Thursday, August 26, 2010

Suggestion: Putting LSSI to the Test

There ought to be some quantification of how libraries change when LSSI takes over in the summer of 2011. Users have come to expect a certain level of service and a certain depth and breadth of material availability. It's only logical to suspect that changing who runs the libraries will lead to changes in what residents get out of those libraries.

Per usual, City Staff have supplied estimates only for changes that favor withdrawal from the County of Los Angeles Library System: there will be 19% more hours at local branches, and the budget for book purchases will increase by 22% once the County no longer runs the show.

But what about other indicators of library excellence?

*How many MLS (Master of Library Science) holders will work at libraries once LSSI takes over?
*How many materials will users have immediate access to once LSSI takes over?
*How long will it take to obtain a copy of obscure volumes available only via inter-library loan once LSSI takes over?
*What programs will be offered to library visitors once LSSI takes over?
*Will library staff be able to provide the same level of expertise and assistance once LSSI takes over?

These and many other questions were brought up at Tuesday's City Council Meeting, with most speakers fearing that their library-going experience would diminish in quality come July 2011. I think this hypothesis should be tested. For example, one could record how long it takes to receive a copy of The Lyrical Poems of Robert Herrick now and again in August 2011. Similarly, one could compare the wait time for a best-seller now and again in August 2011, or count the number of MLS degree holders now and again in August 2011. It wouldn't be hard, and it would provide some concrete measure of how things change, since the City seems to be unconcerned with demanding specific deliverables from LSSI.

I recognize this is an exercise in futility. It would be next to impossible to unring the bell of withdrawal from the County system, even if LSSI can't match the quality of its service. Still, it's important to know if any major changes have occurred so that those who have made promises may be held accountable and so that something more concrete than an anecdote may be offered in support of/against LSSI's way of doing things.

This is mostly just an idea, but if you'd like to help put libraries to the test so that those interested in City issues may lament/celebrate the change, email me at iheartscv with the usual @ and suffix.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Happenings: City Council Breaks What Wasn't Broken

Note: "This evening" and similar refer to the night of the 24th, of course.

There was just one important choice for the City Council to make this evening: allow the County of Los Angeles to continue running our local libraries, or hand over operations to privately-owned, Maryland-based Library Services & Systems (LSSI)[1][2].

As the meeting approached, the room teemed with hundreds of Claritans, over seventy of which were clad in bright red “I [heart] LA County Libraries” t-shirts[3][4]. Even more library devotees were standing outside the crowded room. Lynne Plambeck and Carole Lutness circulated serenely through the masses, seemingly pleased with the turn-out. Comment cards were distributed and shy, bookish types were urged to speak up. There was a palpable sense of excitement and camaraderie at the back of the room where residents stood shoulder to shoulder, ready to cheer on their own and fight misleading claims with heckles, head-shakes, and hisses.

It was the type of crowd that should have given the City Councilmembers some pause before making a decision about changing a system that has ably served residents for decades. The vast majority of speakers weren’t City Council “regulars," but people motivated simply because they love the current library system. Speakers ranged from under ten to over eighty years of age. They used libraries for myriad personal purposes, whether checking out the latest untranslated Korean drama, getting books on CD for long commutes, or conducting research for school reports. They sat alert and engaged well past ten o’clock at night. They brought up valid point after valid point in defense of the status quo: there are no major complaints about the current system; inter-library loans are fast and free; it is hugely beneficial to have access to all of LA County's millions of volumes and online resources; the County has never cut local library hours; and, most importantly, the system isn't broken and needed no "fixing."[5] But ultimately, the crowd was ignored. They lost their plea to keep local branches connected to a vast, diverse, and responsive network of libraries scattered throughout LA County.

And it was the very worst sort of loss. No one on the City of Santa Clarita staff or from LSSI was able to successfully articulate what they would do better than LA County[6], and their presentations were filled with gaffes, insults, factual errors, and unconvincing arguments. This made their eventual victory over the people of Santa Clarita all the more astonishing and insulting.

It began with presentations from Darren Hernandez and LSSI. So much of his presentation demands derision that it's hard to pick out the worst bits. One memorable moment was when a speaker pointed out that Hernandez had no grasp of the current state of Santa Clarita's libraries--he doesn't even own a county library card![7] In response to many questions, he offered intentions and hunches in place of promises and facts. For example, he spoke about "access" to libraries for those living outside of the City (e.g. someone from Stevenson Ranch can walk into the library) but made no assurances as to how much they would have to pay for full library privileges. He couldn't name complaints against the current system when asked. And best of all, he twice bragged about how LSSI-run libraries have more copies of a single book, Sizzling Sixteen, than does the County of Los Angeles. So if you like literature about a sassy bail bondswoman from New Jersey who tries to track down her cousin, Vinny, while having various sexual trysts along the way, then you'll have plenty of copies at your disposal once LSSI takes over[8].

The representatives from LSSI weren’t much better at making a case for the takeover. Their presentation stretched well beyond the allotted thirty minutes. (Rather insultingly, County Librarian Margaret Todd wasn’t afforded a similar amount of time to make the case for LA County control—Mayor Laurene Weste just gave her a last-minute allowance to exceed the normal three-minute comment period). We heard from LSSI employees like Barbara Wolfe of Moorpark, who chose to insult Santa Clarita's librarians by saying “I did not enter this profession for the promise of a government pension." Perhaps she was feeling defensive as she had unsuccessfully attempted to earn a Ph.D., which would make her less competitive an applicant for the expertly staffed County system[8] People from places like Shasta County (“one step away from Appalachia” as my friend put it) were flown in by LSSI to brag about how their company had brought about such sweeping changes as curbside book drop-offs, DVD collections, and weekend operating hours. It wasn’t long before residents became openly hostile to tools from LSSI bragging about how they delivered services that the County has long provided to the people Santa Clarita. Bob Kellar actually told the speakers that they were wasting time by being "repetitive", at which the crowd applauded uproariously.

I have already discussed the composition of the pro-County crowd and covered their main points, but I'll review them briefly. After LSSI spoke, Claritans delivered some two hours of testimony that was all but unanimously in favor of keeping local libraries a part of the Los Angeles County system. Despite their preference for County control, many were open to discussing LSSI or City control of library operations--they just wanted more time to become educated about the issue and to weigh all of the alternatives. County Librarian Margaret Todd said that she was "a little offended" at how the editorial staff of The Signal had disparaged her in their efforts to service the City. The City/Signal had done more to demonize her and the County as thieves than to discuss how to best operate libraries in upcoming years. There were a number of technical objections about whether the City could actually secure tax dollars it claims it can and about obligations to provide service to people in unincorporated areas. Most speakers didn't care that much about extended hours, the main perk that staff touted. There was even a cute little kid from Rio Vista whose parents wrote him a speech that made him sound like an old soul indeed: "We have enough things changing around us!" He knew his way around the library and didn't want it to change. Overall, there was no immediate need for such sweeping changes, and there were many legitimate reasons to continue discussing options for library management. Thus, there was no reasonable course of action to take other than continuing the item to a future meeting.

But who said the City Council is reasonable?

When it came time for the various members to discuss the matter, Laurie Ender went first. She was eager to dismiss the people who came to make comments at City Council meetings. She essentially said that the dozens of speakers at tonight's meeting didn't represent most of Santa Clarita, and that her discussions with disinterested, uninvolved school moms would play a larger role in shaping her decision than the testimony of passionate library users. Her main concern was opening a shiny new library that will appeal to moms like her simply because of its novelty.
Marsha McLean and Laurene Weste came off as even less astute than Laurie Ender, asking questions and uncritically accepting the responses of Darren Hernandez, even when he just offered guesses. (e.g., Would there be unduly lengthy delays of 3-5 weeks before loans from other libraries were received? The answer seemed to be maybe...hopefully not). Mayor Weste made infuriating remarks about how proud she was that people turned out in the interest of libraries and that they sat through the whole meeting, applauding them for "participation" rather than listening to the content of their words.

Frank Ferry gave a long and uninteresting speech about how all City money should stay in Santa Clarita and provide services to local residents. But prior to the last two years, Margaret Todd said that the County has given Santa Clarita libraries more than its residents paid in taxes. And even if Santa Clarita was "over-paying," it wasn't by much--about 6% of local dollars might be spent elsewhere in the County on libraries from which Claritans can freely borrow materials.

Finally, Bob Kellar said that his mind hadn't been made up and that he, like nearly all of the other speakers, wanted more time to think about the various alternatives.

But Bob's fellow councilmembers were in quite a hurry to fix a system that nobody complained about and that many loved dearly. Thus, 4-1, the agenda item was approved, and LSSI will take control of library operations in 2011.

It's clear that passage was all about the new library being built in Old Town Newhall. City seizure of the local libraries means formerly inaccessible tax dollars can be redirected to building the new library building, opening up other funds for various other uses in Old Town. Councilmembers eager for outward displays of their beneficence were worried that they might have to open a half-full library next year if the County stayed in control, which would make for a less than impressive ribbon-cutting ceremony. In short, the urge to make something new drove them to sacrifice one of the great, historic assets for those living in Los Angeles County.

After the City Council voted, the crowd started yelling "Recall, recall!" and then poured out of the room, defeated. Public opinion just no longer seems to interest the likes of Laurie Ender, Marsha McLean, Laurene Weste, or Frank Ferry.

More insults followed.

It was time to appoint new commissioners, and no one reappointed Diane Trautman to the Planning Commission, where she had been the sole voice of sanity.

Hunt Braly had been standing at the back of the room, fatly, before the final item, an "Urgency Ordinance", came up for discussion. Speaking on behalf of the large, established auto-dealers (FLEMWATCH alert!), he said he supported the City's moratorium on opening any new automobile retail sales businesses. The agenda item was truly ridiculous, citing potential health and safety dangers to the public as justification for the moratorium. In reality, it was protection for what many refer to as the good ol' boys network.

The meeting ended a little before midnight.

[1]Here is the agenda.
[2]There was actually a third possible choice: allow for a study/comment period of several months and THEN make a decision. This is what should have happened.
[3]I don't normally like attending meetings in person, but this is one I was glad to see first-hand. With all those t-shirts it was like disappearing into a red sea--I now know how Pharaoh's army felt.
[4]I've noticed that certain people have been writing the shirt motto as "I Love LA County Libraries." This is a mistake; it was a heart, not the word love, that appeared on the shirt. And there is a huge difference between hearting something and loving it. Take note, Christopher Glotfelty and Natalie Everett.
[5]Variants of the phrase "If it ain't broke don't fix it" (my favorite being "If it ain't broke, don't break it!") functioned as an oft-repeated rallying cry for pro-County forces.
[6]I'm not being completely fair. They said they would offer an additional nighttime hour of service and be open on Sundays for branches that currently aren't. Whoopee.
[7]His rebuttal was that he had several city library cards that worked outside of Santa Clarita, which brought only more laughs and ridicule from the crowd.
[8]Yes, that's an accurate plot summary of the book. Check Amazon.
[9]She apparently didn't complete her dissertation.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Only in SCV: Noyaca Cover-up Backfires on Bridgeport

Yesterday, the Bridgeport Homeowners Association posted signs around the perimeter of their neighborhood[1]. They bear the text “PRIVATE PROPTERTY. Bridgeport Community Association Residents ONLY…NO PHOTOGRAPHY.” Many passersby found the signs off-putting and unneighborly, likely the work of reclusive busybodies living in SCV’s Little New England. But according to Dr. Cassandra B. Taylor, archaeologist and cryptozoologist[2], the signs are serving a far more sinister purpose. She states “This is more proof that the people of Bridgeport have something to hide from the greater public: a large, dangerous lake monster.”

Noyaca, the lake monster of Bridgeport, is something of an open secret among Bridgeportians. Many residents have seen suspicious shadows beneath the lake and more than a few have had pets mysteriously vanish from the front yard, accompanied by no clues save drag marks to the water's edge. Old-timers say the homes were built so close together to act as a fence, keeping the monster from rampaging through the valley. The fact that it is rarely seen, however, relegates Noyaca to the status of myth or legend for many. And that’s precisely how the Bridgeport Homeowners Association wants to keep things. I called the HOA office to ask about their new photography policy, but the moment I mentioned Noyaca I was told “That is a ridiculous story and I would stop repeating it if I were you. This conversation is over.”

A now iconic image.
Dr. Taylor suggests that photographers are being harassed and threatened with trespassing charges because of a photo recently posted on her website. The photo, sent to her by an anonymous Claritan, shows an immense animal with a long, sinewy neck, humped back, and whip-like tail drifting through Bridgeport’s waters. When the image attracted media attention, skeptics were quick to dismiss it as a fake. The Bridgeport Community Association issued an official statement that "The photograph is clearly doctored. Bridgeport is a safe, wonderful community free of large aquatic monsters. Prospective home buyers should be certain to visit us." However, photography experts have yet to decide whether the photograph is authentic or an expertly constructed hoax. "The image is extraordinary, to be sure, but there are no obvious signs of tampering" says Dartmouth University's Prof. Hany Farid, digital forensics expert. His investigation is on-going.
Noyaca doubters have also argued that such a large creature couldn’t possibly go unnoticed for so long in Bridgeport. Frank Hoffman, superintendant of Placerita Canyon Park, admits to being a skeptic himself but conceded that “With all of those secluded coves and maximum depths in excess of ten feet, there would be plenty of places for a large aquatic predator to hide in Bridgeport Lake. Fish, frogs, and ducks would provide an abundant food source.”
The photograph of the monster's silhouette is not the first evidence of Noyaca. Dr. Taylor famously uncovered a cave painting during one of her Bridgeport Lake excavations. Radiocarbon dating revealed the work belonged to the late Expansion Period, circa 2003[3]. She describes the scene as “A family of three raising their arms to Noyaca in a dramatic display of awe and supplication." She explained that "The first pioneers in Bridgeport formed many superstitions and even cults around the being of Noyaca. It’s how they made sense of their strange new world filled with bizarre lighthouses, nautical motifs in the midst of a desert, and, of course, a lake monster.” Back then, home values rose whether a lake monster was present or not, so residents were more willing to have open discussions about the creature.

(left) Lesser-known photographic evidence includes this Google Earth image of the lake monster from 2004.
(right) Known until recently as "The Sacrifice", this 2003 cave painting is the earliest known depiction of Noyaca.

Try as they might to dismiss Noyaca as imaginary, the Bridgeport Homeowners Association has taken very real steps to appease and control the monster. Since it is widely known to feed on unattended pets, HOA officials rapidly remove any “missing pets” flyers posted on lamp poles and have enacted an ordinance forbidding all signs (except those forbidding visitors and photographs, obviously). These measures are intended to smother any neighborhood hysteria before it has a chance to take root. Though the monster has never been known to take a human life, paddleboat hours have been reduced to 2-7 pm on weekends only[4]. For the duration, a private security guard monitors the lake, armed with mace and a cell-phone ready to call the Sheriff's Department. The widely publicized attempt to poison American Coots[5], one of Noyaca’s primary food sources, has been interpreted as a ploy to starve the creature out of Bridgeport or to indirectly poison it. Now, it seems the only option the HOA has left is to ban the people of SCV from wandering its paths and taking pictures. "Disclosure will hurt property values, so they're keeping out photographers and pretending Noyaca doesn't exist" lamented Dr. Taylor.

Canada Geese commonly leave the lake and enter busy roadways surrounding Bridgeport. Are the geese looking for food, as conventional wisdom dictates, or are they perhaps fleeing from a dangerous underwater predator?
Ironically, the attempt to ban photographers has brought more than ever. Those with little more than a passing interest in the neighborhood have been turning out to snap photos in defiance. With renewed interest in the lake, it appears only a matter of time before unequivocal proof of Noyaca’s existence emerges from Bridgeport’s timeless, enigmatic waters.

[1]KHTS's Carol Rock broke this story.
[2]Dual Ph.D. program at College of the Canyons. Her dissertation, entitled "A Terrible Beast From the Depths Emerged: Noyaca's Impacts on Early Bridgeportian Culture" may be reviewed at COC's library.
[3]This date is consistent with other artifacts found at the dig site, such as Ugg boots and a primitive iPod loaded with music by Nelly.
[4]The modification appears without explanation on the official Bridgeport Valencia website.
[5]Even without the poisoning program, American Coot numbers have declined. Perhaps Noyaca is to blame.