For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
May 28, 2003 - The Patron Purge of 2003
Years after I moved out and started my own family, I went back home to visit my dad. Somewhere in a day's knocking around town, he realized that he needed something, a tool, I think. Then we saw the old Sears store.
We roamed around till he found what he wanted, then stepped up to a cash register. Dad poked through his wallet and at last pulled out his battered Sears charge card.
"Haven't used this in a while," he told me, with a hint of nostalgia.
A few moments later, the clerk announced that the machine had rejected my father's card. "There's no credit problem with it," said the clerk. "It looks like it's been purged from the system. Sometimes we do that for cards that haven't been used in a long time. Sorry!"
For some reason, this really GOT to my dad. He began to bluster. "I raised my children on this card!" he said. "All their school clothes, all their shoes..." (There were five kids in my family. That's a lot of shoes.) "All of our furniture! We have used this card for -" he paused,
"35 years! What kind of organization just PURGES a person after all of that money and time?"
The clerk did what he could do. "I can quickly add you again, sir," he said. But dad, still in a huff, paid with his Visa.
I remembered all of this recently because the library just purged ITS files. If a patron hadn't used his or her card to check out materials in years, we thought it likely that that person was no longer an active library user.
Like any other business, we try to track current use. If we leave a lot of inactive records in our system, we start to fool ourselves about our real market. People in Douglas County come and go so quickly.
But we also face two real problems.
The first is that many people, like my dad with Sears, are deeply offended by the discovery that, in their judgment, we have repudiated them as people.
My response? We haven't! We greatly value our patrons. It's not personal! Some libraries NEVER purge their data files - but they also have no idea how they're doing in their communities, either.
The second problem is that libraries are finding it harder and harder to track new kinds of library use.
If you call to ask us a reference question, if you browse our magazines, if you attend a meeting, if you use our Internet terminals for email, NONE of that activity is currently captured as an "activity" that updates your library card.
Then, too, lots of people have come to rely on our many commercial databases. They connect to them from home, and type in their library card numbers to unlock them. But that activity, too, doesn't update the library card.
Or at least, it DIDN'T. Over the past several days, we took this problem to one of our automated vendors. We believe we have a solution. They've figured out a way to use something called a "Remote Patron Authentication module" to treat unlocking a database like checking out a book. It will tell us that you're still around, and still using the library.
And we're working on solutions for other library uses, in an effort to spare you the bother of the minute or so it takes to sign up again just because we think you have drifted away from us.
So for all of you that have been inconvenienced, my sincere apologies.
Meanwhile, to whom should you direct your anger? To me. This purging of files is solely my idea - and I still think it's good business. (Sorry, dad!)