Saturday, July 23, 2011

First Candidate for Jones Library Director

Jones Library (here, undergoing repairs funded by the Community Preservation Act, fall, 2010)
It was 91 degrees (about 33 C) and humid when I left the house at 6:45 on Thursday evening and still a sticky 89 when I returned around 8:30, but in between I was in the cool, air-conditioned Large Meeting Room of the Jones Library, listening to the presentation by the first of two candidates for Director, to succeed Bonnie Isman, who held the post for some 30 years until the end of 2010.

Candidates are asked, in their presentations, to respond to the following statement, developed by Terry Plum, Assistant Dean at Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS):
Some critics of libraries claim that all of the important resources are available online, and that public libraries are just community centers with public computers.

In your view, can pubic libraries do things that patrons cannot do themselves on a computer?

And what services would you say that public libraries should offer which are typically not available at community centers?
This is of course a soft pitch, right over home plate: we all know the desired answer. No competent candidate could take a swing at this one and miss, so it’s not a question of hitting the ball, and rather, of the force and finesse with which the candidate connects and then runs it out. The hitter is guaranteed to get on base, but will it be a safe and easy single, a stand-up double, or a nail-biter of a slide into third? Or will s/he just knock it out of the park?

Trustee Sarah McKee explained the process and introduced the speaker.

Greenfield Library Director Sharon Sharry began by introducing herself to the audience in the packed hall, running through the list of her positions and experience for those who might not have had occasion to read her C.V. Although she sounded a bit nervous at the start, she also clearly came across as sincere and enthusiastic (some might say: chirpy). Presaging what was to follow, she made it clear that the human interactions were among the chief pleasures of library work. The talk was accompanied by a fairly elementary PowerPoint presentation featuring quotes by distinguished librarians, full-screen photos, and bullet points and a few well-chosen statistics to illustrate her arguments.

Her affection for libraries, their staff, and their patrons was apparent. In fact, she several times began a statement with “I love.” The main theme of the coherent and competently delivered talk was the importance of human agency: the role of the library as a true reflection and builder of community, and the role of the librarian as a sort of intellectual customer service agent (after all, we live in a consumer-capitalist society). Subsidiary points involved the library as both a good value and an agent of economic growth (did I mention capitalism?), and the role of the library in a world of changing technologies. (in what follows, I rearrange the order of some of her points.)

Libraries and "Community"

Addressing the hypothetical critic’s challenge head-on, she drew a distinction between a “community center,” which might not be free or for all, and a public library, whose duty it is to serve all residents, of all generations, social classes, and so forth. Social media, she said, will never replace face-to-face activities. Sounds good at first, but if it’s true, it is so only in a trivial sense. I am very close to acquaintances that I have known for years only through email or Twitter and other social media. The intellectual or emotional closeness that I feel has nothing to do with whether I have looked into their eyes (or even know how they look). And when I go to the library, it’s not mainly in search of “community,” and instead, of a book, CD, DVD. I can find community elsewhere. I can find those cultural resources only at a library (assuming I do not purchase them myself).

In the first place, her real point involved (or should have) not so much the contrast between “real” life and social media as the role that libraries actually do play in community life. We tend to think of the contrast between an “old-fashioned” library as a repository of books characterized by a church-like reverence and quiet in contrast to the “modern” library as social center. The historian in me wants to say: wait a minute, that distinction is false. A variety of institutions in the 18th and 19th centuries, some free, some involving payment, provided patrons with a combination of shared print resources and sociability. Moreover, the Jones Library itself was originally conceived as a sort of community center (it even had a 200-seat auditorium, lost in a subsequent expansion of stack space), then a radical idea. However, as a current long-range planning document reminds us, the focus of this community center was and is to be on culture.

Sharry noted that she had advocated a café at the Sunderland library when that idea was still relatively novel—and that it had proven to be a great success. The list of tie-ins and collaborations that she had either already created in her present post or envisioned for Amherst was long and varied. In Greenfield, these included not just Harry Potter parties, but also “knit-lit programs” (patrons knit and read together), animé clubs, and “technology petting zoos,” in which patrons could try out hardware or software before deciding whether to purchase it for themselves. For Amherst, she imagined not just collaborations with the Hampshire Shakespeare Company or the Ko summer theater festival, but, more creatively, a Bogart party at Cherry Hill Golf Course to benefit the Amherst Cinema: apparently on the grounds that Bogie loved golf. (Not so sure about the logic of that one. But hell, Faulkner liked to drink, so I suppose we could hold an event at Amherst Brewing Company.)

In the second place, what was missing was the prime emphasis on knowledge and texts. To adapt ancient wisdom: If a library is not about books, what will be about books? But if a library nowadays is only about books, what will become of it? To be sure, that point came later. It’s just that I would have made it the main one. Not everyone will join the knitting crew or the adolescent animé club, but (almost) everyone will want to use the print or electronic resources. Otherwise, the library could really become just a free “community center.” The mission of providing knowledge remains the same, but its nature and the means and setting of its delivery will change.

Libraries and the Digital Age

Addressing the argument that anyone could now supposedly obtain any text or information online, she rightly pointed out that one cannot just sit down and type a term into a search engine. Instead, one needs to understand how search engines work, why algorithms bring certain sites to the top of the result list, and how site owners know how to influence those results. If one is not savvy or just not paying attention, the outcome can range from useless to embarrassing to disastrous. She cited a number of examples. Exhibit #1: Anne Curry, who, delivering a commencement address at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, claimed among its graduates those who had in fact attended Wheaton College in Illinois. Oops. Lesson learned (as Ms. Curry put it): Never Google Drunk. (not sure how that compares with Michelle Bachmann’s announcing her presidential campaign in Waterloo, IA and claiming it as the birthplace of actor John Wayne when it is was instead there that mass murderer John Wayne Gacy first saw the light of day. But I digress.) She also said, to widespread laughter, “please, do not ever google a medical question.” You’ll die, she warned. (hate to say it but: actually, the equivalent of that one also goes back to the 18th century. Plus ça change). She also noted that the library, whether in the realm of interlibrary loan or safe and tested sites for children, provided a certain measure of quality for consumers. And it also promises to protect your privacy and civil rights, sharing your borrowing and internet history neither with corporations nor with government agencies.

Sharry was correct on all counts, although, as a historian of the book, I would have made the points in combination, and more simply (as, for example, James O’Donnell did over a decade ago): in pre-modern times, there was a deficit of knowledge and texts, and libraries and teachers were the repositories of this precious resource. In the modern or postmodern age, there is a glut of knowledge and information, readily accessible to anyone. Accordingly, the role of the librarian and teacher is less that of repository of knowledge or gatekeeper and, increasingly, that of the mentor who teaches information literacy and guides patrons in becoming informed navigators on the rising sea of digital data.

Books and Bucks

Moving from the role of the library to its social consequences, Sharry repeated the oft-made Amherst argument that the Library is good for local business: people come to the Jones, pay for parking (what’s that going to net the Town: 50 cents?), go to coffee shops and restaurants, shop at stores. Though some of my local friends and colleagues are among the major proponents of that argument, it has always struck me as at best vaguely plausible but strained and utterly unsupported. And remember that they at the same time tout libraries as a key resource for the poor, who presumably are not purchasing our lattés, sushi, or cashmere sweaters (you can’t buy cheap clothes or a bag of groceries downtown). Can both be true? Perhaps. But no one has proven the former in the case of Amherst, and no one can prove it, absent a scientific survey. (And locals differ from out-of-town cultural tourists, whose spending habits are better documented.) In any case, this is a weak argument aimed at the wrong target. We need libraries for the intrinsic cultural good they do. Period. If there’s an economic multiplier effect, so much the better. If not, we’re certainly not going to cut their funds or close their doors.

By contrast, a related point that she made earlier was superficially more compelling. She led with the assertion “Knowledge is the one true source of wealth.” It wasn’t developed, i.e. it was neither the old socialist argument that “Knowledge is Power” nor a more modern argument about the “information economy.” What she meant, rather, was that in the current context of both high technology and economic difficulty, residents rely more and more on the computers that the library provides, for job searches, printing, email, and the like. (It has also become fashionable to show how libraries contribute to the success of entrepreneurship.) Again, not a completely compelling argument, on the merits: one could set up those terminals in Town Hall or the Bangs Community Center, to equal effect.) I would have kept the focus on information literacy and mentoring.

Finally, Sharry reminded us that libraries are a good value in another sense. Employing a now commonly used approach (e.g. 1, 2) she cited statistics demonstrating increasing library usage (numbers of visits, items borrowed, program activity, internet services, and so forth) across the Commonwealth. Focusing on Amherst, she enumerated the more than 180,000 items borrowed, the some 5500 participants in adult programs, and so forth, and their supposed monetary value. Bottom line: the Town spends approximately $ 2 million in appropriations, and users get approximately $ 7.9 million in goods and services: “that’s quite the return on your investment,” she beamed. Again, a bit of a stretch, though valid in context. It’s sad but a sign of the culture and economic conditions that libraries need to justify their existence by resorting to contorted calculations of the market value of their goods and services. (value of a typical reference question in Vermont: $ 8.74. Who knew?)

The more compelling point that she made was one that lay behind Andrew Carnegie’s funding of public libraries back in the olden days: by pooling resources, libraries provide far more than the individual patron could reasonably obtain by him- or herself. As she put it in the language of consumerism (and rhyme), “your library is your superstore—and so much more.” (Ironically, perhaps, this reminds us that all those highly-touted "savings" to the patron come at a cost: the library, no less than the superstore, potentially takes revenue away from the small local independent bookseller.)

Closing Thoughts and Looking to the Future

A PowerPoint slide offered a quote from Librarian of Congress James Billington: “If we didn’t have libraries, they’d have to be invented. . . .” This signaled the transition to discussion of technology and the nature of the book, which was what interested me most. She painted a portrait of a world in flux: “libraries are permanent” even though technology, media formats, and economic conditions will change. Less room will be needed for material, but more in order to fit the needs of people using technology. (No argument there.) “Every room will be wired, and every room will be wireless.” There will be “quiet spaces as well as noisy rooms,” The Library will need to offer new services, stay on top of emerging technology, and the needs of patrons. The Library will not have a “dirty” oil furnace, and instead “clean geothermal.”

In her peroration, she declared, “a room full of computers is not a community, any more than a building full of books is a library,” and praised the library as a site dedicated to the cause of truth.

* * *

Trustee Austin Sarat moderated the Question and Answer Session

This did not add much in the way of substance to Sharry’s systematic presentation, and it probably told us more about the questioners than the respondent, but it was a chance for her to converse with residents: to satisfy their curiosity and put concerns at ease.

(in what follows, I identify by name only current or recent town officials whose office is pertinent)

People and (vs.?) Books; Paper and Digital Books

Q: Former Library Trustee Molly Turner: it is nice that you like to be surrounded by staff, but how do you feel about being surrounded by books?
A: "l love books and reading. I would love to tell you that paper will last forever." “I don’t mean to break hearts,” but the traditional paper book will eventually disappear. Although she thinks it will not happen in her daughter’s or granddaughter’s time, the disappearance of the paper book will be part of “the normal progression of things.”
Still, she doesn’t want us to think that the first thing that she would do would be to start getting rid of books. “I have a tablet but I don’t read my Daniele Steele on that—Oh, I probably shouldn’t have said that.” (the mock embarrassment pertained, of course, to the content rather than the technology)

Even if the answer was not terribly sophisticated, it was correct in the essentials, and it was refreshing not to hear another mindless defense of paper. However, it would have been interesting to hear some deeper reflections. This was actually one of the smartest and most pointed questions, which deserved a far better answer, the more so as the subject is at the heart of the topic assigned to the candidates.

I am just back from a conference on book history and science at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. We spent a great deal of time there—in the panels, in the hallways, and in restaurants and watering holes—discussing the implications of digitization and the digital humanities. A host of questions are being passionately and continually debated. They involve, among other things, the relation between the form and the content of print and digital books, the changing nature of the reading experience, intellectual property and fairness (HarperCollins recently caused an uproar when it proposed to cap ebook circulation), changing business models, and much more. It’s fine to talk about the library changing in every regard, but then one needs to talk about the way that this affects budgets, books, and readers. The changes coming will involve a hell of a lot more than the addition of still more couches and wireless routers.

BTW: speaking of technology, at least one attendee turned around and gave me the hairy eyeball for daring to profane the sanctity of the library atmosphere by: typing. I was of course tempted to respond by saying: “Wait just a moment while I check my calendar to see what century it is.” (I had moreover deliberately chosen an isolated chair at the back of the room, beyond the last formally arranged row of seats.) This is apparently becoming something of an issue nowadays. It also featured at our conference, where we had sponsored a Twitter contest that generated some 2000 tweets, mostly by younger participants. There, too, the typing occasioned some raised eyebrows among older folks, and at the closing session, our Vice President felt compelled to tell members that they needed to adjust to a changing world. Indeed. The library is supposed to be a "community" center buzzing with activity and human interaction, but I can't type gently on my laptop?  You see the challenge we face.

The Cost of Going Green

Q: Library Trustee Carol Gray (just back from a stint in Egypt) picked up on the energy question.
Geothermal is great, but costs a lot, she noted. “How would you fund that?”
A: It’s a process and it requires funding.

Weak answer. Context: A few years ago, Ms. Gray proposed a geothermal system for the library, to the tune of approximately $ 1.8 million, if I recall correctly. The Joint Capital Planning Committee, struggling with slashed budgets in every department, did not even take the idea seriously (remember that, this year, it declined to budget one-tenth that amount for War Memorial Pool). The total Library budget, as Sharry had just noted, is about $ 2 million.

More on Books and Bucks; Philanthropy

Q: How do you view the replenishing of the endowment from private sources?
A: I need to know more: can you provide details?
Q: Does she know individuals in Greenfield who would give if asked?
A: Oh, yes: the more they feel ownership, the more they participate.

Q: Another question about funding.
A: It’s always about collaborators.
Q: Who?
A: Government: fire, police, everyone; think outside the box.


Q: Louis Greenbaum (former Library Trustee): How well do friends and trustees in Greenfield get along? (a very pointed allusion to the months of chaos and gridlock that made the Trustees a subject of controversy and eventually led to the retirement of then-Director Bonnie Isman).
A: Very well. She gives great credit to them for so generously giving of their time. “I send out a lot of emails, so I’m always keeping them in the loop.” Someone from one group always attends the meeting of the other: “It’s all about communication.”

Q: What about the presence of the 26-story UMass Library and the Frost Library at Amherst College: Should there be a relation?
A: Absolutely, it would be crazy not to take advantage of them. However, their missions and constituencies are distinct: “public libraries are totally different from academic libraries—ok, not totally. They have one specific mission, and we are serving everybody.”

Patrons and Policies

Q: Hwei-Ling Greeney (former Select Board member; Chair, Committee on Homelessness) asked how a public library might treat the homeless (our homeless shelter has become the subject of some current controversy).
A: When Sharry began working in the library as a college student at 18, her duties included closing the building at 9 pm, and making the homeless leave. As she told it, the experience broke her heart, so that she would go home in tears. It was one reason that she ended up studying political science at the University of Massachusetts first, and only later returned to the library as a career option.

Libraries do have to have policies that enforce order and safety, she observed. “Every once in a while,” she explained, “you do get a stinker of a patron” or someone in a bad mood, etc. 98% are good, though. Her main desire, she said, using pop management/psychology lingo, is ”to get to yes” with every patron. Some need more attention than others, and she sees no injustice in devoting more time and energy to those who require more assistance or greater understanding. It was a sensible, humane answer.

Q. Carol Gray: “What if you had some very enthusiastic teens in library,” “so enthusiastic,” in fact, that they got too “boisterous” for some?
[This was a clear reference to newspaper stories, in the last year, to the effect that teens were causing a disruption in the Library.]
A: Upon reading those reports last year, her first reaction was: “I’m jealous.” “You’ve got them coming in the door, so let’s get them involved. Can we put them to work?” “Do they want to be on an advisory committee?” Give them a task, “and suddenly they’ve got ownership.” and “there’s a lot of space in this building for a teen place.” “Love that they’re here [there’s that “love” thing again], because there are a lot worse things that they could be doing.”

Maybe, but according to the press reports, they were not only “coming in the door,” but once inside, “running, yelling, eating and throwing pizza and engaging in inappropriate sexual activity” (I leave that latter to the reader’s imagination)

* * *

All the evidence indicates that Sharry was popular with the Amherst audience (no mean trick, as we can be a tough crowd), so that sets a certain standard for Westfield Athenaeum Director Christopher Lindquist. He speaks—same time, same place—on the 26th.

Stay tuned.

Amherst Media is posting full videos within about a day after the presentation. (You get the raw information there; you get some sifting and interpretation here.) Here is the recording of Sharry's presentation.

What do you think?

The trustees will take up the issue on 2 August, and the candidate could begin the job on 1 September.

Residents can submit feedback on the candidates through 28 July online here.

[updated text, link for presentation prompt]

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