Libraries, Taxes, and the Cost of a Cup of Coffee

January 25, 2010

A Marin Independent Journal article (January 23, 2010) reporting that San Rafael (California) city council members are considering a $49 yearly library parcel tax has inspired a very heated exchange online via comments posted by readers.

Nearly 100 comments were posted within the first 48 hours that the article was online. Numerous respondents vehemently opposed the tax for what they see as an unnecessary and outdated service managed by fiscally irresponsible bureaucrats. Others pointed out that the fee was equivalent to the cost of a couple of books and a few cups of coffee.

One parcel tax opponent summed it up in these words:

“Libraries are not ‘vital’ services.

“Libraries are in a death spiral as are the actual Schools of Library Science across the country.

“I believe there are only TWO schools left in the entire Bay Area which has programs to teach librarians. One in San Jose and one somewhere else.

“The field of librarian is outdated and replaced by the efficient and quicker internet.

“The idea you call a library “vital” is laughable.”

I’m not at all convinced that the opponents to the tax are interested in hearing an opposing view, but here’s what I suggested as a starting point for those who care:

The American Library Association’s annual “State of America’s Libraries (2009)” report documented increased use and less financial support for libraries—hardly the sign of organizations in “a death spiral.”

Libraries throughout the country “have responded to the unemployment situation by offering programs and assistance in job searching, resume writing, starting a business, and going back to school,” Connecticut State Librarian Kendall Wiggin reports in an article on the second page of the State Library’s Connector magazine in April 2009. This, to me, suggests that those who are unemployed see libraries far more as vital than as “laughable.”

Libraries are helping to close the digital divide, a report published in 2004 by the Gates Foundation showed: “In 1996, only 28 percent of public library systems offered public Internet access,” American Library Association representatives noted in their summary of the report. “Today, more than 95 percent of library buildings offer public access computing, and 14 million Americans regularly use these computers. This benefit has especially reached certain socioeconomic groups that are less likely to have access at home or work. African Americans and Hispanics are twice as likely to use library computers as Asian Americans and whites. Families making less than $15,000 annually are two to three times more likely to rely on library computers than those earning more than $75,000.”

As for the assertion that “there are only TWO schools left in the entire Bay Area which has programs to teach librarians. One in San Jose and one somewhere else”: The schools are San José State University and UCLA; they are among the dozens of universities across the United States preparing students face to face and online to creatively meet library users’ changing needs. An online map provides a wonderful visual snapshot for anyone interested in seeing how many schools are committed to the further development and growth of this “outdated” field.

Because the online debate has been so heated—full of name-calling and unsubstantiated assertions—I offered the hope that this information would help provide a more balanced snapshot of what is happening with libraries and library studies for those who may not have had the opportunity to visit libraries onsite or online recently for a glimpse of what they offer. I also hope that, like our colleagues at libraries in Marin county, we will avoid the natural inclination to take this personally and, instead, use this as a learning opportunity for everyone by continuing  to prove the value of libraries through the act of effectively giving onsite and online library users what they want and need.

Skype and Low-Cost E-learning Delivered at the Moment of Need

January 22, 2010

Delivering low- or no-cost e-learning at the moment of need seems to become easier every day through the use of Web 2.0 (online social networking) tools. Having written earlier this month about using Google Chat to deliver a dynamic, interactive, and effective online lesson to journalism students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I found myself experimenting on short notice with Skype as a live delivery tool yesterday for basic Excel and PowerPoint lessons.

The good news is that it worked; the even better news is that the immediate payoff for the learner might be a job she would very much love to have.

Our online learning experience developed after she received a call yesterday afternoon to let her know that she was being invited to interview for a position this afternoon. This appeared to be great news until the interviewer told her that the company needed someone with good Excel and PowerPoint skills. The interviewee/learner in this case had a basic familiarity with both programs, but felt less than confident that she could display proficiency during an interview. I assured her that I would be happy to meet with her face-to-face that evening to cover the basics of both programs, but scheduling conflicts and the fact that we live in different parts of the San Francisco Bay Area made that infeasible. We were at a momentary loss until a wonderful intermediary suggested that we attempt to conduct the lessons via Skype—which proved to be a godsend for both of us.

Making this work required little more than the (free) Skype connection; (inexpensive) webcams and audio-visual capabilities (built into her laptop, add-ons to my PC); a bit of creativity; and a lot of patience from both sides. It also obviously helped that we’re both comfortable with Skype and that she is an incredibly fast learner. We decided we would tackle Excel first, so established the Skype connection and kept the Skype window visible in the lower right-hand corner of our individual computers while we talked back and forth. We then each opened a blank Excel spreadsheet and created a sample budget together in the program so we could use and review the basic functions she would need to understand in her prospective workplace. Each time we completed something together, we would explicitly describe what we were seeing on our screens to be sure that we were creating identical documents. By the end of that hour-long session, we completed the rudimentary sample budget and reviewed the steps we had taken to create it, and she had a working document which she could use for further review, study, and explorations of the program.

After taking a break for a few hours, we returned later in the evening to create a sample PowerPoint presentation comprised of just a few slides with a Beyond Bullet Points approach so she again would learn by creating something useful and, at the same time, visually striking. Following the same procedures proved very effective; when she arrived for her interview this afternoon, she received compliments for having creatively crafted something which highlighted the products produced by her prospective employer.

Although many of us still remain convinced that there is a strong case to be made for face-to-face training in an onsite-online world, it’s equally clear that the term “face-to-face” is rapidly evolving as tools such as Skype create extremely effective opportunities for virtual (and virtually) face-to-face learning if trainer-teacher-learners are willing to experiment and those they help are willing to reach across the rapidly shrinking digital divide with their own equipment or through libraries and other gateways to Internet access.

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