Sunday, December 18, 2011

Stacking the Deck against the Stacks

Another terrifying story about the war on libraries, in this case The New York Public Library.  But the fight is the same as ours, on a much larger scale.

What we are told is that to continue to receive funding we must adapt our libraries to 21st century needs.  So what we do is make room for computers by getting rid of books.

We are told that eBooks are the future, and so we take gigantic leaps to pursue this unproven claim.  We take money from the book budget to fund eBooks.  But we can't afford the vast selection of eBooks the way we would fund a paper collection, so we only "purchase" the most popular titles.

"Purchase" does not mean we own the titles, however.  We pay per use; we never own a title the way we own a copy of A Bright and Shining Lie or Profiles in Courage or The Help.

Who make out with electronic media?  The media companies make out.  They do not have to provide physical material, they get to sell it over and over and over again.  How many times it is borrowed is limited by how much the library pays for it.  And once it is no longer popular, it gets deleted from the offerings to make "room" for more titles.

We are losing breadth and depth, whether we are the New York Public Library or the Charleston County Public Library, by selling our souls to the electronic age.

We could insist on keeping the reading rooms and collections we have.  We could apply for increased budgets for electronic resources, public computers and eBooks.  We can fight to maintain the size of the libraries and the library staff.

But we don't.

And as The Nation describes in the article about the NYPL, so many of the changes are done covertly, and the proposals talk about what we "need", and not about what we will lose.

And once it's gone, all we have left are a few more public computers and air.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Choosing to Pay

It occurred to me, as I was listening to the ongoing harangue by America's politicians, that this is an absurd debate that we are having.

We are able to keep taxes low by voting out of office anyone who suggests we might need to pay more for government services.

We don't get to vote for price increases for anything else.  Would you agree to pay more for, say, homeowner's insurance?  (The ever popular dumping ground of South Carolina was chosen to have a rate increase this year, my policy increasing by 18%!)  How about airfares -- how would you vote on doubling fares on the Sunday after Thanksgiving?  And don't forget the cost of food; would raising food costs get your vote?

Yet the service that has always given the most bang for the buck continues to get squeezed, to the point of failure.  Take schools, or the postal service.  And my own personal favorite, public libraries.

Why do we continue to think that we should get to vote down the cost of government services, while paying top dollar for everything else?

Let's take a look at this fallacy, and let's figure out a way to give it the fresh air it needs.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Other 99 Percent

This is not about the Occupy movement.  This is about statistics, a la Jon Kyle.

If you recall, Kyle made a stunning statistical assertion on the Senate floor:

When confronted about this grossly false statement, Kyle's spokesperson asserted that that "was not intended to be a factual statement."

I was reminded of this hilarity when our library director told a department heads' meeting that "99 percent of [this year's staff evaluations] were good and honest."  This after he had instructed all supervisors to lower all ratings.  Including ratings on promptness and attendance, which one would think could be quantified.

So I would like to caution all y'all about people throwing out numbers.  Most of the time they are totally full of shit.  The best calculations are rarely carved in stone; they are approximations and ranges.

When politicians and people in power throw out big percentages that happen to work in their favor, one can only assume they are lying.  The only sensible response to a statement like Kyle's is to answer in kind, as did Colbert on Twitter .

So to our library director, I would like to say,

Doug Henderson drinks a large vodka and chocolate sauce for breakfast each morning.  That is not intended to be a factual statement.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Overextending Babies and Libraries

Apparently, a sales team similar to the one that sold all the libraries in America on the need to install defibrillators in every branch has come up with another brilliant scheme.  It is called Babygarten.  Apparently it has been around for a couple of years.  It's the kind of deal that voters can't say no to, and that library administrators can force on a workforce that is already stretched too thin in the interest of good PR.

Not to be completely negative, there is a place for a program like Babygarten.  It is, apparently, an early learning program.  To be real, it is ridiculous.  It is smart marketing, is what it is.

Babygarten invites parents to come to the library with their "0 to 18 month old" and begin preliteracy training because it is "the emotional bond that is nurtured by a reading ritual".

In other words, it teaches parents to interact with their infants.

As a retired psychologist, I am suspect of "programs" that use big educational words and constructs (see, I just did it) to try to impress people.  Interacting with an infant does not necessarily come easy to a new parent.  But call it what it is:  it is teaching parents to look at, talk to, sing to, and touch their new baby.  If a parent does this from birth, that child will be likely to be more attentive, alert, content, and yeah, all those good things that are likely to make a child want to learn to read at an early age.

But not 0 to 18 months.

So why are libraries being reeled in like eager trout?

Because the government is scared.  We are begging our funding sources to please, please like us.  And we do that with children -- and the big library buzzword: programs.

And it works.  Tell the public you are going to increase children's anything in a library and they will love it, sight unseen.  Uncritically.

But the payback comes in the cost.  Staff is minimally trained and stretched even thinner.  Adult "programs" and materials, i.e. books, are cut to make room for more stuff for children.

This is what happens:

Our library director, who loves children, and all things children, has increased the purchasing of children's books, and decreased the purchasing in the adult collection.  This, despite the fact that circulating children's books now have to be "weeded" to make room for new children's books, far more than a good, growing library needs.  Ask the public, would you like more children's books in the library, and find one person who says no.

Additionally, because our director loves children so much, he has decided to drop fines on children's books on children's library cards.  Sound good?

Except that if you have an overdue children's book, you are no longer allowed to check out another children's book until that one is returned.

Oh, and it turns out that we now have experienced a precipitous drop in fine collection, for which our director has decided he will raise adult fines by $.05 up to $.20 per day.

Overextended?  Maybe, but don't you like us?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Libraries in America

I was moved by the essay in The Nation by William Scott about his experience in building and rebuilding the Occupy Wall Street Library.  In those words I read the struggle I am having with my own small job within what was once a wonderful and growing public library.

Our director blew in like a hurricane a year and a half ago, with a prestigious career (so he says) as director of the public library system in the wealthiest community in the country.  He is well read, not so much in literature and the sciences, but in library trends and innovations.  He is also a politician, and he has found, in our community, people who trust him.  With their library.

I am small potatoes in this job, a retired psychologist tickled to be working in a place where I can do good without having to battle big business (i.e. the health insurance industry).  Libraries have been my life, from my first library card at age 6, through volunteering in every library I could from junior high through college through my children's school years.

And now I am saddened to hear patrons with the same breath, tell me how much they love libraries, and how they remember their first librarian, and how wonderful it is that we are cutting costs with self-check-out.

Our director is bringing us into the 21st century, for better or worse.

So it was with less surprise and more the feeling of another shovelful tossed on the coffin that I learned that we are weeding our collection.  And not just weeding, but extreme weeding.  Because the consultants that were paid to come up with a five-year plan that pretty much endorses what our director has planned since he walked in the door, have said that our collection is too large.

They know because they used the scientific method.  They compared our library to libraries in neighboring states with neighboring demographics.  So, I guess libraries that are underfunded and facing severe budget cuts and have to prove that they are serious about cutting out "waste" in order to continue to get barely adequate funding.

What this means, and what our director is good at, is building up the programs that look wonderful to the public.  Programs is the catchword.  Children's programs is the winner.  Increasing the children's book collection while decreasing adult books, particularly the less popular non-fiction titles.  "Floating" our collection.  This means that books are not sent out to an owning branch, but all belong to the county library, and wherever a book is returned is where it stays until it is checked out again.  Or until it is thrown out to make space.

Because not all branches are the same.  We have small branches (that are called "large branches" much like Starbucks sizes its coffee), that should be made larger, as circulation has multiplied.  People tend to go to the larger regional branches where there is more selection to check books out, and return them to the smaller branch in their neighborhood.  And now that is where they stay.  So that we have, on our slower moving non-fiction shelves, three copies of a book, while we are throwing away a single copy of another because it hasn't circulated in a year.  Yes, one year.

So we are throwing out books. With abandon.  After several months of weeding like crazy, I read that the director has recently announced to his branch managers that he is now reading to really get to weeding.  I couldn't read another sentence.

Then I read this from William Scott's narrative:

Then at 7:30 pm on November 16, the People's Library
was again raided and thrown in the trash--this time by a
combination of police and Brookfield Properties'
sanitation team. The NYPD first barricaded the library
by lining up in front of it, forming an impenetrable
wall of cops. An officer then announced through a
bullhorn that we should come and collect our books, or
they would be confiscated and removed. Seconds later,
they began dumping books into trash bins that they had
wheeled into the park for that purpose. As they were
throwing out the books, a fellow OWS librarian asked
one of the NYPD patrolmen why they were doing this. His
answer: "I don't know."

At my library, I feel like that NYPD patrolmen who, when asked why he is dumping books from the People's Library, can only say, "I don't know."