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.

another job (sort of) near me

If you live in Wyoming, you’ll soon come to think of 60 miles as nearby. Anyway, the Powell Branch Library in lovely Powell, Wyoming, is looking for a new branch manager. The Powell Branch is part of the same county library as my branch, and Powell is a great little town (it’s even mentioned in Bill McKibben’s book Deep Economy).

If you think you’d like doing my job in a somewhat larger town an hour northeast of where I am, you might just want to apply.

come work near me!

If you are, or want to be, a teen librarian and want to live in the West, you can be the first-ever teen librarian at the Park County Public Library in Cody, just 30 miles to the north of me! You get to work in a beautiful, newly renovated building with a coffee shop that serves lunch every day; you get to build a program from scratch; and you get to live fifty miles from Yellowstone. What more could you want? You’ll also be working in the same library system as me, although not at the same library.

Anyway, check it out and apply if you are at all interested!

the new Cody library, my sort of new job, and other news

I realized long ago that I was never going to be a newsy blogger. There are plenty of other people out there reporting on new things, so I don’t. Sometimes, however, I really ought to report some news about what’s happening at my actual librarian job.

I came out to interview for this job in January of 2006. That same week, the Cap Tax II campaign to fund a new Cody library kicked off. I arrived on the job in March and got to work on that website not too long afterwards. That November, I got to celebrate not only the trouncing of the Republican majority in Congress but also the passage of the cap tax. (In fact, I was on the road on vacation the day after election day. We stopped in Farson to get gas, and I called the library from a payphone to get the news.) Some months after that, I started work on what would become the Park County Library website , and last October I attended the groundbreaking for the new library.

This Saturday, the old Cody library will close its doors for the last time. The new library will open six weeks later, on October 4th, and it should be a site to behold: three times the size of the incredibly overcrowded current library (where the branch manager and the circulation manager both have desks right behind the circulation desk, and boxes of donated books line the walls along the entrance).

I’m thrilled that I’ll get to be there. And since, although they’re not really connected, my progress in my job and the progress of the Cody library project have been intertwined in my time here, I’m also excited to tell you about the ways my job is changing. While I’ll remain as a librarian in Meeteetse and continue to do collection development and instruction and programming there, I’m turning over a lot of my administrative duties to my extremely able coworker. That will give me time to be a traveling librarian one day a week and a virtual librarian another. I’ll be traveling to the Powell and Cody libraries to do staff training and, eventually, to teach some classes for the public. And one day a week (or, more likely, hours throughout the week that add up to about a day a week), I’ll be working on our virtual branch, developing web content (like this silly little screencast I just made) and learning more about whatever I need to learn. (I’ve got a ways to go before I’ll meet Mabel Wilkinson’s requirements , but maybe someday.) I look forward to continuing to grow with the library system where I work.


Last Friday we hosted a little get-together for thirteen librarians from northwestern Wyoming. Meeteetse has a four-day school week, so that meant we could use a school computer lab for the sessions, which turned out to be an even better deal than I thought.

In the morning, the school’s IT coordinator talked to us about viruses, anti-virus software, and basic computer security and troubleshooting. I learned that shortcuts on your desktop take up extra space, and I resolved to get better about scanning, defragging, and generally maintaining our library computers. I think everyone learned something from the presentation. Yay IT guy!

We all went out to lunch at the Elkhorn, and then we returned to the lab so that I could talk a little bit about social software. Here’s where the computer lab set-up came in handy–and where I got to feel that there was a practical reason for using Jessamyn’s slideshow set-up rather than simply an I-hate-PowerPoint reason. The projector (which had worked fine in the morning, of course) decided suddenly that it didn’t want to turn on. So I gave out the handout, told everyone to bring up the presentation page on their computer, and gave the talk with everyone following along. Since their computers were hooked up to the school filtering software, I couldn’t show them my lame MySpace page, but on the whole, it worked pretty well.

I haven’t completely figured out how to give presentations of this sort. It’s hard to know how much detail to use when you know some of the audience wants a “and then you click on the blue box” type of thing and others want a “here’s a bunch of stuff–go out and try it” deal. This time I leaned very much toward the latter, with a lot of “please feel free to contact me if you need to know when to click on the blue box” interjections.

I also installed a Meebo Room on my site thinking that it would be fun to let people play around with it during the presentation. We did not end up using it, in large part because I made the fatal error of assuming that everyone is as fond of multitasking as I am. Several people said, “But I can’t chat–I have to take notes!” It’s good to be reminded of these things once in awhile.

mudflap woman

There’s nothing to rouse one’s ire quite like having one’s home insulted. That home can be your country, your team, or your family, and in its worst forms, that ire is what leads to nationalism, gang warfare, and brawls at soccer matches. Most of the time, however, the stakes are more subtle, and the feeling is worth exploring.

As most of you know, I live and work in Wyoming. Ire was my initial reaction to the so-called mudflap girl flap. Fine, I thought, the image may be sexist, but do you have to dump that all on Wyoming? Wyoming, like 49 other states in the nation, has its share of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. It’s sort of weird to see the names of your state library officials next to an exhortation to tell them to pull material from the public eye.

Wyoming has its problems, and I won’t deny them. Most notably, we worst in the nation when it comes to discrepancy in pay between men and women.

I know that for some people these things are all of a piece: sexual image of woman –> objectification of women –> paying women poorly. There are, I am sure, connections. I spend quite a bit of time trying to explain to people that if you say men, you say women, not girls; if you say ladies, you say gentlemen. Only if you say boys do you then say girls. (I’d also kind of like it if we started talking about female doctors and writers and presidents–have you ever head anyone say, “Oh, he’s a man doctor?” No? I thought not. Ever taken a course called American Men Writers? Well, you probably have, but not under that title. Woman writers aren’t special; they are writers who are female, not some rare breed of being that require double nouns.)

Many commentators (including our first lady) have said that the way to create pay equity between men and women in Wyoming is to get more women working in the oil and gas industries. (To give you an idea of how lucrative these fields are during boomtimes, I’ve met high school dropouts who make twice what I do with two masters degrees.) That approach would work statistically, but it’s not a solution. The solution is to value the work that women do and pay people who are teachers and childcare providers and nurses and–yes–librarians in a fashion that is equal to the services they provide. The solution is to make sure that all full-time jobs pay a living wage, so that women are not stuck in minimum wage service jobs.

Those solutions probably also include learning to see women in a variety of ways, not simply as objects adorning mudflaps or library marketing posters. But discussing objectification is the easy part. We can write all the blog entries we want, but I don’t think that any number of blog posts is going to get a living wage bill passed.

I had many far more strident and far more obnoxious things to say about people’s reactions to the campaign, but quite frankly, I’m tired. I appreciate the variety of opinions I’ve seen, many of which have affected the way I think about the issue. But I’m tired. I’m tired of discussions about whether my bumper sticker (a similar mudflap woman from Arches Book Company in Moab, UT) is helping or harming the cause of equal rights. I’m tired of other people having similar arguments. I’m tired of being told what I should or should not think as a feminist. I’m tired of talking about empowerment. I’m tired of defending my state and the people in it.

I’m ready for an actual fight.

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.