Marketing on the Edge

Ben Bizzle and Meloney Dunlap

Ben is the Director of Technology & Meloney is the graphic designer for the Craigshead County Jonesboro Public Library in Arkansas.  They started the presentation by showing the video they did for the 50 state salute to banned books.

Ben spoke first.  They get asked a lot how they get away with the marketing they do.  It’s been a process of about four years where they started revolutionizing the whole library, when 4 new staff started at the same time.  The first year they worked on their physical infrastructure – electricity, network, etc.  Then they completely redesigned their library website, which was (admittedly) pretty darn bad.  They didn’t want to be perceived as a building with books in it anymore, but as an information gateway and a portal.  They had to change their metrics of success – just counting the people coming through the doors is not an accurate reflection of a library’s impact on the community.  We give stuff away for free, but people will still go somewhere else and pay for the same thing. Why?  We have a barrier to entry for most of our services.  That’s ridiculous.  At their library they don’t chase trends, they build platforms.  Then they started a comedy video series about a fictional library called the Crooked Valley Regional Library:  It’s quite hilarious – highly recommend it.  They pushed hard a couple of years back on mobile services.  The library then invested in a PR and Arts department, including Meloney as the graphic designer.

Meloney continued the presentation by talking about how they didn’t really have a brand or logo before the website.  Now, everything in their building and that leaves their building has their logo on it.  Tips on doing good graphic design.  Always plan ahead of time, even if it’s just a quick sketch.  Choose only 2-3 fonts for any piece.  White space is your friend.  Limit the number of colors you use.  Have consistency in everything you produce.  She recommends Microsoft Publisher, and Adobe Photoshop Elements.  She hasn’t used LibraryAware yet, but says it’s worth looking at.  Sites to get stock images and fonts from: Shutterstock, Tuts+,, and istockphoto.

Ben then discussed their billboards that they’ve done in their community.  At the head of the recession they did a “Save money at your public library” campaign.  They thought they’d play off the credit card ads (your library card: what’s in your wallet).  The lawyers were concerned that they’d potentially end up in court over copyright infringement.  So they passed on that idea.  They have a creative team – with combative meetings.  “No, that sucks” is the most commonly used phrase at their meetings.  They threw out ideas for the billboards – 20 ideas per person.  Their “Spoiler Alert! Dumbledore dies on page 596.” billboard got some negative reaction, but also ended up on the front pages of reddit, imgur, icanhazcheezburger, etc. made a Photoshop thread of their billboard which people could remix and add their own messages to.  Hundreds were made.  They’ve also done some Facebook covers that went over well.  The one they did as a parody of Pulp Fiction had a printed copy that was signed by Samuel L Jackson.  Their Fight Club parody video (book club) got mentioned by Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club.  They’ve done some events campaigns as well – all with the same someecards look and feel.  They also put a card at the end of every stack in the library, representative of the subject in that stack.  Example: “50 Shades of Bacon” for the cookbook section.  Results?  Overdrive checkouts increased by 150% from 2011 to 2012.  Freegal downloads increased by 73% with a 97% increase in patrons using the service.  There are 110% more visits to their mobile website by 102% more people.  100% increase in foot traffic in 4 years.  40% increase in library cards issued in 4 years.  Concert attendance doubled to 400 in one year.  There was also a 50% increase in Children’s Summer Reading Club registrations.  Stats validate their success.

People are not thinking about their public library.  They want to sell the sizzle, not the steak, but deliver a damn good steak.  They don’t promote specific resources in their campaigns—they keep them general to just make people think about the library.  Once they have their attention, then people will check out the library and figure out what’s useful for them.  People want to be entertained—don’t be a boring place.  They want one person talk to another person about the public library…word of mouth marketing.  They love what they do and have passion for their library.  You can change things in your community if you are willing to take a risk.

Advertising isn’t about making you agree.  It’s about making you never forget what you just saw.

Innovative, Awesome Services & Spaces

Tim Donahue, Jeroen de Boer, and Keimpe de Heer

De Boer and de Heer talked about a project in the Netherlands they’ve been working on.  The Stichting Bibliotheken Midden-Frysln and Extelligentsia developed a SocialMediaCaster interactive touchscreen kiosk with an RFID reader etc. that connects what’s in the library with students’ social content and social lives online.  Students can bring any library item up to the kiosk and it’s scanned and then other relevant resources, including social media content, comes up on the screen.  This is greatly helpful for research projects for the students.  They connected to the school’s curriculum and took assessment criteria into account for media literacy.  The SMC system connects catalogs of the local school library with other library catalogs nearby.  SMC also displays social media content.  They’re connected to Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, YouTube, and many others.  Version 2 has a new data source adaptor to let them connect to the National Library in the Netherlands.  This enables searches through all the catalogs through all the libraries in the Netherlands.  They also developed ExplorApp, a mobile version.  They just launched The Library of Things which they’re looking for other libraries to collaborate on.  The ExplorApp demonstrates this concept – it’s meant for use both inside and outside the library.

Donahue talked about work that he’s done at Montana State University.  There is a diagram of the library building, with stacks of the libraries and read-outs of stacks and the subjects contained within.  You can mouse on different floors, and find the whole map of the library’s contents.  You can also search for a particular subject, and the library map will light up the stacks with the relevant books.  He used Flash, InDesign, and Adobe Illustrator.  He animated each stack as a button with basic mouse-over functionality (Sarah’s note: Flash…….noooooooooo!).  This helps you for library space planning and redesign, training new staff and student workers, familiarizing students with the extent of the library’s collections.  They can also show off “the library” virtually when at outreach events.  One of the issues is that collections shift and books move, and as that happens this would have to be redone.  They’ve also added QR codes to the endcaps of all of the stacks that gives a specific even further break-down of subjects in that stack.

Sensible Library Website Development

Amanda Etches

Why do we have library websites?  Teaching, posting things, a way to access resources and services, allowing access to the catalog and online resources, to help, etc.  Amanda says that while we are all unique little snowflakes, we aren’t that unique in our motivations for having websites.  How do those similar goals and motivations help us share and collaborate a little more for website design.


Scope refers to the parameters of a project.  Whether you’re building a brand new website or redesigning, you need to define the scope of the site.  It’s a mistake to assume that a redesigned site is going to include the same type and information as the existing site.  Most library websites are like junk drawers—everything you could possibly want to know about the library.  We put everything we can think of on the site just in case someone might need to know it.  Amanda is a fan of the smaller is better approach.  Less is less.  If you consider the signal:noise ratio of your website is important.  The pages people aren’t using are a whole lot of noise that detracts from the pages that people want and need to access.  How much of your content represents your needs vs. your library user’s needs?  It’s better for half of your website to be amazing than for your entire website to be bland.  Another way to think about it is like a pyramid.  The necessary information is the base of the pyramid.  As you move up you get to destination pages – things like library-created contact, basic interactivity.  Above that you see participatory activity, user-created content.  And at the top you see the library website as a community portal.  Amanda highlighted – a template for a single page library website.  Most of the high use content on a library website can fit onto one page.  You can download the code and play with it yourself.  J  Yays!  The notion of less is less – aiming for less content is a good thing, but how do you start scoping your site in this way?  The first is that you should really design for mobile devices first…not only because of the ubiquity of mobile devices, but if you design for mobile you have to work harder and pare back to what you and your users think of as essential functionality.  “If we wouldn’t put it on our mobile version, why would we put it on our regular website?”  Recommended book: Mobile First.  Focus on users’ critical tasks.  What are those critical tasks?  How do you determine your critical tasks? Ask your users through a survey – what are the top 3 reasons you visit the site? Use a heatmapping application on your homepage to see what the top things are that users click on.  Don’t ask staff – anecdotal evidence from staff does not equal real data.


The kind of reading that happens online is functional reading.  People skim and scan pages.  They don’t read top to bottom.  Being confronted with large amounts of text on a screen doesn’t work.  Remove unnecessary words.  Change the way you think about your website as an FAQ.  It shouldn’t be a junk drawer – but a place to find answers to the most frequently asked questions and desired tasks.  Think about your website as information not documents.  Adopt the inverted pyramid style for your website copy – People will look at the top and lose interest as they go down.  Bold text to make it stand out.  Break up text into chunks with headers.  Make your web copy conversational – build content with functional reading in mind that includes a conversational and personal tone.  Treat your website like a conversation between you and your users.  Don’t write in the passive voice.  Write in the active voice (fewer words result, too!).  If you write in the passive voice, you seem authoritative and stuffy and unfriendly.  If your library is supposed to be conversational, use the words we and you, not library and user.


Redesigning navigation is not an easy process.  Navigation can make or break a website.  Read Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think.  There are general practices in web design we can draw from.  Navigation needs to tell people the site name, page name, where on the site they are, where they can go next, and how they can search.  Salt Lake City Public Library’s website is a good example of excellent navigation.  Vancouver Public Library is another good example (Sarah’s note: I actually don’t dig on this website very much, but maybe it’s just me).  Airbnb is a site Amanda likes in terms of navigation and interaction design. also very easy to navigate.  Match up your labels to your page names.  Don’t disorient your users.  Your navigation is not your org chart.  Your users don’t care about your org chart. It’s not something they think about, so don’t design your site around your org chart.  It’s not intuitive to your users.  And finally – death to “click here.”  (Sarah’s note: HELL TO THE YES.)


Lack of information is at the root of all bad design decisions.  Make design decisions based on information and data.  It is an extremely enlightening experience.  The insights you gain from watching people use your site can’t be found any other way.  Usability testing in five words: watch people use your website.  You can gain more information and data on usability from watching people interact with it than you can from reading every usability textbook ever written.  We are not our patrons.  We are different than those who use our sites.  Don’t test your staff.  You do need to test with library users, not staff.  Five testers is enough for anything.  Once you go over five you start to see a lot of repetition.  There’s no such thing as a usability test that’s too small.  There is such a thing as one that’s too big.  Make a comprehensive list of all the things you want to test, and chunk it out into 3 things at a time, which you can test with different small groups.  Test early and test often.  Make iterative changes constantly instead of giant big website designs.  Script your usability testing – giving testers even slightly different instructions can affect the results dramatically.  A script allows you as the tester to concentrate on the test and the tester.  In the script: an introduction to you, your role, their role; be clear about the purpose of the test; provide testers an outline of what they’ll be doing and how long it will take; give them a printed copy of the tasks you’ll be asking them to do; ensure that the testers know that they’re not the ones being tested—it’s the site being tested.  Write your scenarios carefully.  If you’re testing your library databases page, don’t phrase it in library-ese.  Use common language that people would actually use, and that doesn’t give them the right path or answer in the question itself.

UX and Accessibility

Frank Cervone

There is a fundamental union of usability and experience design and accessibility.  Our websites have to be accessible legally, and implementing good user experience design often goes hand in hand with accessibility naturally.  Thinking about design – Understand the underlying problem before attempting to solve it.  Don’t hurt anyone.  Make things simple and intuitive. Acknowledge that the user is not like you (Sarah’s note: WORD).  Have empathy.  When people come to our websites, it’s not a learning moment.  Give them what they want the way they want it.  Things to think about in relation to design: Visibility.  Just because something is really good in one particular context doesn’t mean it’s good in the overall system.  All attributes of an object indicate how to use something.  Feedback.  We need to inform users about what has been or needs to be done—through feedback mechanisms like sound, highlighting, and animation.  Constraints.  Restrict the possible actions that can be performed to help prevent selecting incorrect options.  Mapping.  As we’re mapping experiences we want people to have, we need to do so in a logical manner.  Consistency.  Interfaces need similar operations and similar elements for similar tasks.  Consistent interfaces are easier to learn and easier to use.

So, why accessibility? It’s the right thing to do.  And the Americans with Disabilities Act Title III prohibits discrimination against an individual.  This includes all resources we provide, physically and virtually.  The 2008 ADA Amendments Act also requires providing assistance for major life activities: seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, etc.  This means that we need to think about the varying types of disabilities people have and how we provide accommodation for those.  Most often we think of visual impairments in terms of websites, but others we need to consider are cognitive learning, auditory, motor, physical, and speech disabilities.  17% of the population has some type of disability in the U.S.  So what is a reasonable accommodation, which is what the ADA requires us to provide.  Either an adjustment or an auxiliary aide.  Neither of these things should cause a fundamental alteration in the nature or core function of a program or service.  Additionally, it should not impose an undue financial or administrative burden to the institution.

So where does this take us?  To universal design.  Universal design came out of architecture.  The fundamental principles are equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive, perceptible information, toleration for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use.

One big easy thing to do on websites—all objects (videos and images) have some sort of text equivalent that is meaningful.  Graphics must have alt tags and graphics used only for positioning should be labeled with alt=” “. (quote, space, quote).  (Sarah’s note: Everyone forgets to do that last thing…)

The phrase “click here” is meaningless, and particularly troublesome when moving through a page by tabbing.  The best practice is similar considerations to those of the alt tags—text should be meaningful.  You need to express clearly where the link will go or what will happen after selection.

Using only indentation (reformatting may remove indentations) or color (color blindness) alone is not sufficient to convey meaning.  Don’t rely on indicating required fields in a form by making them bold.  Explicitly state that required fields are required.

Provide skip links.  Skip links allow assistive software to skip through repeated menus.

Use logical layouts in forms.  Form questions need to have input fields on the same line as the input itself.  Place labels consistently on the same side of the input field.  Explicitly identify what information is required.  Make the word “Required” part of the label for each mandatory field.

Other points to consider: specify column header rows in tables, use styles in documents (short titles in headings, heading styles in the correct order), use simple table structure (avoid using blank cells for formatting, avoid repeated blank characters, structure layout tables for easy navigation), avoid image watermarks, and include closed captions for any audio.

Don’t overuse access keys, which creates conflicts.  This can conflict with assistive technology.  Users are often very familiar with these shortcuts.  Don’t change it up on them.

Check for color contrast:

Accessibility checker:

Microsoft has some good documentation on making PowerPoint presentations and Word documents accessible.

WGBH developed a tool called Magpie to close caption audio and video.

Purdue University-Calumet also has an extensive web accessibility website:

In response to pleas from many of you, I’m extending the deadline for the Shit Librarians Say video contest to October 1st! Read more on the contest here.

It’s time for a contest!  It came to my attention today that in the entire vast universe of “Shit People Say” videos, there is no Shit Librarians Say video yet.   Well there is, but it’s this one dude saying “shhh” over and over.  We can do better than that people!

I’m going to make a Shit Librarians Say video, crowd-sourced from content y’all send me.  Send me a video clip, or clips, of you or your library staff saying stereotypical things library folks say (there are plenty) and email me the clip or a link to it somewhere at librarianinblack [at] gmail [dot] com.  I’ll cut the best entries together and hopefully we’ll have something hilarious.

Two rules:

  1. Sound quality has to be good.  I don’t want to spend time fixing your crap audio.
  2. Send it to me by Friday, September 21st.

If you are unfamiliar with the “Shit People Say” internet meme, read up on it here. It started with Shit Girls Say and now there are thousands, including my top three: Shit Hipsters Say, Shit Gamers Say to Their Girlfriends, and Shit Vegans Say.

If you don’t want to submit a video, but have a cute idea for an entry, submit it as a comment to this post.  And the rest of you, feel free to steal shamelessly from the comments 🙂

And I’m going to type SHIT one more time just in case I didn’t trip your internet filters yet. Screw you, filters.

I want to break up with eBooks. Don’t get me wrong, eBooks is dead sexy and great arm candy at parties, as well as a magnet for attention and memorable experiences. But man…eBooks makes for a crap boyfriend. This relationship is as dysfunctional as it gets. And I’m too old and jaded to put up with dysfunction. I need a smoldering hot boyfriend who is a wildcat in the bedroom but kisses gently, is unfailingly honest and kind, and sends me cute messages during the day. And that ain’t eBooks.

eBooks is to libraries what that awful boyfriend (or girlfriend) was to you. Think about it. And when I say “eBooks” I mean the whole messed up situation–the copyright nightmares, the publishers, the fragmented formats, the ridiculous terms of service, the device incompatibility, the third-party aggregation companies libraries do business with–all of it. eBooks is the guy who takes advantage of your good nature and generosity only to exploit every last weakness you have for his own personal gain. The guy your family loved the first time they met him, who swept you off your feet, but who everyone came to regard as that unwanted interloper who would never leave. Well, my friends, it’s time to boot eBooks’ ass to the curb. There are better boyfriends to be had.

eBooks ignores you
eBooks totally ignores everything you say. We in libraries have not been included at the table for negotiations on digital copyright, terms of service, licensing conditions, technology integration, none of it. And yes, that stinks. And yes, we’ve complained about it enough. We haven’t been heard largely because we’ve been too polite and too quiet for too long. It’s our fault. We removed ourselves from the equation by not being more proactive as a profession through the professional organizations and lobbyists we expect to speak for us. But even now that some of us are getting louder and angrier, we’re still being ignored by the entire eBooks industry, with very few exceptions (hi Gluejar, you guys rock). So my opinion is that we should walk away and take our fuck-me heels with us. That’s what our moms would tell us to do.

eBooks drew you in with wine and roses, but now makes you fetch him beer and Cheetos
Remember how tantalizing eBooks seemed several years ago? How sexy, how intoxicating? Everything seemed perfect because we were caught up in the glossy image of our desires…not the reality standing in front of us. eBooks…in…the…library! Holy ceiling cat!!!11one! We were like kids on our first trip to the candy store.

Now, eBooks’ idea of a date is ordering a cheese pizza from the cardboard pizza joint down the street. Maybe he’ll turn on some bromance comedy on Netflix, but more than likely he’ll play Skyrim by himself for hours, ask for a beer, and tell you to get lost. For your birthday eBooks might actually put toppings on the pizza (think Penguin’s misguided experiment at NYPL with embargoed popular titles) and buy a bottle of $5 wine. And he expects you to be grateful…after all, hey…toppings! For libraries, our crappy pizza is our crappy eBooks selection. We can’t buy from most of the major publishers, and even for those we can buy from we have extreme restrictions or highly inflated costs. And our attention negligent boyfriend’s actions, in eBooks’ case, are the lack of development of usable download processes, fair-use-friendly terms of use, and privacy options in keeping with libraries’ professional values and ethics. In short–dude…the dates are terrible and yet we keep going on them, hoping that maybe we’ll go somewhere nice eventually. Please, darling. We know better.

eBooks slept with your sister
Remember how eBooks said he could only do so much for you, that he just didn’t have the emotional capacity to truly love but that for you, he was going to try? Yeah, and then he went and slept with your sister. Likewise, eBooks slept with consumers and gave them what eBooks never gave us as libraries–full selection, right-quick downloads, and sharing rights. We got no love at all, but our prettier sister, the consumer, got a better deal. Still not everything, as she also has to put up with restrictive DRM, licensing and not owning, and privacy violations…but in the end she stole our man and our man went willingly. Of course, he still texts us now and again to make sure we’re still interested–hinting that he might come back to us with the same relationship agreement our sister got. Yeah, right.

eBooks says you’ll move in together, but you never do
You’ve wanted to wake up next to someone awesome for a long time–and eBooks keeps promising it will happen. But his playboy nature always wins out–he still wants his own place. Likewise, publishers continually feed libraries the line that they’re “experimenting with different models” and “hope to continue to work positively with libraries in the digital space.” Uh huh.  Libraries and eBooks aren’t shacking up anytime soon, not for real…not as long as publishers continue to falsely view us as a threat instead of a partner.

I feel that we in libraries are actually doing a disservice by offering what’s “barely good enough.” We give people the false impression that they can get their eBooks through their libraries. How many libraries are upfront with information about how we can’t/don’t offer books from the most popular publishers? How many libraries are upfront with the limited formats people can get on their devices of choice? Instead, most libraries tout their subscription to a single eBook service like it’s the second coming. We say “we have eBooks!” and “they work on most devices!” without listing the caveats, perhaps hoping that people won’t notice until they’re already chest deep in the browsing or download process and only then see what the limitations are. Why in hell are we covering for a bad situation? Who gains from us putting the happy face on the dismal eBook situation in libraries? It’s certainly not libraries–we haven’t gained shit. It’s certainly not our users–in fact, they’re the biggest losers. It’s the publishers who gain–who choose to license to libraries under any terms whatsoever (they get our money and we accept crappy prices and use limitations). And it’s the middleman companies who gain–who whore themselves out for the highest profit, lying to both sides by telling the publishers that libraries are screwing them and the libraries that the publishers are the ones doing the screwing. Walk away, my friend. Walk away.

I’m out.
So that’s it folks. eBooks and I are done. eBooks in libraries are a non-starter, their path has been set for the foreseeable future, and their future is determined by people who are not us. Not by the people who love books, who believe in their power to change lives, but by those who produce them for profit. No, not by the authors (as we all know, they see far too little profit for their labors), but by the publishers…the, until recently, necessary middlemen in the process between creators and consumers. Now that they’re not necessary to the process anymore, largely due to their inflexibility and inability to change in the face of rapidly shifting market conditions, they have attempted to salvage their failing business model with high prices, limited licensing policies, and technology so locked down that it remains impenetrable to many people.

If I hear one more publisher talk about “increasing friction,” I am going to punch that publisher in the face with a pair of book-shaped brass knuckles and discuss the option of dramatically increasing friction cheese-grater-style somewhere else on their physique. Don’t push me Penguin.

Publishers have painted themselves into a corner, a corner that will eventually eat them alive. But until that happens, until the market shakes out, there is little libraries can do that is in keeping with our core ethics and values.

For a decade now I have been speaking, writing, and advocating on a local, national, and international level for positive eBooks integration and implementation in libraries. I’ve spoken to technologists, educators, publishers, librarians, authors, lawyers, and legislators. I’ve been frustrated by how long it took everyone to start paying attention, but at long last in the past year or two people are finally listening. Everyone on “the right side,” insofar as I see it, agrees that the DMCA needs to be radically revised, that copyright exemptions need to be extended for libraries into the digital domain, but no one has the power or political clout to override the lobbyists’ dollar signs in the capitol. So, what are we left with as librarians in our role to advocate for our communities’ needs? Nada, zilch, zero, zip.

At our recent regional library consortium meeting, I said I wouldn’t give more money to OverDrive, beyond the bare minimum that the consortium’s contract required of us, and only until we can legally terminate our contract–at which point I personally want out of OverDrive.  The title selection is awful and getting only more so month by month, their policies are restrictive, and their business practices are unethical–including trading away core librarian values (user data privacy, no commercial endorsements).  I’m not going to give any money to 3M or Baker & Taylor either unless things change on their end, just for the record.

Yes–our residents want eBooks. But does that mean that we trade away our core values and ethics to provide anything, under any terms? Does it mean that we spend our residents’ limited tax dollars on sub-par products with sub-par usage terms and no ownership or longevity guarantees? Or is the fact that people want eBooks from their libraries and we can’t get them going to turn out to be enough reason to stop the madness and engage in a massive national boycott of the societal conflagration that we are faced with for the future of digital information?

So why keep up the ruse that eBooks are in libraries and all is awesome? Why continue the whitewashing? I’m personally done with the whitewashing. I’ll continue to support positive steps toward eBook independence like Open Library, Gluejar, the Hathi Trust, DPLA, Project Gutenberg, and projects like those undertaken at the Douglas County Public Library and Califa. However, I’m finished promoting an inferior eBook product to our patrons. I’m finished throwing good money after bad money. And I’m finished trying to pointlessly advocate for change when change has to come from places waaaaaaay above my influence level or pay grade.

eBooks, you shitty boyfriend you…you are dead to me.  I will tolerate your continued existence, but will pay you no mind.  You don’t deserve a single byte of my brain’s bandwidth.

So what now? I plan on turning my attentions to the next frontiers of music and video content–places where we just may be able to effect some positive change before things go to hell in a handbasket yet again. Multimedia library licensing situations are even more early-stage than those which we face with eBooks. And so perhaps there is still hope. Do I plan to single-handedly take on the RIAA or the MPAA? No, that would be simpering idiocy. What I do plan to do is to seek out and reward publishers, aggregators, and creators who are willing to distribute their content under terms favorable to both them and to library communities, including insisting on DRM-free content. Yes, this most likely means a lack of popular content–but most of us have zero for popular digital content for music or movies today, at least legally. At least this way we’re offering something to our users, likely content they wouldn’t stumble across on iTunes or Netflix, and we’re rewarding business models that work for us…not against us. Models that work for our users, not against them. And that, my friends, is what we are supposed to do as librarians.

So, to close–fuck eBooks. I’m off to get myself the boyfriend I deserve.

Someone trying to contract with me to give a keynote in a very cool country (*fingers crossed*) today asked me how many talks/classes/keynotes I’ve given in my career.  I realized I had no idea.  I went back and counted.

I’ve spoken at 207 various events since I started in mid-2002.  That’s an average of 20 or so a year.  And given that the first few years were very slow, you can see how that works out to a lot more than that in the last few years (and indeed my past presentations list demonstrates just that).

People ask me how I do the speaking and the writing and hold down a full time job. I just shrug and make that weird “I don’t know” sound that includes no actual words (sorta like “uh-ah-uh”).  I really don’t know.  I just do it.  I love what I do–and when you’re passionate about something it feels a lot less like work.


After reading that count, I feel rather old.  And rather busy.  I would be off to grab a cocktail as consolation for both if I didn’t have a nighttime City Council meeting to attend………Which I love attending– hello City Council 🙂

The advice I’d share with newbies on the speaker circuit? Pace yourself for ceiling cat’s sake.  You won’t go out of style.  Only take what you can realistically accommodate without sacrificing your sleep, your personal life, or your job.  I’m taking a lot fewer gigs, especially traveling ones, nowadays largely in an attempt to reinvigorate my personal life (here’s hoping) and to have more mental space to devote to being a new director.  So if you’re out there speaking…just be real with yourself, your loved ones, and your employer.  You’ll find a balance as long as you’re consciously thinking about it.  We can’t all be Stephen Abram and fly from place to place being super smart all the time 😉

I have now been in the position of Director at the San Rafael Public Library for seven months, officially permanently the director for almost two.  Before that, I was the Assistant Director for nine months.  For better or for worse, I think it is safe to say that I have made the transition from being a techie-librarian to being, as Nate Hill so aptly put it, ‘The Man.’*

The Hell You Say…

I believe my response to Nate at the time involved the oh-so-mature phrases “shut your mouth” and “nuh-uh, take it back.”   Some cursing likely occurred in between.  I may have even smacked him on the shoulder.  I don’t remember.  I think I actually blacked out from the shock of the epithet, so I’ll trust to Nate’s memories of that conversation instead of mine.

The Man Suit

Suffice it to say that the idea of being in charge, of being an administrator, raises mixed emotions in me.  I’ve always prided myself on being the fighter, the principled one who stood up in meetings and said the thing the person in charge least wanted to hear and took the beatings afterward gladly.  I am the iconoclast, the rabble-rouser, the pain in the behind of pretty much everyone who’s ever supervised me (sorry to David, Pat, Carol, Mary, Jane, the list goes on…).  The idea that I am now a Director still makes me crinkle my forehead and make a little kid pouty face.  The concept that I’m running a library is still foreign to me, it’s still weird, and it’s still a suit I’m getting comfortable wearing.

All of that being said, those same supervisors I tortured would be the first to say that I like being in charge of things.  I believe that my younger brother and sister will echo that sentiment, telling stories about me being just a wee bit bossy even as a seven-year-old.  I admit that I fully enjoy having the ability to say “Yes, we’re just gonna buy those shelves” or “Good idea–try it and let me know in a month how it’s going.”  But that ability comes at the cost of being the person ultimately responsible when things go badly, messes need cleaning up, and when mistakes are made.

How I Became The Man

When I was debating whether or not to apply for the Director position, I asked a dozen or so close friends and colleagues what they thought I should do.  I got the same answer from almost everyone: “You need to do this. We need more public library directors who are tech-savvy, willing to take risks, and who embrace change.”  I thought “Well, grrr to your making me some kind of weird representative of the tech-savvy-librarianship class–it’s not my responsibility to shoulder that burden!”  But it is, just as it is for everyone else who represents a particularly specialty or area of expertise.  So I applied, was offered the job, and accepted.  I am still humbled and grateful to the City Manager for showing such confidence in me.  I will continue to try to be worthy of that confidence.

Which brings us back to present day, and me being The Man.  *shudder* A local colleague thinking of moving from front line librarianship into administration asked me yesterday what I’d learned so far in my recent role as The Man.  It’s weird how everyone keeps using that phrase, and I was reminded of Nate’s postscript (sometime after I stopped hitting him) which was something along the lines of “No, you really are The Man but it’s not a bad thing. You’re good at it–at organizing people, working through bureaucracy.”  Something like that.  Maybe I dreamed that in an effort to pad my ego as I stepped off the cliff into Administration-dom.  Nate will have to chime in 😉

So what have I learned?  Some tough lessons.  And here they are.

7 Lessons Learned While Being The Man

1. Budgets will hamstring your dreams

I have grandiose plans for 3D printers, enhanced item displays, better signage, community outreach and partnerships, multimedia production…the list is endless.  However, when working in a short-staffed situation, it becomes nearly impossible to realize any of those wonderful dreams.  Even if you could get donations for any items with a direct cost, the reality of short staffing in most libraries means that it’s all you can do to keep the doors open and the desks staffed.  Off desk time! What off desk time? When, precisely, do you want your staff producing that weekly digital literacy program for local cable? During their lunch breaks? I am facing a specific budget challenge at present, beyond the year-upon-year-upon-year of regular funding cuts.  And that challenge kept me up at nights, literally wondering how I was going to keep the library open.  When that is the very real concern, 3D printers sound a lot less important.  Sorry, but it’s true.  I think through this crisis I’m learning quickly that when there’s no money to go around, anything “extra” just ain’t gonna happen…and that’s no one’s fault, it just is. I feel badly for losing my cool with managers in the past who said no to my requests for upgraded networks, web hosting, and equipment. It’s possible they were facing similar challenges to mine.  But if so, they never said anything…which leads me to #2.

2. Be transparent

As soon as I realized our budget situation, I started telling the supervisors, then the rest of the staff, the support groups, etc.  One of the things I have had the hardest time with as a librarian has been the obfuscated decision-making processes that I bore witness to, the closed door meetings, the “nobody gets to know this except for us” mentality.  It is my goal to be as transparent as possible about what’s going on with the library, both internally and externally, and I hope I’m walking the walk so far.  I’m really trying very hard to do so, even when I know what I say will make people mad.  Someone asked me earlier this week for a $500 piece of equipment.  That budget line was already well-overspent so I had to say no, but I told the person why I was saying no.  When I send out messages reiterating a particular procedure or asking staff to be careful about something, I don’t leave it up to the vague-rumor-mill to figure out what prompted my email–I say so…in the email.  Transparency is good, period.

3. Not everyone is going to like you–too bad for them

I know this might shock people (not really) but not everyone likes me.  There are people within the organization and outside of it who made their opinions of me very well-known when I was the Acting Director.  There are people whose opinions of me have changed, and people who still think I am the Anti-Christ.  Too bad for them.  I’m the Director and I’m not going anywhere.  I can’t, nor do I expect to, make everyone like me.  In fact, if I’m not pissing somebody off at any given time about something, then I’m probably not doing my job very well.  If you need to be liked, then being in administration is not for you.  I’ve seen too many friendly, good-hearted people get chewed up by the great administration machine.  You gotta have thick walls and clear boundaries, my friends, to do this.

4. Your job is to make everyone look good

Someone makes a mistake? You take the blame. Someone does something truly awesome? She gets all the credit. You do something truly awesome? Tell your own boss, but otherwise stay quiet. I’ve been doing stuff I’m proud of, and part of me wishes I could crow about it but I don’t. It’s not about me…it’s about the library.

5. Small details matter

That little unnecessary extra step people take in a routine process? It matters. Get rid of it. The paint that’s chipping in the hallway that drives someone nuts? Fix it. It’s easy to get lost in the macro issues. Don’t forget the micro issues matter a lot too.

 6. You’re always on

When I go out walking downtown at lunch, people know me as the Library Director.  They say hi, ask me how the library’s doing, some try to give me books to return.  When I am shopping for tomatoes at Whole Foods, I’m still the Library Director.  When I’m pounding back a pint of Guinness at the pub, I’m still the Library Director.  Any time I’m in public, no matter the day or the time, I’m still the community’s Library Director.  This is why that Guinness consumption now always takes place outside my immediate area.  I cannot have a conversation about library policy with you at 11pm on a Saturday night in a bar.  Any time I’m in public, including when I’m taking the garbage out in my jammies at 7am, I have to remember that some people know who I am and anything I do could potentially reflect positively or negatively on the library. Is it fair? Nah. It’s just the reality of being a public servant.

7. The days of sleeping well are over

This one’s hard.  Maybe it’s just me, but since I was appointed Acting Director I lost any semblance of a normal night’s sleep.  Perhaps that will fade with time (hey, more experienced directors–does it fade?).  I wake up at 2am thinking of something I should add to a report.  I toss and turn trying to fall asleep thinking about the 7 mistakes I made in the spreadsheet I drew up yesterday.  I stress out about how to address personnel issues, about whether or not I’m going to say something stupid at a City Council meeting, on and on.  I have a recurring nightmare involving a particularly scary patron.  I’ve always been on the stressier side, but it’s intensified since the new job.  I really hope this goes away, but I don’t expect that it will.

If you’ve made the transition into library administration, what lessons did you learn? What would you share with your colleagues?  What crash-and-burn mistakes did you make that you can help us newbies from making? What helped you succeed most? Do share!

* I don’t want to hear any crap about ‘The Man’ being a sexist or gendered term.  You know what I mean.  If you have a better way of saying it, let me know.

I’ve been puzzling over a phenomenon lately that I’d like to talk a bit about.  I want to put this out into the ether and get feedback from all of you.  Because I can’t make sense of this—and perhaps your superior brains can.

With the rise in digital content, we’ve seen more and more examples of technology being created to enforce the law and/or a company’s terms of service for their product.  And just because technology can do this, does it mean that we as a society should allow it?

In the past, here’s how the law was enforced:

  • the law exists
  • as a member of a society, you are expected to know about the law
  • if you violate the law, in theory someone punishes you

And here’s how the law is enforced now in some cases:

  • the law exists
  • technology is created to make it difficult or impossible for you to break the law
  • if you somehow manage to break through the technology and break the law, you are punished for breaching the system as well as breaking the law itself

Here’s a real-world example of technology-enforced laws to start the discussion.  The Saudi Arabian government developed an RFID chip with a cyanide implant.  These chips were implanted in known criminals (supposedly terrorists) and if their handlers or probation officers or whoever was watching them suspected that they were violating the law again, BOOM – cyanide in the blood…instant death.  No trial, no due process, just a remotely activated death penalty.

In the world of digital content we see this same practice but in a non-lethal incarnation.

The utilization of internet filters in schools and libraries (and on school-issued computers in kids’ homes) is intended as a way to mandatorily enforce laws against child pornography and the display of harmful and obscene materials in public.  Advocates for this technology sell it as a way to enforce these laws without human intervention.  Unfortunately, the technology doesn’t actually work very well, and about 30% of sites that should be blocked aren’t and 30% of sites that should be allowed get blocked erroneously.  The intention is good, but the side effects are not worth the trade off—both access to legitimate information and the false sense of security the technology creates.  Some schools and libraries realize the inherent flaws in the technology and choose, instead, to do what we as a society have been doing for generations—trusting people to follow the law,  and when they don’t we have policies in place for reprimands or punishments (e.g. calling the cops on their asses).

Another key example is the technology used in digital rights management, called “digital restrictions management” by its detractors, including yours truly.  Once again, the technology was created to enforce the applicable copyright law as well as the company-created terms of service for their products and content.  And once again, the technology doesn’t actually work.  Why?

Digital Rights Management technology doesn’t work because it doesn’t do what the companies tell you it does: stop piracy.  If copyrighted content was easy to get legally at a fair price in an easy to access format (read: one not locked down with layers of DRM software), then more people would be willing to pay for it. Why?  Convenience and safety.  It’s why the music industry is selling DRM-free MP3s and still making money.  I’d rather give $7.99 to a band and get a full, DRM-free, legal copy of their album than try to find a complete, high quality, virus-free version on a torrent site.  Ultimately, these failed attempts to decrease piracy and (in theory) increase sales not only fail, but they drive even more users away.  I strongly believe it is the current state of DRM that drives people into the arms of the pirates—not greed, a lack of ethics, or pure evil.  Unless you count DRM as pure evil, which I do.

So…if the idea of the cyanide-laden RFID chip disturbs you, then (following my logic, anyway) the idea of internet filters and digital rights management should equally perturb you.  And if you’re a librarian, then dammit—both internet filters and digital rights management should perturb you as a professional and you should do everything in your power to fight them both—in your own library and in the profession as a whole.  Fight, librarians! Fight!