Monday, December 29, 2008

Year-End Weeding

This is the time of year when I take inventory of how much weight I’ve gained over the past twelve months. Mind you, I don’t weigh myself on a scale of any sort—that only happens when I go to the doctor. Instead, I try on various clothes in my closet to see if they still fit. Those that don’t fit get shoved into a bag that is unceremoniously taken to Goodwill as a year-end donation. I call this process “weeding,” because it is so similar to purging one’s library collection.

Like my clothes closet, library collections should be weeded at least once a year to rid the shelves of materials that the community has—ahem—“outgrown.” Items that were once stylish may now be tattered, old or just plain inappropriate (for example, why on earth did I ever think I could wear yellow?). Even more importantly, your closet—oops! I mean the library’s shelves—may be far too overstuffed to add new materials (like silk and denim!). Then there’s the clutter. How can patrons find what they really need when there’s a lot of old junk in the way? Weeding helps optimize your resources. (“Well, lookee here. I forgot all about these khaki pants I bought last year!”).

There’s nothing like a good after-Christmas sale to inspire me to cast out clothes I haven’t worn in a while! But as someone who works at home, I don’t feel compelled to shop all that often. I can wait till the end of the year to weed my closet.

Libraries, on the other hand, are constantly adding to their collections and so should constantly weed what’s no longer needed. The library will look more attractive and patrons will be able to more readily find what they want if your shelves are culled of unnecessary items. Don’t you dare hold on to old stuff, though, just because your book budget has been cut! As sure as I am you don’t want to see me wearing yellow, I am equally sure we do our patrons a disservice by having old information on the shelf. There’s no excuse not to weed . . . especially the week after Christmas when most people are doing things other than visiting the library.

How’s this for an idea? Let’s make a joint New Year’s resolution that I’ll stop buying new clothes as long as you continue to weed your library’s collection. I bet I know who’s going to break the pact first . . .

Saturday, November 22, 2008

California Library Association Conference 2008

There are many reasons I love the fall: the first day of school, Halloween and the start of the holidays, and Satsuma tangerines (yum!). But one of my all-time favorite things is the annual California Library Association (CLA) conference, usually held in November. Not only do I look forward to seeing colleagues, former students and, yes, even favorite vendors, it’s also the time when I recharge my professional batteries.

This year’s conference was held last weekend in San Jose. Here are a few highlights:

•Online homework help provider Brainfuse has begun piloting a service that connects job-searchers with online helpers who advise on writing resumes and developing interview skills. Could this service be any more timely? premiered enhancements to its online homework help product, including color graphics, a more extensive toolbar, and stick-figure avatars that high-five each other when the student does well. Hopefully these enhancements, which are being rolled out next summer, won’t boost subscription costs during a year when most libraries will be facing budget cuts.

•Speaking of online homework help, a group of librarians offering this service convened to discuss the possibility of starting a users group. Instead, we decided to create a listserv for California librarians who want to discuss all manner of issues related to homework help, online or otherwise. The group volunteered me to moderate.

San Jose Public Library staff, who led an excellent session on customer service, noted that our professional reputation tends to hinge on our keen knowledge of the collection and how things are organized in the library. They suggested we need to expand that reputation to include expertise in providing outstanding customer service. If we build a positive customer service reputation, patrons will not only come, they’ll also return.

•Kudos to CLA president-elect Barbara Roberts for giving the most inspiring inaugural speech I’ve heard in many a year. Reflecting her theme, “Reach Out!,” she admonished the membership to carry the library message to political leaders and others who may not understand what we do. She will be convening a summit with other library organizations to consolidate and reinforce these efforts. She also encouraged us to embrace best business practices and to reach across library “types” so we can work together to strengthen the association.

•And finally, just to prove that everything isn't serious work and no play at conference, here I am with a couple of state library colleagues, dressed-up as pseudo-Star Wars characters at Infopeople’s annual photo booth!

May the Force be with all of us in what looks to be a tough year ahead.

Monday, October 27, 2008

L.A. Archives

It’s no surprise that my husband Tim and I love Los Angeles. We’re both native Angelenos (Tim from the Valley and me Burbank) and big fans of almost anything related to 20th century Southern California. No wonder, then, that we happily looked forward to attending the 3rd annual Los Angeles Archives Bazaar this past weekend.

Part of the “L.A. as Subject” project, the Bazaar showcases libraries and other agencies that collect various aspects of Los Angeles history. Not only did the day-long event feature well-known speakers, such as Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, and artist J. Michael Walker, but also panel discussions on several topics, including how to search digital collections, how to use DNA to augment genealogical research, and what to do with old home movies. Four California Council for the Humanities-supported documentaries were also screened, including the much-anticipated “Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East Los Angeles,” which is scheduled to air on PBS, December 14. (We’ve already marked our calendars!).

But the best part of the day was the exhibit rooms, where more than 50 archives shared information about their unique historical holdings. Participants included everyone from USC's Aerospace History Project to UCLA’s Department of Special Collections, from the Los Angeles City Archives to the LA84 Foundation’s Sports Library. Hundreds of people browsed the displays and discussed research strategies with enthusiastic exhibitors. Tim found a photo of his childhood Little League team on Cal State Northridge’s San Fernando Valley digital archives database, while I gathered brochures and chatted with colleagues, many of whom were former students. It was heaven-on-earth for scholars and amateur historians alike.

As a librarian who periodically conducts historical research, I was amazed at the number of resources I knew nothing about. Who knew, for instance, that Occidental College houses one of the largest collections of detective stories, as well as extensive documentation of the Japanese-American relocation during WWII? I was also completely clueless about the Seaver Center for Western History Research located within L.A. county’s Natural History Museum.

Perhaps the most profound revelation, though, was the “L.A. as Subject” database, which lists nearly 300 historical collections throughout Los Angeles and beyond. As a reference tool, the list brings together primary resources on numerous topics and provides contact info, hours open, etc., for each participating archive. The interface is a little clunky—e.g., there’s no alphabetical list of all the collections and subject access is rather limited—still, this is an excellent start to shedding light on previously unknown archives.

Now, if only I had time to research the countless historical topics I’m interested in . . .

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Living Library

I participated in the most wonderful program at the Santa Monica Public Library (SMPL) yesterday. It was called the “Living Library Project” and is part of an international movement to promote knowledge through conversation. The first Living Library occurred in Denmark several years ago as a way to combat violence and prejudice. SMPL’s event was the first of its kind in the U.S.

So what happens at the Living Library? Instead of learning about a topic through printed materials or websites, patrons are encouraged to “check-out” human experts (i.e., Living Books) with whom they can converse in the library for 30 minutes. Library cards are not required, but patrons do have to sign an agreement promising, among other things, not to damage the Living Book in any physical or emotional way. The experts on hand in Santa Monica included two Buddhists, a cancer survivor, a celebrity publicist, a disability activist, a woman who advocates on behalf of overweight people, a feminist, a formerly homeless person, a woman who works for an agency that helps homeless people, a nudist, an immigrant from Oaxaca, a raw foodist, and two teenagers.

The place was abuzz when my husband and I arrived. Library patrons were jockeying for a chance to speak with an available Book, while volunteers, wearing gray “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” t-shirts, directed participants to conference rooms and tables. I signed up to meet with Rachel, the homeless advocate, at 2:30PM. As I waited my turn, I reviewed a list of suggested questions to ask my Living Book:

Why did you want to tell your story?
What makes you stereotypical/not stereotypical?
How have you been accepted/not accepted in society?
What is the most rewarding experience you have had?
What is your biggest obstacle?
Do you have a defining moment? What was it?

I chose instead to ask whether or not I should give money to street people (the answer: no — it is much better to give food coupons or actual food) and why Santa Monica has such a large homeless population. I also asked what services are available for local homeless folks.

What I learned: (1) many of the people living on the streets of Santa Monica actually grew-up in the area before becoming, for whatever reason, homeless; (2) according to the only two census counts conducted locally (in 2005 and 2007), the number of homeless people is dropping, possibly because of the good work being done by social service agencies countywide; and (3) although no one likes living on the street, it can be difficult to motivate people to change their situation even if that change is for the better — loss of dignity is one of the most powerful barriers keeping homeless people from improving their lives.

The most surprising moment came, however, when I asked Rachel how she had become an advocate for the homeless.

“Do you have a degree in sociology?” I wondered aloud.

She smiled and said that she had started off in banking many years ago, but then, after suffering a bout of severe depression, had become homeless herself. Supported and cared for by several agencies, she decided to dedicate her life to helping other homeless people once she got back on her feet. We then spent the rest of the all-too-short session talking about how rewarding her work is. At the end of 30 minutes, I shook Rachel’s hand and thanked her for sharing her story with me.

What started off as just a curiosity — so what happens at the Living Library, anyway? — ended up being a profound experience where I not only learned more about homelessness, but also met someone who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to now help others better themselves.

I hope more libraries will consider tapping into the rich depths of their local communities to share the unique knowledge of their own Living Books.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

California Reference Think Tank

I stink at predicting the future. My political candidates and causes usually lose and most people are not interested in the professional issues I’m most passionate about (i.e., homework help and library history).

Why, then, would I attend a two-day Think Tank on the future of statewide reference service in California? As a former reference librarian—and a pretty damn good one, at that—I still have an acute interest in reference and where it’s going now that most people, including librarians, use Google as a one-stop information provider. I'm also concerned about reference services for youth and wanted to make sure kids weren't left out of the statewide equation. Though the Think Tank never really addressed any particular population groups, we did attempt to forecast what’s ahead for public libraries as two futurists from the media project FringeHog guided us through a day-long scenario-building exercise based on current information-seeking and consumer trends.

Some of the “trends” were definitely old hat. “Friend-Fomation,” for instance, where folks rely on friends to find, sort, vet, and curate information, is hardly new. People have always checked with friends and family first to see what they might know about a topic or to get advice—so no surprise there.

Social networking and Web 2.0 are not new to us, either. Many libraries have their own wikis, blogs, and/or MySpace or Facebook pages, where they advertise services and new programs through electronic word-of-mouth. These days, if you want to be an opinion leader, you have to have your own blog or social network page to communicate effectively.

I do like the “trend” of eliminating boundaries through technology, which is something I think we’ve always done in libraries. Universal borrowing, interlibrary loan and shared catalogs have all become easier thanks to the Internet and borderless access. Librarians invented these concepts and have embraced them for many decades, even though some government officials may be overly protective of their jurisdictional lines. For any boundaryless library service to exist, city and county administrators must first be convinced of the benefits to their own constituents. This was true when library consortia were formed in the 1960s and will no doubt continue to be true as libraries begin to share more and more resources in the virtual world.

I raised my eyebrows at the notion of “Everyware”—a future world where information is embedded in everyday objects and places. Not only will “things” be able to think and interact with each other and us, they’ll also store, transmit and create data. Smacking a little too much of “Big Brother,” this trend creeps me out and makes me very leery of the potentially corruptible power of future technology.

Call me an old-time anti-corporate liberal, but I’m also skeptical of trends that are strongly based on commercial models. “It’s All About Me,” which describes a shift in consumer demand from conspicuous mass consumption to mass personalized consumption, is a perfect example. Customers can now buy Kleenex boxes decorated with a picture of their pets or design running shoes emblazoned with their names. Heck, I've even bought customized M & Ms celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary! But is this trend the result of customer demand or are manufacturers just cleverly repackaging their products? Successful corporations may be nimble enough to follow each market’s whim, but libraries tend to be more restricted by their bureaucratic nature and limited funding sources.

Still, librarians are an extremely creative lot and so some truly remarkable ideas did emerge from the conference. Among my favorites was the “embedded librarian,” where groups, businesses, etc., will be able to connect with a public library staff member who will become their own “special” librarian during the course of a project, etc. Academic librarians have partnered with their patrons for a long time, but this is an entirely new concept for public librarians, whose standing in their community could benefit from offering an extra layer of specialized service. My Think Tank teammates and I see a future where library service is more personalized and relevant to the patron.

We also liked the idea of “pushing” information to potential clients through radio-frequency technology. Say, for example, you’re shopping for rose bushes at your local nursery. Through radio frequency, the library could automatically send a message to your hand-held device, promoting its collection of gardening books (yes, I believe libraries will continue to offer books well into the future!). Although this seems a bit too “Minority Report” for my taste, I do like the idea of reaching out to patrons at their direct point of need.

A common theme among the various Think Tank teams was that people trust the library. They trust our expertise at being able to navigate through even the most tangled web of information. Plus, they trust that we have no political ax to grind except to advocate for their information-seeking rights. My own feeling is that the more Google creates a disintermediated world, the more our patrons are going to need us to make sense of that world. No matter how sophisticated they may be at operating computer systems, most people still need help navigating through "process." One of my teammates mentioned that she’s had to show library users how to make airline reservations on Expedia. Is this a task for trained librarians? I don’t know. But I do think this type of service is one that many of our patrons might find very useful.

Think Tank results will be shared at the upcoming California Library Association conference in November. Be watching for opportunities to contribute to this ongoing discussion.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"Navigating With Youth" IFLA pre-conference, Montreal

I attended my first IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations) conference earlier this month. Well, actually, it was a pre-conference, called “Navigating With Youth,” and I was invited to present a paper on the California State Library’s online homework help program. The conference was held in Montreal and was bilingual—French and English. The Canadians slipped easily between the two languages. For the rest of us, headphones were provided so we could hear an immediate translation of what was being said. There were over 150 participants from 12 countries, including France, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Croatia, and the Netherlands—very exciting.

Unlike other library conferences, where programs are scheduled concurrently so participants have to pick and choose among events, all the presentations were held in the same large auditorium at McGill University. Everyone pretty much stayed for every program, which was fine because they were all, for the most part, outstanding. Brief highlights of the various presentations follow below.

To Trust in Young Adults is the Best Approach/Dr. Charles E. Caouette (Dept. of Pyschology, University of Montreal): Since reading is associated with school and tests, kids need more opportunities to read outside of school. Young people are also looking for adults who will talk to them in an authentic manner and help them sort out life issues. They live in the present and distrust adults who lie and/or are inauthentic.

You Are, but IM: Connecting Young Adults and Libraries in the 21st Century/Patrick Jones (author and consultant): A proponent of the “40 developmental assets,” Jones reviewed the ten core values of YA service described in his book “Connecting Young Adults and Libraries.” Information literacy speaks directly to teens’ primary core value: independence. Kids don’t read more because they don’t have the time.

Best Practices in Library Services/Ingrid Bon (Biblioservice Gelderland, The Netherlands): Bon reviewed the IFLA young adult services guidelines. In her library, teens are given website space to provide online reviews of concerts and other local events, so they can gain a sense of community. (What a fabulous idea!)

Communauté Enfantine et Bibliothèque: La Place de l’Alcazar dans la Vie Quotidienne des Enfants de Belsunce/Elsa Zotian (France): Zotian shared the findings of a study she conducted at the Alcazar Library, where she observed how young adolescents use space and the collections. Kids there see the library as: (1) an after-school service provider; (2) a cultural place; and (3) a place to socialize. Kids like to go to the library to do their homework because it’s an unstructured environment. Immigrant children, in particular, are very aware of the free services offered by the library and exploit them to the fullest.

Connecting Libraries to Teens in the Digital Age/Karen Sharkey (teen services librarian, Vancouver Public Library): Kids love to recommend books to other kids and so Canada has created a nationwide online teen reading club.

Got Game? Greater Victoria Public Library’s Video Game Pilot Project/Kristen Andersen (Greater Victoria Public Library): The library loans console games (e.g., xBox, Wii, etc.) exclusively. Because of high demand, the loan period is seven days—a real problem for some games that take 50 hours to complete. Theft is no worse than that experienced with DVDs, but wear-and-tear is greater. Part of the collection can be reserved; duplicate unreservable copies are available to check-out on a first-come, first-served basis. The collection is advertised over local college radio.

Toronto Tunes: Toronto Public Library Launches a Local Music Collection/Lisa Heggum (youth collections librarian, Toronto Public Library): In 2006, the library established a collection of youth-oriented CDs by local Toronto bands, in order to reach-out to young people (ages 13-24). Selection was done by reading local reviews, word-of-mouth, and through suggestions from a local music store. The library also beefed-up its music book collection. A “listening list” of the library’s holdings was inserted in each CD jewel case. To promote the collection, two concerts were held at the library, featuring better-known local bands. Publicity was leaked to a local music scene blogger, which then generated lots of citywide media attention. The concert tickets, which were distributed free at the library and other youth-oriented spots around town, promoted the library’s new CD collection. Both events “sold-out” within hours and were a roaring success. In 2007, the library added a series of music-related workshops to the program. (This was my favorite presentation. Lots of potential here for this to serve as a model for other North American libraries).

Forever Young—The Library in a Post-Modernistic Reality: Experiences from Knowledge-Exchange Network Project in Library Services for the Young/Annette Waterstradt (librarian, Greve Bibliotek, Denmark): In 2004, four Copenhagen libraries formed a network to find ways to communicate with young people, ages 14-20. Their purpose was to include them as active participants in planning the future of the library. When asked how they’d like "grown-ups" (i.e., library staff) to behave, the young adults responded that they want them to have a sense of humor and enthusiasm, and be friendly, respectful, open to new ideas, helpful, empathetic, and “not tired of living” (this last one got a big laugh!). With this input in mind, workshops were developed to train staff: (1) how to communicate (e.g., dialog) with young adults; and (2) to ask “What can I do to better serve young people?” Teen opinion leaders were used to promote library services.

Où Sont les Romans qui Racontent des Problèmes? Classer Autrement les Romans pour les Jeunes afin de Mieux Répondre à Leurs Besoins et les Inciter à Lire/Soizik Jouin (librarian, Bibliothèques de la Ville de Paris, France): French librarians have developed subject classification, based on spheres of interest, and have begun to apply this process to juvenile fiction. When kids ask for books by title, they’re usually doing so for a school assignment. But when kids ask for books by subject, they’re usually pursuing personal reading. What influences teens to read?: the theme of the book (60%); the book’s title (41%); the book’s cover (40%); and librarian's recommendation (only 6%). At Jouin’s library, youth fiction is shelved by theme. A second copy of the book is shelved separately by author, if the book/author is popular. (This was the single most popular presentation of the conference, with several people asking for more information about this topic. Indeed, this is a fascinating subject worthy of more exploration).

Trends, Strategies, Success and Learning Points—The Young People’s Services Public Libraries/Heng Huey Bin (Ang Mo Kio Community Library, Singapore): The library hosts what they call a “pseudo bookclub,” where kids can participate without having read the books being discussed. The hope is that the club will get kids so excited about the books, they’ll want to read them on their own.

The Career Library/Mikkel Hellden-Hegelung (librarian, Københavns Biblioteker, Denmark): Prompted by an 80% drop-out rate throughout the community, the library decided to create a “career library,” where practitioners (e.g., doctors, lawyers, etc.) are made available to young people (ages 14-25) as advisors. The library recruits and trains the volunteer mentors and then arranges initial meetings, in the library, between the adults and the young people. Not only has the program brought in young adults who never used the library before, but also non-user volunteers who now have a buy-in into the library. (This is another fabulous project that would fit nicely under the State Library’s “Transforming Life After 50”/Boomers program).