Thursday, July 28, 2011

Second Candidate for Jones Library Director

Jones Library (here, undergoing repairs funded by the Community Preservation Act, fall, 2010)

27 July

Last night I attended the public appearance by Christopher Lindquist, the second of two candidates for Director, to succeed Bonnie Isman, who held the post for some 30 years until the end of 2010. The first, Sharon Sharry, spoke on the 21st.

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?

As before, though at somewhat greater length, and with rather more reliance on raised language and rhetorical flourish, Trustee and Search Committee Chair Sarah McKee explained the process and introduced the speaker. She spoke slowly and deliberately, as if to emphasize the importance of what she had to say.

“We think it only right,” she said, “for our book-hungry public to weigh in on the choice” of Director. She began by noting that a friend had been puzzled as to the proper role of the Library Trustees. Drawing upon her experience in the Washington, D.C., world of government and finance, she explained that the primary role, in a legal sense, was fiduciary: to be a good steward of the institution and its assets. However, she said, it was also much more.

She invoked the spirit of “Emily, our reclusive Dickinson neighbor,” and cited (what else?) the famous line, “There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away.” (It also happens to be the motto of the Massachusetts Center for the Book, on whose board I serve). She took this as an opportunity to recount several stories of Amherst residents whose lives were changed by encounters with the local libraries. I’ll cite just the one from my own neighborhood: As a boy, Mark Ziomek shelved books at the North Amherst Library. Today he is the director of the Library at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“Everyone,” she declared, “comes here with a dream”: from books to just a warm place or a cool place as relief from the weather. A book may be a “frugal chariot,” she said (alluding again to the Dickinson poem), but maintaining a library “takes resources.” Still, it is not all about money: “Preparing for the library’s unknown future takes imaginative trustees.” “We trustees, we find we are guarding the dreams, we are guarding the souls which our books carry.”

With that, she turned to podium over to Lindquist.

Like Sharon Sharry last week, he, too, used a PowerPoint presentation, which, although more sophisticated than hers, was not without its drawbacks. Yellow text on a blue background is not my aesthetic or practical ideal. And, although it avoided the classic PowerPoint “fail” of substituting form for content, it perhaps inclined too far in the other direction: some slides risked being too densely populated with text.

He began by stating his general theme or argument and then enumerating each of the topics and subtopics, which proved to be a longer list than I (or probably anyone) anticipated. I recall that my first impression was: this is very carefully organized—and there’s a chance of overkill (ironically, as one of the central themes of the talk turned out to be the challenge of coping with the information explosion). It was the more puzzling that the structure of the talk seemed to depart from the initial outline. (As in the previous report, I have rearranged some individual points for the sake of clarity.)

“The Future Role of Public Libraries: One Librarian’s View”

Becoming a Librarian

Lindquist praised the facilities he had seen and staff he had met in the course of his visit. Dressed in a gray-black suit, he appeared more formal and spoke more assertively than Sharon Sharry the week before. Like Ms. Sharry, however, he began with the personal: his own biography. He explained that he had been a library patron since the age of 3, but got his real start when, following in the footsteps of an older brother, he became a local library page at 16. He has worked in libraries ever since. Like many of us, he gravitated toward books. He then became an English major, eventually deciding, however, that he did not want to spend his life as an academic. He preferred a career in which he had more interaction with a large public: “Libraries are really a people profession.” He obtained his degree from Columbia University, “the mother of library schools,” since closed.

“Each library,” he said, “really reflects the community that it serves, and that to me is fascinating.” He has worked in various community settings but ended up as head of the Westfield Athenaeum. He described New England history as one of his “passions,” adding, “certainly, the historical collections here at the Jones are first-rate.”

He then turned to “The Challenge” as framed by Terry Plum. The core of the talk was devoted to the theme:

• The digital revolution: tough challenges and exciting possibilities

Here, he briefly engaged the audience, asking how many of us felt a sense of information overload. (Most). He proceeded to explain both the symptoms and the causes of this modern ailment. With a steady flow of statistics, images, and graphs that itself at times threatened to become overwhelming, he illustrated his contention: Today, he explained, a person is subjected to more information in one day than a person in the Middle Ages was in an entire lifetime. How are even the most digitally adept among us—say, the 750,000,000 Facebook users around the globe, or the 45.6 million smartphone-users in the United States—to cope in an environment that already has 1 billion web sites and, in the next four years, will generate more data than in the entire history of the planet?

How (citing a University of Michigan poster) do we “navigate on a sea of information?” Trying to get a specific piece of information from the internet, he said, switching metaphors but maintaining the aqueous analogy, is ”like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.” There is a problem of quality vs. quantity. How do we filter the relevant from the irrelevant and then more closely assess the quality of what we have selected?

The answer, of course: “Professional librarians!”

It is they who teach us how to find and evaluate information, from the credentials and reliability of the web site or database to the accuracy of the individual fact or document. Many of us, he said, are far less sophisticated than we believe. We all laugh with a sense of superiority at the cartoon of the child who does not understand why the paper cribbed from the internet was not only ethically but also factually wrong.

Yet fully 60 percent of college students see no difference between the quality of commercial and ad-free sites. The librarian can save researchers from wasting time in a deeper sense, too, namely: by helping them to clarify at the outset what their real question or goal is.

And all this advice has to be tailored to the needs of the specific clientele. For example, college students may be technically savvy and familiar with software and public resources, but not with the more specialized databases to which libraries subscribe. And of course the young generation needs to be taught that often the best answer is still found in print resources. Seniors, by contrast, may need help even with the initial task of using an online catalogue. Not everyone has or is comfortable with a computer, and libraries bridge the digital divide by supplying not only the equipment, but also the training and advice, all free of charge. The professional librarian provides guidance for information- and communication-related tasks other than traditional research, particularly in the area of job searches and occupational skills.

What libraries are really doing, he said, is teaching information literacy, comprising not just traditional literacy, but also library instruction, media literacy, numerical literacy, and computer literacy.

Why do professional librarians matter? They are the ones best capable of determining what a given community needs. The Massachusetts Library Association, for example, has developed distinctive standards for overall staffing levels, service to varied clienteles, and collection development.

Our “amazing” special collections here in Amherst, he implied, help us to put the fading and coming eras in perspective. The Emily Dickinson holdings of the Jones Library, he said, allow us to “place the poet within the context” of nineteenth-century Amherst. But there are other collections as well: of Robert Frost (for which the Library received an honorific designation in 2009; 1, 2) or of contemporary author Julius Lester. There are records of the daily life of ordinary people, and there are non-print resources, including photographs and paintings. There is no substitute for the original, but intelligent digitization makes it far more widely available and moreover increases visitation by those eager to see the item itself or do further research in the collection. Lindquist praised our own award-winning “Digital Amherst," and noted that the Athenaeum had recently launched its equivalent, “Edwin Online,” to digitize materials that had hitherto been known only or mainly to specialists. Initiatives such as these, he said, are the result of “professional librarians doing what they do best.”

Even this does not exhaust the list of what librarians have to do today. They teach adult literacy, English as a Second Language, and citizenship—this, in addition to running adult cultural programs, community forums, teen and kids programs, outreach to schools, and the like. The Athenaeum has even started full-time service to the homebound, reaching up to 150 residents per week.

• Libraries and Democracy

“I would argue that libraries are fundamental to democracy,” Lindquist declared: they help to build an informed citizenry, they defend fair use and rights of privacy.

He cited former American Library Association head Nancy Kranich to the effect that libraries foster democracy by creating communities of mutual interests. He then offered his own declaration of principles, as a sort of formal reply to Terry Plum’s question:
The ‘commodification’ and ‘commercialization’ of information leads to more wealthy people having access to some kinds of information that less wealthy people do not have access to. What are the implications for our society and the future of our democracy if we don’t maintain our public libraries and continue to provide the broadest array of information in the widest array of formats possible to our citizens and those who are struggling to become citizens?

Public libraries are critical in helping this ‘democratic experiment’ we call the United States of America to continue to flourish in the 21st century.
As chance would have it, just yesterday I came across a most pertinent piece in The Atlantic by Keith Michael Fiels, head of the American Library Association and former director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. He was responding to a recent editorial—by a selectman from another Massachusetts locale, of all people (yikes!)—which proposed a per-item user fee as the way to adapt the library to the realities of the 21st century. Fiels denounced the idea as both undemocratic and inefficient. Libraries, which "provide all residents with unlimited access to the reading and information resources that will mean the difference between success and failure," "are supported by a very modest contribution of public tax funds, and provide a fabulous return on this investment by any measure." In fact, "national surveys show that the public considers public libraries the most effectively run of all municipal services."

The state of America’s public libraries: A statistical snapshot and a look at current trends

Citing numerous statistics, Lindquist argued that we cannot afford to be complacent, for the digital revolution shows no signs of slowing down. There will be fundamental changes to all aspects of libraries, from the media to the nature of the tasks. “The nature of the landscape may shift but the need for a navigator will remain.” Ebook use is accelerating, and represents the fastest-growing area of the book business. (This is true and needs to be addressed, but it is easy to overstate the case. Predictions of the both the demise of print and the rise of the ebook have been wildly exaggerated. Just today, a report reminded us that, even after 5 years, ebooks have risen to claim only 7 percent of the market. Good old print still accounts for the other 93.) There has been a huge upsurge in library use, corresponding to the increase in the information and services that these institutions provide. Last year, 65 percent of Americans visited a library, which sometimes offers the only free public access to computers, the internet, and wireless.

• The Digital Revolution: A Bridge to the Future

More and more resources—old and new—will be available electronically. Further: “Increasingly new content is being ‘born digital’ rather than created first (or at all) in analog form. The nature of the medium will change accordingly: “Networked books will proliferate”: the work that reaches us will not be the final product, but the start. “We thought we knew what a book was, but in the future, it’s an interactive process” between author and reader.

What will be the impact of a generation of digital natives? They will be used to more image in combination with text. Reading will become “more exploratory,” rather than a matter of “learning,” pure and simple. “In the future, all computing will be mobile,” as handheld devices replace the desktop and even laptop computer. We will become “digital nomads.” Already, some digital resources are optimized for mobile devices rather than full-fledged web site.

Accordingly, the role of the library and librarian will have to adapt to such sweeping and momentous change. Librarians will have to become accustomed to “managing both the static book collection and the networked collection,” the latter requiring far greater skill. They will need to provide greater and different forms of public space. Citing (but mispronouncing the name of) architectural historian Witold Rybczynski, who sees the institution as evolving into an agglomeration of “multiple destinations," he declared that “the future library will be about human relationships,” including collaborative activities.” “The library will become more critical and more central and more of a community hub than ever.”

• The Future: “The Great Good Place”

Lindquist wrapped up his talk by comparing two works of sociology: Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (1995) noted a contemporary tendency toward social isolation, and Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place (1991) called for more public spaces where people could gather for leisure and socializing. He designated these latter as “third places,” distinct from both home and workplace. Although Oldenburg cited a variety of settings, from cafés and beer gardens to general stores and post offices, he “completely left out libraries,” Lindquist noted, arguing that they should have been at the top of the list.

Professional librarians will continue to play important roles in helping users to find the quality of information they need. They will serve young and old. They will remain institutions of democracy, helping the bridge the multiple divides in society. Even as media formats change, they will continue to meet diverse needs. A library, he said, is both “an indicator and a creator of social capital.”

* * *

On this evening, Trustee Christopher Hoffmann led the Question-and-Answer session.

As in the case of the previous candidate’s presentation, this portion of the event did not add much of anything new, but it dealt with some standard institutional challenges and allowed the audience members to engage the speaker on a more personal level.

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

Tapping the community's resources
Q: A question about fundraising (same person as last time, similar wording/intent). In essence, how do we go about obtaining donations from people who would be prepared to support the library but have not been properly solicited?
A: (he summarized/interpreted the question well, as he would tend to do for the others): The Athenaeum just started a development committee. It is important to understand both the needs of the institution and the way to tailor the request to a given donor profile. First, one has to understand one’s own needs, and how to communicate them. Colleges are more skilled than libraries in this regard, but the latter will have to learn, as both state and local funds dry up. It is essential to develop private philanthropy, which can take multiple forms, from one-time contributions, to gifts of stock, to estate planning. With a smile: “Why should they leave their millions to their alma mater; they might as well leave it to their public library.”

Showdown on the drawdown?
Q: How to respond to those who, in time of crisis, feel the library should rely much more heavily on endowment?
A: Those who are knowledgeable know that one should typically draw only 5% for operating costs (as is the practice in Westfield). You retain the principal, and “you hopefully have a strategy to build your endowment to find other sources of revenue.” It would be “foolhardy” to try to address a critical need in one year at the price of future needs.” The real question is a deeper one: “We’re having this conversation nationally: what can we afford?” What are the core needs and services, what does it cost to provide them? He said he could see what the Jones could become in 5 years. “We have to invest” in the future: “we have to tell that story.”

Mission Creep?
Q: Former Trustee Molly Turner: The model of Westfield is much broader than that of the typical library. Will we develop that sort of identity? Samuel Minot Jones thought of the Library as the community’s living room, not only a place for books, but also an art gallery, etc. Have you thought of broadening the cultural mission in that fashion?
A: “Perhaps it strayed from that mission, I don’t know.” “In my experience, the library should be the cultural hub of the community.”
Amherst is perfect for this. He realizes that there are many other venues for the arts in the Five-College area, but the Jones should still claim a legitimate central role. And this should include the branches. “I am totally a proponent of that. If I am invited here, that would be one of my first things, to develop those connections.”

Divvying Up the Dollars
Q: Former Trustee Louis Greenbaum, on budgetary resources. It is strange to see Harvard alumni talking about shortages, but we are in that tradition, i.e. we have important research collections. But “That takes money.” (He noted our good fortune in obtaining Town support through Community Preservation Act funds.) “How do you achieve equilibrium” among “more conventional “ collection needs, preservation, special collections, etc.?
A: “Obviously, there needs to be a balance, and I think libraries are just starting to have that conversation internally.” They debate the need for books vs. CDs vs. e-readers. In the end, of course, they’ll all go away, and it will be “all steaming video.” “For at least the next generation, the book, I think, will be around.” He used the analogy of LP record collections as a “niche for the ‘old forms.’” “There’s no easy or short answer.”

Respecting Those Most in Need
Q: Former Select Board member and Current Chair of the Committee on Homelessness Hwei-Ling Greeney asked much the same question as on the previous night: Given that “librarians are people professionals” and different people have different needs: the library is the only place that provides an equal footing, i.e. free access for all from the kid with a skateboard to the homeless, etc. How does one deal with that?
A: This gets to his point about equal access: Westfield has a behavior policy, as must every place. “The challenge is to provide as much access as possible to everyone in the community while still maintaining certain standards, including safety and security.” “But as long as a person is not interfering with another person’s enjoyment of the library” or does not go outside the bounds of behavior, “then they are welcome.” Occasionally, one needs to speak with a patron about behavior, e.g. using cell phone, etc. Most, however, are very cooperative, and there is no real history of safety or security threats in his experience.

* * *

The talks by the two candidates, then, displayed both similarities and differences.

On the one hand, both candidates come highly recommended and share key values. Both are experienced at running a library. Both understand the challenges that libraries face today. Both professed a deep desire to be actively involved with patrons and residents of the town. Both left no doubt as to their commitment to the library as a communal resource, center of community life, and both guardian and nurturer of democratic values.

There was one interesting minor contrast: when Sharry spoke of Amherst libraries, she spoke of the overall budget and the economic relationship to the community; it was the most specific part of her talk. When Lindquist discussed the specifics of our library, he spoke of Special Collections. (What that reveals is not clear, but it’s worth noting.)

On the other hand, the two talks, taken as a whole, could not have been more different in style or substance. As a response to the common question posed to the candidates, Lindquist’s was, hands down, the better answer. Whereas Sharry’s talk was more casual in tone and remained on the level of broad generalization except when venturing into the anecdotal, Lindquist’s was rigorous and detailed. It showed a command of the overarching conceptual issues, societal trends, statistics, and professional literature. It showed a greater awareness—or at least demonstrated in greater detail an awareness—of the way that technological changes are changing the reading experience and the shape of library services.

Whether it was the better talk in the context of the search and interview process is a different question, and it is not for me to determine the answer. I had the sense that some attendees found Lindquist’s recitation more impressive, and Sharry’s chat more engaging. One said to me that she found Sharry’s talk to be more appropriate to a job interview, and Lindquist’s, more like a lecture. (Indeed, it did remind me of some of the presentations I heard at the book-studies conference last week.)

Of course, that should remind us that the public talk is only one element of a long and complex search process. The committee and trustees will be judging the candidates not just on what they said and how well they performed in a 45-minute public talk to residents, and rather, based on their one-on-one interactions with library staff, their skills as managers, motivators, and fundraisers, and much more that the rest of us could not see and are not able to judge.

We are left, then, with two very good but very different choices, and that’s often the most productive search result. It is fortunate that the committee was able to organize and manage this complex process with the requisite combination of speed and care, and it will be wonderful to welcome a new Library Director to Amherst just as the public schools reopen, the college students return, and the Town itself begins to take up next year’s budget.

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 Lindquist'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 online here.

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