I’m taking a break from my regular review format this month to talk about Maine Libraries. You love us, we love you, but there’s a lot about us we bet you don’t know, so I thought you should get an earful. Let’s start with some true/false questions. 1. All Maine libraries have bathrooms. 2. All Maine librarians make a living wage and get benefits 3. Interlibrary loan in Maine is clunky and expensive. 4. Patrons at small libraries like the Hartland Public Library have access to over 6 million items. 5. Maine libraries are becoming obsolete thanks to the internet. 6. Maine libraries receive financial support from the state of Maine. 7. Any Maine resident interested in a library degree has to travel long distances to do so. 8. Librarians don’t have a sense of humor. 9. Internet access at libraries in Maine lags behind the rest of the country. 10. People frequently remember libraries in their wills.
I’ll give you the answers in a moment, but first some interesting observations about how Maine libraries are changing and why. Anyone remember the song “Convoy” by Bill Fries and Chip Davis? Well yesterday it was running through my head as I led three other pickups through rural Maine on the way to Hartland. All four trucks were filled to overload with boxes of stuff left from a library book sale. I agreed to take the whole enchilada because I’ve carved out a niche and developed a reputation as someone who can maximize the value of unwanted stuff. While I’m ahead of the curve (selling on Amazon, trading on Bookmooch and Paperback Swap, sending scads of stuff on consignment to Betterworld Books), many other Maine librarians are waking up to the realization that there’s a lot more money to be made online than there is in a physical book sale and the process takes a lot less effort. Sure wading through four truckloads is time consuming, but the first evening resulted in about $500 worth of inventory added to Amazon, half a dozen books that were traded almost immediately on Paperback swap, at least three boxes of stuff that will go out on consignment and the discovery of about 20 kids books on cassette that will head over to the Hartland Christian School tomorrow for use as reading support for the lower grades. Still more books found their way onto the free shelves at the library. Everyone likes free, so we have three areas; one for little kids, one for chapter book readers and one for adults. In addition to books, we give away magazines, audio books on cassette and movies on VHS.
Three of us presented a program called “Selling Like an Amazon” at the Maine Libraries Conference back in June. We had 25 people attend and about a third are already on board with this new way of generating revenue. Another cool aspect of the online sales bit is the option to trade in certain items to Amazon for credit. I’ve used this to generate funds to expand our TV series on DVD collection, one of our most popular offerings.
Now for the answers: 1-false, 2-waay false, 3-false, 4-true, 5-Are you kidding? We’re twice as busy as we were ten years ago. 6-nope, 7-false, 8-get real. (I get in trouble regularly in person and online because of my odd way of looking at the world and I have plenty of co-conspirators), 9-totally false, 10-Sadly not very often.
Now to expand upon the answers: I know of several small libraries without toilet facilities. Put yourself in that situation and I bet you wouldn’t hang around very long. As for wages and benefits, even those of us with masters degrees (I have two), don’t plan on getting rich in this lifetime. The majority of smaller libraries aren’t open 40 hours, are staffed with unsafe numbers of people in terms of safety and don’t offer much in the way of benefits. As for access to items, we’re in great shape in Maine thanks to the hard work of people who had the vision to push a bond issue back in 1997 that created Maine Infonet. Over time that has allowed more than 100 libraries to join a shared online catalog known as Mainecat (126.96.36.199), which has more than 6.5 million items. Most of these are readily available for borrowing by patrons of other member libraries. Even the smaller libraries that are not part of the system can request items through the three ARRCs, Portland Public, Maine State Library and Bangor Public Library. One reason the system works so well is the statewide van delivery which is a screaming bargain. Participating libraries pay a flat fee per stop. In Hartland, we lend and borrow 3000 items a year. If we had to mail out and return that number, the postage costs would be around $7,000 annually. The van service is less than $800.
As for obsolescence, the recession brought us tons of new patrons. We’re the only internet access in town for most folks, we lend things like music and movies they can’t afford to buy or rent any more and we provide lots of answers and hand holding for people who have lost their jobs after many years and are totally perplexed by the way most job seeking is done these days. Add to this the fact that the Maine Revenue Service and the IRS think everyone is computer literate and has high speed internet at home. Libraries are where all the folks looking for forms end up. Perhaps the biggest, most important and least understood (by bureaucracies anyhow) increase in library use is by people who feel left out or cut off by the way the world has changed. I bet every librarian reading this is nodding their head, thinking about how many conversations they have every week with people who simply want someone to listen to them and their concerns for a few minutes. As for financial support from the state, while some might disagree and point to the just established subsidy for the van service, there hasn’t been any direct funding from the State of Maine to libraries in forever. What does come from the federal government is what is called LSTA funds and is administered by the Maine State Library. It’s not a huge amount and most goes to support the specialists at MSL who work long and hard to make sure the Maine library community functions as well as it does.
When I became a librarian back in the late 1980s, there was no library degree available in Maine. Thanks to the late Walter Taranko and Tom Abbot, dean of library services at University of Maine, Augusta, I and 128 other Maine residents became the first class in a Masters in Library Science program via live satellite TV from the University of South Carolina in 1994. We graduated in 1997 and the experience created a new wave of thought and a level of trust that continues to shape the Maine library community to this day. Two more groups followed us through the USC graduate program. At the same time, UMA began offering both an associate and a B.A. In Library Science, degrees geared to meet the pent-up demand for professional and para-professional library staff throughout Maine. Almost all of the classes are offered online which has opened up these degrees to people all across the globe, further enriching participants’ learning experiences.
Contrary to the stereotype of librarians being straight-laced spinsterish people whose mission in life is to keep order and invoke silence at all times, we have a lot of fun. The highlight of any day for me is goofing with little kids and the noise level tends to be higher than most people expect at my library. Note the incredibly serious mug shot below that I had taken years ago when I was running for the office of Maine Porn Czar.
While we all gripe about how little we get for our tax dollars, there’s one shining example of how it can be done right, the MTEAF. This small charge added to every telephone bill each month, funds internet access for almost all schools and libraries across Maine. In fact, it has brought huge bandwidth to even the smallest Maine libraries. In Hartland, we have 20 megabits of fiber optic capacity, plenty to run everything inside the building as well as provide free wi-fi 24/7. This is a resource that is greeted with surprise and delight by almost every visitor to Maine. It’s the reason you see people hanging around most Maine libraries on days when they’re closed and well into the evening.
A lot of what I’ve noted is good stuff, but librarians have been stressed out since the recession began. Not only are we seeing a lot more traffic and interest from the public, we’re often the first target when local government needs to tighten the purse strings. In Hartland, our daily circulation has increased 500% since 2006, but we got hit with an 8% decrease in town funding. I’m far from unique. I have a materials budget of $4500, same as it was 4 years ago. Books have increased in price and we’ve added DVDs (over 5,000), music CDs (almost 2000) and moved from audio books on cassette to ones on CD (500+ of those). We sure didn’t do that on what we had for traditional funding. I kick in a fair amount myself and all the revenue from online sales helps.
I learned a valuable lesson when I was the library director in Boothbay Harbor a decade ago. Do not be shy about asking people to leave you money in their will. Silly me, I thought doing so was in bad taste. In the 5 years I was in BBH, the YMCA, the hospital and the land trust received close to ten million in donations and bequests. The library got $2,000. I’m no longer shy about reminding people we need more than donated books to survive. A healthy endowment is the best stress reliever a librarian ever had.
One last thing to pass on. The Maine library community is much like the planetary food chain and many of us who work in libraries are well aware of this. A donation in Portland might get a polite yawn but the same item could well get a rowdy yee-ha in a rural library We tend to share things pretty freely. Most of us are on Melibs, the Maine library listserv and rarely a day passes without someone on the list offering an extra book, a DVD or surplus shelving. Very little goes to waste in the library world. Since so many of us are part of Mainecat, it becomes a Zen thing. What you give away is still yours, thanks to interlibrary loan, but you don’t have to dust it or rearrange the shelves to make room. How cool is that?