February 2008


Seattle Public Library photoSlate, the online magazine, is featuring a slide show about the architecture of urban libraries over the last few decades called, “Borrowed Time: How do you build a public library in the Age of Google?” It’s another one of those “Cough, hack, libraries are dying out” pieces, featuring some really well-done photos of recently built libraries in downtown Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle (pictured here), and Salt Lake City, with a brief essay by .

But here, from the final paragraph, is the kernel of the slide-show article. :

Ross Dawson, a business consultant who tracks different customs, devices, and institutions on what he calls an Extinction Timeline, predicts that libraries will disappear in 2019. He’s probably right as far as the function of the library as a civic monument, or as a public repository for books, is concerned. On the other hand, in its mutating role as urban hangout, meeting place, and arbiter of information, the public library seems far from spent. This has less to do with the digital world—or the digital word—than with the age-old need for human contact.

Why 2019, I wonder? Why not 2018 or 2020? (And hey, Dawson also predicts that blogging will die out in 2022.) And if librarians will focus more and more on “human contact” and managing an “urban hangout” as the years pass, were the managers of Wisconsin’s Marathon County Public Library right to demote its Librarian I’s to “customer services librarians”?

I don’t think so, and here’s part of the reason why – the needs of young people and their parents-caregivers-teachers. As you might expect, there’s no mention of services to young people in the article. (Writers about “libraries” as a concept and a building, rather than the services libraries provide, never seem to think about children and teens using the library much, do they?) I’ve been telling anyone who will listen every time I’ve given a presentation that “libraries” have never been buildings, even though many members of the public think of them that way. They’re the services and materials we staff people provide and manage for the public, in those buildings and out of them.

Yes, we may no longer need vast downtown “temples” dedicated to information two decades from now. But you don’t need a temple to read Millions of Cats and Where is the Green Sheep? aloud to a group of 30 preschoolers.

I’m willing to bet that the need for what we library staffers do – managing information, helping people find what they need, and helping folks young and old who need assistance making themselves literate and educating themselves – won’t go away. And we’ll need places people can gather to interact, have fun, and share. (And host storytellers and puppeteers and singers.) I believe strongly that as long as parents want children who are literate, and as long as young people want to gain culture, there will be a place for libraries, of some kind and in some shape.

Children and LibrariesThe Wausau, WI, Daily Herald published on Feb. 23 a follow up to its Feb. 22 story that mentioned the Marathon County Public Library’s demotion of four Librarian I positions to new “customer services librarian” positions. The customer services librarian positions offer salaries of only $36,000 a year, while the Librarian I salaries were $46,000.

Sure enough, the demotions came – at least indirectly – because the MCPL administration believes that the Internet has removed the need for librarians to possess a lot of their former abilities to answer reference questions and perform research (which, of course, many folks believe the citizens of Everywhere, USA can now accomplish themselves online). Library director Phyllis Christensen told the paper:

“Some of it is budget constraints, some is just a need to become increasingly relevant to our communities,” Christensen said, explaining that librarians are doing less “complex” work, such as providing reference and research assistance.

And you know what that means.

I haven’t yet been able to learn how the demotions are affecting librarians who work specifically with children, teens, and their teachers and caregivers. As I noted in my previous post, I feel strongly that the skills a children’s or YA librarian needs are, of all the varieties of librarian, least likely to be changed by technology – because young people and their caregivers and teachers need services that can only be provided effectively face to face.

The next question, of course, is, “Are those who fill these ‘customer service’ positions actually doing the work of ‘librarians’?” Are they exercising professional skills, or the skills that clerical staff people perform in many libraries (or the kind of greeting, and hosting, and circulation/checkout work a clerk performs in a Target or a Sears)?

One doesn’t need an MLS to do the job of someone in retail. If, indeed, ‘customer services librarians’ aren’t providing professional skills, their job titles should be changed.

Trash puppets from the Million Puppets Project GalleryAlthough I was a puppeteer for nearly 20 years (1980 – 1999), I realize that I haven’t posted anything about puppetry yet on this blog. So, to remedy that…

UNIMA, the international puppetry organization, is holding its 2008 Congress and World Puppetry Festival between April 2 – 12 in Perth, Australia (it’s the first time this event has been held in the Southern Hemisphere). As part of this get-together, the sponsors have concocted one of those “Guinness Book” stunts: gather a million puppets in one place.

The event’s Web site includes a gallery of puppets that have been submitted so far from teachers and puppeteers around the world. And here’s the promotional blurb:

Imagine a million puppets in one big space. sock, hand, rod, finger, junk, glove, shadow, marionettes, and movable creations never seen before!

On April 6th 2008 this dream will become a reality when the Perth Concert Hall comes alive with puppets from across the globe for the ‘World’s Largest Puppet Display’!

The Million Puppet Project invites you to make one or one hundred puppets and send them on a journey to Perth, Western Australia, for a new Guinness World Record!

The exhibition will culminate on Carnival Day with an explosion of activities, performances and fun for the whole family. During the day the final count will take place and the record-breaking number will be announced.

Why do I bring this up in this blog? Because you can submit a puppet – or a whole bunch of puppets – to the project, too. Wouldn’t you like to gather some kids from your library, have them make puppets (look at the illustration above, from the Gallery, from a US group called “Trash Mashup” – and there are lots of other puppets headed for the display that were made by kids), and then send those puppets to the Perth Festival? Well, you can. The deadline to get them into the mail is Friday, March 21.

Mem FoxTucson’s Pima County Public Library is hosting an early literacy summit titled “Creating a Community of Readers Starting at Birth.” The headlining speaker will be author and literacy advocate Mem Fox.

I’ve been a big Mem Fox fan for a long time. (See this post.) If you go to her site, you should visit the “Read Aloud” section, where you can absorb a little of her passion. And here are Mem Fox’s Read-Aloud Commandments. She says in this Arizona Daily Star article:

“Reading aloud to children between birth and age 5, daily, changes their lives forever,” Fox said via telephone from her home in Adelaide, Australia. “It changes their lives educationally, it changes their lives mentally, it changes their lives in terms of language development.”

This summit sounds as if it will be great, and I wish I could attend myself. I hope that her words about reading aloud fall upon more than the ears of the converted, though. The hardest part of hosting something like a “literacy summit” is that 90 percent or more of those attending – knowledgeable parents and literacy volunteers and professionals – probably already know that children of all ages need to be read to, and that all the parents who haven’t heard Fox’s words and really need to hear them are working, or at the supermarket, or taking the dog to the vet. They aren’t hearing the message, and they’re the ones who need reaching.

That’s why we, the librarians who are out on the floor, or who are visiting a school on a parents’ night, or who are speaking to parents at a preschool, need to be talking up books and encouraging parents to visit the library. Never pass up a chance to talk to the parents who haven’t been converted yet to the “gospel” of reading aloud. Never pass up the opportunity to do a commercial for reading aloud.

Children and LibrariesHere is one of the scariest stories about the future of libraries and the profession of librarianship that I’ve seen in a long while. Wausau, WI, has demoted several of its Librarian I positions to “Customer Services Librarians,” with a $10,000 cut in pay annually.

It was all part, you may be sure, of that dreaded phenomenon, the “reorganization.” (Have you been through a “reorganization” yet? I’ve been through several over the years. It’s not ever fun.)

Here’s the kernel of the article, which basically lets librarians know that Wausau considers them less valuable in the era of the Internet, since (I guess) they’re no longer being required to work so hard on all those tough reference questions that people can now answer for themselves:

Library director Phyllis Christensen said the former director and county leaders had initiated the reorganization. Money saved by Monday’s decision will pay for increased health insurance costs.

“I would rather keep people on staff at a lower pay than fire somebody,” she said.

The reorganization also aims to meet the ever-changing needs of customers, she said. Librarians today do less complex work, she said — calling for pay adjustments and more technological assistance.

“We’re really becoming a community center,” she said. “Our public has different requirements of us.”

Librarians Sharyn Heili and Diane Peterson, two of the three who face the pay cuts, disagree. They said the need for their expertise remains the same, whatever the changes.

“It’s very disheartening… to be told you’ve been devalued,” Peterson said.

I hope that ALA will get busy and make a stink about this change. Anyone who works with children or YAs in particular knows that being a librarian for these ages is a highly skilled occupation – a youth librarian needs to know what children of a variety of ages need, what their parents and caregivers need, and what their teachers need. And you need to know what’s developmentally appropriate for them (including the adults). You’re not simply meeting and greeting; you’re dealing with a lot of sensitive family, health, and educational issues that need care in handling.

I’m hoping that Wausau has not taken the first step into pulling the profession of librarianship everywhere into a kind of grin-and-bear-it hostessing (and, of course, hosting). But I’m worried that it has.

Guitar HeroI enjoyed this article about video games in Michigan libraries from the Detroit Free Press, but not for the reason you might think.

The article’s biggest focus falls on the suburban Rochester Hills Public Library where, the article tells us how library director Christine Lind Hage has:

… stocked the shelves with 1,823 games for PlayStations 2 and 3, Nintendo Wii, Xbox, Xbox 360 and other systems. And the free sources of entertainment are hot items among adolescents — on any given day, 1,300 are checked out. The addition of the games largely contributed to the library’s 12% spike in circulation last year, she said.

This article stresses how video games draw teens into the library that makes them available.

“Dance Dance Revolution” fan Victoria Alcorn, 14, said she enjoys the best of both worlds at the township library.

“It gives us a place to hang out with friends but, if we need to, we can do our homework there,” she said.

As a librarian who is at least slightly old-fashioned, I’m a little troubled by libraries offering items that are not “reading” to its customers. But then I remind myself, “Everything that libraries offer doesn’t have to involve reading.” But then I wonder whether we in public libraries are selling out to teens and giving them only the lowest common denominator of materials that don’t require much in the way of intellectual challenge or effort.

But then I’m sure I’m wrong, and agree that circulating video games is a good thing.

This is the point at which I’m sure that I’ve been working in libraries way too long.

Postscript: A group of PC game manufacturers are starting a PC Gaming Alliance. Here’s the Ars Technica article about it.

Blu-Ray discI just found a Reuters news story titled, “Toshiba to exit HD DVD, end format war.” Even if you’re a casual follower of tech news, you’ve probably heard that two high-definition DVD formats have been competing to replace the original DVD format as the next format for feature film, TV, animation, and documentary video.

Soon after Wal-Mart announced that it would carry only Blu-Ray discs and players, supported by Sony, Toshiba threw in the towel and announced it would halt production of HD DVD (high-definition DVD) devices and discs. The story says:

Toshiba is expected to suffer losses amounting to tens of billions of yen (hundreds of millions of dollars) to scrap production of HD DVD players and recorders and other steps to exit the business, Japan’s NHK said on its website.

If you are of a certain age, like me, this competition will make you think immediately of the 1980s triumph of VHS videocassettes over Sony’s Betamax format. (I remember thinking at the time that Betamax cassettes were cooler and the video images looked better, but tech wars often have little to do with which product is superior.)

So I guess what goes around comes around – Sony wins big this time, and we now know which format we’ll be adding to our libraries’ video collections over the next few years. But I wouldn’t assume that we’ll be spending all of our video budget on Blu-Ray discs just yet. I’m still guessing that downloadable films will become the norm over the next five years, discs will gradually disappear, and libraries will be loaning movies through their Web sites instead of requiring people to come in and check them out.

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