Paula Brehm-Heeger

This is Circulating Ideas, I’m Steve Thomas. I was busy working on some other projects, and I did not want the show to suffer, so I asked some former guests of the show if they would come on and guest host for me. So this is gonna be the first one of those. The guest host for today is Brett Bonfield, he’s the director of the Collingsworth Public Library in New Jersey, and one of the founding members of In the Library With the Lead Pipe. Today’s guest is Paula Brehm-Heeger, and I’ll let him tell you all about her. Take it away, Brett.

Hi, this is Brett Bonfield, I am sitting in for Steve Thomas for Circulating Ideas, talking today with Paula Brehm-Heeger. Paula is the service operations manager for the Public Library of Cincinnati in Hamilton County, she is the also past president, and she is also the author of Serving Urban Teens, which was published by Libraries Unlimited in 2008. She is the co-author with Greg Edwards, of the award-winning “Remaking One of Nation’s Busiest Main Libraries,” it was published in 2010 in Public Libraries, and in 2010 she was also elected to ALA council, she started an MPA program at Northern Kentucky University in 2012. So Paula, thank you for joining me.

Thanks Brett, good to talk to you.

So, I want to start pretty much in order, so let’s start with your job at Cincinnati, when did you start at Cincinnati and can you just give a quick arc of your career there?

Sure, I started in Cincinnati in 2002 as a children’s librarian, actually, at one of the larger branches, and I then took a job as the first Teen Services Coordinator, they created that job in 2002, I stayed in that position until 2007, when I was appointed the manager of the teen spot, which was the newly created teen department at the main library in Cincinnati which we created as part of the restructuring we did, that is discussed in the article you mentioned, “Main Library 21” when we renamed our main library, I stayed in that position for not too long a time, was promoted in 2008, to the Central Region Manager which was a regional manager for the main library in six of our urban branches in Cincinnati, with 41 locations, so I had six of those branches in the big name library, and then just last year, I was again promoted when we reorganized, and now I’m the service operations manager, which means most of the public service people as well as some of the technical services, and other back end kind of departments report to me ultimately as well, and I report to the deputy director there in Cincinnati.

So, talk a little about the transition from being a teen services librarian to managing a larger and larger group of people.

Well, I think that teen services was great training for taking those kinds of roles, obviously I’ve had some more executive opportunities when I was with YALSA, where I did do some board work and some other work with groups of people outside of the direct teen services arena, but because it had, at that time it was really an area of growth, it was doing a direct service but both persuading and convincing other people that it was a service worth putting some resources to, and taking a lot of time to demonstrate the value and the return on investment, in investing in teens, so you know, Brett, you and I have talked about using data to build your arguments, and to make decisions, and to convince or demonstrate to others the value of what you’re doing, and I really felt like teen service was an area we had to do that, and I was in that role right when we were reorganizing our main library, we hadn’t had too much of a presence for teen services, we had had a separate teen collection, but it had just been books on shelves, not so much dedicated to what teens might like to do at the library other than pick up a book, so as part of that reorganization I spent a lot of time talking to the people on the team, the decision makers about why teens were important, and really having the opportunity to challenge their preconceived notions, but also to ultimately have the opportunity to examine what I was trying to tell them, to make sure that it was a convincing case, which was a great training, for higher level management, where I think it’s always, you can certainly always tell people what to do, but ultimately you want to persuade them and help them understand why it’s important, and I think teen services was important for helping me learn how to do that.

Is that the point where data became one of your calling cards?

I think so, I had had some experience when I was in Kansas City, where they were an urban library, Kansas City Public Library which when I worked there in the late 90s was the more city library focused bound by a larger county system, the Mid Continent Library, that had a lot of branches, but no big urban presence, so I think that there, they spent a lot of time trying to quantify use that was not really strict circulation, and I saw in that a lot of value and a lot of really otherwise, unseen points of service that we need to pay attention to. So I think some of that was, the foundation was in Kansas City where they were always trying to prove their value, when it wasn’t always so obvious through traditional circulation measures, but then when I came to Cincinnati I took some of those same foundations and started to overlay them to teen services, and looking at things from a different perspective, so absolutely found that librarians and libraries could be a little bit bound by just what they’d always measured, and not really realizing what they weren’t capturing, and that there were ways to quantify that.

Were there things that you found that surprised you, that went against what you expected to find?

Well, I think that what I found, I don’t know if it surprised me, as much as really clarified. So when we did some of our unobtrusive observations in Cincinnati to try and figure out  what people were really doing at the library, and what we found, which I think we all understood was probably the case, but boy did the data really demonstrate it was how much people were using the library space. Meeting with others, or even sitting by themselves, and how consistent that was and how much people’s behavior was indicating what they valued. And you could really see that. I also found it fascinating that we did thousands of observations, but once you started to enter the data, after only a couple of hundred you could really see the pattern, so it was also a fascinating way to sort of try to get a handle on looking at things for patterns, and thinking about what kind of data that you could gather that would make a case. So I don’t think I was surprised as much as grateful for the opportunity to see things a little bit more clearly, after we put together all of that data.

So you’ve taken your interest in data, and your interest in assessment and evaluating libraries, and you started working on a Masters of Public Administration, and I wanted to know how that’s influenced your thinking, and what people who study public policy know that maybe librarians don’t yet know, and what you’d like for us to know.

Well, I think a really good example is, actually in a current course I’m taking right now, which is a data analysis course, so we’re using SPSS and Excel and overlaying on general surveys for a variety of public policy questions who are using the GSS as a sampling of what we do, what we might want to build a paper about. And it’s very interesting in the class, to see what questions are asked in these general interest surveys regarding libraries. So it is clear that public policy and people who think about public policy sometimes include them in the surveys they do, individuals when they’re trying to gather general information from the public, about policy related questions, so and the sample I’m looking at right now, all of the questions are really about intellectual freedom which is fascinating, and they’re a little out of date feeling, so they have questions about, would you want to ban a book written by a communist from the library, so it’s fascinating to think that public policy people are aware of libraries and the important services that we offer, particularly in terms of democracy, but it’s also kind of interesting to see I’m not sure that they’ve had enough interaction with libraries or librarians to update what they think we really focus on, however, it’s fascinating and the other element that’s fascinating is I am actually building a data analysis paper, using these very questions, sort of a tolerance index about how people feel, about what should be in a library, what should be allowed in a library, what should be allowed to be accessed in a library, comparing it against different things from the public, and trying to come up from a very librarian, intellectual freedom, what makes people want to support intellectual freedom, what makes them not want to support it. Then in the middle of it I had a really fascinating conversation with a professor who started to talk about the cost of intellectual freedom from a public policy standpoint, he started to say don’t libraries then have methods by which they have to deal with people who want things off your shelf, and I think he meant it from so doesn’t somebody have to spend their time doing that, don’t you have to staff those kinds of things, what would it mean in terms of policy in terms of your resources, and it’s a very public policy sort of nuts and bolts, how much does it cost, what’s the cost benefit, which I thought was such a good question and so interesting, and something that librarians wouldn’t necessarily think of. So I think the public policy element for people in libraries is what we do is really relevant, but we should broaden our perspective. Likewise when you go into MPA courses, I think that there just hasn’t been that much representation from librarians, so the people there need a little bit of an update about the things that we actually face on a daily basis and how sure we do books, and we do reading, but we do all of these other important cornerstone pieces of democracy and community, so it’s a lot of give and take, and I definitely, when I say that I’m a librarian and I’m in an MPA class, it does sort of, people turn around and look and think what’s a librarian doing here, so I think it’s a great thing for librarians to do, and we certainly have our work cut out for us in educating people from public policy about current libraries.

So for people who want to dip their toe in the water, who want to start thinking like somebody who does public policy, or somebody who is interested in doing data analysis, what suggestions would you have for people who just kind of want to get started, and see if that’s a good way for them to improve their own work in their own libraries?

Well, I certainly think, trying to think about the actual data, I know that sounds obvious, but trying to actually think about the questions from an anecdotal standpoint, or not from what we believe to be true, like what is the actual truth of it, so one thing we’re sort of working on right now at my library is looking at correlations about what drives circulation.  And it’s really, that’s an interesting question in itself, and what we have found early on in our view of it is sometimes anecdotal or traditional ideas about what might drive people to come into your library and check things out, they don’t seem to have an actual correlation. I mean statistically, we don’t necessarily find that things you would necessarily assume are related to circulation, they may or may not have an actual correlation. And I know that sounds kind of data-y for somebody that is just looking at it, I think though the heart of that is just to set aside what you believe to be true, and try and construct questions that interest you as if you don’t know anything to be true. And in that is this fascinating element that data can help sort of tell the story, you know Brett, you and I talk about that all the time, people want to create a narrative, but if you just look at the data, the data will actually tell the story, so it’s a lot of librarians who love to construct narratives about what we do, and how we help the community, that’s great, but when you talk about data and public policy, it really has to be a little bit more bare bones and go to as if you don’t know anything, and build your argument from there, and start trying to think, what is it that I actually don’t know, or what is it that I actually do know, and I think people would be surprised, if they wrote down what they know to be true and not what they think to be true. One thing we talked a lot about with the main library reorganization and restructuring and the observations that we did, as sort of related to this question, in that our customers answer questions and respond to things, based on their idea of a library, and not really what they use the library for, and likewise I think librarians sometimes build our service or our buildings of what we do based on our idea of what people want, or idea of the facts instead of actually trying to determine what the facts are. I think public policy that are all about the actual facts, because they get called on the carpet a lot, as we are now in libraries to justify the funding and what they’re doing, and in order to do that you actually have to have facts. Feelings are great, but facts speak for themselves.

I want to leave this topic, let me backtrack. I don’t want to leave this topic, but I feel like this is just half of the reason that I wanted to interview you for this podcast. The other half is your professional involvement, and I want to talk about YALSA and ALA Council. But before we leave this topic, are there things that you recommend people read, we’re librarians, we always have to give a reference or readers advisory, I’ve already mentioned the article you published in Public Libraries, and I’m sure we can get Steve to put a link into show notes or on the website about that. Are there other pieces that you strongly recommend people read?

Well, when I got into the MPA field, I, and Brett I’ll take this in a slightly different avenue, because I think there’s great stuff in the library world. But I will say that when I got into the MPA degree and joined the association for public policy professionals, and then as part of that, fortunately I have a student membership right now because I’m a student, which is great, but part of that is you get an MPA administrative journal review, and it’s very, it can feel a little academic in some ways, but it isn’t necessarily, and it has great articles, all a lot about a lot of public policy fields. Police officers, teachers and the evolution of leadership and how they’re using data, and I actually would encourage anybody who’s thinking about this to peruse these MPA journals, I can certainly, Brett we can follow up and I can get a link to the association that I’m  about that gives you, much like ALA that gives you your monthly journal and your updates and your newsletter, for public policy professionals. Because in reading that, they are so data-centric because they have to be, and the most recent MPA journal that I read had this most outstanding article about homicide rates and police detectives, and the manner in which they really focused on bringing down homicide rates and how they’ve done that through weekly data checks with all of their precinct chiefs, and it just made me think, boy librarians don’t do that with data the way some of these other public policy based professions do. So Library Journal and all of the other great library articles, that’s great, but I think that there’s this bridge that people like you and I who are really interested in the data, and also interested in public policy, there’s great opportunity for borrowing and applying these things to libraries. So, again I’ll send you a follow up, but I have found recently in the last six months that reading those journals that are fascinating themselves, but also oh my gosh, there’s so much more we could do in the library world internally to adjust our service and present ourselves to the world in a different light as well.

I completely agree [laughs]. There’s so much I want to add, but I feel like I’d be doing listeners a disservice if we didn’t talk about your professional involvement, so let’s do that, why did you want to be the president of YALSA?

Well I think we talked a little bit about how I have been really fortunate in my career to have an interest in serving teens, right at the time where there was all of this opportunity. It was a great challenge, but of course in any challenge is inherently a ton of opportunity, and right at that moment it was just such an exciting time for teen services generally, it was another area that was opening up, and everybody was really interested in innovative, creative ideas and risk-taking, so it was fantastic to be sort of, a little earlier in my career and have the chance to just go full in and do some things and see what happened, so personally, when I thought about the arc of my career was great, because I kind of do like to do things a little bit differently, and here’s this field where there wasn’t a lot of tradition, you have to do it this way, there wasn’t a lot of argument, there was hey, you got an idea of how we might make this work, let’s try it, so that was also fantastic and I would also say YALSA as an organization was really exciting, Beth Yolk who was the current executive director was, had been in that position but not that long, and she’s, she’s fantastic, I just can’t say enough about Beth, she, I’ve described her as the most effective person I’ve ever known, which remains true, and she just seized every opportunity, I think Beth is the perfect example of a person who took that division of ALA and really put it on the map, and didn’t back away from any opportunity, even if it was at times, a little controversial, a little bit different, she just kept pushing forward, and I think some of the longer served members of YALSA who were in leadership positions, Judy Nelson and Pam Spencer Holly, and women and men who had been doing teen services before there was very much attention paid, or very limited resources available, those folks were so excited to have this attention, and such great people to learn how to make the most with what you’ve got, and how to not be afraid of making a challenging argument in front of people who didn’t necessarily want to hear your argument, and you really didn’t have a whole lot of hope that they were gonna believe you no matter what you said, or what evidence you might provide. So I think all of that really made me thrilled to be involved, and made me want to give back to the organization. So YALSA, it was great timing, but I just can’t say enough of, enough positive about that division, for people who are interested in pushing service forward and being effective.

So what achievement that YALSA had during your presidential year are you most proud to have been a part of?

Oh my gosh, that’s such a good question Brett, oh my gosh. Well, that was right when we were doing a lot of board discussions about how we might take our journals in a different direction and expand our online presence to include more people, so after I was president, Sara Debrasky and Linda Braun really did some great work with the blog and with YALSA’S social media presence but right at the time I was there again, Beth and I worked closely on the strategic plan, we had sessions at conference where we updated the strategic plan, got a lot of input and I think that helped drive some of those things that later presidents, later boards really built on, so I would definitely say setting that tone and getting the input, and then being aggressive in saying we’re gonna do these things, and push, push, push, I think that was a really positive thing for the organization.

ALA has thousands and thousands of members, but very very few people have actually had the opportunity to be the president of a division or president of ALA, what do we not know about what it’s like to be president that you learned while leading a division, I mean what insight can you give to those people who want to run someday, or who are just curious what it would be like?

Well it’s a lot of work, I think people know that, but it really is a lot of work, cause it’s a lot of member relations. At least if you want to do it correctly and give the members what they deserve, for their hard work and their membership dues, you need to be responsive. And you need to apply the same things in your everyday life, in your work life that you do to your ALA leadership life, so when a member emails you, you need to get back with them, within 24 hours if you can, and Pam Spencer Holly who I mentioned earlier gave me great advice as a YALSA leader, but I have certainly, I’ve said it to people in my professional life and I apply it all the time, and that is, just pick up the phone sometime, so you would have all of these things going on and these members across the country and doing all this, and you’d be so busy, but you know, you just have to stop and think, this is a person, this is a member, this is a volunteer organization, I’m gonna pick up the phone and we’re gonna have a conversation and figure it out. That was a great, great leadership lesson, but it does take time, so I think having the willingness to recognize that the members, when you take on a role like that, you do owe the members your time and attention, and you really have to take that seriously. And you have to listen to them, you have to seriously listen to them, doesn’t mean you can do everything but you do have that obligation. And it’s obviously a two way street and I think most leaders do, but sometimes I grow a little concerned that people in my age range, I guess that’s Gen-X, shy away from the responsibility of that because it is time consuming, and you do have to do that, so I think one thing people should understand is it has responsibility, it has obligation, but there’s great reward, you meet these people, you learn all of this, and as you mentioned, after my life at ALA after being YALSA president, I’ve really learned so much about the organization and now I’m able to be engaged, and represent both my interest in youth services, but some of these other pieces at a larger organizational level.

So after you left your term at YALSA, you ran for ALA council. What were you hoping to achieve, why did you want to do that?

Well I think again, I really like ALA. And I know that sounds kinda trite but it’s true, I really appreciate the people who work there, and I appreciate the members. And I think that council is the governing body of that association, and if you appreciate the association and you think you have some knowledge and some talents and skill, some desire to serve the organization, you should give that a shot and see what it’s like, so I did that with the hopes that I would gain some knowledge, and possibly be able to contribute a new perspective or a different perspective, it was right about that time when I really started to get interested in data-driven decisions, and I really started to believe that public policy and MPA style knowledge needs a bigger place in the library world. And the council is a great cross section of decision makers and leaders, and I think an influential body, if not always as a body itself, but the individuals there are influencers in the profession, and I think certainly what happens in council formally is important, but I think if there’s a larger move perhaps to try to get library education, to broaden its perspective on things like MPA and public policy, knowing those individuals is probably the best way to hear what they have to say and to share my thoughts, and perhaps see more influencers consider that as a direction we actually need to go.

So I’ve noticed as somebody who likes to show up and watch council deliberate, and who follows the read-only version of the council listserv, I’m not a member of council, but these are ways that anyone can follow how council works, that over the last, especially I’d say year, you’d gotten a lot more active in terms of guiding the discussion and participating in the discussion. Did it take a while to start to feel comfortable doing that?

Well I think, possibly, I also think that with so many people involved, it’s important not to react to, I guess you would say anecdotal responses from the group, so I think when I’ve tried to become active or involved, or present a different perspective or a perspective that I think is important, I don’t want to be redundant, so at times people had already represented that. But I also think that I prefer to talk when there’s actual real discussion and not one or two people who are sort of on the outside of a thing, just throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks, which I think is great, but not necessarily what council needs to be doing right now, so a great example is gosh, maybe two years ago, there was a resolution in front of council, about e-book access. And I think it pretty much got everybody’s vote, but I felt it was a little too, I did not feel it provided an avenue for the publishers and the people on the business side of e-books to have very much space to talk about their needs, and we had council bring out this resolution, and it’s not that I don’t think we should have access to e-books but I thought the resolution was a little premature because we had a working group talking about how to get access to e-books, and I felt like here’s this resolution and it’s not private public partnership feeling to me so I really felt like that wasn’t something anyone was saying, everyone was getting very involved in the righteousness of we need access, which was, we do, but it was at that moment I thought, you know, it’s important that people even if I don’t want to hear it or if I don’t think it’s gonna get that much traffic to bring something up for consideration. But I don’t think you want to do that too much, or you really really risk marginalizing the other perspective, so I think you have to balance it and really consider, is this something that everyone needs to hear and spend time on, or is this something I care about, or something that I feel righteous in saying at this moment, which is great, but council has a lot to do, so that’s probably not a thing to bring forward.

So that’s been one of the topics that ALA council has been talking about, on its listserv since Midwinter, and I gather also in ALA Think Tank is just the idea of council effectiveness in general, and the best way for council to deliberate and to choose its topics, and even the council itself. I know from reading your comments that you don’t feel like you necessarily have the answer, but you have suggested questions and approaches to figuring out what would be answers that you could accept, can you talk about that, how would you approach the question of making council more effective?

Well I think it’s really been, boy that discussion has really gone all over the place, hasn’t it, it’s a lot of, I think, Brett, I’ve referenced your report like three times, and I would love to actually just take a hand count of how many people in council have actually have read the report, because I think it, it’s an example of, it’s a weirdly microscopic example of effectiveness, because I feel like the group that you worked with Brett, that worked pretty hard on coming up with some starter points for discussion, and then I keep trying to get people to refer back to that, because why do that again if we have this document that has some starter points for discussion. So it’s a process element that is a little bit part of my request from my fellow counselors. But it’s also a content, because I think the report you worked on had some good content. I also think there are a lot of good suggestions, I think it demonstrates people’s idea of data, and actual data, so there’s been some numbers thrown around, this is what other people do, how is that not data, but data isn’t just numbers, it’s also an analysis and an outcome. So I haven’t necessarily seen a clear articulation of what the goal of a reorganization is, I mean I have my ideas, but some of it is just, let’s reorganize and then figure out our goal, hear what other people do, but I think if we’re gonna model council off of  other organizations, the question is what are they achieving that we haven’t achieved. I also think and I at times feel like people in libraries and members of ALA, it’s not that they find it distasteful but I think it is an association and we do have to talk about revenue generation, and budget, so and I and membership retention, and is this something that’s gonna make members go up, other organizations who have the structure you’re talking about, do they have more members, before or after they implemented that structure. What is the actual facts on that, so I think there’s a lot of emotion at times, but a lot of rote repetition of numbers but that’s not really data. So I think it’s a little bit of a hodge podge discussion right now, which is worth having, but it risks the larger question which I think is a really good question, is it the right size and the right makeup, I think that’s a really, I admire people who are courageous to bring that up because it always brings this flurry of people who just don’t want to change or don’t think we have to, I don’t think that that’s the answer either, but I think again, if it’s not done in an effective way, it marginalizes what’s really an important question, and I’d hate to see that happen.

So what’s the next big project that you want to take on?

Well I definitely have been talking about publishing library-related articles and public policy related journals, so currently as I mentioned, I’m working on an analysis of factors that contribute to individuals wanting to challenge books and libraries, and working with my professor, we haven’t found very much in the way of this kind of study in any sociology journals, so there are two or three journals that I’m looking at trying to target this article from publication, about libraries and library topic, but in a sociology public policy journal, because I think that is an avenue librarians and folks like you Brett, who are really really into public policy and really have a good feel for it, I think that’s what we need to do, we need to raise awareness in academic or public policy circles about library topics, but in the public policy voice and the public policy tone. So I am really hoping I can do this, I do love intellectual freedom, I think it’s a really important piece of what libraries do, and I would love to get thoughtful data based article in the hands of librarians, but equally into other professions to look at it, and consider other libraries and consider the things we deal with, and consider how that really does, how we do have a role in public policy and public life, they maybe haven’t thought about. So that is a very immediate thing, I’ve got my fingers crossed that I might be able to put something together of interest in that area.

I can’t wait to read it.

It’s really cool. [laughs]

Paula Brehm-Heeger, thank you for talking to me today, thank you for appearing on Circulating Ideas, and thanks Steve for letting us take over your podcast for an episode, talk to you soon.

Thanks Brett, it was great.

Thank you.