Missed Opportunities or Carpe Diem (Seizing the Moment)? Engaging with Our Communities

The other day I was at Tim Hortons – waiting for a ride.  I was sitting next to a group of middle aged (yes male) mechanics.  As a former farm kid, with a brother who is also a mechanic, I couldn’t help but be drawn into their conversation.  The content of the conversation was quite intriguing… it went something like this:

  • One of the guys was talking about the internet – and it sounded like the other three had not used computers very often.  The one who had used the internet was telling the others about everything you could get on the internet – books, maps (could even see yourself in your own back yard on Google maps), movies etc… The other guys were blown away.  They talked about not having read books in years…

The reason I share this brief anecdote with you is not to judge their knowledge of the internet – but to display how there are real people out in the community who are directly impacted by the information/digital divide.  In addition, I am guessing that many of them have not stepped into a library for years.

This of course, got me thinking: here libraries are, public institutions, some who have Chilton’s – a mechanics dream – and the digital divide is separating them from accessing this great resource … or else maybe another way of looking at this story is…. maybe since we have not stepped outside of the library and talked with middle aged mechanics, we have not heard about their needs.  Maybe Chilton’s is important to them, but maybe mapping programs, online movies etc. are just as important.  How many of these opportunities are we missing?  Maybe we need to have an honest discussion around how we engage with our communities?

This is just one example of possibly hundreds or even thousands of opportunities that libraries are currently missing out on.  How can we start discovering the needs from our local communities?  Would engaging them in different ways be a path to doing this?

I am guessing that if I asked most library staff if they engage with community – they would answer correctly – of course they do!  So the question really is, how do we engage with communities?  How do we define engagement.. and how are we pushing ourselves as library staff to try out new engagement techniques (building upon our current strengths) to try new ways of engaging with community.

When we think about how we are currently engaging with community, I would guess that most library’s staff across Canada would universally say we engage with community through:

  • informal discussions (e.g. at the circulation desk),
  • through programs at the branch, and
  • when we approach people to discover their information questions (e.g. the reference interview).

Now of course this is not an exhaustive list, but you get the point.  Now, I am going to push a little bit here – how are we engaging community during programming, how are we engaging people when having informal conversations, or more formal information questions?  And how is this information gathered and used to create relevant services and programs?

When looking at the Community Led Toolkit (page 16) there is a great chart which displays the different levels found within the Public Involvement Continuum.  (Click on the picture below to get a bigger view of the continuum)!

Here is a great exercise to walk staff through (whatever the business/branch/program unit is).   Have staff identity the four public service activities which takes up a majority of their time.  On a large sheet of paper display the continuum on a wall – just the main sections (getting, giving, engaging, collaborating) – and have staff put up their four current work activities and see where they fall on the continuum.  I am guessing most of the responses will be loaded to the left of the continuum – we are primarily engaging community through getting and giving information.

The question then becomes, how can we envision engagement differently?  How can we push engagement so it becomes a more dynamic, two way process?  What are the possibilities?

There are literally hundreds of different examples of ways we can engage our communities differently (both inside/outside the branch with traditional users/or underserved community members).  Here are two quick examples.  What is the role for library staff in the engagement process, can they:

  • gather what they are hearing from people who are in the library space (this could include all staff regardless of job classifications)?
  • sit in on informal group meetings taking place in the library (or outside the library) – don’t promote library materials or services – instead form relationships and listen to needs as they arise from the group?

Just think of the impact of the information brought back to other library staff – to discuss the potential impact of the community conversations we were involved in – on library based programs and services.

Will it be possible for us to expand the role of library services to broaden our horizons to include discussion/debates (focus groups/public meetings), participate (community based advisers/ad hoc committees – just imaging having community members sitting on one of our internal committees!), or collaboration?

It would be a real shame if we only allow engagement to be constricted to information out and places where we seek feedback from the community (consultation).

As a side note, by pushing engagement to the right of the Public Involvement Continuum, we will find that we will empower not only our communities, but our staff.

~ Ken


Filed under community development, public libraries, The Profession

4 responses to “Missed Opportunities or Carpe Diem (Seizing the Moment)? Engaging with Our Communities

  1. greyson

    Ken, I absolutely agree with you about the critical importance of engaging with non-users of community libraries, in order to better serve community needs.

    When you say you were “drawn into” the conversation you describe above, does that mean you entered into the conversation, or just evesdropped? Re: evesdropping – it can be a great source of information, but what would you say about the ethics of evesdropping in various “public” contexts, with the purpose of improving library services to the community?

    Would you say that you “engaged” with the Tim Horton’s mechanics? If so, how did you do it? If not, why not, and did you leave with ideas as to how to engage further with them in the future?

  2. willimen

    Hi Greystone,

    Thanks for the great questions. First, when working with community members it is always important to be up front and honest with them. The community led approach is grounded on relationship building, so evesdropping would not be a good technique to developing strong, lasting relationships.

    The example with the mechanics was an interaction which occurred outside of work hours – and was not used in the context of developing relationships. Instead, it was an example of conversations which are occuring in our communities about information sources, one of the central roles for libraries, which we are not involved in.

    In addition, as we had learned prior to Working Together, there is a spectrum of information sources people use for making decisions. This can range from drawning on multiple resources (such as the internet, organizations, etc) to asking for advice from friends. Social inclusion and exclusion can directly impact the types of resources people are able to draw upon.

    The issue you raise regarding the ethics of overhearing or being observant of social interactions in our communities is a great question. I would STRONGLY recommend against librarians becoming professional evesdroppers. However, I do think it is important to be aware of issues and topics people are talking about/are important to them. This will give you a ‘feel’ to the context of the community in which you are about to engage.

    I did talk with the mechanics – but not around library services. I think in the future if I wanted to specifically talk with mechanics regarding their needs I would find locations where they tend to gather (much like Tim’s/ autopart stores etc.).

    The next issue, which is usually the most uncomfortable for people to begin trying – is determining/learning how to approach groups and start a conversation (without leading the discussion). Does anyone have any suggestions? I believe some great examples are provided in the toolkit.

  3. Pingback: Public Libraries and the Role of Information « Social Justice Librarian

  4. Pingback: Addressing Perceived Barriers to Implementation: Community Led Libraries | Social Justice Librarian

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