Why Don’t We Cut Services?

Here’s something I don’t get about administrator-think.  When budgets are tight, they often look for ways to shrink budgets without  cutting services.

But really, we should cut services.

If the taxpayers are paying less, they should get less.

New York Public Library Central InformationLibraries need funding in order to provide all the wonderful things we do.  If we try to make the loss of funding painless for patrons, then it looks like the lower amount is all that we need. It puts us in a downward spiral of trying to do more with less, and ultimately providing poor service, and looking like we don’t know what we’re doing.

In order to advocate for libraries, we need to do our jobs well.  We need to create satisfied patrons.  There’s more to advocacy than just that of course, but the foundation of an argument for libraries is a valuable, valued service.  We need enough money and enough staff to make that happen.

It seems likely to me that the slow attrition of library jobs is a result of this desire to not cut services.

Please note that if there are efficiencies that can be found that would save the system money,we shouldn’t need to wait for a budget crisis to find them.  We should enact them.  We should respect taxpayers enough to give them full value for the dollar.

We should respect taxpayers enough to be transparent about what they get for their money.

I Used To Be a Teen Library Patron, Too

A week or so ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to this:

Lines from Shakespeare Mistaken for 1990s Hip Hop Lyrics

(It’s pretty funny, you should take a look).

Here’s what it made me think of:

I, myself, lived through the 1990s.  I was a teenager then, in fact.

In the suburbs in the early 90s, rap was still considered kind of a teen fad.  A lot of adults thought it wouldn’t last. Many adults also thought that it was “noisy” and “offensive.”

At that time, some librarian at my local public library put up a poster of Shakespeare, wearing those old school sunglasses (you know, the squarish Blues Brothers kind), with the caption “Shakespeare was the original rapper.”

As a young person, I was actually pretty into Shakespeare.  I did theater and had taken a few intensive summer classes at a local Shakespeare festival.  I knew and appreciated that he was brilliant, and his use of rhythm to signal meaning kinda blew my mind.

I thought that poster was the lamest thing I’d ever seen.

Today, as a librarian myself, I can appreciate where that poster-hanging librarian was coming from.  Teens can be inscrutable patrons, and the urge to find some way, any way, of relating to them is very strong.  Shakespeare may not have been the original rapper, but there are definitely some awesome connections between rap and his writing.

I always think of that poster when I work with, or for, teens at the library.

I think maybe the thing to remember, is to meet teens where they are, instead of where you want them to be. As patrons, teens deserve the library service they want, not the service we think they should have.  That means we should ask what they are interested in first, and let that drive purchasing and programming, rather than trying to pull them somewhere.

We don’t need to try to make Shakespeare cool.  Shakespeare is already cool.

We don’t need to try to be cool.  We can just be ourselves.  We’re already cool too.


The Digital Divide, Part 2 of 3: The Haves

Herein are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to libraries and computers and digital literacy.  Some of this series will probably be “late pass” territory, but I’m trying to sort out what’s on my mind, and what I’ve been reading and experiencing.

This is part two of three. You should read part one first.  You know, if you want to.

I read this opinion piece about The Philly Free Library not serving 21st century patrons.  The author has a lot of complaints which contain a kernel of truth, and a lot of misunderstanding.  For example:

In 2012, citizens want answers to their basic technology questions, not to be walked over to a book shelf to thumb through a 400-page book that is not even relevant because it was published in 2002; meanwhile, the patron’s 40 minutes of computer time ticks away at the library computer terminal.

A 400 page manual from 2002, no.  But a lot of people looking to improve their basic computer skills are more comfortable learning things via print, after all this is what they have done for the majority of their lives. This quote also illustrates an essential disconnect between providing reference (in which librarians are told to focus on instruction) and patron questions (in which a patron just wants an answer already). The author also says:

Instead of the library system hauling the majority of its materials across town from one branch to another, as is currently done (with gas at $4 per gallon), digitizing the library collection is eco-friendly, the wave of the future.

There are at least two problems with this, the first of course being a complete misunderstanding of the library’s ability to digitize it’s collection (in case you don’t know – 1. it would be illegal, due to that pesky little thing called copyright, to scan and make freely available most of a library’s collection.  Particularly a public library’s collection, which would not have a lot of older works that have passed into public domain. If you’re interested, look up the Google Book Search lawsuit to see what a morass this kind of thing is. And – 2. It takes a lot of time, money, fancy equipment, and staff time.  A LOT.  Really, really, a lot. Many libraries, being government funded, are running way under-staffed.  And of course have very tight budgets.  Even if we could legally do it, we couldn’t do it practically).

The second problem is these citizens who have the “basic technology questions” referred to in the first quote.  If a person doesn’t have the skills to use a mouse, how will they be able to use this digital collection?  Reducing access to a library’s physical books removes another basic life activity from people on the other side of the divide.

I think this article, with all it’s misunderstandings, does bring up some good points that many libraries struggle with:

  1. Outdated collections not only give patrons bad information, they really make libraries look like backwards institutions
  2. Libraries could do more to serve digital “haves,” they’d love access to a wider variety of software programs, better user interfaces (including mobile apps, etc.), and more digital content.
  3. Patrons really don’t understand what reference is.  We need to be better about providing service that satisfies both the patron’s question and the library’s mission to promote literacy skills.
  4. Patrons don’t understand what libraries and librarians do in general.  (At my last job, at a very special library, an employee from another department asked me “So what do you guys do here in the library?  Just kind of tidy up?”)
  5. Patrons view many of the restrictions placed on us (e.g. copyright, or limitations on ebooks) as our fault. These are seen as LIBRARY FAIL.

But the biggest misunderstanding in this article is misunderstanding what it means to be on the other side of the digital divide.  It’s not just “oh these people need someone to tell them once how to attach something to an email,” it’s that these people need comprehensive, intensive, and extensive HELP.  Maybe more than a library’s current staffing, materials, and infrastructure can provide.

The Digital Divide, Part 1 of 3: The Have Nots

Herein are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to libraries and computers and digital literacy.  Some of this series will probably be “late pass” territory, but I’m trying to sort out what’s on my mind, and what I’ve been reading and experiencing.

In library school, we talked about the Digital Divide.  This is what I got out of our discussions:

A certain percentage of people, both here in America and in developing countries, don’t have computers or the internet, so they are left out and behind. We need to give them computers and the internet, or make sure they can have them through the library, in order for them to have the same advantages and experiences the rest of society has.

– Me, in library school

But I think maybe the best way to understand what The Digital Divide really means, is to hang out in an urban public library.  Here are some of the people I’ve encountered over the past few months:

  • A 70 year old kindergarten teacher, still working, who was told to check her pension fund online.  She navigated through most of the webform in about 20 minutes, and then called me over when it asked for an email address.  She didn’t know what to put because she didn’t have one.
  • A man who came in looking for tax forms.  When I said “I’m sorry, we don’t have them – the government is moving everything online,” he replied, “I’m an 80 year old man, I’m not going to waste time learning how to use a computer.”  (We printed out some forms for him).
  • A woman who called me over because her computer wasn’t working.  It turns out she was clicking both sides of the mouse multiple times – the computer behaved normally when I suggested she just click the left side, and not more than twice in rapid succession.
  • A couple looking for a tenant on Craigslist called me over because after they clicked a link, they didn’t know how to navigate back to the original post.
  • A man trying to reply to a Craigslist ad for someone to help put Ikea furniture together.  When he clicked the reply-to address, outlook popped up.  He didn’t understand why it wouldn’t let him email. He did have a yahoo address, which he typed into the url field when I suggested he needed to go through his email account in the browser instead.  After we got to his inbox I said “Now just cut and paste the craigslist address”  He looked at me blankly.  So I walked him through how to cut and paste.
  • A man trying to format a Word resume for a custodial position, who didn’t know how to hit backspace to get rid of an unintentional carriage return, nor how to use the line spacing feature.
  • A woman trying to print out resumes for herself and her friend, who didn’t know how to use spell check.
  • A woman who was upset because our computer rearranged her list of documents, which she had painstakingly put in alphabetical order.  I showed her how to change the folder to list view and sort by name.  We then had a very long and frustrating discussion about the difference between doc and docx.

So you can see that it’s not just “oh, let’s give them access to a computer and they’ll figure it out.”  They won’t. It takes more than a one hour reservation on a public computer to gain these skills. And as more and more essential life activities move into the digital realm, the disadvantages of being on the wrong side of the divide get more and more serious.  You need to be computer savvy to do your taxes, to get a job (even if that job will never require you to use a computer), to find housing, and to get your benefits.

So now I would say:

The digital divide is not just “oh Suzy doesn’t have a home computer so she can’t go on Facebook to socialize with her friends/children/grandchildren.”  The digital divide is “Suzy doesn’t know how to use a mouse so Suzy can’t get a job.”

– Me, a year after graduating library school