John Vincent has just added a post to the UK “Leon’s Library Blog”, which concludes by asking: “Libraries must be properly funded and properly staffed if they are to take their rightful place in the struggle for social justice – and working towards social justice has to be their core aim. Without that, what is their purpose?”
New Reality for Public Libraries
With the recent announcement by Amazon that it will begin providing a Netflix-type e-book service for $10 a month, allowing individual subscribers to access over 600,000 titles, librarians and library associations are scrambling to justify library services beyond their traditional brand—the book. While there are unresolved issues associated with the new e-book service (e.g. the Big Five publishers are presently opting out), it points to an emerging trend for the future of libraries. Additionally, the question of e-book lending between publishers and public libraries remains unresolved.
As books become more digitized and less central to the overall use of public libraries by members of the public, there are many internal discussions by library staff about resource allocation. This approach is usually influenced by a kind of cost-benefit analysis or contemplation of return on investment (ROI), where library staff are primarily asking, “How does this problem impact our library and what we do?” Many administrators are contemplating how services should be changed and budgets allocated in response to the changing landscape.
If professional literature and social media are any indication, public librarians invest significant time and money keeping pace with technological trends. This includes discussions on how to change library offerings for new technologies, such as RFID, Maker Spaces, 3D printers, e-books, etc…
While keeping up with technological trends is important for public libraries, it is expensive and is time sensitive- since technological advances are very rapid. This makes it vitally important that library systems work with communities to ensure that technological purchases meet their need when moving in this direction, since the cost can use up a significant portion of library budgets.
Another important consideration is segmentation. Previous studies have established that community can be broken into three groups: active library users, lapsed library users and non-users (U.S. numbers here). In some cases, it is estimated that ~ 40% of the population are active users, while lapsed (people holding cards but not actively using them) and non-library users make up ~ 60% of the community or more. Of active library users, the question remains – what proportion of them are actively using specialized technologies such as social media, 3D Printing and maker spaces etc.?
An Inclusive Approach: The ENTIRE Community?
A large portion of non-library or lapsed library users are under-served communities. In the United States, there is a huge demographic shift, not only in the age of the population, but also in the ethnic makeup of communities. The Latino population is growing rapidly, and is currently under-represented in both the library profession and people using public libraries. Many library systems have yet to adjust programs and services to meet or even to identify diverse community needs.
Additionally, while millions of people are living below the poverty line and grappling with basic needs, there is clearly some discomfort in redirecting and re-imagining services that respond to these conditions. Reactions vary, but the classic line used is that “We’re not social workers,” or that the cost is too high to abandon traditional library users, which typically consists of a small segment of communities that benefits the most from resources and services. Very little attention is given to vulnerable, at-risk, and under-served populations. As observed on a number of librarian list-serves and on social media, when discussion do ensue they are within the context of personal values (smell of patrons, bed bugs etc.), or the inclusiveness or exclusiveness of library services (e.g. should services and cards be offered to homeless people or non-tax payers)? So as community circumstances change for the worse and the quality of life diminishes for population(s) walking through the door of the library (or even more important, those not walking through the door), how have libraries reacted?
Library staff must focus on how they can have a positive role in addressing local issues and problems, or barriers people experience when trying to access library services … NOT simply how library staff are impacted by them, as is the case with so much discussion on homeless populations. It is the role of library staff and library systems “to make services more welcoming, supportive and responsive to the needs of socially excluded people. Public libraries need to change for communities.” (Working Together, 2006) Communities should not be expected to change for public libraries. Poverty in particular is an acute, intergenerational, and systemic social problem, but numerous libraries seem to lack both the interest and the systemic responses properly scaled to match it.
The library is NOT an island. Library staff must also recognize the libraries place in a continuum of community services that are related and complementary. We must begin to develop better approaches to understanding what the library’s role is in this context and to give more than lip service to building relationships.
Engagement – What is it about?
In 2013 the American Library Association announced it was partnering with the Harwood Institute to encourage public libraries to focus on civic engagement. This was a giant leap forward for American libraries and a renewed recognition that public libraries should connect with and become more central to the needs of their local communities. The news arrived at a fortuitous time.
The primary focus of engagement in the U.S. has focused on civic engagement. This is where librarians are retrained to be able to facilitate discussions between members of the community. This is an interesting approach, since it provides library staff with renewed vigor and the opportunity to be viewed as central in community conversations. It is very reminiscent of work completed in Australia in the 2000’s, which focused on developing a number of techniques to assist already engaged community members in discussions.
According to the Urban Library Council, the five areas of civic leadership and engagement libraries should focus on are:
1. Civic Educator, 2. Conversation Starter, 3. Community Bridge, 4. Visionary, and 5. Center for Democracy in Action.
In Canadian libraries, a number of invaluable experiences around engagement have been learnt over the past ten years. Engagement has been viewed as a process that ultimately changes the dynamics and way in which library staff interacts with members of the public. It is “a philosophical and practical shift from being a service provider for our communities to being a partner with our communities in service development and provision. This approach shifts the emphasis from our staff to our communities as the key initiators and/or drivers of service innovation and enhancement.” (Pateman and Williment, 2013) This last sentence is key: community engagement is viewed as a way of ensuring that libraries are moving in the right direction – from the perspective of targeted communities [which may or may not include technology or other services which library staff envisioned as relevant]. It is part of a needs assessment and planning process, where community is involved in identifying the direction of library services. This usually necessitates that libraries work both with existing library users and non-users.
The purpose of engagement is to discover community need in a legitimate spirit of collaboration and to work face-to-face with community members to develop programs and services that address those needs.
With this in mind, library staff should:
- Define engagement as something more than civic engagement, which primarily tasks library staff as facilitators of discussions.
- Critically evaluate the need for hiring consultants to tell library staff what their communities require. Local knowledge, opinion, and wisdom are already abundant: ask for it, listen to it, apply it.
- Adopt and develop interpersonal skills to engage directly with targeted communities, to build personal relationships, and to identify legitimate community needs.
- “Librarians are not the experts on what our communities need or want in terms of library services – the community is the expert. It is our job to ensure that we develop a library service that reflects the community’s needs and vision. We do this with them, not for them.” (WT)
- “Reaching [underserved] community members and learning from them means meeting them in the places they are most comfortable and being open to learning from them. This means leaving the library and building trusting, respectful and equitable relationships. Only then, will we be able to learn what [underserved] people need and want from their communities and library.” (WT)
- Embrace the productive, if sometimes messy, process of allowing the community to lead and to inform the scope and direction of services.
- Speak up for those who lack a voice, but likewise ask and encourage them to speak for themselves.
The purpose of engaging with community moves libraries beyond displaying that they are good institutions and providing citizens with justification that libraries are worthy of continued funding. Instead, it is an opportunity for both library systems and communities (especially those traditionally without voice) to collaboratively define and innovate – new and emerging library services.
Community engagement is not a product which can but purchased. It needs to be a non-prescriptive approach that is highly adaptable – lending itself well to the numerous
and varied social contexts of each library system and the communities they serve.
~ Ken and John G.
It happened again. I visited a librarian chat group (in this case ALA’s Think Tank facebook page) and guess what they were discussing? It never fails – every year or two I run across another discussion by librarians regarding the hygiene levels of patrons. In this case, librarians were talking about mobile showering buses and the need to have them in their communities. I don’t see an issue with the bus and the need it serves. However, I do see an issue with the response on the listserves.
So, here are my two cents.
Libraries are public spaces and that means they should be reflective of everyone in the community. Public space is a place for all members of the community to gather. So be it a bus, a court room, a church, a public school, or a public library we will experience people different than ourselves.
A truly worrying issue I see with librarians discussing this issue on public forums, is – is it a sign of a different underlying issue? Are some people (both some members of the public and some staff) not comfortable sharing public spaces with others quite different than themselves? Are some librarians really entrenched in a culture of comfort? If hearing this question or reading the linked article makes you uncomfortable – why?
Instead of focusing on a person’s body odor, why aren’t librarians focusing on issues which can impact people’s lives, like access to jobs, housing (yes with showers, washers and dryers), and affordable food and clothing? The real issues I have with the ‘smelly patron’ debate, is first of all it is condescending, and does not address the underlying systemic issues which people find themselves in. Also, there will always be homeless populations and people (either homeless or not) who smell.
Yes, I will admit, there are always rare, extreme examples. So ask yourself who in the community can you link with to address these issues when they arise? Make sure you have contacts with mental health, cultural organizations, or other social service organizations which can work with staff and community members. The libraries’ role as a community hub, makes it important that library staff know where to refer people to and to develop local contacts to enable these linkages. If there aren’t any facilities, do we have a role in highlighting this and lobbying to have them made available?
Continuing this discussion, year after year can be start to be considered poor bashing.
As public librarians, our role is to work with all segments of our communities, not just those that reflect our personal values and lifestyles – and sometimes that means stepping out of our comfort zone.
Originally posted on CLA Community-Led Library Service Network:
Two library systems active in this Network have been honoured for demonstrating innovation and excellence. Edmonton Public Library has been named Gale/LJ Library of the Year, the first Canadian library to win this honour. Vancouver Public Library has received a special mention for featuring the service philosophy and dedication to community that signify a Library of the Year.
Community-Led Service Manager
Halifax Public Libraries
Dealing with ‘Intellectual’ Jargon
After all the years of graduate school I went through, I am happy that I quickly understood (at least from my perspective) that the smartest faculty could explain the most complex concepts in the most simplistic terms. Instead of hiding behind jargon, some faculty are very comfortable teaching concepts in laypersons terms. There are huge benefits to students that take this advice to heart. Unfortunately, hiding behind disciplinary jargon has become a scapegoat that provides various academic faculty with a tool to legitimate their discipline to others in academia. Teaching MLIS student, who will eventually be primarily working with the general public to use jargonese vernacular, is a disservice to the profession.
Addressing Critical Theory in LIS Education
I recently came across a blog posting which advocated for the teaching of critical theory and its application to ‘radical’ social justice in LIS programs. Originally, having been a sociologist, I was quite intrigued with the perspective postulated by the author. While I agree that theory serves as a foundation for the way in which societies are structured (resulting in the distribution of materialism – which inevitably results in inequity) theory should not be viewed as an end in itself for ‘radical’ social justice movements. Instead it should be viewed as a means to an end.
This is because macro level grand theorizing (yes thank you dead 19th century white German and French men – e.g. Marx, Weber, Parsons, Spencer, Habermas etc.) is based on deductive approaches to viewing the world. Teaching these theories to LIS students has the potential to place some faculty in a comfortable position, since it is based on deductive rationale from ‘knowledge tellers’. I would say that discussions at the macro level have a place in library education, but I have to question how these discussions will be applied in the real world. Let’s face it, most LIS students will be working in communities once they graduate from library school, not in the halls of the leaning towers of knowledge.
So my question is why is there not more focus from faculty on inductive approaches – where faculty are advocating for the introduction of ‘radical’ social justice based coursework that allows recent graduates to have the tools to work collaboratively with community to identify community needs, and generate responses to those needs? I believe that social justice in public libraries occurs at the mezzo/micro level – and is based on praxis.
As for LIS students, I find it condescending that some may think that they cannot handle or are apathetic to learning theories. Students are smart, and they understand that the hyperbolic claims to the social changes which occur through academic conferences, locked down journal articles, and internal academic discussions are fruitless. They are also coming to understand that jargon and theory can be used to substitute for the lack of knowledge and practical experience many faculty members have regarding – on the ground, progressive – practitioner based responses to social justice issues in public libraries.
Faculty that still want to exclusively focus on grand theorizing should continue to advocate for it… but we all know the end result – these discussions are hollow internal discussions. My challenge is for faculty teaching LIS students to step up to the plate and challenge the status quo. This was done at the practitioner level a few years ago, and we have been looking at and challenging ourselves ever since.
So, in the US, the Harwood Institute and ALA have teamed up to begin developing tools for libraries to engage with community, while in Canada librarians have internally been developing a community engagement framework from a Community-Led perspective. This is quite interesting that similar movements are happening in both countries.
I must admit that I have been so entrenched by community-led library services that have developed in Canada over the past 10 years, that I am to biased to make any conclusions at this point on this topic.
However, I think it is important to highlight some of the resources and it would be great for the readers of this blog to share their input.
From the US:
What are your thoughts about the two approaches?