Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hope and Professional Conferences

I didn't go to the Virginia Library Association conference this year. I looked at the list of sessions, and I only saw one or two that applied to my work, so I decided not to go. But I have to say I regret it - not because I missed my chance to "Program like the Beatles," but because I missed my chance to step back from the day-to-day details and be inspired.

It's important to spend some time thinking about possibilities rather than restrictions. We work for the government, so there are a LOT of restrictions, and it's easy to let the environment get you down. Indeed, some of my coworkers come back from conferences feeling depressed: "We'll never be able to do that," they say. "We'd never be allowed." But other people come back energized, and full of ideas about what the library could be. Even though we can't necessarily carry out every idea right now, they're ready to work on intermediate steps, and to work towards their ideal library.

This is a difficult mindset to maintain, but I think it's incredibly important to try. The library will always have to work within the constraints of being a large organization, and part of the county government - that's just the reality. Does that mean we should give up on every making changes and improvements? Of course not. And an important step in making change is setting goals.

It's incredibly worthwhile to brainstorm and daydream, to think about what we could do if we could do anything. Unless we know where we are trying to go, how will we know which direction to start walking? Change may be slow but it is possible, and when someone says "What would you change?" it's important to have an answer.

So let's go to the VLA conference, let's get excited about what other libraries are doing, let's talk about the possibilities. It's the only way we'll ever make progress.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Future of Libraries

After my last post, you may be asking "Well if you're so smart, where do you think libraries should be going?"

:) Like most library workers, I have an opinion about that and I like to be asked what it is!

I think the future of the library is as a community gathering place, like a gallery or coffeeshop, but better, because it's non-commercial and it belongs to everyone.

And if I were Queen of the Library, here's what I'd do to get us there:

1. Make the library buildings bright, well-lit, open-feeling spaces. Include lots of comfortable seating and workspaces.
2. Merchandising! Like a retail store, we're trying to get people to a) consume our product and b) think we are cool. We need eye-catching attractive displays, and ways to add interest to the uniformity of the stacks. Personally, I like libraries where I see bookstore-style shelving.
3. Designate certain areas as "quiet" or "silent," allowing the rest of the library to be a venue for conversation, meetings, or hanging out. I want people to feel like the library is a place where everyone is welcome.
4. Put a monthly or bi-monthly art exhibit in every library. It gives us some 'street cred' as a cultural venue, it gives us the opportunity to make connections with artists and their communities, and it gives people something new to look at every month. We could work with local artists associations, or with the high school art teachers. (Artist receptions are a must here. They wouldn't have to be fancy but we ought to have them.)
5. Actively fight the "strict, stuffy librarian" stereotype. Be generous about forgiving fines. NEVER act judgemental or accusing when it comes to overdue books. Be nice, be friendly, be approachable. Don't say "ssssh," don't lecture children.
6. Get a Facebook page, and start a blog. Let some personality slip into our public image! Approachability is the key.
7. Encourage volunteers - especially teens, but anyone. Give them other opportunities besides shelving picture books. Have a teen advisory council, have volunteer "computer mentor" sessions or volunteer computer lab attendants. Besides staff, volunteers are the group of people most likely to feel a sense of investment and ownership in the library, and we need that resource! We need people who care, who are willing to help. Let's let them save us.
8. Put a coffee shop in the library. That sounds really nice. (Yes, that also means we'll have to relax the food rules.)
9. Host interesting events. Particularly repeating events; give people a chance to "come every month." A repeating event can develop "a following," giving us the opportunity to work with these existing groups to generate buzz for future endeavors. For instance, your contacts from monthly art exhibits would be a huge help if you were to decide to host a large-scale art show and sale.
10. Create a "yes" mentality for projects and ideas, with the structure being 'bottom-up' rather than 'top-down.' As the new queen of the library, I'd create a clear and concise set of guidelines and directions, and within that give everyone lots of freedom. It's the people who stand on the front line every day who are the best source of information, ideas, and excitement. I want to encourage everyone to share their thoughts, share their excitement, and own their ideas. Anyone who wants to make something cool happen should have an avenue to do so.

So that's my take on the future of the library. I would actually love to hear some other opinions and other plans. What would you do if you were the King or Queen of the Library?

(Seriously, I love to talk about this, so what's your perspective?)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Flailing: Why the Library is in Trouble

Modern librarians live in fear. If you tell a librarian that the internet (or the Kindle) is killing the library, they'll dismiss you, or laugh at you, or get angry, or some combination of the three. And yet, they are terrified. The very fact that we have to constantly shout "We are relevant, we are relevant!" speaks for itself.

So...why are we relevant? Ask a dozen librarians, and you'll get a dozen answers. Computer access! Job search assistance! Fiction books! Storytimes! Reference help! Online databases! Book recommendations! Community meeting rooms! Concerts! Video games for teens! Small business resources! Programs for senior citizens! Friendly, personal service! All library workers (including me) will inform you that libraries are not just about books. Now ask them what libraries are about. In fact, ask the people I work with what our library is about. I don't think you'll get any consistent answers, and therein lies the problem.

We've all got great ideas for what the library could do. We just don't know which ones to focus on. Two years ago we were rebranding ourselves as a cultural center. A year ago, we were raving about the value of libraries to job hunters. Three months ago, we were trying to launch ourselves as the primary resource for small business. The latest issue is Early Literacy.

"But those are all great things," you say. "What's the problem?"

The problem is that this haphazard list of "great things" leaves us flailing. Our ultimate goal is to help people, but we aren't really sure how best to do it. I feel like we're a store that sells car parts, yarn and shoes, with a space in the back for ballroom dance classes. It's the "Whatever-popped-into-my-head Emporium!"

We're flailing, and we need to not be. We need to know where to focus our energies, our event planning, and our marketing. We don't want people to see us as being just about books - well, how do we want them to see us?

Recently, a group at my library began to work on a new mission statement. They collected descriptive words and phrases that they felt applied to our mission. I've seen a part of that list: "Empower," "enlighten", "global citizen." These seem like Dilbert words to me, empty of actual content. If our mission is to empower through knowledge,* what are we talking about? Legal advice? Homework assistance? Helping battered women? Colon health awareness? In my opinion, the whole process needed more time, more thought, and most of all, more direction. Someone who gets paid the big bucks needs to stand up and say "This is what we're doing, this is our focus, this is who we are." They need to be specific and then they need to stick with it long enough to let people form a new image of the library.

Tune in next time to find out my plan for making libraries vital and relevant in today's world! (Most librarians have one, trust me.)

*Not our actual mission statement. Mission statement has been changed to protect the innocent.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Interlude: What I'm Reading

An Artificial Night by Seanan MacGuire
This is the third book in the October Daye series of paranormal mysteries. "Paranormal mysteries?" you say? "Look at those covers! This sounds like trash!" Well, guess what - it's not. I liked book one. But in book two I realized that some serious worldbuilding was going on, and some complex plot arcs were only starting to develop. I find the characters appealing and sympathetic, the stories engaging, and the world richly detailed. That's all I need for a fun read!

Monday, November 8, 2010

A cool website
Obviously, the "curator" (as he puts it) has a pretty defined sense of taste. Still, it's a nice collection of work.