the problem with solutions

There was an essay by Maurice Isserman in the New York Times Book Review a couple weeks ago about Michael Harrington and his 1962 book The Other America: Poverty in the United States. It’s a nice piece, but supposing you don’t want to go read it yourself, Isserman outlines how the book affected public policy in subsequent decades and how those policies did — and mostly did not — work to end poverty in America, which is still rampant.

Lyndon B. Johnson was one fan of the book, and his administration famously declared a War on Poverty but did not fund that war particularly well. “The resulting legislation,” Isserman notes, “passed in August 1964, provided funds for preschool education, community action agencies, legal services and the like, but did little directly to provide jobs and income for the poor.”

That line stopped me dead.

The legislation provided funds for preschool education, community action agencies, legal services and the like, but did little directly to provide jobs and income for the poor.

The legislation, in other words, funded services that were supposed to help the poor, but it did nothing to address what actually made them poor.

It stopped me dead because it reminded me so much of the kinds of services that have been established to help small rural libraries (and, for that matter, libraries of all sizes in poor areas) with technology. There are all kinds of services out there that will let you learn about technology — SirsiDynix Institute webinars and courses and discussions on WebJunction and downloadable Cookbooks from the Maintain IT Project — but there aren’t any that will provide what you probably most need — a dedicated library IT support person.

There probably is not any way to provide that solution. The people exist, but the money to pay them does not. Of course, we haven’t solved poverty yet, either. In the meantime, we stumble forward and backward, patching things together as best we can.

doing what we can do

Although the world of libraries and the world of technology often overlap, it’s important to remember that they are not contiguous.

Defrag was, I am sure, a fascinating conference (if I had had a spare $1300 lying around somewhere, I would have gone–there was even a $140 roundtrip ticket from Billings). But I would guess that the people there were not trying to decide what books to read for story time, or how to do better outreach to the Spanish-speaking population, or how to teach people to use e-mail, or how to fit a thorough bibliographic instruction into one hour slot. That’s in no way meant as a criticism of defrag. It is meant to remind us (myself most emphatically included) that not every problem we have in libraries is a technology problem, that not everything we do can be done with technology, and that sometimes paper and markers work just fine.

Technology bests us quite a lot. There are far more alternative news sources available on the web than there are print copies of such publications in libraries (thank goodness we at least have the internet in libraries–though, as the folks at the sadly now defunct NewStandard noted a few years ago, Google’s algorithms are made to discount alternative news sources). Technology is flashier and often more fun, and I defend the value of social networking and gaming and other online pursuits on a near daily basis.

But I think that before we start beating our chests about how we don’t have the newest and the best, we might think a little more about what we offer that technology does not. You could think of this as a business strategy, or as strategic planning, or as whatever other management system you want.

I think libraries still offer many, many things that aren’t readily available to many people. I grew up in a college town with multiple independent new and used bookstores, with avant garde theatre and a Jackson Pollack mural, with a whole series of local alternative publications, with lectures and concerts all around me. I used to get depressed at my old library when I put “bookstore near ____” into Google, because the top few results were all adult bookstores. Kids who came to my library then never saw books outside the library except at KMart or Wal-Mart. That’s largely true of my current library, too (although we are mercifully free of neighborhood adult bookstores).*

As I see it, a library in such a situation has a responsibility not only to provide books (and movies and CDs and magazines and newspapers), but to provide as a broad an array as possible, and to introduce things that people otherwise simply won’t run into. That’s something any library can do, and it doesn’t require much. If you’re a small and poor library, just consider making one book in your monthly book order something off the beaten track, or one book every other month, if it’s a month when James Patterson has two new ones out that you have to buy. When you think about “going where your users are,” also try to think about going where they aren’t, and then figuring out a way to lead them there.

We don’t beat Google by trying to best Google. We beat Google by being the thing–the things, really–that Google can never be.

*Please note, I am not against adult bookstores per se. If they were all like Early to Bed or Good Vibrations, I’d say bring ’em on. Unfortunately, I think most of them are more about plastic wrapped magazines, scary guys who man the door, and browsing fees.

research library, rural library: a trip to yellowstone

Thanks to Jessi at the Yellowstone Research Library for a few corrections and updates!

There are a lot of great things about being a librarian in Wyoming. (To begin with, you get to live in Wyoming, although I recognize this is not everyone’s idea of a Great Thing.) You get to be part of a (relatively) well-funded state library network. You get to have Craig Johnson come visit your library for the price of a six-pack of Rainier Ale. You get to be proud to be from the same state as Mabel Wilkinson. And, once in awhile, you get to go to meetings in Yellowstone National Park. (Note to the National Park Service: consider hiring an information architect. Really. Your websites are horrid to navigate.)

I got to do just that last week. Region 2 of the WYLD network had a meeting at the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center, and we stayed over night at Mammoth Hot Springs. The Research Center used to be at Mammoth, in the Wyoming part of Yellowstone, and so even though it moved to new spiffy quarters a couple of years ago in Gardiner, Montana, the library part is still considered to be part of the Wyoming library network.

I arrived a bit late for the full tour, but I got to see a few Thomas Moran water colors, with his notes on how to expand them into full fledged paintings, and I got to see the library. The library consists of books that are all related in some way to Yellowstone, from environmental impact statements to novels set in the park; vertical file materials of all sorts; a map room with lots of nifty maps; and an archive with all kinds of papers related to the park, including many decades worth of log books and 296 linear feet of papers related to the 1988 fires.

Two librarians staff the library, though they occasionally also have volunteers or an intern. If I’m remembering this correctly, the Yellowstone Association runs the building and the librarians work for the National Park Service, but I might have that backwards–it’s a confusing amalgam of responsibilities. There was at one time an archivist, but his position wasn’t kept after he retired. Because the library is so short-staffed, a lot of the collection is languishing–not decaying, but not getting fully described and cataloged, much less digitized.

Correction–in fact, I did have it backwards: the NPS runs the building, the librarians work for the Yellowstone Association. Also, the didn’t retire; he left to take another position. The Park has yet to decide whether or not to replace him. [Another note to the NPS–hire archivists!]

I am in many ways lucky, I know. There aren’t many towns the size of Meeteetse (pop. 351, elev. 5797) that have a library of 25,000 with internet access and a wide array of electronic resources that’s open 44 hours a week. Gardiner, Montana, by contrast, has a population of 851 and a public library that’s open 11 hours a week and has one computer (at least according to this Chamber of Commerce newsletter–scroll about a third of the way down). It wasn’t open while we were there. The vagaries of library funding tend, quite frequently, toward the depressing.

On a less somber note, we did see deer, antelope, elk, bison and baby bison, a mama black bear and a black bear cub, and two coyotes in the park. I don’t have any pictures of the wildlife, but a few shots of the park, the libraries, and the general environs are up on Flickr.

leaving the league of awesomeness

I just got home from a hugely successful program at the library. Tom Rea, a writer from Casper, came to talk about Ella Watson, also known as “Cattle Kate.” Thirty people packed the library — we ran out of regular chairs and had people sitting on the little kids’ chairs, but no one seemed to mind. I rigged up a screen (there was a miscommunication about what equipment was needed) by securing our aged tiny screen to the ceiling with the aid of a spare computer cord and a double half hitch. I’d show you pictures, but the batteries in my camera were dead. Again. (NB: If anyone ever tries to convince you that a digital camera that takes AA batteries is a good idea because you’ll always be able to buy batteries for it if yours run out, do not take their advice. You will either buy many, many batteries or you will be like me and have many, many pictures that you never take.)

The lack of pictures leads into the title for this post, and its real subject, which is not success but failure. When Michael Porter (also known as Libraryman) sent out an invitation to join the 365 Library Days project, I jumped all over it, because, as they say, it was new and shiny, and because I sure do love Flickr, and because, as Steve Lawson put it, I wanted to be a part of the League of Awesomeness. A few weeks in, though, and I’m realizing that not only am I not going to be able to take all the pictures because of my damn camera batteries, but also that I am not going to be able to take them all simply because I have too much else to do, and while Flickring 365 days in the library will make me look awesome in the world of librarians who Flickr, it won’t mean much of anything to the population I serve.

It’s often quite amazing to me that we have a library at all in a town as small as this one. That we do have such a library, and that it is able to hold 25,000 volumes and be open 44 hours a week and have a monthly book discussion group and a weekly story time and an occasional program like tonight’s is a testament to a lot of things: to the cooperation between the Park County Library System and the Meeteetse School District, to the awesomeness of the Wyoming State Library and the WYLD network, to the Friends of the Library and the Park County Library Foundation, to the Wyoming Humanities Council and other groups, and to my coworkers.

We manage to do a lot of things, but we can’t do everything. It behooves me to remember the things that I am good at but also the things that I’m not. I’m good at giving teenagers the space to do their own thing in peace. I’m not so good at engaging them and getting them to come to organized events. I’m pretty good at ordering a selection of books that is — I hope — both broad and deep in all the right places for this community. I suck at getting those books read. I’m good at taking pictures of silly inanimate things that amuse me. I’m not so good at getting people to participate in pictures meant to go online.

I am — or rather the Meeteetse library is — probably going to be leaving the League of Awesomeness, or at least the 365 Library Days part of it. If I have a moment sometime, I’ll drop by and see how the rest of you are doing. I think it’s a cool project, and it could potentially be a great way to get some news coverage for your library — both for your library’s use of technology but also, and more importantly, for the things you do at your library that you are documenting (hint: start writing press releases)! For now, though, I’m going to go back to ordering books and trying to read more of them, thinking about summer reading, and wondering if it’s really essential for me to convince people that Firefox is so much better than Internet Explorer — another thing I turn out not to be good at.

one year in, lots more to go

One year ago today I started my job here in Meeteetse. I put together a handout of some of the things that we’ve done–and I should emphasize the we, because most of these things would not be possible without the work of my coworkers–in the past year for the Legislative Reception last month. I thought that for my one-year anniversary, I’d post it (with various self-promotional hyperlinks) here.

In 2006, the Meeteetse Branch Library. . .

There are many more things I’d like to do, and many I’d like to do differently, or better, but for today I’m just focusing on all the stuff that we have done, which, if I do say so myself, seems like quite a bit.

a trip to cheyenne

I spent most of this past week in Cheyenne, WY. Well, to be more exact, I spent two days in Cheyenne and two days getting there and back–it’s a seven hour drive from Meeteetse and even farther from Cody and Powell, our other Park County libraries.

Our business in Cheyenne was two-fold: on Wednesday several of us attended a Rural Library Sustainability Workshop, which is sort of a canned workshop developed by WebJunction and put on by the good folks at the Wyoming State Library. Thursday night was the Wyoming Library Association’s legislative reception, where we thanked our legislators for supporting Wyoming libraries (thanks, Pat Childers, Alan Jones, Elaine Harvey, Lorraine Quarberg, Hank Coe, and Ray Peterson, Park County’s delegation!) and encouraged them to support the Wyoming Library Endowment Bill.

As is so often the case, the best part was meeting librarians from around the state and sharing ideas. I also got to meet a few people I knew only from the web, including Digital Initiatives Librarian Erin Kinney, whom I know from Flickr; and Katie Jones from the Wyoming State Law Library, whom I know from their blog, Law Library Letter.

Now I’m back in Meeteetse–back home.