Category: libraries

Heavy Meta #10: Library Funding

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There are some potential troubles for libraries in the future, both nationally and in Maine. Kelly and Bryce discuss what these are and what their impact might be.

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Why Maine Needs the Maine School Library Network

Yesterday I had the chance to drive to Augusta and testify to the state legislature (specifically the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology). There’s a bill that’s working its way through the system: LD 256. In a nutshell, it tweaks the way the Maine School Library Network (MSLN) is funded in order to ensure the network continues to operate in the years to come. Now having sat through a couple hours’ discussion on the bill, I thought it might be useful for me to give you, the people who weren’t there, a quick overview of what the MSLN does and why funding it is important.

Ready?

Back in ye days of olde, some people in the state thought it would be a good idea if blazingly fast internet (56kbps) were available at schools and libraries in Maine. Internet can be expensive, after all. Especially the fast stuff. Also, Maine is kind of a remote place, and there are areas that aren’t just “kind of”. Getting fast internet to those places would be tricky. There aren’t a whole ton of potential customers out there, so internet providers aren’t highly motivated to invest a lot of money in getting the infrastructure to those places.

But what if all the libraries and schools banded together and negotiated a contract for the whole state? Then providers would have the incentive to do just that: bring internet to the farthest reaches of Maine, because if they did, they’d get the juicy state contract. And so it was decided. A law was passed, and there was much rejoicing.

To fund said law, they devised a simple plan: add a fee to each “two way voice communication” in the state. In other words, if you’re talking on the phone to another person, then you’d contribute a bit of money to the MSLN in your monthly bill. For almost 20 years, this worked like a charm. 950+ schools and libraries were able to take advantage of the program. Fast forward to today, and you’ve got a minimum speed of 100mbps, even in the far reaches of the state. Better yet, you’ve got fast internet infrastructure that keeps spreading further into the state. (“Fast” is relative, but this is Maine, folks. We’ll take what we can get.)

However, a problem. More and more people in the nation and the state aren’t using landlines anymore to talk on the phone. They’re using cell phones. No biggie, right? It still qualifies as a “two way voice communication.” Aha! But the trick is, more and more companies are shifting away from having people pay for minutes on their cell phone plan, instead throwing in the phone calls for free if the customers pay for data. Data is not a “two way voice communication,” so there’s no fee collected there.

What this means is that the funding for the MSLN has been declining. It’s about $1.5 million per year less than where it needs to be today. LD 256 aims to fix that. The same companies that collected the fee before will continue to do so (phone/cell/internet companies). But instead of charging a percentage of “two way voice communication” costs, they’ll pay a flat rate. It works out to about $1 per phone subscription per year. This is not an extravagant program. For 8 cents a month on your phone bill, all the schools and libraries in the state get to continue having solid internet speeds, regardless of how remote they are. And internet providers will still be incentivized to keep upping the speeds throughout the state.

The internet is becoming less and less of a luxury and more and more of a necessity. Slow speeds discourage businesses from moving to an area. They discourage residents from wanting to live there. They frustrate families who just want to stream movies and play games and have fun. They’re a real downer. (Just ask my son.) I can’t imagine what my son would do in school if they lost their internet connection. Sure, some of the classes would be fine. Math would still be math. But so much of his research and learning is enhanced through online research and the like. Students in our state deserve fast internet at school. And citizens who can’t have internet at home (because they live too far away from a provider or because they can’t afford it) need to have a way to access high speeds. Libraries provide that free of charge.

The MSLN is a great deal.

However, having testified and been grilled about the bill, I know there are a few questions some might have about it. Allow me to answer them.

First, why not just charge library patrons who use the internet? Why force all Mainers to fund the activity of people who need to come in and use the MSLN? After all, it wouldn’t be inordinately expensive, right? Maybe a few bucks a year or a month. Still a great deal. Perhaps, but there are two big problems with that idea:

  • The MSLN is only partially funded by the state. 40% of it, to be precise. The other 60% comes from federal funds. Funds that specifically stipulate they’re only available if libraries don’t charge people to use the internet. As soon as you switch to a pay for use system, those monies go away. (Hint: that would be bad.)
  • The MSLN is able to get as low of a rate as it does because it has such great buying power. It represents so many different libraries and schools that providers are highly motivated to work with them. As soon as some libraries or schools start to peel off and negotiate on their own (because they live in areas with plenty of internet options, for example), then that buying power gets hurt. So the rates for MSLN might go up, which in turn would motivate more organizations to look elsewhere. It turns into a slow death spiral, and nobody wants that. (Seriously.)

The second issue that kept coming up was why libraries and schools didn’t just fundraise the money to cover this on their own. After all, the difference between what the fee is currently bringing in and the money needed to fully fund the program isn’t huge. We’re talking anywhere from a few hundred per library to three thousand dollars for the bigger libraries. Surely they can find it in their budgets to cover that gap?

But once again there are two big problems with that approach:

  • The gap of funding is increasing each year. It’s estimated it would double this year, so that turns the money libraries would need to cough up to something more like between a thousand dollars all the way up to six thousand dollars. It doesn’t take a financial whiz to see the trend there. It’s not sustainable. Sooner or later (likely sooner), the death spiral would begin.
  • Most libraries in the state are locally funded, at least to an extent. And local governments are focused on local issues. What’s best for their citizens. They don’t worry about what’s happening in the County or Downeast or some other place in the state. They worry about what their tax payers are saying. The MSLN works because it operates at a state level. It takes into account the greater good. Left to local budgets, some libraries or schools would inevitably peel off . . . and we’re back to spirals of death.

The thing is, the MSLN is an awesome program. It works, and it works well. Other states look at it and are envious. It’s something Maine is doing very right, and all that needs to happen is for Maine to keep doing it. It literally helps everyone in the state, and it can keep doing that for pennies a month. Again, this isn’t proposing to increase the funding for the program. LD 256 just tries to have people continue to pay what they’ve been paying for the last 20 years. No one’s been complaining about it. The only reason it’s been changing is because pesky technology has changed the way people pay for phone calls.

So if you live in Maine and would like to see this wonderful program continue to thrive and avoid spirals of any sort, please speak up. The members of the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology are as follows:

Reach out to them and let them know you support LD 256!

Maine Library Association Annual Conference

Another MLA annual conference is in the record books, and I for one am very glad to have emerged from the other side. I go to a fair number of conferences each year, but I only actually take part in running one. This one. And it’s made me appreciate how much work goes into a successful conference. There’s a ton of moving parts, and staying on top of all of them can be dizzying.

This year’s conference was a great success, I think. We had a record turnout (183, which was 60 more than we had last year). We were at a new location (Sunday River, a ski resort in western Maine), and everyone seemed to like the new digs a lot. (With the exception of temperature, which was kind of toasty the first day.) The keynotes were a great success, we had a large variety of programming, the food was great, and we had plenty of exhibitors on hand to show off their latest and greatest to attendees.

What all goes into a conference? Tons. Weekly meetings that stretch back to February. Discussions about what to have for a theme, what kind of programming tracks to have, who to invite as keynotes, when to have it, where to have it, what to eat, what to charge, how to promote it, how to lay out the program, what kind of freebies to offer.

Each and every decision needs to be weighed and deliberated and ultimately made. You’re going to make some good decisions and some bad decisions. Would I have changed anything about this year’s conference? Sure. I would have asked Sunday River to have a coat rack on hand, for one thing. That seems like a little thing, but when lots of people are asking the same thing, it all can add up.

There are other things I’d tweak as well, but overall, I’m really pleased with the whole thing. (And I’m *really* pleased that it’s over.) At this point, I’m looking forward to doing other things for a while and taking a break from all those decisions and plans.

A huge thanks to all who took part in the planning, but also to all who came. We can plan all we want, but if no one shows up, then what in the world was the use of it all? And thanks to all who presented. That can be tough to do, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience doing it. Really, from the beginning to the end, the conference was lovely. Here are a few highlights:

  • Playing a rousing game of Battlestar Galactica in the foyer of the conference wing. The humans (my side) lost, but we made a valiant effort. And we got to be poked fun at by the state librarian, who I really think was just jealous that he hadn’t thought of board gaming in the foyer first.
  • Dan Wells’ talk on dystopias will stay with me for a while, especially his observation that we live in a dystopia and have for years. We just don’t think of it all the time because we live in District One (to reference Hunger Games)
  • David Lankes’ talk on information vs. data. vs. knowledge was also thought provoking and challenging. Just what I want from a great librarian keynote.
  • Working throughout the weekend with some of my best work friends ever. I spend a lot of time with my presidency and MLA comrades in arms, and even though it’s stressful, I really don’t think I could be with a better group to help me get through it. We work hard, but we have fun.
  • Waking up at 4:45am to take Dan Wells to the airport was a reminder to me that humans aren’t supposed to wake up at 4:45. For anything. They’re certainly not supposed to function for an entire conference day the whole day after doing that. Apologies to anyone I said anything stupid to yesterday. I was not in my right mind.
  • Reminding myself just how much I don’t like eating too much sugar. It’s about all that got me through the conference, but I’m paying the price now. Just in time for Disney food coming up . . .

There’s a ton of things I could rattle off, but I’m behind at work and need to cut things off here. Thanks again to everyone, and I look forward to doing it all again(!) a year from now.

A Report on This Year’s ALA

I’m in the airport waiting to fly back to Maine after another successful ALA (despite the Travel Gods’ best efforts to keep me from getting down to Orlando). It hasn’t been a perfect trip, but it’s been a good one in spite of that. What have I been up to? Let me tell you.

  • I’ve been doing the library thing. I had an all day meeting on Friday focused on how to be an effective leader at the state level. It was filled with other state chapter presidents, and we discussed things lie how to respond to sensitive legislation and how to run state-wide programs. It’s always nice to hear how things are going elsewhere in the country. (Also, lunch was at a Cuban restaurant which was particularly tasty . . .)
  • I’ve been heading to library panels. There was one on the future of library technology with the presenters being head honchos from some of the biggest library companies out there. (EBSCO, Innovative, Ex Libris, etc.) Kind of interesting to see them bicker in public. I’m thinking a reality show might be in order. ALA is a huge conference, and this convention center was particularly large. It took forever to get from one place to another, and that was fairly irritating. So far, my favorite convention center has been Chicago’s. It’s big, but doable.
  • Fighting off being sick. I woke up in the morning last week with some tightness in my chest, and that’s developed into a cough over the last few days. It hasn’t helped that I’ve been talking so much. My voice is about three octaves lower now, and that’s if it even works when I try to talk. I think the trip down took a ton out of me, and then I just kept pushing through things. Kind of didn’t have a choice, but it’ll be really nice to get home and be able to rest.
  • Eating. And eating. And then eating some more. I haven’t been on a scale since I left, and I’m not looking forward to getting on one when I get home, but I figured I’d live it up while I was here and use my “Conference Diet Immunity” to its fullest extent. I ate at ‘Ohana, Raglan Road, and Boma, and all three of them were pretty incredible. The bread pudding at ‘Ohana was sublime, Raglan Road had great Irish ambience (with live music and dancing through the whole dinner), and I’ve always loved Boma. Fantastic food from across Africa.
  • Mingling with Maine librarians. It seemed like anywhere I went, it was inevitable that I’d run into someone from home, even in a conference with 20,000 people or so. I think I counted 19 librarians that I saw from Maine. Fun times.
  • Book signing! Adaptive had a booth for me on Saturday, and I got to sign free books for librarians. Very nice to see the enthusiasm for the book, and I signed and gave away every copy they’d brought, so that was a good feeling. I also found out some of the promotional plans they have for THE MEMORY THIEF, and that got me pretty excited.
  • Hanging out with authors. On the exhibit hall floor, at lunches, in halls. Great to see some faces I’d only met online before.
  • Nabbing free books. My kids love it when I go to ALA, because I scour the floor for books they might like. I’m thinking I might have them write some reviews for me that I could post on the blog. I sent three boxes home this time . . .
  • Speaking with library vendors about everything from technology to furniture. Gotta make it worth my while to be down here on business, you know. Not that I think you’d find it particularly interesting, but I didn’t want you to think I wasn’t, you know, working while I was here as well.
  • Figuring out Uber. We don’t have much call for it in Maine, but I really came to appreciate it down here in Orlando. I’d heard about it, but had never used it. Being able to call a private car that cost a fraction of what a taxi would cost, and have it appear wherever I was whenever I wanted, and never having to worry about giving credit cards over to people or paying with cash . . . I can totally see why people love it. So easy to use!
  • And of course I made time for the Game of Thrones finale yesterday evening. But I won’t talk about that to keep it unspoiled, other than to say I really loved this season.

Anyway. Here’s hoping it’s a smooth flight home. It’s been fun, Orlando. I think I’ll come back at Thanksgiving . . .

3D Printing: A New Outlook

I posted yesterday that I was skeptical going into my conference on 3D printing. I was far from convinced this was something my university should be pursuing, and I really wondered if it wasn’t just another flash in the pan that people would explore and then abandon a few years later.

But somehow, and much to my surprise, the conference changed my mind.

It didn’t change my mind about 3D printing (and 3D scanning and drones and augmented reality and virtual reality, which the conference also covered), but rather, it made me see the important space in higher learning that these all occupy. I asked the panel the question I posed in my blog post yesterday: if they didn’t think 3D printing was just the next iteration of Second Life. They were candid in their response, saying that 3D printing might ultimately fade from favor (though they saw real uses for it in the here and now and immediate future).

However, they made a distinction between new technology and how that technology is used in academia. “Scholarly innovation” was a term they used that seemed particularly relevant. The thought that new technology can change the way we approach learning and teaching, as well as change the way we interact with our surroundings. There are major developments happening in technology, and they’re coming so fast that it’s hard to keep up with them all at times.

As I think about it after the fact, it seems to me like technology today is one continuous conversation. And at one point, that conversation was focused on Second Life in part, yes. And though the focus of the conversation has moved on from there, that doesn’t mean that the people who spent time exploring that space and understanding it were wasting their efforts. You can’t isolate one piece of the conversation and say it was ultimately irrelevant. That piece needs to be viewed in context, understanding where it came from and where it led.

Our students deserve a chance to be a part of that conversation. To know what’s happening and to have an influence in the future. True, some of the leads will end up as dead ends, but the learning involved in finding that out won’t be worthless. And some of those leads will end up opening huge new spaces of exploration.

The big key to me was changing my perception from thinking of 3D printing as part of a “Maker Space,” which very well might end up fizzling. Popular now, unpopular five years from now. 20 years ago, the big thing campuses were doing was enabling students to digitize content, making DVDs or editing videos for projects. Today, those efforts seem quaint: it’s so much easier to do it all with no specialty equipment needed. Pioneering efforts in 3D printing might well lead to the same place. The technology is exciting and has a lot of potential.

But those students who were able to use university equipment to digitize content went on to use that experience to vault them into their careers. You don’t end up being a major (or minor) player in the conversation by ignoring it and waiting for something you’re sure will be permanent. You dive in and start talking with others as soon as you can.

Interestingly, many of the schools as the conference were small liberal arts schools with no engineering programs. Heading into it, I’d assumed most of the application of this technology would be for science and engineering majors. Instead, presenters talked about how it brought students from many disciplines together: art, archaeology, science, teaching, education.

So at this point, I’ve shifted from the mindset of a skeptic (“is this really worthwhile”) to a believer. The big question, of course, is “how do I pay for it?” These machines aren’t cheap, after all. But apparently there’s a lot of educational discounts and grants available, and presenters noted that if you get students in particular on your side, you’d be surprised what companies are willing to do to meet student demand.

I’m hopeful my university will be able to get something like this off the ground, and not just because I want to play with the technology. I want our students to have as many opportunities as possible, and “Scholarly Innovations” seem like too important of a conversation to pass up.

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