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VSTDPUs and Maslow’s Hierarchy

One of my favorite library stories comes from the days when small public libraries in upstate New York were being encouraged to go online. A consultant went to visit a small library–one of those Barbie Dream libraries that are hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and staffed so minimally that the library worker covering the single desk will excuse herself to change the toilet paper and greet the UPS delivery person.

So the consultant explained to the library director that the online catalog could do this, and it could do that, and it would have all these marvelous functions, and the library would be so much farther ahead, etc. etc.

And the practical old librarian who had been quietly listening tilted her head and replied, “I’d still rather have a flush toilet.”

Maslow's Hierarchy

Maslow's Hierarchy

I’ve been a fan of Maslow’s Hierarchy since my military days. I have a writing friend who I encourage by using an image of Maslow’s Hierarchy whenever I give her written feedback. I point out that her work is near the top of the hierarchy, at the peak of self-actualization, whereas less-accomplished writers are near the middle or even the bottom of that pyramid.

I think a lot about Maslow’s Hierarchy in terms of strategic direction for a library at a VSTDPU  (Very Small Tuition-Dependent Private University). We do have flush toilets at MPOW. (We do not have an exhaust system, as becomes unfortunately apparent as the day progresses, but that is beside the point.) But we provide the best services possible within a constant reality of resource challenges that would flummox librarians at larger institutions.

Part of that service provision includes a ruthless focus on Maslow’s Hierarchy. We do not have the resources to do anything that is not directly applicable to service provision. Furthermore, as discussed earlier, even among those options, we have to cherry-pick very carefully, and decide that some things are not doable, even if they are important. Among those services we elect to provide, we have to provide clear-eyed assessment, and be willing to minimize or stop a service.

It’s possible for a library to become so focused on a traditional problem, such as a large cataloging backlog, to the point where other services go neglected. One decision I have made is that our cataloging backlog, however spectacular it may be, is not the most pressing problem for us at this time. Improving access to and awareness of resources, improving the aesthetics and comfort of the facility, increasing the library’s visibility, communicating with our stakeholders,  assessing our performance, measuring user needs, and ensuring the library is seen as a valued part of the university rank much more highly.

Most important of all is addressing information literacy. This is the pure and acute vector of tremendous student need and one of our professional core competencies. This is particularly acute at Holy Names, where many students are the first generation in their family to attend college, and it’s particularly acute in California, where school libraries are not mandated and the public school system is a mess, and it’s greatly exacerbated by the complexity of the world of scholarly information, where nothing is intuitive (it never was, of course, but now it’s the full opposite of intuitive) and we are running alongside the whole mess, changing tires on moving vehicles.

This is all a long wind-up to make a small observation. A couple of weeks ago we got one of those whiz-bang product offers that come our way, and it’s one of those products that if we were perched higher up the hierarchy would be too good to pass up: it’s a service to enable smartphone access to our web resources. And an enthusiastic library advocate for this service gave me the Big Sell.

The punchline here is that we don’t yet have a website worth accessing. We have a page with a handful of links, and we have a slew of online subject guides created by our temporary part-time adjunct librarian who I really hope we get to keep and if we don’t, may she go forth and do great things. We haven’t had the time or resources for a website. (In fact, that reminds me… I need to draft another internship, based on that.) We pretty much have what we need to stay afloat day-to-day.

So when I finally said, you know, we are simply not going to do this now, I’m sure I came off as one of those unhip administrators standing in way of really cool things we should be doing. And if I were up the hierarchy a bit more–and so were our students–I’d agree with that statement. Enabling smartphone access on our campus has one additional problem: most of our students don’t have smartphones. (Plus the pricing, while not bad, had a screwy scale; if your FTE for a product begins at 5000, you don’t “get” our situation.)

So I was feeling doltish about feeling so tepid about this, and then several things happened.

The first is that a student came in and hung her artwork on a freshly-rehabbed–and-painted wall (until very recently the home of dusty shelving filled with unused periodical indexes), and it made the library beautiful. People kept remarking on it. It was, to use a word the National Science Foundation adores, transformative.

Then we had a poetry and art event, where we read poems about spring and libraries and even cannibals, and ate brownies and tangerines, and we all agreed we needed more events like that. We have held three literary events this spring; I don’t know how, but we’ve done it. We have one more big hoo-ha on April 20 where we are rolling out our spruced-up facility with an all-campus barbecue, and I’m not sure how we’re doing that, either.

And I spent quite a bit of time this week peeling yet more layers from the history (or puzzle) of info lit at MPOW, to try to understand where we are, how we got here, and what we can do to give our students the best information literacy experience possible.

And then I taught two info lit classes to grad students, and in each one I said, I think, budget willing, we’re going to be able to license this software tool that will allow you to gather all your scholarly citations into one account (the idea of citation-management software being almost unknown on campus, even to most faculty), and the students were fascinated and excited.

And meanwhile, the handful of folks who are with me on that lowest level of Maslow’s kept weeding, and teaching faculty how to use technology, and planning new-technology roll-outs, and running daily reports what need to be run, and the student workers showed up and did a magnificent job as always. And we were, and are, and will be, very cool in our own right.

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