Foreclosures in San Diego and what libraries are all about

San Diego County Library

San Diego County LibraryLed by the San Diego County Library (SDCL), a few libraries in Southern California and Nevada are helping homeowners threatened by foreclosure. At least, my source for this post does not indicate that the effort is any more widespread than that. But it beautifully illustrates how libraries struggle to meet the needs of their community.

At first glance, libraries don’t seem to have much to do with the housing crisis. At second glance, people who see their homes slipping away have no idea where to turn for information. Providing information is a core library function. Building community is another.

The problem

The housing crisis that got started in 2006 affected housing prices all over the country, but not equally. After having fewer than 6,000 annual defaults on mortgages for years, San Diego County saw more than 10,000 in 2006. The number grew to 38,000 by 2009. It was one of the hardest hit areas in the country.

The Housing Opportunities Collaborative (HOC), a non-profit organization with branches in five Southern California counties, began to offer free workshops that brought together credit counselors, housing counselors, realtors, and a variety of attorneys who specialized in bankruptcy, real estate, and tax law.

The suddenness and size of the crisis presented numerous problems for HOC. One of them concerned where to hold meetings. They needed a venue that the public would trust. After all, lots of hucksters hold seminars in a crisis, pitching products and services that might not be necessary or even be nothing more than a scam.

How the library helps

Susan Moore, who had just started a new job at the SDCL, saw the need and had no clear idea what she or the library could do about it. The library’s director encouraged her to look for a solution, even though it seemed not to be a typical library responsibility and even though the library faced steep budget cuts of its own.

Soon enough, Moore and the HOC found each other. Libraries have meeting rooms with the infrastructure necessary for both seminar sessions and private consultations. Libraries enjoy great credibility in the communities they serve. HOC for its part made sure that its volunteer professionals did not solicit business or even hand out cards.

Churches and other community groups would have also been comfortably neutral places for meetings, but SDCL has 33 branches. Besides fully equipped meeting rooms, it offered HOC the opportunity to deal with one contact at the library as opposed to lots of individuals in charge of lots of different organizations.

Another advantage of using the library soon became apparent. Many people facing foreclosure did not want their neighbors to suspect they had a problem. Meetings intended to serve a specific community turned out to be poorly attended.

In terms of area, San Diego County is one of the largest in the country. It stretches from the Mexican border north to the Fallbrook Branch, a driving distance of more than three hours.

I used to live there, and it’s an area where drivers don’t care much about long distances. It’s fairly easy to find addresses in unfamiliar neighborhoods, ideal for people who want to attend a meeting and not run into people they know.

Why should people in other parts of the country care about the partnership between SDCL and HOC? It shows a lot about how libraries operate and how librarians think:

  • Librarians want to provide accurate, useful information—even if it can’t be found in traditional library information sources.
  • Libraries frequently enter into partnerships with other local agencies, if only to provide meeting space.
  • Libraries seek to offer special help to populations with special needs—in this case, people facing foreclosure, but also entrepreneurs, the unemployed, handicapped, immigrants, minority groups, the technically challenged, and much more.
  • Libraries are not so much collections of information or entertainment as they are collections of services for their constituencies.

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Source: Libraries Help Homeowners Fight Foreclosure (link no longer work as of Feb 2016) / Deniz Koray in American Libraries
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Allan Ferguson.

Movies, technology, and libraries

film projector

home movie projectorI’m dating myself again, but I remember when home movies used 8 mm film. Movies available for sale were 16 mm. The latter were mostly made for educational purposes, so only English classes ever had feature films. I doubt if anyone thought of renting one for home use. Then came the VHS/Beta wars. Soon enough it didn’t matter that VHS had won, because everyone flocked to DVDs. They’ll be gone soon enough, too. So will Blu-ray. It’s not a problem for libraries–at least, not yet

New technology and business

Audio cassettes made it possible for the general public to buy or rent movies to watch at home. Two formats clashed for market domination until, ultimately, VHS won its temporary victory over Betamax.

Everyone who had placed their bets on Betamax now had obsolete equipment and had to go out and buy something else in order to keep watching the latest releases. Business was great for companies that sold VCRs and other equipment that used VHS.

Blockbuster and other companies quickly cashed in on the new ability to watch movies at home. After all, not everyone wanted to buy their own copies unless it was a movie they knew they would watch many times.

With the invention of DVDs, the public quickly turned away from cassettes. They were less bulky. The picture and sound were better. No one had to fuss with rewinding them. In some ways, Blu-ray is even better, although it has never threatened the DVD format.

The new technology was a boon to manufacturers. Blockbuster et al. simply switched their holdings from cassettes to DVDs/Blu-ray and didn’t miss a beat. That is, until Redbox and Netflix offered more convenient delivery systems.

Now, cloud storage and streaming services have begun to catch on. Sales and rentals of any kind of disc are declining rapidly. They will probably disappear eventually.

New technology and libraries

VHS_2_DVD_1Once libraries decided they were no longer only about printed materials, they have collected audiovisual materials in the latest available technologies. As technologies have changed, many libraries have kept much of the older material and the equipment necessary to play it.

Why? Not everything available on videocassette ever got transferred to DVD. Not everything issued on DVD will ever be available through the newer technologies, either. Few enough people want them for them to be commercially viable to transfer to new technology. Enough people want them for them to belong in at least some library collections.

So far, therefore, introduction of new technologies have been expensive both in terms of purchasing new equipment and formats and training staff to use them. They have not had significant impact on ordinary library services and procedures. Whether patrons take out videocassettes or discs, it counts toward the library’s circulation statistics.

As physical objects become obsolete, libraries will still offer the latest technologies to their patrons, but circulation is already taking a hit. Eventually, libraries and the governments or other institutions that fund them will have to agree on a new way to track the effectiveness and usefulness of library services.

Why circulation matters

DVD displayMeasurement of how a library is used and what it does naturally rely on counting things. Libraries keep counts of the number of people who walk in the door or who call on the phone. They count and itemize everything that patrons borrow, including the number of DVDs.

With the catalog, databases, and other information available through the library’s web site, it is no longer necessary for patrons to go to the library physically or call on the phone in order to use library services. Of course, the invention of the telephone caused a similar problem more than a century ago. There are ways to measure the number of people who use the library via computer.

Similarly, when patrons download movies (or other electronic media) using library facilities or view them while in the library, it would seem that that should be covered by statistics.

The situation probably varies from place to place, but Massachusetts does not allow its public libraries to count the use of licensed content in its circulation statistics. The library does not own it. If a contract is canceled, libraries can no longer make that content available.

That makes no sense to me. If a library buys something and then years later weeds it from the collection, patrons no longer have access to that, either. But during the time the library had it, no one questions counting how often it gets used. The fact that no one has looked at it for years, if ever, is one of the factors that justifies getting rid of it in the first place.

But as a top officer in the Pentagon once told an irate colleague of my father, “Aw hell, Doc. It don’t gotta make sense. It’s policy.”

For the short and middle term, it looks like library circulation will not suffer greatly from streaming movies as much as the rental stores do. On the other hand, library administrators are already looking for other measurements of how well they serve the public besides circulation.

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Source: “Media Spotlight: DVD Circ Hold Steady, For Now” by Matt Enis, The Digital Shift.
Photo credits:
DVD display. Some rights reserved by Monterrey Public Library.
Others. Source unknown.

Libraries, immigrants, and digital literacy

Library workshop

Library workshopImmigrants to the US generally come with some skills and resources, but not necessarily everything they need to succeed here. For example, many arrive with limited or no facility in the English language. Many also lack adequate computer skills needed to get and perform jobs. Libraries offer both language instruction and computer instruction, but helping patrons with limited English learn digital literacy presents new challenges

In the days when most immigrants arrived by ocean, they arrived in major ports and tended to stay there. If very many of a particular group of immigrants left the port of entry, they usually went to other major cities. Now, the port of entry is likely to be any city large enough to have an airport. Even smaller cities find themselves home to multiple immigrant populations.

Projects in small cities

My home town of Greensboro, North Carolina, for example has a significant concentration of Montagnards from Vietnam. I can’t easily find a list of other large ethnic groups, but I do find a website for the local office of Church World Service, which offers its services in several languages: Arabic, Burmese, English, French, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish.

Immigrants in Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho speak Karen, Russian, and Hindi among other languages. The Idaho Commission for Libraries and the Idaho Office for Refugees have teamed up to find ways to tackle both the English language and computer and internet literacy challenges at once.

As an article in American Libraries reports, they obtained a grant to train 12 immigrants, presumably with adequate command of English, not only to use computers, but to train newer refugees from their homelands their native languages. They were trained to pass on digital literacy skills first in using a computer at all, and then using the internet in order to find

  • online government services
  • information about family and health
  • educational opportunities
  • jobs

The project began with the modest goal of reaching 200 people in six months. In fact, the trainers had reached 914 people in 212 coaching sessions within three months.

Although one goal of the project was to present the library as a place for learning digital literacy and using computers, organizers expected training sessions to take place in a variety of places. They hoped that at least 25% would be given in libraries. In fact, trainers chose library meeting rooms and computer labs for 71% of the training sessions.

This model should be fairly easy to replicate in other states and cities. Although the article mentions no other comparable programs, they probably exist.

Projects in larger cities

Probably no one is surprised that Minneapolis, a major American city, has a large and varied immigrant program. It had a large concentration of Scandinavian immigrants a hundred years ago. When the Franklin branch of the Hennepin County Library system opened in 1914, a third of its collection was in foreign languages, including not only Norwegian and Swedish, but also Yiddish.

The Franklin Learning Center opened in 1988 primarily to help US-born patrons study for the GED, but its mission expanded to teach English to immigrants from every inhabited continent. Computer skills have since become an important part of the center’s educational efforts—especially after the state announced that GED testing will be offered only on computers beginning in 2014.

The same American Libraries article describes computer literacy efforts of the Franklin Learning, especially outreach to Hmong immigrants originally from China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Hmong culture presents special problems to teaching digital literacy. Many other ethnic groups (including US-born people) lack such basic skills as knowing what to do with the mouse. Most immigrant groups must struggle to learn English. Many Hmong arrive without any ability to read or write at all, because the several dialects of the language have not been written down until quite recently.

That said, staff at Franklin approach the problem much the same way the Idaho libraries do. One Hmong-speaking staff member serves a liaison to the community to determine its needs, recruit volunteer trainers, and monitor the progress of the classes they teach. The liaison’s duties include attending parent-teacher meetings at school and other community events to help families adjust to their new home as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Especially to librarians reading this post: an article that appeared in American Libraries a couple of months ago spoke to the need for librarians to write for “civilians,” not just other librarians. So far as I have been able to find, Reading, Writing, Research is the only blog written by a librarian for “civilians.” I would be happy to accept guest posts from other librarians!

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Source: “New Americans and the Digital Literacy Gap,” (link no longer work as of Feb 2016) American Libraries
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Technology & Social Change

How the American public perceives and uses libraries

Library circ desk
Library circ desk

Circulation desk at Newburyport Public Library

The Pew Research Center has lately issued a substantial report called Library Services in the Digital Age. I will explore this important research in depth for future posts, but for now I’ll just mention some things that immediately catch my eye.

The importance of libraries

According to the findings, 91% of Americans ages 16 and older consider libraries important community resources and 76% consider them important to themselves and their families. Oddly enough, only 84% have actually visited a library at some point in their lives, while only 59% have visited either a library, a bookmobile, or a public library website in the past year.

It would seem, then, that people’s stated opinions about the value of libraries varies from their actual behavior. On the other hand, only 77% report childhood memories of someone in their family using the library. That is, fewer people remember growing up in a family of library users than have used libraries at some time in their own life.

The more detailed sections of the report make it clear that people who grew up in families that used the library are much more likely to use the library as adults than those who didn’t. The poll demonstrates, though, that some small percentage of people who did haven’t used a library themselves. A significantly larger percentage of those who didn’t have grown up to be library users.

How important are libraries in your life?

  • Very important
  • Important
  • Somewhat important
  • Not very important
  • Not important at all


More polls: dollarstore

Books and other printed materials

Despite the rising importance of the Internet, 80% of the population still considers lending books a very important library service, and 80% also considers the provision of reference librarians a very important service. Both of those figures are more than the 77% who call free computer and Internet access very important.

People who have visited a library in the past year have done so for numerous reasons that have nothing to do with books, but 73% have borrowed printed books, 73% have browsed the shelves, 31% visit in order to read newspapers or other periodicals.

The percentages for browsers and borrowers is the same, but that hardly means that people browse in order to borrow. Surely some people go to a library for a particular book or books, use the catalog to find their location, and borrow their choices without looking at anything else nearby. On the other hand, 49% visit in order to sit and read in the library. That is larger than the percentage of people who go there specifically to read periodicals.

Print collections are still growing. The Pew researchers raised the question of whether libraries should move all of the books off site to make more space for people to read and meet. Here, the public is split, with 20% answering that libraries should definitely do so and 39% answering that they definitely should not.

Off-site storage is expensive to obtain and maintain. Depending on how far away it is, it forces patrons to wait hours or days before they can get the materials they want. I reported in an earlier post that some academic libraries have moved all of their printed materials to very compact areas accessible only by robots. I am unaware of public libraries adopting that technology, but it would be cost prohibitive for all but the very largest.

What is your level of use of print materials?

  • I use libraries entirely for print materials
  • I use print materials more than electronic materials
  • I use print less than electronic materials
  • I hardly use print at all


More polls: Gullbrev

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Internet and electronic media

It seems odd that 77% of the population considers free access to computers and the Internet is a very important library service, but only 26% say they have actually taken advantage of it! (In contrast, 49% of library users—49% of the 59% of the population who used the library recently at all—visited in order to use the library’s subscriptions to proprietary databases.)

Patrons use computers for a variety of uses; 66% have used the Internet to do research for projects at school or work, but 63% have used it just to pass the time browsing.

People have used library computers to get a variety of information, take an online class or certification program, use email, look for work, use social networking sites, shop, pay bills, or in short anything that people do with computers at home or at work.

As computers have become more and more important in society, so they have become in libraries. The Pew report lists a number of computer services that patrons want to see their local library offer.

The report also includes input from a panel of librarians. Most of what the public wants is either among their library’s current offerings or is definitely in the planning stages. American libraries have always been service-oriented institutions, very responsive to the needs of their communities.

It’s fascinating, though, that so many more people in this country consider libraries important than have actually visited either a library or a library web site.
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Spelling, punctuation, and other fun topics

Spelling checker

Spelling checkerPeople who like to read and write like words and like playing with words, sentences, punctuation, and anything else that comes along with reading and writing. Now that so many of us are BFF forever with our electronic gadgets, we have new tools for communicating—or failing to communicate, as the case may be.

Word processing software now comes with spelling and grammar checkers. I expect most writers find them helpful, but they don’t make a very good crutch. For one thing, some of the grammar checkers contain hard-coded grammatical errors. And even if the suggested correction isn’t simply wrong, it might make hash of the meaning of the sentence.

The spelling checker will bleed red all over people’s names, correctly spelled foreign words, brand names, and all kinds of things. On the other hand, just because a word is spelled correctly doesn’t mean that it’s the right word. I have had fun with that in my occasional series on “misused pears.”

Years ago, a poem about spell checkers made the rounds of forwarded email. I just ran across a version of it again and love to share this kind of thing:

I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.

A checker is a bless sing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when eye rime.

Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The checker pours o’er every word
To cheque sum spelling rule.

Bee fore a veiling checker’s
Hour spelling mite decline,
And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,
We wood bee maid too wine.

Butt now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
Their are know fault’s with in my cite,
Of nun eye am a wear.

Now spelling does knot phase me,
t does knot bring a tier.
My pay purrs awl due glad den
With wrapped word’s fare as hear.

To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should bee proud,
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaw’s are knot aloud.

Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas,
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting want too pleas.

Punctuation marksSomething’s not quite right about that poem. Yes. I see what it is. The punctuation needs some editing!

Did you know that a comma can be the difference between life and death? I’d far rather hear someone say, “Let’s eat, David” than “Let’s eat David.”

Here’s a favorite gem that shows how different choices of punctuation can change the entire meaning of exactly the same sequence of words:

Dear John:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can forever be happy—will you let me be yours?

Dear John:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can forever be happy. Will you let me be?

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Image credits: sources unknown