A Changing Landscape: Amazon, Technology and Engagement?

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.

 

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