Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving and thanksgetting

So, I was thinking ... what am I thankful for ...? Of course the low hanging fruit ... I’m thankful for my family and friends ... I’m thankful for my health ... I’m thankful for music and art and literature ... I am an absolutely fortunate person, and I know it ...

But then I remembered – while this is a completely self indulgent – it’s about libraries and communities and information ...

Serendipitously, I was read an article this morning in Business 2.0 that described the “Golden Rules” of 30 business leaders. I won’t tell you them all (but it was a good, quick read – you should do it!), but I’ll give my top three ...

Number 3 ... Carlos M. Gutierrez (US Secretary of Commerce):
“Believe in something bigger than yourself.”

Number 2 ... George Steinbrenner (owner of the New York Yankees)
“Surround yourself with people smarter than you.”

Number 1 ... Steve Balmer (CEO of Microsoft):
“Make hiring a top priority.”

Okay, so it’s time I come to the point ... what am I thankful for ... ?

I sat in on an interview on Friday ... a perspective employee for one of our Web Content Team positions ... the person was fantastic ... she was open, smart, funny, confident, calmly comfortable, she understood the questions we were asking and why we were asking them ... a nice breath of fresh air ... so many times people when they interview tell you that the reason they want the job (it doesn’t even matter what job!) is because they love books and love to read.

This candidate may have loved books and reading, but the reason she was interested in working with us, was because she understood the need for libraries to be involved in the creation and presentation of information and was passionate about her role in serving that need. She reminded me of what I’m thankful for ...

This year ... I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to work with people who believe in something bigger than themselves and who are smarter than me (and I mean exponentially!). I’m also thankful that I understand that we don’t do great things for real people with a staff versed in mediocrity. We look for and hire the best ... and I love that! I love knowing that when I’m sitting across from one of my team and we’re talking about the work we do, the work we want to do, or just dreaming up new ways to interact and engage our patrons and each other ... I love knowing that they totally get it ... I love seeing that passion and I love that I’m a part of that excitement. It's really more like thanksgetting ...

So, anyway ... that’s what I’m thankful for ...

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Write On!

Write On!

Here’s a random thought ... I was thinking earlier about writing in books ... I was in the airport about a week ago and overheard a mother chastising her child for writing in a library book ... the kid was probably ten years old (in his mother’s eyes, old enough to know better).

It made me remember a meeting of our staff a few years ago ... staff were complaining about a specific patron who consistently wrote in books ... nothing obscene or damaging ... he simply kept notes about what he was reading and what it meant to him. His comments were always in the margin and never impeded the reader’s view of the original text. I remember thinking ... “Surely we have something more important to talk about than a guy writing in books!”

These days, I’m a few years older and (I’d like to think) a shade more enlightened ... and what I recognize is that there is not much that’s more important than the idea of a guy writing in library books ...

We’re in the age of collaborative and compound content ... not just the original work but interactivity between the original content and the derivative stuff too ... writing in books is exactly what we want ... we want kids (and adults too) to not only read for enlightenment, we want them to understand the deeper meanings and be able to apply it to their own circumstances.

How cool would it be to have access to a book with dog-eared pages and the scribbles of 10, 50, or 100 years of readers/thinkers in the margins ... ideas that move beyond those of Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species and adding to them the opinions, questions, and feelings of a 17-year old high school senior, a single mother of three who’s going back to school, or a 72-year old Jesuit priest ... you ... me ...

Now, I’m a rabble rouser, I understand that ... I want us to actively invite our patrons to comment and question everything local (including their library service, which they too often accept passively as “good”) ... I want libraries to be the publishers and archivists and commentarians of content for, about, and by local folks ... I want not just to read the books, but all of the ideas that my community-mates have left within the margins ...

I don’t know what that kid in the airport wrote ... maybe it was nothing ... maybe it was spectacular ... I’m pretty much an optimist, so I’m banking that it if the kid wrote it, it was worth writing ... I don’t often say “I wish I would have ...” but this time, I wish I would have said to his mom, “Let him write ... it’s important to his development and to the well-being of our society ... Right on kid ... write on!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

What's next? ... Getting to Engagement

Library administrators and board members love visioning ... but there has to be some sense that in pretty short order the vision will become reality. So, it won’t be a big surprise to anyone when I tell you that one of the first questions I received after the talk about the future of public libraries was “So how do you make this whole engagement thing happen?”

Hmmm ... GREAT QUESTION! I wanted to say ... “We just have to buckle down and do it!” ... but that sounded lame, even to me.

In reality, it’s really more of a strategic planning or organizational/culture change question, but that doesn’t scare me. So, here are my thoughts in no particular order ...

1. You have to get the right people and get them involved ... where that means hiring them or getting them as volunteers or whatever, you can’t do it without the right people. The hard part here is that often times the folks that have served you well in their traditional library roles will have a hard time buying in, let alone performing. We shouldn’t be afraid to get people from outside the profession to help us.

2. Tell stories that lend passion and emotion to your vision ... once you have the right people you need to get them on board. While some vision statements can do that, stories give a vision bounce and breath ... they add humanity to organizations, and we can’t get enough of that!

3. Accentuate the positive ... every library and every community has specific strengths. Start with those areas first and build off of them. It’ll be better than building from scratch.

4. Create experience opportunities for patrons ... give them an environment where they can experience new ideas, old ones, interactions with people like or different from themselves. Changing the world doesn’t happen when people all agree on something ... it happens when people who share some aspect of thought and emotion get together to put that thought and emotion into motion.

5. Out of control is good ... remember that interaction and engagement must be organic to work and to be sustainable. If you try to control every aspect of the experience (as we in education, government, and the library worlds too often try to do), you will drive the life from it and lose any hope of people wanting to try it.

6. Partner to deliver what we can’t ... forming close ties with organizations, businesses, and agencies that can do things better than we can is good for our patrons, our communities, and of course us. Let’s face it, we just don’t have some skills we will need, but we can’t ignore them ... find who has them, match up your values and stories, and get them on board!

7. Be nimble ... this gets to the heart of a metaphor war I’ve been fighting in my mind ... in strategic planning we talk about the plan being the road map to success for the organization. Well, I’m a sailor ... we use charts. While road maps are good at showing you how to get from here to there when there is a fairly solid and stable highway to take you, a chart gives you an understanding of what was there last time anyone (namely the guy who drew the chart) checked. People who use charts recognize that sometimes stuff just moves, shifts, and often disappears. Nimbleness requires an understanding that as we sail toward the future, we need to be chart-minded and not road map-minded ... because things in life move, shift, and often disappear.

8. Put your money where your vision is ... it doesn’t matter how pretty the vision, the plan, or the outcomes are if you don’t put the resources of the organization into the activities that will turn your stories into realities.

As I've written this, I’ve been thinking about something I said above ... the line about just buckling down and doing it ... lame or not, it’s true. Let’s face it, you get a top-notch staff capable of providing experience, interaction, and engagement, you focus on the stories/vision of the organization, you let everyone play and live in the organic, uncontrolled anarchy that is human life and is the only thing that can truly deliver what they need, and you put the resources in the right spots so that the stories come to life as passionately interwoven harmonic voices from across the community ... I mean, what’s left but to just do it?!

The Future of Public Libraries

This is a long post ... it's been building ...

I was asked to deliver a talk on the future of libraries recently. Some of you know that a lot of my job is in the administration of technology ... Web development, Internet access, technology training, ... you know the list. So when asked to talk about the future, I think my audience expected me to talk about how technology would impact libraries ... instead, I told a story ...

Joanna was in the doctor’s office with her husband Dan. They sat there is sort of stunned silence. After 35 years, they’d been through a few scrapes here and there, but this was the first time they’d faced anything like this ... The doctor had just told them that Dan was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Joanna spoke first, asking the doctor if he had any information they could take home to help them understand a bit more about the disease. He handed her a few pamphlets, then told them that their local public library might be the best place to get some more info, as much of it is aimed at consumers, not medical practitioners.

The next day, Joanna visited the library. While she often borrowed books and CDs, she was outside her element when it came to locating medical information. So, she found a librarian at the service desk and asked where she might find something about Alzheimer’s disease. The librarian steered her toward some books, articles, and videos available in the collection, and left her to consider her choices.

When she got home, she shared her findings with her husband. It seemed to cheer him up a bit. While it couldn’t change the diagnosis, it helped him better understand what was and would be happening to him. But it didn’t help Joanna ... she needed something more ... something different ...

After a few days, she went back to the library. She found the librarian again, and this time told her that she needed some information about how to care for someone with Alzheimer’s. The librarian asked her if the woman was comfortable with Web resources. When she indicated that she’d try anything, the librarian steered Joanna to MyHealth, a site the library built in partnership with the public health department, several local hospitals, the National Library of Medicine, and a local pharmaceutical company. Included among the resources in MyHealth was additional locally relevant information for her husband, but it also had some of the things she needed ... how to deal with your loved one’s emotions, ways to care for him, where to get local assistance, how to get financial help, and how she might find help and support for herself.

The librarian stayed with her until she had guided the woman through the avenues of the site. Among the items that interested her most were the listings of area support groups and an online bulletin board. The librarian told her she could post questions, concerns, greetings, ... anything to the bulletin board, and it could be completely anonymous.

An hour later, when she had reviewed some of the postings, she entered her own message ...

“Hi, I’m new to this ... I don’t know too much about this bulletin board, or about Alzheimer’s. My husband’s been diagnosed ... and I’m hoping someone might be able to help us ... help me ... Thanks in advance.”

When Joanna returned the library a few days later to attend a support group meeting, she arrived a little early. She decided to check the bulleting board to see if anyone had read her message. When she logged in, she saw that 23 people had left her messages. Messages like “Welcome to the group,” “Glad you stopped by,” and “I hope we can help ... we’ve all been there, and we’re here for you.” As she stepped into the support group meeting, she felt like a huge weight had been lifted from her. She felt like there were people out there – not too far away -- who would help her and Dan get through what faced them both.

So this is the future ... the future of libraries ...

It’s about four things ... answering questions ... inspiring new questions to be asked ... interacting to build understanding ... and engaging to change peoples’ lives and their communities.

The first two, we’ve been doing pretty regularly for years – answering reference and readers’ advisory questions like “Where can I find information on Alzheimer’s?” and “I’d like to read a book sort of like The Moviegoer by Walker Percy ... do you have anything?” We put on programs for kids and adults that gave them new concepts and ideas and spurred them to seek additional information that wouldn’t even have appeared on their radar screen before the program. Pretty standard library stuff ...

But the new meat ... the stuff we need to prepare for as part of the not-so-far-off future is in the last two pieces ... interaction and engagement. Interaction to build understanding is really all about linking up people to information and to other people who can provide them with ideas and experiences that broaden their views of the world. It’s done through book clubs and study cells and support groups and online chat and bulleting boards. We’re using new technology and good ole fashion face-to-face communication to extend the reach of the traditional library. It’s not just about hooking folks up with the printed page anymore ... there is too much value out there in experiences and emotions and conversations that just can’t be transmitted through the old paradigm of library work. Interaction creates the connection that will drive the next generations, and libraries need to be a part of that.

The last chunk ... engagement that changes lives and builds community ... to me, this is the holy grail. It’s the stuff that allows us to move past learning, past understanding and into real action. On this plane, the library takes a central role a facilitator for community change and public good. It will occur on a personal level as well as across neighborhoods, cities, and counties. The library will not simply be the building, the collection, the technology, and the staff working to achieve something good and valuable for the community ... Instead, it will be all of those things plus community volunteers, civic leaders, educators, healthcare providers, business leaders, and of course library patrons. It will be all of these folks together working through the one perfect partner for community well-being, the public library.

A year after Dan’s diagnosis, Joanna was preparing to go to her support group meeting. She logged into the bulleting board and saw an entry from a new name. It was a man whose wife had just found out she had Alzheimer’s. She smiled knowingly as she read, “Hi ... I’m new to this and don’t know what to ask or say. I just wanted to say hello, and ask if there was anyone out there who could help me get acclimated to all of the fears we’re probably going to be going through. Thanks in advance.”

As Joanna began typing off a quick response, she thought of how far she had come ... A year before she had struggled to find out where to go for help, and now she actually ran her own support group and was chairing a citizen committee that lobbied for low-cost care for Alzheimer’s patients. She changed her life and increased the possibility of a better life for her husband, She touched tens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of lives across the community. Through questions and answers, inspiration of new questions, interaction with others, and engagement, Joanna used the library to change the community for good. This is the future of libraries. This is what I see.