A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities, includes this finding: “Some 90 percent of Americans ages 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community, with 63 percent saying it would have a ‘major’ impact.”
What’s intriguing is that only 29 percent reported that it would have a major impact on the respondent and respondent’s family. In other words, 90 percent of folks do not want the library to close, but many fewer would feel the negative consequences.
This reminds me of some questions that have dogged librarians since we first opened our doors. Are we reaching everyone we can? Are we giving them services they want to use? Are we giving them a reason to depend upon us?
As a professor, one unit I enjoy teaching is called “Reaching All Users.” I appreciate it because I can surprise my students with a bit of a bait and switch. Reaching everyone means using technology to offer new ways to interact with the library, yes, but it also encompasses a wide array of channels for interaction across virtual and physical planes. And one of the things that we need always to keep thinking about is how we can connect with our users, find ways to be present in their lives, and let them know what we can do for them. What little things can we do? And how about some big ideas and big thinking?
Here in Michigan, Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) assistant director Eli Neiberger reports that the library shook things up by “deciding that summer at the library wasn’t just for kids (nor just for readers)” to unlock an enthusiastic new audience for the district. My home library in Traverse City launched Books & Brewskis, a book discussion sponsored by the library and held in a local microbrewery. And Jen Waller, a librarian at Miami University in Oxford, OH, told me that we must use “multipronged approaches to reach all users! One of the ways we strive to do it: we’re open 24/7,” with circulation staff available at all hours of the night.
On the virtual side, a job listing at Skokie Public Library, IL, for a virtual community engagement manager features duties that include managing online presence for the library and consulting with “the Community Engagement Manager and other members of the senior management team to develop and integrate virtual services strategies into the overall strategic plan of the Library.” Take a look at British Columbia’s Vancouver Public Library’s “Connect with VPL” page to see examples of all the virtual streams that folks can explore. Seeing library patrons Ann and Teresa highlighted in a photo on the front page with the caption “we love mobile services from the library” brings the physical and virtual together.
LIS to leadership
Years ago, I spent an evening at an American Library Association (ALA) conference dining with the folks from Darien Library, CT. Seated next to Louise Berry, Darien’s director (who is retiring this month), I marveled at her ideas for involving all levels of staff in library decision-making and user-focused collection development. I had to ask Louise, “What should I be teaching in library school? What should our MLIS students come to you prepared to do?”
“Be leaders,” she said. “Be innovators. They should be the ones watching and planning for the future.”
That charge resonated. Leaders, yes. Doing time in an entry-level library job waiting for someone to retire or leave for the chance to move up, no. Put smart-minded, tech-savvy folks of all backgrounds at service points and free up your trained professionals for higher level duties and strategizing on ways to meet needs.
It starts with some questions. Whom do you reach well? Who uses your library passionately? Take care of them and keep them. Who doesn’t use the library? Who in your community could benefit from access, services, assistance? Find them. Go to them, ask them what they want and need.
How can we respond to those requests? How can we let them know what we’re doing? It’s a multistep process related to being transparent. It includes listening very closely to what your users are saying, even if you don’t like it, even if it pushes the boundaries of what you think the library should be. You might listen in focus groups or surveys or online in social networks. It might mean performing a community analysis on a granular neighborhood, campus, or department level. Also, listen to what people are not saying. If the tech-savvy, for example, no longer use your spaces or ask you questions, for example, then perhaps you’re not meeting their needs.
Maybe one of the important themes of 2014 will be finding balance for our services and projects. Cultivating thriving virtual learning communities with broad, beyond-the-walls outreach managed by future-thinking professionals seems like the way forward to reaching as many users as possible.