“What’s holding librarians back?”
This question is from a friend who has done great work in the museum field. During a recent conversation, we pondered what’s preventing many libraries from ramping up community engagement and user-focused services. I argued for a few factors: in some places (not all) there’s a lingering emphasis on collections over users, a lack of a future focus by administrators, a lack of public awareness, and, frankly, confusion on how to go forward into a landscape that seems new and frightening.
A new report from Pew Internet and American Life, “Library Services in the Digital Age,” addresses some of these factors, particularly in the responses from library staff surveys included in the report. It should be required reading for all in LIS education, especially those involved in strategic and long-range planning. For LIS educators, this is yet another call to action for reevaluating core and elective course content.
Services in mind
A “notable share” of respondents would use services such as app-based access to collections, technology petting zoos, and “Redbox”-like kiosks throughout the community. Stats hover around 60–70 percent for “very likely” and “somewhat likely” responses. This is a big deal, and those services absolutely merit discussion. What’s not surprising: no respondent mentioned QR codes.
Meanwhile, the description of libraries as “book warehouses” is giving way in many communities as collections evolve and space is at a premium. Users and library staff alike broadly agreed that moving collections out to make room is a good thing, though some librarians expressed concerns. Positive statements, such as this from a librarian—“We don’t have space to waste on things people don’t use. It’s not about us—it’s about the community”—emphasize the user direction that should illuminate planning for the future. In terms of current viewpoints and future ideas, quotes from library staff are likewise revealing: “The administration is overly hesitant to make any changes to services, even small ones, for fear of repercussions for other branches in the library district.”
The study also notes that people use the library website to search the catalog and find basic library information, even as library web presence promotion is lacking. “When I receive the emails, they never reference the website,” writes one user. “I didn’t even know they had a website….” Another intriguing fact: respondents want the library to use the channels they use—Facebook and email, specifically.
It’s easy to focus on the folks who use our services consistently, the ones who borrow materials, attend programs, and bring children to story time. The next step I would call “radical community engagement,” and it begins with statements like this: “I think our strength is in our ties to the community and the relationships we build with our customers. That should be our focus and should drive how we develop our programs and services in the future.” Golden! The need to be vocal can’t be overemphasized: “We need to change the concept of the library as a restricted, quiet space—we bustle, we rock, we engage, but so many people in the community do not know this.” The Pew report is evidence that tapping in to community needs and interests is paramount for libraries, and active interaction with citizens, business, nonprofits, and other entities is a promising future. Open the doors to local experts and creators to teach and share.
More than teaching
Take a look at the “About” page for the 4th Floor project at Chattanooga Public Library. “While traditional library spaces support the consumption of knowledge by offering access to media, the 4th Floor is unique because it supports the production, connection, and sharing of knowledge by offering access to tools and instruction.” This exemplifies the potential of thinking beyond collections to a library space that promotes creativity and collaborative learning. Just as Chicago Public Library’s YouMedia space has inspired similar spaces, the 4th Floor will set a standard for the next evolution of what we consider a library.
I’ve mentioned Daniel Pink in this column before; in A Whole New Mind, he talks about a focus on creativity and empathy and how those who think with the right brain will “rule this century….” I think it’s the converse mind-set that’s holding us back. This quote from the survey scares me the most: “If I had wanted to teach people how to make stuff, I would have been a teacher. I think libraries are more about helping people learn for themselves.” That’s certainly not the mind-set we want coming out of library school or guiding our libraries. We can teach our students about these new things, but if they enter a workplace culture that doesn’t support transformation, their skills will go to waste. Librarians should seek to encourage and facilitate learning of all kinds within our spaces.