Category: libraries

Libraries: The New Commons

For the past several months, I’ve been involved with the New Commons Project at the University of Maine at Farmington. It’s a fascinating effort, as they’ve asked people across the state, “What cultural works are of most value to us today?” The answers have ranged all over the place, from pop music to Dr. Seuss, graffiti artists to Jane Austen. Once the finalists are selected (to be announced tomorrow!), we will be looking at each work, one month at a time. 24 works will be selected in total.

Yesterday was the big kick off lecture for the series. Lewis Hyde, a well-known “cultural critic with a particular interest in the public life of the imagination,” came to talk to our campus about the idea of a commons: a body of work that society can draw from collectively. It was a fascinating talk, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the sort of programming that comes out of the final selections. (Being on the selection committee, perhaps I’m biased, but I think we’re in for some really awesome months.)

But as I was listening to his talk, and to the discussion that followed over how copyright influences a commons, and what should be done to make sure things are as accessible as possible, I couldn’t help think about the root idea of a commons. It’s a term for the traditional idea of English common land that could be used by the entire town for any number of reasons. I love the idea of a cultural commons, but the more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that the only reason such a cultural commons could exist is due (today) to two main things: the internet, and libraries.

The internet is obvious. So much of what we do these days relies on our connection to the cloud. Whether we’re streaming movies on Netflix, reading articles on CNN, or checking out the latest social media posts on Facebook, the internet has come to dominate our lives. If this were a few decades ago, I would be arguing public television was the commons of the day. It was ubiquitous, freely available, and connected us in a unique way. Years before that, it was the radio. But culture moves onward, and the audience for television is too splintered these days for me to really feel like it’s that “commons” for now. A friend was asking on Facebook for television show recommendations a few days ago, and I couldn’t just rattle off shows I liked. I wanted to first know what streaming platforms she had access to. What’s the point of recommending something you can’t watch?

Which is where libraries come in, naturally. And actually, libraries also make it possible for the internet to be a real commons. It’s too easy for people with good access to the internet to take it for granted, but speaking as someone who lives in an area of the country where high internet speeds aren’t always easy to come by, I can definitely say that having a library with free, high speed internet is vital to ensuring everyone has access to the internet. And libraries do more than that. They compile works and make them publicly available. They pay for content so you don’t have to.

Professor Hyde wondered aloud at some of the candidates for the New Commons, questioning how copyright might make access to those works really possible. And it’s true that some of them might be very tricky. But speaking as the Library Director here on campus, I can also say we will be right there waiting to make sure people have access to whatever they want to view, read, or listen to, whenever they want to.

It was a day it was easy to be proud to be a librarian.

If you’re local to the state, keep an eye out for the announcement tomorrow of what’s been selected as the first 12 entries. I can’t wait to see what you think.

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Support Your Library with Your Tax Refund

I get it. Tax refunds are sweet sweet moola. You look forward to using that money to do important things. Buying snow blowers. Taking trips to someplace warmer. And I’m not here to tell you not to do any of that. What you do with your tax refund is between you and that $2,000 of instant chocolate pudding you’re thinking of buying.

However . . .

Did you know that if you live in Maine, you can throw your library a little bit of that tax refund? And you can do it with a single click of a mouse?

It’s a little thing called the Maine Public Library Fund. When you’re filing your state taxes, you’ll get to the part where they ask you if you want to send any money to “Charitable Contributions.” (It’s where you can also buy park passes.) The library fund is the sixth option. You click a box and say you want to donate $5 (or more!), and then put in how much you want to donate ($5, $10, $25, or more) and click ok. That’s it!

Last year, this raised over $30,000 for Maine public libraries. Around 3,000 people contributed money. This year, there’s a goal to get 5,000 people involved and hopefully raise over $50,000.

What does the money go for? All sorts of grants to help libraries do new and exciting things. Create makerspaces for teens, add technology to children’s rooms, start robotics clubs, enhance story times. Libraries are about so much more than just books these days, but it often takes a bit of seed money to get projects off the ground and let them soar. This money lets libraries do just that.

Basically, it’s a way of tossing a tip to libraries. You’ll know your money will be put to good use and directly benefit other people here in Maine. And let’s be honest, $1,975 worth of instant chocolate pudding is pretty much  indistinguishable from $2,000 worth of the stuff. You still get oodles of instant chocolate pudding either way, but my way, you also benefit other people. I think that warm, fuzzy feeling you’ll have inside after doing that will make that chocolate pudding taste all the sweeter.

Just sayin’

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If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Heavy Meta #10: Library Funding

HM LOGO

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.

Right click to download audio file.

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.

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