"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Mar 24, 2010


This post is going to be fairly short, because I am on the reference desk for six hours on Wednesdays, which leaves me pretty much braindead afterward. But a big ol' lesson whacked me upside the head today, and I thought it was worth recording.

At one point tonight, a phone call came in. The patron had a fairly heavy accent and the connection wasn't the best, but I heard enough of his initial request to realize that he had a question about his eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Uh oh, I thought, tax question. I explained that I couldn't give him much aid with this, as librarians are not tax professionals and cannot make judgments that might leave them legally liable for an error. Instead, I offered the TeleTax(?) number, and then (as the conversation progressed) another number I found that he could use to talk to someone at the IRS for live tax help. However, he was not satisfied. He kept saying that he had been told to call our number, and that we should be able to help him. I kept trying to explain that librarians cannot interpret tax requirements for our patrons. Finally, because he clearly wanted me to do something more, I told him I could read off precisely what was written about the EITC on the IRS website, which should be the same thing as was somewhere in the instructions he had.

I read the paragraph about eligibility over the phone, and he thanked me. He'd gotten precisely the information he needed from that.

Afterward I realized I had made the fundamental reference mistake: I had not fully understood what the patron wanted and had not conducted a reference interview to figure it out. Instead the keyword "taxes" had set off all sorts of red blinking lights in my brain and I'd gone on autopilot. I'd assumed that I could not help the patron, and tried to refer him away.

It was a rookie mistake. But I suppose that all of us make beginner-level mistakes now and again, regardless of experience level. Sometimes we need a wake-up call. This was mine. I'm trying to think, now, about the other, subtler assumptions I might make in a reference transaction. What else might I be missing by unconsciously assuming instead of asking?

I was lucky this time, because not only does this anecdote provide a learning experience, it also belongs in the Annals of Great Patrons. The gentleman on the other end of the phone was clearly frustrated. He'd been referred to the library by 211 and now I was trying to refer him elsewhere again. But even though I could tell he was not happy, he kept his voice level (if insistent), clearly telling me why he was frustrated and what he wanted me to do to help fix it. He never raised his voice or directed any negative remark specifically at me. And after he'd gotten the information that he needed, he was quite congenial and even thanked me sincerely. In retrospect, his patience and good humor were remarkable. It's unfortunately too common for irritated patrons to make one feel like something less than a full person. I have never had a frustrated patron make me feel, in the end, so much as though I have been acknowledged and respected as a complete person -- mistakes and all.

Mar 13, 2010

Donor-Centered Fundraising and Librarianship

My program requires students to take at least one "cognate course" outside of the School of Information as part of their degree.* To fulfill this requirement, I chose a course in grantgetting and fundraising through the School of Social Work. It was a great choice -- the professor is fantastic; I'm learning things that I know will be very useful in public library work, particularly in later years when I begin to take on administrative roles; and it led to the opportunity for me to write a real grant proposal for the library where I intern (we're still waiting to hear from the funder... it's nervewracking!).

Recently we were assigned the book Donor-Centered Fundraising by Penelope Burk. This book proposes a new paradigm for fundraising based around conscientious, regular, two-way (informing and listening) contact with donors. Burk argues that rather than trying to recruit new donors again and again to make up for attrition, fundraisers and development officers should work on building relationships with donors by staying in regular contact, thanking them personally, and keeping them informed of the results of their donation, among other things. She argues that it is much better spend time on building these relationships and using the stronger connections to move donors "up the ladder" to higher and higher donation levels than to spend the time constantly recruiting new, low-level donors. The book is aimed at nonprofits in general; public libraries are obviously in a different situation from many nonprofits because we are funded largely with tax and other public dollars. But I have been thinking about how Burk's philosophy could be applied in libraries. I am particularly interested in smaller libraries which almost certainly will not have their own development staff.

One might ask: when there is a Friends of the Library, might they not be more appropriate fundraisers than library staff? I'm not sure that in all cases they would. My understanding of how Friends groups and libraries interact, financially and otherwise, is still rudimentary. However, I would think that even if a library has a strong Friends group, there might still be situations in which it would like to solicit donations to itself rather than to the Friends. Furthermore, library staff can support donor-centered fundraising initiatives regardless of whether they are headed by the Friends or by the library.

How? To my mind, the key is this: A good library is already in the business of building strong relationships with our patrons. Good libraries listen to what their patrons want and need, and provide responsive, relevant services and resources. Good librarians try to build rapport with the people with whom they interact. I have had the opportunity to work with and at some excellent libraries, and the most striking common factor among almost all of them has been the ways that many of their patrons felt connected to the library on a personal level.

Building this kind of relationship, where the (potential) donor connects with the organization in a way that feels personal and meaningful to him/her, seems to me to be the core of Burk's donor-centered philosophy. I do not know whether the libraries I have in mind fulfill the specific tenets of the strategy (e.g. contacting donors quickly and in a way that feels personal, keeping donors updated on the impact that their money and the program/service it has funded is having, cultivating donors no matter the size of their original gift). But whether they do or not, I believe they've already come closer to creating a donor-centered atmosphere than many of the nonprofits Burk describes. (Perhaps this is in part because libraries' potential donors are the same as their service population?)

We all know that when community members feel good about their library, they have the potential to be active supporters. But people often need a nudge to move from appreciation to action. How can libraries leverage the strong relationships they build with their patrons to get their supporters to act to the benefit of the library? To use a phrase I've often seen and heard while taking this class, how can libraries ethically and effectively "make the ask" to their patrons? Is it better to target specific patrons who are known to be particularly strong supporters? Should the library make a blanket request on its website or in its newsletter and hope that some people will be inclined to respond? And when supporters respond to "the ask," what mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that they are communicated with at the (potentially time-intensive) level that donor-centered fundraising requires, or at something as close to that level as the library can possibly get?**

What is also interesting to me is that many of the principles of donor-centered fundraising seem as though they can be applied to supporters who, for instance, offer their time instead of their money. Could we use similar techniques and ideas to move volunteers "up the ladder" in terms of the time and energy they commit to helping the library?

It is in fact somewhat surprising to me that this book needed to be written at all. So much of what it advocates -- communicate in a timely fashion, and in as personalized a way as possible; keep supporters up to date on the organization's activities; etc. -- seems like common sense and common courtesy. That is part of why I think libraries are ahead of the game. As service organizations, we've been following constituent-centered philosophies for a while. It just seems to me that we haven't quite figured out whether or how to effectively connect what we're already doing to our need to secure continuing support in times of economic difficulty.


* This is actually a requirement that comes from Rackham, the University of Michigan's Graduate School, not from SI in particular. SI is soon becoming its own school external to Rackham, like other professional schools at UM, but I really hope that they keep this requirement -- it is a fantastic opportunity for students to broaden their knowledge in an area relevant to their careers but not directly within the domain of SI.

** Burk does not ask for perfection, but rather advocates gradual uptake of the principles and practices of donor-centered fundraising for those who do not have the time or resources to pick up the approach wholesale (as I am sure most libraries, particularly small libraries, do not). She suggests that while some increase in resource investment will definitely be necessary at the outset, eventually the increase in funds obtained through donations will offset the greater time requirements. Of course, this somewhat presumes that the organization can hire development staff. If the entire fundraising operation must be conducted by volunteers or by other library staff, the issue of how much time is available in which to perform these activities becomes even more pressing.

Mar 9, 2010

Readers' advisory for a "bad" book?

(I have been suffering from pretty severe writer's block (blogger's block?) recently -- my apologies for my absence.)

Opening a new book by an unfamiliar author is always exciting to me. Usually by the time I begin a book I know a little about the story it will tell, but how that story will be told is still a mystery. I love getting to know a new author and learning how he or she speaks to me -- his/her style, vocabulary, and all the little idiosyncratic quirks that make an author's works truly individual and that will make me feel as though I'm coming back to a wonderful, familiar place should I ever read another work by the same person. Unfortunately, sometimes the experience is not as enjoyable as could be hoped.

The book selected for an upcoming ALA Student Chapter Book Club is Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. I'm organizing the book club, so I need to come up with some good questions. I'm also trying to think about it from the perspective of a readers' advisor, seeing if I can think of elements of the book that might appeal to some readers. (I try to do this with most books that I read these days; I think I could use the practice.)

The problem is that I found this book to be... let's say extremely disappointing (I hesitate to ever call a book "bad," since I consider evaluations of a book's "goodness" to be situational and individual). I don't know whether it's more unfair to say I really didn't enjoy it and not explain why, or to go into a long discussion of all the things I didn't like, so I'll try to hit middle ground with a brief summary of my major comments:

1) Show, don't tell is violated over, and over, and over again. Sometimes authors do this because it's truly difficult to show what they want us to know. But almost everything we're told in this novel could easily have been shown.

2) Character development occurs largely either a) out of our view, in the long gaps (years!) between chapters -- all of a sudden we come back into these people's lives and are told (not shown) that they've changed -- or b) in sudden, revelatory moments where a character dramatically changes in a paragraph, with no buildup or background that helps us understand what about this moment has sparked the change or why.

3) Largely as a result of the two points above, I just couldn't bring myself to care about the characters. This was a shame because the story itself could have been interesting -- but the story's impact really rested on the reader's ability to empathize with and care about the characters, particularly the two sisters at the center of the novel.

The problem I now face is: How do I lead this book discussion, and how do I attempt readers' advisory, for this book which I really did not enjoy?

The first part of this question is actually not as much of an issue. I got plenty of experience leading (academic) book discussions in the course of obtaining my degrees in English literature. I know how to put aside my feelings for a book long enough to ask a question that isn't blatantly leading in one direction or another. (I'm more concerned about whether I'll be able to restrain my own urges to dissect the book enough to avoid overwhelming the discussion, but I had a similar worry last time and I did fine.)

However, the second part of the question is presenting a real dilemma for me. I have tried to be a good readers' advisor and think of things that people might like about this book. But my own negative feelings about it keep getting in the way. I honestly do not see how anyone could like this novel, though I know there must be people out there who do. I have come up with exactly two reasons why people might like it (for the dramatic events of the plot, for the historical setting) and even one of those is strongly tempered (the plot is one dramatic thing after another; it feels like a soap opera -- though I suppose there are people who would not have a problem with that). I'm hoping that at least one person who comes to the book discussion will have enjoyed the novel, and that I can pick their brain a little about why they did.

As a readers' advisor I believe, with Ranganathan, in "every book its reader." I believe that I should help readers find and select this book, if they would really like it. I find it strange that I am so happy to help people find books they want to read that might be considered "trash"* by those who like to consider themselves the intellectual and/or literary elite, but that I simply cannot imagine bringing myself to recommend this novel to anyone.

How does one, as a readers' advisor, recommend books that one profoundly dislikes to people who might enjoy them? Do you just not recommend those books at all? Do you consult colleagues for their input? Do you candidly admit "This wasn't really my thing, but it sounds like the kind of book that you might love"?



* Please note "might be considered 'trash'". I love a good "trashy" book and don't believe that genre or other nonliterary writing is inferior -- just different (often in a good way!).