ellohay! West Michigan

A Conversation with Bill Hill, veteran librarian, Grand Rapids Public Library

Posted in conversations, feedback, planning, players by forgr on March 31, 2008

On Friday, March 21st, I caught a quick lunch with Bill Hill from the Grand Rapids Public Library. I had contacted him about a week or so ago prior inquiring about the Public Library’s computer usage. I asked really specific questions in an email:

• Who are your internet station patrons? And if you were to speculate, why are they there?
• What are your hopes for the community and each citizen’s involvement with the technology?
• What are the library’s largest technological pain points?
• How many people log on to internet stations per day?
• What are your peak usage times during the week, the weekend?
• What is your itrain class attendance like for each session?
• If there was one thing that would boost your class attendance, (if that’s what you want) what would it be?
• What’s missing in the community, what’s the largest need?

So, when I finally met with Bill, he expressed that answers to most of these questions are not available. They keep the program moving, and continue to upgrade their machines because their mission is to provide the means for the community to learn about themselves and their world. The internet, like books, magazines, and movies is another tool to aid in this goal. They dont track usage, they don’t have any real analytics programs keeping track of things.

They only count the number of sessions and unique page visits.

Bill also told he about himself, his involvement with the library and various programs he’s involved with there, this one, this one, this one among others. I initially wanted to talk with him because he’s lived in this city for quite some time, he’s worked at the library for years, and he’s actively engaged in the community at many levels.

I told him about our project, about the parts, pieces, people and plans. He listened, soaked it all in, asked a few questions.

He then gave some of the first negative feedback our project has received. He described many efforts that the community had tried to start up, and subsequently failed at, namely open computer labs. He expressed that it was likely than individuals would steal machines, sell them and then come back for more. He warned that I might be too optimistic, and to keep a realistic head on my shoulders throughout the project.

But it didn’t get me down. I knew going in that it was going to be rough. I know that there are going to be problems. All the more reason to try it, give it a genuine run, and see what happens. We’ll never know until we try.

As we wrapped up our lunch, I had asked him if he would be willing to stay in the conversation, and he said sure, but might better be able to help me by assisting with initial grant writing exercises.

A little bit ago, Bill emailed me following up afterwards,

>     I enjoyed meeting you very much, but I fear I left you with more of a
>     negative reaction than I felt or intended. Your mission to help less
>     advantaged folks gain more independence is sacred stuff.  I admire
>     your passion for this work, and hope I will be able to contribute something
>     from the library.

And then in another email said this,

>     We share much the same goal, to empower people by giving them free
>     access to information, and we do offer classes on using the internet and
>     word processing, although our next round of those wont arrive till
>     Fall.  You take it a step further than we ever will be able to, by
>     wanting to provide your clients with their own laptops. But our goals
>     have much in common overall.

Very nice conversation and correspondence, and just the right touch of reality to keep me fighting for this project.

Thank you Bill for the conversation, and I hope to talk with you soon about grants, and the future.

5 Responses

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  1. Scott said, on March 31, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    You are doing such amazing work MC. I’m continually surprised at your determination. If anyone can get this done it’s you.

  2. smcmaster said, on April 1, 2008 at 7:37 am

    I agree with Scott. And if the first seriously negative feed back you’ve gotten is about the possibility of theft, then that’s great. Particularly so, since there has been at least some consideration of theft already, though probably not enough. Theft, though a potentially serious problem is just a problem, not a fundamental flaw. It should certainly be thoroughly thought through as the pilot project is developed.

    It’s also very interesting to know what the library thinks its doing with its computer stations. I would have though it might have tracked much of what you were asking about, too. Seeing Mr. Hill’s comments reminds me that the library is a public service… it’s there for everyone, as it should be, and it cannot overly tailor its offerings, so I suppose it limits its demographic research pretty severely–I imagine it would be pretty easy to track page use by library card number at the library’s kiosks, and not much more difficult to do so on a wireless service.

    Anyway. Keep up the good work.


  3. smcmaster said, on April 2, 2008 at 8:39 am


    Some interesting thinking on the persistance of poverty. Not supported by research, largely because no research has been done from this perspective, but it feels like there’s some truth in it.

    The idea is that poverty makes people think differently about getting along in the world. That wealth presents a transactional world of options for consumption, but that poverty presents a transactional world of problems to be solved… with rent, medical bills, utility bills, and food all being pressing problems, the most pressing problem is the one that gets addressed right now, and the other problems are below the horizon… and planning for them becomes a luxury item…

    No doubt there are problems with the model, but it’s worth study…

    How does this affect forgr? Maybe not at all, but I thought of it when I read the article.

  4. Bill Hill said, on April 3, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    Thank you for the very nice recap of our conversation.
    At the library, we do track internet usage, how many sessions, how long, total, peak usage, class attendance. Those would be the easy questions.
    The other questions are open ended and would require some time and a little clairvoyance to answer :
    • What are your hopes for the community and each citizen’s involvement with the technology?
    • What are the library’s largest technological pain points?
    • What’s missing in the community, what’s the largest need?

    I just wanted to talk with you first to find out what the Most useful thing would be for you, before trying to answer.
    It seemed that our Foundation Collection and other sources of grants information could be of use when you get to that part of your project. And I’ll be very happy to get you started on that. I look forward to talking to you again.

  5. Ashima Saigal said, on April 19, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    I’d have to say that, as Marie and I discussed in our meeting, Bill makes a valid point to think about laptops being stolen. If you’re talking about helping those on the fringe of society, they may feel the need for basic necessities so strong that they are willing to forgo the wonderful resources provided to survive. That is a true challenge in this excellent project.

    As for Bill, I admire him greatly, as he already knows. I consider him a great critical thinker and that is a difficult thing to find in a sheep driven world. Secondly, the library is a great resource for many and should be considered in this broader project as a partner and supporter. Many people in our community have gotten their first taste of the Internet and computers in a library, that’s pretty darn amazing.

    I’m looking forward to hearing a lively discussion about the pros and cons of this project so that the best may come of it!

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