Monthly Archives: October 2011

Libraries and the riots

Having introduced myself, I’ve been very quiet! The problem is – where to start?

I thought it would be good to follow on from Ken’s posting about the role of librarians in a world of austerity by looking briefly at some issues here in the UK.

As you’ll know, August saw riots across the UK, and, whilst the analysis of the reasons rolls on (with many a political twist!), a number of issues is coming to the fore, including:

  • The growth in inequality – according to The Equality Trust: “UK income inequality increased by 32% between 1960 and 2005. During the same period, it increased by 23% in the USA, and in Sweden decreased by 12%.”
  • The reality of life for some young people at ‘street-level’ where, according to Camila Batmanghelidjh, “large groups of young adults [are] creating their own parallel antisocial communities with different rules”
and, most recently:
  • “Young people who got involved in August’s riots were more likely to be poor and have special educational needs, government research on the unrest has revealed.” (Children & Young People Now, 24 Oct)
So – what can libraries do?
Quite apart from recognising, understanding and making available a range of information to show that there is more than one point of view,  libraries (and museums) have been starting to respond to needs of their local communities, eg:
  • A “Wall of Love” made up of messages posted in Peckham, south London, following recent rioting, is to be preserved at Peckham Library as a permanent display (according to children’s author Alan Gibbons’s blog)
  • Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham, north London already has an exhibition running, “Broadwater Farm Exhibition – Heroes and Homemakers” (which runs until March 2012), and are now planning a project called “Forgotten Gangs”, which will focus on giving a voice to those young people who are not in gangs, reflecting a positive image for young people in the area.
  • The Museum of Liverpool is also addressing the recent riots with an interactive exhibit in the People’s Republic Gallery that will gather visitor responses to the unrest.
And there’s much more we could do … However, a huge issue at the moment is the level of cuts and closures (more on that in future postings) – I’ll finish this one with a terrific piece of advocacy by Boyd Tonkin, literary editor at The Independent newspaper:
“If it wished to rebuild mutual trust, social capital and motives for hope and change in the riot-wrecked streets of a nation’s cities, where might a truly idealistic society begin? …
I know and have heard all the possible objections to a view of local libraries that puts them at the heart of community renewal. Potential rioters and looters don’t care about them anyway. To enter a library in the first place identifies a young person as part of the solution, not the problem. Feral teens who trash the shops will not take an interest in the library until the day dawns when it agrees to stock top-brand sportswear and flat-screen TVs.
Perhaps, just for once, a sharpened sense of desperation might open political and media eyes to something other than plausible cynicism. If the local library system did not already stand, it would take uncountable billions to build. It serves (or did, until the cuts) many of those neighbourhoods bypassed and shunned by other amenities. Libraries are not schools, or courts, or job centres, or social-services outstations. At their best they embody an ideal of voluntary personal development and civic solidarity that few other sites could ever hope to match.”

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A New Approach to Service Planning (Revisited)


As managers within library systems, we have the opportunity to be involved in the development of strategic objectives – and hence – the actions needed by staff to complete these objectives.  Service planning is an important part of this process.  As you have probably read from previous postings (e.g. see posting) there are various techniques which  can be applied ‘on the ground’ to actively engage with community – in order to ensure that the services developed by public libraries truly reflect the needs of community, and not just staff perception of community based information needs.

So, how can a library system involve community in the development of regional plans?  This is a good question, and there is no ‘one’ answer, since each library system will develop plans differently.  However, there are some steps which will be important to consider if you want to ensure your library system is developing programs and services with community.

As library staff begin to work with the newly targeted community, it is beneficial to create a plan which is multiphased – so community input and involvement can continuously have impacts.  Predetermined outputs, outcomes, and impacts, which are based on library management perceptions at the beginning of a service planning process – implies library led, not community led.

In order to ensure that service planning is completed from a community-led approach, each of the following steps can be part of the service planning process.  They include:


Determine which community you are writing a service plan for (e.g., Immigrants, Older Adults, People with Varying abilities, Teens etc.).  You can’t write an effective service plan for the entire community.

Determine Baseline

Internally – What resources/strengths/relationships does the library currently have to work with targeted community (e.g. – existing knowledge of community (gathering locations inside the library system or in the community, cultural norms, etc…), relationships with individuals from the community, collections, other existing services …

Externally – Who are the key individuals or organizations which should be contacted, in order to begin building external relationships with the targeted community?  Remember, the intent of community led services is not to have organizational representatives or community spokespersons identify community need; however, they can provide a wealth of information which will guide the service planning process – and provide the library with access to individual community members.  As relationships are built, start to document what you are hearing from the community (what is their perception of need, asset, role for the library etc.)

Analyze – Analyze what you/staff are hearing from the community and go back to the targeted community and verify… is what we are hearing correct?  Start exploring or at a minimum, thinking about potential service responses.

ENGAGE: Build Staff Capacity/ Engage Individuals in the Community

If a library system is going to work closely with a targeted community, it is essential that library staff are given the opportunity to know about the targeted community (what has been learned to this point from relationships which have been built) and community led approaches.  If branch or public service staff who will be working with the community are not provided with upfront training, it highly increases the danger of failure.

While service providers have provided a glimpse of the individual life circumstances of the targeted group – only by directly engaging (not solely observing) and developing relationships with individuals, will library staff be able to start hearing about community needs.

Systemic Change / Branch Based Change

Build in mechanisms which allow for community involvement in impacting the development of program and service responses either across the system or in a specific community/library branch.  Many times a change in one branch can be expanded to have a regional impact.  If the change only occurs in one branch, community members will be disappointed if they visit another branch which has not implemented the change….

Communicate and Evaluate!

Since this process moves service development from an internal process, to both an internal and external process – it is important to clearly communicate both internally and externally.  Make sure others are kept in ‘the know’.  It is important to explain the implications of what you are hearing from your target group to internal and external stakeholders.  The advantage of constantly communicating with community members, is it also provides an opportunity to evaluate.



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Librarians in a World of Austerity: What is Our Role?

Let’s be honest… things are starting to look pretty bleak out there.  Not to sound like a pessimist, but just to review a few historical facts since 2008:

  • Curent unemployment rate in the US % 9.1, Canada 7.2%, England 7.6% (this does not include underemployment – which is reflected below in US Department of Labor stats)

  • Global inequality is on the rise (and Canadians are beginning to outpace Americans!)
  • Austerity is kicking in across Europe and may be coming to a community near you soon.

And in response to the last fact, I recently read a newspaper article based out rural Manitoba (where I grew up) which literally scared the cr@p out of me.  Why you may ask yourself?  Well feel free to give it a read.  Although this is just a letter to the editor, this should really send off some alarm bells.  There are people who are raising similar justifications for the current economic conditions in the United States, England, and I would presume – we will soon be hearing voices like this attacking the diverse people of Canada.

I think of youth in my home town who may read a piece of information like this and the impact the information can have on their belief system.  I remember how much of a sponge I was as a youth, and without someone else providing alternative narratives through other sources of information, this could have formed the ‘truths’ for myself and many other youth as they develop into adulthood.

As providers of information how should librarians [yes both those socially conscious and other librarians] respond?

So librarians, are we non-biased providers of information?  Do we passively respond by providing the general public with access to ‘well balanced’ information sources?

Are we agents of social change?  Are there certain social truths and absolutes which librarians are willing to take a stand for?

I personally think that avoiding issues and not taking a stance (complicit as it is) is also a stance.

Whatever the possibilities of freedom we may have, they cannot be realized if we continue to assume that the ‘OKAY WORLD’ of reality is the only world there is. Society provides us with warm, reasonably comfortable caves, in which we can huddle with our fellows, beating on the drums that drown out the howling hyenas of the surrounding darkness. ‘ECTASY’ is the act of stepping outside the caves, alone, to face the night” Peter Berger (149-150)

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