Sunday, June 3, 2012

Colorado Public Library Directors retreat

I'm just back from a two day retreat in Durango with about 40 other public library directors. Durango is a cool place, and the library, headed by Andy White, is vibrant and beautiful. I walked there one morning from downtown, along the lovely Las Animas River.

We talked about a lot of things. I presented on what we've been doing with the Douglas County Libraries e-content/ebook management platform. Then, and most powerfully, each library director gave a 3 minute update on what was happening in their respective organizations and communities.

This isn't a comprehensive overview. But it highlights the key trends, I think:

* public computing centers. The Colorado State Library's very ambitious Broadband Technology Opportunity Programs (BTOP) grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have made a big difference in a lot of towns. (See my other blog posting two entries below.) Not only are libraries helping people retool to find jobs and gain computers skills, they're demonstrating their ability to connect to civic leaders and solve community problems.

* a lot of building remodeling. Non-library users keep saying "who needs libraries?" But many libraries, large and small, are reporting the dynamic redesign of space to accommodate keen public demand. In what areas?

* early literacy. One thing has become very clear: libraries are the only public institution providing language and storytelling stimulus for children between the ages of 0 to 3. And that strategy -- reading stories, getting as many books in people's house as possible for parents and children to explore together -- is the single most powerful strategy around for "reading readiness." That readiness by age 3 is a great predictor of ability to read by first grade, which in turn predicts academic performance by grade 3, which predicts academic achievement, lifelong income, the likelihood of incarceration, and even longevity.

* community focus. I'm not sure I know all the reasons for this. Part of it is the influx of Millennials, who are generally more community-minded, both as users and as new library workers. Part may be the recession, which encourages people to look around for a little more social support. Another explanation might be the rise of library districts in Colorado, who depend upon public support, which means a greater awareness of the need to demonstrate value to funders. Whatever the reasons, many libraries were shaking themselves out of too strong an internal focus, and taking more direct interest in what is going on, and what is needed, in the larger environment. There's some amazing public programming going on out there, including a session on "yarn bombing" (where people, under cover of darkness, adorn public structures like statues, fire hydrants and streetlights with crotcheting, knitted hats, home-stitched scarves, etc. -- a kind of crafts-based graffiti). A number of libraries reported efforts to be a force for increased civility and open discourse in their cities and towns, and even to address the issue of bullying in Native American reservations.

* library cooperation. There was a lot of talk about this. Colorado libraries team up in many ways: sharing materials through a statewide courier system, providing statewide online reference assistance to students, sharing computer catalogs, and negotiating large cooperative purchasing agreements for subscriptions to various electronic resources. There's a sense that things may be changing: not so much a growing unwillingness to share, but the need to re-examine some of those projects to figure out where we get the best bang for the buck. We worked up a team to look at that issues of shared online reference work.

Despite a general decline in funding over the past several years, there wasn't a lot of whining. These directors were engaged, positive, working hard to make the most of their resources to serve their communities well.

I've worked with librarians in many states. But Colorado librarians are extraordinary. They care deeply, they tell it like it is, they take risks, they get things done, and they know how to laugh. A fun time.

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