Thoughts for librarians

by Keith Eldred

My wife Janet and I are trying to do something special for the public library in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, that she has served as director for 15 years as of September 2019. Our project has a unique name, This is RED, and unique elements, but it intersects with situations in every library, so we asked to tell our story at the Pennsylvania Library Association (PaLA) Conference in October 2019.

This is RED is aimed at fundraising and education; is inseparable from relationships within the library and facing out; and involves roles at play in every library. So Janet and I might be playing a new song, but there are plenty of familiar notes and phrases for other libraries to remix.

Here is some brief background on Janet and me: We met in 1988 as employees of the late great Waldenbooks (she was my boss’s boss), fell in love, got married, settled in Hollidaysburg, raised three sons and gained three daughters-in-law and three granddaughters. During 11 of those years, we were at the center of a capital campaign that led to a brand-new $2.8 million library building that opened in summer of 2014. We have a lot to celebrate today and next September, when we’ll reach our 30th wedding anniversary.

There have been only a few clouds in our blue sky. Janet has been diagnosed with early-stage dementia and about the same time, epilepsy. She also became prone to passing out. Her dementia manifests mainly as terribly faulty memory; for instance, two weeks after a lovely trip (to a library conference, say) she won’t remember any of it, and sadly she does not recall any of our sons’ weddings.

Even those clouds have silver linings. The dementia has progressed extremely slowly. The initial diagnosis was in 2012—seven years ago as I write this—and Janet is still able to work. Her seizures and blackouts were relatively rare and now appear to be controlled by medicine. But because we don’t know what to expect, we decided that I would retire early from my corporate job of 29 years and work together to raise $1 million for Janet’s library while she can still enjoy the effort and contribute. That’s the goal of This is RED.

Why RED?

Well, I have a thing for red, firstly because it’s the last half of our last name. For years, I’ve told people to people to spell it “E-L-D and then Red like the color.” I like highlighting that. I realized that Red had worked its way into my subconscious when I wrote a whole novel called Red—in Latin, that is; the actual title is Rubrum. I’ve written eight books that I self-published to little acclaim, but Janet and I really believe in Rubrum, so when we decided to turbo-charge our bucket list, I swirled everything together into This is RED. Our website at www.thisis.red (see what I did there?) presents a three-part plan to raise $1 million for Janet’s library:

  • Create a bestseller and donate all the profits
  • Request direct donations
  • Redefine ”RED” to draw attention to our goals

To elaborate a bit on each element:

Create a bestseller

One of the meanings of “This is RED” is presenting my novel Rubrum and saying (in so many words) “You want to read a good book? Here it is. This is Red” until it becomes a bestseller.

But we sure don’t know yet how to create a bestseller. I’ve learned a lot of things to try. This is not the place to go into them at length, because I want to focus on what’s broadly applicable, but I’ll give one quick example.

Reviews can be crucial to a book’s sales, and generally speaking the more you have on Amazon the better. Even if a significant portion are bad reviews! I love to check in on one particular huge seller, an Oprah Book Club selection, whose reviews total 2,594 and currently break out in percentages like so, from 5 star to 1 star: 49, 17, 13, 11, 10. Talk about divided opinions! But the sheer number of reviews is what’s important, because it means many people are paying attention to the book. I’ve heard it said by a trustworthy sources that a book with at least 1,500 reviews has a good chance of becoming a perennial seller, so that is one of my goals. But another source I trust has isolated this rule of thumb: Each review requires roughly 500 sales or 5000 free promotional downloads. So to reach the possible-perennial-seller stage, I’ll have to sell 750,000 copies, give away 7.5 million downloads, or somewhere in between. Talk about a Catch 22!

But it’s meaningful for me to flounder at this, and to have Janet see me struggle. That is my primary goal—to share the attempt with her—but we do hope that it leads to creating a bestseller.

Invite direct donations

Do you have to read my 400-page book to support Janet’s library through This is RED? Nope! You can just give directly. We share that whenever we tell our story.

We tell the story as often as possible. In late spring of 2019, my latest brainstorm was to launch a summer speaking tour called ONE RED CENT. This is in the tradition of hugely lucrative, entertaining tours with sparkling names, including these huge hits from summer 2019:

Elton John
”Farewell Yellow Brick Road”
$101 million
51 shows

Justin Timberlake
”The Man of the Woods”
$76 million
38 shows

Ed Sheeran
÷ (pronounced ”Divide”)
$71 million
20 shows

Pink
”Beautiful Trauma”
60
29 shows

Kiss
”End of the Road”
59
43 shows

Our tour “One Red Cent” grossed somewhat less than those tours. My hook was that our fundraising talk was not free—we charge one penny. After all, when you hold it up, you can say ”This is RED.” I was hopeful that by the end of the year, we would rake in a dollar in fees. Maybe a quarter by the end of the summer! I started spreading the word on social media. I had a 5-foot diameter penny made, and we showcased it in two videos.

The result: We have yet to break a nickel.

But that’s only in speaking fees. We have been touched by direct giving. One of the talks was at our own church, in conjunction with a music festival, and the proceeds surpassed $5,400. We have received unexpected checks. There is now a large clear plastic donation jar next to the big penny on display in Janet’s library, and children enjoy dropping in their coins. Paper money also makes its way inside: Ones, fives, tens and even twenties.

We are still a long way from a million dollars, but it’s humbling to see this giving. And once again, Janet and I are meeting our primary objective: This is all happening in time for her to see it, however much time is left. The truth is, each of us is in the same situation: We all know that our days will end, we just don’t know when. So the time to chase dreams is now.

Redefine “red”

I readily admit that the many ways that I play with the theme “Red” are much too clever (as is the aural pun at the start of this sentence … gotcha!) Rubrum is a terrible title that has to be explained. It’s confusing to use “.red” as a domain, especially since I don’t like to junk up the look of “thisis.red” by including “www.” Something is just plain wrong with the fact that it always slays me when “This is RED” appears on a T-shirt that is red, and more so when it appears on a shirt that is NOT red.

Also, I have put far too much time into the would-be memes that I post every weekday. Each ”Daily RED” is an image whose caption is an anagram that spells RED. For instance, below are the five graphics I posted last week.

Click any image to enlarge it

This week, pandering to librarians at the conference where I first presented these thoughts (and also because I love books), I posted these:

I’m up to a total of about 160 Daily RED graphics (see them all here). Does anyone even notice these? Much less look forward to them? I’ve gotten a few likes on social media, but my audience is mostly crickets. So is this Red-themed approach a waste of time?

I often think I am the worst person possible to set out to raise a million dollars under an indefinite deadline. I’m a bad business person. All I can offer is integrity, earnestness, persistence and enthusiasm. And way too much cleverness.

But you know what? All of this is me. This is the kind of stuff I do. And if nothing else, Janet is getting to see me be me. So in that way, we are spending as much of our time together as possible. Because she’s not getting partial me, she’s getting all of me, the full Keith experience. So once again, even if I do say so myself, we’re nailing our primary aim of reaching for this goal side by side. Even if I’m leading the effort abysmally, I’m still going for it, and she’s getting to see me do it for her and with her.

And you know what else? Producing the Daily RED has heightened my sense of how often you see what you look for. When I need to come up with five scenes a week to somehow point to RED, I can. I have been truly surprised that life keeps showing me RED. And because Red stands for some of the best things in life—love, warmth, passion, energy, effort—I find that more and more of life is infused with positivity.

In the Daily RED, I have published scenes of actors, animals, laborers, food, lovers, railroad tracks, athletes, fitness nuts, healthcare workers, old people, children, toned models, my mother, my granddaughter, a drone, dryers, scenes from the Bible and Mark Twain—plus a statue of Mark Twain—and much more. I’ve come to suspect that RED—or whatever you are looking foris always there. Maybe it’s not true. Maybe this will run dry. But if I can just keep it going for another day, that’s good. That’s all that life is: Just trying to keep it going for another day.

Anyway, this third element is about getting people to see more RED, notice more RED, think more about RED. And maybe somehow, some way, that will lead to a million dollars for one library. And maybe more funding, for more libraries.

So that brings us up to the present: Janet and I are a disabled-but-persevering woman and her impractical-but-determined husband promoting a good book with a bad title, each of us in a shirt that says it’s red whether or not it is, aiming for something big, and one way or another, believing that we’ll reach it.

All well and good for us! What does this mean for YOU? For you as a library professional and for your library? Is there anything here for libraries in general?

Maybe! We wanted to share some thoughts in three areas in particular:

  • Adapting to a disability in a library setting
  • The interplay of relationships on library projects
  • Intertwining roles in a library

Here we go. These are summaries of discussions that Janet and I have had:

 

 

Adapting to a disability in a library setting

A library’s primary purpose is education, and this is fulfilled with collections of books and other materials, spaces conducive to education, equipment such as computers, copiers and projectors, and of course guides and instructors in everything from research to model rockets.

And sometimes the educational resource is a person EMBODYING an aspect of life, literally in their BODY. Displaying disability is a service to others. You might be a person who teaches about musculoskeletal problems because you have musculoskeletal problems, and people can see you in the library. Or about blindness. Or Tourette’s.

I don’t mean to be glib about this. I know that people vary in being open to differences or to discussing their differences. But I also know that I learn by being around people with differences, whether or not they want me to. It was a mental journey for Janet and me to decide to be open about her disability, but ultimately her dementia was going to be evident, and we realized that open sharing can be helpful. People grow in understanding around Janet. The Library staff definitely has learned that dementia can mean many different things, including that it can progress very slowly and include pockets of inability within broad expanses of ability. The community at large has a new example that a public professional can serve with a disability, as well as an example of a board of directors exercising compassion. And with articles such as this one, Janet and I are sending the same information into the larger world. Janet does not only oversee an institution of education, she is a walking, talking educator. That has eye-opening value.

 

 

The interplay of relationships before and during library projects

A library is a collection of relationships, all criss-crossing. Dynamics are at play every which way between visitors, program participants, volunteers, coworkers, colleagues in other libraries, board members, community and business contacts and leaders, suppliers, donors, partners at home—and that is probably not a comprehensive list. Consciously or unconsciously every library develops a culture. Author Seth Godin speaks of tribes bonded by the fact that “people like us do things like this.” Whether or not you realize it, you are making decisions based on culture and thinking, “We can or cannot do that here, based on how everyone here interrelates and views the world.”

If we use the term “experiment” for our being open about Janet’s dementia and launching This is RED, then Janet’s library was a suitable laboratory. We sensed that. And when I trace back why, I think a lot of it has to do with Janet herself. Janet is fundamentally committed to equality and acceptance. One of the many ways that she demonstrates this is her interaction with court-ordered volunteers; for example, a person serving a DUI sentence involving public service. Janet is unfailingly welcoming and respectful with these volunteers, and she never pries. She also does the whole range of work at her library. On a given day, she might speak at a Rotary meeting in a business suit, and then change into shorts and water the plants outside, so she directly demonstrates that the library is for everyone: We’re all the same here. That includes the disabled, and now she is among the disabled. She helped create a place that welcomes the person she has become.

Each of us helps create the world. What kind of world are you creating in your library?

Beyond that, if you undertake a significant project in your library, how will it test the various relationships at play? Broadly speaking, everyone who learns of Janet’s disability is supportive, but there can still be difficulties. Seizures have startled volunteers, and seeing Janet pass out can be downright scary. It’s upsetting to recognize after the fact that a person that Janet didn’t recognize was a longtime donor or Friend of the Library. Colleagues in other libraries have had to adjust to what Janet now can and can’t do related to the broader county system, and it might lead them to wonder at working events, “Do I have to keep an eye on her?” Well-meaning donors that we have attracted to the cause can unknowingly complicate life by introducing new tasks related to their events. And life at home has its own ups and downs tied to the new effort.

These are the kinds of things that make you question your own decisions about a new initiative. Is this the right choice? Did it start out the right choice and then become the wrong choice? Am I asking too much of others? How will I know if I am more of a liability than an asset?

On the other hand, a special effort can also enhance relationships. In many cases, Janet and I have seen her coworkers and colleagues step up and welcome new responsibility to accommodate her. We were touched when her library’s board chose to create a new budget line for This is RED, for income anticipated. To us it meant more than an accounting necessity; it was a demonstration of faith, and it brought a welcome sense of obligation. And as mentioned, we have been surprised and inspired by donations and decisions to pre-order Rubrum. Stepping into the unknown can bring inspiring responses.

A simple summary of this point is: Regard relationships in your library before and after you launch a significant project. They make or break your project, and they can bring some of the greatest rewards.

 

 

Intertwining roles in a library

This final point is about recognizing that you simultaneously might be several different people relative to your library. Between Janet and me, we take in all of these roles: author, reader, employee, advocate, volunteer and donor. And that “multiple personality” blossomed into this project that only we could do for our library. It is a unique expression of who we are as Library People.

You are also a Library Person. Your own library, and libraries in general, capture your heart and mind in a special way. To some extent, you were made to do something for your library that only you can do. And the same goes for particular visitors and donors. You and they might have a love that you simply need to express. You might need to “propose” to your library, to enter into some kind of marriage, to form your future together in order to fully find yourself. If it never dawns on you to, in this sense, consummate your relationship with your library, your soulmate … well, that’s just sad!

So open your heart to your own special project. And move others to open their hearts. You never know where it might take you. Be wise as you move forward: Manage expectations from yourself and others. Monitor costs. Don’t freak out if relationships are tested, because relationships might also be enhanced. Know that you will never know everything you need to know before you start. You learn as you do.

And watch for surprises.

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