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?