a librarian explains the public library: funding

Government of Texas $50.00 (fifty dollars) treasury warrant from DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
Government of Texas $50.00 (fifty dollars) treasury warrant [source DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University]
When I started out working in libraries, I had this great idea that I was going to be serving the cause of justice and equality and fighting the evils of capitalism. I have little excuse for such thinking — I was not even particularly young — but so I thought. I got a little more realistic (or a little more jaded), or at the very least a little less obnoxiously high-minded, but I did still generally feel that I was on the side of righteousness, or at the very least the side of doing no harm.

I worked for five years at a library in rural Wyoming, which I loved — I loved the town (where you could have any farm animal living on your property except for a pig) and the land (we were only thirty miles from the edge of the Shoshone National Forest, where you could get lost and never find your way out) and the ways in which the place hadn’t completely succumbed to the media monopoly that strangles the rest of the country (there were multiple local papers, none of them owned by Gannett). And, I would think to myself smugly, at least I don’t work for the energy industry.

Then one day I was looking at a list of the largest property tax payers in Park County, and right there at the top was Marathon Oil Company. Well. That put me in my place. Of course I did work for the energy industry. I just didn’t do so directly.

Public libraries, like public schools, are funded mostly by local property taxes (they also — to varying degrees — get state, federal, and private money, all of which comes with its own privileges and strings). That brings with it both the advantages of local control and the disadvantages — if you live in a poor area — of not much revenue. It also creates the interesting difficulty of how library service areas are defined and drawn and thus who pays into the property tax pool that the library draws from.

Wyoming, which is extremely rural — in my town, more than half the population we served outside town limits — wisely decided to organize their libraries at the county level. All twenty three counties have a public library system, usually with a main library and several branches, but they draw funding from (and serve) all residents of the county. That — plus the school and the oil company — is how a town of 351 people was able to have a public library that was open 44 hours a week. Wyoming went a step farther and decided a few years back to integrate all the counties into a single database system. You still get a card from your home library, but you can use it at any library in the state.

Iowa, where I live now, is generally thought to be rural, but in fact it’s a network of small cities. We have 99 counties to Wyoming’s 23, all packed into a much smaller area. Each of those 99 counties has a county seat and at least a smattering of other towns, and 544 of those towns have public libraries. Each of those libraries was established by a local town or city ordinance. Here’s the one for the library where I work now. We’re a newer library — we just celebrated our 50th anniversary last year — and our earliest funding came from a Girl Scout troop that wanted a library they could use in their own town. Coralville sits cheek-by-jowl with a much larger city, and for many years, residents of Coralville could only use the library in that town by paying a yearly fee. The same was true many other small cities in the county.

Some years back, Iowa started a program they call Open Access*, which allows anyone who lives in the bounds of a participating library to get a card at any other library that participates. Currently there are only about a dozen libraries that aren’t part of the program and so, effectively, anyone in Iowa can get a library card at any other library in Iowa. You could, as I tell patrons, travel around the state and collect over 500 library cards. You can return library materials to any participating library and we’ll mail them back for you free of charge. The result is a much looser system than Wyoming’s, but one that gives individual libraries far more control.

But what of the people who don’t live in towns? In many states, those people are still out of luck unless they want to pay a yearly fee to use a local public library. The fee is usually some approximation of how much the library figures people contribute it property taxes to the library each year — I’ve seen anything from $25-$100 a year, but I have not done a thorough survey. Many counties get around this by collecting and contributing some money to the county’s libraries on behalf of their residents. Such is the case in my county. At present, we have 27,728 patrons and only 1219 of those are from rural Johnson County. So it’s not a huge service — unless, of course, you’re one of those 1219 people, in which it’s quite a big deal indeed.

Bored yet? Confused yet? I haven’t covered the half of it. But all these vagaries in funding relate to what services libraries provide, how they provide them, and whom they provide them to — all of that fodder for many other posts.

*Confusingly, there’s another very important topic in libraries called Open Access, but it has to do with free access to digital scholarship and is another problem for another day.

a librarian explains the public library: introduction

Atlanta, IL Public Library
Public library in Atlanta, Illinois [source]
Or some of it, anyway.

I’ve worked in public libraries for over a decade, and I answer a lot of questions. I get questions from library patrons, of course, and from library staff, but I also often answer questions (okay, sometimes I force answers on people who did not actually ask a question, because I can’t have information that might be of interest to someone and not share it) from dental hygienists and receptionists and doctors and dudes at the car dealership and grocery cashiers and all the other people I chat with in the course of going about my life. Usually part way through these answers, I can see people’s eyes glazing over, and then I cut to the chase and say, “Well, the answer to that is money and politics,” and that always shuts them up.

But I’m really interested in how money and politics shape the public library, this democratic/socialist/anarchist paradise that nevertheless exists in the world and has to abide by its rules and complications. So I’m going to write about some of them and put them here.

Topics may include

  • library funding
  • ebooks (and other online resources)
  • patron privacy
  • providing internet for the public
  • public meeting rooms

Suggestions are welcome.

hail and farewell

FriendFeed, my primary social network, is going away in a few short days — not because of an argument or a lack of interest or a complete meltdown, but simply because Facebook, which owns FriendFeed, has decided not to keep it going. I’ve gotten to know many fine people through FriendFeed, and while I’ll find them elsewhere, it won’t be the same. And the Library Society of the World, though it will doubtless also find another place to meet, won’t be the same either. Joe asked us what we’d learned, and since that thread will vanish in a few days, too, I’m going to repost my answer here:

Before I became a librarian or ever thought of it, I was an activist. I organized and demonstrated and got arrested and generally worked my tail off to try to change the world and make people’s lives better — sometimes those of my colleagues; sometimes those of people I’d never met. When I started working in libraries, I felt I lost a lot of that. I still believed in the work, but, like most of us, I was caught up by and stymied in the bureaucracy and politics that are the reality of most institutions, especially large, slow moving ships of state like libraries. The LSW gave me back what I’d been missing — purpose, immediacy, common cause with people who were smart and scrappy and passionate — people who did stuff. FriendFeed, as a social network, was just like the LSW — small, often overlooked, sometimes prone to crashing, and yet fast and collaborative. Suddenly we had the people and the place, and we were on fire — raising money for the Louisville Free Public Library after it flooded, taking down Clinical Reader, planning unconferences with people we’d never met, fighting for the good and making lifelong friends. That’s what this place and you people have given me — or given back to me. I’m eternally grateful.

And then, because I’m always looking for this quotation when discussing the LSW, or any movement I’ve been a part of that I’ve loved, I’ll add this, from Michael Rossman’s The Wedding Within the War:

We conducted a long struggle, assuming responsibilities we should not have been made to assume, heartbreakingly alone until the end, taking time out from our studies and our lives to do a job that should not have needed to be done. And we comported ourselves with dignity and grace, on the whole unexpectedly so, and with good hearts and trust and kindness for each other.

Confronting an institution apparently and frustratingly designed to depersonalize and block communication, neither humane nor graceful nor responsive, we found flowering in ourselves the presence whose absence we were at heart protesting.

ten years in libraries

desk, with papers and broken tape dispenser
Today marks my ten year anniversary working in libraries, which is not a very long time to have worked in libraries, but it is a very long time for me to have done anything. I’ve never lived in a house or an apartment for more than four years, ever, and I’ve never had a job for more than five years. Some jobs I’ve had for less than five days. So a decade in one profession seems like a very long time.

I walked in to my first day — my first night, really, as I worked exclusively nights and weekends as a part time Youth Services Assistant — at my new library on Ash Wednesday 2005. The town had a large Catholic population, and seemingly every other person I saw that night had a smudgy forehead. I am Christian, of the Episcopalian variety, by both birth and inclination, but I was living with my deeply agnostic grandmother at the time and wasn’t attending church. I wondered about the ashes on the foreheads of many of the staff and how they made patrons feel. I wondered about the lack of ashes on my own forehead, and what that meant. But mostly I was excited. I’d been trying to get a job of any sort in a library for a long time (in my hometown, it’s hard to get even a volunteer position at the library because it’s so popular), and here I finally was, a semester into library school, and I finally had one.

I was very excited when I started working in libraries, and I was also very lucky. The excitement lead me to start a blog just a few months after starting my job, and the luck led me to attend the Radical Reference meetup and the OCLC Blog Salon at ALA where I met all sorts of wonderful and talented people, many of whom I now call friends. Getting into libraries changed my life, and I’m grateful every day to have found a profession where I fit in, where the codes make sense to me, for the most part, and where I get to do at least some things I’m pretty good at.

When I started I spent a lot of time thinking about all the things I was excited about. Alternative literature in libraries! Books I hope people will read! Intellectual freedom! Useable, fun library websites! Blogs! Folksonomies! I was the biblioblogger at the local branch library.

I still think about some of those things, but mostly I think about other things, the kind you see taking up space on my desk. I think a lot about tape. The big tape dispenser, used by volunteers, is missing the thing that the tape rolls around in, which renders it somewhat useless. So I snagged another tape dispenser out of the supply drawer, but it was the last one there, so I put the box and the broken tape dispenser on my desk to remind me to mention all of this to the person who orders supplies when she gets back to work. She’s out with a sick kid today. I’m also supposed to be thinking about receipt paper, and whether I want to get special receipt paper that we could use for holds or if we just want to keep taping the hold slips to the books with removable tape. There’s a list of some books I should go weed because I’ve pulled the rest of the books in the series due to low circulation. There’s a list our praticum student has been working on of mystery series we own, because we make little paper shelf tags for the series, and they need to be updated. (I’ve also taken our practicum student with me to look at all the fire extinguishers in the buidling, because the City wants to know when they were last inspected, and to the bank with the coins we’ve pulled out of our fountain, which are too dirty to run through the change counter and thus must be separated by denomination (thank you, library volunteers!) and then weighed.) There’s a list of some other stuff I should do. There are some paper purchase suggestion forms, because we still use a lot of paper forms here, even though it is 2015, because in many cases, paper is still easier. There’s my email, which always contains a much longer list of to do items, frequently related to gaps in the desk schedule or discrepancies in the cash register or ebook titles that are about to expire because of ridiculous publisher limitations. We recently decided to get MARC records for our ebooks, but that’s creating complications, because the MARC records don’t disappear when the books expire, and some of the books we’ll rebuy and others we won’t, and we share the collection with another library, and some they may rebuy, and I can rant all I want to about how much I hate DRM, the publishing industry, and current ebook licensing models, but none of that will deal with the immediate problem of the records in the catalog and what we want to do about them.

There’s a song by some indie band I can’t recall that I used to listen to in college a lot, and I find it running through my head these days. “I’ve become every thing that I hate / As if tragedy were my trade.” I think a lot now about how much people complained when I started out in libraries that we could never try new things, and I think about how wary I am of new things now, ten years later, when people propose them, and then I think about history repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce. Then I shake my head and remind myself that I need to answer the emails that have shown up while I was typing this.

You’ll notice that there’s one thing in the picture I haven’t talked about. It’s a book. We still have those at my library. Ten years later, there are some things that haven’t changed. We still have books, and I’m still telling people that libraries are about far more. I expect that will be true in another decade, too.

why I’m with #teamharpy

I do not know Lisa Rabey or nina de jesus. I don’t know Joe Murphy, either, although I was on an elevator with him at the Computers in Libraries conference in 2009, but we did not speak. I am therefore, I suppose, utterly qualified (as a relative outsider) or not remotely qualified (being out of the loop as I am) to talk about Team Harpy. But I’m going to talk about it anyway, because it’s important.

Meredith already wrote up a nice summation of the reasons one might want to support Team Harpy and the reasons one might feel a bit edgy doing so. I’ve had some online conversations — or listened to some, to be more accurate — about that edginess. That feeling that while it was dumb for Murphy to sue these women, it was also ill-advised for them to make accusations that seem based not on first-hand experience. I’ve heard people wonder if Rabey and de jesus are the best witnesses, or the most reliable, or, you know, even good.

I don’t know them, and, until this started going down, I’d never read either of their blogs or followed them on Twitter or really even heard of them (as I said, I’m a bit out of the loop these days). But here’s what I do know: to quote another person I never thought I’d quote, you go to war with the army you have, not the one you want.

We know that harassment at conferences is a problem. We know that. Sarah Houghton has written about it at length. We’ve got codes of conduct for conferences (and, rather astoundingly, controversies around them, as you can see in the comments here). We know this. What we have to do is fight it.

Before I became a librarian, I spent a long, long time being an activist. If you’ve spent any time trying to change the world, you know that trying to change the world is a lot like living in the world. Some people are brilliant, most of us are ordinary, and some people are kind of odd ducks. I got arrested with one guy who later got a Fulbright and one guy who dropped out of college shortly thereafter. Some of the people who fought the Vietnam War went on to win elected office. Some of them tried to levitate the Pentagon. Some of them went nuts. Some of the people who fought for universal suffrage were against abortion rights. Some of the women who fought for women’s rights were worried about having lesbians in the movement. These aren’t admirable qualities, but they’re true, because the people who fought these fights were human. Some people decided they’d rather not fight with humans, only with saints. Saints are in short supply, so they sat the fights out.

I am not putting Lisa Rabey or nina de jesus in any of these categories — as I said at the beginning of this, I don’t know them. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter. They are the ones who stepped up to fight this thing. We who care about it owe them our support. And if I go down, that’s the side I want to go down on — the side of the people who did things, human, foibled, flawed — but the ones who fought.

fighting surveillance @ your library

My friend and Radical Reference colleague Melissa just published a great article about how your local library can help you resist the surveillance state. You should go read it!

And then, since several people who have read it have asked me about it, here’s the privacy brochure I made for my library. Please feel free to steal, adapt, or otherwise use it to help explain library policy to your patrons. (And here it is as a Publisher file, if you’d like to be able to edit it.)

nine years

Nine years ago today, I decided I had to start a librar* blog. I’d been reading blogs for a few months, and in 2005, that seemed like more than enough of reason to be expert enough to do one of my own. And I have never lacked for things to say.

It turned out to be an excellent time to start a blog in libraryland. The biblioblogosphere had an old guard, to be sure, but it was small enough that it seemed possible to read all the blogs you could ever want to, and it was even possible to meet most of the people whose blogs you read at the first ever OCLC Blog Salon. (It was such fun, as you can tell from my eloquent contribution. It was the sort of thing where people took silly pictures and made elaborate inside jokes.) It wasn’t that long ago, but it feels like another lifetime.

I look back at my early entries and often cringe, as one does when coming across versions of oneself from long ago, particularly when one was in a slathering puppy dog sort of developmental stage, as I was when I was in library school. I believed in many things that I no longer believe in now.

I no longer believe in the dream of the single search box. I think that the truth of searching is that finding things is hard. It’s hard not because it requires you to remember whether enter a * or a ? as a wildcard (though that is hard, too) but because it requires you to develop habits of mind, to think about ideas in conversation and in community, and to think about how other people might think about something in order to find what they have to say about it. Certainly we can make search interfaces better, but we cannot — and should not — make them do the work of a human mind.

I no longer believe that every library and every library person should of course start a blog. I’m not sure I ever quite believed that, but certainly I would have encouraged it. It had not yet occurred to me at that time that not everyone does have something to say, or that they do not have something to say all the time, or that they do not have it as an institution, or that they might have several other things of more pressing and immediate concern, such as why are some people suddenly not getting overdue notices in the new system.

But I also look back and am pleased. I care now as I did then about library services in extreme temperatures, and I have advocated for my city to publicize the library as a place to warm up or cool off. I still talk to people about how the world is not flat. what for and for what? remains perhaps my all-time favorite post about sources of information (and it includes, I now notice, a lovely combination of what I’d been reading at the time both in print — in fact, I got my copy of Victor Navasky’s book at ALA that year, where I also go to hear him speak — and online).

I don’t agree with everything I’ve said here, but I’m strangely proud to have kept on doing it, albeit sporadically, all these years. Thanks for reading and writing along with me.

hey, i’m doing a reading!

Laura poses with a copy of Night Sweats and the Library of Congress Subject HeadingsI took this series of selfies with my book and the Library of Congress Subject Headings by way of self-indulgence (and to show off my white hair) and to promote my reading tomorrow at the fabulous New Bo Books in Cedar Rapids.

That’s Saturday, March 8 at 2 pm! Be there to hear me read from Night Sweats, to buy some books, and to check out the artsy-fartsy section of Cedar Rapids, Iowa (really, there is one).

They’re doing a whole March is for Memoirs series with a lot of great events, so you should check those out, too.

ebooks, then and now

In doing some blog maintenance today, I found this draft from a year or so ago that for some reason I never published. While things have gotten somewhat better on the ebook front — more publishers are willing to sell to us, albeit often at extortionist prices and conditions — and certainly the process of downloading an ebook is miles better than it was when we first started offering them. But ebooks in libraries are far from the frictionless experience Amazon offers and will be forever, probably, and so the post still seems sadly relevant to me.

I tell them that it will get better. I apologize for not being able to deliver awesome service this way, the same way we can in other ways.

Rochelle Hartmann, Tinfoil + Raccoon, December 2010

Rochelle wrote those words about the situation with ebooks in public libraries a year and a half ago, which is approximately a decade in library tech time. Back then, perhaps we did think it would get better. Or perhaps Rochelle was putting on a brave face for the patrons, trying to be positive in the way we’re told we should if we are leaders.

Of course, it hasn’t gotten better. Not really.

Oh sure, you can read many (although not all) Overdrive ebooks on Kindles now (supposing that you are okay with being routed through Amazon — with all the attendant privacy problems that creates — in order to do so). There are many thousands more ebooks in the Wisconsin ebook catalog (11,911 in Adobe ePub format when I just checked; about 2900 ebooks are currently available to check out).

But if you work in a public library that contracts with Overdrive, you know that it will likely be a cold day in hell before we can “deliver awesome service this way, the same way we can in other ways.” Most of the Big Six publishers won’t sell their books to us as ebooks at all, or they’ll only do so for limited numbers of checkouts, or they’ll only do so at greatly inflated prices. None of them will let us loan their books unless we load them down with unwieldy digital rights/restrictions management software. Device makers won’t free up proprietary formats.

You thus find yourself more often than not saying to a patron, “Well, yes, that device might work with our ebooks, and there might be some ebooks available for you to check out.” But mostly you spend a lot of time attempting to explain the publishing industry to them, and file formats, and software requirements. Essentially, there’s a pretty good chance that if a patron asks about ebooks, what you’re going to have to tell them is no.

No, you can’t get ebooks from the library even though you have a card here, because you don’t actually live in our city limits.

No, you can’t get that ebook from the library on your Kindle because it’s not available in Kindle format.

No, you won’t be able to get that book from the library till probably next year some time, after it moves to the publisher’s backlist.

No, you can’t get that as an ebook through the library at all, because that publisher won’t sell to us. Yes, I know it says right there on Amazon that it’s available, but we can’t actually buy it and loan it to people.

It’s depressing. It’s discouraging. It’s not why I became a librarian, and I doubt it’s why any of you became librarians, either.

Sarah Houghton is breaking up with ebooks. Some of us never wanted to date ebooks in the first place. But breaking up with them now isn’t as easy dumping a bad boyfriend. For most of us, it’s going to be more like a long, drawn out divorce, the kind with property disputes and bankruptcy filings and custody battles.


open access rocks; Lambert Academic Publishing does not

Last April, after discovering that I could, I decided to add my MFA thesis to Iowa Research Online, the institutional repository at the University of Iowa, where I got my degree. For good measure, I slapped a Creative Commons license on it (and was told that I was the first person ever to request one at Iowa). I did all this not so much because I think you should read my thesis as because I believe in open access and I want to support it however I can. Iowa instituted its open access policy (since amended with various opt-outs) requiring the electronic deposit of theses and dissertations after I left, and I’ve written before about why I felt most of the outrage about it was hypocritical at best. The people who don’t want to make their theses open access are often the very same people who get snitty about why can’t they just make a bunch of copies of a New Yorker essay for their class. I rest my case.

Since I added it to the IR, it’s been downloaded 38 times, which is rather more than the one time the physical thesis has been checked out, so if my goal were to increase my readership, it’s certainly the way to go.

As I learned the other day, though, it’s also clearly the way to go if you want to get academic spam. Like many people out there (just look at the comment thread on that post, or heck, just Google Lambert Academic Publishing), I, too, was targeted by an academic vanity press with pretensions of scholarly greatness. I reproduce the full email below:

Dear Laura Crossett,

While researching dissertations and theses listed on the University of Iowa’s electronic library for publication, I became aware of the paper you submitted as part of your postgraduate degree, entitled “Encounters with dead white men and other excursions”.

LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing is an academic publisher, which specializes since 2002 in the publication of high quality monographs, master theses, diploma theses, dissertations and postdoctoral theses from renowned institutions worldwide.

I am therefore inquiring whether you would be keen on publishing your academic work with us.
In other words, we would make your work available in printed form and market it on a global scale through well-known distributors at no cost to you.

I would appreciate if you could confirm your interest with a reply email and we will send a detailed brochure to you.

I am looking forward to hearing from you.

With regards,

David Daniels
Acquisition Editor

LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing is a trademark of:
OmniScriptum GmbH & Co. KG

Heinrich-Böcking-Str. 6-8,
66121, Saarbrücken, Germany

d.daniels(at)lap-publishing.com / www.lap-publishing.com

Handelsregister Amtsgericht Saarbrücken HRA 10356 Identification Number (Verkehrsnummer): 13955 Partner with unlimited liability: VDM Management GmbH Handelsregister Amtsgericht Saarbrücken HRB 18918 Managing director: Thorsten Ohm (CEO)

I was tipped off by the mere phrase “academic work.” One can only assume they did not read my thesis very closely, since, although it was submitted as part of an academic degree, it is a creative work, not an academic one. I am also not interested in publishing it: I already have published it. You can download it for free or borrow it through interlibrary loan. If you want to support my work as a writer, you can buy my book. I would suggest, if you are the recipient of a similar email, that you delete it, ignore it — or, better yet — put it out there for all the world to see. We escape scams through constant vigilance. Together, we can do it better.