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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Evolution versus JPilot

Evolution is a Linux-based alternative to Outlook. It's an email client, a contact manager, and a calendar. It looks good, bristles with features, I have wanted to use it for years. The reason I can't is that it persists in having troubles syncing with my Palm.

I tried again today, and at first, all appeared to be working well. But then I found the old problem: when I would sync, my tasks started duplicating. First a couple, then a couple more, then a couple more. If there was a pattern, I couldn't find it. Finally, pfagh, I just restored from JPilot (I'd done a complete back up before my experiments).

JPilot doesn't integrate particularly well with email. But here's what it does do: work. It never destroys data. It never wigs out. Why Evolution can't get this right I do not understand.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Garnet VM on Nokia N800

Access Company just released an updated virtual machine for the Palm. It's very cool: still free (so far!) it reorients and expands the font size to the screen like a Palm, and I was able to copy over some of my applications (BrainForest and ShadowPlan), which work quite well. It also adds in the To Do application, missing in the previous version.

From:
http://www.access-company.com/products/gvm/

In short, Loki (my N800) could also be a Palm. Issues:

* I haven't tried to get it to sync, although some have reported success with it. I've been copying over the files from a sync to Linux's JPilot (in /home/user/.jpilot/).

* battery life just isn't as good as the Palm.

* it doesn't really integrate. That is, I don't think you can copy and paste from other apps into the virtual machine.

Note: to get the hotsync ID in the virtual machine, you need to use the following command from Xterminal:

/usr/bin/gvm/gvm --hotsyncid="Sync Name"

Pam Nissler

"Now I know that I have a heart -- because I can feel it breaking." - the Tin Man

Today I announced to Douglas County Libraries' staff and libnet (a Colorado library listserv) that one of the most extraordinary librarians and administrators I have ever worked with or known is retiring.

Pam Nissler was the director of the Bemis Public Library in Littleton, the first manager of the Koelbel Library (of the Arapahoe Library District), the manager of the new 42,000 square foot Highlands Ranch Library (in the Douglas County Libraries' district), and our first Associate Director of Community Services. She also has held many other significant leadership positions in Colorado.

When she told me she was retiring my heart almost stopped. I thought, "Irreplaceable." I have relied more than I can say on her wise counsel. Pam is more experienced than I am. She is a better supervisor than I am. She is more attentive to trends than I am. She is, I suspect, a better person than I am.

I console myself with this: no one is irreplaceable. Not me. Not Pam. But I can't imagine that anybody could be as good as she is.

I've known lots of wonderful librarians. I have never known anyone as competent, as insightful, as dedicated, as Pam. I admire her.

What a gift it has been to have her with our library these past 12 years. I am deeply grateful.

Colorado Public Library Directors retreat

I just returned from the annual meeting of the Colorado public library directors. It's a cool thing. Kathy Chandler, director of the Aspen library, negotiates some incredible deals in the off-season. I stayed at the Jerome Hotel for $156 a night. In-season, it's $1100, which is incomprehensible to me. For a room, the enjoyment of which you are for the largest part of your time unconscious? Your disposable income would have to be stratospheric -- but that might apply to a lot of Aspen visitors.

I was, as I am so often, very impressed by my colleagues. There are too many celebrities to mention. Janine Reid (of High Plains Library District, formerly Weld Library District) is a rising star, launching so many initiatives that she may explode at any moment. Pam Sandlian Smith (Rangeview Library District in Adams County) is filled with a quiet pride in her staff as she seeks to make two decades of progress in two years. I bet she pulls it off, too. Claudine Perrault is turning her resort library (in Estes Park) into a model for the new century. Anne Mojo (Louisville) is on the cutting edge of the embedding of interactive high tech museum exhibits in the public library setting. (I have to study up on that one. I'll start with a meeting with Anne.) Monica Kirby (Spanish Peaks Library District in Walsenburg) has gotten frighteningly competent in grant applications and administration. Mary Anne Hanson-Wilcox of the Grand County Library District has developed a fundraising prowess that awes and inspires me. Shirley Amore, City Librarian of Denver, passed along words of wisdom about building teams: successful teams have two characteristics. First, they are open. Second, they have affection for each other. Isn't that both lovely and profoundly insightful?

In truth, every single director there was up to something remarkable. And the trust among us has grown through the years. We don't just brag about what we've done right; we let each other know what worries us.

But here's the thing that matters: Colorado's public library directors have identified a primary technological need. We all want a better ILS (Integrated Library System). A lot of us are at, or near, the end-of-life of support of our current platform of library catalog / circulation / acquisitions / etc. operations. Just possibly, we're ready to build a statewide consortial system.

It could be that it's based on Open Source -- like Koha or Georgia Pines. But that isn't a given. Maybe it's based on OCLC's WorldCat, with other modules bolted onto it.

Finally, it's based on this: a public library community that sees itself as a community, as one thing.

I spoke with Gene Hainer, our State Librarian, and Nicole Steffen, director of the Library Research Service to make the first step happen: determining how much we spend right now on our many ILSs. A survey is forthcoming TODAY, one day after the meeting in which the request was first imagined -- a remarkable response.

It may be that there's a more cost-effective alternative.

Here's how it begins: we figure out what we spend on an ILS right now. Then, we decide how much money we can redirect to something better. Then, we make it happen.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why public libraries matter

I got an email today from a friend, the managing editor of a newspaper out even further west than Colorado. He just wrote me about their local library, which is in desperate need of a new building. But what's going 'round in the town lately, what's picking up steam, is the idea that the library is obsolete, that "libraries are dinosaurs and the Internet is all we need now and in the future." He asked for some talking points to spin into editorials. I wrote him this, which reprises some of the other things I've written about lately, but I think starts to integrate into a nice campaign.

First, the reports of library decline are wildly exaggerated. Just to draw from some Colorado stats, more people visited Colorado libraries (58 million) in 2004 than traveled through Denver International Airport (42.4 million). In 2004, Coloradans borrowed more items from libraries (96.5 million) than purchased Powerball tickets (80.4 million). Attendance at public library programs surpassed 1.4 million in 2004 -- equal to selling out Invesco Field at Mile High 20 times. Annually, there are a more visits to libraries than all sporting events COMBINED. (www.lrs.org/documents/quotable/QF_Colorado_2006.pdf)
In the state of Colorado, 2 out of 3 people have library cards. In Douglas County, you can find one in 4 out of 5 households.

Second, Google isn't all it's cracked up to be, being neither as comprehensive nor as trustworthy as many library electronic subscriptions. (This begs for the moment the whole reductive argument that libraries are ONLY about answering short questions.) Here's a recent Denver Post Colorado Voices column from one of our own employees.
www.denverpost.com/opinionheadlines/ci_8936961

Third, it is certainly true that the Internet is turning into a powerful information utility. But around the nation, libraries are often the only place people have to gain access to it. This issue is called "the digital divide" -- without public libraries, some people never make it over the pass.

Fourth, libraries are a terrific return on the investment. There have been a host of studies about this. Here's one I wrote about for Douglas County and Colorado:
http://www.douglascountylibraries.org/node/6357

Here's one done in Wisconsin:
dpi.wi.gov/pld/pdf/wieconimpactpresent.pdf

Bottom line: whenever these studies happen, we can be sure that for every $1 invested in public libraries, the community gets AT LEAST $3-5 back. How does that compare with YOUR portfolio of investments?

Fifth, libraries have been found to be a tremendously valuable tool in the development of neighborhoods and cities. The Urban Libraries Council, based in Chicago, just released a report about this.
www.urbanlibraries.org/files/making_cities_stronger.pdf

Some of these findings made such an impact on Mayor Daley, that he has come up with a formula to revitalize neighborhoods: first step, a public library, to generate the right kind of traffic, to put eyes on the street, to call out the children as an important asset. And it works.

Sixth, and the one that really matters, is that libraries change lives. I'm a pretty tech savvy guy, and spend a lot of time on the Internet. But I haven't read a single entire book on the screen, have you? Has anyone you know?

It's easy to get caught up in the sexy stuff around technology, but I don't know anyone who says "Google changed my life." But in libraries, every single day, quite aside from all those folks we've helped find jobs or livelihoods (through resume or business plan writing), there are young people who discover lifelong passions, and adults who find solace and escape in fiction. Through everything from health databases to comic books, we've saved lives both physically and mentally.

And let's not forget that the children's storytime is the single most important strategy our society has to turn out literate and empathetic citizens. (I'm not kidding: we're working on a study now to prove that attendance at storytimes, and calling out the important steps of early literacy, has a marked effect not only on a child's readiness for learning, but on the ability to put him or herself in someone else's shoes; one predictable outcome of immersion in literature is compassion.)

Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Book, used to say that public libraries were the only thing that our society really did for smart kids. Question: do we want more smart kids?

Dude, you write newspapers for a living. You know, I hope, that a great deal depends on people who have the skills of literacy, and use them. Your own industry, for instance.

So good for you for stepping into the fray and speaking up for libraries. Putting money into our INTELLECTUAL infrastructure isn't just smart, it's the right thing to do.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The outlook for librarians

Recently, libnet (an email list of some 700, mostly Colorado-based librarians) had a lively exchange in response to a simple question: one woman wondered if we would recommend that her niece pursue a Masters in Library Science. Several findings emerged:

* a lot of librarians love their jobs, and provided encouragement.

* a lot of librarians felt that, at least to date, the investment (and the assumption of debt) hasn't been worth it. They haven't found jobs that were professional in nature; they had to move quite a ways to find employment, and sometimes that has had a steep personal and financial cost. Most of these folks were still in the starting out phase of their professional lives.

* the always helpful Library Research Service did a "Fast Facts" publication about what's really going on with new library jobs. And I see the news as encouraging: there are still lots of jobs, some of them look to be breaking new ground, and most of them are in public libraries.

I threw in another comment about the issue: we are seeing those retirements starting to happen. But most of the folks leaving hold senior positions; it will take a while for that to translate into entry level positions. I continue to believe in the value of a library education, and in the long term need for us in our communities.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

When the board wants to censor...

I got a call today from a colleague, a public library director back east. Her board, appointed by the mayor, now has a majority of folks who all attend a politically powerful and conservative church. Recently, under the leadership of another church member, a petition was presented to the board demanding that the library establish a collection of materials that would be strictly forbidden to minors. Which materials? Anything involving sex.

The board thought that was a pretty good idea.

This director is very smart and sensitive, politically astute. But she, and her staff, are also alarmed. Why?

We could play this out by example: so sexual materials would be denied even to those kids working on health projects for school? Even kids who might be sexually abused by family members? Even kids being pressured by other kids to have sex, and want to know what kinds of consequences might ensue?

As I've said before, the biggest problem in America is NOT that children are reading too much. Indeed, the more they read, the LESS likely they are do something foolish, and the safer they are by a long shot.

But it doesn't do any good to just stonewall people. Here's what I told her: the real issue is that parents in her community are frightened. They're worried about their kids. They think, they hope, that if they can just stop children (meaning "teenagers") from reading about sex, or watching sexy situations on film, then the teenagers will stop thinking about it, will stop doing it. They'll remain children.

When you put it like that, it just doesn't make much sense, doesn't it?

But I'm not making fun of them. The fear is real.

So what I suggested is that instead of fighting this out with one church, open it up. Talk to lots of churches. Ask for church members who will admit that they're worried about their children's sexuality, and are trying to find a way to talk to them about things that matter. Guess what? Book clubs and discussion groups are a terrific way to get generations to begin important discussions. Teenagers want to know what the adult world is about. They're looking for some guidance.

Ignorance will not protect them. It might, in fact, kill them.

Libraries are knowledge institutions. We are not consecrated to the preservation of ignorance; we are consecrated to the purpose of knowing.

Instead of having just fighting a defensive action against parents, why not use our unique abilities, our deep knowledge of literature, our expertise in developing and delivering programs, to help families talk with each other?

This way, libraries might take the lead in training lay people to be discussion leaders. Talk about books that parents love -- and find out whether or not they speak to their teenagers. Or find books that kids love, and see if the parents can imagine themselves young again.

It's just possible that both sides might learn something new. And the library would have helped.

OCLC - parting thoughts

As noted elsewhere, I just finished my last meeting as a representative of BCR to OCLC's Members Council. That three year term was a significant educational experience for me.

I did not run for re-election because I have to look after a public information effort about our need for increased funding. My first obligation is to ensure that my own institution has the resources it needs to fulfill its mission. Right now, it doesn't.

But I do have some observations about OCLC, I hope worth recording. I didn't think about OCLC very often before I went to Members Council, and I bet a lot of other members of the cooperative don't either. So take this as insight from someone who walked into the inner workings of Members Council with no preconceptions.

  • OCLC has an extraordinary CEO. Jay Jordan, who just happens to have lived in Castle Rock, CO before he was recruited by OCLC, has been a remarkable leader. He just celebrated his tenth year at the helm, and in that time, OCLC has clearly grown by leaps and bounds by every measure: more bibliographic records, more customers, more income, more use, more innovation. He has a sure grasp of the organizational mission, a strong competitive executive drive, a consistent identification and promotion of talented staff, and works well with his thoughtful and diligent board. I learned a lot by watching Jay. Leadership matters, and his leadership is a significant OCLC asset.
  • OCLC has gone -- quickly, although it might not feel like it to some -- from a North American-centric organization to a true global cooperative. There are two strains in the organization: those who wish to preserve and celebrate the history of the organization, and those thrilled by the enormous potential of a truly world-wide global catalog of intellectual works. I appreciate the past, but the future is beyond exciting.
  • The core product of OCLC is the remarkable WorldCat. I have never seen anything better as a discovery tool. Here's what I think: the future of librarianship will put WorldCat -- the compilation of the donated labor of catalogers -- at the center of a new ILS. The rest of that system -- circulation, acquisitions, serials, reporting, etc. -- should be the result of our donated programmer labor. I would gladly pay one of our staff to contribute to those modules, which might, in turn, be freely downloaded or altered by any library. The management of these Open Source projects, I submit, should be conducted through WebJunction.
  • Something else OCLC has done very, very well has been "thought leadership." Their studies have changed the way we think about librarianship. The important aspect of these studies is not just market research -- it's thinking about the data, making recommendation for the future. In addition, OCLC's sponsorship of various meetings brings library luminaries together to shine light in all kinds of unexpected corners. That earns my respect.

In short, OCLC impresses me. It still has something of an academic bias, I think. It still dances slowly. But as somebody once wrote, the amazing thing about a dancing bear is not how well it dances, but that it dances at all.

OCLC is changing, but everything changes, whether people want it to or not. The important thing is that it is changing for the better.

From Awareness to Funding

At my last OCLC Members Council, OCLC's Cathy De Rosa presented a fly-by overview of the new report, due in June, that first states a problem: there's a trend of failure in library ballot issues. Next, it starts talking about some solutions: in brief, our strongest supporters see us as transformational in their lives or communities. To succeed, to gain funding, we have to learn to reach out to our markets using this language.

Instead, for too long, we've postioned ourselves as far less interesting "information providers" -- a place where the competition is intense, and the experience itself is less valued.

My assistant, Aspen, found someone else's blog about this here. It's a good summary.

This study is a significant contribution to the field. And it couldn't be more timely for me.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

OCLC Members Council

For the past three years, I have been a representative of BCR (a regional library services network based in Colorado) to the OCLC Members Council.

I've enjoyed it, and particularly enjoyed getting to know several international librarians -- Chew Leng Beh from Singapore, Jieh Hsiang from Taiwan, Berndt Dugall from Germany, and David Brandbury from London. I find these marvelous librarians fun to talk to -- and I learn something about their countries that is altogether different, truer, more direct, than anything filtered through media.

But this is my last meeting. My term is up, I didn't run for another. Instead, I'll be serving on the BCR board, which is much closer to home. I need to stay focused on our probable 2008 election.

But I'll take warm memories from my time here. And I've even enjoyed going to Dublin, OH three times a year, and the lovely Marriott, my home away from home.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Economic impact of libraries in Wisconsin

Terry Dawson, Director of the Appleton (Wisconsin) Public Library has a blog here with a link to one of the presentations we saw at the Wisconsin summit. Click on the entry link to see it. Researched by David J. Ward, this slideshow made some points that I'm sure apply to many libraries, and our return on the tax dollar investment. I was struck, watching it, by two things: being a Midwesterner myself, I found the pattern familiar -- from agraraian life (my grandparents' time) to industrial life (my father) to information worker (me). This parallels the change in the economy of Wisconsin -- and underscores the need for higher education as a strategy for employment and economic vitality.

Clay Shirky at Web 2.0

Jeff Donlan, director of the Salida Regional Library here in Colorado, sent me a fascinating video clip featuring author, teacher, and lecturer Clay Shirky.

You can click on the entry link to watch the 13 minute clip of his talk at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco earlier this year. He makes several points that are, I think, relevant not only to librarianship, but to the idea of civic engagement. In brief: it is better to do SOMETHING (participative) than NOTHING (mindlessly consuming television programming and advertising).

The clip is brilliant: a provocative beginning, and a thoroughly thought-provoking ending. Throughout, Shirky is articulate and cogent. He reminds me of Jaron Lanier, the first person I remember talking about the fundamental difference between the television and the telephone: the first one is passive, the second is active.

The telephone, of course, is more like the Internet -- but the conversation endures in cyberspace.

The implication for libraries is this: to build stronger communities, our job isn't just to distribute books, movies, and music. It's to get people talking about them, producing them, sharing them, using them to grow and to learn. That makes for a library that's really doing something.

Someone is wrong on the internet


My son sent this to me. So true. (Click title of entry for source.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

KDE versus Gnome

As mentioned before, I use PCLinuxOS (PCLOS for short) as my home Linux distribution. There are two very broad desktop environments for Linux: KDE and Gnome. KDE is more Windows-like in look, and is very configurable. Gnome is a little more Mac-like, focusing on sane defaults.

I prefer Gnome.

However, a recent upgrade to PCLOS has Gnome turning on my HP computer's internal fan, somewhat unpredictably. But when it comes on, it doesn't go off. That's a bug of some kind, and I have no idea how to fix it. It's annoying.

But PCLOS isn't really a Gnome distro. It was designed for, and uses by preference, the KDE environment. This uncommon noise (Linux is usually very quiet) so irritated me I was considering installing Ubuntu, or Fedora, or Mint, over PCLOS. But for today, I just spent a little time customizing KDE, and it looks pretty good. I'd post a picture of it here, but KDE bristles with so many options, I can't lay my hands on the screenshot utility (it has one, though).

The truth is, I use an ever smaller number of applications all the time:

  • Thunderbird for email
  • Firefox for browsing
  • Pidgin or Kopete for IM
  • Jpilot for my Palm synching and Personal Information Management
  • Gedit for text editing
  • Openoffice for full fledged office work
  • Notecase Pro for textbases, journals, etc.
  • Freemind and Vym for Mindmapping


and a few other utilities for keeping my system current (Synaptic) and managing my website (Nvu, gftp).

So ultimately, the desktop environment doesn't make that much difference. Eventually, the bug will get ironed out. And this way, I can keep my mind limber.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Is anybody listening?

Blogging has been an interesting way for me to record some of my travels and library-related thoughts. But is blogging just an online journal, another memory aid, or a true communication tool? If the latter, then I need evidence: comments (of which there are almost none to date) or a site counter. So I added a tool to the blog to see if anybody is reading this.

So if you're swinging by, leave a comment! Or I'll look at the stats and see if I'm just having a swell conversation with myself. And if that's the case, I probably don't need to keep a journal for the world, when one of those little moleskin pocket notebooks works so well.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

My website

I borked it, and trying to restore it, decided to remove some things. It's starting to look like time to redo everything anyhow, though. Websites need to be refreshed from time to time. Maybe I'll poke around for a template I like.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

PLA presentation on evaluating the library director

I just got a message from ALA that the presentation "Evaluating the Library Director," delivered at the Public Library Association conference on March 27, 2008, is now available in a couple of formats.

There's an MP3 available. But it's huge. If you want it, email me.

The handouts are here.

And as noted elsewhere in this blog, our final Power Point is here.

Ken Gordon's Rules of Legislative Conduct

Cleaning up email, I see I got something from Senator Ken Gordon. Today is his last day in the Colorado Legislature. Gordon sent out something he calls his "Rules of Legislative Conduct."

Gordon served Colorado well. And his rules are worth remembering.

Gordon's Rules of Legislative Conduct
(Suggestions for future legislators)

1. Think for yourself. If you don't have any internal values that inform your conduct here, find another occupation.

2. Leadership: You can't always be liked and always do the right thing. If you don't have the courage to sometimes do the right thing even though it will anger some person or support group, you should find another occupation. If you don't have courage, you may be an elected official, but you are not a leader.

3. If you are in the majority and you can't pass a bill that you want to pass without abusing the process, then you shouldn't pass the bill. If you can’t kill a bill that you want to kill without abusing the process, then you shouldn’t kill the bill.

4. If you abuse the process in order to prevent minority party members from accomplishing anything that reflects the values of their constituents, then you create a deep and bitter resentment. This resentment will come back to haunt you in myriad ways. Abuse of the process does not show strength. It shows weakness.

5. Respect the minority party members. There are a large number of people who voted for them. When you disrespect the minority party members you disrespect many of the people of Colorado. And their ideas are not always wrong.

6. Think of the other members of the Senate as team members--even members of the other party. The goal is not to be in the majority. If that were the goal, then the other party would be the enemy. The goal is to make Colorado the best state in the country, or in any country for that matter. To do this we need everyone's help. If we don't do this we will be at a competitive disadvantage with states or countries that learn how to work better together.

7. Some people think there is a distinction between how you act in a campaign and how you act at the legislature. If you lie during a political campaign, that makes you a liar, and you will be treated that way in the legislature as well.

8. Respect the people who put you in office. You might think that you do that, but every time you commit your vote to a lobbyist or even another member before you have heard committee testimony or debate, you have disrespected the people who wish to voice their opinion.

9. Don't let conflict escalate. Be the one who deescalates. Be the bigger person. Be the person who acknowledges error. If you have to, go outside and take a walk.

10. Have pride in what you are doing. You stand on the shoulders of many thousands who have worked or shed blood for our rights and our democracy. Fewer than 2% of the people who have ever lived have lived in a democracy. Don't take it for granted. By your conduct here, honor those people who fought for this democracy.

McCain's plans

Click on the entry link to get an article by Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek. The nation is abuzz about what Barack Obama's former minister is saying, and ignoring what one of the actual candidates is saying.

I think Zakaria is right: McCain's stand on international relations is bizarre, schizophrenic and will lead to further escalation of world tensions.

I file this under "politics -- the unexplained." Why isn't anyone talking about where this proposed policy would lead us?

Another unanswered question for me: Guantanamo Bay is in Cuba. How did it happen that the United States of America has a prison camp in a country with which we have no diplomatic relations? How did we do that, exactly? Make a phone call to Fidel and ask if we could rent some vacant gulag? Surely we didn't just violate another nation's sovereignty and blast onto the beach and set up a prison?

What connects these two ideas: Do we have a coherent international relations policy that is transparent, sensible, and ethical? Answer: we do not. And under McCain, that would appear unlikely to change.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

21st century librarianship

I've been spending the morning listening to my Wisconsin colleagues try to work up a five year vision. And it occurred to me that there was a more succinct way to address my keynote topic: the 20th century library was library-centric; the 21st century library needs to be community-centric.

This is not, necessarily, to be passionate advocates for social justice, although it might be that on occasion. The problem with some Big Causes is that they can paralyze: "how can we deliver quality library services when we still have poverty in the world?" And we do have poverty, and it must indeed be tackled. But the urgent issue is this: the library has to assess key issues in its community, and address those where it can make a significant improvement, not just a statement.

Similarly, there is a tendency among librarians to say "how can we go out to the community when we have yet to understand each other?" The result is that we talk only to each other, and not to our community.

In both cases, these questions, while not wrong, aren't right. They subsume the possibility of immediate action in the morass of the unsolvable.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Wisconsin Library Summit

I'm writing this from the incredibly lovely Heidel House in Green Lake, Wisconsin. I was keynote speaker this morning for a "Strategic Visioning Summit on the Future of the Library," co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster), and the Council on Library and Network Development chaired by Kathy Pletcher, Associate Provost for Information Services for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

I had forgotten how beautiful the land around here can be: green, pastel blue sky, trees everywhere, and of course, Green Lake itself, which is 2 miles across and 17 miles wide.

The summit organizers have done a good job of pulling together a mix of people: academic, public, school, and special, but also some diversity of age.

My talk focused on what I thought were 6 trends in librarianship (self-service, merchandising, emergent literacy, community reference, the convergence of libraries and museums, and passing the torch), and at least two big ideas (a Wisconsin Library Card, and enabling legislation for public district libraries). They were all well received, and led smoothly enough into some preplanned categories for brainstorming.

Both Big Ideas are hardly my creation (nor are the trends, for that matter). We've had them in Colorado for years. But the Colorado library card idea was actually easy enough to do (aside from politics!), and cost almost nothing. The library district has been clearly shown to be the most effective kind of public library, because it ties the funding to the actual users.

The real attraction of public speaking is that it forces me to think things through. It was a challenge to try to package all this for a state-wide discussion. But it also clarified my own thinking about what works, and what's significant.

I'm catching up on work email this afternoon, but look forward to seeing what these good people come up with tomorrow morning.

I'm also looking forward to going home. My own staff is pretty creative, too, and they've been doing good work, it seems, in the area of civic engagement (specifically, voter registration).

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Waukegan Public Library

My last engagement in the Chicago area was a long range planning workshop with the board and staff of my home town library, the library that inspired me to become a librarian.

Our main exercise was "visioning" -- trying to see what a shared vision might look like for the future. And there was indeed a common vision: a library that was safe, clean, and healthy; a staff that was warm and welcoming. There were a lot of other clever and interesting ideas as well.

I find it encouraging: most of the time, when you sit down with the public to dream about what a library could and should be, they get it, they have great ideas, and they get excited about it.

I also continue to believe that after a couple generations of tearing down our public institutions, it just might be time to put them together again.

Knowing when it's time to move on or When doing things right isn't good enough

I've been thinking about another conversation I had with Rick Ashton. Again, Rick and his staff did a lot of ground-breaking and transformative work at Denver Public. Not only was there a sharp focus on customer service, but Schlessman was the first "bookstore-style" library in Colorado, a model that got a lot of attention from other library directors, and greatly informed our own library's subsequent experimentation. Denver was the first library in the neighborhood to adopt self-check in a big way, and it was a big help after a couple of disastrous funding cuts.

Rick did a lot of things right politically. But there came a moment when it was obvious that, for a variety of reasons, he was not going to be able to restore that funding. And so he did something difficult and right in a different way: he left.

I think back to my own career, and the merging of the Greeley Public Library with the Weld Library District (now the High Plains Library District). It was a very painful move for me and my family: I essentially made my independent city library a branch of the district, and fired myself to make the budget balance. But I have no doubt that it was the right thing, simplifying and strengthening a system of sane funding.

Probably because I was raised on an intense diet of superhero comics, I have always striven to do right. But the difference between the real world and the world of comics (at least, back in the 50s) is that sometimes, you can do right, and it doesn't work. Then it's time for somebody else to take a shot at it.

Last year, our community ran a model campaign to increase library funding, quite well done overall. And it failed. We'll try again, because the institution needs that solution if it is to continue to thrive. It's possible we'll fail again, and it's possible that that wouldn't be my fault.

But there are moments when the director has to conclude: hmm, maybe the institution needs somebody else to pull this off. Then, the director has to find a way, without grandstanding, without breast-beating, to fulfill the job: make it possible for the institution to succeed, even if it means its time for a new director.

Yo Yo Ma and Allison Kraus

My wife passed this along to me -- a haunting and beautiful lullaby. Click the entry title. If that doesn't work, go to www.yo-yoma.com, then click on Video, then "Slumber My Darling."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Chicago Art Institute

I love that place. Yesterday, I got to see the Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper exhibits.

They're a good pair. Both could see into a scene, capturing essentials of light. Amazing to see Homer's Canadian scenes -- then tropical islands! And I love the way Hopper surrounds every object and person with a stillness of space.

When I was in high school, sometimes I would skip school to ride the old Chicago and Northwestern commuter train (now the Metra) downtown to go the Art Institute. My home room teacher was Mr. Misunas, and also taught art. Once, when I told him I'd skipped school to go look at Impressionists, he excused the absence.

Urban Libraries Council

Yesterday, I stopped by the Urban Libraries Council (click this entry title for their website) to meet the extraordinarily bright staff, and visit with my good friend Rick Ashton. ULC is a kind of public library think tank -- focusing on the topics and strategies that will ensure vital libraries.

Rick has a fiercely probing and fearless mind, and I always learn something from him. During his tenure as Denver's City Librarian, Rick focused on the foundation: customer service within the building. Some libraries are still grappling with that.

But what's next? I think there are three core trends: the first is RFID-based self-check; the second is savvy merchandising of library materials; and the third is what I call answering the community reference question -- a repurposing of our professional skills to catalog the community, to not only have a seat at the table, but to help our communities solve problems, improve lives.

Each of those is a multi-year process, requiring a lot of deep retooling. It's been 18 months for RFID at Douglas County Libraries, and we still haven't ironed it all out. (On the other hand, the advantages are so overwhelming, and it has been so well-received by the public, that the discomforts are well worth it.)

Effective merchandising combines the advantages of cooperative purchasing with retail psychology. Result: people use the library more.

But this last one -- redefining the reference desk as the librarian, not a location in a building -- is truly transformative.

Staying on top of these strategies is not just a cool thing for administrators to dink around with. They just might be essential to our survival.

NSLS gig

I enjoyed it. Tom Galante runs a big system in Queens, dealing with a tremendous number of languages and communities (62 communities, if I remember right). He's also a good speaker -- direct, funny, and refreshing. Clearly a very capable director. The focus of his talk was recruitment: go for the best, and don't shy away from big stunts to get people's attention.

Pam Sandlian Smith, formerly of West Palm Beach, Florida and now my neighbor as the director of the Rangeview Library District, was a delight. It's peculiar to have to travel to Illinois to get to know my Colorado colleagues better, but it was worth the trip. I fancy that I can see Pam's children's librarianship background: she has a gentle whimsy about her -- that surrounds an administrative spine of steel. Her focus was on the establishment of a a new culture centered on customer service. I am confident that she will do very well.

Marylaine Block provided a real wealth of knowledge concerning something that matters to me a great deal. She called her talk "how libraries help their communities achieve their aspirations." Her very useful list of links can be found here.

There is a lot of talent out there in libraryland. The interesting thing was that all of us, ultimately, gave the same talk: we must be community-centric, not library-centric, if we are to thrive. That insight truly is "best practice."