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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.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A haiku journey

I've been writing haiku since my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Smith, introduced them to me. I generally follow conventions: three lines of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and a final 5 syllables. Usually there's a seasonal reference, and often I try to make connections between up to three distinct images. But sometimes I break with convention.

Last week, I drove from Castle Rock to Saint Paul and back for a memorial service of one of my best friends, Bill Johnston, who died of cancer at 64. The memorial, the loving labor of his wife, Claudia, and 150 of Bill's many friends (he not only never lost a friend, he never even fell out of touch) happened a few days after what would have been his 65th birthday. 

These poems don't really talk about that. Instead, they were about just being open to the rolling vignettes along national highways. But Bill was also a poet, and a fine one. So this is my tribute to him. It's also worth noting that I left amid dire predictions of Siberian snowstorms, and returned to their aftermath, without ever experiencing anything but cold.


at Kansas truck stop
such intense concentration
on weather channel


white windmills on ridge
snowless late winter wheat field
and scattered cattle


horizon at dusk:
from shadow-stippled clouds drop 
weaving lines of ducks


midwest river land:
empty farmhouses wail with
February wind


cloud crosses jet trail:
a loose sketch of phoenix on 
western horizon


God said here you go:
an infinite canvas and
single drop of ink


snow, steam and sun stretch
into broad canvas of sky:
backlit stand of oak


bare branches over
the Winnebago River's
careless white ribbon


silos and smokestacks:
crossing state border from north
on this winter day


spinning windmill farm - 
the three or four that have stopped
seem thoughtful


I-35 sign
for Manly / Forest City:
home of Robin Hood?


billboard announces:
"we're cooking up something new:"
a Spam Museum


across Nebraska
I drive this late afternoon's
highway into sun


see trees, find water:
tangled cottonwoods border
the North Platte River


beside the highway:
my eye is drawn from dry fields
to orange plastic fence


approaching Denver
the day after big snowstorms:
steam on highway's edge

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Defragging ALA

So I'm running for ALA presidency. And I'm trying to listen, and trying to make sense of what I hear.

One of the big, recurring issues I heard at midwinter was a sense of a fragmented membership. ALA is a large, complex institution serving members with a multitude of highly specialized interests. How then, can they communicate not only to and from ALA leadership, but coordinate their activities with other divisions, committees, and roundtables?

Yet there's also a lot of duplication in ALA. Almost every group I talked to mentioned "advocacy." But to frank, we have different understandings of that word.

Effective advocacy, in my view, is based on three things:

  • marketing strategy (reach and frequency);
  • the findings of neuroscience (emotional appeal);
  • the importance of planning (pulling it all together).

Let's break those apart.

Reach and frequency means getting a message to a target audience (that's the reach), as many times as possible (that's the frequency). How many times do you have to see something before you really see it for the first time? Estimates range from 7 to 13. All of this argues for focus: if you sent to someone 25 messages 4 times each, not one of them gets communicated. They just never rise above noise. But if you send 4 messages 25 times each, people start to recognize them. Arguably, the marketing of ALA's many subdivisions falls more often into the former category than the latter. As information professionals, we just can't help ourselves from slipping in one more program, service, or value statement. And so our advocacy (even in the very limited sense of promotion) tends not to get very far.

Neuroscience tells us that changing attitudes and behavior isn't easy. But it can be done, first, with target messaging and frequency, as above. Second, we have to slip past the filter of people's "frames." So how, for instance, do you persuade a mayor or principal or dean that the library is worthy of support when he or she has already decided other things are more important? Answer: begin with a story, a very specific case of a real person who had a powerful experience. As humans, again we just can't help ourselves: we suspend our value system and prejudice in the thrill of the tale. Change begins with feelings. Then, when the message is clear, and not a second earlier, we trot out just one or two brief statements of fact, just enough to assure the listener that this is real. Finally, we need a "phrase that pays" -- a memorable tag line. Research has already given us some very good, short, clear ones. Two of them are just three words each: Libraries transform lives. Libraries build community.

Finally, ALA has come up with three broad goals that should speak to every ALA group:

  1. Advocacy. There is not a single library in the United States (and beyond!) that doesn't need to strengthen its connection to its authorizing community (that would be the people who write the checks, directly or indirectly). But some manage those relationships better than others. Let's stop having a series of half-hearted and unprofessional initiatives, and really do it right, together.
  2. Information policy. ebooks, 3D printers, copyright in the digital age, net neutrality -- the list of new services stumbling into new policy ramifications goes on and on. Librarians remain one of our society's most credible and passionate voices for the right of intellectual access. This one, too, cuts across all library types.
  3. Professional and leadership development. Again, every single one of us wants to develop the skills of our staff; we want to prepare them to lead, particularly in this moment of generational transfer. But some of us, again, are much better at accomplishing this than others are. There have been big breakthroughs in instructional methodologies, in which engagement rules. We have members and roundtables who should take the lead on this.

The point is: instead of asking what ALA can do for each division, committee, and roundtable, it is time for each of those groups to ask what they can do for ALA. (Yes, JFK said it first and better.) That is, by budging up under these three strategies, we'll do a better job of communicating our value, positioning ourselves for the future, and growing our own expertise. That's more efficient and effective than trying to build a mosaic of initiatives from the bottom up.

Note that these three goals may not be the ones we're still focusing on ten years from now. But I think they're pretty sensible for now.

Monday, February 9, 2015

ALA Membership: the rhythms of change

Shortly after I got my library degree, I joined the American Library Association (ALA) and went to my first conference. It was, for a young man of my modest means, insanely expensive. I don't mean registration and membership dues, I mean travel, lodging, and meals. I got a little help from my employer, but not much.

And ALA was big. It was impossible to catch everything I wanted to, and I spent a lot of time running between things.

In retrospect, I think I could have planned better. But at the time, I concluded that ALA activity, particularly involving conferences, was simply out of my reach. So I paid my membership, read the magazines and a couple newsletters, and that was about it. I focused my attention on local, then statewide and regional professional groups. I wound up in leadership positions in many of them (the state chapter's public library division, the state library association presidency), which was terrific experience.

I came back to ALA in a big way when two things changed: first, I was further along in my career and had more money; second, I had an issue (ebooks) that urgently required national action. ALA president Molly Raphael appointed me to the Digital Content Working Group (DCWG). I had the pleasure of working with a high level committee dedicated to getting things done. And we did.

My experience is neither unusual nor definitive. Not everyone follows the same path of professional involvement. But ALA, finally, is our biggest room, our strongest collective voice. It's where we do, or should, wind up.

At midwinter 2015, a lot of ALA members were very worried about declining membership. There are a few bright exceptions:  YALSA and ALSC have managed to grow -- reflecting a surge of interest in youth.

But to me, the issue isn't really about ALA. It's about that sometimes awkward moment of generational change. Boomers are moving out. Millennials are moving up. There are Gen-Xers in the middle, but despite their many gifts, their birth numbers are less than half of the generations on either side.

And what do we know about the Millennials, the next generation of librarians?
  • They are coming into the profession just as a near-Depression wreaked havoc on libraries of all kinds.
  • Many of them accepted less than professional positions, often at less than full time wages or benefits, just to get their feet in the library door.
  • Many of them have staggering student debt.
Why is membership falling? Give me a D. Give me a U. Give me an H.

They're broke!

But they won't always be. And eventually the Boomers, kicking and screaming, will make way for their successors. (To be fair, that same recession meant a sudden erosion of Boomer retirement savings. Scary.)

What to do about it? Well, many divisions, committees, and roundtables have already figured it out. We need a continuum of professional engagement.
  • Sign up, get emails.
  • Get info about local meet-ups.
  • Get invited to inexpensive local or regional workshops.
  • Get encouraged to present at them.
  • Get celebrated for your successes. That might be institutional recognition. It might be state association awards.
  • Get introduced to the next level conferences - and on the strength of past presentations, get free registration, or greater institutional support.
  • Get invited to an ever larger sphere of professional activity and engagement.
Along the way there are so many free tools to connect people. And being connected is part of what it means to be a Millennial.

But I want to underscore something else: it is the duty of leadership (supervisors, department heads, and directors across the board) to invest in professional growth, the essential asset of staff. There are, in fact, best practices of budgeting in this regard, and not just for libraries. How much should an institution spend on a combination of tuition reimbursement, continuing education, and conference expenses? Answer: two percent of the salary budget (exclusive of benefits).

That's not an ALA problem. That's the demonstrated need for a professional commitment by our members. Don't look for a national association to solve a profoundly local problem. Step up. Support your staff.

And have faith in the rhythms of change.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Listening at ALA

Listening is not waiting for the other person to stop talking. It's paying close attention both to the person and the topic.

I'm just back from American Library Association's midwinter 2015 conference. It was in Chicago, which happens to be not so far from where I was born and raised (Waukegan, to the north). 

I am a candidate for the presidency of the ALA. I met with some 30-odd groups in my time there, as well as speaking with dozens of conference attendees in the halls.

My spiel (the 10 second intro) was something like this: "here come my flyers, articulating my background and platform. But I believe that leadership begins with listening. So I won't read to you what you can read for yourself. My question to you is this: what do you want your next ALA president to know about your key issues or initiatives?"

And then I shut up. And I listened. It turns out that there are a lot of insightful and articulate people in the association, well worth paying attention to.

It's funny and sad how many people tell you that listening is important, but somehow never get around to it. 

What did they tell me? Next post(s)!


Haroopad

I found another wonderful tool for writing, definitely worth sharing. It's called Haroopad.

It's an open source, cross-platform, markdown-based, code folding-capable editor. You can download Mac, Windows, and Linux versions from here.

The defaults seem to be set up for writers. You can toggle views: editor and HTML viewer side by side, or viewer (on the left) and editor (on the right) if you prefer that orientation, or just one or the other. It has a constant word count display on the bottom status bar. It has lots of themes. There's an automatic focus on the current paragraph.

The best thing is code folding. (This is a neat trick that turns a text editor into an outliner. By that, I mean that you can selectively hide and reveal big blocks of text, allowing one to see or rearrange the structure of a document.) I did have to toggle it on (on the Mac, it was under File>Preferences). It works reliably and consistently by structure (header level). I love outliners.

Other cool features: full screen editing mode, search, and some markdown enhancements for tables of contents, footnotes, and more. It's easy to bump the font size up or down. It also supports and correctly displays the github syntax for Tasks.

Bottom line: you wind up with a small fast, capable environment that allows you to quickly and efficiently generate text for the web.

Issues: it exports only to HTML. No spell check. You can work with more than one file at a time, but it's not tabbed (each file is a separate window). There's no navigation by structure.

But pretty amazing for free. I actually like this better than either Sublime Text or Brackets. HarooPad weighs in at 108.9 MB in storage. 9.3 MB of memory. It's a find.

My boots

Today I picked up a pair of re-soled and re-sealed work boots. I have worn these boots for an incredible 37 years. I bought them in Bloomington IL, right after college. At the time (1978), I was a truck driver in central Illinois, delivering produce (green goods) through what turned out to be one of the most brutal winters in a century.

Later, I wore them through my hitchhiking around the country. Most recently, I find them to be the perfect boots for Rocky Mountain trails.

Not to be too sentimental about this, but these boots KNOW my feet. They are molded to my bones. We have known each other longer than I have known almost anybody.

They have 10 eyelets, so I suppose are about 8 inches tall -- I only thread seven of the eyelets, then run the laces around the boot for a secure fastening over the ankle. They have a double-lined leather interior. The outside leather is dyed GREEN. The soles (my second ever) are Vibram.

These boots were made by Supreme - a company I cannot now locate. I suspect it's because you only ever had to buy one pair of boots, and you were set for life. Possibly this is not the best business plan.

There came a time the sole started separating from the last. So I took them in to the local repair shop here in Castle Rock.

I don't remember what I paid for them originally. $150 seems about right - which was a huge percentage of my income back then. This refurbishing, 37 years later, cost another $89, which not only preserves the original investment (and fit to my feet), but is way, way cheaper than any of the alternatives I investigated.

Boots, boys and girls, really good boots, are a very, very smart investment. And do keep them up (saddle soap, mink oil, polish and polish).

In all their glory (well, half their glory):