Libraries Can Really Change the Future – Interview with Susan Benton

In February I had the honor of sitting down with Susan Benton, President/CEO of the Urban Libraries Council (ULC). Susan is retiring this summer after thirteen years of service at ULC. Before she left, I wanted to learn more about her tenure at ULC and her thoughts on the challenges facing, and future of, public libraries. The full conversation is posted at Public Libraries Online. Here is an excerpt from that interview.

DC: How has ULC changed under your leadership both internally and also in terms of its relationship with members?

Susan Benton

SB: When I first joined ULC, we had a very small staff and were located in Chicago. We made the move in 2014 to Washington D.C. which was important for us. While some thought ULC moved to Washington to lobby on Capitol Hill, we moved to D.C. so that we could be closer to allied organizations that are important to libraries. The work that ULC is doing to transform the lives of people in our cities and counties requires us to work with organizations here in Washington D.C., such as the National League of Cities, National Association of Counties, the Council of the Great City Schools, the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities and others. They are truly sister organizations with very similar missions to ULC. We now connect with them to extend our work. The move helped us take a stronger position for urban libraries. We are constantly in conversations with colleagues in the public sector and private sector so that we can educate others about the essential contributions of libraries to all aspects of life. 

Read the rest of the article on the Public Libraries Online web site.

Tips for Better Writing

Do you like to write?

Much like public speaking, many people feel uncomfortable writing for public consumption. However, for almost any kind of professional career, being skillful at writing is an asset. Thankfully there are very simple ways to improve your writing ability without enrolling in a course.

In a recent article on his web site, Darious Foroux lists 15 brief tips that anyone can use to improve their writing. The first one is the simplest of all:

Keep It Brief – Short writing forces you to be clear. Because our thoughts are usually abstract and all over the place, our writing tends to be the same. You can avoid that by always aiming to be as brief as possible.  

That tip is especially true for business writing, since most people want to get to the point quickly to complete a task or project. Another tip that can be applied immediately is to: Be Direct.

Say what you want, mean, or feel. Avoid leaving things open to interpretation because that only annoys people. We can often be more direct in our writing than in real life. When I teach these types of writing lessons in my video course, I don’t need to be this direct because I can use my voice, facial expressions, and examples to make my point. But when we write, we only have our words. So make them count. 

Learn about the other writing tips on Foroux’s web site.

Book Bans on the Rise

In the past year, book challenges have been on the rise. It is not unusual for school and public libraries to have people contest items in the collection. In fact every year the American Library Association shares a list of the top ten most challenged books. Librarians have established procedures in place to address complaints along with collection policies to support them.

However, the recent wave of book challenges in schools and public libraries is a new breed of challenge. In a recent article by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post titled This wave of book bans is different from earlier ones, she points out there is a particular subject matter in contention.

Now we are seeing a new wave of book bans, marked by an unprecedented number of challenges and intense polarization. Its focus: narrowing the universe of information in schools and public libraries that might challenge young people on race and gender — the same issues at the center of the political and cultural wars ripping through the country.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What makes this round also different is that there appears to be a greater national coordination on messaging and the books being challenged.

Advocacy groups are working to nationalize book challenges, this time with the help of conservative TV and talk shows, that for the past few decades have been mostly local events. Some state legislators are threatening punitive action against anyone in schools or libraries who spreads material deemed obscene or harmful to minors. And now students, parents, librarians and school boards are fighting back, calling the push censorship.

Read the full article on the Washington Post web site.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball

2021 proved to be a very unpredictable year. Between the pandemic, political uncertainty, and economic challenges we never knew what would happen next. Still, everyone must plan for the future, including Library Directors and CEOs. So, what are these leaders focusing on with the new year?

In a recent survey I conducted of Urban Library Council members, I asked Directors to share their top concerns for 2022. The results were published in an article on the Public Libraries Online web site. The group reported focusing on a broad range of topics, but far and away the largest was COVID and its fallout.

The pandemic upended the library’s relationship with patrons. Between limited hours, uncertain access to buildings and safety concerns about virus spread, patterns of use changed dramatically. Libraries have seen a drop in visitors that has not reverted back to pre-pandemic levels. A Canadian library director listed a number of possible reasons including:

“The continued effects of the pandemic including changing customer behaviors, hesitancy to frequent public spaces, mental health issues, impact on loss of learning due to school closures, and the shift to online.”

Related to the pandemic were concerns about budgets due to a violate economy.

Several directors commented that their infrastructure is in need of repair and upgrading. However, funding for capital projects is running up against tight operating margins. For example, a California library director shared the following about their system.

“This may not be the case for every library system but over half of our branches are too small and well beyond their normal useful life. There is a high amount of deferred maintenance and insufficient funding resulting in increased deterioration of buildings.”

Explore more thoughts from public library leaders on their top concerns for 2022 at the Public Libraries Online web site.

The Six Step Guide to Library Worker Engagement

Over the past four years I have focused on building a strong culture in my library system. Unlike revising a policy or plan, strengthening a culture takes time to achieve. One of the key books I have used is Primed to Perform : how to build the highest performing cultures through the science of total motivation. It included ideas such as creating a Firewatchers committee and measuring your culture based on six key factors.

This year a new book has come out on culture that focuses solely on libraries. Written by Elaina Norlin, it is titled, The Six Step Guide to Library Worker Engagement.

In the book, Norlin demonstrates how library workers can easily become disengaged from their work. To prevent this from happening, she identifies the following areas as key to building a strong culture:

  • Leadership and Management
  • Trust
  • Recognition and Praise
  • Feedback and Performance Evaluation
  • Teamwork and Collaboration
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

To show best practices, Norlin includes interviews with library directors, managers, and leaders from public, academic, and special libraries. I was honored to be interviewed for the section on Feedback and Performance Evaluation. Here’s a portion of that interview.

If a new library director or manager wanted to know how to get started inspiring a more engaged workforce, what would be your advice?

The first step is always to listen. Often a new leader may come in with great ideas and pet projects to launch. However, if they don not take the time to learn more about their organization and connect with the people who comprise it, they may end up going in the wrong direction very quickly. Typically there is a problem or an old way of doing things which is a pain point for the staff that needs to be resolved. A new leader can show their support by tacking that issue first and only afterward start advancing their own ideas.

Find the book at your local library or from the ALA store.

Three Random Words

How many passwords do you have for all of your online accounts? 10, 100, 1000?

I calculated my own situation and found over 200 passwords on my list. Nowadays it seems that every web site you visit or service you use requires setting up an account with a password. On top of it, many sites have complex protocols, such as requiring numbers, capital letters, or special characters, which make those passwords hard to remember. Is it possible to find a simpler way to create passwords that are easy to remember, but hard to hack?

According to a recent article in The Guardian, science editor Robin McKie pointed to a recent study that claimed the best passwords are phrases composed of three random words. Her article begins:

It is much better to concoct passwords for online accounts that are made up of three random words as opposed to creating complex variations of letters, numbers and symbols, government experts have said.

In a blogpost, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) – which is part of Government Communications Headquarters – said a three-word system creates passwords that are easy to remember. In addition, it creates unusual combinations of letters, which means the system is strong enough to keep online accounts secure from cyber criminals. By contrast, more complex passwords can be ineffective as their makeup can often be guessed by criminals using specialist software.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Of course, many sites still have strict character requirements, but if this idea is true, we can all move away from odd rambling passwords composed of letters or numbers that are impossible to remember. Instead you can go with such combinations as: Tree-Car-Garlic; Rose-Titanic-Algae; River-Doughnut-Tornado; or Sewer-Stop-Gloat. (A random number could be added at the end if needed.)

To learn more, read the rest of the article on the Guardian’s web site.

Libraries are an “investment that’s well worth it”

Those who work and frequent public libraries are well aware of the value they provide to their local communities. However, one challenge public libraries face is getting awareness of their value out beyond their core customers. So it is always great to see a national publication or program talk about the positive role that public libraries play in their community.

On a recent episode of NPR’s Marketplace, host David Brancaccio interviewed reporter Chris Farrell about the return on investment that libraries provide to their local residents.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Brancaccio: Well, do we know that? It’s a decent return on investment?

Farrell: Well, there’s this recent study — this one grabbed my attention — [by] three economists [from] Montana State University, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Miami University. And they calculate by some measures a healthy return on investment. So among their findings, library capital investment increases children’s attendance at library events by 18%, children’s checkout of items by 21% and total library visits by 21%. Now, OK, that’s interesting, but increases in library use translate into improved children’s test scores in nearby school districts.

Read or listen to the rest of the interview online at the Marketplace web site.

Are We Reaching the End of Library DVD Collections?

DVDs have been a mainstay of library collections for the past twenty years. These little plastic discs are often the most borrowed items every year. However, as with all technology, times change to potentially render them obsolete. In this case the rise of online streaming services threatens to push DVD collections to the trash bin alongside the VHS cassette and music CD.

Last month I surveyed members of the Urban Library Council to gain insight into the future of DVD collections. The results of my findings were posted in a new article on the Public Libraries Online web site, a publication of PLA. Below is an except from the article.

An informal survey of over a dozen Urban Library Council member libraries conducted for this article shows a more complicated picture. Based on checkouts, demand for DVDs across North American libraries has dropped. For example Migell Acosta, Director of San Diego County Library (CA) reported that they “Have seen a gradual decline in DVD/Blu-Ray circulation over the past 5 years or so, but not as steep as physical music and audiobooks.” 

This drop in borrowing has local variation. In Pima County Public Library (AZ), Director Amber Mathewson noted that demand remains strong. “In one of our more affluent neighborhoods the children’s DVDs were overflowing …. Our hypothesis was that neighborhood has switched to Disney+, but other locations in our county are still circing DVDs pretty heavily.”

The situation is different in Johnson County Public Library (IN). Kelley Gilbert, Collection Services Manager reported they may need more DVDs. “DVD circulation has been really steady throughout the pandemic, and our patrons are always requesting titles that we’ve managed to miss.”

To find out more, including the perceived diversity benefits of maintaining DVD collections, please read the rest of the article.

Will Libraries Get Credit for their COVID-19 Response?

As vaccines are now widely available and many people have had their first shot or both, life across the United States is returning to something like pre-COVID days. This includes libraries. In Florida, library service has been amongst the most available in the country, such as The Palm Beach County Library System which has been open for over a year! Other libraries across the nation have only recently opened their doors. However, that did not mean they were on the sidelines. Throughout the crisis, library staff were constantly working to help our public in this time of need.

In a recent article on CNN, public libraries across the country were profiled for the great work they did to assist their communities during the pandemic. One example was the work of Ramses Escobedo of the San Fransisco Public Library.

For more than a year, however, Escobedo hasn’t been lending out books. Instead, he’s worked with a Covid-19 contact tracer team for San Francisco’s Department of Public Health.

Covid has affected American schools, hospitals and businesses. But libraries — which often serve people who have nowhere else to turn — have responded in unprecedented ways. Like many of us, they’ve had to pivot, going from providing extensive in-person services and programming onsite in branches to quickly establishing virtual lectures and classes, and contact-less material pickup, as well as services that were strictly Covid-related like Escobedo’s assignment.

As a city worker, Escobedo’s contract states he can be activated in an emergency. After his library closed in March of 2020, Escobedo was reassigned to a disaster service detail.

As well as special duties, libraries also took advantage of their position in the community to help people.

In Hartford, Connecticut, some public libraries became Covid-19 vaccine administration sites. Librarians there also cleared obstacles to allow patrons to use outside electrical outlets to charge cell phones. In Leominster, Massachusetts, about 50 miles west of Boston, librarians installed mobile hot spots at the city’s senior and veterans’ centers, both of which have large parking lots, enabling many more people to log onto the Internet.”Anyone can go to the parking lot and connect to the WiFi for free,” Nicole Piermarini, the library’s assistant director told CNN.

Read the rest of the article on CNN to learn other ways that libraries made a difference.