The Littlest Patrons

By mmckale

“If libraries were just for adults, we would have closed a long time ago.” – Jodi Shaw, Children’s Librarian

I visited my local library in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, at naptime. A pleasant time of day there, when the library is as one expects the library to be: quiet. In a few hours, this space would become an explosion of sound, with kids of all ages arriving to read, play, and discover.

The Carroll Gardens branch is under the umbrella of the Brooklyn Public Library, a network of 60 libraries serving over 2.5 million residents [1]. The branch is staffed by Ms. Shaw, three other full-time librarians, four clerks, a part-time librarian and a technical research specialist. It is one of eighteen “Carnegie” branches of BPL, known as such because they were built with funds from a 1901 gift from Andrew Carnegie (previously, the library had “…typically rented retail space to provide local service.”[2]) The Carnegie branches are beautiful, welcoming spaces – though not always organized ideally for a modern library. Stroller parking is an issue at the CG branch, and the bathrooms are not easily accessible via the elevator.

This particular location is also one of several where the children’s section is on the same floor as the main library, which makes for some challenges – generally, from 3 pm on, adults seeking peace and quiet must look elsewhere. But, as Ms. Shaw noted, the under-5 set is exactly with whom she is looking to engage.

Though adults certainly use the library – there were a number there during my observation, many on computers (watching TV! Using FaceBook!) and a few reading newspapers or browsing the stacks – it is children around whom the world of the library revolves. Programming is heavily weighted towards kids, with four weekly storytimes – often with kids and caregivers lining up around the block up to an hour in advance –  an ongoing arts & crafts program, monthly dance party, and frequent workshops like Lego challenges and Library Lab. There are also four computers dedicated just to kids, which offer educational games and programs like ABC Mouse.

Many of the children’s programs are generated by the Central Library for use by the various branches. While this seems like a practical way to organize a vast network, Ms. Shaw has reservations about this “top down” method. As she pointed out, the community served at the Carroll Gardens branch is very different than the community served at, say, the Brownsville branch. So shouldn’t the librarians at each branch have the opportunity to build programming that is most appropriate for their community?

Ms. Shaw did note that there are some ways in which she and the other librarians can get creative. First, any funds raised through events with their “Friends” group – a volunteer library advocacy group [3] – go directly to the branch. The Friends of the Carroll Gardens Library group is robust, and regularly holds book sales and bake sales – including a recent bake sale on Election Day (the library was a polling place) that raised almost $1,000. Second, Ms. Shaw and her colleagues have a fair amount of autonomy when it comes to spending these funds and developing new programming.

Ms. Shaw also recently worked with library manager John Leighton and the office of Congressman Brad Lander to submit a proposal for Lander’s participatory budgeting project, in which neighborhood residents have the opportunity to vote on how to spend their tax dollars.[4] Their proposal, for a dedicated teen space and an after-hours book drop, won $350,000. With these funds, they plan to improve the lighting, add outlets, and free up some open space where they can install comfortable furniture, all of which they hope will encourage teens to use the library as a safe place to hang out after school.

The Carroll Gardens Branch is a special place, and Jodi Shaw is a huge part of that. She is an engaged, excited librarian, committed to her constituents in a way that seems rare. She is an active member of the American Library Association and regularly attends their conferences (BPL pays her way at one conference each year); she hopes to take on a leadership position there soon. She has written several articles for Public Libraries Online [5], exploring topics from collections digitization to figuring out how to manage crowds at storytime. And she is working hard to engage with the Central Library to ensure that her branch is meeting or exceeding its community’s needs.

Any visitor to this branch will note that it is a community hub, where people of all ages come to work, play, and engage with their neighbors. But it is especially friendly to its littlest patrons.

[1] http://www.bklynlibrary.org/locations

[2] http://www.bklynlibrary.org/about/carnegie

[3] http://www.bklynlibrary.org/support/friends-groups

[4] http://bradlander.nyc/PB

[5] http://publiclibrariesonline.org/author/jodishaw/

The Value of Institutional Repositories

By mmckale

When the value of a collection is undeniable, and we know it must be saved so that future generations may use and learn from it, the collection – ideally – becomes an archive. But how do we guarantee that the archive lasts?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the lecture “What’s on the Back? Updating the Definition of Complete for Digitization Projects,” which was given by conservator Alex Bero and archivist Maggie Schreiner at New York University. Together with a second archivist, they are conserving, digitizing, and describing three collections of downstate New York history with funds from a three-year grant from the Gardiner Foundation. At this event, they focused on two collections with very different needs for both conservation and digitization: the Richard Maass Collection and the Sylvester Manor Collection.

The Maass Collection is a small (so-described by Bero and Schreiner), high-value collection of mostly manuscripts dating from the American Revolution. The collection was partially digitized in the early 2000s for an online exhibition; it seems that a lack of both time and funding ended the project. The goals of the current project include conserving those pieces in need of attention, digitizing the documents that were not included in the first round, capturing “what’s on the back” in the digitization process, organizing the records so that they clearly define what is in each folder, and attaching finding aids to each item. Because the images captured in the first part of the project were high-quality, some items did not need to be rescanned. However, Bero and Schreiner found that starting over on any incomplete folder was the most efficient way to approach the material this time around (rather than having the person doing the imaging pick through each folder to select the items to be scanned). They felt that this would both save time and eliminate risk of human error. After considerable conservation work (both original and corrective – Bero laments the use of archival tape!) and digitization, over 600 pieces will be added to the Maass digital archive.

The other project discussed is significantly larger, and because of that, will not be digitized en masse. The Sylvester Manor Collection comes from a family of original settlers of Shelter Island, who amassed a tremendous amount of paper and ephemera chronicling the founding and history of the town. Bero and Schreiner immediately knew they would not be digitizing everything, and started by eliminating printed material, the majority of which had already been digitized under other auspices. Bero then reviewed the remaining material, and determined that about 25-30% will require conservation work before being digitized. Because the collection came to NYU folded, wrinkled, bundled, and generally dirty, cleaning, flattening, and mending will be essential in order to get clear images of the material. This work will commence in earnest in Spring 2017.

The most interesting snippet of this lecture, for me, came during the question and answer period at the end. A question came from someone working on a digitization project herself, who asked how Bero and Schreiner thought the technology they were using would stand the test of time. Digitization of archives is, of course, a relatively new phenomenon, but even in its brief history, the techniques used have evolved significantly. How do we know that the ways in which we are “saving” things now will last into the future? We don’t. In our reading for the “Memory, Archives, and Cultural Preservation” class, Michele Valerie Cloonan confirmed that “…we must confront the fact that the experience of using digital documents will be different with each new generation of use.” [1] But, interestingly, Schreiner did not seem overly concerned with this issue. Perhaps because, as she told us, this project will become a part of NYU’s institutional repository, and NYU is committed to bringing the files stored there into the future in whatever ways necessary.

Institutional repositories are “digital collections of the outputs created within a university or research institution.” [2] As Clifford Lynch notes in his article “Institutional Repositories: Essential Infrastructure for Scholarship in the Digital Age,” IRs came about in the early 2000s – around the same time as the original Maass project – in response to a need for access to and preservation of scholarly materials [3]. As he states:

“an institutional repository is a recognition that the intellectual life and scholarship of our universities will increasingly be represented, documented, and shared in digital form, and that a primary responsibility of our universities is to exercise stewardship over these riches: both to make them available and to preserve them.” [4]

Lynch hits on a key point here – not just that we are moving towards an age of digital preservation, but that the onus is on universities to lead the charge in collecting and preserving academic materials digitally. He further notes that “…a key part of the services that compromise an institutional repository is the management of technological changes, and the migration of digital content from one set of technologies to the next …” [5] As Maggie Schreiner pointed out, knowing that NYU is committed to bringing her work into the future as technologies change means that this is a burden she and her colleagues do not have to bear. Unfortunately, not every university is able to make this commitment; an institutional repository is an expense to develop and maintain. And while there are a number of Open Access repositories that are not affiliated with a particular institution, it seems that they tend to focus more on access than preservation. Perhaps there is a way, going forward, to work towards some kind of national repository, which could commit to both access and preservation in a widespread way.

“What’s on the Back?” was enlightening to me on many levels, and gave me an opportunity to think about what we save, the way we save it, who is responsible for saving it, and what that will mean for future generations.

[1] Cloonan, Michele Valerie. “W(H)ITHER Preservation?” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy. Vol. 71, No. 2 (Apr., 2001), pp. 231-242

[2] http://www.openscholarship.org/upload/docs/application/pdf/2009-09/open_access_institutional_repositories.pdf

[3] http://www.arl.org/storage/documents/publications/arl-br-226.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Information Deserts

By mmckale

Access to information is widely viewed as a core principle of democratic society. But what if there are populations who don’t know how to find what they need, or even know that it is available to them? This thought occurred to me as I read Chapter 1 of “The Wealth of Networks” by Yochai Benkler. Benkler, an optimist who believes deeply in the potential power of the internet as a force for good, argues that “From a more substantive and global perspective focused on human development, the freedom to use basic resources and capabilities allows improved participation in the production of information and information-dependent components of human development.” [1] While this is almost certainly true, Benkler’s reasoning relies on the assumption that potential users (and producers) of information know how to access and use it.

As we discussed this topic in class, I thought of the library in my neighborhood, the people who use it, and what they might use it for. The library, obviously, houses a wealth of information, and also provides practical services like help with becoming a citizen and registering to vote. But how do people learn how to access that information? How do people even know where their library is? What if they don’t have one in their neighborhood, or town? I believe that, in fact, there may be vast “information deserts” here in our own city, as well as around this country and the world, where most people are not able to access the resources that are, in theory, available to them.

The idea of an “information desert” is based on the “food desert” concept, defined by the USDA as “…parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas…largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” [2] An information desert, therefore, might refer to both geographic areas without libraries or perhaps internet access, as well as groups of people – the elderly, possibly, or non-English speakers, or people without cell phones or home computers – lacking the ability to access available resources.  

A specific example of the latter concept is discussed by Jeff Cohen in his 2013 article, “Living in a College Information Desert.” Cohen responds to a piece in the New York Times, “Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor,” which highlights a disturbing statistic: “Only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended any one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges.” [3] Cohen argues that “This phenomenon is largely due to a lack of information and access to cultural capital (i.e., knowledge about college and the associated application and financial aid processes)” and that “there are entire neighborhoods and even regions where nobody knows about or has attended selective colleges or, more importantly, that there are meaningful differences between the colleges that one might attend with respect to support, learning environments and graduation rates.” [4]

The effects of this situation are far-reaching. As the Times article points out, the graduation rate for low-income students attending local colleges is only 50 percent, versus 89 percent at selective colleges. [5] This fact alone limits the future prospects of these students, without factoring in that graduates of selective colleges will likely have better job opportunities than those who graduate from local colleges. When high-achieving students don’t attend universities with high academic standards, they are denied opportunities for success – and the world is denied their potential contribution.

The Times article suggests that the onus is on universities to address this issue. [6] Cohen has a number of suggestions, including funding more college counselors and programs that bring graduates from selective colleges to high schools in low-income communities. [7] I think a combination of efforts could, in this case, have a significant effect. I also think there is a role for the government, especially in ensuring that all public high school students know how to apply for financial aid (which may open up more possibilities for them).

More broadly, information deserts affect a variety of populations (but especially those in low-income communities). How, for example, do the unemployed search for jobs? If one has a home computer with internet access, we might say that it’s easy enough to use employment websites. But what if one doesn’t have a computer or internet at home? They can certainly use the library. But what if their community doesn’t have a library, or it’s too far or difficult to reach? This limits their options to a very narrow scope. (And even if they do have internet access, we are assuming that they know what sites to use and how to use them; we assume that they know how to write a resume and cover letter, etc; this is a different kind of information desert, perhaps – an information literacy desert.)

Benkler’s fantasy of the internet as a great equalizer has merit. But we still live in a time when not everyone can access the internet, and not all of those who can know how to use it to their advantage. This will surely change organically over time as our culture becomes more and more “plugged in.” But in the meantime, we must work to ensure that all populations have ways of accessing information that is critical to their lives. This may mean bringing computers into senior centers; providing free wifi in public spaces; advertising campaigns advising people as to where they can find information they need; and any number of other case-specific solutions. Awareness of the issue is the first step towards finding a remedy.

[1] Benkler, Y. (2006). “Introduction: a moment of opportunity and challenge” in The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press, 1–18.

[2] http://americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter/usda-defines-food-deserts

[3] Leonhardt, Dave. “Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor.” The New York Times, March 16, 2013.

[4] https://www.fsg.org/blog/living-college-information-desert

[5] Leonhardt, Dave. “Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor.” The New York Times, March 16, 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.fsg.org/blog/living-college-information-desert

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