The August Wilson Leadership Academy (Patent Pending)

Previously-scheduled train of thought sidelined by a random idea!

I believe in fair wages for all.  I also believe that folks who are in business for themselves have the right to decide for themselves just what constitutes “fair” and charge for their services accordingly.  My blue-collar roots rankle, however, whenever I get a catalog that pitches leadership seminars for $1200 a pop, not including transportation / accommodation costs.

And it’s not because I begrudge them one iota.  Nope.  Successful people inspire me, because if they can achieve their dreams–often despite major hardships–then I pretty much have no excuse, given the relative privileges and advantages I possess.  However, narrowing the gap between where I am (namely, unable to afford a $1200 seminar) and where I would like to be (able to afford the $1200 seminar but doing something else with that money instead) is what proves tricky.

Ergo, while leafing through Yet Another Pricey Catalog and muttering invective under my breath, I decided that what I’ve now come to call the August Wilson Rule applies just as much to leadershp as it does to anything else in life:  if you can’t afford it, use the library.

I’ve sung Mr. Wilson’s praises before, but here’s a quick summary for those of you who haven’t heard that particular tune:  while attending a Pittsburgh high school, playwright August Wilson was unjustly accused of plagiarism.  As a result, he dropped out of school and decided to educate himself at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.  He came in every day and got himself a world-class education with our collection, and for his efforts he received a diploma.  Currently, he is the only person in the world with an educational credential from CLP.

I’d like to be #2, but let’s not get carried away here.  At least, not just yet.

Okay, let’s get just a little bit carried away, shall we?  Here’s something I’ll try in 2010 to see how it works out:  I will read at least one current book on leadership every month, and review it here at Alchemy.  Then I’ll add it to a page called “The August Wilson Leadership Academy (Patent Pending)” so that you’ll be able to skim the list and see whether or not it would be a good fit for your own lifelong learning endeavors.

And just to make it interesting, I’m not going to necessarily pick the books on library leadership.  Nope.  We’re a little odd here at Alchemy, with our strange notions about trying to incorporate what’s useful from the Outside World into library practice.  Besides, there are plenty of other bloggers reviewing the library literature – it will be much more fun for me to try to critically analyze the larger body of leadership writings and try to separate the wheat from the chaff for my peers.

I know, I know – I have some strange ideas about what constitutes a good time.  My girlfiends and I are working on that one, I assure you.

Let me know what you think – I have a couple of drafts in the hopper, so we will hopefully get back to the other things I wanted to talk about before year’s end.  I also had another smashing idea for 2010 that I want to run by you before I vanish for my long New Year’s vacation (I actually forgot to take my three floating holidays this year – somebody, please, save me from myself!).

Tonight is the library board meeting in which the fate of the branches are decided, so I suppose it would make sense to talk about the big white elephant next, once the dust clears.  Stay tuned.

Sunday in the Library with Alchemy

Apologies to Stephen Sondheim.

I like to joke with my peers that if I didn’t work at the library, I’d be there all the darned time anyway.  In fact, I’d probably be one of those people sitting on the front steps fifteen minutes prior to opening, valiantly resisting the urge to bellow, “I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!  OPEN UP!”  I have, in fact, storyboarded an entire music video based on this concept, and will hold an open casting call for interested (read “shameless”) library staff as soon as I secure some grant funding for the project.

[Yes, I know I could make it for free.  I'd probably have plenty of volunteers, too.  I strongly believe, however, that all library work deserves a fair living wage.]

All joking aside, however, I usually don’t follow through on that threat promise, mostly because I’m still pretty serious about that whole “having a life” thing.  It is, however, valuable to get that patrons-eye-view of your library and the way it works.  So from time to time I drop by to do things, and make mental notes on my observations.  Here are some random thoughts from my last Sunday jaunt to CLP Main.

  • I’m not sure if there wasn’t any signage for the poetry reading, or if I just didn’t see the signage that was there because I knew where I was going.  There was probably signage–First Floor’s really good about that.  If I’m not looking for/at signage, is the average person looking for/at signage?  Is that a fair comparison?
  • I’m a sucker for a table with little program flyers all over it.  Is that a librarian thing, or an everybody thing?  Could our promotional pieces be any cuter?  Do people notice how cute they are, as compared to, say, the handmade things that can be just as lovely provided somebody other than me makes them (graphic design is not one of my talents)?  Will people keep them, the way I do, or throw them away / recycle them?
  • Could we record the poetry readings and keep a digital archive on our website?  Would the poets agree to that?  Would the patrons be interested in that? 
  • Time for a caffeine fix.  How on earth did we ever get by without coffee in the library?  I was a patron here, and started my career here, in the pre-coffee era – how did we survive?  I wonder how much damage is actually done by food and drink in the library – are we keeping track of that?  How would you keep track of that? 
  • Could there be a few more people here who I know?  Do I know a lot of people, or am I just more likely to be friends with people who enjoy libraries because I’m a librarian?  What about all the people I know who aren’t here – what are they doing today?  What would it take to get them into the library?  What about all the people I don’t know?
  • Do we have The Paris Review?  Is our catalog easy to use, or is it just easy to use because I know my way around it?  Is this one of the display journals?  I guess I’ll have to go up there and find out.  I know where I’m going, but would a patron?  It’s not a display journal.  Darn.  Do I go bother one of my already overburdened peers, or do I slip into the closed stacks myself?
  • Why was it entirely too easy to get into the closed stacks in my civilian garb?  Is it because of my confident demeanor and brisk stride?  Is the “staff only” sign on the stairwell gate not visible enough?  Or do people just know me by sight and figure I know what I’m doing?  Should I have brought my badge from home?

Quite a lot to think about right there.  But the day became more interesting when I was approached by a regular patron while I was curled up in the magazine room with my journal, working on an assignment for my fiction class.

Now, mind you, there were three reference librarians in proper professional garb not ten feet away from where I was sitting.  They had badges, and welcoming demeanors, and–as I know well from working with them on the daily–mad search skills at their disposal.  This brings us to the eternal conundrum:  why do certain patrons become fond of particular librarians?  If all other elements are equal, what it is that makes people fonder of some staff members than others? 

That’s not a complaint, mind you.  I love helping my regulars, and I’ve been passed over myself so the patron I was helping could get assistance from “their” librarian.  I do reserve the right to find it amusing, though, that no matter how professionally we behave, sometimes our patron interactions boil down to irrational, illogical, emotional components.    This is, I think, what some people find offputting about public library service, even as others relish and welcome it:  the emotional factor is the ever-present wildcard.

Incidentally, the poet who prompted this Sunday speculative adventure is one of our own staff members, the luminous, multi-talented Renee Alberts, whose latest collection, No Water, would make a fetching holiday gift for the literary-minded on your shopping list.  You can make the purchase at her blog, where you will also find intriguing photos of other projects in progress; those of you enjoy poetry read aloud might like this podcast of Renee reading from No Water on an episode of Prosody, the weekly poetry show aired on WYEP FM.

Do you visit the library where you work on your days off?  What sorts of things bring you into a library, despite the fact that you spend the bulk of your time there already?

More next week .  Be safe, well, and warm.

(Data)base! How low can you go?

Still waiting to hear from the state what’s going on with POWER library.  My sources tell me it might be a while.  And, as that veritable sage Tom Petty once put it, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

The plus side to waiting, though, is that you have plenty of time to scheme plan and agitate collaborate.  It’s always good to have a plan, and it’s about time you heard a little more about some of the fine people I work with, and what we do.

I will do my best to make these topics as “sexy” as possible, but sometimes there’s just no way to dress up a skunk:  librarians care, and very deeply, about electronic resources.  Patrons tend not to know, or care, how the magicians do their tricks…until the money runs out, and resources are cut.  I provide this information anyway, in the hopes that it will be useful to someone.

Allegheny County Databases 101

Library users in Allegheny County have access to three levels of database service, provided in different ways.  Let’s take it from the top down.

Pennsylvania POWER Library

This is the suite of electronic resources that is available to all libraries in the commonwealth. It is currently paid for by the state of Pennsylvania, but based on the 57.1% reduction to the line item that includes these resources, its future is uncertain.  These databases are selected and purchased by either the state library or a statewide committee of library staff, I believe–someone please correct me if this is not so.  It’s a tad shrouded in mystery, and I’d like a little more transparency on the process, myself…

EREC Databases

The Electronic Resources Evaluation Committee is a committee of the Allegheny County Library Association.  It is composed of librarians who represent different geographical regions within the county, as well as staff from the Electronic Information Network, a/k/a EIN, which currently handles the statistics reporting and tech troubleshooting for countywide electronic resources.   EREC purchases are funded from a variety of sources, which makes deciding issues about their administration (including tech support and stats-keeping) a touch complicated.

All databases selected by EREC are available to all library cardholders in Allegheny County, regardless of which library issued their card.  The committee meets once a month to decide which products to keep or cancel, discuss other electronic products on the market, set up trials, discuss the outcome of trials, and generally keep tabs on the state of library electronica. 

Individual Library Subscriptions

Each of the county’s libraries–and there are quite a lot that are not part of the CLP system–has the option to purchase individual database subscriptions with their collection development budgets.

CLP has its own Database Selection Committee (DBSC), which is made up of representatives from both Main Library and the branches, who make decisions about what, if any resources, we want to buy for CLP cardholders on top of what the county and state provide. Individual subscriptions have pros and cons, which we will examine more in detail when we discuss the patrons’-eye view of all this.

Everybody with me so far?  All righty then:

Chain Lightning

When all is working well, this three-tiered system actually functions more like an equilateral triangle, with all limbs in perfect balance, resting on a solid base.  If Bob Ross were here to paint it, he might call it a happy little triangle.

In our current situation, however, with steep budget cuts to POWER that could very well eliminate the majority of the subscription databases, a chain reaction has begun.

The current posse of fine folks on EREC are currently creating a survey, meant to be distributed to staff countywide, so they can provide feedback on what resources are key for them and their patrons.  A patron-friendly version of the survey, which will appear on the county database page, will glean info from library users.

The surveys will, hopefully, tell EREC a few important things it needs to know, namely:

  1. Which databases are most useful to library staff.
  2. Which databases are most useful to patrons.
  3. Which POWER library databases EREC should try to purchase if the state drops their subscriptions.
  4. Which EREC databases we should cancel to make room to pick up POWER subscriptions.

Do you see the bind that crops up there with points 3 and 4?  Given that the public library subsidy was cut 20% statewide, chances are good that EREC will have LESS money to spend in 2010, it will boil down to canceling some resources in order to save others.

Good times.

Whatever choices EREC makes will trickle down to individual libraries.  If, for example, a particular database is canceled countywide, each individual library may choose to research pricing, and make a purchase for its own cardholders.  Given that many vendors do their pricing by population served and/or number of cardholders, electronic resources are less expensive the smaller your service area gets.

The only problem there is that it creates little “service ghettos,” in which the quality of electronic access varies widely depending on how much collection money a library has to dedicate to databases.  This is what we library professionals like to call “uncool.”

The Patron Perspective

Patrons don’t care who buys what, what standards they use, or where the monies come from.  They simply want what they want.  This is human nature, and I am at peace with it.

Besides, look at it from the average patron’s point of view.  To her/him, does it matter who bought what for whom?  Nope.  S/he just wants the information, not an object lesson on service models.  And when s/he asks why s/he has access to some databases and not others, there’s currently no way to answer this question without boring the living daylights out of the poor patron.

If I ruled the world…

As you may have gathered, I think about these issues quite a bit.  I’ve been immersed in this stuff for about two years now, so I’ve certainly had plenty of time to consider it.  I’ve served on the DBSC and EREC, and then suddenly found myself as chair of both. 

From a certain perspective, this makes the job a lot easier:  when I get pricing for things, I can measure twice and cut once.  However, wearing multiple hats also forces me to think about everything twice as long and twice as hard.  What’s really in everybody’s best interests?  What is the solution that will be best for my library and its patrons, as well as other libraries and their patrons?

I’ve come to the conclusion that, in most cases, it really makes more sense to buy databases on a countywide level, especially databases that give access to full-text journal articles.  It seems ridiculous to have an army of little full-text fiefdoms – better to make the purchase on a wider scale, making as many journal articles available to as many people as possible.

In a way, this is not unlike the argument for opening up the gifted curriculum to students of all levels.  Trips to the ballet, and chess lessons, and visits to art museums, are just the ticket for the high-achievers.  But perhaps, if the “regular” or “under-performing” kids had those opportunities as well, it would cause them to flourish and grow?  While every library should be free to spend its individual collection budgets as it sees fit, I can think of very few situations where a boutique database is needed.

Obviously, there are exceptions, and sometimes pricing on a countywide scale is prohibitive.  Why shouldn’t a library pick up that would please its patrons if countywide pricing is not feasible?  Still, if I ruled the world, I’d do a complete overhaul of the current three-tier system.  Here are some of the changes I’d make:

  1. There would be a countywide database coordinator whose sole responsibility would be the care and feeding of the EREC databases.
  2. That person’s duties would include, but not be limited to:  researching products, designing and producing promotional brochures, scheduling–and, if necessary, teaching–training sessions, creating Camtasia and/or video tutorials for staff and patrons, maintaining an electronic resources blog to keep everybody in the county abreast of electronica, serving as liaison to EREC and whomever selects state resources, as well as being a consultant for libraries on an individual basis.
  3. And speaking of the state, a huge part of this person’s job would be to let some sunshine in on just exactly how those POWER databases are selected.  They’d also be responsible for promtion of and training on state-provided resources.
  4. If, after closer examination it was felt that was the best solution, this person would also be responsible for database tech support and statistics gathering for all the county libraries.
  5. Given the scope of 2 & 3, this person should be compensated A Very Lot.   Perhaps not as much as a director, but definitely more than the average librarian. 
  6. A subscription to The Charleston Advisor should be part of this person’s benefits package. Either that or the agency that employed him/her should pick up the tab.

You can see why I won’t be put in charge of anything anytime soon.  I can just hear you now:  “Where, foolish dreamer, is there money for that in this current economic climate?”

My only response on that point is, you get what you pay for.

If you have made it to the end of this post with your eyeballs still firmly lodged in their sockets, I salute your fortitude.  Blathering about all this has been helpful for me because I have been asked to give not one, but two, presentations about databases within the next few months, and spilling it out in a blog entry has been insanely helpful in terms of brainstorming what I want to say.

Comments / questions / clarification?  Let me know.

Gratitude. Also, outcomes and other forward movements.

Part I: Gratitude

A thought from John Galsworthy:

We are not living in a private world of our own. Everything we say and think has its effects on everything around us.

It’s been really encouraging to watch the various responses last week’s blogversation on e-mail reference, as initiated by David Lee King. Thanks to everyone who took five seconds out of her/his busy day to visit and read our perspective on the issue. It’s really encouraging to watch people discuss and comment on this. We may not always agree, but we’re talking. Only good can come of this!

Thanks, too, if you found your way here via the discussion of technology and heart. I don’t really know what else to say about this sudden fanfare for the common blog, other than, wow…look what we can do, when we speak truthfully, listen to each other, and then act!  Look what we can do.

Okay, enough sentiment – back to work. :)

Part II: Outcomes

Funny how you don’t realize you need a boost until you get one, sometimes. The reference crew has been having some excellent conversations about e-mail reference and service. It’s inspired me to take the following specific actions:

  • RK has started scheduling some of us for phone and VR at the same time.  I’ve decided that if I get a call while I’m in the middle of a chat, the chat takes priority.  After all, when I’m staffing the chat widget, I’m the lone gunwoman (for the moment).  If I can’t grab a phone call, I have backup.  The chances of getting a call and a chat at once are astronomically small…so of course it happens at least once each shift!  Still, that’s my new priority, and I’m sticking with it.
  • Based on some of the comment threads that discuss cost and staffing re chat services, I’ve decided to research and write a generic flextime/telecommuting proposal, based on observations of CLP reality.  Would it work for us?  There’s only one way to find out…
  • It’s time to take another look at the comment guidelines on Eleventh Stack. All this talk about inclusive language has me wondering if we’re not unintentionally turning people away; I mean, we get comments, but not as many as we’d like. Time to see if we can fix that.  I’m also flirting with the notion of having unmoderated comments.  After all, WP’s spam filter does a pretty good job of keeping out the Cialis ads and other drek.  My theory, though, is that moderating comments forces people to be thoughtful and choose their words carefully.  That could be good, but I’m feeling uneasy about that word “forces.”  Again, one way to find out…

Part III:  Forward Motion

Today’s an exciting day here at CLP because Encore debuted this morning. I can’t wait to work a desk shift today and find out what people actually think of it. Needless to say, I’ve been all over it myself this morning, playtesting it and tagging it. It’s clean, it’s user-friendly, it clears up a lot of things that were previously unclear. We are still offering the classic catalog view for those for whom Encore proves to be Rather Too Much – we’ll see if that fear is justified or groundless, too, I suppose.

Ryan H. worked really hard on putting this together, so I’m calling him out on his quiet toil. Who at your library today has been working hard without a lot of recognition? Maybe you should take him/her to lunch today? Just a thought.

Back to prepping for tomorrow night’s book discussion, and following up on actions from yesterday’s database committee meeting. More thoughts on both later this week.

E-mail reference and teachable moments.

So, the other day, while I was writing about technology and heart, David Lee King took a number of libraries to task for “discriminat[ing] against a certain type of customer,” namely digital natives.

My library was one of them.


I showed Richard, and he joined the discussion on David’s blog (I defer to management in such matters as speaking for the library on the blogs of prominent library bloggers). I have to say, I am not exactly thrilled with the delivery of the message – the word “discriminate” implies, to my mind, a deliberate malice which decidedly does not exist.  Everybody in this organization works their behinds off to deliver the best possible service to all patrons.

Here’s the thing, though:  he kind of has a point about the language as it currently exists on our website.  It’s been up there for eons, and it’s easy to let those sorts of things go in the “boots on the ground,” helter-skelter atmosphere of a normal day at an urban public library.

So I volunteered to rewrite the web copy.   Richard and I have been passing drafts back and forth most of the day, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to get a more user-friendly version up there soon. The goal is to be inviting and welcoming while still pointing out the special circumstances that might affect service levels.

So, the moral here is that sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it.  There are still going to be times when longer turnaround times are needed on an e-mail reference question…but I think we can say it better than that.

ETA, 4:27 p.m. Edits are up. Constructive criticism appreciated.

ETA 1/12, 5:58 PM Thanks to everyone who has visited, commented, or otherwise participated in this blog in the last few days. Much to think about! A very busy day of reference service has prevented me from writing a full update, but I hope to be back with more thoughts and questions soon.

Technology with heart

Thought for the day, from Thich Nhat Hanh’s recent work, The World We Have:

Technology has to be supported by brotherhood, sisterhood, understanding and compassion.

In other words, it’s not necessarily the tools you have, but how you use them.  When you staff virtual reference, are you merely searching for the fastest answer, or are you giving the best possible answer under the circumstances?  How do you handle a question that simply cannot be answered in 5 minutes or less (there are many that can’t)?  If your library has a blog, does it simply have a blog for the sake of having a blog, or does your blog have wit, humor, grace and soul?  If you’re on Facebook, does your Facebook group/page just sit there, or do you update it frequently with content geared toward your fans’ interests?

Your mileage may vary, I suppose.  I would argue, though, that even digital natives are human beings who respond to brotherhood, sisterhood, understanding and compassion.  Technologies should be our tools, not our gods.  Does the shiny tool obstruct our view of the humanity of the person at the other end of it, or do we look beyond that when we practice?

I put it to you, constant reader.  What is the relationship between technology and heart?

Library PR Fail?

Whoops. 2009 is only a few days old, and already the library PR problem has reared its head. In a post called Change Your Pricing, Seth Godin asks, rhetorically:

Could the library charge frequent readers more?

Sigh. And we work so hard telling people libraries are free. What are we doing wrong?

For the moment, let’s not bring up overdue fines or late fees, which are only incurred by a small swath of borrowers. For the majority of public libraries in the U.S., getting a card is FREE, borrowing materials is FREE, and attending programs is FREE.

I don’t know how much more emphatic we can get.

SHOULD we be charging? Let’s not go there, either….

Sustainability. Also, questions I ask myself.

Remember me, your friendly neighborhood alchemist?  I know – bad library blogger!

Or am I?  I’ve just read Helene B.’s thoughts on sustainability, and couldn’t agree more. Perhaps not everything is meant to last forever? The original goal of this particular blog was to chart my learning curve in my new position; after eight months, it is probably time to change focus.

There are certainly a number of different possibilities I’d like to explore; in fact, most of my recent ponderings don’t necessarily involve Web 2.0 applications. Some of the questions I ask myself as I look around the library are:

  • Why is there no index to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette? Who would be foolhardy enough to take on such a task, and how would we pay for it? Would there be grant money for a project like that?
  • How can some of the wonderful tools the Reference Department has be made more accessible to the public?  I’m thinking, of course, of our wonderful ready-reference file cabinet, our trade catalogs, and the Pittsburgh Art and Architecture files, on which some work has already been completed.
  • What’s the best way to provide good customer service to the public while the latest journal inventory / reorganization is going on?  Can we take the inventory data and create a temporary tool, like an Access database, that would help staff find journal holdings more efficiently while we iron out the cataloging issues?  Or would that be a duplication of effort?

During my long blogging absence I’ve been attending a lot of meetings about EleventhStack. It’s been very well received, and now the team is collaborating with other departments to make sure we’re in compliance with the bigger organizational picture. It’s great to collaborate with other departments, and fascinating to see how each of us contributes strengths and perspectives to the whole.

I’ve also started weeding our LibraryThing account; intended as a temporary stopgap container until orders are placed into Millennium, the account has mushroomed to about 1200 books. What’s really great about LT is that, if an order doesn’t make it to Millennium, the tags contain all of the information necessary to track the books. Of course, this relies heavily on librarians properly tagging orders as they enter them, but with a staff of our caliber, that was hardly an issue. :)

 The Meebo project went to the steering committee at the end of March. As most of the committee was unfamiliar with Meebo, they had lots of questions and concerns. This is a great opportunity to think about the project differently, and RK and I will, hopefully, meet with einetwork again soon to see if we can give them some answers. The backup plan, if a catalog widget doesn’t pass muster, is to pilot the project somewhere on the CLP webpage. Stay tuned, and wish us luck…

 On today’s docket: a CE class about knowing which library trends to follow – will report back in a more timely fashion next week, with any gems gleaned therein.

In-between days (and projects)

Eleventh Stack has received just under 1,000 hits in less than one week. Even adjusting for friends and well-wishers, that’s still an impressive bit of traffic!

When not obsessively monitoring Estack stats, I’ve been helping fix remote access issues that cropped up in the website redesign. Some of them are access-related, some of them are cosmetic, and almost all of them are fixed!

And now, I’m ruminating about the next steps. It’s never good to rest on one’s laurels, of course. Meebo is still on the table, and talks are in the works. But what next? It’s back to newsreader perusal, sifting for trends, trying to envision what would make the library a better place for everybody to be.

So, an in-between period. But, as I’ve been tagged for the Six-Word Memoir meme by Don (wordsmith extraordinaire from, among other places, The Lilliput Review, I gladly comply:

Sought greater light on the daily.

That will make a fine obituary too, many, many, many years from now!  In the more immediate future, though, more library things, as I figure them out.

Intriguing news story du jour

TechCrunch reports on a possible correlation between economic status and search engine use. Of course, if you go straight to the data, the content and emphasis shift ever so subtly.

Still, I’m intrigued, and also vaguely disturbed. What, if anything, does this mean? And boo hiss to the TechCrunch commenters who went straight for the white trash jokes.

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