Friday, November 28, 2014

What is a public library?

Near the end of my tenure as director of the Douglas County Libraries, a county commissioner proclaimed the purpose of the public library was "to be a repository of books." That's a tragically limited view. 

I've been using another definition for the past several years: "the job of the public library is to gather, organize, and present to the community the intellectual content of the culture."

But that may need some amplification. "The community" doesn't have to be a city; it could be a school or university or company. Or it could be a genre of writing or music.

"Intellectual content" isn't just the usual suspects: books, magazines, movies and music. It also includes people - often the most immediately useful and convenient repository of information, knowledge, or wisdom. That's the meaning of our traditional provision of programs, guest lectures, author visits, public meeting rooms, and the hosting of community discussions.

"The culture" likewise has some elasticity. For a city, that might encompass not only what goes on within geographic boundaries, but the entirety of American or the emerging global culture. (And yes, it's a big job.)

In the very conservative Douglas County, people sometimes told me that the library was socialist. That's the libertarian shorthand for "an unnecessary program that steals my money through taxes."

So I find myself thinking of a slightly different definition of the public library these days, reflecting more broadly our contribution to society -- about why we exist, not just what we do.

Here it is:

The modern public library is a cooperative purchasing agreement, a social asset that promotes literacy, encourages individual discovery and creation, and builds community.
  • As I'll get to later, the library's "cooperative purchasing" not only provides brilliantly cost-effective access to resources for individual coop members (read: library patrons), it also has a host of distinct and significant social savings. 
  • A "social asset" is a tool that can be applied to shared local problems and opportunities. We can think of bonds that build public roads as one kind of asset, resulting in physical infrastructure. Libraries are part of our intellectual infrastructure -- and just as vital.
  • "Promotion of literacy." To quote Shirley Amore, current director of the Denver Public Library, "we own ages 0-5." And as I'll elaborate later, the public library's promotion of early and emergent literacy may be the most powerful strategy yet discovered for building a healthy and productive citizenry.
  • "Encouraging individual discovery and creation." There are thousands of stories, including my own, about how just one sensitive librarian (Mrs. Johnson, in my case) can transform individual lives simply by offering the right book at the right moment, or by providing the space to study, or the computer to apply for a job, or by quietly encouraging someone to make something: a book, an artwork, a model airplane, a business plan.
  • "Building community." For the past generation, we have mostly been dismantling public institutions, and replacing them with for-profit businesses. But libraries -- through their focus on sharing investment and resources, on institutions that provide tangible demonstrations of local values -- help us to find a new approach. It helps us become builders together.
Comments please: What do you think of this definition?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

why this book

I am passionately in love with the idea and practice of the Library. I know public libraries best, but love (and have spent many hours in) school and academic libraries, too. I try to pay attention to my colleagues and their successes and challenges.

In that process, I have learned that we all share one big challenge: the American culture’s generation’s-long devaluing, even deliberate dismantling, of our shared public infrastructure.

The evidence is clear. We have become a nation not of citizens, but of consumers. Our meaning, our merit, is measured now not by what we believe or build. We are judged by what we buy.

Ideas matter. In fact, just a few words can make “frames” (see the works of George Lakoff) so powerful that they govern almost every aspect of our lives. The Declaration of Independence is one example: “All men are created equal.” “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here’s another: “tax burden.”

Let me stake out my ground up front. Libraries generally, public libraries specifically, are an almost incalculably powerful, incomparably cost-effective tool to improve lives, to build better communities. 

Here’s the mystery: even the people who utterly depend on us, even the people who fund us, even the people charged to govern us, are all too-often incomprehensibly opposed to precisely the services that most benefit them.

My book is about two things.

  • First, how to lead and manage public institutions to achieve excellence.

  • Second, how to lay the ground for a shift in public awareness. One generation (Baby Boomers) broke the social contract. The next generation (Millennials) will lift us up, reclaim our place in the civic mind. I hope they will, anyhow. And this book is designed to help them.

Join the journey

I’ve decided to undertake a grand experiment. Using the program Gingko (, I’m going to generate a series of blog posts that will flesh out my original outline, and begin to elaborate what will eventually be chapters in a book. Do check out Gingko, by the way. It just might change the way you think about writing. 

Ultimately, I will self-publish the work as an ebook. Price: $5? (Please comment below. Would you pay that for a roughly 200 page book?)

The working title is “Who Needs Libraries?” I invite you along on the journey. Comments from librarians and non-librarians alike will help me write a better book.

I’ll be trying to blog at least three times a week, at about 350 words per blog. Along the way, I hope to learn more about this fascinating program.

And please, do comment. We’re in this together!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

SmartDown - a markdown editor for Windows


This is my first use of the of the Aflava software, SmartDown, billed as a minimalist, markdown editor for Windows. I downloaded the trial version (which is due to expire in December). I don't know what the ultimate cost for it might be. But it was mentioned on, where I often find interesting new software, and I'm intrigued by the quick, zen-like approach to plain text writing.

Let's put it through its paces.


  • Sandwich icon on top left (file functions, export function)
  • Character and line count at bottom center. Hover the mouse over it and get word, sentence, page counts. That's essential for most of the writing I do.
  • View icons at lower right: pencil for edit, eye for view output.
  • Column size easily changed by dragging.
  • Right click gives usual cut/copy/paste/delete options.
  • Spellcheck tags.
That's it, and so it's a very simple interface, with a pleasant enough gray-blue background. It seems to be close to my essential writer tool chest requirements.

Note: it appears that I can only edit one file at a time. That's too bad.

Editing commands

  • Movement forward and back by word (ctrl+arrow). Check.
  • Delete forward and back. Check.
  • Home and end. Check.
  • Select by shift and cursor movement. Check.
  • Beginning and end of file (ctrl-home/end). Check.
  • Select all - check.
  • Copy/paste - check.
  • Undo - check.
  • Movement by paragraph (ctrl-up/down). No.
All but one of the usual suspects are there.

Formatting commands

This is italic, and this is bold.

Items preceded by a hypen become part of an unnumbered list, as above under "editing commands."

Items preceded by numbers become a numbered lists.

  1. The first item.
  2. The second.


This should be a link to my website. Yep, although I don't see how to then go back to where I was (short of clicking between the view icon and edit).

I am supposed to be able to link elsewhere in the file, too, but I don't quite understand that yet.


Apparently, anything that follows a heading (line preceded by hashtags) until another heading of the same level or higher can be collapsed simply by clicking on the along the left edge of the window. I guess this includes any other text, until the next header.


So if I want to have additional folding under something, I'll need a new section.

Like this

And text under it.

Like so.

But note that the additional "nesting" does not result in additional onscreen indentation.
  • Unless, perhaps, I also add hyphens to cause bullet indentations.
Folding is a very handy way, as in outliners, to collapse onscreen text, allowing one to stay on top of the emerging structure of a piece.


It works as expected: anything it flags has a wavy red underline. The dictionary files came with the program, based on Hunspell and Chromium dictionary files for English.

Focus mode

I went to preferences and turned on this toggle. All it seems to do is highlight the current sentence. Once one finishes the sentence, it grays out. Not terribly useful for me, I think, and not the "hoisting" feature (pulling an outline level up so that it is the only visible section on the screen) I thought it would be.


I like it. It's fast, easy to learn, easy to use, not a bad place to work. Again, I have a growing preference for elegant software. I suspect there is much more that I could do with this - setting up text snippets, and digging a bit deeper into markdown syntax.

It is often the case that I find good software, but then don't get around to using it much. I don't know what the final cost for this one will be, but it looks promising. And it's always fun to just mess around with new software.


Now that my trial version is about to expire, I see that an introductory price has been set: $20. I'm sure it's worth it. After having spent some time looking at other "zenware" type writing tools (particularly SmartMonkey), I think SmartDown is quite good. But I also think that I probably wouldn't use it. I use outliners for complicated things, or LibreOffice for standard documents, and a variety of other apps on other platforms (Workflowy, SimpleNote). My usual discovery is that I don't actually need more tools. I need to spend more time using them.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Oh Adobe

Here's the problem: a lot of our "stuff" - both individual and business - is now in the cloud. Leaving aside the security of servers, there are also potential compromises in the transmission to and from the servers.

The issue for libraries is patron confidentiality, which we are both professionally and legally (in all 50 states) bound to preserve. (See Andromeda Yelton's impassioned post about the quandary.) Adobe, for quite some time now the near-monopolistic provider of Digital Rights Management (DRM) for ebooks in libraries, has been outed as having problems with the clear text, unencrypted transmission of user information (probably more than is strictly required to enable syncing across devices, if the usually well-informed Eric Hellman is to be believed, and I do believe him). It's possible that Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) 4 is also doing a little snooping - rummaging around your hard drive looking for other ebook information, although that's still in doubt.

Right now, if you confine your library ebook borrowing to one of the mobile apps (Bluefire is the most popular), you're probably not affected. Likewise, if you use an older version of ADE, for now. But unprotested "features" have a way of moving into newer versions, and forced upgrades.

As has been noted elsewhere, librarians are just about the only trusted voice in our society that is sounding the alarm about such incursions. So what, speaking practically, can we do about this?

  1. Make noise to our distributors. Librarians need to contact their vendors - OverDrive, 3M, Baker and Taylor all use Adobe DRM - to express their strong concern, emphasizing potential legal violations, and asking for a timeline for a fix. (It might even be more effective to address these concerns via an attorney on behalf of your library or city. A simple "letter of discovery," asking for information about possible violations of state law should suffice.)

  2. Make noise to the public. Ultimately, librarians need to get the word out to more mainstream media. It's one thing to irritate your business partners, but even worse to take a reputational hit in the larger consumer market. Tell your boards. Pass along a link, or an editorial to your local newspaper. We're whistle blowers on this one, protecting our patrons' privacy. What to pass along, exactly? "The library is investigating the evidence that one of our ebook vendors has recently changed its software in ways that compromise our patron privacy." On second thought, let's give option 1 just a little time first. It's smart to get our facts straight first.

  3. Investigate alternatives. DRM is where the problem started: it was all in the name of "protecting" your stuff. Now, it has become license not only to conduct personal surveillance, but to broadcast it to anyone with the know-how to tune in. I know OverDrive was putting together a non-Adobe DRM system (to get out of paying Adobe the 8 cents per checkout they are now assessed), but OverDrive's interests are commercial, not about confidentiality.  It may be better. I hope it doesn't become our only other option.

We're still in the Wild West of ebook systems. This kind of screw-up is inevitable and unsurprising. But now is the time to stake out the ethical ground the library reputation depends on, and let people know the system is broken, and is urgent need of repair.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bulgaria 10 years later

My first trip, a State Department grant, happened back in 1994. Nancy Bolt, then State Librarian of Colorado, teamed up with a former legislator in Iowa to arrange for a series of workshops and travel exchanges. Back then, Bulgaria was still throwing off the Soviet influence. Libraries had been tools of the state: a mechanism for the distribution of propaganda. Perhaps as a consequence, they did not enjoy a lot of public use or support.

There was also a parallel institution: the chistalistes. Think "culture center" - a place to celebrate the folk programs and activities of a country very rich in history.

The purpose of that first visit was to present a model of library as community information center. We talked about helping libraries begin to consciously collect and promote their collections to distinct market segments. We tried to encourage our colleagues to become not just passive distributors of state literature, but active, engaged, and visible "players."

But I don't want to suggest that our sole purpose was just to tell them to be more like us. We learned a lot from them, too, and found that librarians everywhere are united by more similarities than differences: we are motivated by the desire to serve, we love and promote reading, we work to make our communities better.

I spent time in Sofia, the capital, and then took a lovely bus ride through the Balkans to Dobrich, where I shadowed the very astute and forward-thinking director of the library, Elena Voeva-Yuzchenvo (who has now moved on to the leadership of an academic library) for a time.

The Bulgarians were then scrambling to join the European Union. They impressed me. Again, their history goes back past the Romans (although Roman ruins still endure there) to pre-history. I reveled in walking through their cobblestone streets, along rivers, past countless small shops. Their food is amazing.

I'm ashamed to say that over the years, I haven't stayed in as much contact with my colleagues there as I should have. All of us were busy.

But then I was invited back by the Bulgarian Library and Information Association to present a two day workshop on "community reference" -- which I pioneered with my former staff at Douglas County Libraries, and which they have written and spoken about across the country. (See my previous blog for more about "community reference.")

Bulgaria has changed. It seems far less Soviet and far more European than 10 years ago. A lot more people - young people in particular - speak English. Due to a favorable rate of exchange, it's very affordable. Sofia is still a wonderfully engaging and walkable city. The food is still great, the people are consistently gracious and interesting. Wifi is everywhere. There are a lot of shops, restaurants, hotels, and parks. 

Bulgaria has problems, though, too. First is a subtle demographic: a lot of young people abandoned Bulgaria for points west, in quest of both learning and wealth. That leaves behind some older folks who have begun to wax nostalgic about the unlimited medical care of the old Soviet era. Second is the problem of corruption: I gather it's fairly widespread, with ties to organized crime. Third is a kind of cynicism: after the Soviet collapse and the embrace of capitalism, people thought their lives would immediately begin to resemble those portrayed on American movies and TV. There is some sense of disappointment, even betrayal.

I talked with a lot of people in my week there. While not everyone agreed with this, one woman said she saw strong evidence of rising anti-American and pro-Russian sentiment. (Bulgaria is, by the way, just about half way between the Ukraine and Israel.) But this is what struck me: there are three ways, she said, that the US and Russia are the same. She said, 

1. You both think you're exceptional.

2. Neither one of you knows or cares much about the rest of the world.

3. Both of you feel free to invade any country you like, whenever you feel like it.

On the one hand, that's an awkward pairing. On the other, I see how she got there.

After the workshops, funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, I thought about the problems some of the directors had shared with me. Bulgarian libraries are seen as "the memory of the people." That's fine as far as it goes, and although no politicians would close a library, they don't invest in its success, either. So with very little funding (a fraction of what goes to even the poorest American libraries), it's hard to attract new patrons. They can't buy much in the way of collections, and there are no - not one - purpose-built public libraries in the nation. Instead, they are scattered across former Community Party buildings and other re-purposed structures, broken into a series of small rooms with too many poorly paid workers and too few resources of any kind.

While there, I was also interviewed by someone who works with a lot of children's publishers. There is widespread illiteracy in Bulgaria - a problem that may be getting worse. (This despite some very well-educated people, too, and lots of outdoor booksellers!)

Upon reflection, I wrote to my key contact in Bulgaria, the wise, vivacious, and extraordinarily dedicated Anna Popova, that although I enjoyed giving the workshop, I do not believe even widespread adoption of that strategy would really address the underlying lack of support of Bulgarian libraries. Instead, I recommended that they adopt something that I have come to believe, more and more, is the foundation of American librarianship: major outreach to children.

If you are not a library user, it takes a life transition to make you one. One of the most powerful transitions is parenthood. In the US, a third to half of our public library business revolves around children's materials. We provide free storytimes, then send families home laden with books. Study after study affirms the vital importance of a rich exposure to language to the brains of infants. As I've noted elsewhere, if a child between the ages of 0-5 can get 500 books in their home, it's as good as having two parents with Master's degrees, regardless of the actual education or income of their parents. This, in turn, affects everything from childhood health to earning potential and productivity. It's a modest investment that pays huge societal dividends.

Moreover, children's services is the most powerful recruitment strategy for libraries we have. It not only solves real and important social problems, it also establishes an emotional connection with the next generation. It is is essential to our survival.

While many Bulgarian libraries offer some services to children, there is nothing like the widespread all-out recruitment of the US. 

Can Bulgaria make that shift?

I don't know. Culture and history are powerful things. But I concluded this time, as I did the last time I visited, that Bulgarian librarians are up to the challenge. And they represent a significant asset to their nation.

From community reference to library as leader

A few weeks ago (Sept. 14-19) I made a trip to Bulgaria. (Another blog with more about that to follow!) I was a guest of the Bulgarian Library and Information Association, speaking in the national capital of Sofia to about 30, mostly public library directors about what I've called "community reference," and others call "embedded reference." 

Incidentally, as I think more about this, I've decided it might better be called "library as leader." I advocate a process that follows seven stages:

1. Brainstorm the names of community leaders. "Community" here doesn't mean just public leaders. The community could be a university, a public school, or a corporation. "Community" just means "operating environment." And "leaders" means decision-makers or influencers. 

2. Interview them. One of the fundamental skills of librarianship is the reference interview. I suggest three questions: 
- what are the key concerns of your constituents over the next 18-24 months?
- what decisions will you have to make in the next 18-24 months, and what information would you like to have first?
- who else should we talk with?

George Needham once commented to me that we should add another question: what would success look like? It's a good one.

Note that in the course of this interview, you're really not talking about the library, although in my experience leaders often ask, a couple of times, why the library is doing this. My answer: we want to understand the needs of our community, and talking to leaders is a very efficient way to do that. Also, it may be possible that the library can assist our community on some specific initiatives. Which initiatives? That's what we're trying to find out.

I find this to be a very powerful kind of advocacy. It's not the "here are a bunch of numbers about us, remember us, love us" kind of pitch. Rather, it's a subtle reminder that we are, or can be, a powerful asset not just interested in ourselves, but interested in improving the lives of everyone around us. Not coincidentally, it begins the process of cultivating relationships with those community leaders - another worthwhile outcome.

3. Catalog the community. Come back, digest, and categorize the results of the interviews. Is there overlap? What IS going on in the community?

4. Present your findings back to the community. Invite the leaders to come to a debrief session. This is what you heard - maybe 5-10 key concerns. Did you get it right? Then ask, who is working on what? 

Again, these leaders may start making statements, usually positive, about the library. But you say, "this isn't about the library, or not yet. We're just trying to understand the agenda of the community. Maybe there's a place where we can add value." 

This is why I now want to call this "library as leader." What we're doing here, through a process of interviews, convening, and facilitation, is helping the community be more conscious of its own goals. We're helping them orient to the future.

5. Now go back and pick a project. This project should advance community goals. It should be high profile and high impact. It should be something that is consonant with the library's mission.

6. Do it. Make the project happen, as professionally and effectively as possible. This might be a year, or even multi-year intiative.

7. Tell everyone about it. It's not enough to do good. People have to know about it to recognize its value. A very effective technique is the project evaluation. Ask for time in front of those community leaders, at council meetings, chamber meetings, to do a group assessment. Here's what you did and why you did it. You're done, now. (Nothing gets people's attention like telling them that you've STOPPED doing something.) Ask what parts of the project were successful, and what could be improved. Indicate an openness to new projects, with the caveat that the library will be thoughtful about assessing which ones really make a difference.

Note that my definition of leadership is not telling people what to do. It begins with questions. It involves listening and careful thought. It requires investment and the building of capacity both within and beyond the organization. It involves doing something, and letting people know you've done it.

It also involves librarians leaving the building. Hence the title of my two day workshop: "Elvis has left the building!" (And yes, the Bulgarians know all about Elvis!)

I could tell that the topic was a little out there for my Bulgarian colleagues. But it is in the US, too. Part of the workshop involves "how do you sell this" to various stakeholders: director, senior staff and supervisors, front line reference staff, city councils, media, the public. Recognize that this was delivered through a simultaneous translation setup: I lectured in English, attendees listened through headsets to live translation, they asked questions in Bulgarian, I listened through my headset to the English translation -- all coming from a tag team of two translators in a booth in the back of the room. So that's both fascinating and a challenge. But I got the impression, finally, that they found this whole process an intriguing way to raise their visibility and demonstrate their value in a time of declining use and funding.