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.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pentangle

I can't remember how I found Pentangle, but it was back in high school. Of course, like everything else, they're on Youtube. They are an odd and fuzzy bunch. But Jacqui has a voice that seems to know no bounds at all, the bass is extraordinary, and they manage to infuse an old-time English sensibility with some remarkable jazz jamming. I used to listen to these songs by the hour.

Cruel sister (with John Renbourne on guitar)

Hunting song - 13th century - listen to the round at the end

People on the highway

Train song - Rockin blues

Traveling song

Wedding Dress

Will the circle be unbroken - best version ever

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Day in the Park

I spent the day (10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.) volunteering at a booth for the Parker art festival. With me were a couple of other folks donating their time: local lawyer Jim Anest, and local restaurateur Stevan Strain, who also happens to be our current library board president. Both were articulate and passionate. Stevan is an extraordinary man.

I have several observations.

First, there is a big group of Parker residents who expressed shock that we lost last year. When told that only 34% showed up, they nodded grimly. "We need to make sure it wins this year." They talked about the trouble finding a parking spot. They talked about how long they had to wait for new materials. They talked about how important the library was to them and their children. One women said she had been sent to our booth BY her son -- who loved the library, who read all he could, who really questioned what kind of community he lived in that would vote AGAINST a library, who every time they drove past the spot where the new library was supposed to be, got angry all over again. What was WRONG with grown-ups? Lots of folks signed up to be volunteers, or to put signs in their yards.

Second, a lot of people showed up at the festival from far away: first, there was Arapahoe County, Jeffco, Denver; then Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Texas; then the odd places like Minnesota, Florida, and South Carolina. Here's the truth: arts festivals have a strong regional, and beyond regional, draw.

Third, a few folks (three out of maybe a hundred) told me why they would NOT support the library. The first said that she just couldn't afford it; we were all tightening our belts these days, and the library should, too. In this setting, you don't argue with people. But you do think: "we're talking one book per year, $24 per household. You really don't have that? You really don't think that extra $24 won't buy you far more in the way of services (books, movies, music, and programs) especially in hard times?"

The second was a senior citizen who just said that he voted against it the last time, and would vote against it this time; he could only read one book at a time, and the current library was just fine by him.

The third person said she just didn't use the library. And 16% of the county doesn't. Some of those folks don't see a need to increase their costs for a benefit they don't value.

Fourth, it's amazing to me how hard it is to get solid information into the community. Things that have never been true -- such as "the library is asking for a property tax support for a performing arts center" -- are still out there. So we tried to straighten people out: no, we're just asking for a library.

There were a couple of families I found particularly interesting: an African America family that has lived in the area for a couple of decades; a Latino family that had also been there for at least 20 years, too; a homeschooling family, that had depended on the library for all kinds of curricular materials. All of them had particular support for the library, all were people with a fundamental belief in the importance of social systems to help individuals better themselves.

Here's the big realization though: despite my profound investment in the outcome of this election, I realized that it really has nothing to do with me. It's about what the community itself wants. I do have the obligation to articulate as clearly as forcefully as possible the context and particulars of library planning. That's my job. And I still think that there are few messages of the value of the public sector in our society today.

But a community also creates its own identity as it goes along. And it decides, through each public vote, just who it wants to be, just what it wants to value.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Book "offending Muslims" withdrawn

Click the title for the news article. In brief, it describes the removal of a book from Serbian bookstores because the "Islamic Community in Serbia has deemed [it] offensive to Muslims..."

Also, "The Jewel of Medina was to be published in the United States last month, but the publisher there decided against selling the book, fearful of the reaction of radical Muslims."

Thank God, we don't have radical Christians in America.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Flame Warriors by Mike Reed

Click the title for the whole entertaining ride. Mr. Reed does a funny and masterful job of dissecting some of the more recurrent types who post on fora and blogs. I can't believe I hadn't run across this before.

"Predictably Irrational," by Dan Ariely

Here is yet another in the flood of books proving that most of the time we don't have a clue why we do what we do, and when asked, we consistently lie about it. Ariely is a lively writer, clearly deriving way more fun than you would expect from being a Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT.

The subtitle is "the hidden forces that shape our decisions." Once again, we learn that people see, hear, and feel just about what they expect, and that "framing" often determines behavior. Example: take a group of Asian-American women about to take a math test. Divide them into two groups. Ask the first group what they think about a variety of gender related issues: the state of coed dorms, etc. Ask the second group to describe which language is spoken at home, family histories, etc. The first group, subtly reminded of the stereotype of women not being good at math, don't do as well as the second group, whose stereotype of academically high-performing Asians is reinforced.

Then there's the mysterious power of placebos.

Then there's a lot of fascinating discussion (back at the beginning of the book) about how we come to judge one thing as better than another. In general, we set the "value" of something based on how it is presented to us.

What does this have to do with libraries?

Suppose librarians gave public presentations that began like this:

Health insurance for your family: $600 each month
Cell phones (3 lines): $90 per month
Monthly phone bill: $50 per month
Cable television subscription: $40 per month
Movies: $10 apiece, 2 people (not including popcorn), twice a month = $40 per month
Average cost (in 2006) of a single hardback nonfiction book: $30
Average cost (in 2006) of a single paperback nonfiction book: $19.25
Public libraries: ?????

What would you pay? Would you pay $20 a month for high speed internet access, unlimited access to comprehensive consumer health information, all the books you can read, all the movies you can watch, all the programs you can attend, free meeting rooms? Sound reasonable?

Of course it does -- and yet such a level of support for a public library would equal at least twice the average public library support in Colorado alone.

As I've noted elsewhere, there are many hands in my pocket. Few give the bang for the buck of the public library. Despite all the railing against taxes, the truth is that the "government" of the public library is far more affordable than many similar services in the private sector -- and may be used far more often, too.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Priest ascends

This is a sad story. But a very strange story, with the most arresting lead I've ever read. Click the title of this entry to see what I mean.

Uncle Bobby's Wedding redux

This is not the longer posting (see here for that). But our library received yet another challenge to "Uncle Bobby's Wedding," apparently based on my earlier response.

First, this new patron stated her belief that the topic of a gay wedding is inappropriate because same sex marriage is illegal in 48 states, and specifically, in Colorado. Second, she claimed that she knows at least 100 people ready to fill out a petition against the book.

In response to the first point, I pointed out that we don't know where "Uncle Bobby's Wedding" takes place -- it could be in California or Massachusetts. It could be in Canada. It could be in a wholly fictitious universe with its own laws. Nonetheless, I wrote, "This principle would seem to require librarians to be familiar with all Colorado laws, and to read each work we purchase, or consider purchasing, to determine whether any of the characters might violate those laws [no matter where or when they live]. Thousands and thousands of our books feature true or fictional tales of murder, robbery, kidnapping – all of which violate Colorado laws. Under this principle, there could be no books in the library in which characters escape from one country to enter another illegally – not even in [or from, which is what I meant] Nazi Germany – because that would violate Colorado immigration laws. The story of Robin Hood, in which a thief and robber is regarded as a hero, would also be forbidden." I concluded that the principle, in general, would be impossible for libraries to apply.

In response to the second, I offered to meet with the group of 100 people who share her perspective. I wrote, "To your mind, I suspect, the issue is about advocacy for a perspective you oppose. To mine, it's about the role of the public library as common and neutral ground, as a steward of public funds to represent all of the public. It's a fair topic, and certainly deserving of community discussion."

Alternatively, there are two other options: appeal my decision to the Board, or fill out the petition, give me a contact person, and I could respond to that person based on the arguments it presented.

I don't know yet where it goes from here. But it seems clear that this is an organized effort, and that my last response has been shared. I wanted to record the argument used, however, and my response to it.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Douglas County – reading too much?

[OK, this is a joke. I've been thinking about running an ANTI-library funding campaign.]

Sports dad: "I thought the Internet was ok. It's kind of like TV, ya know? But I come home one day, and what do I find my son is up to? Reading! Books, hidden under his pillow! And after last summer, he went back to school and started off with good grades. I just ... don't know where we went wrong..."

Senior citizen wife: “I thought when my husband retired he would sit on the porch in a rocking chair. Like in those commercials, drinking lemonade, and sharing little jokes with me. But NOOOO. He's down at the library every day, attending meetings, lectures, programs, coming home with all of these projects and ideas. He's reading up on history and politics. He knows more people than ever. When do I get my husband back?”

Grumpy old Republican: “yes, yes, some thing else for the kids. Bah! When I was a youngster, I was in a gang, like any red-blooded American. Now, these pansie-ass youngsters are in teen reading clubs!”

Business person: "For years now, I've been saying that the public sector needs to be run like a business. Well, over the past five years, our local library district has increased its use six to nine times greater than the rest of the nation. It did that while holding staffing levels virtually flat. They're not just running it like a business, they're running it like a successful business! [Shakes head.] What next? We're supposed to run our businesses like successful government?"

Concerned mother: “For years now, the library has seen a growth in use that I can only call obscene! 23% increase in checkouts one year, 21% the other. Last year it was only 18%. Finally! Yes, it's still way more business, but least it's slowing down. All I can say is thank God the parking lots and buildings are so crowded, especially in Parker and Lone Tree. Maybe that will scare some of my family away. I mean, there's more to life than learning!”

Tag line: "If you say yes to libraries, this can only continue."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Building a great community

Lately, I've been meeting with a lot of community groups, in the public information and feedback part of the library's planning process. I want to record a couple of things.

First, foremost, I am utterly impressed, even blown away, by my board, the Library Trustees. They are fiercely intelligent and passionate advocates for the library.

Second, but it's not just the library. Every one of them sees the library not as an end in itself, but as a sign of a community's interest in its own future. I sat today at an economic development council meeting where my board president, Stevan Strain, delivered yet another artful, articulate, and authentic call for the profound value of the library in the creation of a great city.

For me, here's the conundrum: there is strong community support in my county for some public institutions that I'm not sure always deserve it. I certainly give them props for securing that support. It's not rational. It's emotional.

But the library has earned that support, working harder than any organization I know, public sector or private, to excel, to demonstrate value, to "build communities and improve lives" (as it says in our mission statement).

But how do we translate that objective value to the heart?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Randy Newman "Harps and Angels"

After working through the weekend, I took a day off to hang out with wife and daughter (son's first day of high school, which is strange), fix the vacuum cleaner, mow the lawn, read a bit, and take a nap. Lovely.

While out and about, we stopped at the new Borders and I saw a display for Randy Newman's latest CD. So I bought it -- on sale for $14.

Man, I wish I could play piano like that. (I did play a bunch of Scott Joplin songs this morning, which was fun, but I'm only middlin' good.) Newman is not only a great shuffler, a great comedian both lyrically and musically (see "A few words in defense of our country," or "Potholes") but on occasion he can pull out songs so heartrending you can barely breathe. Examples: "Losing You," "Feels Like Home."

I think of Randy Newman as a kind of modern day Stephen Foster: intensely romantic, with a sweep of lush melody, and an eye that misses nothing.

Oh, and why not support the local economy, eh?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Reference Renaissance

I participated in a panel discussion at BCR's recent "Reference Renaissance" conference. Over 500 people attended -- indicating a keen interest in the topic. I sat on a panel and got 10 minutes to try to be "provocative." (Honest, I was supposed to.) My mindmap, a pdf, can be found here. I also put a link to it on my website.

I didn't attend the whole conference, but did get this sense: there was more talk about tools than about direction. On the one hand, that's reasonable for a professional gathering: people want to share what they've learned about new products and applications. But I didn't hear a strong, compelling vision for the future of reference services overall.

My own belief is that reference librarians are vital both to our profession and to our society. The direction of reference services in the years to come is all about community connections. It's not enough to sit behind a desk and wait for the questions to come. It's not enough just to roam around the building. It's not enough even to meet our patrons online. Tomorrow's librarians have to leave the building, actively investigate the issues of their community (whether school, academic, public or special), and try to dig in and help. One of my points during the panel discussion is that librarians, as a profession, often obsess about our status among each other, within and across our parent organizations -- which is as pointless as it is time-consuming. If we want real status, by which I mean "to be valued in the larger social environment," then we have to solve some of the problems our communities are grappling with, demonstrating our value through significant contributions of knowledge and expertise.

Paris Hilton for President

I know I'm not the first to find this. Paris Hilton came out with a major policy statement about energy use. Click the title of this entry.

I regret that I have not formed a comprehensive opinion about Ms. Hilton. We unsubscribed from cable television years ago, and I don't follow a lot of celebrity news. But this video struck me as pretty funny.

Activist lexicographers

I recently got an email from someone who hangs out at trianglefreeforum, a message board in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area, although it has people from all over. It's a lively place. In a "librarian from hell" thread I was upbraided for my use of a 1960 dictionary to respond to a patron complaint.

But just as there are accusations against "activist judges," there are also culture war complaints against activist lexicographers. Read the shocking story here.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Appreciative inquiry

Recently, my good friend Eloise May (director of the Arapahoe Library District) and I took a day to talk with the Board of Trustees of another Colorado library and engage in some strategic planning. Our agenda looked like this:

* Introductions.

* Trends. Eloise and I identified some of the big trends we're seeing in the public library world these days, among them merchandising, self-service, library as place, library as community asset, and the growing diversity of our clients/customers/patrons.

* Appreciative inquiry, stages one through three:

-- Values -- a second round of introductions that focused on what got the board members to the table in the first place. This helped some relative newcomers learn something about each other and begin to establish some common ground.

-- What do you do RIGHT? This is a so much better place to start than, for instance, "what's WRONG with us?" It helps identify strengths, assets, and real achievements. It begins to acknowledge and build a history of success.

-- How can we refocus those assets to move to the next level of library development? This discussion generates some strategic directions for the future. FROM these, it's relatively easy to generate goals and objectives.

* Revisit mission statement. Eloise said something that struck me as wise. If a mission statement is to be useful for the focusing of library efforts over the next planning period, there should only be TWO major thrusts. Not four. Not six. Not even one so large that it can't be done (eliminate poverty, for instance). I emphasized that one of the tests of a mission statement is what it lets you say "no" to -- a mission should provide real guidance, not be so broad that anything and everything is OK. On the other hand, there will always be some infrastructure issues that may not have direct connections to the mission: replace the HVAC system, make the building cheaper to operate, etc. But when you're spending all your time on infrastructure, then you're not getting to the bigger issues, and that's what boards are needed for.

The trustees chose two main emphases: promoting a love of reading, and building community. The final wording wasn't voted on; the concepts were clear.

The day ended up with a discussion of some issues in library law that new boards wanted to know about. That last might not have been the best way to wrap things up, but it made more sense to have the livelier conversations in the morning, when people were fresh.

But by the end of the day, I realized again how much I like our Colorado library community. Directors frequently team up to help each other. The people that sit on our boards are sincerely driven to make their communities better places. And planning that builds on strengths is better -- more effective, more successful in building motivated teams -- than planning that is endlessly obsessed with fixing what's wrong.