Please note: The below is the opinion of this writer.
Mission statement of the West Virginia Library Commission:
“The West Virginia Library Commission encourages lifelong learning, individual empowerment, civic engagement and an enriched quality of life by enhancing library and information services for all West Virginians.”
West Virginia libraries are currently ruled by administrators more eager to maintain the status quo than to train or prepare small, rural libraries and librarians for the future. This is a cautionary tale of poor library ethics and the problem with the state library commission model in West Virginia. I hope you will take a few moments to read my story.
I started as director of the Pioneer Memorial Public Library in Harman, West Virginia in July 2012. This small, rural library has a service population of 2,323 and a budget of about $35,000 per year. I loved this little library and immediately started making preparations to improve upon the amazing work that had been accomplished there since its founding in 1985. I started this blog as a way of reaching out to the local and larger community.
I also realized that I loved library work. I had worked at other libraries decades earlier, and coming back into a library environment reminded me how much I love a life surrounded by books and people. I sought out and applied for an Information Technology for Rural Librarians II grant via the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. In March 2013, I was notified that I was a lucky grant recipient, and I received a full-ride scholarship to pursue my Master of Information Sciences degree.
My Horrible Car Crash
Later that same month while driving to work I was the victim of a reckless driver. I was hit head on at high speed by another driver who had crossed the center line on a mountainous and curvy road. I was flown to Ruby Hospital in Morgantown where I spent two days in ICU, two more days in the general hospital, and four full months at home recovering from my horrible and painful injuries. When I had at last recovered and returned back to work, I was re-energized and passionate about serving my library, my patrons, and my community and completing my degree program. Many of my assignments focused on research statistics about my library and others available via the West Virginia Library Commission (WVLC).
Library Bullying in West Virginia
Now, all libraries in West Virginia that do not have a professional librarian need to have a service center. Our service center is the Upshur County Public Library (UCPL) in Buckhannon, West Virginia. I noticed that our service center was not supportive of me, a (mostly) solo librarian, in rural West Virginia. Instead of providing training or support, the director and business manager at this library started sending me threats of having our Grant In Aid money withheld if I did not supply board meeting minutes, board meeting dates, or board meeting attachments. These are minor infractions, and I was really thrown off by this not-so-subtle bullying and dismayed that I was not offered support, training, or encouragement.
At every library conference (and there are two each year) there were speakers from out of state who talked about the professional librarian shortage in West Virginia. This problem is also highlighted in "Creating a State of Learners,” West Virginia’s Library Services and Technology Act Five-Year Strategic Plan (LSTA), 2013-2017. Here is a quote:
"The key word for West Virginia libraries is education. West Virginia is among the lowest nationally in the number of MLS-degreed librarians employed per capita, with approximately 99 professional librarians in the state. Steps have been taken in recent years to improve the educational level of librarians, but there is still is critical shortage of both trained professional and paraprofessional workers. One reason for this fact is, according to many surveyed, that there are no set training criteria for West Virginia’s library workers. While numerous continuing education opportunities abound for both professional and non-professional staff, many libraries take advantage of no more than what is necessary to meet state regulations concerning grants-in-aid."
School of Information Sciences - UTK
My classes at the University of Tennessee taught me about new library technologies. After years of studying the library system in West Virginia I could see many opportunities for improvement and started making suggestions and offering constructive criticism. I could not get the person in charge of inter-library loans at the West Virginia Library Commission to return my phone calls or emails. The WVLC allegedly has a whole library set up to support librarians who are pursuing a degree, but I ended up buying my own textbooks every time. The one book I received from the WVLC took two phone calls and a couple of emails to receive it...late. I also studied the annual reports of the WVLC. Did you know they have an active library on site? It costs millions to operate but I have information from a reliable former inside source that their circulation numbers are less than that of the Pioneer Library, a rural WV library with about 11,000 items. You will not find the circulation statistics in any of the WVLC reports. (Or, if you do, you are a better researcher than I am...) While the WVLC board members, or commissioners, are state representatives appointed by Governor Tomblin, I could not find their contact information on the WVLC site.
The Northern Library Network (NORLN) holds a crowded meeting in Clarksburg every year where little is heard or accomplished. I suggested that the WVLC could save rural libraries a ton of money by recording the meeting (with a handheld digital camera) and uploading it to the Internet. This suggestion was met with incredulity. Many times when I contacted WVLC Secretary Karen Goff to ask her questions, her response was, "You are the first person to ever ask that." If you look at the NORLN website, it hasn't been updated since 2010 and no one really knows who the officers are unless you ask around. Minutes for these meetings have not circulated since 2012.
Disrespectful Library Colleagues
I knew I was making waves, but I also hoped that I was quietly sowing some seeds of change for the better for West Virginia Libraries. Instead, I believe I was singled out for and bullied by our alleged service center, and that this treatment was sanctioned from the top down. The reason I say this is because I complained to WVLC’s Goff about the attitude and behavior of my service center. I begged for politeness, better customer service, and started tacking a quote from the American Library Association's Professional Code of Ethics as a signature onto the end of my emails: "We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness, and good faith." Goff replied by saying the UCPL was doing the best it could and defending it.
While I was at the Pioneer Memorial Public Library I served as the state representative for the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (2015) and the chair of the West Virginia Library Association Director's Round Table, I presented new ideas for creative fundraising at the local and national level, I brought new fundraising ideas to the library, and I enjoyed some of the best library patrons one can imagine, a small but loyal following of library lovers who made my job delightful and challenging. I also received a grant from the Laura Bush Foundation for $5,000 to buy all new Juvenile Biographies for the kids next door at Harman School, one of the few pre-K-12th grade public schools left in the country. The best part of my job will never get a line on my resume: helping people write resumes, find jobs, and file for government services and having awesome conversations about everything and anything.
Library Ethics and Intellectual Freedom
Fast forward to about five weeks ago. My library board president received a phone call at her house from Karen Goff, who complained about me. Goff accused me of being unprofessional and confrontational. She also accused me of "compromising the reputation of the library." This was the part I found most disturbing. As a library that receives state funding through the WVLC, I perceived this as a veiled threat to withhold funding. This was exactly what the UCPL, our alleged service center, was also saying. The Pioneer Library has many rules and reports to abide by to maintain funding, and as former library director I can say that we met all of those requirements regularly. A vague threat of "compromising the reputation" reminded me of excuses that companies might use to squeeze out women, minorities, and other workers formerly perceived as socially undesirable. I felt marginalized and sad that the head of all libraries in West Virginia had been keeping a list of perceived inaccuracies and offenses going back for many months. Karen Goff not only had been keeping track of errors in my blog but had monitored things I wrote on the listserv for the American Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL). When I posted questions on the NORLN listserv, the library director and officer manager at UCPL told me to ask them first so "they don't appear unhelpful."
To protect my library and to protest a West Virginia Library Commission that in my opinion is not serving its rural libraries, I resigned my much-loved position as director and gave the requested four-week notice. My board and my patrons did not want me to resign, but my board asked me to "write a plan" to improve upon my lack of professionalism. I was deeply offended by this request since I didn't agree that I had shown a lack of professionalism, and this is another reason I resigned. But I don't blame my board. The WVLC provides the library with more than $11,000 per year, and the threat of losing this funding—representing one-third of our annual budget—is powerful. While it is not illegal to issue a veiled threat of withholding funding, I suggest that it is deeply unethical, especially in a profession that alleges to value intellectual freedom. This whole sad episode has made it clear to me that the WVLC, the Upshur County Public Library, and others are more interested in maintaining control and appearances and less interested in promoting and supporting West Virginia libraries and rural librarians.
Petty and Defensive Library Commission
My purpose in writing this is to expose a West Virginia Library Commission that seems to willfully embrace remaining in the 20th century and be bent on repressing passionate and professional librarians. Why did it take three years for me to be trained as a Level Two cataloger? Why does the head of all the libraries in West Virginia feel the need to bully and harass a rural librarian who made less than $15,000 per year with no benefits? Why can't the WVLC digitally record and upload training sessions? Why does the WVLC have an entire television studio (an outdated mode of communication for professionals) that only broadcasts in half of West Virginia's counties? Why can't the TV studio record and upload training sessions? (And, for the record, from July 2014 to April 2015 I worked 28 hours per week and was part-time. While this IS a violation of WVLC rules, I don't think my board president revealed this for fear of losing Grant In Aid funding from the state.) It is sad to me that libraries in WV are more worried about losing funding and appearances than in having well-trained and professional staff.
If libraries all over the country were not in trouble financially, none of this would matter. If the Institute of Museum and Library Services is in danger of being eliminated (something proposed by the US House earlier this year), all libraries nationwide are in trouble. But the bottom line is that library funding is a national crisis. As a young librarian with lots of technology and entrepreneurial experience, I wanted to bring corporate funding to West Virginia Libraries. In fact, Karen Goff invited me to present my ideas at a panel discussion last fall at the WVLA conference. I showed a NORLN library card that was co-branded with the Subaru logo and had done extensive research on the energy companies that own much of the state. Wouldn't it be great if WV libraries had substantial corporate sponsorship and didn't have to rely on donations and funding from legislators? Many libraries in the country already do this, so while my ideas are new to West Virginia, they are not new nationally. Without a centralized website that is regularly maintained, West Virginia libraries have little advertising clout.
The Bottom Line
I think I would also not be so upset and disgruntled if I hadn’t had a taste of what it is like to be supported from the top down in West Virginia. The previous Library Development Director, JP Myrick, was my "Cheerleader in Charleston." This dedicated and devoted library professional chastised my service library when it became hostile and unhelpful. Mr. Myrick acknowledged and was supportive of me pursuing my Master of Information Sciences degree. (Sadly, Mr. Myrick is no longer with the WVLC.) Karen Hiser, a previous administrator at the West Virginia Library Commission, visited my library and gave me such quiet and warm support. "How dedicated," she said, when I told her about my accident and how determined I was to return to work. Karen and JP and my wonderful UTK cohort and professors gave me lots of encouragement and advice that I will carry with me into my future library career. Today I filed the paperwork for my impending comps and graduation in the Summer of 2015 from the University of Tennessee.
The bottom line is this: I have come to regard myself as a fairly average human being. If I am having this experience in a small rural library, there must be others all over the country experiencing the same unnecessary drama that comes from lack of funding and leadership. (I'm sure the same politics play out behind the scenes in wealthy library regions as well, but my theory is that when there is less funding to go around there is more competition and less collaboration.) And because a powerful library administrator does not approve of me, I may be blacklisted from working in West Virginia public libraries as long as she remains. While I may not have a lot of recourse, I do have a voice—this blog—and the ability to put together some solid paragraphs driven by a love for libraries, knowledge, information, and intellectual freedom. If you have been the victim of a library system that is more interested in recording perceived infractions than in providing training and leadership, send me an email. I would love to hear from you. And remember, you are not alone. Eventually new ideas and new technology will prevail. But in the meantime, the war of Old Library versus New Library will continue in the sparsely-populated states that have less oversight for these smaller state agencies. While the battle is lost, the war is not over yet. Also, I have realized that even though I don't have a library, I am still a librarian.
A Sad Side Note
Another sad side note: Just before I left my position as director at the Pioneer Memorial Public Library, I learned that I was a grant finalist for the very competitive $35,000 Knight Foundation Grant to have a television whitespaces infrastructure set up in Harman, WV. This is a bandwidth technology that I have blogged about that has huge potential to keep small, rural communities connected in case of natural or man-made disasters. (After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Harman area was without electricity for 12+ days, and libraries are now considered second responders by FEMA.) This grant could have provided free wifi for the entire town of Harman, including Harman School, the Harman Fire Department, and the Harman Senior Center. Because I am no longer library director, I am no longer a contender for this grant.
My final p.s., I promise. I will confess one breach in my professionalism that was completely naive on my part. One day a few months ago, after a volley of emails back and forth with Karen Goff, I felt I could sense her annoyance with me. Her replies to me were becoming more terse. So I signed my final email to her that day with my name and the title The World's Most Annoying Librarian. I think I may have even added a Super Unprofessional smiley-face emoticon. My greatest sin in this whole interaction was assuming a sense of humor on the part of the recipient. This was one of the examples that Goff reported to my board president as an example of my unprofessionalism.
April 20, 2015, An Update: I just heard from a reliable source that my former library board president who fielded the phonecall complaint about me is now director of the same library. I'm sure she had to get special permission from Karen Goff and I am quite sure Ms. Goff gave it to her. That, in my opinion, is a library coup d'etat and makes this cautionary tale even more ironic and poignant.