Friday, November 05, 2010

In which I learn a painful lesson about donations

Remember how I ranted about donations yesterday. Here's a great story to prove my point. Even better, I'm the rube in this story.

I was talking with one of my library staff and she mentioned that someone had wanted to donate some auto manuals to the library. The staff member (new) had checked with staff at another branch who thought it was a gold mine. That is true, to an extent. Our auto-repair reference databases get the most searches and this material is some of the most frequently requested. However, it makes the most sense to have this material on a database then occupying four rows of the library. The staff member mentioned the patron was bringing 10 or 15. Well, I can deal with 10 or 15 books even if we can't use them. This is the point at which alarm bells are ringing for wiser and more experienced librarians, but I continued blithely on my way.

One lovely Saturday morning in September just after we opened, we receive a call. The patron is on her way and wants to make sure we're ready to receive her donation and check if we have a flatbed and/or dolly. My heart starts to sink as I ask her how many books she is bringing. She has 15 boxes of books to bring us. My heart starts racing and I begin to feel a little faint. (I'm not mixing metaphors, my heart really was sinking and racing at the same time, hence the faintness I was feeling.) 15 boxes of auto manuals? No one has that many auto manuals. People usually have one or two auto manuals for the vehicles they own. People with 15 boxes of auto manuals have typically owned an auto repair shop. I don't know if you've ever been to an auto repair shop, but they're not the cleanest places in the world, and not to disparage mechanics (I've known several very nice mechanics, friends of mine), but they're not the best at keeping books in good condition. My sinking feeling was getting worse by the second.

When she arrived, the entire back of her pick up was full of boxes of auto repair manuals. And, naturally, she wanted us to unload the boxes so she could have them back. There were several moments here where I should have said, "I'm sorry that's not possible" or "I'm sorry we don't have the staff time available to deal with that donation". I didn't. I don't know why, but I didn't. Even as I accepted this pick up load of (and yes I counted) 17 boxes of auto repair manuals, I knew they would be worthless. This incident helped strengthen my backbone a lot.

As we were unloading the boxes, the woman said she had to "run and get something" but would be right back. Foolishly I assumed she was running to a store to pick something up. Nope. She went home and got another pickup load full of boxes of dirty, outdated, useless, heavy auto manuals. Another 9 boxes. That brings us up to 26 boxes of auto manuals. Our hands were turning black from unpacking them. The courier tubs we were putting them in were getting filthy. All in all it was a HUGE mess. But the patron thought she was doing us a service, helping out the new library in the poor neighborhood. I would never put these filthy books on my shelves. They were in disgusting condition and so old as to be useless to the vast majority of my patrons. Almost immediately they went into the dumpster and recycling bins. (Well I tried to send them to our main library but all that accomplished was another three staff members handling them, more courier bins getting dirty, and people getting angry at me.)

Lessons learned? When someone offers you a donation, clarify if they are counting in boxes or books. And make sure all of your staff understands what can be accepted as donations. (This assumes that you've already established a policy on what you're accepting as a donation.)

What we will (now) accept as donations:
  • hardcover books published within the last 5 years in good condition
  • hardovers of classic books
  • no encyclopedias
  • any hardcover or paperback graphic novel or manga
  • limit one box per patron per donation

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Start Looking Gift Horses in the Mouth

The public believes that all donations are good and that every library would happily welcome and rejoice at whatever pile of outdated, dusty, boring junk they found in their great-aunt's basement. As most librarians known, the public is wrong about this (and many other library-related things).

Let's start with the most common myth, donations aren't free. You (the great unwashed public) give them to me (the humble civil servant) thinking that out of your munificence you are enriching the library at no cost to us. However, we still have to take the book to technical services, add protectorants (the shiny stuff over the dust jacket, the stiff stuff on paperbacks that makes them feel hard), add labels, add security measures, add barcodes, and put them in our catalog. This can involve the labor of anyone from the technical services clerk to the head cataloger and it can involve materials costing anywhere from $1 to $10. All told your "free book" can cost the library somewhere in the range of $25 (or more) to add (labor+materials).

So when I get your donation, I start staring, inspecting, picking apart that gift horse. It's the same economic decision I make when I decide if I should purchase a book for the library. Will this book pay for itself in circulations? Do we have other copies of this book? Other things by this author? On this subject? How well have they circulated?

I guess what I'm really saying is that no, we don't want your 1999 edition of the Writer's Market, I have the 2010 edition on the shelf and only one person has even touched it in the last two months.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Feel Good Story of the Day

Working in a library in an economically depressed area, particularly in a brand new library in an area that has not had a library in a very long time, can lead to some heart warming moments. Or as our development director says, tell one of those stories that makes everyone tear up.

So here is today's story. We share a parking lot with a middle school and are often overrun with kids. It can be overwhelming for our staff, our patrons, and pretty much everyone who isn't a middle schooler. Every now and then it can be nice to have that little boost that we're still managing to serve people amidst all the chaos.

A father came in about five minutes before the middle school got out and was chatting while waiting for his daughter. He told us that she had done five book reports since we opened, because we are here. Last week, they'd been here immediately before parent teacher conferences and quarter grades. Today he was happy to report that his daughter has an A in English. Because she's done five book reports. Because we're here. (Why yes, I am going to take all the credit for this.)

I needed that reassurance today.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

On elections, voting, and libraries

All across the United States, it's election day. In Alaska, it's a particularly heated one with Joe Miller and Scott McAdams on the Senate ballot while Lisa Murkowski desperately holds spelling lessons for the state. It's also the first day with any real/noticeable amount of snow though mostly it's a couple of inches of slush on the roads and in the parking lots.

Despite snow and slush and crazy campaigning (I won't even get started on the people in costumes I saw), I pulled myself up early and stopped to vote today. With elections, I like to either vote on my way into work, or if voting early get a sticker and save it. This allows me to wear my "I voted" sticker all day at the library. As a public servant, someone who works with a lot of youth, it is a chance to very quietly set an example. Voting is very important to me and I haven't missed a single election, no matter how minor, since I turned 18. It might be slightly sanctimonious, but I like to think of myself as a role model for my community. Today I do my best to live up to that by voting and displaying the evidence.

Of course, as a public servant, I am extremely limited in what I can say to the public. Municipality ethic rules specifically forbid me from any sort of campaigning as part of my duties. That means (naturally) that I can't wear a "Vote For X" button while I'm at the library, working the desk, etc. Perfectly logical. However, we're in a very bad budget cycle (when are we not?) and I also can't campaign for the library. The current budget plan is to close one of our branches (not mine) and when patrons come in to ask about it, we're very limited in what we can say. Two years ago when we had a bond issue on the ballot, I could remind people that there was a library issue on the ballot, but I could not tell ask them to vote for it. I can't write a letter to the editor and sign it with my name and position. We can't display any information about the library budget that asks a voter to take action (such as voting one way or contacting a legislator). And on and on and on the rules go. It can be maddeningly frustrating when an issue affects your very job and you can't ask the person on the other side of the desk to please email their assembly representative.

No solutions, no real complaints, only musings on a snowy election day.

Monday, November 01, 2010

A Promotion

Live exploded about three months ago (shortly after the last time I managed to update this blog). Many things (some fun, some less fun) happened in my personal life. Professionally, I received a huge promotion. I became the branch manager of the Mountain View branch of the Anchorage Public Library. (Before I had been a youth services librarian at the main location.) This is a great library. It's in an urban area, or as we've been saying the most "economically challenged" part of Anchorage. There hasn't been a public library in this neighborhood for eight years, a standalone library for nearly 20 years. I hired and chose the vast majority of my staff and oversaw the final parts of the construction. Many people go their entire career without an opportunity like this so I am trying to make the most of it. Someone suggested I tell the story of the library and it isn't a bad idea. Brand new library, brand new community, brand new staff, brand new manager. We're learning a LOT as we go along. People keep reminding me that making mistakes is a part of the process. I hope so because I feel like I'm making a thousand mistakes a day.

I've accepted that I will probably never do Nanowrimo so this month I will do Nabopomo. Instead of writing a novel in November, I will do my best to write a blog post either here or at my other blog. Hopefully the story of my library will get told and all the funny crazy things that have happened and continued to happen every day.