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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.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Traveling librarian: Boise and Sacramento

In a three week period, I think I'll wind up giving some 10 talks to the library world. Some of them are part of my job, speaking (for free) within Colorado. Others I take time off to do (and get paid by the folks who invited me!).

Yesterday, I gave a talk in Boise, Idaho, for the public library's staff day. I was actually filling in for my esteemed colleague Will Manley, who had some medical issues. (Get well soon!) Looking for an Emergency Backup Speaker? I'm your guy.

This afternoon, I'm in Sacramento, California. Tomorrow, I speak at their staff day on the topic of intellectual freedom.

I have to say, this life of travel and public speaking is fascinating. I'm seeing libraries in a way I hadn't before. So much is context. I enjoyed walking around Boise (ranked as one of the most livable cities in America). My stroll through the main library was surprisingly revealing.

Today I walked through a few blocks of downtown Sacramento, and toured its library. (Another great downtown.) Again, so interesting and revealing.

I think every library in the United States is dealing with the same issues. One of those issues is competence of management. So far, I find that libraries around the country echo those in Colorado: I see extraordinary thrift, frugality, and conscious tracking of trends.

Another issue is use. I don't find any empty libraries. They're busy.

But there are some big issues that our libraries don't address so well:

* space planning. We need to create more inviting, exciting, interesting spaces, better engaging the attention of our visitors. If I had to pick out two key trends that still seem to be ahead of many libraries, it would be these: more displays, and smaller staff desks. I've been following my retail shopping instinct: walk in the building, circle to the right. Too many of our libraries fail to capitalize on prime space. What moves materials is face-out display. I can't think of any reason not to have at least one face-out book, video, or CD on every single shelf. And libraries still give an amazing amount of floor space to enormous service desks. These desks (a) require staffing, (b) isolate staff from patrons, and (c) consume space that could be put to better use. When I see staff behind a desk, they simply don't provide service of the same quality provided by staff side-by-side with patrons. I do understand the concern that sometimes you WANT space between staff and the occasional creepy customer. But setting boundaries, and watching out for each other, is best achieved by a fluid floor-management pattern, not by the construction of fortresses.

* collection management. My goodness there are a lot of old and ill-used materials in libraries. Lately, I've taken to wandering through stacks and just reaching out at random to check copyright dates. I'm finding materials that are 20 years old. Or more. Of course, that might be a reflection of  the next issue...

* funding. When I ask directors about their budgets, the story is often painful. The average American household spends $2.68 per month for public libraries. Contrast that with the monthly cost for home Internet access, or TV, or cell phones, or Netflix. Those home expenditures do almost nothing for the community. Libraries are builders - and are treated like beggars.

* customer service. I know from many encounters that library staff provide extraordinary service. But in too many libraries, just catching someone's eye, being treated to a smile, is more difficult, is more rare, than it ought to be. Often, I think that's an issue of space planning, as above. But I can report a wonderful exception: children's librarians just can't stop themselves from greeting and grinning. I love it.

And that's another finding, another thing that libraries do right: they hire people with a genuine passion for service, for changing lives, for the uncanny power of print.

I like the people that work in libraries. And it's a pleasure to have a chance to get to know them.

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