Category: Libraries

Refer Madness: Buyers and Borrowers

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

A patron walked into the library and approached the desk.

“I was just at a bookstore but I didn’t want to buy too many,” she told me.

She had a list of books she wanted, some of which she got at the bookstore but a few she left to see if she could get through the library.

“Sometimes, when I buy books,” she said, “they just sit there. If I get it from the library, I’m reading up a storm.”

There is absolutely something to this. I have a bookcase full of books at home, yet I can’t remember the last time I picked one off those shelves to read over a library book. Because I know they’ll be there indefinitely, there’s no urgency to read them. A library book, on the other hand, has a deadline attached to it, and often a waitlist.

In the debate about library ebooks, one of the key points ignored by publishers is that there is broad overlap between library users and book buyers. More than that, the relationship between libraries/librarians and bookstores/authors is symbiotic. We may have different priorities, but I believe we’re on the same team and help each other immensely.

Yet publishers (and their new overlord Amazon) would have people believe libraries are parasites, stealing potential customers away from authors with free* books.

(* not actually free)

The book world isn’t a zero-sum game. In the case of this patron, everyone won. The bookstore and authors got paid, the library got checkout stats, the woman got what she wanted, and the books got read (victims of tsundoku aside).

I keep thinking of the quote from Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist about his illicit relationship with Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain:

You know, it could be like this, just like this, always.

In the context of the movie, this was a naive, desperate wish. I sincerely hope that’s not the case for the future of ebooks.

Library ebooks are not free

Those of you not in the library world probably don’t know about the contretemps currently roiling the industry.

Library users don’t see how much ebooks cost for libraries. I order them as part of my job, and I’ve never quite gotten over the sticker shock of some costing as much as $90 each. And that’s just for a license of 2 years or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first (almost always the 2 years).

Still, libraries will buy as many as they can because ebooks and eaudiobooks are only growing in popularity. Given the limited collection budget for most libraries, now you understand if you’ve ever placed a hold on a library ebook and found yourself #237 on the waiting list for the whole consortium of libraries sharing access to that ebook. Pity the poor souls who want to read Daniel Silva’s latest:

But guess what: that wait time is about to get a lot longer.

On July 25, John Sargent, CEO of the publisher Macmillan, announced that Macmillan would make only one ebook version of their new titles available to each library system for the first eight weeks after publication. This is meant to frustrate library users enough to where they will give up and buy the ebook or print version rather than wait so long. And perhaps they will: more power to any book buyer.

But if you’re thinking, “One copy for a whole library system, which can contain dozens of libraries and thousands of users, sounds like a terrible idea,” then you are correct.

Sargent claims libraries are “cannibalizing sales” based on several factors:

“a seamless delivery of ebooks to reading devices and apps”

He should sit at the Info Desk with me and watch me help an elderly technophobic patron get library ebooks onto their Kindle.

“the active marketing by various parties to turn purchasers into borrowers”

This might blow his mind, but people can be both purchasers and borrowers at the same time and often are, in the case of books.

“apps that support lending across libraries regardless of residence”

If he’s talking about sharing among a regional consortium of libraries, then yeah, that’s the point. The one my library is in consists of over 100 public and school libraries in and near the Chicago area that share a collection of ebooks and audiobooks, and do so mostly to share the enormous cost of buying ebooks. But it’s not like I can borrow from NYPL’s collection, and I can’t even access any extra copies another library in the consortium purchases.

Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive, one of the largest distributors of ebooks to libraries, responded to Sargent’s specious reasoning and counterproductive pricing with appropriate skepticism:

For Macmillan to paint themselves as victims, in a reality they created, is dystopian. Not only dystopian, it is victim blaming – as librarians are the victims of this flawed logic. It blames public libraries and librarians for the work they do to promote reading, books, authors and help sell the publishers’ products. It blames libraries for the millions of dollars they spend on Macmillan’s product, encouraging the reading of Macmillan books and authors.

And perhaps most importantly:

There is zero acknowledgement by Macmillan of the reality that library ebook readers are Macmillan readers and customers. The high degree of overlap between library users and book buyers is well documented. Libraries build audiences for authors and books, promote reading and discovery, and are a most trusted source for recommendation on what to read next.

Internet-famous librarian (and excellent newsletter writer) Jessamyn West wrote a column for CNN summing up this imbroglio nicely. In “Libraries are fighting to preserve your right to borrow e-books”, she brings the heat right away:

Librarians to publishers: Please take our money. Publishers to librarians: Drop dead.

Then gets to the crux of the issue:

As publishers struggle with the continuing shake-up of their business models, and work to find practical approaches to managing digital content in a marketplace overwhelmingly dominated by Amazon, libraries are being portrayed as a problem, not a solution. Libraries agree there’s a problem — but we know it’s not us.

The craziest thing about Sargent’s memo isn’t everything I’ve mentioned already; it’s that Amazon isn’t mentioned once.

But instead of finding a way to work with libraries on an equitable win-win solution, Macmillan implemented a new and confusing model and blamed libraries for being successful at encouraging people to read their books.

The point here isn’t to self-congratulate libraries. It’s to illustrate that Macmillan’s new scheme alienates the very people and cultural institutions that buy their books and get other people to read and buy them.

Meanwhile, can I interest you in Libby?

Renewing your library card is an act of hope

All the time people come to the info desk asking how they can renew their library card.

Maybe they got a reminder call or noticed the expiration sticker on the card or were blocked from checking out an ebook. Either way, I point them to the circulation department and off they go. They show their card to the clerk, confirm their contact info, maybe pay some fines, and then go on their way.

It’s routine. An afterthought. Most people aren’t thinking about how such a simple act has the potential to transform their life.

Because renewing your library card is an act of hope.

It’s a demonstration of faith in the future.

It’s a declaration of principles, of the value of civic pride.

It’s a personal affirmation of the freedom to read and take classes and learn a language and join a discussion group and discover ideas you never could have imagined.

It’s a chance to start fresh, even if you regularly use it. Just imagine what it will allow you to read, watch, hear, do, and learn about.

If your library card has gone dormant or missing, renew it and begin again.

How to help someone use a [insert frustrating digital device]

Thanks to Jessamyn West for republishing Phil Agre’s advice from 1996 on how to help someone use a computer. Swap out computer for “smartphone” or “e-reader” and it’s still quite relevant. Some favorites:

  • Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
  • You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
  • If it’s not obvious to them, it’s not obvious.
  • Most user interfaces are terrible. When people make mistakes it’s usually the fault of the interface. You’ve forgotten how many ways you’ve learned to adapt to bad interfaces. You’ve forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface would be able to do for you.
  • Explain your thinking. Don’t make it mysterious. If something is true, show them how they can see it’s true. When you don’t know, say “I don’t know”. When you’re guessing, say “let’s try … because …”. Resist the temptation to appear all-knowing. Help them learn to think like you.
  • Be aware of how abstract your language is.

As someone who helps people with technology for a living, both at a public service desk and in one-on-one appointments, I appreciate the reminders. One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered is breaking through people’s technological self-hatred. A common refrain I hear from people struggling with their devices is “I know I’m stupid, but…” It drives me insane. They are not stupid. Their frustrations are almost always justified, being the result of a user interface that was not built with them in mind. What seems simple and sleek for Silicon Valley technophiles might be baffling, counterintuitive, or simply too small for the less agile fingers of the digital immigrants I encounter every day.

Agre has advice for these situations too:

  • Whenever they start to blame themselves, blame the computer, no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative tone of voice. If you need to show off, show off your ability to criticize the bad interface.

Oh boy, can I criticize a bad interface…

Refer Madness: Librarian as Point Guard

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

On Tuesday I hosted a discussion at the library on the films of 2018. It was an informal time to swap favorites (or least favorites) from the year, and discuss the Oscar nominations that had just been announced. Opinions abounded, of course.

I brought a laptop and projector so we could watch trailers of the movies being discussed. This turned out to be helpful, as I was surprised by how few of the movies the attendees had seen. Of the eight Best Picture nominees, one man had only seen Black Panther.

This gave me the unique opportunity of curating their exposure to the year in film. We watched trailers for high-profile nominees like The Favourite, Vice, Roma, and BlacKkKlansman, but also lesser-known indies like Leave No Trace, The Death of Stalin, Cold War, and First Reformed. I was this close to just going through the rest of my top 10, but I restrained myself (and ran out of time).

Librarians are in this position often. Introducing readers to their next book or viewers to their next movie is part of the job, but also a privilege and a pleasure I take seriously. Maybe a title I recommend will become their all-time favorite, or become inextricably linked with a future memory, or be forgotten as soon as it’s over. Regardless, we’re point guards. We’re there to make the assist, to keep feeding the shooting guard and forwards and hope they score more often than not.

After the program, I walked past the reference desk and saw the gentleman who had only seen Black Panther. He was asking to be placed on hold for Leave No Trace and The Death of Stalin, and I couldn’t help but smile.

Refer Madness: Always on call

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

You know how doctors are always on call? Someone has a heart attack on an airplane or chokes at a restaurant, and doctors, nurses, or other care providers jump to the rescue, even if they are off the clock. Even medical students count: I witnessed a friend dash to the aid of a woman who injured herself while dancing during a wedding reception.

Professionals never know when they will be called to duty, librarians included. We might not be setting broken bones or taking vitals, but we info-slingers have a knack for finding opportunities to serve random reference needs.

One day, I was chatting with a neighbor in my apartment building’s laundry room. He’s a counselor, and he had just read about a theory that he wanted to learn more about. Google wasn’t offering much of any depth. He didn’t work for or attend a university, so he didn’t have access to specialized journals and databases. Amid the thrum of tumbling clothes, I told him I would help him check with our local public library to see what they had access to.

It was just that simple. Simple for me, anyway, but not for my neighbor. Familiarity bias makes it easy for librarians to forget that most people do not know everything the library offers, or even think of the library as a potential remedy for a problem. This can limit our fellow citizens’ information epiphanies.

I recently attended a seminar, and while grazing the snack table for coffee and a bagel (the Official Refreshments™ of seminars everywhere), I struck up a conversation with another attendee. He was a newly hired city planner in charge of reaching out to local businesses, and the task was overwhelming him because he was new to the area. I knew that his library was likely to be subscribed to ReferenceUSA or something similar, so I told him how he could use an e-reference tool like this for his project, without costing the city extra money.

Again, this public library pitch required hardly any effort in the moment, but it will likely pay dividends in the future. The actual work lies in the preparation, before the opportunity to share presents itself. The more knowledgeable you are about what libraries offer—and not just your library—the better equipped you will be to save the day. A friend is in the market for a new car? Consumer Reports online. Need a template for a new lease? EBSCO’s Legal Information Reference Center. Want a software refresher before a job interview? Lynda.com.

Whether the unsuspecting patron actually uses the resource is out of your control. But it’s exciting to consider what planting that seed could lead to: maybe that person’s first library visit in years, or a card renewal, or excitement about e-books and museum passes. Or maybe even a word-of-mouth recommendation to a friend, which starts the cycle anew.

I wonder how the woman at the wedding reception would have fared had my friend not been there. Since the spirit of the celebration rendered most of the other guests unhelpful (and telling her to check out MedlinePlus didn’t seem useful in that moment), she no doubt would have been worse off without a professional’s help. Luckily she only ended up suffering a swollen ankle and a bruised ego, but my friend didn’t know that when he jumped to her aid. He just wanted to help.

Refer Madness: Hate the change, love the library

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

A while back, my department’s email received this message:

“What happened to the CLASSIC CATALOG? I am old, I hate change, but love my library. Thanks.”

I had to laugh. Funny but dead serious, succinct and self-aware, this missive captures a very real conundrum: How do we serve people who hate change but love their library?

The “CLASSIC CATALOG” in question was my library’s previous OPAC. We migrated from it a few years ago but still allowed access for those diehards who didn’t want to use the new system. Recently, that access disappeared. Probably 99 percent of our users had already moved to the new catalog, but I’ll bet those bitter-enders really loved the old one.

Soon my library will be migrating to yet another catalog, this time because we are joining a consortium. It’s change for the better, I believe, but it will also be disruptive to the status quo. That means it won’t just be the CLASSIC CATALOG patron who speaks up about it . . .

On the one hand, constant change is the new normal with technology, in libraries and the world at large. The newer and shinier (if not always better) version of whatever you’re using seems ever around the corner. Libraries can try as much as possible to prepare patrons, but at some point, the base expectation for technical competence will rise, and everyone will have to adapt.

On the other hand, I empathize with this patron. Though being tech savvy is part of my job, in my personal life, I’m far from an early adopter. Even products with a fairly strong reputation for reliability and style, like Apple devices, to me aren’t worth the headaches their debuts can create. I prefer to wait out the newest thing. Let beta testers and true believers ride the first few waves of glitches that inevitably pop up—I’ll come in later and enjoy the smoother ride.

Most patrons understand that tech is ever-changing. But for those who don’t, librarians and IT staff can do a lot. We can offer abundant opportunities for instruction, both online, with explainer videos or blog posts, and in person, with classes or one-on-one sessions. We can use whatever power we have to make the new technology as user-friendly as possible. We can try to anticipate questions that any disruptive changes might trigger and smooth out as many potential stumbling blocks as possible.

Above all, we can and must be patient and listen.

If we can do that, I think even the bitter-enders will still be able to love their library.

Go Pack Horse Librarians, Go!

One podcast that survived my recent purge is The Keepers, a series from The Kitchen Sisters and NPR.  The series features:

“stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors and historians. Keepers of the culture and the cultures and collections they keep. Guardians of history, large and small, protectors of the free flow of information and ideas, eccentric individuals who take it upon themselves to preserve some part of our cultural heritage.”

The latest episode is about the “Pack Horse Librarians,” a group of women in 1930s rural Kentucky who brought books to isolated areas. The Depression-era WPA paid their salary of $1 per day; everything else was their responsibility, including renting the horses and collecting donated books and magazines to distribute.

It’s an inspiring, well-told story that shows the value of preserving local history.

How to pay your library back

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library information desk.

A regular came to the desk with the George Carlin Commemorative Collection DVD she was returning.

“Before I return this,” she said, “I’d like to know how much it was for the library to buy because you bought it based on my request but I didn’t like it, so I’d like to pay the library back.”

Well, that was a first.

I reassured her that she didn’t owe the library anything, that we’d be keeping the item regardless, and that someone else will gain enjoyment from it. The library gets a lot of purchase suggestions, most of which we buy. The rare item that we don’t buy is either too expensive, too esoteric, or otherwise not in keeping with our collection policy.

Nevertheless, she persisted. Even if it wasn’t for that item, she wanted to compensate the library in some way. So I thought of some ways she (and everyone) could do so.

How to pay your library back

1. Use it.

Check things out, early and often. Books, movies, music, magazines, WiFi hotspots, ebooks, whatever your library provides. If fines are keeping you away, ask nicely to have them reduced. Seriously, this might work. (Or just bite the bullet and pay them: see #5.)

2. Get your friends and family to use it.

There’s no better publicity than word-of-mouth. Each of your kids should have their own card. Just watch out for the fines…

3. Make suggestions.

Your library doesn’t have an item or service you think they should? Ask them to get it. Think they should go fine-free or set up automatic renewals? Tell them many libraries are doing it. Comments and suggestions from local cardholders are powerful, especially en masse.

4. Volunteer.

Newly retired? In library school looking for work experience? Odds are your library has something for you to do. Volunteers often get hired because of that proverbial foot in the door.

5. Donate.

Your gently used books and tax-deductible donations are always welcome. You’ll get the money back in the improvements the library can make with it. Donate enough and you might get a meeting room named after you.

Refer Madness: The Book Dropper strikes again

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

A few months ago, a coworker and I noticed that every Tuesday, two items appear on the library’s book sale shelves that shouldn’t be there. The library has a system for what gets placed in the book sale, so we know which items are out of place. Given the regularity of these deposits, they are clearly being left intentionally, by someone who knows the library’s donation policy but is choosing to ignore it.

I’ve come to call this library phantom The Book Dropper. The Book Dropper is sneaky, and The Book Dropper is patient. The Book Dropper doesn’t lug in a bag of nasty books hoping the library will accept them. The Book Dropper brings only two at a time, once a week, every week, presumably until there are no more books to surreptitiously drop.

The Book Dropper haunts me.

The Book Dropper’s books are usually in sorry shape, and sometimes downright silly. Decades-old mass market paperbacks, electrical engineering manuals, and a host of other esoteric et cetera in no condition to be sold or added to the library’s collection.

Normally, as soon as we spot the latest evidence of the Book Dropper’s continued ability to evade justice, we recycle them along with the other discarded books. But this week’s evidence was extra special:

That would be a chewed up, dilapidated copy of Everything But Money by Sam Levenson and a Betamax tape of Santa Fe Trail, the 1940 western starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and a suave-looking Ronald Reagan.

*chef’s kiss*

You got me again, Book Dropper. I can’t decide whether to shake my fist dramatically or slow-clap. I’m going to keep Santa Fe Trail on my desk at work as a reminder that this scofflaw is still at large. Perhaps I will watch it only once the Book Dropper has been identified and politely informed of the library’s donations policy.