Community-Led and CLA 2011

Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, Regina and Halifax Public Libraries recently presented a session at the Canadian Library Association Conference titled Approaches to Community-Led Work: Library Systems From Across Canada.  Presenters from each library system discussed both the successes each system has had with this approach, and how they have/or currently are addressing challenges as they arise.

The panellists discussed community-led approaches as additional skills which do not necessarily replace traditional approaches, but provide library staff with the opportunity to build additional skills which can be used when working with community (I believe a key role for public libraries).  In addition, community-led library service planning is an approach which can be used with all community members.  This is an inclusionary, not an exclusionary approach to developing services with and within community.

It was quite striking to see that although each library system has begun to adapt the approach to fit their specific context (communities and library systems), there are commonalities in many of the challenges that library systems face.

There are a wide range of challenges that library systems face when going through cultural change.  Building on a previous posting, which discussed Addressing Perceived Barriers to Implementation: Community-Led Libraries, there are rationales for a number of apprehensions which library staff, managers and senior management may have with community-led services.  As we heard at CLA:

Cultural Change needs to be managed:

  • Staff are very comfortable with their current approaches to library work.  Learning new approaches to work can be an intensive undertaking.
  • Developing an understanding of community-led work takes time and dedication.  This is not a prescriptive approach to library work, and approaches to working with each community will vary.  This initial sense of ambiguity is actually the major benefit to working with community from a community-led perspective.  By not standardizing approaches to work and library service development, with communities, the needs of communities drive the development of services.  This is why community-led approaches work well for communities.
  • Library staff need to have the opportunity to learn about the approach.  If they are not willing to spend time to learn the approach (through reading, ‘doing it through trial and error’, modeling behaviour, changing job descriptions/performance appraisals etc.), they will continue to oppose the approach.  When staff are opposed to the approach, it will be important to clarify their understanding of the approach.
  • It is important to provide opportunities for library staff to understand the impact this approach has on the way they do their work, their comfort levels, and the skills they may need to develop (e.g. listening, humility etc.)

Staff turnover can be an issue

  • Time needs to be provided to allow for transition with community members – to introduce them to the new library staff member.

Misperceptions of the Community Led Approach (e.g. “Isn’t this ‘social services’ [or social work]?”, “isn’t this customer service?” etc.)

  • Personally, the social service comment may be the most common interpretations of community led services we receive.  As I mentioned before, this is an inclusive approach – and this inclusivity means that library staff will be actively engaging with underserved populations (people who do not traditionally use library services).  Since they for the most part do not use library services, but have information needs, it is important for library staff to travel outside of the physical branches to begin building relationships with community members.  Public Libraries as public institutions have a role to work with all community members and tax payers, not just those we are traditionally comfortable serving, within a ‘comfortable setting’.  This work is completed in an information context, and does not replicate the work of social workers.
  • Since we are working with people and members of the public, customer service is implicitly part of the approach – but is only one aspect

Success/Failure/Measurement

  • I am going to generalize, but Library staff have been known to be perfectionists.  So what happens when working with community is more complex than either ‘success’ or ‘failure’.  All of a sudden traditional output measures, such as counting people in attendance, are no longer the measures which effectively measure success or failure.  As library systems across Canada/UK etc. work with this approach it will be important to share best practices and newly developed tools which effectively measure impacts.

These are just a few items which will need to be addressed, as library systems grapple with how to ensure that program and service identification, development and delivery shift from library staff perceptions to reflect real community need.

~ Ken

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