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.
June 15, 2005 - Blue Slips
It has become my mantra: "there are only two problems in life. There is growth, and there is decline. Pick one."
Most of the problems faced by Douglas County Libraries are the result of growth. There is growth in demand -- a really staggering jump in the books, magazines, videos, and music the public checks out from us, an explosion of questions that public asks our reference and children's librarians, big leaps in the number of people that come to programs and meetings.
As a consequence, there is also growth in service. We have had to ramp up to chase that demand. This has resulted in some surprises behind the scenes.
Here's the case study: "blue slips." A blue slip is a half sheet of paper, colored blue, that we use to gather public requests for materials. When such a request is filled out, one of three things happens:
* we buy the item. When this procedure was put into place almost 10 years ago, buying something was often the fastest and cheapest way to get it.
Of course, we didn't, and don't, buy everything. There are always people with arcane and expensive interests: detailed drawings of WWI battleships, lavishly illustrated butterfly books, and so on.
But my philosophy remains that if someone from the public asks for it, if it isn't prohibitively expensive, if it falls within the range of general interest, let's get it.
* we borrow the item. For those things we don't want to buy, or for those things that are no longer available for sale, we use various interlocking computer networks to see if another library has it. Then we borrow it, library to library, to allow our local patron to see it. This is a reciprocal arrangement: we also send materials to other libraries for their patrons.
* we can't find it. It's not for sale, no other library owns it. Then we look for alternatives.
There's a lot of change in the world of libraries these days. For one thing, eBay and Abebooks and other websites mean that it's easier to find and buy some things that are out of print. Of course, few public libraries will chase down really old materials for a one time use. Interlibrary Loan (ILL) is still the logical path in that case.
For another, those interlocking computer systems are making it much easier and cheaper to grab another libraries' items. ILL is now, in many cases, cheaper -- and faster -- than buying an item. That's a big shift.
Well, there was a time when a blue slip made sure that we knew about a hot new bestseller, and got it to the first person who gave us the slip.
But now, we generally don't need blue slips for find out what's coming. We place our orders months in advance of publication -- or have various profiles in place to catch the big things the instant they are available.
Now, blue slips actually interfere with our ordering and processing. Our volume is such that we have to batch things, group together one big order instead of 50 or 100 small ones that stagger in over a period of months.
The blue slip must die. While we will still, of course, provide mechanisms for people to request materials, the processes around those requests simply have to become more efficient.
The paradox is that an individual may see this as a reduction in service. After all, those blue slips used to bump a request to the head of the line, rush rush. But the new batching means that we'll actually be getting more new materials to the shelves quicker.
Our lessons: too many exceptions break the system. Bigger libraries can't operate like small ones.
But I try to keep perspective: there are a lot of libraries that would love the problem of getting more books faster to people who really want them.