Contact me

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

Sunday, October 27, 2013

iPad updates and email

OK, what's up with this? I changed no settings, but suddenly, I can't get jlarue.com email from my iPad 2. I continue to receive it from all other devices, using the same settings. When I go to the Earthlink live chat line, I can't get in because of unnamed outages. Since I continue to get email on my Windows work machine, my Linux home machine, and my Android phone, the problem isn't the servers, right? It has to be the iPad. I even did another software update (hadn't caught that in settings), which locked up my machine altogether until I forced it to shut down (hold down power and menu buttons for 10 seconds).

The lesson: one does get dependent on one's devices.

P.S. I finally got an Earthlink live chat to straighten it out. In brief, the latest Apple updates have stricter security policies, requiring a slight change to login settings, including a port change. They sorted it in seconds.

DCL wrap-up projects

I'm planning, over the next month or so, to wrap up a few outstanding projects at DCL, then to prepare a kind of "issues and directions" paper for the board. This will just call out some of the key issues that, in my mind, the board should pay attention to going forward. But I'm also trying to keep a distance here: there are many, many good people both within the staff and at the board level. While I'm proud of the work I've done here, and certainly have many thoughts about the future, I am under no illusion that the library belongs to me. It belongs to the community, and their ability to move forward shouldn't be too constrained by a single voice or vision.

iLead

Last week I spent some time with the Colorado cohort of the iLead USA project: an Institute of Library and Management Services grant that focused on growing the next generation of library leaders. That's a goal I heartily support. I was privileged to give one of the keynotes, which streamed out to cohorts in other states. I also managed to stick around for a day and hear the pre-recorded speech by David Lankes. Lankes is one of our best voices: a library professor in New York who turned his recent bout of cancer into a powerful and inspirational message of passionate librarianship. Although we hadn't talked beforehand, I saw of lot of similarities in our beliefs: the notion that the work of librarianship should be FUN; the idea that libraries aren't about technology, ultimately, but about connection and transformation both personal and social. (And lest anybody get alarmed by librarians trying to transform things, I just mean "enable individuals and communities to look around at the choices, then help them progress in whatever way they decide").

The Colorado cohort (and I'm sure others) have some very bright people involved. It's fun to work with them.

Change in Douglas County, 1990-2014

Archivists at the Douglas County Libraries have set up an appointment with me in a couple of weeks to record an oral history. I was the founding director of the district (it was a county library before then) in 1990, and I guess I do know a lot of institutional history. I also wrote a newspaper column from April 11, 1990 through January 5, 2012). So it's all online, but I gave a copy of the text file to our archivists, pointing out that somehow I lost track of about a dozen columns over the years. So we have an intern who is tracking down the missing ones, which is kind of neat. Then I was thinking about maybe packaging all of these as an ebook. 

Then Shaun Boyd (of DCL's Douglas County History and Research Center) told me that it would be 3,000 pages long. No one would read that!

So one of the tasks I might set myself next year is going through that and producing a more digestible version. There would be at least four themes: the development of the Douglas County Libraries, the development of Douglas County as a community (and communities), the development of technology, and my own intellectual development. In all of those areas, that two-decade period was a time of extraordinary change. I think I could get it down to a cheap, readable bathroom ebook. 

Thinking over my score of years here, I see the transformation of a mostly rural ranching community to a fairly privileged, well-educated community with all the trappings of modern development: the standard franchises, the big houses with big garages. While I have known a surprising number of very competent public sector managers, I've also watched the growing tendency of the Republican Party to govern by slogan: a host of right wing, fear-based alarms (we must fight the gays, the takers of our guns, the teacher unions!) that have made the political environment so toxic lately.

The Republican Party actually seems to be losing votes in each election, although it still holds sway. One wonders how long that can last.

By contrast, I remember the true statesman of my early years here: Gil Whitman and Carroll Hier, the last Democratic County Commissioner and the Republican Clerk and Recorder, respectively. These were people known for their intelligence and integrity, their fairness, and I admired them both.

My interests in life move mostly forward, but it should be interesting to muse on the patterns I've observed over the years, but haven't yet articulated.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Alaska public libraries 2013

Recently I returned from an annual meeting of Alaskan public library directors in Girdwood (south of Anchorage). Thanks to the Alaska Library Association and state library staff, I was there to present to them about several topics (nearly 9 hours of presentation). They also allowed me to sit in on their reflections on the past year, a round robin of successes and challenges (limited to 11 minutes apiece).

They were a terrific bunch of people. These are people who do what they do for love, and it shows.

Below are some of the key themes from that most interesting discussion.

- Infrastructure. I thought we had "frontier" libraries in Colorado. But of the 18 library directors in the room, 10 of their home towns were literally not on the state roads. You could not drive there. Sometimes you could get there by ferry. Often, only by plane, or, I presume, dog sled.

-  They also have what has to be the worst bandwidth situation in the nation. While many of the libraries at Girdwood (thanks to the Online With Libraries or OWL project) have gotten up to 1.5 megabits; most US libraries have already decided that pipeline is too small. And there are still some remote libraries trying to get that far.

- Right now, there are lots of building projects in Alaska, significantly (but not exclusively) funded by the state. This followed a lot of DirLead lobbying,  I gather. I saw pictures of several new and beautiful buildings. The common theme: the fundraising (matching moneys) were almost always the result not of librarians, but of local civic leaders. They stepped up, invested the time, did the asks, and were justifiably proud of the results.

- Alaska has quite a mix of authorizing authorities: there are elected governing boards, appointed boards, advisory boards, friends boards (in various states of health), and often, no boards at all. Likewise, there's quite a mix of levels of community support, ranging from the apathetic to the fiercely supportive.

- Most of the libraries were running on very tight budgets generally. Despite remarkable government programs in several areas (most Alaskans get an annual stipend from the state, mostly from oil money, ranging from $300 to $20,000), there is strong anti-tax sentiment and complaining. There are jurisdictional conflicts between cities and "boroughs" (which are, if I understand correctly, non-municipal areas surrounding cities, something like counties, I suppose). Some of the cities and boroughs are requesting librarians to track which patrons, exactly, use and pay for what. But also a few cities attempted library cuts that were utterly and completely quelled by significant shows of public support.

- Most Alaskan libraries are short staffed. I mean by that that they might have two full time people and one part-time person, and are open 6 or 7 days a week.

- Speaking of hours, some libraries are experimenting with opening on Friday night. Everywhere they try it, it's well-used.

- A lot of library directors expressed interest in the relatively rare (in Alaska) "self-check" technology. They get the chief values of the move: first, it liberates staff from repetitive motions and grunt work, allowing them to do more meaningful tasks; second, it frees up space for other public uses; and third (and less obviously) it empowers greater patron privacy. In a small town, you may not want your neighbors to know what you're checking out. Now, you can check it out yourself. But few libraries had much in the ways of savings to invest in this technology, despite the obvious benefits, and (in our case) quick payback of the investment.

- Libraries are helping their communities in all kinds of ways. At least two of them have gotten into the passport business, which is in high demand in some fishing ports.

- I was interested to hear that more than one public library director had experienced political pressure to just shut up. That is, they were pressured to be silent about various community issues, even if all they were doing was providing space for the public to talk about them. Some library directors feared, or had already been threatened with, retaliation up to and including the loss of their jobs. That speaks to a lot of fear and bullying on the part of (some) elected officials, who seem to prefer ignorance to an informed and involved citizenry.

- There is strong use, everywhere, in libraries of all sizes, of access to technology, whether PCs or wireless. People now look to libraries as an essential link in job seeking, filling out various state forms, and more.

- Most of the Alaskan libraries represented at the meeting worked with city IT departments, and there are distinct tensions between cities and libraries. It's not surprising. City IT departments are all about security. Public libraries are all about access. That's a fundamental conflict of interest. Nonetheless, many cities are trying to absorb library IT functions. So far, it not only doesn't work, it significantly reduces citizen access to information. Most small libraries have only the "IT-lite" training that the state library's OWL project has been able to offer.

- More generally, all libraries are having trouble attracting the IT support skills they need.

- Rising consortia: a Sirsi Dynix consortia, expertly managed, now serves over half the population in the state, and accomplished a relatively smooth merging of systems. There are a lot of SIRSI libraries in the state, but so far the Anchorage-area and Juneau libraries (academic, special, and public) make up the new consortium.  Look for it to grow -- and to tackle ebook issues.

- There is a strong general interest in open source software, but it sounds like only Homer and Haines have open source ILSs.

- There is a LOT of generational turnover. Boomer directors are stepping down. Millennials, often without a lot of prior work experience, are stepping up to leadership roles. (I can't help but think there's an entrepreneurial opportunity there. And I have some ideas about how to address it. Stay tuned.)

- As alluded to briefly above, several people reported the decline of Friends of the Library groups. This seemed to be about another generational turnover.

- Last year, another Colorado library director, Pam Sandlian Smith of Anythink (Adams County, Colorado), presented to the group. She clearly made an impression. A couple of them have done away with Dewey and adopted a more bookstore type display system. They like Coloradans in Alaska. We're seen as innovators and experimenters. And we are.

- Tribal issues. In some communities, there was a clear conflict between oral culture and the more text-based orientation of the public library. In others, a "place name story board" on Microsoft table computers really energized and connected with native people, especially (but not limited to) youth. Many libraries seemed to be moving into more local history preservation, with a digital assist.

- The Alaska-based Ramusen Foundation is a very powerful force and funder. They seem to have their hands in many library efforts around the state. (They don't give grants OUTSIDE of Alaska, it seems.)

- Several Alaskan libraries reported significant problems with inebriated patrons. In some cases, human services centers have started requiring a breath test before they can enter or sleep in a shelter. One director told a story about gently shaking the chair of someone who had passed out a table. "Sir," she said, "you're in the library." He roused himself and bellowed, "Sh*t! I'm in the library!?" which all agreed would be a terrific T-shirt slogan.

- There is far more awareness of the need for, and power of, early literacy programs.

- In Alaska, as in much of the nation, school library programs are failing fast.  Often, there's no library in the schools at all. School librarians are politically isolated, at the mercy of principals, and despite the evidence of their powerful contribution to academic achievement, lack advocates.

I should also say that one library director, now retiring, reported something interesting. One day, she told me, she shot two bears. Before then, she mostly had been constrained to musk oxen and elk. In case the point is not clear, do NOT mess with librarians.

In some ways, Alaska is more like Colorado than any other state I've visited. They have mountains and wilderness. They also have an ocean. On the whole, I felt extremely privileged to visit with my colleagues, and get a read on the issues there.

One disappointment: I got up at 2 a.m. to go outside my hotel and search the sky for the Northern Lights. It was raining.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Consulting colleagues, I salute you

Before I set off on this speaker/trainer/facilitator/consultant course (there has GOT to be a more concise and evocative word or phrase for this) I called a few of the handful of people in that world I know and respect. I asked for half an hour of their time. Every single one of them instantly agreed.

My questions were pretty direct. What were the upsides and downsides? What was their opinion of the market? How did they advertise? What kind of work was out there? What did they charge? How did they advertise?

And here's the thing. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM answered those questions straight up. No hedging, no trying to lock me out of the market. Many also offered advice beyond my questions. Not one of them charged me for it (although in a couple of cases I offered). 

Why? There are several reasons, I think.

First, these are really quality people. They're smart. They're incisive. They are authentic. But more to the point, they are deeply committed to the proposition that they're supposed to make things better. I like them a lot.

Second, none of the people who work with libraries were worried in the least that the work is going to dry up on them. In fact, they all said that there's more work than there are people who can handle it.

Third, they all knew me. I've been around for a while myself, and I did approach them with respect.

That's not a blanket endorsement for all library consultants, of course. I'm sure there are duds out there, and folks who offer pre-packaged, boiler-plate solutions to problems that are always more complex than that.

It kind of goes back to one of my own tenets: leadership begins with listening. And intelligent questions. And more listening. Then a bunch of thinking.

At any rate, I wanted to give a shout out to the generous souls who have counseled me and welcomed me into their fold. I'm grateful. In particular: Carson Block, Pat Wagner, Nancy Bolt, Joan Frye Williams, and George Needham. Thank you.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Leaving Douglas County Libraries

This week I announced to my board and staff that I'm leaving Douglas County Libraries. 

Two years ago, I tried to see if I could give a professional talk, for pay, once every other month. Done. The next year, I did two a month. This year, I've almost hit (a few times over the year) one a week. And boy, it's fun. (It did eat up some of the vacation time I've built up over 23 years.) I've been to Moscow, Pittsburgh, Anchorage, Boston, Miami, Sydney. I learn a lot, it pays well, I meet fascinating people, and I have a chance to deeply explore new issues. In Douglas County, I helped one library district achieve excellence. What I'd really like to do next is help move MANY libraries in that direction. I got into this profession for love, and I'm still in love. This is the best time ever to be a librarian.

So the first thing: I'm around for another 90 days, leaving around mid-January. There's nothing abrupt about it. It's a thoughtful transition. But I am moving on.

The second thing: I leave an organization that is vital, alive, well-funded, with money in the bank, with a brilliant, astute and forward-thinking board, with a staff that is innovative, conscientious and staggeringly accomplished, with a community that is one of the most engaged, active, and supportive in the world, and in an area that is one of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous in the universe. 

If you think you have the right mix of skills to be the NEXT director, I strongly encourage you to look here: http://douglascountylibraries.org/AboutUs/Jobs. It will be a while before you see the job listing, but not TOO long. The board wants to move quickly.

The third thing: very soon, I'll be moving full time to writer, speaker, facilitator, workshop leader, consultant. A lot of what I do is immediately applicable to libraries. But much of what I've learned is applicable to a much larger world. My particular interests: leadership training and development (especially for those emerging Millennial generation hires), the management of hiring processes for executives, strategic planning, and - this is key - consultation for the institutions (of ANY size) who are about to do something big. 

I would also add something else: I would like to help public institutions learn how to tell their story. Public relations staff, public information officers, hear me: we have watched the public sector pulled apart for so long. Can we not learn how to tell short, powerful tales that reframe our value, that reclaim our great significance in the public square? [Yes. Call me.]

I open my dance card to the world.