristics of the book itself.  Here is an example of how the guidelines are formatted, and what they mean:

“8/3/MUSTIE” means: “Consider a book in this class for discard when its latest copyright is more than eight (8) years ago; and/or, when its last circulation or in-house use was more than three (3) years ago; and/or, when it possesses one or more of the MUSTIE factors… If any one of the three parts of the formula is not applicable to a specific subject, the category is filled with an “X”

You can take a look at the whole thing here. The Guidelines by class start on page 61, and there is an overview chart on page 105.  Here are the only classes where copyright date is not applicable (X), or where a copyright date longer than 10 years is listed:

101 (Philosophy) – 15 years, 398 (Folklore) – X, 550 (Earth Sciences) – X, 629 (Automobile Repair) – X, 709 (Art History) – X, 720 (Architecture) – X, 740 (Drawing and Decorative Arts) – X, 800 (Literature) – X, 920 (Biography) – X

*** This is a math trick.  Or maybe an optimist’s trick.  Because of course, saying 50% of a collection is less that 10 years old is the same thing as saying 50% of a collection is more than 10 years old.  

Another Library Scandal: They’ve Thrown Out All the Preciouses

Here’s some recent library scandal: Deb Lissak, the director of the Urbana public library, created a list of all the adult non-fiction books, sorted it by publication date, and asked 12 new part time employees to pull and discard all of the titles that were ten years or older.  This happened while the person in charge of the collection was out of the country.

Then someone who writes for a local online magazine noticed what was happening and was  outraged.  She stated that 50 or possibly even 75% of the collection was being removed.  Thousands of books were being discarded!  As fervor grew, various steps were taken to stop this from happening and punish the director.  A petition was even started on change.org to “Hold a public forum and make Lissak explain her decisions.”

There is a lot of very detailed information about this available online, most at the original article here.  People are outraged.  People are *appalled.*

I am not.

Here’s why: ten years is old.  Think about what the world was like ten years ago.  We had never had an African American President.  We had only just begun our war with Iraq.  Know any 8 year olds?  They weren’t born yet.  Pluto was still a planet.  Facebook wasn’t yet a twinkle in Zuckerberg’s eye, and you could not have Tweeted about this.  You most likely would not have had a smart phone anyway.  What were you wearing ten years ago?  Would you care to see it featured in a style book?  Here’s a scary one: would you like to take ten year old advice on how to manage your HIV?  How about ten year old recommendations on how to get a new job?

Sure there are ten year old books that are still relevant.  Poetry, Shakespeare, art books, etc. etc.  And there are books that are more than ten years old that would be important to a community, such as a collection of essays by city founders. I would not suggest that a library get rid of all books that are more than ten years old.  But I don’t think it’s an appalling thing to suggest.  Just a little short-sighted.

Here’s another thing: books wear out.  Say a book was checked out once a month for ten years.  That’s 120 uses!  At one point in time, eBook publishers tried to suggest that 27 uses was the lifespan of a library book.  It’s not, but even if we double that, that’s much fewer than 120.  It is wishful thinking to assume that your books would go out once a month for ten years though.  Say they went out once a month for two years, then every other month for two years, then twice a year thereafter.  That’s 24+12+(2*6) or 48 uses.  That is still a well-used book.  That is a book that’s tumbled around in 48 backpacks, maybe been taken into a few steamy bathrooms, and probably had a little chocolate wiped somewhere.  That might be a book with still some use in it, but it also might be a worn out book.

Here’s the final reason I’m not appalled.  I can see how this decision was made.  The 12 new employees had been hired to do RFID tagging, a process where weeding (discarding) beforehand is highly recommended. They had started, but the tags and training were not in place for them to do the work they were hired to do.  So the director had 12 staff people she needed to find work for.

Staff are at a premium in libraries.  There are not enough people to do the work.  A surfeit of employee time needs to be utilized, in the most cost-effective way possible.  Many people who are upset about what happened are decrying the waste of taxpayers’ money.  But staff also cost taxpayers money.  In fact, staff cost taxpayers more money than books.  I can see that this project might sound like a good use of extra employees.

The fact that 50-75% of the collection was more than ten years old seems to indicate that not enough weeding had been happening.  Now, some librarians are hoarders. Serious book hoarders.  I have no idea if this librarian was, but I can also see how there might have been some temptation to get in there and clean up while she was out of town.

So I can see how this decision might have been made, and I’m not appalled by it.

It was not a good decision.  The director’s plan should have been rethought, and reworked.  She should have looked at circulation statistics as well.  She should have put processes in place to catch the valuable and irreplaceable items. She should not have tried to apply a one-size-fits-all criteria to the collection.

But I can’t see vilifying her for making this decision.  It probably sounded like a good idea at the time.

Miss Grace Sutherland


Passive Programs and Other Experiential Library Doings

In the books I loved to read as a kid, libraries are crazy old buildings full of secrets.  The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn sends Anthony Monday all over the library, following obscure clues to uncover something of great wealth.  I vividly remember the scene from Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario where Eugene Winkleman visits the Rochester Public Library and the children’s librarian tells him there is a secret room – which he must find for himself.

I think that it’s important that libraries find lots of different ways to interact with patrons.  Not only because our new post 2.0 world is participatory, but because it is important that libraries nurture discovery.  As I talked about here, the library allows us to conduct intellectual experiments.  The value of libraries is firmly rooted in self-directed learning and enjoyment.  To underscore that value, we need to keep patrons engaged, puzzled, and on their toes.**

Below is a round-up of a few of the passive programs and experiential stations I’ve set up in the past few months:

The Ball of String

 Started this size:
ball of string
And has grown to this size:

The Ball of String idea is lifted from AnyThink libraries.  AnyThink is doing some really innovative stuff!  They were a community where only 10% of people had library cards, and 63% were under 45 years old.  Part of their recipe for rejuvenating their relationship with the community was shifting to a more experiential model of library service.  There’s a good article about AnyThink here. I learned about their “experience zones” via Stacie Ledden in the ALATT FB group – one was simply a ball of string.

The Mystery Mystery

This was inspired by the “Blind Date with a Book” displays that were happening in libraries on Valentine’s day.  So far we’ve had five.  There is not currently a kid one, and the adult one has sat around for a while since we moved it off the main circ desk.  Our library uses Encore, and I tag the books in the catalog. 

Lucky Pick

After seeing the Mystery, Mystery, one of our 12 year old regular patrons had the idea to “take two books and package them together, and patrons don’t know which one they are getting.”  We have done 23 Lucky Picks.  Most of them were chosen by me, with the exception of the current ones, which were chosen by the patron and include picture books as well as chapter books (he chose one of the picture books because it was the first book he ever read at our library).  Circulation has also slowed down after moving them to the shelves from the circ desk.  At another branch in the system, the branch manager had the idea to wrap the lucky picks in some gift wrap she had.  Those seem to be moving quicker – everyone loves presents.

The Craft Station

One comment we recently received was the suggestion to “make an area for 8-12 year olds.”  The craft station provides more for this age to do in the library. We’ve gone through three crafts – a paper plate clover was up for a week, a paper plate Easter basket was up for two weeks, and a (non-paper plate) Garden craft just went up for April.  We now also have crayons and coloring sheets out on this station.  The coloring has been used, I’m not sure if the crafts have been done other than when the facilitator of one of our crafts programs didn’t show up.  The April craft may be more countable, as there is a place for the finished craft to be displayed in the library.

The Viewfinder Station

This is also less quantifiable.  I watched kids be amazed and delighted by the viewfinder, and some of them did write down what they saw on the sheet – “rockets” and “izrael.”

Type-spiration Station for Poetry Month

This will be up for April, so we’ll see how it went at the end of the month.  So far we’ve had one kid type away and then ask “hey, how do you print this out?”

Your Library Fortune


Reader’s advisory, 3rd grade style.  Fortunes are:

  • You will read a mystery
  • You will read a book with a red cover
  • There will be a talking animal in the book
  • Call number 821
  • Librarian’s choice
  • Author’s first name will be Jane
  • The title of your book will start with S
  • Something historical or hysterical

Pope Shelf


Books about the conclave, biographies of former popes, and the opportunity to make your own origami pope hat.

Book Crush
Book Crush
More 3rd grade style interaction. Are you a secret admirer of a book? Send it a valentine. Your crush responds on Facebook.

For example:

A sweet tale of requited love: Our director writes, “Dear Gone With the Wind, I’ve loved you since high school and will love you forever.” Our hearts are aflutter because Gone With the Wind has “always felt the same way!”


Someone wrote “Dear Raskolnikov we are so alike ♥ Let’s go on a date?” Unfortunately, Crime and Punishment was on the holdshelf, so Raskolnikov is waiting for some one else.

**Librarians might wish to think of patrons as cats, as depicted in this Monty Python Sketch.

The Mystery of the Mystery Mystery

I as said in my last post about pushing books, I hate to be told what to read. This is not just due to my own obstinance, its also on account of, I’m fussy. I get in the mood for a certain kind of book, or a certain author, and that is the only thing I want to read. I accept no substitutes. I particularly like to discover an author that suits my tastes, greedily devour their whole catalog, and then mopily do research until I find a new writer and can feed my gluttony for reading all over again.

Which is why I don’t get why people would ever want to check out a surprise book.

Blind date with a hot read

Back around Valentine’s Day, libraries were doing this display gimmick called “Blind Date with a Hot Read.” This is a photo of one I did for one of the libraries where I work. Someone actually requested, via Twitter, that we do this! (Ours was a little unusual in that we made it easy on patrons and put the books in bags, so if you wanted to cheat and check out what your date looked like before taking it home, you could.) I can’t believe these displays worked! All over the country, people were checking out and taking home books, with no idea what they were.

So when I started at another library in late February, a library where the branch manager and I were heavily concentrating on devising ways to get the kids to at least browse the chapter books, I decided to see if this principle could be expanded, and created the Mystery Mystery. It’s just as it sounds. I wrapped a mystery in brown paper, drew a few question marks on the front, and waited to see if patrons would take home a book that they knew nothing about, other than the fact that it was a mystery. And they did! There was often much debate, but kids took a chance on the book. The one for adults met a similar reception (I did put a little note on the cover which said something like “best for ages 8-12” or “best for adults”).

mystery mystery

One of our 12 year old patrons saw the display and came up to me with his own suggestions. He said “why don’t you take two books and package them together, and then people don’t know which one they’ll get.” So I made it for him.

Asanti's Lucky Pick

In Asanti’s Lucky Pick, patrons can see a sign with the covers of each book. They know they will get one of the two, but the books are wrapped so they don’t know which one. This one seems to move even faster than the Mystery Mystery or the Blind Date books.

As foreign as it is to me, people actually seem to enjoy a little intrigue at the library. They like a little risk with their reading.