Where libraries go wrong

Strategic planning is an excellent and necessary thing to carry out in libraries. I am always a fan of stopping and thinking and listening. It’s how you move forward in a thoughtful, well-planned way. Libraries right now have to move forward or they will stop being useful to their communities, so getting out there and talking to the taxpayers is a fine thing.

I’m not going to claim to be an expert in strategic planning, because I’m not. Still, I see the results of strategic planning going on in libraries all around me, and I listen to the librarians who work in those places, and it feels like sometimes the process gets a little crazy.

Here’s one problem with the way strategic planning is often carried out in libraries. They hire a consultant. The consultant comes in and talks with the director to discover his or her plans, hopes, and ideas for the library. They tell about what they see happening in the trend-setting libraries. They then talk to the staff, who will tell them all sorts of things that they don’t realize they don’t quite understand. I’d venture to guess that virtually all of the time, people complain about communication. But one person might mean “Nobody tells us what’s happening,” and another person might mean “We never get a chance to talk to people in other departments”. The consultant doesn’t realize there’s a difference there, so they pick one or the other as something that needs to be fixed. Someone else might bring up their particular pet peeve, and voila! There it is as a point on your strategic plan.

They then talk with the community, usually through surveys and in person, and they ask them what they like about the library and what else they would like from the library. But they never ask it in a way that makes it clear that they are making choices. A patron might say, “Whenever I want to study, there isn’t a place to do it,” or “I couldn’t get into the program I wanted to see–they need a bigger space.” So that gets written down as Patrons want more study rooms and bigger program rooms, and it’s very true that they do. But no one ever asks the patrons, “Are you willing to sacrifice 25% of the book collection to get the study rooms?” They don’t ask “What do we absolutely need to preserve?”

They might ask if they are own an e-reader, and if they say yes, then that gets written down as “50% of the population own e-readers” but maybe they don’t ask them, “Do you still read print books too?” So that information isn’t factored in. They might ask about the website, and a patron might say, “I have trouble renewing my books online,” and voila! You have a point on your strategic plan about overhauling your website when the real problem is that, for instance, the patron’s card expired so they can’t renew their books using the catalog, which is linked to from the website but isn’t the website. The consultant just usually doesn’t have quite enough information to ask the right follow-up questions to get to the real issues.

There are other phases to the process–working with the library board, and so on–and I am sure that most of the time, the plan in the end brings up some changes that patrons would really like. I am quite sure ours did. But it seems to me that patrons, generally speaking, don’t like change very much–they like stability. Experienced children’s librarians know that you build up your program attendance by offering the same program at the same time for so long that customers learn to expect that program so they remember it exists. And we all know that every time you move your collections around, people can’t find what they want easily for awhile, and it makes them cranky. Just like when you go to the grocery store and they have moved things around and it takes longer to find everything? That’s how patrons feel when you rearrange the library. Part of our job is to keep changing enough to keep our services and collections and spaces fresh and in keeping with the community’s needs, but not so much that patrons lose the library they love.

My problem with library strategic plans is that by their nature, they are all about moving forward, often without taking care to preserve what is strong and working well. What we’re doing well is no longer very exciting. You can’t write articles about it and you won’t be presenting at conference about your outstanding DVD collection or your deep selection of folktales or crime fiction. You’re not going to be declared a Mover & Shaker, and make a name for yourself by making smooth, gradual changes and adaptations.  So we end up throwing all of our resources toward the shiny and the cutting-edge, but like the library that cut its outstanding teacher services because it wasn’t part of the strategic plan, we will be eliminating things that our patrons need and value.

Strategic planning is absolutely a great idea. I just wish more libraries did it better.

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James Gordon Dove, or, Why Writing Matters

Letter from JGDI finally had the chance over the long Thanksgiving weekend to look at a stack of old photographs. It left me curiously disoriented, because they went through such a wide range of times and places and moments in my life. By the way, one consistent thing was that my hair looked pretty great in all sorts of haircuts, and I never once thought my hair looked great at the time so let that be a lesson. Anyway, in the packet of photographs was a letter that my brother Gordon wrote as a student in Moscow in September, 1979. It came through the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki–he was one of the first US/USSR exchange students.

The letter is two sheets covered front and back in teeny-tiny handwriting, filled with specific details of the moment: “I should be enjoying it [class] but I’m tired and my pants legs are wet. Yesterday we were made to ride around in an open air bus in the rain for our excursion to the Exhibition of various achievements of the Soviet Union…In the Cosmos building we saw many, many pieces of Soviet Soyuz hardware. They had a mock up of the Apollo-Soyuz link-up and Apollo somehow looked like a huge trash can. Isn’t that interesting.”

Another part is about how another student told (in Russian) the man behind her in a phone line that the phone doesn’t work, and he recognized that she was American and began speaking English to her. “He invited her and the people with her and friends to meet Saturday night to go to the restaurant where he plays in the band (most restaurants have them) so he could practice his English. So eight of us went on a very long bus ride to the southernmost side of Moscow and were allowed into a closed restaurant by a doorman and were seated at a long candlelit table with crystal and whole paper napkins(as opposed to eights cut into triangles)” He talks about the food in loving detail, and “We also consumed 5 bottles of vodka in the traditional fashion plus a bottle of champagne. It was fun.”

Through the handwriting and the words come the voice of my brother Gordon, who died over 20 years ago. I miss him every day, and often wonder what life would have been like if he had been able to stick around. World AIDS Day seems like a good time to think about how terrible that disease was and is.

Everything is in tiny snippets now–the Facebook status, the 140-character tweet, the couple of sentences that are catchy enough to get picked up and reblogged on Tumblr, the 6-second video, and most of all, pictures pictures pictures.  I suppose if you added them all up together, you would get some kind of an idea of someone, and for some people I’m sure that the visual parts speak more vividly to them than writing would.

For me, though, I have this letter. It is four pages, concluding, “I really need to stop. It’s after midnight and I should force myself to look at the syntax homework. I sincerely apologize for the wretched handwriting. Anon. Love, Gordon.” It not only reminds me of him–his wry and observant commentary, his dry sense of humor–but it also is the gift from him to me of perhaps an hour of his time in which he tried to convey to me, personally, his experience at an interesting point in his life. He was 19 years old, in Moscow, going where he was told to go and experiencing everything that came along. My sons barely knew him, but through his letters, they will be able to see his experience through his eyes. It’s amazing.

Writing matters. And the librarian in me must add…the preservation of writing matters.

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Youth Services Showing the Way

At my library, and perhaps yours too, we are looking at our services and our staff and trying to figure out what changes we should make to adapt to the changing roles of libraries.

It will not surprise anyone that I think youth services shows us the way to go. We:

  • are friendly and approachable
  • left behind the model of shushing people long before other areas of the library
  • began thinking of libraries as places for people to go as well as places for people to gather books very early
  • understand about different learning styles
  • started getting out into communities to offer services directly to the public all the way back in the 1890s with the first Summer Reading programs
  • are experts in the books on our shelves and have a very diverse audience in ages, tastes and temperaments that we need to serve with those books
  • began creating interesting programs for kids and families decades ago as a basic service
  • create memorable experiences for people
  • talk to each other and share ideas very freely so that one library’s great idea becomes widespread
  • have provided participatory and hands-on programming for many years, long before the Maker movement
  • work with community agencies to serve the public together
  • rejoice in our work because it is so varied and fun and worthwhile
  • see the library as the center of a community

Children’s managers, I would argue, are some of the best leaders, too. They have to be, because they are juggling activities and schedules and staff and materials and space and patrons nonstop. You have to get very good at prioritizing and keeping your eye on what’s important (which is always patron service).

My even more radical notion is that every dime you spend on a children’s librarian is worth it, if they still love their job. Children’s librarians bring amazing amounts of energy and enthusiasm to their work. They investigate possibilities, look for new ways to serve people, and try to say Yes to their patrons knowing that every time you say No is a point where someone may never come back to the library again. A children’s librarian has spent time and money getting a degree where you earn much less money than a teacher, and yet they come to work looking for ways to make a difference to people, aka the taxpayers. You get maximum flexibility and you get the people who ensure that there will be lifelong learners still coming to the library for so many different reasons.

If your library is trying to sort out the future, I suggest that you look toward your youth services librarians. They will show you the way.

Posted in customer service, Management, Public libraries, Youth Services | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Getting finished and getting started

Like the library where I work, I am at an odd transitional time. The library is three-fourths done with a complete renovation. We’ll be opening a new teen center (Teen Underground–it’s on the lower level) next month. Middle Ground for middle schoolers will be opening this week, although because the rest of Youth Services is closed for construction, it won’t be reserved for middle graders to start. Three-quarters of the Youth Services collection is tightly squeezed into the front of the department, with fiction, nonfiction, and AV all living veryveryclosetogether. But when it’s all done, it will be amazingly fresh-looking and I feel sure it will be a huge asset to the community. Exciting times!

At the same time, we’ve finally finished our new website, and if you’re looking for recommendations I can tell you right now that completely rebuilding your website and completely rebuilding your library at the same time is not ideal. The bright side is, it makes it impossible to obsess over details, which of course is also the downside. But the website looks good, and we are getting ready to also launch a new staff blog which combines all of the staff blogs (fiction, music, teen, etc.) into one to showcase the staff and the collections. So that will be cool, except it’s a ton more decisions and training to be carried out.

One interesting thing about having a big role in the website project is that now I am on the receiving end of the changes staff want to make. It’s the first time I’ve been on the other side of staff requests. As head of Youth Services, I would often make requests of other departments like for room set-ups, publicity requests, or changes in cataloging. And now I wonder how the receiving parties felt when they got those emails, because I am finding it is pretty easy to be prickly and defensive. I’ll read through an email requesting that something be posted on the website, and I’ll think, “Are you asking me or are you telling me?” It’s really easy to strike a bit of an imperious tone when you’re making a request to an email group like Website Updates. I am filing that one away for the next time I need to email a request.

In addition to all that, I will now also be running the Technical Services Department for a few weeks, since the department head retired. Tech, for you non-librarians, is the department that orders, catalogs, processes, repairs, and eventually discards all of the materials we buy for the patrons. At my library, it’s a big department, and while I have been on the selecting end of things for many years, now I will be getting to see the other side of that process. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and … scary. So much money, so many details, and such a different perspective.

That’s a great thing about working in public libraries these days–we have lots of opportunities to learn new things and to grow, as libraries adapt to meet the new needs of their communities. When you’re in the middle of construction, and the guys are in there with their hammers smashing things to pieces, it’s hard not to feel some regret. After all, if you love your job, you have a lot of great memories of what has gone on in those spaces. But then you get to see the new carpet and the new paint and the new artwork and the new spaces for collaboration and study and programs and the collections, and you realize that while you will always look back nostalgically on the library that was, the new library is going to be a great place to staff and patrons to build some new memories.

Posted in Construction, Management, Public libraries | Tagged , | Leave a comment


It has been a long spell since I got to do a storytime. Right now, the children’s programming room is being transformed into Middle Ground, a space for middle schoolers, and a new program space hasn’t been built yet. So I haven’t done storytime since last April, and I miss it! Bunches!

But fortunately, I do have another opportunity in my life to spend time with kids, which is a hands-on Montessori-based program we use at my church. At the beginning of the year, we get out a timeline of the history of creation, and let’s just say the fundamentalists would not agree with this timeline. It’s made out of grosgrain ribbon, and we tell the kids that each bump on the ribbon stands for 1,000 years. We also tell them that the earth came out of the Big Bang. One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is the expectation that God gave you brains so you should use them.

It’s a phenomenal set of lessons, because it is all about wonder. It’s about how kids this age (6-9) are fascinated with how things connect, and where things come from. These presentations ask kids to spend time thinking about how amazing the universe is, that it is complex and interlocking. Just ask a question or two (What is your house made out of?) and they take off. They love thinking about how the bricks in their house were made from dirt, that glass came from sand, that wood came from trees, and that their clothes were made of cotton that grew in the ground. It’s all stuff that most of the time, they never thought about before.

I love seeing that look on their faces when they realize something, and you know that they will give it some more thought later. I always remember when my younger son was this age, and one night he was saying the grace and he (partly to annoy his older brother, I am sure) thanked God for the metal in the forks and the wood of the table and the wax that the candles were made from…until he had his brother literally banging his head on the table with impatience. If you work with kids where they are developmentally, the results are, well, wonder-ful. They make you, as the adult, think about things that you forgot to notice. They remind you to be grateful that you live in an astonishing world.

My great wish is that the children’s librarians who are now trying to work STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) into their programs see it as the great opportunity it is not just to teach facts, but to spend time wondering. Storytime should always, in my view, be about figuring out who you are and why you’re there. Science is all about figuring out how the universe works and your place in it. Don’t just give them a bunch of facts about butterflies–read a story about a butterfly and then let them look at a butterfly under a magnifying glass! Encourage them to wonder.

Wondering is where religion and science both begin. It’s where poetry begins. It’s where art begins. It’s where everything that makes life satisfying and fascinating begins. And then, help them get those facts which the library is very full of. Spark their curiosity, and give them the words and the tools they need. It is good for them. It is also fantastic for you.

Posted in Child Development, storytime, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Communication is hard

I have known how to talk for awhile. I learned my ABCs a long time ago, and learned to write fairly soon after that. I have degrees in Journalism and English and a Masters in Library Science. I write book reviews and people pay me money for them. You would think I would have this communicating thing down pretty well at this point.

But despite all of the new ways to communicate and despite being in a mode of almost constant communication one way and another, I find that communication remains one of the hardest challenges in life and in work. Here are some of the things that get in the way.

“Oh, I didn’t know that. No one ever told me that.”

You can communicate all you want, but if the person on the other end isn’t paying attention it is all for nothing. Or sometimes it’s that you told them “that” but you told them last year and they didn’t need it in-between so the memory of you telling them is gone. So you really can’t assume that because you told them, they know. You have to double-check at the time, and then you have to remind people later. Everyone’s brains are too full now, and accessing the information is increasingly hard.

“Oh, you were talking about THIS? I thought we were talking about THAT.”

It is very easy to think you are both talking about the same thing when you are talking about different things altogether. I’m finding this a particular issue with both the library construction project and the website construction project. They’ve communicated with you; you’ve communicated with them; everyone should be on the same page, and you think that you are until that horrible moment when you realize that you were talking about two different things. I suspect that the only cure for this one is being the annoying person who rephrases things and confirms things multiple times. But that’s okay–I gave up worrying about annoying people around the time I became a manager.

“I distinctly remember you telling us something different.”

This is the one where you send an email. Then someone points out that something in your email is wrong, so you write a correcting email. Then there’s a discussion on some other point in your email so now at least half of your original email has changed. So you send a final confirming This Is the Real Information email. Then two months later someone sends you your original email saying, “I thought this was what you told us to do???” And now everyone is cranky. I have no solution for this problem. You can tell people to delete the wrong emails but let’s face it–often they don’t.

“You never told us that!”

Sadly, this is sometimes true. One of the hardest parts of communicating well is communicating to ALL of the people who need the information. It is just so easy to tell one or two people something and to file it away mentally as having communicated about it. The busier you get, the more difficult it is to remember to pass along whatever information you have to everyone who needs it. I think the only solution for me on this one is to make a big point of stopping and thinking every night before I leave: “Did I tell them what they need to know?” And if the answer is no, it becomes either the last task of the day or the first task of the next day. Because as hard as communicating is, it is just about the most important thing there is.

Maybe when I am 100, I will be really really good at communicating. For now, it continues to be a lot of work.

Posted in Information Overload, Management | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Worst Children’s Books

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

I love classical music, but I don’t love ALL classical music. Some kinds of classical music–the pieces I think of as “circus music”–make me change the channel when it comes on the radio. I don’t love Sousa. I don’t love Strauss and the whole Viennese waltz thing, either. Give me Bach and Purcell and Satie and Glass but no circus music, please.

It’s just not to my taste. I don’t care for it. It doesn’t do anything for me. Does that make it bad music? No. I understand that Sousa and Strauss are great composers, and I don’t assume that because I don’t like their music it is bad. So why is it that adults so often love to put together lists of bad/awful/terrible/choose-your-negative-adjective children’s books? I’m not going to link any of them here, but if you Google it, you will find a bunch.

Usually on the list, you will find Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, and I understand not loving those books. While some people (adults, generally) absolutely love those books and they resonate for them in a good way, others of us find them creepy. Both are about mothers or other female figures being completely self-sacrificing, and that’s just not a theme that is going to appeal to everyone.

So I get those choices. But then the list writers very often continue on to some great children’s books that they poke mean-spirited fun at, and even that wouldn’t bother me except they are usually being so stupid in what they criticize. Why would you criticize Go Dog, Go for not having a plot? Why would you criticize One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish for being too repetitive? Why would you criticize Amelia Bedelia for using figures of speech that preschoolers won’t understand?

I always want to write back and explain a few little facts, like Books don’t need a plot to be funny, and Adults are not the audience for easy readers–children learning to read who need lots of repetition to learn how to read are the audience for easy readers, and Not every book with pictures in the library is for preschoolers. But I never do, because the list writers are always trying to be funny and who wants to come across as the humorless librarian? Not me.

But they get on my nerves, as do the adults who will declare that The Catcher in the Rye or some other classic they had to read in school is a terrible book. Likewise the adults who find that a literary adult book like The Handmaid’s Tale is awful, because they don’t like it annoy me. “I didn’t care for it,” is a very different thing from “It’s a terrible book,” but surprisingly few adults seem to understand that lately. To me, it’s like the circus music on the radio–it is not to my taste, but that doesn’t make it bad music.

I think almost always with the list-makers, it’s that they are reading the wrong books to their kids and they are bored. Easy readers aren’t read-alouds in general, so it’s not surprising. I wish there was a way to persuade them to take the time and make the effort to visit a library or bookstore to choose the books that will amuse them as they are reading, and then everyone concerned will have more fun. Kids won’t be getting the message that reading is boring and stupid.

I am a children’s book reviewer. There are definitely some terrible books out there. The books on these lists are never the terrible ones. They are the circus music of books–maybe not to your taste, but not terrible books.

Posted in Childhood reading, Children's books, Parents, Uncategorized | 2 Comments