By Douglas Moran
Librarians Against Books: Subverting the will of the electorateUploaded: Oct 7, 2013
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This is not a discussion of library policy, but rather using the Main Library renovation project as an example of how City of Palo Alto government often goes against the will of the electorate. With challenges to the credibility of Staff reports on a wide range of development projectsthe Maybell PC (Measure D), under-parking of commercial projects, 27 University Avenue…it is useful to understand that these are not individual abuses, but part of a long-established culture throughout City of Palo Alto government, both Staff and Council. And with the City exploring another round of bond measures (for infrastructure), it is useful to be reminded to be highly skeptical of the promises and other representations being made.
This story begins with an intrepid band of citizens (Jeff Levinsky, Enid Pearson, Betsy Allyn, and Elaine Meyers) who had seen indications that the City was planning to substantially reduce the size of the collections at Main Library, in violation of the promises of the 2008 Library bond measure. To get the data to prove their suspicions, they had fought a 15-month battle with the City under California's version of the Freedom of Information Act.
The result of extensive polling of Palo Alto residents had shown that improving the collections was their top priority. Acknowledging this, the City Council modified the draft ballot language to move this from being the third goal to being the first. There was also a promise in both the ballot materials (The City Attorney's Impartial Analysis) and in the legislative history that the renovation of Main would increase the space for the collections. Instead, these citizens discovered that the Library management was planning a reduction of 20-34%, and concealing it from the public (and Council). This was, and is, a sensitive topic because the Library management has conducted a campaign against the library branches by degrading services in direct conflict to official City policy. A large part of the current controversy over the potential renaming of Main Library is that it is seen as a precursor to measures to degrade services offered there.
((Note: What library policy should or shouldn't be is *off-topic* : Those policy discussions continue to be active elsewhere (Town Square Forums on this site, discussion group of Duvenick/St. Francis Neighborhood Association (DSFNA)). For the curious, the key documents underlying the discussion here can be found at Weblink DocArchive . Comments on this blog post should focus on the topic of the subversion of public policy by members of the City government.))
I was recruited to join this band to provide fresh eyes on the issues, but also because I had a level of detachment because I live on the opposite side of town (Barron Park). In the spring of 2012, we met with the recently hired Library Director Monique le Conge and the outside architect managing the project.
One of the earliest lesson one learns in dealing with policy-making Staff is that when you ask for the reasons behind their recommendations, you shouldn't be surprised to hear only rationalizations . I have had many dealings with Staff and their consultants, but this meeting stood out by provided the most breathtaking display of contradictory and nonsensical rationalizations, with effortless, rapid pivots between them. And the denial of those contradictions.
The reduction in collection size was the result of a combination of reduced floor space for the stacks, wider aisles between bookcases, shorter bookcases, and fewer books on each of the remaining shelves. We asked about this, and the Library's architect replied that Palo Altans found the current stacks "overwhelming", and these changes were to make the library more inviting. She talked of the need to have more "open space", "long sight lines" and "vistas", and of the need of people in the aisles to be able to stand back and visually appreciate the beauty of expanses of books. I kid you not. She went on to claim that most circulation came from people browsing the stacks with no specific book in mind. I countered that on my visits to the various branches, I observed little casual browsing (except in the children's, New Releases and DVD sections). I added that most of my own access to the book collection was through the online catalog, and that I suspected that there were many people like me. She stated that I was part of a small minority.
The obvious follow-up question was "If casual browsing was the crucial activity, wouldn't that be significantly impaired by substantially reducing the number of books on-site?" Without a pause, she replied that it wasn't the books at any one branch, but the size of the system-wide collection because most people got their books through the online catalog. This pivot between contradictory characterizations occurred several more times during the meeting. It became very clear that the changes were a matter of dogma, and immune to examination, analysis or logic.
In the professional lives of many residents, decision-making is intensely data-driven, both getting more and better data and extracting more and better information from that data. So it can come as a shock when they discover that many City decision-makersStaff and Councilhave a cavalier attitude toward data, ranging from utter sloppiness to contempt. In this situation, the consultants reported 15% less shelf space than was actually present, reported that there were more shelves per bookcase, and reported that the shelves were 100% full, versus an actual of 83%. The last error should have immediately rung alarm bells for anyone who has even casually ventured into the stacks. The second error should have been revealed by a trivial sanity check on the consultants' report. The first was revealed because that band of residents did what the consultant or Staff should have done: They walked down the aisles counting the number of shelves actually installed. If Staff can't be bothered to do even the simplest benchmark of current service levels, what does that say about their planning for supposedly improved service?
Spreadsheets are ubiquitous in planning, and a lesson you are taught early and often is to be skeptical of the results, to check, sanity-check and double-check. It is terrifyingly easy for bad data, bad assumptions and typos in formulas to invisibly produce very wrong answers. And with someone else's spreadsheets, you need to look for concealed biases. In the Library's spreadsheets, there was the assumption that the renovations would double the circulation rate . We asked how this would be accomplished: More people using the library or existing users borrowing more books? Because Palo Alto already had very high rates of both, a large change in either seemed unlikely. Since circulation rate is a crucial factor in capacity planning, you would expect that this was based on real-world experience. And you would be wrong. We asked for comparable examples, but the architect knew of none. When the architect and Library Director persisted in making this claim and we persisted in asking for evidence, they eventually came up with two unconvincing examples ((details are *off-topic* (and complex) )) . Explanation : The circulation rate is the percentage of the library's collection that is expected to be checked out, and thus not needing shelf space in the library. If this rate is over-estimated, the library either has to do an (expensive?) retrofit to add shelving or reduce the size of the collection to what the shelving supports. Over-estimating produces the illusion that the library will provide a larger collection that will happen once the renovations are completed.
A related calculation "error" was created when we started raising questions about the actual collection size. A shelf was added to each of the bookcases in the spreadsheet . However, if you walk through the stacks, you would know that this was physically possible. To confirm this, a member of our group (Jeff Levinsky) did two calculations. First, for Fiction, the simple one (arithmetic): Add up the height of the typical books and shelf widths. Didn't fit (for details, see Problems in Shelving Plans: Adult Fiction). Second, for Non-Fiction, he used "big data": Using list of the Library's purchases over five years with their dimensions (from online databases), he created an optimum shelf configuration. Turns out that the current (real) configuration is very close to that. It is hard to imagine how these supposed additional shelves could have been an innocent error.
Another lesson one quickly learns in dealing with Staff is to be skeptical of claims about legal requirements. In this case, the architect asserted that the wider aisles were required by ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). Members of the group checked with the Feds, and then checked with the City's Planning Department. Not only was there no such requirement, but a leader of the local ADA community who uses a wheelchair told us that the wider aisles weren't only unnecessary, but wouldn't improve access. Back to the Library Director and the architect. They eventually conceded that there was no such ADA requirement, but said that wider aisles were needed so if a wheelchair was in an aisle, someone could walk past it. However, they had no answer for the obvious question of how often this was a problem, that is, whether it was an actual problem or simply a hypothetical. But that itself seemed a moot question because their aisles are only 18 feet longhow hard is it to detour around?
When speakers come to Palo Alto, I warn them to not be surprised if half the people in the audience think that they know more about the topic than the speaker, but also to not be surprised if two or three are correct. With Staff, this is too often reversed: On crucial aspects, the actual expertise is in the audience and it is Staff that is posturing. In evaluating a report or recommendation for the quality of its analysis and expertise, a routine practice of managers, scientists and others is to select a section and drill down with some questions.
Historical aside : In 2002-2005, then-Council member Hillary Freeman, a teacher by profession, used this technique to reveal many problems in the Staff's work, and thereby making her unpopular not just with Staff, but with Council members ("shoot the messenger").
Back to our specific example: Part of the rationalization of reducing shelf space for physical books in the renovated Main Library was that they were supposedly being rapidly replaced by e-books. This conflicted not only with what I was seeing in my casual reading on the topic, but my personal experience (both buying books and borrowing from the library). I asked what seemed to be obvious questions, but the responses indicated no analytical thought, only belief in a certain dogma. When talking about the hyper-growth in e-books, they showed no awareness of the factors that would limit that growth, nor did they seem to understand the folly of expecting a short period of hyper-growth to be predictive of long-term trends.
* For example, while some categories, such as new fiction, were very amiable to being published in e-book form, books that weren't simple text often posed legal, technical and economic problems, for example, those with non-trivial photos, illustrations, maps…
* For example, although most e-book licensing schemes seem appropriate for books that are read cover-to-cover, they appear uneconomical for books used predominantly for reference.
* For example, the correct metric for e-book growth was not how many e-books were available, nor how many e-books were being purchased by individuals, but actual borrowing rates of e-books by library users.
Management issue: When you are speculating that there will be a significant change, what have you done to mitigate the risks, both of that change happening more slowly or to a lesser extent? The Library management had no answer: They didn't even seem to have a sense of the comparative costs of having to retrofit bookcases if not enough e-books were available versus removing bookcases as e-books became more available. Warning: There are different schemes for administering the tokens for an e-book and thus using an e-book's waiting list may not be a valid measure of its popularity or usage.
((Reminder: Discussion of specific library policy and e-books is *off-topic*.))
We met with the Library Director to check our facts and analyses, and to allow her to learn of situations that had arisen before her arrival. However, when it became clear that she would do little to remedy the problems found, we took our analysis to the City Manager and to City Council members. That experience was similarly illustrative and will be the subject of a subsequent blog posting here.
Having "teased" you with the title, I suspect that I should tell you what the Library's management says should be the top priorities for the library: (1) places for people to gather, and (2) places for people to bring laptops and work.
((Guidelines for comments: This blog is being allowed to experiment with trying to have a higher threshold for what are acceptable comments (than what you find in Town Square Forums). The primary measure of success of a blog here is number of readers (page views), with comments being a distant second. Research from around the Web has found that common commenting practices are often detrimental. What I want to encourage here is a high-enough percentage of substantial, informative comments--ones that someone with interest in the topic will be glad to have read. And that the percentage that such readers regard as time-wasters to be a small-enough percentage that those readers will return. Among the people interested in local politics that I talk to, the return rate for the current Town Square Forums is extremely low.
Recognize that authors of better quality comments benefit from a better returning-reader rate because more people will read their contributions. I'm hoping that this will become a virtuous cycle, and hope that commenters and readers support this during the inevitable rough periods.
More specifically, what I would like to encourage in comments are:
• Presentation of different viewpointsfacts, experiences, analysis…stopping short of "Mine is right" and/or "Yours is wrong". If you want to advocate for various priorities, you can establish a separate discussion (thread) on Town Square Forums and leave a comment here announcing that discussion.
• Controversies are often the result of different priorities and weighting of the tradeoffs and risks. Groups involved in the controversies are often poor at explaining their own, or understanding those of others. People who can explain these differences are rare and extremely valuable: They help people who are new to the issue hear nuances, code phrases… Remember to stop short of advocacy for who-is-right.
• Presentation of similar case studies (experiences with analysis).
• Honest (non-rhetorical) questions about the topic. A carefully thought-out set of questions can be one of the most valuable aids for people seeking to understand an issue.
Of special note on what will I treat as inappropriate comments:
• Provocative statements (troll-like, trash-talking), rants, off-topic…
• Banter and other behavior characteristic of informal discussion among a small group. Palo Alto Online wants its blogs to have readership in the hundreds.
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• Statements that are significantly ideological. Similarly for opinions that don't show a basis in facts and logical analysis. Recognize that the key word in the title of this blog is "Pragmatist's". That is the target audience.
• Discussion of this policy on appropriate comments, especially complaints that deletion of inappropriate comments constitutes censorship.
If a comment has a mix of appropriate and inappropriate elements, I will make a modest effort to separate them, and failing that, I will just delete the whole comment. The primary burden is on you, the commenter, to have appropriate submissions.))