Guest Column: Open letter to the mayor, library board trustees and Mr. Novak

February 22, 2012

By Andrew Strong

Editor’s note: The writer asked us to include the following introduction to his column: “Last Saturday {Feb. 4, 2012}, I sent the e-mail below to Mr. [Mayor] Larry Morrissey and my alderman, Doug Mark, library leaders and the papers. After reading the article in the Register Star yesterday about how library plans would affect staff, I thought I’d better send it to all of you, too. I am not arguing against rational change as a result of advances in technology. I am not arguing against the re-positioning of library branches. I am not arguing against reorganizing staff to realize efficiencies. These are all standard, legitimate management practices.

“I am concerned about the wholesale dismantling of a library system that took years to build. Once you throw out your carefully collected print editions and buy into an e-plan, you have just ceded control of your library to corporate entities who have no heart for your community. Our community. This is no small matter.”

Dear Mayor, Library Board Trustees, Mr. Novak and others:

As you may know, I have had my own visceral reaction to the leaked “First Floor Plan” and 2012 allocation of funds for e-materials, which I have made known in the public discourse. Some of those statements are attached as post script, in case you have not seen them. I stand by what I wrote.

As a father, a former library manager, and simple human being, I know there are always two sides to every story, and somewhere in the middle is the truth. Going forward, there are several things you may want to consider, if you’d listen to some unsolicited advice from an interested bystander and Rockford resident of 19 years. I will lead off with what I believe is the most critical element, “Openness,” and follow with four related paragraphs.

1) Openness. It has come to my attention that the Sullivan Center was offered to the library some number of years ago, but at the time the library took a pass on the offer. Did the library meet in closed session to discuss it before that decision was made? How many times has the board met in closed session this year as the First Floor Plan was being developed? I certainly understand the sensitive nature of the idea, and I am no lawyer. On the face of it, it seems disingenuous to tuck programmatic discussions into closed session under the guise of real estate talks. Is this, indeed, what was done? Was the First Floor Plan ever discussed openly in either the Programs & Services or the Finance committees? Was it ever discussed openly at a general board meeting? If not, I would suggest that this AT LEAST violates the spirit of the Open Meetings Act and is a cowardly way to conduct business. At what point is the public brought into the discussion? One of the reasons that many in the public are expressing such resentment, resistance and anger is because an important part of their way of life is threatened by this plan. There is an old management maxim that says, “Change is best managed at a turtle’s pace.” If the library board and administration had dotted all of their i’s and crossed all of their t’s and then presented this plan to the public, resentment and hostile feelings would have surely doubled. If the library board and administration had dotted all of their i’s and crossed all of their t’s and then hand-picked community members to serve on a strategic planning committee, led by paid consultant facilitators who are skilled at driving the process to “The Planned Outcome,” resentment and hostile feelings would have surely doubled as well. Citizens are increasingly becoming aware of this trick. What is needed is an organic approach to library planning. You have an opportunity. There’s nothing like a good controversy to get people thinking about what they really want and need from their library!

2) Honesty and Accuracy. Numbers are certainly easy to manipulate. It is also very easy to make mistakes with them. At the Jan. 24, 2012, board meeting, public speaker Karla Janssen-White made a very compelling point about e-book circulation statistics compared to print circulation statistics. How are you framing your analysis? What portion of the whole are you actually comparing? Board members would be wise to revisit what Ms. Janssen-White said. What other usage statistics are being gathered to gain a complete picture of library use? Gate counts, certainly? When was the last time the library did a survey of in-house library use? That is when the library takes a measurement of materials consulted at the library but not checked out. This measurement had been done annually or bi-annually in the past. Has anyone adjusted comparisons in circulation or other usage statistics by factoring in the severe reduction in hours? Citizens do not like to be snowed. Believe me when I say that the voltage to some people’s veracity meter is currently running at peak performance.

3) Creativity. I will give Mr. Novak credit. The First Floor Plan has a “creative thinking” element to it. But there is something very wrong about it as well. Why would the library want to go to the extreme trouble of clearing and renovating two huge floors of downtown publicly-owned real estate for an unspecified, unsecured tenant? Or, is there a tenant ready to move in, and the First Floor Plan is an emergency action spurred on by pressure from city or private-sector power brokers? It seems odd to me that e-book usage, which is still really in its infancy with the public at large, should be used as the impetus for such a monumental change. It certainly looks strange from my perspective on the outside. If the library really sees value in acquiring and maintaining the Sullivan Center, why is it not done as an “AND,” rather than an “INSTEAD OF”? I could certainly imagine the Sullivan Center space renovated into a dedicated Children’s Library and Special Programs Venue, which would open up the current Youth Services section at Main for use as a dedicated Young Adult Zone. But not at the expense of dismantling the print collection that, while in serious need of inventory and judicious acquisition of new and replacement titles, is still an integral and valuable part of the information universe of Rockford. Where will the money come from for an “AND”? This is the most compelling reason for having an actual strategic plan that has grown organically from all sectors of the community — from a public that actually values its library and can see the good sense of repositioning branches if it means a more robust library system. The reason the number of Rockford’s library card holders compares so abysmally with other communities our size is a simple one: the library has not been out making a case for itself publicly. To me, this is sad. A well-stocked library has so much to offer its community, and it is not an overstatement to say that the health of a community can be measured by the strength of its library. Faith or doubt regarding this maxim can easily determine the outcome of both community and library. Health can turn on a dime, and good health can be restored given the right resources.

4) Veracity and Commitment. Board members, why are you serving as a trustee of the public library? Are you in the right place at the right time? Have you served your term with interest and joy? Is your motivation for being a public representative of a critical public trust still sparked with the same fervor as when you began your term? And how long is your term? Has it expired? Are there people waiting in the wings to serve with fresh fervor? Mr. Mayor, are you keeping an eye on your duty to refresh and invigorate the board based on altruistic rather than political principles?

5) Overdrive. As board members consider their next steps, I certainly hope that they consider the work of David Rothman, author of the blog www.LibraryCity.org, who has adopted Rockford as a poster child buffeted about by the winds of change. While I do not agree with everything Mr. Rothman writes (or his rhetoric at times), his proposal for a national digital public library needs to be thoroughly considered. Digital Rights Management issues, privacy issues, portability issues, permanence issues, and, perhaps most importantly to libraries, ownership issues, are all part of a nebulous and sometimes contentious public debate. Rockford librarians and board members need to be a part of shaping this debate. I talked with one current Rockford library manager about Mr. Rothman’s desire to see Overdrive bought out by a nonprofit or consortium of public libraries, and this manager was nodding her head before I had hardly finished my sentence. Rather than rising to national prominence in infamy, I would encourage board members and librarians to engage the debate in earnest, considering the issues of constitutional rights, freedom of information, and first principles.

Thank you for taking time to read these thoughts.

Andrew Strong is a resident of Rockford and a former librarian.

From the Feb. 22-28, 2012, issue

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