a few stats for tax time

Only sort of related to libraries, but since it’s National Library Week and coincidentally tax week in the US, I thought you might be interested in reading this article about how and why the IRS is moving to e-filing. To me this touches on some digital divide issues. It’s significantly cheaper for the IRS to process a return submitted online.

It costs nearly $3 to process a paper return, but processing an electronic return costs only about 35 cents. The error rate on paper returns is 20 percent, which consumers must compute and workers must enter into IRS computers, compared with 1 percent for e-filed returns.

People also get their refunds more quickly. There are fewer errors with online returns.

Yet after 20 years of e-file availability, we’re still only seeing 66% of returns filed online. And this is happening even as printed state (NJ, KY) and federal tax forms are becoming less and less available in libraries. Some states aren’t even printing the big tax form notebook anymore. And some states aren’t mailing print forms. Some county library systems haven’t been doing the tax form thing for nearly 20 years. The article examines why. If you are helping your patrons file online, be aware that there are free options available for low-income filers and even discounts for non-low income people if they know where to look. My bank, for example, had a discount on TurboTax’s usual rates available just by me clicking a link on their website.

And I’m trying to track down the copy I had of the letter we got at one of the small rural libraries from the IRS that basically said they wouldn’t be sending us printed tax forms anymore. This was back when we still had a dialup connection and it was mighty inconvenient. Having a hard time remembering when this was. Anyone know?

2009 in libraries


I’m a nerdy list-maker. This should come as a surprise to no one. In addition to all the other reasons I enjoy the end of the year, it’s also when I make my year-end summaries. I did a guestroom wrap-up on my personal blog. I have two bookish wrap-ups to put here. This first one is about library visits. 2009 was the first year I kept track of all my library visits in an orderly fashion. Longtime readers of this blog may remember I did library reviews in 2003. I found I had a difficult time with constructive criticism if I knew the people who worked at a library, so I stopped doing this.

This year I made 67 library visits, about one every five days. A lot of these were for work [either local work or giving talks] and the rest were either fun or curiosity. I used a website called Daytum to track my visits which was really easy. So, here’s a short annotated list of what I was doing in libraries last year.

  • Aldrich/Barre (1) – killing time before dinner with friends in town. The first library in Vermont I did any work for.
  • Austin (1) – LBJ library, sort of a flyby right beore it closed for the day.
  • Belfast, ME (1) – a small pretty library we stopped at while on vacation
  • Belmont, MA (5) – my boyfriend’s local library
  • Boxboro, MA (1) – my mom and sister’s library
  • Cambridge, MA (1) – got to see it after the renovations were done. It’s nice!
  • Camden, ME (1) – another fancy little Maine library
  • Chelmsford, MA (1) – home of the Swiss Army Librarian
  • Concord, NH (1) – stopped in here during a rainstorm
  • Des Moines, IA (1) – I helped change their photo policy!
  • Elko, NV (1) – A small library with a great mining collection
  • Hartness/Randolph VT (7) – my local college library
  • Houghton Library, Harvard University (1) – special tour and Samuel Johnson exhibit
  • Howe/Hanover, NH (4) – one of my favorite all-time libraries
  • JFK Library, MA (1) – mostly a museum and a general disappointment
  • Kimball/Randolph VT (6) – my town library, a great place
  • Library of Congress (1) – thanks Dan Chudnov for the tour.
  • Long Branch, NJ (1) – fun to poke around in while I was at NJLA
  • Montreal, QC (1) – ducked in here during a subway bomb scare
  • McGill/Montreal, QC (1) – gave a talk, saw the library
  • NYPL (2) – hiding out with good wifi in the periodicals room, highly recommended
  • NYPL/SIBL (1) – fancy library, right downtown
  • Portland, ME (1) – another hideout from the rain
  • Portsmouth, NH (1) – gave a talk and stuck around
  • Rochester, VT (1) – classic small-town library in a funky old building
  • Toronto, ON (1) – no wifi, sort of surprising
  • Tunbridge, VT (21) – where I work most of the time
  • Westport, MA (1) – my Dad’s library.

Rangeview (CO) library system 1st system to abandon Dewey

I sort of knew about this for a while but the Rangeview Library District is ditching Dewey in favor of a self-created WordThink system which more closely mimics bookstore categories. No word on whether they’ll ditch that horrible catalog though. They’ve only implemented the switch at one branch so far which means the systemwide catalog returns results with both WordThink and Dewey codes. Press coverage is the predictable “uptight librarians forced into uncomfortable situations by open minded knowledge workers!” and I have the same old twitch when I see libraries referring to patrons as customers.

That said, it will be interesting to see now just how this works in the new library but how it makes that library play with other libraries who use other systems Is ILL affected? How do you locate a book on the shelves (by author?) What are vendors saying about this and what are the ramifications for all the copy-cataloging that happens? I’m definitely just barely able to understand the longer range implications, but pretty much happy to see people trying things. More discussion on MetaFilter where someone included this terrific poem.

Dewey took Manila
and soon after invented the decimal system
that keeps libraries from collapsing even unto this day.
A lot of mothers immediately started naming their male offspring ‘Dewey’
which made him queasy. He was already having second thoughts about imperialism.
In his dreams he saw library books with milky numbers
on their spines floating in Manila Bay.
Soon even words like ‘vanilla’ or ‘mantilla’ would cause him to vomit.
The sight of a manila envelope precipitated him
into his study, where all day, with the blinds drawn,
he would press fingers against temples, muttering ‘What have I done?’
all the while. Then, gradually, he began feeling a bit better.
The world hadn’t ended. He’d go for walks in his old neighborhood,
marveling at the changes there, or at the lack of them. ‘If one is
to go down in history, it is better to do so for two things
rather than one,’ he would stammer, none too meaningfully.

One day his wife took him aside
in her boudoir, pulling the black lace mantilla from her head
and across her bare breasts until his head was entangled in it.
‘Honey, what am I supposed to say?’ ‘Say nothing, you big boob.
Just be glad you got away with it and are famous.’ ‘Speaking of
boobs ..’ ‘Now you’re getting the idea. Go file those books
on those shelves over there. Come back only when you’re finished.’
(John Ashbery, ‘Memories of Imperialism’, listen to it here)

protecting privacy in libraries

Judah Hamer, the current president of the Vermont Library Association, wrote a good opinion piece in the Burlington Free Press responding to a parent’s editorial concerned about Vermont’s new patron privacy laws. I think it’s always a good idea that official-type library people spend the time to outline just why we feel privacy is important and speaking up in order to dispell rumors that spread about what did and did not happen in a given library dispute.

A few New York City libraries

music stand, jefferson market branch

Hi — I just got back from a short trip to New York City (real short, get in Wednesday and go home Friday) but I did manage to see five libraries. I know it’s been a while since I did a library recap but here’s a few links to photos and stories. NYPL has a lot going on lately in both good and bad ways. I’m always interested in the branch/main division personally and as I was on two long walks around Manhattan [1, 2] I tried to stop into as many libraries as I passed.

The first thing you notice when you’re walking is that the libraries have big blue banners hanging in front of them. This means you can see them from a block or two away and know you’re in the right place. So armed with that information and this library location mashup, I ventured in to the city. Here are the libraries I went to.

  • Jefferson Market Branch – this library is housed in a former women’s detention center and has a rich sense of history as well as an incredible building generally. Like many historic buildings that become libraries, the services are a little… smushed in there. There’s a big reference desk on the main floor that is empty and stacked with boxes and the reference librarian is actually in the basement with the reference collection. He seemed happy there. Outside there is an incredible set of gardens that were a joy to walk through.
  • Muhlenberg Branch – this library had just opened for the day and it was totally full of people. There was some confusion about how much of the library was open [see sign] and I just wanted to sit someplace cool and check my email using my laptop but couldn’t find an easy place to do that.
  • I kept walking and wound up at Bryant Park outside the big main NYPL research library. I ate lunch in the park and went inside to do a little work. The periodicals room has the best wifi, but no outlets, a way to I guess keep people’s visits to a reasonable time limit. I ran afoul of the wifi filters, not on purpose. You can see the page that was blocked. Graphic subject matter, NO graphic imagery.
  • The next day I went to the Tompkins Square Branch which is right near my friend Jenna’s place. It’s a lovely Carnegie building and was busy and full of folks. It had a really large Russian Language collection.
  • Then I wandered on to go by the Braille and Talking Book Library which had been closed the last time I walked by it. I was sort of interested whether there was any public information about the recent decision concerning the class action lawsuit that the National Federation for the Blind brought against Target concerning web site accessibility for businesses that sell things online. I enjoyed my time in the library. It’s brightly lit and has large easy to read signage and finding aids. It drove home the point that I tend to belabor which is that making things more usable really benefits everyone, not just whatever population happens to need accomodation. I liked having a bright library with wide low shelves and simple signage, who wouldn’t?

That wraps up my short tour of some Manhattan libraries in the NYPL system. Next time I’m in town I swear there will be meetups and beer drinking.

library lockout in Victoria

The libraries in Victoria BC, the subject of an ongoing (166 days as of today) strike, are being closed and employees are being locked out. Here is the statement from the library

Due to the ongoing strike by CUPE 410, the Greater Victoria Public Library today announced that it will serve 72-hour lock-out notice on the union. It is anticipated that the 72-hour lock-out notice will take effect on Sunday, February 17 2008 at 5:01pm.

Here is the web site statement of the union.

In the 165 days since we started taking strike actions, the employer’s bargaining agent has made no attempt to restart negotiations. Since early in 2007, they have simply refused to discuss the major outstanding issues. Library workers experience this as a contempt for their needs, and for their contributions to the quality of life in the Capital area.

Here is a short article from the Vancouver Sun on the subject and a longer one from the Globe & Mail. Here is an column from the Victoria Times Columnist with some details about the actual money they’re talking about wagewise. One of the interesting parts of the ongoing saga is that some library workers, as part of their protests regarding promised but not delivered pay equity with other municipal workers, were waiving overdue fines for all patrons, costing the library between $40,000 and $50,000 per month. This likely endeared them to some of their patrons but was a interesting form of civil disobedience on the job. A few blogs posts on the subject here, and here. [updated because I had the title/location wrong and needed to republish]

do library users care about our new initiatives?

Rochelle links to a survey done by the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium (pdf) which looks at how library users and non-users look at library services across the state of Wisconsin. It also compares results this year with results from the same survey four years ago, so looking at the trends is also revealing. The report is about twenty pages long and worth a pretty good scan. I have a few comments on the survey and the results.

First off, I am the typical “most likely to use the library” user according to this survey. Late 30s, female, comfy with computers and a regular internet user. And, guess what, I use the library all the time! Secondly, the survey puts people into user and non-user groups based on how they answer the question “Which of the following terms best describes how regularly you personally use your public library?” If you answer rarely or never, you’re a non-user. If you answer very or somewhat regularly, you’re a user. I assume there is a decent reason to do this, but I’d think even if you went to a library a few times a year, I’d consider that a rare user but also not a non-user.

One of the most interesting parts of the survey results is on page 16 entitled “New Initiatives” where they ask about how interested patrons are about using some new technology initiatives. To me they are asking all the wrong questions (mostly about content, less about context). They ask a lot of questions about downloadable content, which makes sense since the library probably has to shell out money for these things and wants to figure out if they’re worth it. However, they also ask about 24/7 librarian access and IMing a librarian and also find that people tend towards the “slightly disinterested” side. In fact the only new technology initiative that got anything that fell towards the positive side was wireless internet access. I wish they’d asked more questions about computers generally. Do people want more classes? Do they want more Macs? Do they want more public access PCs?

The next fascinating page follows: what would make you use the library more. The two runaway favorite answers are “If it were open more hours” and “If it had more CDs/DVDs/videos that I wanted” This will definitely be helpful for libraries who are facing funding drives since they can direct appeals appropriately, but I’m curious how the hours question breaks down. Do people want late night hours (as I do), or morning hours, or consistent hours, or weekend hours, what? Similarly, the difference between people wanting more classical music CDs (or any music CDs if your library doesn’t have a music collection) is worlds away from wanting popular movie DVDs.

Lastly, I’d like to point to the Internet question which was sort of glossed over. Of all the people surveyed 26% had no Internet at home and 23% only had dial-up. That’s nearly half the respondents having a level of connectivity at home where a downloadable audiobook is worth basically nothing to them, and likely a group that doesn’t spend a lot of time online. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t still stress technology initiatives, but that’s a pretty sobering takeaway when you’re trying to provide more and more services online.

The summary from the group that did the survey has an odd, to me, conclusion.

So, this information presents a juncture: On one hand, if you interpret the results literally you could make a decision to reject technology and focus on building a collection around personal enjoyment for Wisconsin residents. On the other hand, these same results may suggest that initiatives and library services need to be marketed in such a way that resonates with current conceptions of a public library. To this end, I would suggest an exploration of branding Wisconsin library services to more effectively market services. But, regardless of the direction taken from the juncture, a heightened focus on Wisconsin public library customers and customer service is essential in order to expand and maintain your current brand loyalty.

Do they realy think that the solution to getting more people to perceive value from the libraries technology initiatives is to just find a more effective way to market them? Aren’t there questions they could have asked about the services that would have helped nail this down more effectively such as “Are you aare that the library offers downloadable audio books?” “Do you use this service, why or why not?”

As I’ve said before, I think that before we can fully immerse ourselves in a 2.0 initiative as librarians, we have to make sure we’re counting the right things. If you only collect internal statistics on reference interactions that happen in-person or on the phone, it’s no wonder that IM reference seems like a “flavor of the month” thing for the library to do. And, after the fact, if you can’t show that people are really using the new techie things that you do provide it’s harder to stress that those things that should be part of what your library is and does. Many of these things are countable — website stats, flickr photostream views, IM interactions — the question is: are we counting them?

State Funding for Libraries – It’s Overdue

So today I went to a meeting of the Vermont Library Association’s Advocacy Committee. The Advocacy Committee works closely with the Government Relations Committee of VLA to get stuff done on a legislative level. They act and we promote. We work in tandem.

Big news this year is that the VLA is working with the Dept. of Libraries to try to get a small amount of guaranteed state funding for Vermont’s public libraries. Currently funding is 100% local, with the exception of grant programs like LSTA, Gates Foundation and Freeman Foundation money. For most Vermont towns this means getting the budget approved in town meeting every year. Some towns have the library as part of the town government funding and some have a separate line item. Some of the towns I work with have big fights about library funding every year. Some libraries get small increases every year when they need them. In any case, Vermont is one of only six states that has no state level funding for libraries and we are asking the Governor for $1.6 million [pdf] which will give public libraries in the state the equivalent of 10% of their operating costs, or a minimum of $1500.

A concern among some of the libraries is that towns might see the state money as supplanting money the town would have to pay and libraries would actually see no net increase in funding. And, of course, in a state where people are used to being so independent, there are always concerns when money comes from the government (CIPA anyone?).

In any case I’m new to this lobbying and legislating stuff, though I am pretty good at stringing sentences together. If anyone has advice, feel free to leave it in the comments.

Ignore the poor or “it’s not my fault they can’t LEARN”

The digital divide, in the US is driven by the market. If there were a way to sell eyeballs to advertisers using the public library, there would be one on every corner. If there were a way to get people to subscribe to the library and make money for McDonalds, Wal-Mart or Chevron [or, more realistically Time Warner, Gannett and Warner Brothers], everyone would have a card. If there were real competition in the OPAC marketplace, if switching OPACs was simple, if start-up costs weren’t so high, OPACs would be better, scads better.

People value access to information but many people don’t know how or where to start.

Once you own a TV you know how to watch TV. The same is not true for a computer. Once you have a TV you get programming for free — though they are changing that rapidly. The same is not true for a computer, the Internet costs money above and beyond technology costs. Once you have a TV you become a passive audience for advertising as well as content. The same is not true for a computer — no matter how hard advertisers try to make it otherwise. Competition for advertising dollars drives up the “interestingness” of television programming. Competition for advertising drives down the usability of free services which are often the only option for people with limited resources. The public library drops the ball in ways on computer and Internet access and user education, sure. I think they’re missing an opportunity to serve a genuine community need, one that I see in my job every single day.

I don’t think this is because patrons are choosing television over the library any more that I think that people “choose” to rent their furniture instead of own it, or “choose” to stay in New Orleans instead of evacuate. I think people choose non-library options because we don’t see the same investment in libraries that we do in media infrastructure. There is investment in the television infrastructure, in many many ways, through regulations favorable to the networks, through infrastructure support for broadcasting at a national level, through plain old corporate welfare that makes big media conglomerates pay less in taxes than I do. If libraries had that sort of money, you’d probably see them becoming public access computing centers — in addition to all of their other roles — because that’s what people want.

As a nation we don’t prioritize library service. As individuals many people make choices to not GO to the public library, and don’t interact with the public generally. I chose to live and work in Vermont specifically because people like me are a dime a dozen in Seattle, and in San Francisco, and probably in Brooklyn, but out here, my level of expertise is unusual, and it helps people. I use my public library even though I guess I could technically “afford” not to. I work with the information poor even though my level of education and experience means I don’t “have” to.

The so-called digital divide, in the US, is one driven by values. If people valued access to seek-it-yourself information, to email, to the internet in the same way that they clearly value access to network TV, I doubt there would be a digitial divide. The DD, simplistically, is a clash of values between what librarians think people want and need and what people opt to spend time and dollars on.

It’s always hard when paradigms shift, and harder still when people who should be working together to help people grapple with them can’t even agree on what needs to be done. Worse yet when those rifts seem to happen along philosopher/practitioner lines as they so often do. I feel that this is like watching agribusiness get a strong foothold, and watching the local Grange slowly die out. I’m backing artisan and organic food solutions in my boutiquey testbed of Orange County Vermont, call me when they get cell phone service here.