In August 2013, an intriguing email landed in my inbox from Alžbeta Strnadová, project manager of BiblioEduca in the Czech Republic.
Cofunded by the European Social Fund and the Czech national budget, BiblioEduca provides forward-thinking continuing education for the public and academic library professionals who work at the Czech Republic’s 6,000 public and academic libraries, as well as library students at Czech universities. Incorporating a positive psychology and coaching approach, the organization develops and distributes brochures, posters, and videos, and it teaches seminars. Topics include how to design and deliver a quality curriculum that will benefit the country’s ten million residents in key subject areas (e.g., financial, media, and Internet literacy) and the profession’s mission.
The BiblioEduca team had read the LJ article featuring the Howard County Library System, MD, upon being named the 2013 Gale/LJ Library of the Year. It described a new vision for libraries, positioning them as part of the education enterprise. (See “Pillar of Community Education,” LJ 6/15/13.) The Czech team, led by president and founder Beáta Holá, immediately grasped the power of the approach, which LJ hailed as “a 21st-century library model, with a position, doctrine, purpose, and curriculum worthy of study and consideration by every other library in America, if not the world.” Struck by the way U.S. libraries implementing the strategy enjoy heightened respect in their communities and maximized funding, team members were eager to achieve the same results for Czech libraries. They extended an invitation to exchange ideas “over the ocean.”
A month or so later, connected via Skype, I surprised Alžbeta with “Dobrý den!” (“hello” in Czech). I had learned the greeting as a ten-year-old when my father’s research in Prague, Olomouc, and Bratislava had doubled as a family vacation.
Alžbeta is an impressive young professional whose passion for libraries is evident. From her, I learned that libraries in the Czech Republic grapple with many of the same image and perceived value issues faced by their U.S. counterparts. Also, unlike public schools and universities, which are free to attend, an annual usage fee is assessed for Czech public libraries. For instance, at the library in Brno, the charge for children is the equivalent of $3, while students pay $5 and adults $10.
Although universities charge no tuition, only a small percent of applicants can be accommodated, and many college graduates cannot find jobs. With training for 21st-century skills more important than ever, public schools and universities are unable to provide the continuing education necessary for everyone. Fortunately, a growing number of visionaries recognize that public libraries are also educational institutions and present a potential solution to this dilemma.
Next, the group invited me to come to Brno and present four seminars and workshops on the “libraries = education” approach. They would secure a grant from the European Union to cover my travel expenses, they said, and asked what my presentation would entail.
Libraries = education
I described how the “libraries = education” approach eliminates the disconnect between libraries’ accurate worth and the value many outside the profession may assign us. It defines libraries as educational institutions in their own right and thus indispensable—today, tomorrow, a century from now. I explained that public, academic, and school libraries in the United States and Canada that have applied the new strategy find they no longer need to explain constantly what they do and why they are essential. They enjoy heightened perceived value and increased respect, are receiving increases in their budgets and staffing levels, and see their usage statistics soar.
Why? By repositioning themselves as educational institutions and providing high-quality public education for all, these libraries gain a new sense of value from their communities, the same enduring worth given to schools, colleges, and universities. The vision is: “We are education.” The equation becomes more self-evident when we look at the complete definition of education, which includes subject information; knowledge acquired through learning; activities that educate, instruct, or teach; knowledge acquisition; and enlightenment—practices equally important in libraries.
The strategy positions libraries as providers of education and classifies library professionals as educators. Library services can in turn be called circulation and categorized under Three Pillars:
- Self-Directed Education—our diverse collections and computers
- Research Assistance and Instruction—classes, seminars, and workshops for all ages, taught by library instructors
- Instructive and Enlightening Experiences—cultural and community center concepts, events, and partnerships.
Lastly, the philosophy replaces traditional terminology and jargon with strategic language that people outside of the field immediately understand. For example, education, instruction, and research replace terms like information and reference. The word class takes the place of story time and program.
Embracing this approach shatters the misguided notion that the only thing libraries do is loan books, which has never been the case. The Three Pillars readily convey all three categories, each of which is critically important. Equally vital, speaking in these terms eliminates debate about the library’s mission.
Once the grant was finalized, I flew to the Czech Republic in the last week of May 2014 to present seminars and workshops to public and academic library staff from around the country, master’s of library science students, students from Masaryk University’s undergraduate library program (Czech Republic universities offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees in library science, with graduates of both programs working side by side in the libraries), and all of the Czech Republic’s public library directors. Owing to the participants’ varying degrees of English fluency, arrangements were made for expert translator Ivona Floresová to be on hand. (She also translated workshop exercises, and the Three Pillars image and flyer.)
Of the Czech Republic’s 6,000 public libraries, the Jirí Mahen Library in Brno, which hosted one of the seminars, is the second largest. The staff was welcoming and gracious and provided an informative tour of the recently renovated historic building. The library houses books; computers; reading rooms; quiet study space; separate areas for adults, children, and teens; classrooms; meeting rooms; a music library; and a beautiful atrium. Focal points of the expansive central space are the balcony study tables on all three floors and a glass elevator.
Their marketing techniques were equally impressive. Promotion for a summer reading program, “Library in the Tram—Tram to the Library,” was visible on Brno’s many tram lines and touted on promotional pieces—poster-size photos, postcards, bookmarks, and brochures inside the library. The campaign won Jirí Mahen Library director Libuše Nivnická and her staff first place in the 12th International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) International Marketing Award for 2014.
Czech libraries are ahead of the United States when it comes to the use of strategic language. For instance, they do not use terms equivalent to our program or reference but rather self-explanatory words that translate as seminar and research. The department that handles customer accounts is called the loan department, rather than what many U.S. libraries still refer to as circulation. The phrase customer service department also appealed to them as a value-enhanced term, as did the self-explanatory title customer service specialist. In addition, instead of circulation and circulate, they use the more intuitive terms loan or borrow.
Czech library customers are referred to as users and visitors. I pointed out that while these terms do no harm, neither do the words advance the educational mission—which is why “students of all ages” is best when possible (e.g., “Students of all ages read 50 million books last year in the Czech Republic”). When they asked what the second best term is, I suggested customer since we aim for extraordinary customer service.
As for the stereotype associated with the word librarian, they face the same challenges: a common assumption is that librarians sit around all day and read books. When presented with the intuitive instructor and research specialist title as a potential replacement, they acknowledged that the switch would fully convey the value of the role.
We have much in common with our colleagues in the Czech Republic, with an abundance of knowledge to share and inspiration to be gained from across the ocean. In the United States, the Czech Republic, and anywhere in the world, education is more important than ever. This means that libraries are more important than ever, because they provide equal opportunity of education for all.
A Few Czech Phrases
Having mastered a few sentences in Czech to show respect for the Czech people, and to weave into my presentation, I braved the following performance:
Most useful phrases:
Teší me že vás poznávám. Very nice to meet you.
Na shledanou zítra. See you tomorrow.
Umíš anglicky? Do you speak English?
Least useful phrase:
Ta dívka vypadá zajímave. That girl looks interesting.
Ráda bych se naucila nejaká nová slova v ceštine.
I would like to learn some new words in Czech.
My three favorite words:
Osm Eight – sounds like “awesome!”
Finding my least useful phrase especially humorous, several college students approached me after the first class. They handed me a note, explaining it briefly as they filed out. On it was written:
“Really useful phrase: Mé vznášedlo je plné úhoru.”
My hovercraft is full of eels.
Agreeing that the sentence trumped my least useful phrase, I added it to the remaining seminars—to hoots of laughter (which no doubt resulted from both the sentence’s meaning and my pronunciation).