The Modern Public Library

When I first started working at my library, it was at a temporary site while the old building was being extensively remodeled. A few months later it opened for a thrilled community. Another nearby library was also under construction using the same architects. Some elements were the same but where that library chose glass and marble and chrome for its surfaces, our library decision-makers felt that our community was old-fashioned and would prefer wood and nature motifs. So that’s what they built, and it was beautiful. But the library world has changed a lot in the past 15 years, and it was definitely time for an update.

We spent the last year under construction. This time we did not move out to a temporary site, but did the project in phases, moving people and collections multiple times. In case you were wondering, that is not fun. It is super-stressful for everyone concerned, particularly if the project includes installing a new HVAC system with its associated duct work and noise and temperature swings. But we survived, and now we are welcoming the public into their new spaces.

For awhile, I felt a little conflicted about the results. We threw out the nature theme and went with the glass and chrome look, but with eye-popping color on the walls and color and pattern in the carpets. The more adult areas are sleek and elegant, and the lighting design throughout is spectacular. We pulled out the circulation desk and added self-checks, and we downsized the public service desks. I’ll admit, it no longer feels like a quaint and cozy library as you enter, and it is not the Mayberry Library any more. I wondered, have we changed the library to not match the community?

They would have loved an update on the old look, with new nature-themed fabrics and new versions of wood furniture and wooden shelving. But the message that would have sent is one of nostalgia, prompting responses like, “Aww, here is the library like I used to remember.” That wouldn’t have been a bad thing, exactly. But would the community have continued to think of the library as a vital part of their lives? Would they have been willing to continue funding something they associate more with the past than the future? Would they understand how essential it continues to be to the community?

The message they are getting instead is: This is a whole new library. It is vibrant and gorgeous and bright. There are museum-quality installations for children to play with while picking up early learning skills. There are rooms to use to study in or to conduct meetings, with quiet space for thinking. There is a place for the teenagers to go be together and another space for the middle graders to hang out after school. There is a whole floor of computers, with a training lab for learning new things. It is all about the future.

We retained most of our book collection, and we haven’t lost sight of what the community is counting on us to provide. But we have sent the message loud and clear that we are the library for now and the future, with cozy areas and noisy areas and staff who step up to help them. We have retained the best of the past while moving forward. I am pretty proud of that.

circle area

Posted in Construction, Public libraries, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Battle of the Books

Battle

34 years is a long time. That is how long my library has collaborated with our area schools to run a Battle of the Books competition. 34 years! Last night we celebrated  with an awards ceremony for the winning team and all of the Battle participants and their families. Just today, an author I admire, Rosanne Parry, commented in a discussion of multiculturalism that book battles can really motivate young readers. And that made me think it was time to explain how we do our Battle in the hopes that maybe other libraries and schools will continue the tradition.

Battle of the Books began as a radio program in the 1930s in Chicago, co-sponsored by the department store Carson Pirie Scott and the Chicago Public Schools. There are many different versions of it around the country, but its basic structure always centers around kids answering questions about the books they have read. (This is not to be confused with a March Madness type of book face-off, which is fun but isn’t Battle of the Books.)

It’s an old-fashioned, book-centered program, just like the Summer Reading Club and storytime. It’s a classic, even when you are reading your Battle book on your Kindle. Here are some things you need to make it a wonderful program:

1. A great list of books. That’s a no-brainer, but believe me that it takes a lot of work. The children’s librarians at my library read year-round to find titles to add to the list, because 20 new books rotate onto the 60-book list every year. We include a mix of entertaining and well-written fiction and nonfiction books at the 4th-6th grade level. Some authors are perennial favorites, like Lois Lowry and Kate DiCamillo, and some books rotate back onto the list every few years, like A Wrinkle in Time or Charlotte’s Web. One of the best things about keeping the list fresh is that it motivates the staff to read new books as they come out, and the need for balance always keeps us remembering to include all kinds of books about all kinds of kids.

2. Interesting quotes from the books to make into questions. If you use quotes from the book instead of pulling out trivia, you catch the flavor of the writing, which is good for competitors to notice and more interesting for the audience, too. Here is one of my favorite questions:

First, he sharpens the pencils. Then he sharpens the chalk, and then some popsicle sticks, and then his finger. Name the book.

Our questions all end with “Name the book” and we make it a rule from the beginning that you have to get it exactly right for the sake of fairness. We do not want to be stuck in the position of deciding that one almost-right answer got points and another doesn’t. Not all great books make great questions, and there’s no question that sometimes it is hard to write questions that aren’t complete giveaways, especially with a popular book like Harry Potter, or a nonfiction book. But having some easy questions is good too. I frankly have no idea how kids get as many correct answers as they do–they amaze me.

3. Kids and coaches. There isn’t any special kind of kid you need to run Battle of the Books. Competitive kids, shy kids, big readers, reluctant readers can all be successful in a well-run Battle. What they need is a good coach. In our Battle, the teams are formed by our schools, and coached by either a librarian or a parent. Some of our coaches run a highly-organized operation with requirements for written reports, and others make it a loosely run lunchtime activity. Some coaches put in just their best team members, while others try to give each kid a chance to participate on stage answering questions. You can win with one really strong reader, and you can win with a team that collaborates well and takes lots of turns. You can have fun without winning.

4. Support from school administrations and your library administration. Battle is a partnership, and like most partnerships it requires commitment.

I’m not going to lie–it is not the easiest program to execute. But it gets kids excited about reading in a way that continues later on. They get a chance to compete on behalf of their school without being athletic. It gets the librarians reading new books so they exercise their own reading muscles. It gives us the opportunity to push our favorite authors, and to help widen the worlds of our kid readers by exposing them to other cultures, history, and knowledge. Most of all, it is an on-going celebration of books and authors and writing.

We always end Battle by inviting one of the authors of our Battle books to come speak to the kids at the awards ceremony. In my years of author speeches, I’ve only encountered one snooze that involved a lot of slides involving historical research. All of the other authors have been fun and engaging and seem to enjoy the opportunity to meet face-to-face with their readers just as much as their readers enjoy meeting a real-live author and getting their autographs. Every year, it does my heart good.

P.S. Did you get the answer to the question?

Posted in Childhood reading, Children's books, Programs, Public libraries, Reading Incentive Programs, Uncategorized, Youth Services | Leave a comment

Hey, Al and the 1987 Caldecott Committee

I love second-guessing the children’s book award committees as much as anyone. I used to even be pretty accurate at predicting what would win the Newbery, though the Caldecott has always been more unpredictable.  I spent a certain amount of time speculating on what the committee might have been thinking when they picked/did not pick a particular book. Maybe the book came out too early. Maybe it came out too late. The number of honor medals given is always great fodder for trying to figure out what motivated the committee–what does a lot mean? What does just one mean? I had some good ideas.

Now I have had the very unsettling experience of having MY committee’s choice publicly labeled as “quirky.” My longtime editor Roger Sutton has berated me for many years that we didn’t select his top pick that year, and others have wondered why another especially strong title that year didn’t win. But it is a really startling experience to have the work of your committee held up to scrutiny after so many years.

K.T. Horning, the extremely astute Director of the Center for Children’s Books, wrote a piece for the November/December 2013 Horn Book as part of a series celebrating the Caldecott’s 75th anniversary. She titled it “Hey, Al and the Quirky Choice,” and in it she says, “The selection left most people scratching their heads, wondering what made this book the ‘most distinguished’ picture book of the year. It may have even caused some to wonder what the word distinguished meant to the 1987 Caldecott committee.” She comments that “The birds that populate paradise are beautiful, and Eddie the loyal dog is appealing, but what kid wants to sit around in a waterfall-fed pool, doing nothing but eating
tropical fruits and sipping drinks all day? This is is clearly an adult’s fantasy.”

Horning also wonders if the Committee was influenced by a discussion going on at the time about the style of picture books that had been winning the Caldecott for the past few years, and if we particularly on the 50th anniversary of the Caldecott wanted to go with something more in keeping with  earlier winners. She wonders if we thought of it as an homage to Where the Wild Things Are.

Even 25 years later, I am still bound by confidentiality–discussions are supposed to be kept secret forever. I think every committee member entrusted with an award grapples with the meaning of the word “distinguished” and that all committees do their best to meet the demand of that word. I can’t say what we discussed, but I can tell you what I think myself about our choice all these years later.

First, 1986 was an incredibly rich year for picture books. The number of excellent books that came out that year was astonishing–I still have a shelf of them because they have stood the test of time that well. Some years, though more with the Newbery than the Caldecott, a particular book just blows the others out of the water, but that was most certainly not the case that year. There were about 15 books that I looked at over and over and over, and tried out on storytime groups and classes in schools multiple times.

Here’s what K.T. misses. Kids love that book. It’s one where the story begins before the first page, so you point out the mop and the bucket before the title page, and then you see Al walking along carrying the bucket and mop accompanied by his dog, Eddie, who is looking worriedly at some birds following close behind them.  You see them walking into their very shabby tiny apartment. In the picture, the room makes a box, the frame of the picture, and the door opens outside of the frame and Al is walking into the picture. You ask the kids to look at the picture, and ask if it looks like a nice place to live. (They don’t think it does.)

The story beguns, “Al, a nice man, a quiet man, a janitor, lived in one room on the West Side with his faithful dog, Eddie. They ate together. They worked together. They watched TV together. What could be bad?” Then at the turn of the page: “Plenty. ‘Look at this dump!” A mysterious giant bird pops his head into the bathroom window and says, “Al, are you working too hard? Still struggling and going nowhere? Hmmmm?” Kids know enough to be wary of sweet-talking strangers, even when they are giant birds, so they are already suspicious.

After the bird returns to pick them up, we get the first double-page spread, with a  island in the sky, which strangely has a giant bird-shaped mountain in the middle. It’s a wow moment, followed by the next double-page spread with another wow as Al and Eddie are unceremoniously dumped onto the island: “Unbelievable! Lush trees, rolling hills, gorgeous grass.” The third double-page spread is the moment that completely grabs the kids.

Hey Al 1

And here’s the thing that they notice that adults don’t always see:

Hey Al 2The beautiful and bizarre birds have human elements. It is a chilling discovery. So while the adult readers are looking at the page with Al leaning back in a waterfall, wearing a lei, with his drink in a umbrella-decorated coconut  beside him and thinking This is an adult fantasy–kids won’t be interested in this, kids already know that Al is in trouble even before the next page where he sprouts wings and his nose begins turning into a beak. At the end, when Al and Eddie have escaped and are joyously reunited after Eddie nearly drowns, the kids notice the newspapers piled up outside of Eddie’s door. They see that on the last page, Al is painting his ugly apartment so it won’t be so ugly anymore, and they notice that the endpaper facing that last page is the same bright yellow that Al is painting his room. It’s an extremely satisfying conclusion.

Now, we don’t pick the Caldecott according to whether it’s a favorite book of kids, but some books don’t come fully to life until you have used them with kids. And the elements of the book that work so well for kids are great picture book-making, with thoughtful endpapers, beautifully composed pictures that draw your eye, entertaining details to find, and the brilliant use of framing. The voice of it is also very strong. I will admit that I don’t care for the last line (“Paradise lost is sometimes Heaven found”) but other than that, I think it’s beautifully paced and with a great relationship between man and dog brought to life.

So those are the things I liked about it. I’ll certainly allow that it might have been a quirky choice, but I stand by it.

Here’s the thing I realized when reading K.T.’s piece. If someone as well-versed, thoughtful, and insightful as K.T. Horning mis-guesses when she’s speculating on what an award committee might have been thinking, then there’s just no question that we are all off by a mile when we try it ourselves. I will be a lot less certain that I know what went on during the discussions and how things played out…not that it will stop me.

To hear the results of this year’s committee discussions as they are being announced, click here on Monday morning, a little before 8am ET. Then speculate away! It’s fun as long as, like K.T., you are respectful to the committee members. We just can’t know what went on in their discussions.

Posted in Children's book awards, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Not-Disappearing Print

reading-to-son-1151008-mI want to pass along a couple of interesting pieces that both relate to whether print books will continue to be needed and loved. While I like ebooks and was pleasantly surprised when I had one to review that I didn’t miss the print format, it’s a very different experience to read on a screen. I find it difficult to get immersed in the same way, and clearly the author of this New York Times piece agrees. Even digital natives, people who are completely accustomed to electronic devices, still find a particular pleasure in print books, with their pages to turn, and the wide variety of the ways they look and feel.

The second piece was on NPR, and I wish every parent of young children could hear it or read it. It talks about how children who don’t have regular bedtimes walk around feeling almost jet-lagged a lot of the time, and not surprisingly, it has an effect on behavior. Sometimes I feel so sorry for kids walking around in the morning looking dazed with fatigue. One of the points they make here is that kids need a bedtime routine that doesn’t involve screens, because screens disrupt the body’s rhythm and throw off the natural rise in melatonin that makes kids (and grownups) sleepy.

There are some very cool treatments of picture books on iPads and other tablets, and they have their place, as do the great DVDs of picture books. But they aren’t a substitute for print picture books, with their page turns (fast one time, s-l-o-w-l-y another) and a grown-up doing the reading, and pointing things out to each other in the pictures. It’s a more peaceful experience altogether. I’ve always thought that picture books were going to be the last remaining print books to be published and purchased, because they are just so different. Holding Harold and the Purple Crayon in your hands and turning its small pages is an entirely different experience from holding the large, vertical How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Changing the rotation of the electronic device is just not the same as the feel of those sizes and shapes and weights in a child’s hands.

It is always so nice to read something that agrees with what you already thought!

Posted in Childhood reading, Disappearing print, Parents, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Disappearing print, Personal heroes, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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