Dr. Gabriel Morley, new director for the Calcasieu Parish Library System. (Brad Puckett / American Press)
Dr. Gabriel Morley, new director for the Calcasieu Parish Library System. (Brad Puckett / American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, July 16, 2012 12:38 PM
Gabriel Morley began work as the new Calcasieu Parish library director earlier this month.
Prior to arriving in Lake Charles, Morley was the library director at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee. He also served as director of the three-county Pike-Amite-Walthall Library System in Mississippi. He began his library career at the Washington Parish Library System, headquartered in Franklinton and guided that system through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
Morley has a doctorate in education and a master’s degree in library science, both from The University of Southern Mississippi.
The American Press interviewed Morley about his views and vision of the Calcasieu Parish Library System.
American Press: What is your background?
Morley: My work background? Well, I started off, I was a newspaper reporter and editor over in Bogalusa. I did that for almost 10 years and still did some sports stringing even after I left that. Because everyone in the news business works seven days a week, 365 days a year, my wife was also in the news business and when she got pregnant with our first child we said, ‘‘Well, one of us has to do something because we can’t both continue this lifestyle with a child.’’ So it was either she goes to nursing school or I go to library school. And we knew I would become rich and famous going to library school, so here we were, decision made.
I went to library school at night. I worked full time. I got my library degree and became director of the Washington Parish Library System. I did that for almost three years. I went to McComb, Mississippi right up the interstate and was the director of a regional system there of the Pike-Amite-Wathall Library System has those three counties.
I was there for almost three years and got a little itch after the hurricane. My parents didn’t fare too well during Katrina, so that gave me a little impetus to expand my social justice mission beyond the newspaper and beyond the library, and I said, ‘‘Well, I’m going to run for Congress.’’ But my major failing was I didn’t have a platform. So I needed to develop that platform. So I said, ‘‘I’m going to become an education expert. Then I’ll have a platform and I can use that as a launching pad.’’
So I went back to school and got a doctorate in education. I decided to stay in libraries. The congressional thing doesn’t work out the way you think it will work out. It’s not really and apply-for-the-job-and-get-it thing. There’s still time, though. I still have a long career ahead and that’s not totally out of the question.
We need to enact some policies that are sensible and are going to benefit people. For some reason, I think I’m somebody who can do that. And right now, the library is the place to do that. The library is a laboratory for ideas and we can use this position as a way to experiment and figure out different ways that we can benefit the public good. Libraries really define the expectations of the community.
I think we will have a good time here. There are good resources, there are good facilities, there’s a good staff, it’s a good size area. I think there will be a lot of benefits here.
American Press: What is your assessment of the system in the parish?
Morley: This is one of the healthiest in the state. If you look around Louisiana, the Calcasieu budget is larger now than the New Orleans public budget. You have a healthy, steady source of revenue because libraries are funded through property taxes. So many other areas that are suffering because of people either moving out of the area or industry, or a regular economic downturn.
Calcasieu and this area has really blossomed and really weathered the storm nicely. Libraries all over the country have been cut. State aid for the state of Louisiana was eliminated for public libraries. But Calcasieu is healthy.
It’s a good system. It’s got qualified people and a good structure and foundation to build on. It’s that time. It’s that time for Southwest Louisiana to claim what it’s always wanted from southeast Louisiana and the north can just continue to fight us.
American Press: How many library facilities are there in the system?
Morley: I think we have 13 branches now. They merged Bell City in with Hayes within the last two or three years. ...
American Press: How many employees does the system have?
Morley: We are up around 150. They are spread out real well. We have good coverage. That’s the hallmark of the library service. That was the idea before I got here and that’s still the idea. That’s one of the things the board was looking for when they hired someone was someone to continue that public service mission, more so than some areas.
Libraries have expanded into technology and done other things and we will continue to do that and experiment in those areas, but service really drives what we are doing here. That’s our product.
American Press: What is the budget?
Morley: I think this year we will be close to $9 million, depending out how much the ad valorem comes in. I think they estimated our budget right around $9 million and I think it’s gone up the last couple of years. It’s $8.9 (million). That’s a good amount. That puts Calcasieu well within the top 10 in the state and encroaching on the top five. No one is going to touch EBR (East Baton Rouge Parish). They are up around $32 million and they’ve just got way too much industry to compete with.
But this a good growing area. If these chemical companies continue to expand, then more money will come in and that’s more money for everybody to share. And that’s what libraries are all about — that access and that sharing. We’re the ultimate democratic institution. We serve everybody and don’t really object to what anybody wants to do.
American Press: Will the state budget cuts adversely affect this system?
Morley: No. Typically is what you’ll do is when you make that budget, you won’t include that state aid because every year it’s flexible and if you don’t get it, you don’t want to be on the hook for it. A lot of smaller systems really will be penalized. These systems with a budget less than $1 million, when you start talking about losing, fifty or sixty or $100,000 that puts a big dent in what they plan to do.
It looks like the board here did not budget for that and it would have just been gravy if we had it. I’m sure there are special little projects that we would have liked to have used it for. But it’s just not going to happen this year.
American Press: A state legislator recently was complaining about the cuts. One of the things that he pointed out was that in many of the rural parishes, the library becomes the Internet connection for people because either they don’t have access or they may be in an area where there’s just so few houses, the cable company doesn’t run lines out there.
Morley: That’s right. Especially when it first got started. People didn’t even have fiber optics.
All of our branches have the high-speed access, they are all wi-fi enabled and we’ve really seen an uptick with people coming in with their own devices. In some of the preliminary meetings that I’ve been in, that’s one of the statistics we’ve seen really grow — people bringing in their own laptops, their own smartphones, their own iPads to use our wi-fi.
And of course we still have those folks that come in to use the computer but as that cost comes down for home ownership, that will subside some. But you’ll always have that element which is essentially why we got into the computer business anyway to help bridge that digital divide by offering that access to people who couldn’t afford it — the same reason we started delivering books 2,000 years in Alexandria (Egypt). People couldn’t afford a hand-made, one-of-a-kind book so let’s build a library and loan them out.
American Press: How have libraries evolved over the past 25 years?
Morley: Well, we’ve definitely gone to a more service-oriented mission. It used to be all about the books and only about the books. And there was a lot more reference information in that time. We joke about it here. The reference continues to decline and it’s going to continue to decline.
Now what becomes the problem is when people have the wrong information. So now it’s not a lack of information, it’s ‘‘Hey, I saw this.’’
‘‘Well, sorry that’s wrong. Whatever web site you pulled that off of, that’s not accurate.’’
I think that’s your biggest change there. We’ve become a lot more about service and about offering different things to the community. We have DVDs. We have Internet access. And it’s not just Internet access. People come in to use Excel and people come in to do Word. People come in to do all kinds of regular computer things that we take for granted because we work with computers all day and it seems like all this is easy.
But when you are at home and you say, ‘‘Gosh, I’ve got to do this and I don’t have a computer’’ you are stuck. We forget about those things because they are readily accessible to us.
The books are still the staple of what we do. We have a ton of e-books. We will continue to collect electronic books. We’ve just got some iPads in that we are going to experiment with our staff. We’re using a state program to check out laptops so you can check out a laptop and take it home. If you have wi-fi at home, that’s the key. Don’t come up here and take it home and say you can’t get the Internet. You have to have wi-fi access which escapes some people.
Libraries do different things. There are libraries that loan tools. There are libraries that loan fishing poles. It doesn’t have to be what people traditionally think of as a brick-and-mortar library. There are places that loan video game systems. You remember back in the day when they came out with VHS and you could go to the video store and actually rent the player to play the movie because nobody even had a VCR. That’s something that we can do is find those expensive things. We used to loan overhead projectors.
It’s just not that critical anymore because technology has advanced and we go with it. The library is a living, breathing organism and we change to suit the community. We really don’t have a goal except to provide good service. Our goal is to meet the needs of the community. And that’s probably what we will be engaged in for a little while — at least the next year — coming up with a strategic plan for the next five years.
Because after Katrina and Rita, some consultants came in — Lyrasis, which is a library consortium in Atlanta — came in and helped the hurricane-ravaged parishes develop strategic plans. And so Calcasieu’s plan was born out of that and now it has expired. Great timing. ‘‘Hey, glad you are here. Let’s work on a new strategic plan.’’ But that will be good because we can kind of take it in the direction we feel it needs to go because things have changed so quickly in five years. Exponentially, people went from having beepers to cell phones and now a smartphone. There are people who work here who do everything on the phone — their calendar is on the phone, their music is on the phone, video is on the phone, photos are on the phone. And that was never even conceived five years ago when we were doing our strategic planning. I was in Washington Parish and we were thinking, ‘‘OK, we want to add two computers.’’ We had no concept of 4G. Now it’s now beyond our thinking.
So, it’s a good time to do this strategic planning.
American Press: And I would think part of the challenge is anticipating where we are going to be five or 10 years down the road as far as technology is concerned and how that is applicable to the library system.
Morley: It is. That’s one of our major challenges. Our technology plan that we actually update every year to help accommodate those changes that go so quickly. We couldn’t have predicted the Kindle. Who would have known that all of a sudden they would have come out with an electric reader which some people would have thought was absurd? Why would you buy an electronic reader when you can just get a book? But, billions of people have them so we adjusted and say, ‘‘Hey, let’s get some so we can figure out how they work and help other people with them.’’
There’s a lot of talk about e-books, but if you look at the statistics, people haven’t really jumped on it the way the media wants to report that people have jumped on e-books. And just like anything else, there are pockets. New York and California and Atlanta and Chicago are going to have tons of e-book users. You have huge educated and well-off populations. But when you spread that out and disperse it across the country, you find out the reality is very few people are using the e-books.
Will they in the future? Who knows? It depends on the format and the availability and we just don’t know what’s going to happen far enough out to predict.
So, we do our best with what we have and every year we re-asses and we can make changes from there.
American Press: Another way that libraries reinvented themselves is there’s the story times and you bring for targeted audiences like seniors, lecturers and seminars and workshops. Is that part of remaining relevant?
Morley: It is. But that’s always been a part of — the library was started as the people’s university and that’s always been part of that mission, to say, ‘‘Hey, this is a neutral place where we can offer some things that aren’t threatening. You can come here and learn about things and you don’t have to worry about it being politicized in some kind of way.’’ And that’s been a history of the library. And it got spread out for a while if you go through and look historically, different organizations played a role in there and those have sort of died out and the library has taken on a much larger role in doing those programs.
And places where there is no McNeese or no school, the library is the only cultural center. In some of these other communities, in Sulphur, there is no university. So what the library offers is their cultural center, those programs are vital, much more so than here. They are nice here and they work well and they have great attendance. Our Summer Reading Program numbers have skyrocketed.
But library theory will tell you that reading is habitual. If you don’t read as a child, you just don’t wake up when you are 47 and say, ‘‘Man, you know what, I’m a reader. I would love to go read some books.’’ You develop that yearning to read over time which is why it is so important that we capture these children and young people.
And we know they’ll leave. A lot of people when they get to a certain age around high school — the teenage years — they will leave for a while, but if you have instilled that initial good experience, then they will come back. And that’s what we anticipate now, that when all these Baby Boomers begin to retire and they have money and they have education and they have a little big of disposable time, they are going to say, ‘‘Man, let’s go to the library.’’
So we are trying to plan for that by getting some large print materials and gearing more adult programming toward their demographics, specifically. That’s nationwide as well as here.
I am probably most interested in the counter-culture programs, the non-traditional, the odd and I like to go after those people who think there’s nothing for me at the library. Oh, contraire. I may be doing a motorcycle chopper workshop here in a period of weeks we build a chopper motorcycle so all these people that think they would never come to the library may say, ‘‘Well, I might go for that.’’ And that’s kind of our hook because we want to get you in here and show you everything that we have because like I said, reading is habitual. So when you get here and read a good book and say, ‘‘Man, that was a good book, I got to go get another one.’’ And it becomes an ongoing thing.
But then if you notice in your own life, if you take a break and go two or three months without reading a book or working on a novel every night, you kind of get out of the habit and you forget about it and then it takes a while to get back to it. So we try to keep it fresh and relevant.
Like I said I think we will probably reach out to some groups that we haven’t reached out to before and we will see how far I can go before we get to the line. That’s just the way things are. Everybody is always going to be a little skittish about something and the library is a safe place to experiment with that and test those boundaries and say what is going to be good for the community.
I have a big, unending interest in sustainable building with cob and earthship homes made out of old car tires and rammed earth, hay-bale homes and I was just looking today to see what kind of recycling efforts that we have or that we coordinate because again, this is a place where we can use the library to push out information to the community about recycling, about sustainability. Those are the kind of things that I’m interested in, those are the kind of things that will be new to the area from the library.
Like always, though, my focus is on core services. The primary thing that we do is check out books and DVDs to people and let people get on the Internet. So we’re always going to focus on that, and the rest is nice to have and we’ll try some of those things. There is no harm in trying.
American Press: With the uptick in the Summer Reading Program, is there anything you can attribute that to?
Morley: No, I just got here. I’m sure they could if we talk to Danielle (McGavock) and Pam Edwards, who is the associate director for Public Services. I’m sure it’s probably increased programming. Probably a little better marketing. That’s another area that we’re really going to focus on is advocacy and marketing. ...
These kind of things, because it’s an awareness that drives people to the library. I’m not above buying a billboard on the interstate to remind people. Whatever tactics that Coke uses are the same tactics we want to use. Just because people know what Coke is, they haven’t stopped advertising. Just because people think they know what the library is, we can’t rest on our laurels and say, ‘‘Hey, people know what the library is, we don’t need to fool with it.’’ We do need to fool with it. We need to look at it in every way possible.
We’ve talked a little bit more about some social network. We haven’t done a lot of that because we don’t really have someone focused on that, we’re not really at that point, but we could be. Part of the problem is you don’t know what you don’t know. So while we sit here and say, ‘‘Well, maybe not that many people are doing it.’’ Millions of people are probably doing it, we just don’t know, we’re just not actively engaged in it.
So those are the kind of things we’ll be looking at and I’m sure they could tell you it’s probably increased programming, it’s probably a lot of different factors, economic downturn, people are looking for other things to do. You can come here and get a movie rather than going to see the movies.
Plus, like I said before, if you can help people understand that books and reading is fun. My brother-in-law is proud to say he hasn’t read a book since high school. That’s fine. I’ll pick up your slack, man. I’ll read four a week for you and level out the statistics. My other brother-in-law hadn’t read a book in a long time and I found a book about a guy who was a professional fisherman. So, of course, he wanted to read that because that was what he was interested in. People don’t understand that there are things they are interested in reading, they just don’t understand that they exist. And so that’s one of the things that we want to do — to push out more of that information.
Everybody knows when John Grisham’s new book comes out. Who cares? But when a biography comes out that somebody doesn’t know about or a civil war book, people love civic war books, people love western novels, when those things come out, people don’t really know because there is no advertising on TV, there is no advertising in magazines, and if we don’t tell them it’s out, almost no one goes to just browse the stacks. It’s that bookstore mentality — you’ve got to have the display.
It’s like putting things above the fold (of a newspaper). If you want somebody to read something, put it in the middle of the obits or in the police report. And they’ll find it.
And that’s part of what we’re going to try and do — a little more guerilla marketing and a little more subversive marketing where every time we go somewhere we just happen to drop in and talk about books and things that we’re doing. I think that will work well.
American Press: Every week, we run the library schedule. I’m always amazed at how thorough and diverse the activities are.
Morley: Well, we do that on purpose. We are trying to capture different demographics. Young kids, older kids, adult males, adult females, any kind of specialty group — the genealogy program is huge and you see they’ve been running it on the government channel, the genealogy workshop.
So, that’s the advantage that we have because we’re not trying to make money. We don’t have to worry about what works for the most people and what doesn’t. We can focus and tailor our services to specific groups at specific times of the year even. We have that flexibility.
And I think that’s one of the keys for what I’m going to try to bring here, another sense of being nimble and not being locked in to these rigid roles and say, ‘‘Hey, this just presented itself. Let’s take advantage of it without having to go through this huge bureaucratic nightmare of committee meetings and approvals and all that kind of stuff. Let’s just avoid that and go with it.’’
Of course, that may come from my newspaper background. When a story breaks, you’re on it. You don’t have to sit around for three days and ask, ‘‘Should we run this on the front page?’’ Just jump on it and do it. Tomorrow is going to be another day.
It’s not rocket science. We’re trying to do the best we can and be fair and honest and helpful to people. And they’ve done a fantastic job up until now. They could carry on very well without me, but I hope I’m going to give them a little oomph that will take us to a different place where maybe we haven’t thought to go before because you don’t know what you don’t know.
American Press: You mentioned demographics. Are there any studies in terms of the use either in terms of your numbers or age brackets?
Morley: We keep stats based on children material checked out and adult material checked out, fiction, non-fiction, things like that, but nothing more specific than that. Privacy is a big concern for us. We don’t really want to keep a lot of that information because if we have it, if someone comes to ask for it with that paperwork, we don’t have to give it to them.
We like to protect patron privacy. But we keep those general stats. I can’t tell you how many 18- to 24-year-olds do things and really even some of those statistics are not accurate because you many have a grandparent come in and check out 20 kids’ books. That doesn’t really mean that a kid has checked them out. It means that they’ve circulated.
But we keep those stats. We circulate over a million items a year. Total circulation is up for this year through the first six months of the year. I think Mike Sawyer who was here before me was trying to break the all-time record I don’t think they ever got to it, but they were close. We’ll be close again this year.
Circulation is one of the factors that guides us because if the circulation drops a lot, we know that perhaps the things that we are giving are not interesting. That’s another reason we focus so much on the collection and targeting our buying, targeting our reading so we can make sure the collection is relevant and is used.
I came from an academic library where archives and research was more valuable. If a book circulated once every 10 years, they were fine with that. If a book circulates once every 10 years here, it might not make it 10 years on the shelf. That space on the shelf is valuable, just like at Wal-Mart. You want to have your product out there that people are going to buy, so we want those materials that people want and they are going to use. Which is really different philosophy. The old thinking about libraries was, ‘‘Let’s give them what they ought to read.’’ And it would stack up with contemporary authors and a lot of reference material and high-minded things and we’ve sort of moved away from that. Some places still have a lot of that and I think as time progresses, we’ll get more and more away from that and get back to what do people want and let’s give them what they want and throw in a little bit of what they need because they don’t know that want it yet. When they do know, we will have it.
They were telling me downstairs that people still come in and use our encyclopedias. Well, that’s fine. That’s what we have them for. Everybody is not going to jump on Google. Everybody is not going to use an on-line encyclopedia. A lot of people are not going to get into the databases.
Some people are going to come in and check that encyclopedia or that World Book just like they’ve always done. That’s why we still have it.
American Press: Where do you see libraries 25 years from now?
Morley: I think they are going to be a lot more specialized. .... I think about that a lot, especially in academic libraries. There’s got to be a tipping point. You can’t just amass 40 million copies of something. You have to focus.
Librarywide, I think 25 years from now, libraries are going to be very specialized in what they are offering and not just in local material. I think what you’ll find is that publishers are going to figure out that this is ridiculous for us to keep publishing these hardback books and throw away the remainders and making it pulp. At some point, they are going to figure out how to make money by doing something and it won’t be an option for the library or for the consumer. They may press 1,500 hard copies of John Grisham’s book and you may be one of the people that can pay $500 for the limited edition. But other than that, they are going to dictate the format and people will have to follow along.
I think that’s why I say the libraries will become a lot more focused on their individual communities. One of the other things that I’ve been thinking about, and I think this scares some of the staff, is print on demand. And there are some library models now where the library has no books, but if you find one that you want, wait 15 minutes and they will print a copy of it. I think, though, that’s another service. The POD machine is 50,000 bucks. Nobody around here is going to buy that. But the library could buy it and then we could share it so that anyone that wants to publish their own book, anybody who wants to publish anything, could come to the library and use the print on demand machine.
And anything that’s beyond copyright, we could print on demand anyway. So, when schools come in and every high school has assigned ‘‘Of Mice and Men’’, and all of our copies are checked out, we just print some more. But I think that is going to be the trend for people to get more and more targeted on their specific areas and populations because the web is going to open up so many other avenues of access that we used to have a monopoly on.
It will be interesting. We will continue to evolve. Like I said, I think a lot of what we’re trying to do now is trying to help people evaluate and use information, especially academic libraries and reference services in general because people will come, especially kids will come in to do reports and schoolwork.
You can find a ton of information, but what value is it? And how do you make those determinations? How do you know if the Hindustan Times is the same as the New York Times? You don’t but you have to figure out some mechanism to figure that out.
And so that’s where I think service will become a much more important role for us — helping people identify information and helping people find it, the same as we always have. It used to be difficult to find because it was scarce, now it’s going to be difficult to find because there’s way too much. Get on Google and do a search and in a second, you’ll get millions of results so how do you know which of those is accurate? Well, it’s the top one. That’s what most people are going to think. That’s what my mom thinks, the first one is the best. No. But people have to understand that and have to understand that Google gained toward that and people can manipulate that. So that will become a bigger role for us which I think is cool.
I’ve always said that I think one of the things that we ought to do is be sort of personal librarians. I’d love to work for a rich guy and be his personal librarian, like a butler where all you do is tend to his wants and needs as far as books. ...
I think we will see more of that. Some libraries do some of that. Smaller libraries can do it on a much better scale. They can get to know those people and when materials come out, they can recommend those to people and we do some of that, but with the volume of people, you’re talking about thousands of people a week coming through here, it’s hard to do that for more than a handful of people.
But I bet as we move forward working together with people and as more people get accounts of their own — because you see people can go in now and create an account and put books on hold and do all kinds of things. As we develop, I bet we will be able to get just like Amazon. When you buy a book, they say, people who bought this, you might also like ... . I think we will be getting to that point in the next decade or so. It will become a lot more personalized.