Contact me

These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Nora Jones Cold Cold Heart

I haven't spent a lot of time with youtube, so am always surprised to discover how much remarkable music is available there. I have to say that Nora Jones singing "Cold, Cold Heart" (click on entry link to go there) is just about the best thing I've heard or seen. I love the bass, love her light, minimal, radiant and bluesy piano playing, and think her vocal phrasing is just about perfect. Wow.

Sarah Long podcast interview of Jamie LaRue

I'm heading off to the Chicago area tomorrow for a couple of professional engagements. One of them is a workshop for the North Suburban Library System. Sarah Long, executive director of NSLS, does a fascinating series of podcasts with library leaders around the country. (See Christine Hamilton-Pennell's interview elsewhere in this blog.) Probably to help promote the program, Sarah interviewed me recently. She's a deft interviewer, and listening to it, I wish I'd relaxed enough to enjoy it more. (I laugh more in person.) She's easy to talk to, though.

Overall, this is a good introduction to my notion of a "pyramid model of library development." I've got a graphic of that here. To listen to the podcast, click on the title of this entry -- and check out her many other interviews.

I'm also looking forward to meeting some of the other presenters in the program (entitled "Embracing Change: Transforming Libraries & Communities Symposium"): Queens Library Director Tom Galante; Marylaine Block, author of The Thriving Library: Successful Strategies for Challenging Times; and Pam Sandlian Smith, formerly of the West Palm Beach Library, FL, and now my neighbor in Adams County, Colorado.

And of course, I'll have to make a few pilgrimages to Lake Michigan -- a touchstone for me.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Advising library schools

Yesterday, I met with the intriguingly named "One Heartbeat from the Top" group (assistant directors of public libraries in Colorado) who initiated meetings with the deans of library schools serving Colorado. (OK: they got the name from the title of a gag newsletter I wrote some 24 years ago with Bill Erbes, when both of us were Assistant Directors in Illinois. True fact: we sent it out to a variety of leading library lights at the time, and the only person who signed up for our subscription offer was Michael Gorman. Bless him.)

First up in our Colorado interviews yeterday was Dr. Gwen Alexander, Dean of the School of Library and Information Science in Emporia, Kansas. The local coordinator is the very bright and articulate Kelly Visnak.

Next was Dr. Mary Stansbury, Program Chair of the University of Denver school of library and information science.

Today, I attended the Front Range Public Library Directors meeting, where Dr. Alexander again made a presentation.

It's worth recording the recommendations from the field about what we really want from library schools. Here are the two biggies:

  • Children's librarians. Too many schools discourage students from pursuing children's librarianship. It doesn't have enough status, or doesn't earn enough money, or somehow doesn't seem cool or high-tech enough. But my colleagues and I have learned that children's librarianship is among the most crucial positions we have. We desperately need master storytellers, with a deep knowledge of children's literature, possessing a familiarity with the latest knowledge about brain development and early literacy. That's a track of library school study. Public libraries have many roles, but it all starts with inculcating the love of reading. I also made this point: children's librarianship is a terrific beginning for librarians interested in moving up. Compelling storytelling is the essence of leadership. You may quote me.

  • Public administration. "Management" or "supervision" doesn't quite capture it. We need a track for the thoughtful exposure to public finance (where the money comes from, how to calculate it, how to read a balance sheet, how to build a budget), public policy development and documentation, personnel structure and management philosophies, approaches to public input, the importance of data-driven decision-making, measurement that matters, project management, meeting facilitation whether in-house or serving as neutral moderator for external groups.

Other comments were made: the importance of merchandising, family literacy (particularly among many immigrant groups), and technology instruction.

Dr. Alexander faces some challenges, based as she is in Emporia and running truly international programs. Dr. Stansbury has leveraged her advantage of being local, and has made impressive strides in getting local players involved.

There are things library leaders can and should to do help library schools turn out graduates we can use:

  • Volunteer to guest lecture in classes.

  • Volunteer to plug students into a practicum or shadowing opportunity.

  • Provide scholarships for staff to attend library school.

  • Serve on advisory committees -- improving curricula, fundraising, etc.

  • Give in-house library students a chance to apply their studies to the organization.

  • Hire new graduates!

We all agreed on this: the MLS (Master's of Library Science) probably means that you will be called upon to assume some kind of leadership role in today's library.

I noted with some amusement that both Associate Director and Directors wanted library schools to give us emotionally intelligent, mature, skilled communicators. But of course, all of us have hired plenty of people who weren't and aren't -- and that can hardly be the fault of library schools, now can it?

The good news: we should be talking, regularly, with library schools. The bad news: library school is expensive, library pay is often too low, and our list of needs is disturbingly open-ended.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Trustee talks to library school

In library school, I never had the chance to hear about the library world from the Trustee perspective. Last night, one of our two new Trustees, Ms. Demetria Heath, accompanied me to a DU library class (Professional Principles & Ethics, taught by Dr. Mary Stansbury). She described, from her perspective, what it was like to submit a "request for reconsideration" of a book she objected to a couple of years ago. I've written about that incident, as has Ms. Heath.

I think Ms. Heath provided the students with something quite extraordinary: a view from the outside of the profession, a real-life example of a critic who is both insightful and eminently rational -- and is also willing to assume a governance role when called on. She also provided a fascinating follow-up to our encounter: the publisher actually changed the content of the book, perhaps based on my communication of Ms. Heath's concern.

I followed this up with the only example -- after receiving over 200 challenges over the years -- of a book I did in fact remove after a complaint. Then we had a lively discussion: why did I resist Ms. Heath's complaint, and grant the request of another patron? Had I committed an act of censorship?

This kind of real world situation -- dealing with complaints, learning to listen to critics and take action -- is vital training for people who really want to be librarians. And it was fun, too -- for all of us, I think.

A last observation: Ms. Heath's complaint, the complaint that caused me to remove a book, and in fact, many of the complaints I receive, were all about fairy tales. Isn't that interesting? Fantasy is more real than reality. It reveals reality, making plain what might otherwise have remained hidden.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Best use of librarians

Our library is one of many struggling to define the best use of professional training and skills.

On the one hand, the longstanding division between circulation and reference is broken. Self-check means that attended checkout stations (at least one-staff-to-a-patron) don't make a lot of sense anymore. The old circ system didn't scale very well.

So self-check liberated circulation clerks to become a new class of library worker: the skilled paraprofessional. Their work builds on customer service skills, adds merchandising skills, tosses some database, reader's advisory and lower-level reference knowledge, and puts them out on the floor.

Patrons do need help from time to time, and there are several ways to give it. The best is the just in time staff intervention: "You look puzzled. How can I help?" The next best is easy access -- staff in the stacks, on the floor, easily identifiable and approachable.

The one most libraries have pinned our service on is the Desk: a place where librarians and other staff congregate, manage the folks standing in line, and sort through a host of different levels of requests for assistance.

I believe in a more integrated service delivery than we have used recently. That is, yes, we probably still need some counters and computers for patron and staff to huddle around (although these items don't need to be nearly as large or as expensive as we are wont to purchase). And I'm perfectly comfortable having a team of paraprofessionals and librarians: each one cross-trained to at least some extent, and each prepared to hand off functions to each other as need be.

But if librarians (folks with an MLS, and making more money than parapros, typically) wind up working mostly on the many circulation issues that are likely to hit the Desk, then, as I said to one of my managers recently, we've missed the boat. We're not making the highest and best use of the people with specialized training.

That's one of the things that drove the separation of functions originally, I suspect. And I'm not arguing for two big Desks, when a smattering of smaller ones might be better.

But I think at least two things have to happen to manage this intellectual asset of the trained librarian well.

First is a "greeter" position: someone who oversees an entry area and does brief triage. Are you just browsing? Have at it! Looking to pick up a hold -- right this way! Have a circ problem? I can help. Have a big question? Let me walk you to a reference librarian. (This position doesn't require a separate job description; either paraprofessional or librarian could handle it as a rotating position through the day.)

This way, many people would be escorted or directed to the right person, and so be served more efficiently.

Second is scheduling. Maybe the reference librarian is indeed thrown into the mix of a service desk. But surely, the expectation of how that person uses her time in the day is a little different than that of the parapro.

Our aim, as a profession, should not be to remove reference librarians from public contact altogether. I've written elsewhere about what I think librarians ought to be doing in addition to in-house work. But I don't believe that any of us, in the post self-check-world, has quite figured out how to ensure that librarians spend most of their time doing work that justifies their pay, that actually requires the additional schooling of the degree. There is certainly enough, important work for them to be doing. But I'm not sure I've got my head around how best to accomplish that.

My staff -- particularly at the branch manager level -- has been thinking about that alot, and may have something to teach me about it. Right now, though, I can mostly think of how to recognize a failure in a new model. I don't yet know how to recognize success.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Board of Trustees

I'll be honest. I haven't always been a good director. And I haven't always been working for a good board.

But right now, I am very much aware that I am working with a board that is in a kind of Golden Age. Every one of them is articulate, dedicated, thoughtful, and politically astute.

That's an extraordinary gift. Tonight, one of my board members spoke to the importance of self-assessment: we have to do this when things are good, he said, in case we need it when things are not so good.

That strikes me as wise. Boards are best when they closely monitor their own performance. Directors are best when they do the same.

And all of us are well-advised to cherish those wonderful moments when things are going right.

Ellen Shroeder Mackey: "Libraries far from dead"

Ellen Mackey, who works for the Highlands Ranch Library in Douglas County, is one of the Denver Post's "Colorado Voices" columnists. See her marvelous piece, published yesterday -- click on the title of this entry.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Percentage of collection checked out

When we opened our "Neighborhood Library" concept (first at Roxborough, then at Lone Tree), one of our measures of success was that 50% of the collection would be checked out. Last week, at Lone Tree, we actually hit 60% (Lone Tree has some advantages over Roxborough -- bigger population, all on the first floor).

Rochelle Logan posted a question on libnet asking if anybody else uses this measure. I tried to post a similar question on the Urban Libraries Council email list.

Until somebody tells me otherwise, I have to say that we are the first library I've heard of to have over half of its collection in the hands of the public (and not stolen!).

The success of this approach depends on many factors: the advance selection and ordering of our selectors and aquisitions people, the processing prowess of our technical services department, the merchandising and handselling expertise of our paraprofessionals and librarians, and the assistance in the design of our spaces by talented interior design and other creative people.

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone else that has tried to use this measure.

Incidentally, our bigger libraries, with a greater depth of collection, don't come close to this level of use. Our regional libraries are more in the 35-40% range. But even that is higher than many, I believe.

What's normal? 25%?

I do know this: getting that kind of use frees up more space for even more popular materials. I also know that it still doesn't solve our space needs in Douglas County.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sarah Long interviews Christine Hamilton Pennell

Sarah Long, director of the North Suburban Library System in Illinois, does regular podcasts with library people. Click the header of this entry to go to her interview with Christine Hamilton Pennell. Christine is a longtime Colorado librarian, now a business entrepreneur (see www.growinglocaleconomies.com)-- helping other small businesses gear up, do competitive business research, and encouraging libraries to engage in "economic gardening." We're working with Christine at Douglas County Libraries.

Monday, April 14, 2008

First Douglas County Youth Congress

Last Saturday I gathered with some 45 teenagers, and a bunch of elected officials, for the first Youth Congress, organized mainly by Carla Turner, of the Douglas County Youth Initiative. (I serve on their advisory board.) The point was to help teenagers begin to understand, and influence, public policy around some of the issues that affect them, such as the use of tobacco, status offenses (where the only crime is doing something as a minor), graffiti, behavior during the hours of 3-6 p.m., and something else that escapes me.

We had a good turnout of elected officials: all three county commissioners, a couple of state representatives, the sheriff, and a couple of town council people from Parker.

I had four final observations:

1. These kids are bright. Most people are.

2. We, the adults, should have spent more time listening to them, and less time talking at them.

3. I was confirmed in my notion that most kinds of problem solving meetings -- which is most of the meetings in the adult world -- follow a predictable "arc." Describe the problem; brainstorm solutions; narrow solutions; set out some next steps. Teaching that, modeling that, for kids, is a good idea. It's an efficient and respectful use of people's time -- and leverages the collective intelligence of multiple perspectives and insights.

4. I think the right answer to most teen issues is closer integration into our shared community. Library idea: maybe all our public computing stations should be overseen by teens.

Next year, I think we should start not with an elected official panel, but with a teen panel. What are the problems THEY think matter?

Deep ancestry

I've been reading Deep ancestry: inside the Genographic Project: the landmark DNA quest to decipher our distant past, by Spencer Wells. Published by National Geographic, Washington, D.C., 2006.

DNA sequencing earned a Nobel Prize as recently as 2000. This is a new field of research.

First was the discovery of mitochondrial DNA, passed from mother to daughter. In 1987, Newsweek carried the report of the research identifying "Eve." The geographic source of the mitochondrial DNA was Africa. And Eve was surprisingly young -- lines from her diverged between 200,000 and 170,000 years ago. For awhile, it was believed that Eve might have lived in Asia. But in 2000, research nailed it down: Eve was definitely from Africa (south or east central).

The Y-chromosome, passed from father to son, for a long time was more difficult to track. It wasn't until new sequencing techniques came along that variances in the male genome could be better tracked. And here was the second surprise: our oldest common male ancestor, from whom all other men come, appeared 60,000 years ago (also African, probably from somewhere close to modern day Ethiopia).

As the author asked, so what was Eve doing from 170,000 to 60,000? Just waiting for a date?

Answer: there is "variance in reproductive success." It was an early human sexual practice that while most women reproduced, many men did not. Back then, the men likeliest to reproduce were the chief, tribal boss, or traveling conqueror. Today, of course, we have evolved: you have to be a cult leader or rock star.

All told, the history of mankind -- all variance in skin color, skull shape, culture and technology -- comes from just 2,000 generations of human history.

Sometime this year, I'm going to scrape the inside of my cheek and send it off for analysis. There's a family rumor that we have Indian ancestry; here's how we find out.

For more information on this most fascinating history of the migration of our species, our one, big, unified human family, see here, or click the title of this entry. To order the DNA analysis kit ($99.95, anonymous), follow the links to Your Genetic Journey.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The cold comforts of philosophy

I had a stimulating talk with my daughter, Maddy, today. She is studying philosophy, and right now, the class is looking at "arguments for God." She has been reading Thomas Aquinas, and then Bertrand Russell. I went back and read Russell's 1927 lecture, "Why I am Not A Christian."

I was a philosophy major myself, and I recommend it. There are many fields that endeavor to teach one what to do, or how to do it, or when. But philosophy tries to tell you why.

I enjoyed listening to Maddy's reactions. She described the various Middle Age theologians' attempts to prove God by reason as "cute" and "adorable." Not, I think, "persuasive."

Russell writes, "We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face." On occasion, this provides cold comfort. But comfort may not be the point of life.

I have a horror of deceiving myself. I'm grateful for iconoclasts like Russell, who keep shining lights into the darkness.

Linux Mint

I subscribe to Linux Format (thanks to my wife!) -- the premier Linux magazine, produced in Great Britain. The most recent issue included a DVD of Linux Mint. Linux Mint is a "distribution," originally based on Ubuntu, but with a lot of elegant little tweaks that try to make it a little more cutting edge, and at the same time, more user friendly, especially in the area of media. The current version, that I'm using as I write this, is "Daryna." (The names move up the letters of the alphabet.)

The disc is a Live DVD, which means I can play with it without having to install it -- making sure that it works with my hardware, and seeing if it's better than PCLinuxOS.

The first test of any distribution for me, at home, is to see if it will detect my encrypted wireless network, then let me log into it. Linux Mint did, through the nice little network application on the bottom panel.

My next test is to set the screen to the right video resolution. Linux Mint actually set mine high -- but it wasn't difficult to roll it back to the 1280X1024 that looks best on my LCD monitor.

My next test is to see if it will let me watch the video trailers at www.apple.com/trailers. Linux Mint did not do that -- largely because of the United States' patent restriction on the various video codecs. It isn't hard to install them from Linux Mint, though -- but you have to install the distro to your hard drive first.

The same is true for the next test: installation of the Nvidia graphics driver that allows the cool "Compiz" effects -- eye candy like drop shadows, spinning cubes, wobbly windows, and other gee whiz screen effects. In Linux Mint, like Ubuntu, you use a program called Envy to install the enhanced video driver -- but it failed. I assume that it, too, waits until I've installed the distribution on my hard drive.

The other distinguishing characteristic of Linux Mint is that everything is on the bottom panel, even though it uses the Gnome desktop generally. It also uses a version of (I think) the SUSE menu system, in which everything is navigated from one spot, instead of the three Gnome menus. Mint, by default, only offers one window, too. The effect, I'm sure, is to make it feel a lot more like Windows, only prettier, and more stable.

I did find one oddity: the Google search bar in Firefox doesn't work. No biggie.

Ultimately, though, I'm not sure that I see a compelling advantage to replacing PCLOS. I've customized my PCLOS setup so it suits me, and find the change of pace about right. But it's good to see what the competition is up to. Linux Mint has been moving steadily up the DistroWatch rankings. I can see why.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Talk to Aurora Police Department Leadership Forum

Today I gave one of my favorite talks -- about generations -- at the invitation of Chief Oates of the Aurora Police Department. My handout (an earlier version of it, anyhow) can be found here.

At first blush, there doesn't appear to be much similarity between police and libraries. Our cultures are very different. But I discovered several areas of common ground.

We are both public institutions, and since the 1960s, all public institutions have been under attack, under relentless disparagement, largely by members of the Boomer generation. Schools feel it, some libraries feel it. The police feel it. I once had a conversation with a banker who went on at some length about all that the private sector has done for the improvement of life. Much of this is true. But I told him, "on 9/11, there weren't a lot of stockbrokers and fund managers running up stairs to save people's lives."

I mean, let's face it. There is quite as much corruption in the private sector as the public. (Contrariwise, there are quite as many honorable people in both.) It may be worth thinking about this: when you tear down every public entity as a matter of course, without thinking, don't be surprised if good people (your children?) may not want to work for the public sector.

Who benefits from that?

And yet there are people in the police department who disparage the state; people in the state who disparage public education; people in public education who disparage libraries; people in libraries who undercut all of the above.

People! We are on the same side: the side of institutions funded by the general public to perform important, even vital tasks that the private sector disdains to touch. Why are we creating an environment in which it will be more difficult for all of us to do our jobs?

We have shared issues of recruitment. (Coincidence?) At least in Aurora, not as many people are responding to job postings for officer positions as have applied in the past. The problem: recruiters try to recruit the way they wish they'd been (or were) recruited. But different generations have different motives.

Here's an interesting tidbit. The all-volunteer military seems to hitting its quotas. Who hasn't been to see a movie in the past couple of months? And who, in the theater, hasn't seen at least one ad for the military?

I'm guessing it works like this. You hire an ad agency to produce a recruitment video. One of them shows a single person climbing a mountain. An Army of One.

One of them shows a group of young people, side by side with other young people, using high tech equipment to help people in trouble.

Then you watch the nearby recruitment stations to see which ads generate the most recruits. That's the one you distribute to more theaters.

It's called market research. Police departments don't do it. Neither do libraries.

According to my generational analysis, the second of the two ads should be more effective, if the target is Millenials -- kids who know how to collaborate, live in the high tech world, and want to do good.

We have shared issues of training. Does anyone believe that Boomers learn the same way as Gen-Xers, or Millenials? Yet innovation in the training department is about as common as in recruitment. (Although I would exempt the training department of my library, which is right on top of things.)

We have shared issues of hiring. We still, all too often, rely on people's description of their abilities, instead of their demonstration of those abilities.

We have shared issues of accountability. It's easy to let in the wrong person. It is very hard, and often very expensive, either to carry them, OR to get rid of them. I'm guessing, of course, that this particular problem is just as prevalent in the private sector.

In sum, I greatly appreciated the opportunity to give the long version of this talk (an hour and half, pushing two, with questions). And I salute my comrades in the police department.

My main lesson for the day is this: for several decades now, our society has been deliberately pulling apart every public institution we've got. It just might be time to start building them up again, thoughtfully, with an eye to the future.

I bet we'll need them.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Lance Index

In my 2008 self-evaluation, I informed my bosses, the Board of Trustees, that:

1. Our library district, by several key measures, is not just among the best in the nation, but is truly world class. Those measures include:

  • staff per 1,000 served

  • total expenditures per capita

  • library visits per capita

  • circulation per capita

  • program attendance per capita.

Some of those measures are inputs; others are outputs. Some measures that I think are important (use of public computers or databases, percentage of households per capita) are not included at all -- mainly because they are not uniformly reported. But according to Dr. Keith Curry Lance (until his retirement, director of the Library Research Service, a department of the Colorado State Library), the five statistics are highly correlated for success. That is, just these five measures predict how public libraries perform, no matter their size. I call it the Lance Index.

I took this idea to OCLC, who ran a version of the measures against international public libraries (if memory serves, they substituted one measure: "staff per 10,000 served"). They concluded that the measures are indeed predictors of library performance, all around the world. The best performing public libraries, incidentally, are in the United States, Finland, and Denmark. Again, DCL is a word class library -- in at least the top five percent globally. That's the good news.

2. Here's the bad news. As of 2008, Douglas County's libraries are getting worse. Essential to library performance is sufficient space to house materials and programs. For the past 18 years, we've done a superb job of keeping up with population growth: we've shot for, and maintained, half-a-square-foot per capita. This year, after last year's election loss, we've fallen below that.

So I'm thinking, a lot, about how to respond to that. The choices seem to be:

1. Get worse. Oh well!

2. Do everything possible to live within existing income, but still do the capital expansion that's required.

3. Take it back to the voters again.

# 1 isn't acceptable to me.

# 2 -- we've spent the last two years doing just that: tightening our belts, completely reinventing our processes to allow us to keep up with our astonishing growth in demand. Our work here has been impressive. Over the past two years, we kept up with roughly 20% growth in circulation per year with almost no increase in staff. It's not enough to free up the money we need.

# 3 -- that's where I am. But clearly, I'm not the one who has to be convinced.

Last year, we lost by 210 votes -- out of over 42,000 cast. But only 34% of our voters actually mailed in their ballots. Where there was a higher percentage of turnout, we won.

In 2008, we can expect close to 90% or greater turnout. Is that enough?

No. I've learned that elections are complicated things. Have I (and others) learned enough to secure the longterm viability of the institution I serve? Can, in fact, the case be made that a modest tax increase for the public library is not just tolerable, but a very smart investment, even in tough economic times?

Isn't that an excellent question?

Blogspot releases newspaper column blog

Back on March 22, 2008, my attempt to create a blogspot blog of my newspaper columns was automatically tagged as spam. Today, April 10, it has at last been reviewed and made available.

I've decided, though, that it probably makes more sense to allow my columns to be archived on the Douglas County Libraries website. (Yesterday, I created a link to that, as well as back to my website, from this blog.) So, for now, I'll just let the jaslaruecolumns.blogspot.com hang around. I may change my mind later, after all.

But I'll put a link there to the Douglas County Libraries columns -- which may well change when our new website rolls out in a few weeks.

Bobble head Jamie

Paulette Murphy swung by yesterday to take a picture of me for something the Chamber of Commerce sponsors, the Front Range Showcase. She wanted to make a bobble head doll poster of a bunch of people in town. She told me to slap my fedora on my head and step out into the light. I did. The picture can be found by clicking on the title of this entry. I may or may not keep it as a web page image. And it's a shame that it doesn't actually bobble. But the link should work.

Colorado authors speaking at libraries

Libnet had a great link today from Alice Kober of the Arapahoe Library District. She wrote:

"With summer reading coming up, I know many libraries are interested in having authors come and speak.

"Colorado author Beth Groundwater wrote an interesting article for the Colorado Independent Publishers Association about how authors can connect with Colorado libraries. It discusses author events currently being held that could give other districts ideas about planning their own events.

"The title of the article is "Authors, Speak at Colorado Libraries!". It's on page 6 of this PDF file:
cipabooks.com/archives/2007-2008/April%20Sign.web.pdf

"The Book Organizations of Colorado's website for author contacts now lists over 300 Colorado authors willing to speak at libraries. The link is:
www.coloradobook.org/booc_authorspeaker.htm

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Bill Knott, retiring

This is strangely difficult for me. Bill Knott has been, for the past 35 years or so, the director of the Jefferson County Public Library System. Bill is canny and astute. He is the only person I know who could make a county library perform like a library district. County libraries, in Colorado, are deeply flawed. That Jeffco did so well is a testament to Bill -- an absolute triumph over the system.

When I dig into library statistics, I find that Jeffco's library has done, for decades, something altogether noteworthy: generate statistics that are not only consistently above average, but are remarkably stable. My own library's stats graph like roller coasters. Jeffco's hit a plateau, and maintain it. That's Bill -- a mind that groks logistics, a man who knows how to organize complex systems to deliver services that hit the mark.

I count Bill as a friend, a thoughtful and probing mind. The hard part is imagining a library environment that doesn't include him.

I know that this is the beginning of a wave: the Boomers stepping down from their leadership positions. I suppose my inchoate sorrow is in part about the awareness that one day, I too must step down. We have the privilege of leading public institutions, but they don't belong to us.

Jeffco citizens have much to be grateful for. Bill gave them an enormously competent and capable library. Acting Director Marcellus Turner is also a fine mind, spirit, and frankly, an administrative savant.

But boy, Bill set the bar of library leadership pretty high. He's a tough act to follow. I look forward to some beer and Irish whiskey with him. I suspect I have a lot to learn from him, still. And I'll miss him at library doings.

Cherokee Ranch

Douglas County has a castle. Once occupied by the uniquely named Tweet Kimball (a formidable and quirky presence, general's daughter, Churchill admirer, cattle baroness, et cetera), since her death it has become a kind of arts and culture museum (with occasional live performances of both theater and music).

Among the castle's many treasures are the most extraordinary view in Douglas County and a library that boasts a Shakespeare folio. I knew Tweet, and remember being shown to her library. The folio was next to a Reader's Digest condensed book. And there was some kind of little dog that had a tendency to lift its leg against volumes on the lowest shelf.

Things are better now.

I met today with several good folks from Cherokee Ranch. They're looking for a way to expose more people to their treasures. Their notion was to develop some kind of programming that highlighted Tweet's many first editions, and educated the public about both Cherokee Ranch and the value of preservation. It seemed a good partnership with the library.

So we spent some time outlining what a book lover event might look like at the library, and I think came up with something quite wonderful. More to follow, after analysis.

In keeping with my previous post, however, it's worth noting that it's always hard to add something to the plate. But this one directly addresses a major focus of our patrons: they want author events, they want experiences with literature.

I believe that one of the trends of 21st century library is the partnership of public library and museum. We both have a lot to learn from each other.

Talking to library school students

Last night, some of my colleagues (Eloise May from the Arapahoe Library District, Shirley Amore from Denver Public, Paula Miller from Pikes Peak Library District, Pam Smith from Rangeview, and Marcellus Turner [Deputy Director of Jefferson County Public Library System]) talked to a class of University of Denver Master's of Library and Information Science students.

We were given some questions ahead of time:
1. Describe the major initiatives going on at your district.
2. What skill sets do you think will be in the highest demand in the next few years at your library?
3. What technical skills do you think all librarians should have?
4. Name the three biggest areas of change that will impact libraries in the next five years.
5. Describe the role you see librarians playing versus paraprofessionals in your district and how these roles may change in the future.

In fact, the student hosts held it to just #1, 2, and 5, or we'd still be talking. They were good questions.

Here's the good news: all of the public library people talked about a host of new projects. We will definitely need librarians. Moreover, all of us are doing interesting things, from partnerships and community outreach to building new buildings.

Another point worth noting: there's a lot of mutual respect and affection among Colorado public library directors. We learn from each other.

We began to wonder if this would be a good topic for this year's Colorado Association of Libraries conference. It's certainly a smart recruitment opportunity for us.

But I've decided that although I'm happy to sit in on somebody else's session, my professional plate -- defined here as the initiating and organizing side of things -- is close to full. I won't be filling out the program request myself.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Hiring right

I was chatting with one of my associate directors today and decided that maybe the single most important thing we do in the library is: hiring.

Like many libraries, we spend a lot of time and money on orientation of employees, providing supervisory training, providing thoughtful workshops to improve skills, and regular and thorough employee assessment.

And we do hire many, many wonderful people who are more than qualified for their jobs.

But we also, like every other organization I know of, sometimes hire the wrong people. Then we spend a great deal of time tiptoeing around the issue, throwing good money after bad.

Even if we do succeed in finally dislodging the wrong person from a supervisory spot, it really doesn't solve very much if we turn right around and hire someone else who is also a bad fit.

The best hiring mechanism I've ever found is the assessment center, and in particular, the leaderless discussion group. It puts candidates in a spot where they must demonstrate the skill essential to successful supervision: communication. That means the ability to speak clearly, to listen, to summarize, to read and send appropriate body language, to participate in and manage group dynamics. Without those, I submit that a supervisor cannot succeed.

And yet, we don't do this for all supervisory positions, just for manager positions. This may be a case of coming to grips with the obvious, but maybe I really do need to mandate a hiring process that strikes at the fundamental issue of all personnel related matters: who we hire.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Great music

Eliza Lynn singing "Sing a new song." Wow. Not only do I love this woman's style, I want to play piano like that.

And the Puppini Sisters, singing "Jilted." Post-modern Pointer Sisters, with wicked lyrics.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Authors @ DCL - Jason Gray and Allan Harris


Today, we (also) taped a session with Jason Gray (owner of the Crowfoot Coffee Shop) and Allan Harris (a financial analyst for Wells Fargo at his day job, but hard working author, too) about their book, And We Fished Some More. (Jason is on the left, Allan on the right.)

This first collaboration between the two is mostly based on stories from Jason's life. It's a mix of short stories, recipes, and tips on throwing a good dinner party. It's also about the relationship between Jason and his father -- a story not of victimhood, but gratitude. It's the sort of thing that makes you realize the challenge, not to mention awesome responsibility, of libraries. We assign a call number and subject heading -- in this case, 799.1, and "Fishing -- Alaska -- anecdotes." But it could have gone in the cooking section, too. But because I bet we were first to catalog it, we set the bibliographic record for the world.

Just for fun, I had Jason read one of his recipes as if it were a poem. (It kind of looks like one on the page.) That clipping might well wind up on Youtube -- the folks at DC8 are eager to put up these snippets of authors reading their works. (This is also true for Liz Holzemer.) I like that: a good way to create a digital archive of Colorado authors.

But I got Jason and Allan talking about their collaboration. "And We Fished Some More" was just their first book. They've clearly matured in their partnership, and are tackling far more complex works. For tips on how to team up with somebody, and how to self-publish through a web-service (lulu.com), watch for this one.

Author @ DCL - Liz Holzemer


Today was a DC8 TV taping day: two interviews back to back. First up was Liz Holzemer, author of the book Curveball: When Life Throws You a Brain Tumor. Her story is a frightening one. While still in her early 30's, Liz was diagnosed with a meningioma -- a benign brain tumor roughly the size of a baseball. Allegedly rare, this kind of tumor was experienced by three people in her Douglas County neighborhood!

But Liz is so bubbly, so upbeat, so funny, that the tale of her not one but two brain surgeries, and her eventual reclaiming of her life, almost comes as no surprise. She's a survivor.

It takes a month or two before the episode will be edited and aired. But Liz is a hoot. After the interview, I asked her what her next book was. "SCREWball!" she laughed.

You'll find a lot of good information at the site she established to help others deal with tumors: meningiomamommas.org. She describes the site like this: "A unique 24/7 online resource and virtual second family offering support, comfort, friendship and laughter. Committed to finding a cure and proves it by raising meningioma-specific research funding every year."

PLA 2008 review

I attended several sessions:

  • Trading Spaces: Everyday Transformations to Maintain Merchandising Momentum @ Your Library. Well done -- good, practical tips that demonstrated to me just how intelligent librarians can be if the objective is to move materials.

  • Making Libraries Stronger: Public Library Contributions to Local Economic Development. Much good information was presented. But here's one of the things that bothered me. An economic development speaker invited us all to move to Minneapolis, where times are good. Later, in discussions with staff of the former Minneapolis Public Library (now merged to, or acquired by, the Hennepin County Library) it seems a round of layoffs is in the air. Good times? Amy Ryan, director of Hennepin, spoke of the now seamless connection between city and public resources. I wish her well; but I also wish she had spoken more candidly about the real difficulties of combining different types of libraries, with different histories and cultures. The purpose of these conferences, it seems to me, is to tell the unvarnished truth about what we've learned and are learning. That means we have to talk about the tough stuff, too.

  • Evaluating the Library Director. I presented with my counterpart Eloise May, and two Trustees (Howard Rothman from Arapahoe Library District, and Mark Weston from Douglas County Libraries). And kudos to my co-presenters: we did NOT shy away from telling the audience (of mostly other Board members) about the mistakes we'd all made over the years, and what we'd learned from them. The link to our PowerPoint is here.

  • Great Libraries for Dummies! Richmond, BC seems to me one of the best examples of 21st century librarianship. I was pulled away from the session by a conference call, and was sorry. The one thing that I don't see them addressing: responding to community needs OUTSIDE the library. That's a significant gap.

  • Dangerous Ideas: What if libraries.... I mostly breezed through this one. There's a wiki, if you're curious about some post-conference follow-up. whatiflibs.wetpaint.com One of the questions that stays with me was "What if we didn't make decisions based on fear or scarcity?" I still see a lot of that in librarianship; it's a box we put ourselves in.

  • Mission Impossible--Build Your Own ILS. Here's the third leg of 21st century librarianship, I think. (Where the three key trends are internal merchandising, community reference, and the collaborative development and sharing of the tools of our trade.) Again, these were good enough presentations, but I wish someone had done this kind of a review: here's what (so far) is better than the ILS we left, in real, practical terms. Here's what (so far) is kind of a problem.

  • First Impressions Last! Simple Branding and PR Tips for Libraries. Delivered by three of our own crackerjack staff (Katie Klossner, Susan O'Brien, and Aspen Walker), I thought this session was terrific: funny, well-paced, and packed with content. Aspen has a blog that captures it all.

Beyond that, a lot of talking to colleagues, a few passes through the exhibits (a lot of smart folks at LibLime), and a lot of walking in the altogether beguiling and walkable downtown Minneapolis. Light rail to the airport is $1.50, by the way, and much more interesting than a $26 taxi ride.

I go to conferences for several reasons: to present, to scout for new talent, and, with luck, to come back with something I can use to improve our services. To be honest, I'm also looking to grade my own library: where does it fall on the Bell Curve? Right now, we're still ahead of the pack. But that's not the sort of thing to get complacent about.

P.S. I forgot to record another session I attended: Kim Dority's "Building Your Resilient Career - Agile, Opportunistic, and Sustaining." Kim is a delight, too -- someone who passionately articulates the value of librarianship, in all kinds of non-librarian settings. I could tell that the avid crowd carefully attended her every word. I like Kim's message of adaptability, courage, and the willingness to learn.