On Disasters

This past week has been an alarming one for my library. In the dead of the night, in the midst of one of the worse heat waves we’ve recently seen, an AC unit experienced a catastrophic failure and dumped a ton of water all over the nonfiction. Which is situated above the fiction. This represents half the library, which is now piled on tables and shelved on mobile plywood emergency stacks.

Now we do the delicate librarian dance of unshelving and reshelving, determining where all the little lost souls of nonfiction have ended up and putting them back in order. Right now, St. Augustine sits uncomfortably next to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Wayne Dyer and Snookie are snuggly.

The rest of the building exists in the throes of disaster remediation. Half of the place is currently wrapped in plastic while fans blow full bore. The noise is driving people crazy. (Not me. I can’t hear over the damn AC at the best of times, so as far as I’m concerned we’re all on the same page now.)

But at least we can remediate paper books. I worry more about our ability to maintain, curate, and manage digital content, which is subject to disasters of the corporate type. For my part, I can’t believe that publishers are still so dense as to think this won’t hurt them. If nothing else, embargoing and hiking the price on Overdrive titles is both an opportunity missed and myopia typical of the publishing dinosaurs. There are tons of opportunities for monetization of a low-cost or free ebook borrowing or sale model. It just takes some creativity and (gasp) risk. In case Macmillan leadership happens to be reading my blog, hello Macmillan. Here are some ideas for you, and you can have them for free.

  • Library book borrowers get a coupon for 50% off the author’s next event.
  • Embrace transmedia storytelling. You can put banner ads on websites, you know. That’s what made Google so rich.
  • Run events. Live readings could be hugely popular with established fans and represent an opportunity for direct revenue, merchandising, and advertising.
  • Merch merch merch. Team up with popular recording artists to sell your swag.
  • Use big names to record audiobooks. People might shell out for the deluxe edition of Walden as narrated by Lady Gaga, even though you can get a generic version for free on Librivox.

E-book lending is one of the only niches in library service that’s growing right now. Hamstringing it is not just an attack on libraries, but a hostile act against patrons who are not in a position to pony up $25 for a license for a digital book that they’ll read once and not end up owning anyway. I could easily frame this as an attack on libraries – because it is – but it’s also another poverty tax. If you’re poor, you don’t get new e-books, or all e-books, or e-books forever, or e-books when you want them.

That’s why the paper books remain very important. I don’t know how libraries are going to win the e-book war. Boycotts could prove counterproductive because after all our whole thing is books, and anyway all libraries would have to be on board at once and good luck getting that herd of cats headed in the right direction. Going to the press seems like a good move, one that might have more impact with the aforementioned possibly ill-advised boycotts and/or picketing.

But first and foremost, we need to save the books. Even when they’re a hassle and even when people don’t borrow them as frequently as we’d like, they’re the analog hole in an increasingly digital world. If I have to spend my career arguing that libraries are important for that reason alone, it’ll be a good use of my time.


Why Cons Are Still Important

I spent the first part of last week at the Massachusetts Library Association’s 2019 conference. (Theme: Big Top? Circus sideshow? The Best Job On Earth! Could have used more jugglers, but nobody asked me, so.) I know a lot of people who skipped this one, citing an anemic program lineup. Granted, there were no jugglers, but otherwise, I actually found this to be far from the truth.

This is the first con where I actually attended the MLA catch-up session, where you get to meet your association governance. That meant that I finally had a chance to start divvying names between MLA, MLS, and MBLC. Not to mention NELA. I’ll be honest: I have always had trouble figuring out which of these guys does the big budget. (MBLC, I think.) I know MBLC provides a lot of statewide databases, like Gale, that most libraries couldn’t dream of having otherwise. MLS provides a lot of ebooks. However, the fact remains that if you’re going to be a good librarian in Massachusetts, you’ve got to know…

  • MLA
  • NELA
  • PLA
  • ALA

And if you want to get into library politics (GOD BLESS YOU) you’ll need to associate with and/or work for…

  • MLS
  • MBLC

I briefly worked with the Air Force as a contractor librarian and during that moment I got fairly comfortable with alphabet soup. However, libraryland puts the military to shame. It doesn’t help that everybody hops around jobs, shares tasks, and generally herd-of-cats it up with the best of them.

So it was good to have a chance to kind of sort that out a bit. I can’t say I’m now an expert per se in MBLC vs. MLS. What I mainly took away from that session was that there used to be way more of these groups. MA used to have something north of a dozen library organizations in the state. Apparently, 2008 leveled them like wheat before the scythe, and every org that survived had to consolidate and downsize dramatically to survive. They’re only now recovering.

I was just going into library school in 2008. In fact, I graduated from SUNY Binghamton in December of 2007 and merrily took out a shipload of high-interest PLUS loans in preparation for the lucrative library career upon which I was about to embark. Of course, as soon as I’d signed the final paper, the economy crashed. No joke, everything went to hell literally the week after I’d finalized the loans. At the time this seemed very lame to me, but of course it was nothing compared to what happened to people who lost their retirements, houses, jobs, and livelihoods. Learning about how the Great Recession impacted libraries and their representatives is also quite sobering.

We live in a boom-bust economy. I’m too young and uneducated to know if Naomi Klein is right about this aggressive, low-oversight, take-no-prisoners version of T-Rex capitalism is a recent Regan-era phenomenon. However, there does seem to be a constant cycle of economic destruction and rebirth going on, and while it might be spectacular to watch from a penthouse (maybe? Someone must want this, right?), us little people are getting burned again and again.

What I hear now is that the same exact thing won’t happen again. Not sure whether this is accurate, but how would I know either way? I’m no economist. My point is that busts seem pretty inevitable in our model. Several have happened in my lifetime. Some were big, some were small, some were probably avoidable or predictable, but not by me. or anyone I know. They’re essentially like earthquakes. We seem to live on an economic fault line.

Libraries are one of the last social institutions that give people stuff for free, and when the power/Internet goes out at home, we’re where people come to look for jobs, freelance, and do whatever they have to do to get their lives together. Because we have Internet, and without Internet, you don’t have nothin’. So when the earthquake strikes again, it makes sense that we’d be good first responders. It’s time for us to stop being surprised when the economy goes to hell, because it seems to do that. Barring some major change in our economic model – and who are we kidding, even in the face of looming ecological disaster our model stubbornly refuses to give an inch – another crash seems like more a matter of time than anything else.

Whether bracing for it means somehow putting money aside, having a contingency plan for staffing, or just networking enough to know how we might be able to share material resources in a crunch will have to be situationally determined by each library and each org. Lord knows I’m not in administration, but I’m aware that each situation in libraries and in associations is essentially unique. This is bad because we can’t formulate a single cohesive plan and great because heterogeneous systems tend to be more resilient. I am of two minds about the library herd-of-cats effect, but that’s a topic for another post.

Second, we need to focus on mobile, material tech outreach. That could benefit our current low-income and struggling patrons now, but during the next downturn it could also benefit people who currently don’t consider the library at all. Promo seems like low-hanging fruit, but of course the traditional billboard costs money. I advocate showing up at farmer’s markets with free wifi and a couple of computers, stationing a librarian at the mall for on-the-spot Libby demos, and going into the schools with flyers listing the free stuff you can get at the library. If I had my druthers, I’d see every library with ten circulating hotspots. Would that the budget gods made that possible for all of us.

Library associations also need to start pushing tech outreach as a major duty of public libraries. Grants can help publics get into the information literacy groove. Talent clearinghouses can dig up librarians who know everything from web design to auto repair, so it might be a good idea to start building those. Your website and bookmobile are guaranteed to break down at the worst moment.

Most of all, more librarians need to get involved in and aware of the alphabet soup. It’s not about career advancement and it’s not about politics. It’s about maintaining the budget if the economy crashes, about keeping MLS in the black by any means necessary, and generally maintaining the integrity of the profession if something bad happens. Just being aware of the associations and systems and boards brings more talent to bear on a potential problem. More talent is more joy and a more resilient professional ecosystem.

No matter how we do it, we need to get ready for another economic dip. We need to be ready to catch our patrons when they start to slip out of the middle class. We also need to make sure that our orgs, who do amazing things for our radical little socialist outposts, don’t go under if 2008 ever happens again.