end of the week links

There was a while during which I’d pretty much only blog on Fridays. MetaFilter was a little more relaxed, I was catching up on things, I usually wasn’t working. The downside was that a lot of people weren’t reading many blogs on Fridays, so anything timely sort of seemed to fll between the cracks. Of course if I know it’s timely I want, Twitter and facebook have me covered. And yet, I really like having a blog. I like longer form explanations. I like telling you why I think something is intersting or special, more than just saying WANT. Anyhow, here are some links that didn’t fit in over the week. Certainly more than odds and ends, all of them worth a longer read.

  • Sarah Houghton-Jan talks about what it’s like to live with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Not just an interesting outline of what it’s like to have a misdiagnosed disease for a long time, but also what it’s like to live with chronic pain and a busy life. Many interesting notes in the comments as well.
  • Kevin Kelly writes about The Triumph of the Default. I’ve mentioned similar things before. It’s surprising to me how many novice computer users have no understanding that all software comes with a bunch of pre-set configuration options, all of which have a default setting, a setting that was chosen by someone who makes software. In many cases, these defaults affect our impression of how usable a piece of software is. Remember when the talking paperclip was the default help option for MS Word? Defaults are cultural choices, and most people don’t change them. we should learn more about them, as librarians, and think about our own presets (browser home pages, anyone?)
  • Seattle Public Library is implementing some new charges including overdue fines for ESL materials and a whopping $5 fee for ILLs. Some interesting data in the article including “7 percent of library cardholders are responsible for roughly 45 percent of the hold requests” No official mention on SPLs website yet. You can read the complete policy changes in this PDF document.
  • In another cost-cutting move, the state of Vermont is no longer going to be paying for our “branded” access to Webjunction. As near as I can tell, we still have access to all the same content, with the exception of continuing education classes, prompting me to wonder what exactly we were paying so much money for. The Continuing Ed discussion forums haven’t had a post made since November 2008.

the customer is always … what?

Benjamin over at InfoBreaker has a good point. As we try to open our communities and have patrons “join the conversation” and bemore interactive with users, how do we learn to set new boundaries? He outlines a case of a patron not wanting to make a phone call to renew books when she was on vacation, thinking that should be something the library could do themselves, knowing she was on vacation. I think about other examples that have been getting a hearing lately.

If the library was totally democratic, would users still fine themselves? Implement noise policies? Shirt/shoes dress codes? We know they would be unlikely to, as a group, create their own ILS or their own classification system (no, folksonomy is not a classification system, yes it is very useful on its own). So my question is and has been, what is the role for the librarian, the supposed “information expert” in our 2.0 vision of ourselves? We facilitate access to information surely. However, there are many people, librarians and patrons, deeply in love with the idea of library as place. Then there are our board members and taxpayers who also like the idea of “money as thing,” that is the money that funds the library, pays the salary, keeps the lights on and leaves the pockets of taxpayers who are convinced that libraries are a Good Thing. Once your library is 100% in Second Life and not a side project of librarians who work in brick and mortar library buildings, who pays for their health care?

I know that in my job at MetaFilter, the money that pays me comes directly from user signups and advertising that others see on the site. Since we’re not claiming to be a public-sphere institution, I don’t have a problem with ads helping pay the bills of keeping the site running. I’m fairly secure in the site owner’s scruples, as well as my own. However once the library has ads for Amazon in its catalog, or preferences iPods as MP3 players over other available products, or stops buying VHS tapes in favor of DVDs, we’ve made a consumer choice, and we’ve made it for the public. I always get a little fidgety when people talk about brand consciousness and “markets” when they’re talking about the library, but I also realize that’s really the way the world of information is going. That’s getting a little off the topic of whether or not a patron on vacation should be able to have the library just say “oh you’re on vacation, we’ll just auto-renew your books until you come back.” but it is along the same spectrum.

How much do we bend to meet our users? How much do we expect them to bend to meet us?

fine, @ your library

Hot topic lately is library fines. I have a few personal fine anecdotes.

  • When I was in library school, I served on the library fines appeals committee. This was a terrible job. We served for the better part of a few days, reading hundreds of appeals. I served with one undergrad student, one faculty member and one library staffperson who had an advisory role. Our job was to look at people’s fine appeals and decide who got a reduced fine and who didn’t. The faculty member was on the committee as some sort of penance, I am certain because he disagreed with levying fines in almost every case. The library staff person advised us consistently not to reduce any fines. My approach was somewhere in the middle. Leniency for first time offenders or people with what sounded like “good reasons” more strict with other people. On the other hand, this was in an environment where the basic premise was that fines were necessary to get books — and more importantly, reserve items — back in a prompt fashion. I was always in favor of more creative solutions to these problems than allowing the library to become some sort of taxing authority. The library did not allow payment plans. The library did not allow people to work off their debts. The library did not allow (in almost all cases) people to replace books they had lost. I don’t recall whether the fine money collected by the library went TO the library or, like in many cases, to the parent organization. Some people had literally thousands of dollars in fines. Some people wrote appeals that explained why they should not be responsible for reading signs, losing books, or returning a book to the wrong library system.
  • I did outreach for a public library and found that, almost without exception, the teens I met who did not come to the library stayed away because they believed they had huge fines and were, in some way, no longer welcome. Our library fines were steep — twenty cents per day for books with no grace period, one dollar per day for DVDs and videos — and once you hit five dollars you could no longer check out materials or use the library computers (unless you used them as a non-patron which was an option but not well-advertised). We had at least one member of the circulation team who treated fines as some sort of a moral stain and I was even shy about talking to her about my fines because I didn’t want to deal with the teasing. I would tell teenagers, on the down low, that because of our computer crash of several years ago, any old fines they had from when they were kids were probably not in the system anymore and that they should stop by the library “just to check” and maybe renew their library cards. At that same library, I started a food4fines program where people could donate canned food to the food bank one week a year and get money off of their fines. The Richards Free Library in Newport New Hampshire had a fine amnesty week during National Library Week. Just ask and all is forgiven. My old director said that fine revenue was essential to the bottom line of our library’s operating budget.
  • When I married my (now ex-) husband, he had several hundreds of dollars worth of university library fines. The school would not release his diploma until he paid them. I always wondered what sort of a long-term standoff this would be if he never paid the fines. Would they keep the diploma in a drawer forever? How many diplomas were in that drawer?

Like many topics, I have no easy answer to the idea of library fines. I have six or seven library cards that I use regularly and none of the libraries I use has a fine system at all. A few have a “fine box” which you can put money into if you are feeling particularly guilty about an overdue book. One library does cut off your borrowing privileges after a book is several weeks overdue, at which point they have already sent you three (3!) letters in the mail to tell you to bring the book back.

As you may be able to guess, I am not the world’s most conscientious library patron when it comes to returning books by some arbitrary date, but I have always been a stickler for bringing them back if someone else has requested them. So I wonder if technology has helped solve this problem somewhat? It’s important to get the books back, sure, but mainly it’s important to have them available to other people who might want them if you’re not doing anything with them but letting them gather dust under your bed. I envision a future library, with a perfect OPAC (and a perfect set of patrons who know how to use its many features) where people can request a book not on the shelf, sending an email to the person who has the book checked out in some overdue state who will then (perfectly) return it to the library so it’s available for the other patron who has been notified by email to come and get it.

Of course, the libraries that I work with mostly don’t have online catalogs and their patrons mostly don’t use email, so my little utopian vision is a ways off in this neck of the woods. However, I think this beats saying that libraries need to be more like video stores (even though they have totally different revenue models) or that we should treat our patrons more like a) customers, as opposed to someone who has a shared ownership interest in the library and the library’s interests, or b) naughty children who need to be taught via negative reinforcement how to treat “other people’s things”, or c) constant drains on the library’s scarce and precious resources. This doesn’t even address the idea of fines being extra punitive on poor people who can least afford to pay them OR go buy books elsewhere.