Skip to content

Ideally, technologies are tools

I was disappointed in myself for answering the phone—a friend was wishing me well on my retirement when the phone started ringing and buzzing in my pocket. We’d had friends and family in the hospital, and another friend had just died, and the days seemed charged with urgency.

Rarely is anything more urgent than attending to the people in front of me, but I answered the call, anyway. I’ve yet to learn to live gracefully with the cell phone.

But the same could be said for an older technology—the book. I was well into adulthood before I could write in a book; I couldn’t even inscribe one to a friend. Yet when I look at L’s collection of annotated volumes, I grow wistful about the lost phrases and beautiful passages that passed unmarked, never to be found again.

Ideally, technologies are tools to be wielded toward our chosen ends. They serve us, not us them. When I think of the technological changes at the library over the last two decades, it’s hard to get too nostalgic.

Our card catalog was a fine thing but no competition against our online library catalog, no matter its imperfections.

We first automated the library in 1999, outsourcing the “retrospective conversion” of our card catalog to a digital database. Along with this, we ordered pre-assigned barcode labels with book titles printed on them.

Then, a host of volunteers answered the call for help, and we closed for two days while everyone took their assigned sheets of barcodes, found the items they belonged to, and carefully applied them to over 24,000 items (our collection is triple that now). It was a great success and perhaps the quietest two days in library history as dozens of people pored over their work.

Just two year’s later, we migrated to another system—our first consortium of libraries sharing a system more sophisticated than we could have afforded or operated on our own. This carried us ten more years to the end of 2011, when we migrated again to the Marmot Library Network and the system you know and love. At least, I hope you do.

As quoted here before: Luxury becomes the new norm. Compare 1998, when you had to wait your turn if two people were already using our card catalog, to today, when any number of people can access our catalog from anywhere, as well as place requests for items from a network of libraries holding over 30 million items.

And that’s not all! Requested items show up via statewide library courier with your names on them, so to speak. In fact, they have a courier code on them, but we scan them, and put them on the hold shelf. You get an email saying your stuff is here. You can even sign up to receive text messages.

Over these years, the library’s computer offerings have evolved, including the library’s network of computers for the public and the provision of open WiFi internet access. There were complications and issues along the way, but it’s all pretty well integrated into library life now.

Ebooks and e-audiobooks are the norm. Even our local history archives and old newspapers are being digitized, making them more accessible.

And … printed books have not gone away. This combination of technologies holds great promise in my eyes, and I look forward to enjoying it all as a library patron—from the other side of the desk.

So, we come to the end of this column, faithfully published by the Mountain Mail for over 15 years. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for reading.

Santa will be at Story Time!

Santa will be at Story Time Wednesday from 10:00-10:30 a.m. I don’t think it matters if you’ve been good or not, you can still come.

We’ve been talking about library history and change recently, and Story Time is one change. It used to be Story Hour, but in recent years we’ve been using recommendations from early literacy studies for structuring Story Time, and shorter periods is one of them.

Public libraries are the main literacy support for the families of infants and toddlers. We also promote the Imagination Library sponsored by Salida Sunrise Rotary—children from birth to five can get a book a month mailed to them for free. It’s a perfect program. All you have to do is sign up.

Story Time was once held in the library community room, which in 2012 was converted into the computer room when we remodeled. I miss the community room, but we couldn’t have everything and needed to re-allocate space in the library.

You’ll remember we had an election in 1995 to increase the operating mill levy as well as to build an addition to the 1908 Carnegie library. Since that time, the library has grown in many ways. The collection has certainly grown, and as many of you know we have a basement annex of compact storage—mobile shelving that rolls together—letting us keep well over 20,000 additional items.

Since 1995, we increased library hours from 40 to 70 hours per week, seven days a week. In fact, we even decreased holidays, staying open four days we’d previously closed.

The library’s circulation during that period increased over 300% while the district’s population increased around 16% (depending whom you asked and when). Our door counts went up about as much, the peak year being 2008.

The circulation per capita might be a better indicator, growing from 6.63 in 1995 to 21.96 in 2014. The peak so far was 2012 at 24.45. It’s reasonable to wonder how high this might go for a given population. There are other things to do, after all. If a higher percentage of our population were young children, the number might be higher.

Anyway, it’s not an arms race. We want to provide good access to the intellectual content of our culture both through our local collection and via access to larger networks, now so easy with Marmot and Prospector.

Although we’ve never done much library programming, as it’s called, given that we always conflicted with the many events and activities elsewhere in Salida, we have had some successful programs.

We ran the “Poetry on a Platter” poetry festival for a number of years, bringing poets from around the nation to Salida, Gunnison, and Montrose. The festival started the same year as the longer lived “Sparrows” winter poetry festival.

And for a while we ran opportunistic “Arts at the Library” programs on Sunday afternoons. Who would have guessed, but we regularly had 30 people, and sometimes many more, attend these talks and presentations on art, craft, writing, and poetry.

It was opportunistic in that whenever we had the chance to host somebody interesting, we did. The core events were talks by the artists displaying in the library. We would have a reception for and presentation by the current artist.

Our gallery space and schedule has been expertly managed for ten years by Sally Mather, and she and Barbara Ford have organized our annual challenge show, dreaming up a new theme each year. Thanks very much to them.

And, there’s always more history to come …

Change involving history is most fun

I promised more library history, and in particular the growth that followed library construction in 1997. We’ll get to it. The history of change is fun. Change itself might be more fun. And change involving history is most fun.

A big change for anyone interested in local history is underway. The oldest issues of the Mountain Mail (also the Salida Mail) are being added to the Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection online.

At this moment, only 1880-82 are there, but by the end of the month the years through 1915 should appear. Next Spring, we’ll get 1916 plus the Chaffee County Record 1898-1901 and Salida Record 1901-1916. Go to salidalibrary.org <http://salidalibrary.org&gt; or salidaarchive.org <http://salidaarchive.org&gt; for a link.

First, some history. The collection has been around for years. Take a look. Some Buena Vista newspapers have been online for a while; Leadville; Saguache. Many of the state’s oldest.

Most of the collection is pre-1923 because copyright is completely clear before that date. The papers are indexed and keyword searchable.

We’ve talked about this a long time, and last winter Joy asked if she could look for grants. I said sure but didn’t think anyone would be interested, since “digitization” is a bottomless pit.

But suddenly Joy had $6500 in hand from SIPA, the State Internet Portal Authority. Amazing. In the end, we put in another $17,000 to make a project of ample scope. Thank you, Joy and SIPA!

The collection was moving to a new platform as we made our order last Spring, and while this delayed our start it also proved to be cheaper and greatly extended the reach of our dollars to include the extra issues mentioned above.

The digitization process is largely automated and uses the negatives of microfilm from the History Colorado newspaper collection. Special software gathers the text using optical character recognition (OCR), indexes it, and then maps it to the original image. You’ll see when you try it.

OCR is not perfect, especially from old papers in poor shape, or from poorly microfilmed images. “In ancient times” might easily become “fn ancient times.” Sometimes, whole paragraphs are gobbledygook.

There’s a lot of this in our early papers, but it can be fixed. In fact, you can help correct text. Humans can easily read what machines can’t. See Joy for a demonstration and for more info.

This story is not without drama. It turns out the microfilm of the earliest years of the Mountain Mail were not held in the History Colorado collection, and so they did not have the negatives to scan.

Salida Regional Library has the positive microfilm, purchased years ago from a division of Bell & Howell, but the digitization process requires the negative. We found the company with the Bell & Howell assets, but they could not find the negatives we needed.

It was discouraging, but eventually the Colorado State Library found the negatives at the Kansas State Historical Society and was able to acquire them. Yay! Now those early years are the first to come online … except that Issue No. 1, June 5, 1880, is missing.

It seems June 5 is not on their negative, even though our positive, marked as scanned by Kansas State Historical Society, definitely includes it. Experts are looking into some way of using the positive to get the info into our collection.

We happen to have the first issue in paper, but it’s in bad shape, disintegrating out of an old bound volume that was given to the library. We might have to scan what we can from that. Somehow, though, we’ll get back to the beginning.

Let’s continue with library history

Let’s continue with library history. In January 1995, I became the library director, and at the February board meeting I proposed that we pursue a certain low-interest federal loan as a way of financing the construction of a much-needed library addition.

The 1908 Carnegie building was tightly packed and difficult for many people to enter (impossible for a wheelchair). I did not know the board well and was grateful when president Betty Blackwell wasted no time in moving that we proceed.

Our preliminary application was approved, and we needed some design work by a certain date. We found an architect, and I faxed him a letter and drawing. He quickly replied he was interested, but … um … the building couldn’t look like what I drew. (Good.)

The design and cost estimates were done in time for a final loan approval, which came in time for us to get on the ballot for the November 1995 election. (Zoom.)

We had two questions: one to sell bonds for construction and the other to raise the mill levy from 2.5 to 3.5 mills to cover operating a larger facility, expanding library hours, and increasing our book budget. They passed by a 2:1 margin. We were very happy.

Immediately, the federal agency rep came to speak to the county commissioners, who at that time had to be involved in our bond issue. And by the way he’d be bringing their architect who would be overseeing the project and our architect. (What?)

It was an unhappy day. The presentation to the commissioners was awkward and depressing, after which we went back to the library and spent three hours going through an enormous stack of papers I would have to deal with. My face hid nothing. The agent said, “Don’t worry. We’ll help you.”

But I couldn’t do it. I immediately went back to county attorney Ken Baker. He said, “Do you really want to do this?” I apologized for the unanticipated presentation, said forget everything you heard because we had to do something else …

… which was to sell bonds on the private market instead of using the funds for the federal loan. We were fortunate to sell during a low point in the bond market, and the funds came directly to us.

This freedom was important. For one, we were able to customize our payment schedule and shorten the schedule from 20 to 16 years, saving $100,000 in interest (the federal agency preferred a 40-year loan but would do 30). Then, a couple of months later, the construction bids came in far above our estimates. Another unhappy day.

We began a fundraising drive. I preferred election questions to fundraising, but in the end we had to do both. However, volunteers came forward to help raise money, and the community responded wonderfully.

We raised more money and cut things from the project and came to a middle ground. Construction was delayed a year, and we moved into the new addition just before Christmas 1997.

Then, we emptied the old Carnegie building and worked on that, eventually filling the upstairs with shelving. We had a grand opening in April 1998.

What does all that mean? There were many lessons, but the big one was that a community gets the library it wants. The director, staff, and board have important roles, but you can only lead a horse to water. Our community wanted a good library, made it happen, and proceeded to use it. (Thanks!)

The new library was followed by many years of growth, which we’ll talk about next time.

What might be interesting from my tenure?

The thought from the newsroom was to include some library history here before the end of the year, which will also be the end of my reign as director and the end of this weekly column.

There’s a good brief history of the library on our local history website based largely on work done by previous director Norma Edlund in 1995 when we applied to have the Carnegie library listed on the State Historic Register.

But what might be interesting from my tenure? I started working at the library in 1988. I got the job in the usual fashion: I walked into the library one Monday to find Norma agitated about the fact that the person she’d just hired failed to show up for her first day of work.

I said, “What? A job? Can I apply?” In this weak moment, Norma gave me a tour and hired me. So I left my job at The Mountain Mail, where I’d worked for a year proofreading and pasting up The Mountain Mail for editor Ray James (‘twas Alisa Pappenfort, composition manager, who hired me). Six years later, when Norma retired, I became director.

It wasn’t just a matter of handing over the keys. The job was advertised in the library world (as mine has been, now), and I applied. I don’t believe I would have been chosen but for a letter-writing campaign from library patrons writing in my favor. (Some good people—subsequent colleagues—had applied.)

By the way, children’s librarian Becky Nelson started the very next year, taking over Interlibrary Loan from her sister-in-law (who went on to 25 years of librarianship in Grand Junction).

Those were the days, of course—the old Carnegie building with the entrance across from Alpine Park. That northerly entrance is fairly steep and, being in shadow all winter, icy. We wouldn’t see some patrons until Spring. “Hi, again!”

I remember long-time library patron Shirley Mitchell being furious with the city for building the rest rooms in Alpine Park and blocking the view through the park to the library. You can still see that view in a painting by Fred Hubicki hanging above the copy machine.

This might be correct: In 1989, we had a book sale on some tables on the lawn of the E Street side. I believe we’ve had one every year since, eventually moving to two per year. We tried one more outside in what was then the back yard, but we had to cart everything back inside ahead of a sudden storm.

A couple who helped us do that became our first book sale volunteers. Subsequent sales were held in the library basement. In 1998, we started using the basement of the new library addition, with a luxurious amount of space (which now seems tight).

Back then we had a real card catalog (we didn’t digitize the catalog until 1999 or so). We used a book charger to check things out. Your library card had a metal piece with your number, and the book charger would make a heavy clunk and stamp your number onto a book card from each book you checked out.

Those cards were counted and alphabetized and grouped by date to be reunited with the book upon its return. It was a nice part of the day—the door was locked, the library emptied, and we would sit at the reference room table and arrange book cards in a secret game of solitaire.

The good ol’ days. Not that things aren’t better. More next time …

We present edited versions of ourselves

A new book, “Reclaiming conversation: the power of talk in a digital age,” begins with a framework provided by Thoreau: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

So goes the book: one chair—conversations with oneself; two chairs—conversations among family, friends, and lovers; and three chairs—conversations in society, such as the work place.

L preferred a different quote from Samuel Johnson: “We had talk enough, but no conversation.”

Indeed, author Sherry Turkle discusses a growing aversion to face-to-face conversation in favor of the controlled talk of text and email. In other words, a preference for the carefully edited life—social interaction as performance.

Many people the author spoke with called Facebook and Twitter their “journals,” yet none really used them for self interrogation and reflection, as you might do with a journal.

Inevitably, social media is about pleasing your friends in the moment, regardless of how you’re feeling deep down. You present an edited self; a performance.

I like this, but such criticism risks creating a Straw Man to be conveniently pummeled. Even before we had virtual lives, we presented edited versions of ourselves. We avoided confrontation. We fled introspection.

We found other, non-digital ways to be dysfunctional.

If a family chooses to air all its differences on “Gchat” instead of face-to-face, well, there are worse things. If they carefully revise their opinions before clicking Send, it may be a useful thing.

But in favor of spontaneous conversation, which can be surprising for both the listener and the speaker, philosopher Heinrich von Kleist refers to “the gradual completion of thoughts while speaking.”

He quotes a French proverb that “appetite comes from eating,” and in the same way “ideas come from speaking.” Aversion to surprise is not new. Now we have new ways to avoid it.

Behavioral changes are not all generational. Turkle finds a great many children wish their parents would put down their phones. They want their parents’ attention. They need it.

This inability to attend to the people in front of us—at the dinner table, on a date, in meetings—has an addictive quality similar to gamblers tethered to their slot machines.

The omnipresent device makes small but persistent, and pernicious, demands. The phone permits every moment to filled with something, even if it’s the cheapest blip from the commodified social space of the Internet.

There are no lulls or, heaven forbid, boredom. About interruptions, Turkle points out, “When people say they’re “addicted” to their phones, they are not only saying that they want what their phones provide. They are also saying that they don’t want what their phones allow them to avoid.”

What Turkle hears most is that the phone makes it easier to avoid boredom or anxiety. Turkle wisely notes, “Boredom and anxiety are signs to attend more closely to things, not to turn away.”

“When talk becomes difficult or when talk turns to quiet, we’ve given ourselves permission to go elsewhere.”

This includes leaving conversations with ourselves. The deflection away from solitude might be the most corrosive, because it is in solitude that we develop our capacity for empathy.

As Turkle says, “If you are comfortable with yourself, you can put yourself in someone else’s place.”

And, too, we risk equating solitude with loneliness, but they have much different psychologies. Paul Tillich wrote: “Language … has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”

We might be able to keep “everything,” but what about finding it again?

Last week’s library column asked, “And who doubts what you read in the paper?” Payback for my sophomoric wit came Friday when the paper reported the library’s current brick repair project cost $56,000.

What’s an extra zero between friends?

Then the column went on to mention an abduction at gunpoint nearly a hundred years ago outside the Sherman Hotel at 1st and G streets, saying “I don’t think it’s so rough a neighborhood now.” So wry.

Except that last Monday morning, the very corner of 1st and G was a crime scene—the corner office of the old Sherman Hotel was burglarized in the night and a valuable collection of guitars and equipment was stolen.

If only there’d been a late-night witness, such as happened a few weeks ago when the library was vandalized and the two males responsible (as opposed to responsible men) were caught red-handed—literally, with the red graffiti paint on their hands.

This denouement almost made it worth spending two pre-dawn hours cleaning up the broken glass scattered around the computer room. In fact, it was not unpleasant being out in the otherwise peaceful night, and I felt very fond of the officers up at that hour quietly and diligently attending to absurd human behavior.

One day, this will all be local history, perhaps getting curiouser and curiouser but most likely remaining all too familiar even by the time it makes the paper’s “100 Years Ago Today.”

The library’s digital archives mentioned last week are almost entirely of things physically owned in the library’s archive room—photos and papers donated to the archive or that have somehow found their way there.

The library’s archive is dedicated to preserving artifacts of local history—papers, photos, books, the marginalia of local life—and to making it accessible, which now involves digital access.

There’s a lot more of local history in the drawers and attics of Salida, and perhaps you’d like to make it accessible, too, but it’s also too beloved to give away. Consider a digital donation—allowing the library to digitize the photos, old letters, etc., and granting a digital release for their use while keeping the physical items in your possession.

It’s always hard to know what the future will want. And even in a digital world, we can’t keep everything. We might be able to keep “everything,” but what about finding it again? Cataloging—metadata—is vital to future retrieval, and this eventually involves human interaction. What’s called, in some circles, labor.

I just finished reading a remarkable book that is a result of much labor using archives which, although post-World War II, are among the last of their kind.

The book is “Make peace before the sun goes down: the long encounter of Thomas Merton and his abbott, James Fox.” Merton’s journals were eventually published in the decades after his death, but these presented only one side of a quietly stormy relationship.

Thomas Merton was a prolific writer, and much of his communication from behind abbey walls was necessarily by letter, and these are preserved in many places. Roger Lipsey used archives from the Abbey of Gethsemane, Kentucky, and from the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Lexington to correlate letters among a variety of people to chart the relationship and conflicts between the two men.

It is history as its best. If you have been moved by Thomas Merton—his writings or his life—I think you will be fascinated by this book. Yes, your local library has a copy.