DISCLAIMER: These are my personal opinions and not those of my employers.
For those readers who aren’t local to Ann Arbor, let me provide a little background first, and why I think this matters irrespective of location (thus making it blogworthy here).
There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear. Buffalo Springfield
Ann Arbor has one of the finest public libraries in the world, especially if you don’t live in a town like New York City or Chicago or other massively huge cities with huge public libraries. The claim to fame for the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) is more than anything else their high level of innovation, creativity, responsiveness, engagement, and insightful forward-looking planning and development of new services focused explicitly on the local community and its needs.
Briefly, the context of this post is that there is a bond in tomorrow’s vote. The bond asks for money to replace the current downtown library. There is, evidently, quite a bit of controversy about this. I started out not having strong feelings, and feeling busy enough I didn’t want to take time to research it. I’m a librarian, I support libraries, I trust the folk at AADL, and that was all the thinking I did about it. Then I was at a meeting where two people I like, admire, and respect highly spoke out with great passion and vigor about why the library bond was a mistake. Well, because I had NOT researched it, I didn’t have a clue what to say or what to think. I was disturbed, and couldn’t rest at ease until I learned more about it.
Why this matters beyond Ann Arbor? Because the whole vision of public libraries in America is at risk in the current economic challenges. Ann Arbor is, in this case, not remotely a microcosm of the larger situation. Ann Arbor is biased. It is a community of highly educated, mostly liberal folk who support libraries in principal. In general, library bonds here get passed without question as an automatic “Public Good” / “Good Thing”. The issues and controversies being acted out here are minor compared to those in many other communities. That Ann Arbor is having trouble passing this bond speaks not only to the challenges of public libraries everywhere in America, but to all types of libraries. The controversy, in my eyes, illustrates the dangers of the assumptions and misunderstandings of what is librarianship as a profession, what libraries do, why libraries exist, and what libraries are for. This is huge. And scary.
It scares me more that people who are so smart are so seriously misreading (IMHO) the risks of not passing this bond, not seeing what we lose when the libraries are shrinking instead of growing. It scared me Saturday to walk past the Farmers Market and see a crowd of supporters for the opponents of the bill, and the supporters looking cold and few on the corner. It scares me most that I can walk into work, and talk with other librarians, and find ANY who don’t support the bond. I found one, and one undecided. Whoa.
The work I do in my job is focused on looking explicitly for future needs for libraries and for the communities we support. This controversy tells me in a very graphic way that other people are not seeing the same things I’m seeing, and that evidently I’m not doing my job well enough, since the people I work with aren’t aware of the drivers that seem vividly urgent to me.
This is the dog that worried the cat / That killed the rat that ate the malt / That lay in the house that Jack built. Traditional.
So let me step back a bit. This is an utterly phenomenal amazing library. For creative relevant service and connecting with the community, they are far better than any public library I’ve seen or lived with before, and that most definitely includes the Chicago Public Library system (where I was told, “we don’t do interlibrary loan”). That doesn’t mean the library doesn’t have issues, most of which relate to facilities rather than staff. The librarians are incredible, the staff are hard workers, but the facilities, well, let’s just say they do the best they can with what they have. People complain about the bathrooms, wheelchair access, access for the blind, collection access, finding print instead of electronic, crowds, homeless, this and that. That is all from the comments on the AnnArbor.com discussions. I didn’t make it up.
The homeless are part of most urban and suburban public libraries, and not something easy to fix. I don’t know if it is just my house or the other libraries I’ve worked in, but bathrooms seem to be a real headache. Some folk say all it really needs is to be cleaned more often, but … bathroom problems often seem to be more complicated than the obvious fix.
Access for persons with disabilities is another matter. That’s the law. It’s required. BUT. Ahem. But, most older buildings get grandfathered in unless they do a renovation. My old library encountered that. We had major accessibility issues, but if we did anything to address them, we had to do EVERYTHING to meet standards, and the space infrastructure didn’t support an awful lot of what was going to be needed. It was a Catch-22, damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Eventually, it was just easier to use that space for something else entirely since it really wasn’t well suited for a modern library. The AADL is in kind of the same situation, where the library will need to make a lot of changes for accessibility if they renovate again, but the space doesn’t support a lot of the changes needed. Catch-22.
The library I work for partners sometimes with AADL on events, and I sometimes attend other events there. AADL folk, being smart and knowing the constraints of their space, plan ahead for accommodations. So far, every event I’ve attended at AADL has been packed to the gills. They often have standing room only. When they can, there will be upstairs spillover rooms, and a video camera to pipe the event upstairs. Not the same. Me, I arrive at least an hour early so that I can find a seat close enough to get photos, and get power to use my computer.
Even with this limited problem set, we end up going in circles, with one problem leading to another, and the “solutions” creating more problems. Having worked behind scenes in libraries, I’m positive there are more facilities issues that aren’t visible to the general public, because the staff bend over backwards to work around them and keep them from being visible. Part of the issue beyond immediate facility repairs is that people express concern over what they see that is supposed to be there, and don’t always imagine what else could be there that isn’t. That is especially true of a library as exceptional as this one. “It’s great, that means it’s good enough.” “It’s great, so it can’t possibly be at risk.” “It’s great, so we don’t need it to be better or different.” “It’s great, so let’s just leave things alone, they way they are now. I like that.”
There’s a few obvious rejoinders to these challenges, but they are all exactly how we ended up having this conversation. More on this in a few lines.
What’s Wrong With the Bond
Then Maggie O’Connor took up the cry, / “O Biddy” says she “you’re wrong, I’m sure.” / Biddy gave her a belt in the gob / and sent her sprawling on the floor. Finnegan’s Wake.
My daddy was a war hero, but a hero of the wrong war. Anonymous.
Frankly, yes, the current library would probably be good enough if the library and information technology worlds weren’t changing so fast, or if the state hadn’t fallen on such challenging economic times. The challenges of the economy mean we need MORE from the library, not less, and not maintain the status quo.
Last weekend I was talking with folk on both sides of this issue, and I was incredibly inarticulate. The main argument I kept repeating was, “But they’re so WRONG!” which is absolutely unconvincing. I didn’t just argue, of course. I also listened. And I listened closely when the other people I respect talked about this. I just wasn’t convinced. Dick Dougherty wrote a great letter to the editor on AnnArbor.com in which he also made a strong point of listening, but wasn’t convinced. He worked harder at it than I did. He hunted for (and read!) every blessed comment on the site in which people argued against the new library. I knew Dick Dougherty when he was Director of Libraries at UofM, and President of the American Library Association. I respect his opinion, and am baffled why more people aren’t listening to him on this. I encourage you to read what he said.
OPINION: Failure of library bond would be turning point for community: http://www.annarbor.com/news/opinion/failure-of-library-bond-would-be-turning-point-for-community/
The people expressing concern are good, smart, caring people, actively engaged in an effort to defend the good of the public, as they see it. I’m afraid they are fighting the wrong war, a war to preserve what we have now, without making it possible to adapt and accommodate what’s needed for the future. Here are the main questions and concerns that folk have been mentioning to me.
a) But I love the library I grew up with and am used to. Don’t hurt it!
b) Why can’t we just repair it?
c) That’s a lot of money.
d) I don’t know enough about the issue, and don’t have time to learn enough about it.
Here’s my quick two cents.
a) But I love the library I grew up with and am used to. Don’t hurt it! Don’t change it!
I can understand that, and I’d feel the same way if something like this was proposed for the wonderful Carnegie library in my home town. But times are hard right now, and this space isn’t allowing us to do what’s most needed to help the people of this town reinvent themselves as creative entrepreneurs, and to help rebuild and diversify the economy. I’m sure they’ll try to preserve the best features of the old library to incorporate in the new one, for all those loyal folk who love it the way it is now.
b) Why can’t we just repair it or renovate it?
Because it isn’t repairable. It’s been renovated twice already, and each time compromises they made then are boxing us in now. The Library has had many people come in and take a good look at the facilities and structures, trying to find cheaper, faster alternatives. There aren’t any. The cost of renovating it now is going to be almost the same as building a new one. Voting the bond down not only isn’t going to save much money, but if we have to bring this up again in another 4 years, it will probably cost more. Here’s a piece explaining why the facilities really can’t be fixed anymore.
Op Ed from JD Lindeberg, President, Resource Recycling Systems Inc.: http://ournewlibrary.com/blog/op-ed-from-jd-lindeberg-president-resource-recycling-systems-inc
c) That’s a lot of money.
I’m not going to say it isn’t. That’s why it’s on the ballot. But it isn’t as much money as the campaigns opposing the bond are stating (some of that information has been misstated or is being presented in a confusing way). You should look at the alternatives. If we vote the bond down, we still need to repair or renovate the library, and that is going to be close to the same amount. What I’ve been hearing is that the money for doing repairs would mean, instead of a limited year bond, a permanent increase to the millage. So this is kind of a case of pick your poison. None of the options are going to come free. Unless we choose to close the main library in the heart of town. I’m not fond of that idea myself, because the main library is right next door the to main bus transit center, meaning I can get there easily. AADL really is being as fiscally responsible as possible given the situation.
To me, the scariest cost comes if we DON’T build a new library. I blogged last week about the importance of makerspaces in libraries. Public libraries all across the country are starting to create makerspaces in their libraries. It’s such a big deal that the American Library Association is promoting information about Makerspaces in libraries. Makerspaces exist in Ann Arbor, but they aren’t free and they aren’ supported as permanent publicly accessible spaces, as would be the case in the public library. A makerspace is really not doable in the current library configuration. That really limits what people here can do without paying out of their own pocket to learn the new skills and technologies that will help them continue to be market in our rapidly changing tech and information environments.
d) I don’t know enough about the issue, and don’t have time to learn enough about it.
I’m not going to say you need to read every word and every comment. Last week AnnArbor.com published a short piece answering briefly the ten most frequently asked questions about the project. It isn’t long. You can see it here.
10 questions and answers about the downtown Ann Arbor library bond proposal http://www.annarbor.com/news/10-questions-and-answers-about-the-downtown-ann-arbor-library-bond-proposal/
Conclusion: What I Said
See every time we try to talk and turn this thing around / Tell me what’s the deal and then we’ll try to work it out / Is it me? Is it us or is it, is it, is it we? Jennifer Hudson.
Over the weekend, feeling increasingly concerned about this, I posted a comment on one of the most strongly worded posts at AnnArbor.com opposing the bond.
OPINION: Economy cannot support the costs of approving library bond proposal: http://www.annarbor.com/news/opinion/economy-cannot-support-the-costs-of-approving-library-bond-proposal/
I feel as if the AADL missed a great opportunity to really make use of the new technologies they are so good with to organize a digital storytelling series around the proposal, to help people envision themselves using the new space, to identify with the human side of what this means. The comments at AnnArbor.org are limited in space, so I couldn’t tell more than one story, but I tried to choose one that really paints a realistic picture of one situation, one possible persons experience that would call for the new space. As expected, people on that thread have been voting it down, but at least they are reading it. Here is what I said.
I am deeply concerned by the opposition to this bond. It is part of my daily job to scan for emerging trends and to help plan for how their future impact may change education, libraries, and our community. We are going through a time of ever increasing change in technology, as well as major shifts in modes of education and employment. I interpret the proposed bond as being explicitly designed to respond to all three. I could go into a lot of verbiage explaining my point of view, but most of what I’d want to say has already been said in one way or another by someone else. Let me instead try to paint a scenario, a bit of a story.
I was just laid off work. I have money to get by for a few months, but there aren’t any jobs open in the area for the type of work I’ve been doing. I have kids to support, health issues in the family, and relocating is really not an option. I’m scared. Chances are nil that I’ll find another before I run out of money.
I’m also smart and creative. I have a couple ideas, inventions really, that I might be able to convert into economic opportunities. But to really come up with a prototype and test feasibility, I need to learn more than I know about using 3d modeling software and I need access to a 3d printer. There are some 3d printers in town, but they are fancier than I need, and most are in research labs on campus. I don’t have access. There is a simpler one, and it is in a collaborative space, but you have to pay in advance to get access and you have to prove your project concept. I can’t prove my concept without access, and I can’t learn what I need to do to prove it without access. Catch 22. I’m stuck.
Gee, I wish the public library had one of the simple versions of these printers, and a collaboration or co-working space I could use for free, and maybe a librarian I could ask questions when I’m stuck. And I wish they had a small group collaboration space for studying for the group of us taking a MOOC (online course) on the coding skills I need.
I just received an email from Ryan Burns that says more succinctly a lot of what I’ve been trying to say here. I am reposting with permission.
Cheap space for coding meetups and hackathons is in short supply in this town, not to mention space for hands on workshops. Smaller auditoriums are also hard to find, most venues for an event like Ignite, for instance, are too large or too expensive for an event that is free to attend and based on a passion for knowledge. The plan for a new downtown library remedies these issues and I’d encourage you to learn more: http://ournewlibrary.com/vision
Alas, my love you do me wrong / To cast me off discourteously / And I have loved you so long / Delighting in your company. Traditional.