A View from the Top: An Administrator Eyes L2

By Michael Stephens | Michael Stephens Head Shot Before Christmas, library director and blogger Michael Golrick posted “Library 2.0—Does it disenfranchise those who need us most?" at his blog, Thoughts from a Library Administrator.

Golrick is the City Librarian, Bridgeport, Connecticut, entering his fifth year of service in that position. He has lived in Bridgeport for almost 25 years, working in various libraries in the area. I am tickled that library administrators like Michael are blogging, because their voices are needed in the biblioblogosphere. In my research study, 15 LIS Bloggers identified themselves as administrators out of 238 respondents, about 6%.

A couple of passages in Michael's post about L2 really struck me. I thought I might meet up with him virtually and chat about his post and L2 in general. I appreciate all the feedback from the similar discussion with Michael Casey, who originated the meme that's getting so many librarians talking across the biblioblogosphere. Michael Golrick, Author of 'Thoughts from a Library Administrator' Blog Early on, Michael ponders his own library and community:
    There is much about the philosophy behind the discussion with which I agree. At the same time, I sit here as the City Librarian in a community which has computers in only slightly more than half of the households. So many of the technology solutions included in the discussions of Library 2.0 completely disenfranchise those who are on the wrong side of the Digital Divide.
Fascinating point. L2 certainly is not one size fits all or seeks to only serve users who are plugged in at home, but isn't it oh-so easy to focus on the coolness factor of tools like flickr and forget that many, many folks have no need for a spiffy tagged photo of a library program? I wonder if some of the solutions I've pondered, such as digital creation stations, where the library would provide state of the art PCs to create just about any type of content one's heart might desire and training sessions for folks on those tools might help the folks that don't have access at home? Circulating laptops, like Darien Library does in Darien, CT, might be an option as well.

MS: Michael, what do you think?

MG: Training is great. We regularly run classes for the public on various aspects of computer use, ranging from setting up e-mail to writing rÉsumÉs using word processors to creating home pages; however, as an administrator of an urban public library, my major problem is one of resources.

Bridgeport has an interesting part to its recent past: the city nearly declared bankruptcy in the early 1990s. All budgets were cut, and the main library building was open a total of twenty hours each week, and the four branches a total of only thirty-five. Over the course of a decade, hours of service were somewhat restored. The economic boom at the end of the 1990s left the library system with five days of service. Compare this with libraries in surrounding communities (and Darien is only four towns away), where there is seven-day-per-week service, including two to four evenings per week. In the last three budget cycles, the library has lost thirteen staff positions.

It would be great to have cheap, affordable equipment. But right now, there are waiting lines every time we open our doors. Nicholas Negroponte's $100 laptop was unveiled recently, but seems to be focused outside the United States. Delivering that program in the United States could be a way to bridge the Digital Divide, one that I have not heard mentioned.

MS: I would love to see the $100 laptop in the US. Pair that with free community-driven wifi initiatives and folks can be connected everywhere. Libraries could circulate these for sure! Then, we'd have a lot of training to do. I'd like to see the library as the tech support hub for those $100 laptops as well as an innovator with new technologies for folks to try out.

Michael Golrick, 'Underpinning of L2'MG: The other part of the vision of L2 that troubles me, though, is an assumption that all users are fluent and literate. I was surprised to find the proportion of functionally illiterate in my community and many other urban centers. There are several categories, and frankly, people of color are over-represented in this group. There are many with undeveloped language skills. That is, they did not do well in school (or left school at an early age) and do not use their native language well. Many cannot read complex instructions. I was surprised at how many are fluent speakers of Spanish, but cannot read or write Spanish (and often cannot speak, read, or write English).

How will this new 21st Century library serve them?

MS: I worry that some of our systems are so complex that people who might not be able to read our complex instructions or endless policies just walk away from the library. It's a delicate balance: policies, services, and people.

It's so easy to fall into a technolust or gadget trap, where libraries just keep throwing technology out there without realizing there are folks that have never put their fingers on a keyboard.

Your point makes me think we need more bilingual librarians as well in many more libraries, and library schools should be addressing these populations in new or augmented course offerings. In my class at Dominican, a couple of students created Spanish language library Web pages as their final projects. I was impressed! I am so glad our future MLS grads are thinking this way.

MG: At the same time, I do not disagree with what I see as the underlying thought behind of L2: excellent customer service. What I see as the philosophical underpinning of L2 is: use new technology to serve library users in new ways. Libraries, in spite of the inherent conservatism in our institutions, need to do a better job of meeting the needs, usage patterns, and expectations of a generation of people who have grown up with technology. There are some great concepts, and some wonderful opportunities (and challenges) in achieving the kinds of library service currently expressed as L2. My hope is that this does not turn into an “either/or" kind of debate, but will turn into a “both/and" vision of library service.

MS: Right. I would hope librarians don't turn off when they start reading/discussing the meme, but instead investigate the concepts and principles for themselves and see how it fits their situations. I'd also like to see all types of librarians from all types of libraries having these discussions. It's just not public libraries.

As an adminstrator, what do you think folks up top in our organizations should be doing?

MG: To get there, library administrators (and I am included in this) need to rally support for the resources we need to deliver service. I have 1,000 people visit my building every day we are open. There are another 1,000 who visit the branches in this city. Some of what they want is the old-fashioned customer service that we have always provided.

MS: Michael Casey quoted John Cotton Dana from 1896 in a recent post. He also says: “Library 2.0 is a service philosophy—a theory, if you will—that attempts to guide libraries in their efforts to win new users while, at the same time, acknowledging that our current service offerings are insufficient and inflexible."

That reminds me of part of your blog post, where you mentioned my point about the library being human:
    Part of what I worry about most are some of the issues which Michael Stephens raises including his point: "the library is human." I see a rush by some library administrators to self-check. That allows libraries to re-deploy staff. Does it make for a better service to the library user? I'm not so sure. The reason why many...use branch libraries (which inevitably have more limited resources than the "main" libraries) is because of the personal service [that a] branch (especially a small branch) library offers to the regulars.
Absolutely! I'm torn here because I love the idea of self-check machines but not at the expense of the library losing humanness. There are much better tasks the circulation folks could be doing than staffing desks to pass books and other materials under the scanner.

Implementing self check can be tricky. It's a two-part puzzle. Announcing self check internally might scare circulation staff into thinking they will be let go as the organization switches to a staffing model made up of “robots," so I would urge administrators to plan for buy-in carefully.

The other part is there should always be people around—call them “guides" or “library customer-service associates"—who will staff the self check area and even offer to check folks out on the machines while they watch and learn. I would hope these folks, a valued part of the library staff, would recognize regulars, call them by name if possible, and help the library keep its human face.

To me, L2 is not a “soylent green" antiseptic space of self-checks, robots, and terminals. It's oh-so human. It's what the Feel Good Librarian writes about in her amazing posts.

MG: I have heard colleagues say that self-check has freed staff to deal directly with the public. I am slightly skeptical. Now, I am not a technophobe. I had my first ATM card from a bank in 1976, when Valley National Bank in Arizona was first starting with them, and I love having one. At the same time, every time I have used self-check at the supermarket, I have had difficulties. Some have been with the way the machine is structured and gives directions, others with the cash jamming on the way in (and on the way out).

The anecdotal reports from some of my staff are that most of their transactions include some kind of exception. Now, as an administrator and student of human nature, I know that “most" may be an exaggeration. We tend to remember the exceptions because they are different; however, based on the proportion of patrons with blocks and expired cards in my library's database, I can believe that there are a larger-than-average number of these exceptions.

MS: You linked to Jessamyn West's post about L2. She concludes with:
    Our patrons share their hopes and dreams and foibles and ambitions with us all the time, it may be time to give back, become more interactive and collaborative, make that door swing both ways. This is what Library 2.0 means to me.
That is also human and so very important. I also believe we need to encourage and satisfy the heart. This is a tough change to make from the rules and procedures we've lived with for so long.

MG: Actually, it is not so tough. Back in the late 1980s, customer service became the buzz in library land. As I noted before, at the heart of L2 is excellent customer service. The one thing that's different is technology may be the way to deliver service to a SEGMENT (not all) of the new generation.

Look at any basic marketing text, or library planning text. They talk about market needs, or surveying users and non-users. I cannot, at the moment, find my Planning Process for Public Libraries published by ALA in the mid-1970s, but the Output Measures for Public Libraries (published in the 1980s) included surveys of library users. I think that you will find that the libraries perceived by their communities as successful are those that listen to their users. This is a part of the L2 concept that is so important.

MS: I think that's why Ann Arbor District Library has gotten so much chatter in the biblioblogosphere. Their model of interaction with patrons without censure seems incredibly successful.

MG: What I worry about is choosing to focus on one group of users to the exclusion of others. As I noted above, what about those who lack technology? What about those who lack language skills? How are we going to serve those users? The public library movement has its roots in acculturating immigrant groups. We need to continue that role, because the immigrants are certainly coming. In my city's school system, there are about seventy-two different languages spoken as the primary language at home. That is a challenge. How does the technology vision of L2 help libraries to meet that challenge? I'm not really sure. I do know that it is a challenge that my library needs to continue to meet.

MS: Absolutely. I appreciate this widening of the L2 meme. I look forward to the discussions of how social tools online and library services in person might be remixed as a means to serve these users.

The successful libraries will be led by adminstrators that recognize the needs of all users, plan for them, and use technology wisely and without fear.

I've met with a lot of librarians in the last year and more than a couple have said, “How do I get my director to think technology is important?" or “My director is afraid of technology!" As an administrator, what would you say?

MG: That's easy: "Change or die!" I think that one of the messages I have heard clearly from the developing community of new librarians is about the need for libraries to change in ways that are difficult for many.

I have children in their twenties. I see that they use technology in a very different way than I do. Yes, I use IM. Not often. But I do. It is a useful tool. Do I have six or seven IM windows open at once? No, but I do have that many (or more) application and/or document windows open. Young people are part of our audience; we need to serve them where they are. They are also future voters, so it behooves us to make them happy.

Technology is a tool. It is a tool that is not going to go away. You do not have to “like it" or even “get it" as long as there are library staff members who do. Am I as good at technology as I was even five years ago, never mind fifteen years ago? No, but I understand the big concepts, and know when to ask for help.

Fearing technology does not help. Actually, the number one fear (according to Gallup Polls) of Americans is public speaking. Most administrators have conquered that fear, you can do the same with technology.

Face it: technology is not going to go away. There is an oxymoron that the geeks in my family like to use: the only constant is change. You can either fear change or embrace it, and the latter is much more fun.

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