July 23, 2003

Free Range Librarian, Volume 1, Number 2

Free Range Librarian
Volume I, Number 2 (September, 2002):

Tough Times Call For Tough Love

Karen G. Schneider

"What keeps us library types going when the dotcoms are going bust is this: We have a business plan that has stood the test of time, a plan in which generations of librarians have believed in passionately, a plan that has inspired countless library users and city councils because of its simple elegance. What we have is a bargain with history as well as brilliantly simple historical bargain. Libraries promise to share knowledge and seek wisdom. We keep that promise, whether it is with print, what we used to call non-print, or with electronic sources. We do it at bargain prices. For this society rewards us. Not much, it's true. But we have a staying power that other less clear business plans (like NetLibrary or other dotcoms) never approached."
-- Thomas Hennen, librarian, author, and purveyor of Hennen's American Public Library Ratings (HALPR)

I find it deliciously ironic that in this incredibly tough budget year, lavish corporate entreprises such as Worldcom and Enron collapsed, while little old Librarians' Index to the Internet miraculously survived, courtesy of continued (if reduced) funding through our state funding source, the Library of California. It's a credit to how much we are appreciated (and to how little it takes to keep us going).

Nevertheless, there have been rough moments when I had to ask myself, if we were cut to the point where we could not pay our staff for all or part of our budget year, what would we do? Would we "just leave up the site," as someone suggested, while we looked for other funding? I rejected that idea--leaving an abandoned Web site up sounded too much like Scarlett O'Hara dressing up in her mother's curtains and insisting to Rhett Butler that everything at war-shocked Tara was just fine.

But if I had chosen to darken our site, leaving a page up to let our users know that we weren't really in service, I know the bleeding-heart liberal in me would surface in the wee hours, tormenting me in its scolding voice for denying services to the information have-nots.

This is the first curse of the modern librarian: tough love hurts. Still, it's a necessary pain. Too few people understand that library services aren't really free--like all government services, they're just pre-paid. And as a profession, we haven't done a good job explaining to the public that books do not magically fly onto shelves, librarians and other library employees do not work for the sheer fun of it, and Web sites do not fix their own broken links. In large part due to the very factors that make us special--particularly our strong service orientation and our keen interest in the public good--we are all too expert at "making do," and that has made us easy targets for cuts.

Across the country, libraries are taking the responsible tough-love approach, making visible cuts and explaining their actions to their users. Libraries, to their credit, are reluctant to cut staff, in part because most administrators understand that librarians, in environmental terms, are the equivalent of old-growth redwoods--once felled, their positions will not grow back overnight. That leaves books, hours, and special services as the next logical targets.

At Queens Borough Public Library, the director, Gary Strong, has a long history in California libraries, and hence with budget crises. As a result of two massive waves of budget cuts--over 20% total reduction for the library's budget in two years--Queens eliminated its participation in the Connecting Libraries and Schools Project (CLASP), a lauded program that provides class visits, workshops, and other services to further lifelong reading. That sounds rough, but they had already reduced service hours and materials.

Still more visible cuts were introduced by Seattle Public Library, which recently closed its doors for an entire week, just prior to Labor Day, and plans to close again for a week in December. The libraries were shuttered, the Web site was darkened, and staff took unpaid leave. As SPL director Deborah Jacobs explained, the choice boiled down to closing the libraries on Fridays or taking these two furloughs--and it allowed the library to retain its old-growth redwoods, as it were, so that staff were spared layoffs.

This approach wasn't uniformly appreciated by the public or the media, but librarians definitely got it; just yesterday, a system director commented, "good move, but Seattle should have closed down during their busiest weeks of the year." In other words, this director suggested, their tough love could have been even tougher. (But Jacobs has to sleep, too.)

Brace Yourself: The Worst is Yet to Come

If you think tough love is hard this year, brace yourself for 2003-2004, when--rumor has it--budget problems nationwide will get worse, not better. Redwoods may have to be felled.

The real tragedy is that library services have to cut budgets at all. Most of us provide extraordinary services at rock-bottom prices, and most library directors I know are experts at squeezing water from stones. If library directors managed their budgets, Enron and Worldcom would not only be in business, they'd be turning a profit (can you see their senior executives sharing rooms at conferences, sorting donated books for the Friends' Book Sale, or--as I learned to do as a rural library director--using their own money to buy toilet paper?).

More to the point, the "across the board" cuts really are not equal to begin with, because most government services are funded better than their library counterparts--and the difference is primarily in personnel costs, which make up the bulk of most budgets. A recent study by the California Library Association concluded that library workers make less than non-library workers in comparable positions, and that these disparities are constant across geographic regions--and, perhaps surprising to some, unionization made no difference.

This year and next year, most of us won't introduce new services, improve salaries and benefits for library workers, or move into new technologies. We'll continue to provide our best services, and to some extent--because we really can't help ourselves--we'll even "make do." But when possible, more than ever, because we do care so much about those we serve, we'll use tough love to create teachable moments--because we owe it to those we serve to still be standing proud after the storm passes--and we have a business plan that insists we will ultimately prevail.


Free Range Librarian (ISSN Pending).
Originally published 9-2002.
Reissued 7-2003 at http://fr.bluehighways.com/

Posted by kgs at 08:28 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Free Range Librarian, Volume 1, Number 1

Free Range Librarian

Volume 1, Number 1

The Gospel According To Marvin:
A Review of A Festschrift in Honor of Marvin H. Scilken
Karen G. Schneider

I've been teaching as a library school adjunct for five years now, primarily in the areas of Internet access, policy, and organization. I have yet to ask students to buy a textbook; I never found one that met my needs.

Now I finally have a book that will be required reading--and writing--and discussion: Getting Libraries the Credit They Deserve: A Festschrift in Honor of Marvin H. Scilken, by Loriene Roy and Antony Cherian (Scarecrow Press, 2002). Everything I believe about librarianship is embodied by this book, whether we are discussing librarianship practiced at the tip of a pen circling a review in a magazine, or by virtual librarians chatting remotely with their "clients," or by a lone burner of the midnight oil patiently debugging a Perl script to make a catalog more available to her community.

Marvin was the consummate public librarian, and this collection of essays and articles is the consummate distillation of his practice and philosophy. For the uninitiated, in his later years, Marvin was best known as a librarian journalist who edited The U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*D Librarian, subtitled The 'How I Run My Library Good' Newsletter, a lip-smacking blend of practical advice and Marvin's philosophy. Marvin was also a public librarian, an administrator, a library politico, a lefty, a reading advocate, a muckraker who in the 1960s took on--and won--price-fixing in the publishing industry, as well as a kind, funny, warm man who feared technology, loved people, taught me how to write letters to newspapers, and gave his heart to our profession.

The first section of Roy and Cherian's Festschrift, "A Meaningful Professional Life," offers a historical scan of library advocacy by Lisa Bier, followed by several articles about library politics, cataloging, and beefing up circulation. While these issues cohere well as a theme around Marvin’s passions, this section lacks the fire in the belly of the rest of the book.

Section II leads with a satisfying interview, "A Conversation with Marvin H. Scilken," in which the author, Joseph Deitch, wisely let Marvin's own words take center stage, such as when Marvin explains the "Scilken Test": "if this is the sole service provided by the public library, could you get local tax money to maintain this service?" (As the discussion on videos makes obvious, Marvin always found adroit explanations for any inconsistencies in his theories.)

The heart of Section II (and really, the entire Festschrift) is "In His Own Words," Loriene Roy's carefully organized collection of over three hundred "Scilken Aphorisms." Ranganathan wrote our profession’s Nicene Creed, but the eminently quotable Marvin Scilken clearly penned our Gospel. Learn from the master:

Library finances: "We tell all who will listen, 'library service is priceless,' then we price it low."
Authors and readers: "Writers are readers first."
Book design: "A book should look and feel good in the hand."
Catalogs: "It is my belief we head many potential users off at the catalog."
Library aims and objectives: "Give the people what they want. It's their library."
Library Marketing Slogans: "Libraries are environmentally correct. (We recycle culture.)"
Library public relations: "Our problem is to get adult library users to support libraries as NRA members support guns."

Section III of the festschrift is a map to understanding Marvin, with contributions by his wife, Polly Scilken, and his sister, Marjorie Scilken-Friedman; friends such as Dan O'Connor, Peggy Sullivan, Mitch Freedman, and Jack Forman; two articles I wrote about Marvin; and a wonderful reflection by Matthew Mantel, a recent library school graduate who concludes Marvin is a "role model."

The core of Marvin's service to librarianship was his thirty years as director of the Orange Public Library (NJ), which O'Connor points out became a working laboratory and a foil for his "lifelong campaign to champion libraries and library services." Using his bully pulpit of The U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*D Librarian, his high visibility in the profession, and later, his five consecutive terms on Council, Marvin railed against anything he felt detracted from connecting the deserving public to a library filled with the latest best-sellers.

Mantel observed that Marvin had a built-in "bulls--t detector”; Marvin once called for some "imaginative writer" to write a paper about "the 'Harmful Effects of Conferences in the Quick Dissemination of Costly Ideas.'" He was eternally suspicious of fleeting fashions in library management and expensive professional "campaigns" directed at the library in-crowd, and Marvin doggedly pushed the idea that librarianship would be best served by clear, direct advocacy for the people we serve--an idea that is actually taking shape, Marvin would be pleased to know, in the formation of the Allied Professional Association (APA), a separate association that will be dedicated to advocacy and education for librarianship. Marvin would no doubt caution us to stay on track; “P.R. alone,” he observed, “will not bring in new users.”

This book is a Godsend. In the past year, I have introduced many changes large and small to Librarians’ Index to the Internet. Time and again I wished I could pick up the phone and ask Marvin’s opinion. Big fonts, or small? Feature-rich, or fool-proof? Who should I cater to: the long-term user, or the novice?

With this Festschrift in hand, Marvin can continue to be my guru. From now on, I no longer have to strain to hear his voice in my head: “If you spend time on the floor you know the borrower”; “we should devote some of our intelligence to making our catalogs intelligible to casual users”; “the easy availability of wanted books is the best public relations a library could have”; and finally, a gentle shove behind my shoulders: "the greatest factor in human affairs is inertia. Let's get going."

Techies and technophobes alike should make room on their desks for Getting Libraries the Credit They Deserve. Marvin’s legacy is a gift to all of us, and hats off to Roy and Cherian for their efforts to preserve it.


Free Range Librarian (ISSN Pending).
Originally published 9-2002.
Reissued 7-2003 at http://frl.bluehighways.com/

Posted by kgs at 08:21 PM | Comments (1)