Libraries and Social Class

Below are some excerpts from a interesting article from John Pateman on Social Class and libraries – see

“Public libraries must be transformed from provider-led agencies of social control (their historical role) into community-led agencies of social change (which can identify, prioritize and meet community needs).”

“In order to identify needs, libraries must go much further than passive consultation and actively engage and involve all sections of the local community in the planning, design, delivery and evaluation of library services. The community is an expert in its needs. The library worker becomes an enabler, facilitator and co-producer of library services with the community. This requires a number of fundamental shifts in attitudes, behaviours and values.”



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What about social justice? Blogpost 13 Oct 2014

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?”

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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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The Smelly Patron Complex

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.

~ Ken


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Congratulations EPL and VPL!

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.


Sara Gillis
Community-Led Service Manager
Halifax Public Libraries

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Critical Theory and ‘Radical’ Social Justice : The LIS Response

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.

A Challenge

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.

~ Ken


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What Will Become of the Library? – A response

There was an excellent article which just recently came out in Slate, titled “What Will Become of the Library“.  I sent this out to a few contacts in libraries and received this feedback from one person … who at this point wants to remain anonymous.  Very interesting thoughts…  I had also asked this person about Public Library needing to rebrand – maybe change their name to more accurately reflect the activities occurring in them.


The answer to your question about re-branding: Yes.

When you hear ‘Academic library’, you probably won’t think picture books.   A ‘Medical Library’ is likely to make you think of books that assist doctors. I think that the word ‘library’ should stay, but perhaps ‘public’ should change.    I say this because if you completely remove the word ‘library’ from the identity, there is the risk of forgetting about the things that libraries have and still offer: Books. When people hear the word ‘library,’ they think of books.  There is nothing wrong with that either.  I believe there will always be a place for books in the future of libraries.  I think part of the issue lies in the word ‘Public‘.  There are many meanings for the word ‘public’. Therefore, there are differing opinions on what a public library should and does offer.  Some people assume that it should be a quiet space for the public, while others use the space in a more social way.  With all the variations in libraries (Law, Medical, Public, Academic, etc.), I think it is safe to say that the stereotypical expectation is that they all have at least two things in common: being a place that is quiet, and a place that has books.

I would propose changing the name to (whatever town) Social Library.  My reasoning is this:  When I hear ‘Social Library’ as two words together, I think “This is a place with books, but how can you be social in a quiet place?” This is what we need to happen.  We need people to know that we still offer books, but question what else we have to offer, and how these components fit together.  This is when we can educate the community on what libraries are all about.  We can tell them about the programs, the games, the computers we have to offer.  We can let them know that they should not be expect to hear a pin drop everywhere in the library at every moment.

More importantly, this is an opportunity to re-evaluate the library profession.  As I read the article,  I started to realize that we aren’t 100% confident and sure about what we offer.  It’s ironic that more of our libraries collection is fiction rather than non-fiction, yet all of the articles that are concerned with the future of libraries hang on to this notion that technology is making information easier to access without the assistance of libraries/librarians.  That is a concern for the non-fiction portion of Library services.  There is still the fiction portion of the service.  What part of technology is threatening the longevity of our fiction collection/service?  There are e-readers, but those require a digital copy of the book (which the library offers).  People will buy e-books, but just like books, there will be a large population of people that still prefer to borrow books.  That will still require a library.  While fiction books are still classified as information, one could argue that they are classified as entertainment as well.

The next question is this:  With all the technology advancements, why will we need so many staff to provide information?  The answer is, we don’t.  Gone are the days of staff that are strictly information specialists. We need those staff to do “double duty”.  We need more staff that have strengths in more than just the area of book knowledge.  We need staff that can also do puppet shows, work  social networks, computers, gaming.  I am a firm believer that there will never be time where we don’t need teachers.  They do something that computers cannot replace:  Interact and help people grow.  Tumble books and videos are fine and dandy, but nothing replaces a live story time or a puppet show.  Its just like music: most bands make albums even though record sales are down because of technology and piracy. But nothing can replace a live performance.  Those are the things that librarians can offer, that technology cannot.

I think we overvalue our ability to help people find information, and undervalue our ability to help people be social and find entertainment.  People will always want a book or movie recommended for them, and puppet show performed for them, a story read to them.  They will always seek a cheap way to use or learn how to use the newest technologies and social medias.  Those are things we can provide as social library staff, and prove that the library profession is not and will not be dead… as long as we realize our strengths and sell the community on that.


Thanks to the Anonymous Contributor… now the question is … what are your thoughts on this?

~ Ken

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Community Engagement and Libraries: Two Movements -Two Counties (Any Similarities/Differences?)

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 Canada:

Canadian Library Associations Community Led Service Network Blog (with a link to Community-Led Resources)

From the US:

Libraries Transforming Communities (with tools developed for library staff)

What are your thoughts about the two approaches?


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Determining and Displaying the Value of Libraries: Time to Take this Seriously

Now I don’t want to muddle into this very touchy subject, but I think it is important to talk about how libraries are currently trying to show their value and worth to funders and members of the public (especially given Paul Ryan’s house budget proposal released yesterday).  Post the 2008 economic crisis in the US, and with the current state of libraries in the UK, I think there are a lot of learnings librarians should be actively talking about.

Last spring when I attended CLA, I heard a presentation from Sandra Singh at VPL. Basically, she set up her speech by indicating that we need to face the facts, municipalities (and counties) are expensive to operate. Depending on the region in which you live, your local government may be responsible for a number of local deliverables, including policing, fire, infrastructure (new and upgrades), education, libraries etc. Some of these are mandated as essential services, so there is little wiggle room in budgets – while other are more prone to potential cuts.

Based on this, especially with massive infrastructure deficits looming, I believe the feeling was that libraries only have a few years to begin to display our value to funders.

Traditional Approaches

We all know by now that output measures (primarily reflected in numbers) has been the way in which library staff have tried in the past to show value for service. Funders expect, and will continue to expect these traditional measures, in part because we have taught them to. However, statistics only provide a superficial overview of the activities occurring in libraries. Statistics are no longer enough, especially in a world with shifting needs and uses of libraries by community (e.g. movement to e-material, people using space in different ways, etc.) Statistics are still good measures for one off programs, where relationships have not been formed and long term impacts should not be implied. Libraries need to become more innovative in measuring and displaying our worth.

Another traditional approach, based upon 1960’s economist cost benefit analysis, is value calculators. These techniques try to place a monetary value on a social good – using the library. These indicators may make sense to some people, but it is hard to commodify a social good in dollars.

Let’s Use Caution Moving Forward

First, during a recent OLA Education Institute series put on by Edmonton Public Library, Mark McHale a Community Librarian, mentioned a very interesting phrase – ‘paralysis by analysis’. The purpose of any research process should not turn into an academic endeavor or exercise, but should be fundamentally influenced by praxis (leading to the creation of better outcomes).

Second, conducting research beyond the scope of nominal level (descriptive statistics) is a skill set. It may be time that libraries seriously consider hiring staff (or partnering with organizations such as local universities) that have strong backgrounds in both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Innovation – Moving to More Descriptive, Longitudinal and Qualitative Methods

So what might our funder and members of the public be looking for when determining the social value of libraries?

One question that each library system (either public or university) must begin to ask themselves, is have they either asked or listened to their funders to determine their needs, and where the library may fit. This fundamentally shifts the discussion from libraries marketing our results to funders to library staff understanding the local, state or provincial priorities and possibly finding a fit and aligning to ensure the libraries relevance.

When it comes to research what should we be doing differently?

One thing libraries need to stop trying is to prove that our actions are stopping something from occurring. What do I mean by this? For example, we all know that keeping youth off the streets may in some contexts lead to less crime. However, we cannot prove this, because the crime did not occur (since the youth were in the library). Now we could look at separate cohorts, youth that do and don’t use library services (with similar backgrounds and characteristics and try to imply these findings). But let’s not go there…. Instead let’s employ research methods that display to funders the differences we are making in people’s lives.


Aren’t libraries already starting to do this with logic modeling? Yes, kind of… kind of not. Everyone is talking about logic modeling, it is very complex, and I have seen very few cases where it is being done correctly. There may be simpler qualitative methods available to us which can do the same thing, with less confusion.

The premise of qualitative research, much like community-led library work, is the in-depth nature of the process (research and relationships with people). Longitudinal research is key. For instance, one effective method library staff could employ is to take a long running program that has the same participants coming to the program (e.g. a literacy program), and interview people at various stages of their program participation. This could be done at different library sites, such as branches or community meeting locations. Over time it would be interesting to see if common themes arise. This would help to determine if the program itself is the cause of any changes in people’s lives, not some outside confounding factors.

Let me be clear though, we can set the bar for the length of a longitudinal study – maybe to even a year or less (with computer training classes/resume writing – maybe two months)…

There are numerous examples of qualitative best practices (e.g. case studies) which library systems should be exploring to show our value and worth. A fundamental starting point in exploring these techniques can be found by reading Lincoln and Guba’s Naturalistic Inquiry (1985) and the many important works which cite this groundbreaking book.

The absolute irony is that libraries are already providing services which are relevant to a segment of the community; we just need to learn how to accurately capture and display it to the public and our funders.

A Number of Valuable Lessons – and also “Dangerous Ideas”

You might wonder why I am adding this into this blog posting.  Feel free to give it a watch – I think it ties in nicely to the budget proposal mentioned above.

From David Simon – executive producer and writer from The Wire: “We believe in the idea of trickle down, we believe in the idea of the market knows best – to the point where we are now that libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought.  It is astonishing.

People are saying, I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profit, I am not connected to society, I don’t care how the road got built, where the fire fighter comes from.  I don’t care who educates the kids – other than MY KIDS.  I am me.  The Triumph of the Self.”

~ Ken

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Is Library A Loaded Term? Meeting People Where They Are

Over the past two years I have made some fairly significant changes to the type of work I do at a public library.  As a library branch manager, I am no longer regularly working on regional based initiatives, but am primarily focused on the community served by the local branch.

When either going into the community or when people enter the library space, I can’t help but wonder what members of the community think when people mention or hear the word library?  I recently tested this out when talking with a group of people in the community – asking them to provide me with the first word that comes to mind when they think of libraries.  I am sure you can guess some of the responses – books, quiet, studying, computers, community space etc.

So, where do these responses come from?  From my perspective, many peoples perceptions of libraries are based upon their previous experiences in them (and of course media exposure).

What happens when a persons current experience(s) do not match their memories of what a ‘library’ should be?  Initially, I find that it is important for people to lament and have conversations about the library of old, and more importantly about the library of new.

These discussions, allow community members and library staff to discuss the changing roles and nature of information (the various mediums information can be accessed, collected and shared in a library space) and use of space.  This could take various forms (open space events, gaming, debates, collecting and sharing local knowledge using creative commons, a place to hang out etc.), but most importantly each of these new formats should be important to large groups of people in the community.  A community-led process, or some form of community based engagement will ensure this occurs.

It also shifts the library from being a place which is commonly thought of as being the holder of information – usually in one format … books – to a place, if library staff have in-depth conversations, listen and collect responses from members of the community – where community can have a direct impact on library service innovation and the role the library plays in addressing local community needs and as a source of innovation for finding information.

This posting is not to discredit these nostalgic conceptions of what a libraries used to be like, but to provide us with a basis of where we are starting off with community when we initiate conversations of change.  Discussions of change need to happen both internally with numerous stakeholders and externally with community.  If one is forgotten in the change process, any proposed change is doomed for failure.

As a final thought, if libraries are synonymous with books to the general public, what is the implication?  No matter how much libraries try to re-invent themselves (e.g. the maker space movement etc.) people will always associate the book with libraries…. Is it time for libraries to drop the label, and call ourselves something different, which more accurately reflect the changes occurring in them?


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