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.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Next Generation ILS - and the power of failure

I just returned from BCR's conference called "Next Generation ILS: "Mashed Up, Fried, of Half-Baked," held in Boise, Idaho. (The conference title was a series of references, I later was told, to potatoes, which completely escaped me. On the other hand, I ate at a Basque restaurant one evening there [Leku Ona, on 6th and Grove], and the mashed potatoes were indeed superb.)

There were several speakers:

  • Marshall Breeding, Director for Innovative Technologies and Research, Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University. He was good, too, providing an excellent overview of the marketplace today.
  • Karen Schneider, Community Librarian, Equinox. The always delightful Karen is now working as a remarkably clear-eyed proponent of open source solutions. She still does some of the best PowerPoint there is -- mostly humorous images and short phrases.
  • Matt Goldner, Executive Director of End User Services, OCLC. Like most of the folks at OCLC, Matt is frighteningly knowledgeable, focused, and articulate. He was funny, too. His point: move fast. Try stuff, abandon what doesn't work, try something else.
  • Ira Frosch, President, Palazzo Inc. Ira was a hoot, bringing a business-process consulting perspective -- and since he doesn't work in our space, he provided a true outsider's view. It was refreshing.

I was the final speaker. I used my Freemind presentation, and the pyramid graphic (see here for that link and discussion) to mostly make the point that we won't have an INTEGRATED library system until we figure out how to pull in information about our community: local organizations, speakers, and experts.

I was also very frank about a painful realization. For the past decade or so, I have been operating under a specific hypothesis: growing library use, library market share, also grows support. Two strong bits of evidence seem to have disproven that. First, despite a 93% satisfaction rate by our public with our services, despite a solid 80% of county households with at least one active library card, we lost last year's election by 1% of the vote. Second, OCLC's "From Awareness to Funding" report, based on its 8,000 interviews, concluded that there was no relationship between use and willingness to provide or increase financial support. Nor was it demographic. It was, instead, attitudinal.

It took us at least two years to work out how to do an effective PR campaign to grow use. It's just possible that we have to radically rethink our PR to grow support. And that might take another 2-4 years.

The strategy I have followed as director has been very forthright: measuring market share, measuring use, makes sure that we serve as many of our constituents as possible. And we've done a very good job of that. That's worth hanging onto from a service perspective.

But the connect between use and funding still isn't clear to many people when it comes to libraries. And finally, an institution that fails to secure the resources it requires to provide the services its community requires is a failure. Library directors are supposed to figure that stuff out.

I remain a fiscal conservative. Our board, our staff, and I, have worked very hard, and with great success, to wring out the last possible benefit of every penny. And the resources we may request in the fall are still very modest: about $30 a year for most households in the county, for which we offer a significant and cost-effective expansion of demonstrably popular services.

My point: there are much larger spuds to fry than our cataloging systems. We have to integrate sustainable resources into the larger library systems if we are to fulfill our mission.

Thanks to BCR for hosting the conference. Under the direction of Brenda Bailey-Hainer, BCR is taking significant steps to assume an important role in the profession: thought leadership, which I'll describe as talking about the stuff that matters.

Library use: DCL growing faster than the US

Recently there was an article called "Library use grows, but varies by region; Utah among states at top." You can find it here. We compared our own statistics (where DCL=Douglas County Libraries) to those in the report.

  • Visits to DCL increased 65 percent between 2002 and 2006. Nationwide = 10%
  • Circulation, which measures how often library visitors check out print or electronic materials, increased at DCL 74 percent between 2002 and 2006. Nationwide = 9 percent
  • The number of Internet-capable computers increased from 42 to 95 or 126 percent between 2002 and 2006 at DCL. Nationwide = 38%
  • Circulation of children's materials is the highest in Colorado at 3,122,000 and is 48% of our circulation. That outstrips the 42% that is reported as the highest in the country -- Vermont.


Cool, huh?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mindmapping: an alternative to Power Point

Some years ago I was speaking at the Computers in Libraries conference. One of the other speakers asked me to run his PowerPoint presentation as he spoke, and I noticed something fascinating. Before I turned off the lights, and started the presentation, people were interested and engaged. And the instant the lights went off, people's eyes glazed over and they SLUMPED. That's not a comment about the speaker, or even the slides. I learned that people are wired to attune to people -- that's why you go to conferences and talks.

So I don't do PowerPoint, usually. If I do, it usually involves cartoons.

But I have been playing with mindmaps. Many of us, most of us, are visual. And graphics can be a powerful way to illustrate points. Mindmaps are particularly good at something PowerPoint isn't: showing the interrelations of things.

I often use a freeware product called Freemind, which is a Java application, so runs in Windows, OSX and Linux. It's a great brainstorming tool; I like to use it for speeches because you can give a talk, even a complicated one, off a single sheet of paper.

Lately, it offers some great export tools, too. For my upcoming talk in Boise about "Cataloging the Community," I started in Freemind, then found that I could output three files that would allow me to display the file, interactively, in a browser, as a Java applet. That's cool, and means I could bring the files on a jump drive, and just plug it into somebody else's laptop (I like to travel light), then fire up Firefox.

But when I tried to load that on my web server, so all I would need is a browser, I couldn't get it to work. But there are several other options: export as a pdf, export as a png, export as a Flash presentation. You can find the pdf of the program here, and the Flash version here. But neither is as good as the Java applet, which not only lets you expand and contract the various tree diagrams, but provides live links to some of the samples. (Later: no, the Flash does allow you to go to the links -- you have to click on the little red arrow. But it's still not as pretty as the Java version.)

Anyhow, I would much rather see these kinds of tools being used than PowerPoint. Mindmaps help us to see the big picture, and that's better than the 3 bullet slide.

Douglas County Libraries wins an Emmy

I've just learned that we won an Emmy (full name: National Academy of Arts and Sciences Heartland Region Emmy Award) last night for our Public Service Announcement about libraries. I've blogged about the PSA before here.

Congratulations both to the Network DC (our Douglas County cable and Internet based television network), and my own staff (Katie Klosser, producer) for winning this prestigious award.

Incidentally, this isn't the first library piece to be so honored. Another library story, several years ago, was the first episode of "Lunchbreak." The host, Steve Capstick, picked me up in his pickup truck. He then interviewed me as we drove around town. The topic was censorship. That episode was submitted for an Emmy and won. I can now, truthfully, say that I'm "an Emmy award winning film actor." The film won the award, though, not me.

The library also played a role in "Kit Carson's Last Campfire," a historically-based musical (really!).

Douglas County is fortunate to have such creative videographers. Again, warm congratulations for a job well done!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

OCLC's From Awareness to Funding

OCLC's long-awaited report is available for download. Click on the link in the title above, and you can order the print copy, or download the pdf. This is a powerful bit of research.

Monday, July 14, 2008

DCL Mill Levy - FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions about the Proposed Library Mill Levy Increase by the Douglas County Libraries in 2008 [note - this has been updated to reflect the revised proposal to be considered by the Douglas County Libraries Board of Trustees on August 21, 2008]

What is the library asking for?

A property tax increase of 1 (one) mill. 0.4 of that would pay for three new or replacement library buildings, and that part would go away or “sunset” after the buildings were paid off (about 15-20 years). The rest, less than one mill (0.6), would pay for operations (staff and materials, mainly), and would mark a permanent increase.

What does that mean for my taxes?

If your home is worth $100,000 (market value), you'll pay $7.96 more a year. If it's worth $200,000, then $15.92 a year. If $300,000, $23.88 a year.

Annually, the county assessor sends you a statement about the worth of your property.

The assessment rate for residential property is 7.96% (single family homes, mobile homes, condominiums, townhomes, multi-family, etc.). All other property has an assessment rate of 29% (vacant land, commercial, industrial, agricultural, natural resource property, etc.). Actual Value X Assessment Rate = Assessed Value.

So for every $100,000 of market value of your residential property, you have an assessed value of $7,960 (100,000 X .0796). Multiply that by the mill levy (7960 X .001) and you get the annual tax impact: $7.96. So if your house is worth $300,000 (that's the average for Douglas County), then the annual cost of the new mill levy would be $23.88 (3 X 7.96).

Why does the library board think the library needs more money?

Put simply, the library is out of space. There are various national standards for library service. Library officials estimate a need of about half a square foot per capita to provide the services people request and use from us: primarily books, movies, music, storytimes and programs, meeting rooms, computers, study space, and staff. In three areas of the county -- Parker, Castle Pines North, and Lone Tree -- the Douglas County Libraries are well under that space requirement. And we can predict that it's going to get worse.

But it's not just planning numbers: some libraries are now turning people away from storytimes. Or people are circling the parking lot three times before leaving, or people are waiting over a year for bestsellers. Or community groups trying to get a meeting room can't book one. Library services aren't just about facilities, but facilities are a basic foundation of what they can do. The library district needs more room.

A key evidence of need is growth in use. If you're a business, and you see 18% increase in sales per year, you're growing -- and those sales generate money for expansion. Demand equals income. But public libraries don't work like that. Douglas County Libraries is seeing growth in virtually all of its services, some 6 to 7 times greater than the national norm. Library revenue is distinct from our use; but library use still justifies expansion. The funding of public libraries comes from a voter-approved mill levy.

What has the library done to control costs?

For many years, the cost center of the library has been the people who ran library checkout and checkin processes. With a one-time investment in capital (self-check and automated return systems), the library reduced the staffing needs for those processes by almost two-thirds. It retrained and repurposed those staff to provide more direct public service -- in the stacks, building displays, answering questions. In the process, the removal of large circulation desks gave the library more space. Library materials used to be backlogged, sometimes taking 5 days to check in. Now, most materials make it back to the shelves the day they're returned. All of those changes have saved money, and have allowed the library to keep up with unprecedented growth in demand with staffing levels that are almost flat over the past 3 years.

Library administration tracks internal productivity measures: how many people to the number of checkouts? How many people to the dollars spent on new materials? In all these measures, Douglas County Libraries is among the most productive in the nation. It is efficient.

The library now has almost as many volunteers as it has staff. But today's library job requires training and experience; we can (and will) add volunteers, but they won't replace our in-house experts.

In addition, the library has centralized most purchasing, and teamed up with other Douglas County governments to buy in bulk.

Through our partnerships with other entities, we have received the offer of donated land in both Parker and Lone Tree. In Lone Tree however, that offer is dependent upon our moving forward with building plans in the next year – impossible without more capital funds.

The Library Board intends to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and has established reserves for capital improvements – but those reserves are not sufficient to build or operate any new libraries.

Why doesn't the library buy just books, instead of movies and music?

The library's traditional role of providing reading material is still an important one. It spends more on materials, and those materials get used more, than at any time in Douglas County history. The library has not abandoned that role. Indeed, by any objective measure, it is doing a better job of it than ever, and better than most libraries (higher “circulation” [checkouts] per capita, for instance).

But the purpose of the library is to gather, organize, and present the intellectual resources of our culture. That includes theater and film. That includes classical and popular music. We know that that's what people want, because they request it, and when the library buys it, people check them out. The expansion of the library collection into more popular media is a logical extension of what the library has always done.

Doesn't the library unfairly compete with bookstores, music and video stores?

The library worked with Tattered Cover to bring them into Douglas County, because they know what we know: libraries and bookstores don't compete with each other. We grow a market together. People borrow what they don't want to buy, and buy what they want to keep. We have great relationships with music and video stores, too.

Why is the library providing free reference services to other agencies in the community? Doesn't that mean that you are overstaffed?

The library is supported by the community; it exists to serve it. The library employs highly trained researchers, yet many of the information needs in our community are never taken to the library. The 21st century library sends librarians into the community to find the questions it needs to answer, rather than waiting passively for someone to go to the library first. That is not a betrayal of the library mission; it is in fact a far more thoughtful and active pursuit of it.

Why is the library asking for money for the arts?

It isn't. It never did. It is asking for money to build and operate libraries. The proposed land for two of the library projects (Lone Tree and Parker) is adjacent to proposed performing arts centers in those communities. But the library isn't paying for them. They are local projects. Together, libraries and performing arts centers add up to a significant draw for economic development. But the funding for them is completely separate.

There is an independent library foundation, a 501 (c)(3) organization that uses private donations for the purchase of art in our libraries and in partnerships with other community agencies. But no taxpayer dollars are used for the purchase of art.

Who needs libraries in the age of the Internet?

In 2007, the Douglas County checked out more children's materials – primarily books – than any other library in the state of Colorado. This investment in literacy is one of the key contributions of the public library.

There is additional research about the importance of the public library in the Internet age. First, technology has increased, not decreased, library use. The Internet is wonderful as a way to get quick facts. But the library is about far more than quick answers. It's about reading. It's about browsing the magazines. It's about programs for children, or teens, or adults. It's about meeting rooms and study spaces. It's about seeing and being seen. It's about building community. Second, the library is also a place that provides high speed access to the Internet – of increasing importance when more and more of our life is managed through it. Third, the library subscribes to high quality commercial databases that are “invisible” to Google; and our trained staff are highly skilled researchers – staff add value to the Internet, rather than being replaced by it.

Why is the library asking for money now, in a time of rising prices and talk of recession?

We are well aware that many prices are rising. So are library prices. But for less than a single tank of gas, our community can buy three new buildings, and tens of thousands of new materials for use by the community. An investment in the intellectual infrastructure of our community is just as important as an investment in roads. A strong library has been demonstrated to attract new business development. We help people write resumes and business plans. We provide strategic information to help businesses grow. We save money for families who want to preview a book or movie before they buy it.

Incidentally, a 2007 study (www.lrs.org/documents/roi/douglas.pdf) showed that the Return on Investment for library support is $5.02. That is, for every $1 invested in the library, the Douglas County Libraries gives back over 5 times the amount in value (goods and services).

Why should the people who aren't getting new libraries pay for libraries in other communities?

There are three answers. First, because all Douglas County Libraries are inter-related. What is requested by a patron at one library, may be delivered from another. The more strain that is placed on smaller libraries, the more they will transfer resources from the larger ones. Second, because the people in those other communities paid for your library. This issue is one of fairness. Third, even in communities that have libraries (Castle Rock, Highlands Ranch, Roxborough), we'll make modest improvements: an expansion of the children's room in Castle Rock, the conversion of a storage space at Highlands Ranch into a meeting room, computer lab, or stacks space), and eventual expansion of the Roxborough space as the population grows.

But the first answer is the best: libraries are a cooperative purchasing agreement. By spreading the costs around the whole county, we keep the costs low.

Why is the library coming back after losing last year?

  • because the need is still there.
  • because the library still hasn't had a tax increase since 1996 -- and its growth in use has far outstripped both population and revenue.
  • because one of the key objections identified by nonsupporters in 2007 was their belief that the capital part of the mill levy should sunset when the buildings are paid off. That provision is a part of the new proposal.
  • because a lot of people didn't vote last year. If the community wishes the quality of library services to decline, let's have more than 17% of the electorate say so. (34% of the registered voters voted last year; of those, 51% decided the vote. Fifty-one percent of 34% is 17.34%.)


Why doesn't the library buy vacant stores, as it did in Castle Rock?

Library officials have been in close contact with economic development groups in all of the communities it serves. At present, there is no available property that is centrally located in projected service areas. The King Soopers in Parker is often mentioned as available; the owners tell us that it isn't for sale. Even if one becomes available, the library can't make an agreement with current owners without the money to do so. By contrast, the offer of free land in Parker and Lone Tree means not only that the library can plan for costs, but can also put all of the money into construction, rather than land acquisition. Free land is a significant savings, worth at least $2 million in each location. In at least one location – Lone Tree – the offer will be rescinded by the developer if a second attempt at a mill levy increase fails.

Why isn't the library planning for the future?

Planning for the future is one of the things Douglas County Libraries does best. It has been a leader in library technology. In the entire history of the library district, it has thoughtfully planned for building, incurring no debt whatsoever. On a per capita basis, it has grown from one of the worst libraries in the state in 1990, to one of the nation's best in library use generally. But excellence requires continued investment – or it becomes decline.

Uncle Bobby's Wedding

Recently, a library patron challenged (urged a reconsideration of the ownership or placement of) a book called "Uncle Bobby's Wedding." Honestly, I hadn't even heard of it until that complaint. But I did read the book, and responded to the patron, who challenged the item through email and requested that I respond online (not via snail-mail) about her concerns.

I suspect the book will get a lot of challenges in 2008-2009. So I offer my response, purging the patron's name, for other librarians.

Uncle Bobby's wedding
June 27, 2008

Dear Ms. Patron:

Thank you for working with my assistant to allow me to fit your concerns about “Uncle Bobby's Wedding,” by Sarah S. Brannen, into our “reconsideration” process. I have been assured that you have received and viewed our relevant policies: the Library Bill of Rights, the Freedom to Read, Free Access to Libraries for Minors, the Freedom to View, and our Reconsideration Policy.

The intent of providing all that isn't just to occupy your time. It's to demonstrate that our lay Board of Trustees –- which has reviewed and adopted these policies on behalf of our library -- has spent time thinking about the context in which the library operates, and thoughtfully considered the occasional discomfort (with our culture or constituents) that might result. There's a lot to consider.

Here's what I understand to be your concern, based on your writings. First, you believe that “the book is specifically designed to normalize gay marriage and is targeted toward the 2-7 year old age group.” Your second key concern is that you “find it inappropriate that this type of literature is available to this age group.” You cite your discussion with your daughter, and commented, “This was not the type of conversation I thought I would be having with my seven year old in the nightly bedtime routine.”

Finally, you state your strong belief, first, “in America and the beliefs of our founding fathers,” and second, that “marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman as stated in the Webster's dictionary and also in the Bible.”

You directed me to the SarahBrannen.com site, which I also reviewed. I got a copy of “Uncle Bobby's Wedding” today, and read it. I even hauled out my favorite Webster's (the college edition, copyright 1960).

First, I think you're right that the purpose of the book is to show a central event, the wedding of two male characters, as no big thing. The emotional center of the story, of course, is Chloe's fear that she's losing a favorite uncle to another relationship. That fear, I think, is real enough to be an issue for a lot of young children. But yes, Sarah Brannen clearly was trying to portray gay marriage as normal, as not nearly so important as the changing relationship between a young person and her favorite uncle.

Your second issue is a little trickier. You say that the book is inappropriate, and I infer that your reason is the topic itself: gay marriage. I think a lot of adults imagine that what defines a children's book is the subject. But that's not the case. Children's books deal with anything and everything. There are children's books about death (even suicide), adult alcoholism, family violence, and more. Even the most common fairy tales have their grim side: the father and stepmother of Hansel and Gretel, facing hunger and poverty, take the children into the woods, and abandon them to die! Little Red Riding Hood (in the original version, anyhow) was eaten by the wolf along with granny. There's a fascinating book about this, by the bye, called “The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,” by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. His thesis is that both the purpose and power of children's literature is to help young people begin to make sense of the world. There is a lot out there that is confusing, or faintly threatening, and even dangerous in the world. Stories help children name their fears, understand them, work out strategies for dealing with life. In Hansel and Gretel, children learn that cleverness and mutual support might help you to escape bad situations. In Little Red Riding Hood, they learn not to talk to big bad strangers. Of course, not all children's books deal with “difficult issues,” maybe not even most of them. But it's not unusual.

So what defines a children's book is the treatment, not the topic. “Uncle Bobby's Wedding” is 27-28 pages long (if you count the dedication page). Generally, there are about 30 words per page, and each page is illustrated. The main character, and the key perspective, is that of a young girl. The book is published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, “a division of Penguin Young Readers Group.” The Cataloging in Publication information (on the back side of the title page) shows that the catalogers of the Library of Congress identified it as an “E” book – easy or beginning reader. Bottom line: It's hard for me to see it as anything but a children's book.

You suggested that the book could be “placed in an area designating the subject matter,” or “labeled for parental guidance” by stating that “some material may be inappropriate for young children.” I have two responses. First, we tried the “parenting collection” approach a couple of times in my history here. And here's what we found: nobody uses them. They constitute a barrier to discovery and use. The books there – and some very fine ones -- just got lost. In the second case, I believe that every book in the children's area, particularly in the area where usually the parent is reading the book aloud, involves parental guidance. The labeling issue is tricky, too: is the topic just homosexuality? Where babies come from? Authority figures that can't be trusted? Stepmothers who abandon their children to die?

Ultimately, such labels make up a governmental determination of the moral value of the story. It seems to me – as a father who has done a lot of reading to his kids over the years – that that kind of decision is up to the parents, not the library. Because here's the truth of the matter: not every parent has the same value system.

You feel that a book about gay marriage is inappropriate for young children. But another book in our collection, “Daddy's Roommate,” was requested by a mother whose husband left her, and their young son, for another man. She was looking for a way to begin talking about this with son. Another book, “Alfie's Home,” was purchased at the request of another mother looking for a way to talk about the suspected homosexuality of her young son from a Christian perspective. There are gay parents in Douglas County, right now, who also pay taxes, and also look for materials to support their views. We don't have very many books on this topic, but we do have a handful.

In short, most of the books we have are designed not to interfere with parents' notions of how to raise their children, but to support them. But not every parent is looking for the same thing.

Your third point, about the founders' vision of America, is something that has been a matter of keen interest to me most of my adult life. In fact, I even wrote a book about it, where I went back and read the founders' early writings about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. What a fascinating time to be alive! What astonishing minds! Here's what I learned: our whole system of government was based on the idea that the purpose of the state was to preserve individual liberties, not to dictate them. The founders uniformly despised many practices in England that compromised matters of individual conscience by restricting freedom of speech. Freedom of speech – the right to talk, write, publish, discuss – was so important to the founders that it was the first amendment to the Constitution – and without it, the Constitution never would have been ratified.

How then, can we claim that the founders would support the restriction of access to a book that really is just about an idea, to be accepted or rejected as you choose? What harm has this book done to anyone? Your seven year old told you, “Boys are not supposed to marry.” In other words, you have taught her your values, and those values have taken hold. That's what parents are supposed to do, and clearly, exposure to this book, or several, doesn't just overthrow that parental influence. It does, of course, provide evidence that not everybody agrees with each other; but that's true, isn't it?

The second part of your third point was your belief that marriage was between a man and a woman. My Webster's actually gives several definitions of marriage: “1. the state of being married; relation between husband and wife...; 2. the act of marrying, wedding; 3. the rite or form used in marrying; 4. any close or intimate union.” Definitions 2-4, even as far back as 1960, could be stretched to include a wedding between two men. Word definitions change; legal rights change. In some parts of America, at least today, gay marriage is legal. If it's legal, then how could writing a book about it be inappropriate?

Finally, then, I conclude that “Uncle Bobby's Wedding” is a children's book, appropriately categorized and shelved in our children's picture book area. I fully appreciate that you, and some of your friends, strongly disagree with its viewpoint. But if the library is doing its job, there are lots of books in our collection that people won't agree with; there are certainly many that I object to. Library collections don't imply endorsement; they imply access to the many different ideas of our culture, which is precisely our purpose in public life.

As noted in our policies, you do have the right to appeal my decision to the Board of Trustees. If you'd like to do that, let me know, and I can schedule a meeting. Meanwhile, I'm more than happy to discuss this further with you. I do appreciate many things: your obvious value of reading, your frank and loving relationship with your child, your willingness to raise issues of importance to you in the public square, and more. Thank you, very much, for taking the time to raise your concerns with me. Although I suspect you may not agree with my decision, I hope it's clear that I've given it a great deal of thought, and believe it is in accordance with both our guiding principles, and those, incidentally, of the founders of our nation.

Best wishes to you and your family,

Turning 54

Just back from a 2-night trip up to Estes Park for my birthday. Thank you, Suzanne, for renting a cabin for a couple of nights in so beautiful a location (McGregor Mountain Lodge)!

I noticed with some interest that I never even touched anything electronic. No email. No Palm. No blogging. No cell phone (except to determine that no service was available, about which I was frankly delighted). I read a new book ("Lost Dorsai" by Gordon Dickson). I read an old book, one of my favorites -- "The Superlative Horse," by Jean Merrill. I wrote in my little Target travel journal, while sitting out on the porch of our cabin, listening to the thrumming of hummingbirds, watching the antics of chipmunks and marmots (one of whom sounded his barbaric yawp to me, ululating his diaphragm). I enjoyed our get-together with Claudine Perrault and her family for drinks (where we got to hear Claudine's daughter lead us in some camp chants). I enjoyed the company of my family. Suzanne and I have children who are growing into some of the most fascinating people I know.

It was good to have a break. Before I left, there were a number of intense encounters at work. Some were most wonderful: a visit by two high school age young men, seeking to improve library management of our comic books; some conversations with state library colleagues. Other encounters were a little less positive: angry emails from patrons (protesting a potential mill levy, and detailing some concerns about catalog-searching functions), a letter to the editor from a man who seemed to assert that it is the job of libraries to demur to the will of the majority even in the consideration of ideas. I've dealt with bullies all my life, and this last is just ideological bullying.

My week ended with a public meeting in Highlands Ranch, in which a few, but probing, individuals wanted to know library plans, and asked a series of intelligent questions. To their satisfaction, I believe.

It is good to connect again with the natural world. It is good to revel in your family. It is good to remember what drove me to choose a profession I love so passionately. I love libraries for their rich respect for the individual mind, for their cost-effectiveness, for their intellectual fearlessness.

Birthdays are for me, always, a kind of reckoning. Here's what I have learned: life is good. Libraries are good.

As (perhaps) I step back into the political fray (an election for library funding), it's also good to get my bearings again. It's good to stand FOR something: the fundamental dignity and courage of individual inquiry.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Political Mind: tidbits

Just a couple of notes I know I'll want to keep track of from Lakoff's "The Political Mind:"

p. 40-41. "In the October 17, 2004, New York Times Magazine, Ron Suskind wrote of his encounter with an unnamed aide of George W. Bush: 'The aid said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about Enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now and when we act we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to study what we do."'" It's a powerful arrogance that doesn't even think it answers to reality.

p. 101. "Configurations of face and body muscles correlate with emotions through a two-way pathway via the insula, to the reward and punishment centers in the limbic system: we have facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, and so on. Via mirror neuron circuitry, we can feel what it is like to have those muscular configurations. That means that you can not just sense the musculature of someone else else experiencing emotions, you can also feel what someone else feels; that is, you can feel the emotions that go with the musculature. We have the physical capacity to feel the joy and pain of others in ourselves physically. There is a neural mechanism that says in your very nervous system: You will feel better if you do unto others as they would have you do unto them." And in the next paragraph: "In short, we are not just pre-wired for empathy, but for cooperation."

p. 148, Chapter 8: "Fear of framing." Change the frame or lose the argument, and perhaps the nation.

p. 184. "Fairness is fundamentally about equality of distribution, even in capuchin monkeys! The following experiment was performed at Yerkes National Laboratory in Atlanta. Pairs of capuchins were trained side by side to do the same task for the same reward (a piece of cucumber). Then one, but not the other, got a better reward (a grape). The monkeys who got only the cucumber rebelled. They often refused to participate in the experiment any longer, refused to eat the cucumbers, and in some cases hurled the cucumbers back at human researchers."

p. 198. "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition," by John T. Jost and colleagues. "They found that the conservative personality was marked by a need for authoritarianism and dogmatism (or an intolerance of ambiguity); that the epistemic and existential needs of a conservative person included a need for closure (in order to avoid uncertainty), regulatory focus (in order to cultivate discipline), and terror management; that the typical ideological rationalization was one of social dominance and system justification. in short, their research indicates that conservatives show a higher personal need for order, structure, and closure."

Beyond that, the final chapters go into theory of language. As I raced through it, I'm not sure I digested it all. His primary notion seems to be that without bodies, without feelings, we have nothing to communicate; that language is not just a series of abstract symbols and their structure, but a consistent pattern of "embodied" metaphors and scripts. I'll have to ponder that some more.

All in all, I find the book illuminating. There's more than brain research here, there's also philosophy. Page 266: "But philosophy is important." Changing people's mind takes time, repetition, consistent framing -- and to bring it full circle, the occasional checking in with reality.

It reminds me of a haiku I wrote:

would reality
be better if it did what
I wanted it to?

Spending my money to support causes I don't believe in

I'm reading "The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain," by George Lakoff. It fits in remarkably well with all the books I've been reading lately about brain research. I'll have more to write about this as I digest the book. (And I have to get it back -- it's due today, and others are waiting for it!)

But I've had a nagging thought that I wanted to capture. Lakoff frames American politics as a contest, at base, between the Strict Father model, and the Nurturant Parent. He calls the former conservative, and the latter progressive. There are also many people who are "biconceptual" -- whose views vary with the topic.

I guess that describes me. I refuse to let somebody else define my politics. Example: Suzanne read me an article yesterday over breakfast about an attempt to introduce a bill to forbid the use of union dues for politics. I found myself wondering: so, will there also be a bill preventing the private sector from spending money on lobbying? If I'm a member of a union, the union uses those dues for political action. If I buy a tank of gasoline, a significant chunk of that goes to the support of various political causes. Yet it's no more "voluntary" or informed than union support of political activity. Isn't this just a transparent attempt to muzzle unions, while retaining an advantage for business? But the core objection -- use of my money for causes I don't support -- is precisely the same.

As I've written before, I'm a believer in a strong public AND private sector. Both are necessary; neither can be defined in terms of the others; both serve essential purposes. Here's one distinguishing characteristic of the public sector: full disclosure by law. Public budgets. Public meetings. Accountability to the taxpayer. In the private sector, budgets may be hidden, meetings may be utterly secret, and accountability to the consumer a matter of protracted lawsuits (and met often by efforts to secure "tort reform" -- e.g. limits on corporate punishments).

To restate this again in the example above: when I spend a tax dollar for libraries, I know where the money goes, and why. The case is fully disclosed to the public, and decided by a vote of the community. I know there is little excess; the functioning of the institution I fund is transparent. When I fill a tank of gas each week (just one of which equals the proposed increase to my annual library tax bill), that money goes to support extravagant executive compensation, compromises the environment, and directly funds political maneuvering that has led to the occupation of foreign countries, the murder of children, and the torture of innocents. It's times like that that I have trouble defending the moral superiority of the private sector.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Leading Generation Y

Pam Nissler gave me a fascinating Master's paper by Lieutenant Colonel Jill M. Newman of the United States Army. Click the title of this entry for a copy. The paper concerns defining, recruiting, and retaining a generation that prefers to call itself the Millennials. I liked this summary: what Newman calls Generation Y was "born between 1978 and 2000 and comprised of approximately 80 million people. They are the most parented and protected generation yet. Generation Y is highly confident, highly educated, techno-savvy, adept at global and diversity issues, team oriented and multi-taskers. They are also impatient, skeptical, blunt, expressive, and have grown up with a sense of entitlement."

The paper is insightful and useful reading for librarians.

Every generation has its own kind of intelligence. As the parent of two Millennials myself, I like this generation a lot, and see much to admire. But I'll make a prediction: if the problem of the Boomers is that we are so self-centered that we destroy communities rather than build them, the problem with the Millennials is that their very collaborativity, enhanced by technology, has the potential to make them the most spied upon and oppressed people in a long time. There's a pendulum swing between individuation and social consensus; both extremes are dangerous. For all that the Boomers have been insufferable in many ways, we have enjoyed extraordinary personal freedom. Imagine McCarthyism, but this time, fed by a government with instant and detailed access to your online accounts, cell phone calls, IM chats, and more.

Newman notes the Millennial longing for the reestablishment of "a regime of rules." As I've noted before in my talk on generations, I worry that we are, in fact, raising a generation of soldiers. Soldiers are indeed necessary, as are police. But we don't want a police state, and there's more to patriotism than obedience. Obedience coupled with despotism is a recipe for conflagration. It behooves us more than at any point in history to ensure that our national course is set by thoughtful leadership.