Category Archives: community development

Shifting the Role of Academic Libraries and Librarians?

Much like public libraries, academic libraries have traditionally been viewed as warehouses of information.  As budgets continue to become more restrained within the current political environment, and technological ‘advances’ make community members feel that information is more publicly accessible, it is vital that librarians take some time to think about our approaches of working with our end-users [please note: Devons last posting on one users experience and the at times surprising responses from librarians, to basic end-user feedback].

Some public libraries (also here) are exploring the potential new roles public librarians can play in meeting the information needs of community members.  As discussed in a recent paper by Sandra Singh, the traditional role of academic libraries has primarily been focused on creating and supporting ‘internal diverse research and teaching collections, providing research support to students and faculty, and offering secondary research and information literacy instruction’ [p. 6].  However, unlike public libraries which have a mandate to serve the entire community, academic libraries have been primarily focused on those affiliated with the academic institution (although most are highly publically subsidized?).

So, as information specialists, we need to ask ourselves, will this continue to be the central role of academic librarians in the future?  Are the general public, funders, faculty, and students receiving the best service under this current library service delivery paradigm?

I STRONGLY urge you to read an article written by Sandra Singh, based on her experience at the University of British Columbia.  This article discusses and proposes different roles for academic librarians – shifting them to become:

  • That of a facilitator which connects the community, organizations, and university units… the librarian ‘looks at its clients and the entire university and all of its expertise, programs and services as its collection or resource base’ [p. 6]

It seems like a reasonable and rational discussion that progressive and innovative academic librarians should be having…

~ Ken

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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


  • 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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Community-Led Service Planning

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.  Each of these steps are 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.

Build Staff Capacity

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. 

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….

I am sure there are more steps to this process.. at this point in the morning.. and off the top of my head, this is a great start for library systems.  I hope this posting made sense??

P.S. This can also be applied in university library settings – where I would say librarians need to step up and assist universities in justifying the relevance of university education, not just to students and faculty, but to the greater community which subsidies these institutions.  The earlier we start doing this, and the more relevant universities are to their local communities, the more public taxpayer support they will receive!!

Finally… two new publications in Public Libraries on Community Led work.  Well, actually one new publication, and one old publication republished for an American audience.


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Community-Led Service Planning – Take it or Leave it?

Dangers of Dichotomising

Remember George Bush?  That guy really had some great quotes didn’t he?  One of my favourite is “you’re either with us, or your with the terrorists”.  As we have come to understand since 2001 (although some of us saw it immediately after he said it), the danger with dichotomizing complex issues is – presenting people with only two options for viewing the world doesn’t accurately reflect reality.  The world is much more complex than x or y..

So what does this have to do with community-led service planning…???

Take it or leave it? Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

When thinking about the community-led service model (paired down version below / full version on pp 30-31 of the Working Together Toolkit) it is not an all or none approach to service planning.  If the community-led approach is viewed as a standalone approach it can be both overwhelming and scary for library staff, since in order to implement library service planning solely from this perspective, new skills need to be developed by staff.

Simplied Traditional and Community Led Service Models

Instead of viewing community led planning as the only way in which to work with community, IT COULD BE VIEWED as a set of additional skills which library staff can develop, and build on top of traditional approaches, in order to improve library services!  In addition, library staff can draw upon these new skills, as they or the community see fit.

Step I. So, for instance, when determining which community(s) to work with (doing the community assessment)  library staff will still want to approach community assessment from a traditional perspective.  It will be important to know demographic characteristics of community, who is using your library (internally generated statistics), what current library users think of library services (comment cards, survey results etc.).  During this initial phase of community led service planning, it will be imperative to create relationships with the community you want to target (so you will need to, as mentioned in the toolkit, spend time in community (or in branch) developing relationships and discovering what is important to community).  If relationships aren’t developed – community led service planning will not occur.

Step II. During the next phase of service planning – needs identification – staff can still speculate what community needs are, but after developing relationships, you have the opportunity to verify if library staff perceptions actually match communities perceptions of need.  This is a very important step to be aware of.. and can really inform us of the impact of working with communities (especially since we will rarely if ever be able to predict what others needs are without actually consulting or collaborating with them).

Step III. and IV. Service planning and delivery are the next two steps.  While I always advocate for using community led approaches, if you are just beginning to use this approach, and you have discovered need from community, maybe the service is only planned by staff… or maybe you try to work with community ‘a little bit’.  Same with delivery…

Now evaluation is a different cup of tea… see a previous blog posting on community led evaluation vs. traditional..

By approaching community led work as a way to both develop new skills to work with community, on top of what we are already doing in libraries, and to discover and develop services based on community needs, it is much more likely to be integrated into a system and receive buy in from staff.  In addition, it will also ensure that library staff do not feel like their current approach to work is devalued.. and they will also be much more likely to try innovative new approaches to working with communities.

~ Ken

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Addressing Perceived Barriers to Implementation: Community Led Libraries

Community led service planning is a relatively new perspective and way of doing library work.  Like all new approaches to work, the newness implies and necessitates change.  Like all change processes, questions linger about the impact of the change on work.

A Community Led approach to library work really isn’t that radical.  One perspective, is that it can be viewed as additional skill sets which can be drawn upon when developing and delivering programs and services, where the community (the people we are meant to serve) are engaged in the process (inside and outside the library) – thus making sure what libraries do is relevant to the community.

A number of possible rationales can be put forward for not using a community led approach in libraries.  Each of these concerns are legitimate, and need to be addressed either by the system, a branch or a service area – when there is a desire to truly include the community in service development.

At this point I have identified three broad thematic issues which could be raised to impede the implementing this approach.  They include 1. Resources, 2. The Role of Library Services, and 3. The Unknown.


  • Time (to busy) and Money
    • Everything we do in libraries takes time and money.  When thinking about the potential cost of implementing the approach, also re-evaluate where time and money is currently being spent.  A serious evaluation of current activities should at a minimum allow a library system or branch to re-allocate (within the current budget) a portion of current staff time and money towards working with the community.
    • ‘It makes good business sense to engage with as many community members as possible. A business model which only meets the needs of a minority of people is not value for money or sustainable. The collective public resources which are used to fund library services should be shared as widely as possible with all sections of the community.’ – John Pateman
    • Time is always in short supply.  If a gap is identified, it is always easy to fill it with another activity.  The question becomes, is it filled with an activity libraries identify internally, or activities that are identified with the community as a priority/need.  If the community is involved from the beginning of the service process, time may actually be saved – since relevance to community is ensured.

Role of Services

  • It doesn’t fit our mandate
    • Working with the community, especially the public, in public libraries is part of our mandate.  If it is not, be an advocate for changing your library systems mandate/vision/goals etc.
  • We are not social workers
    • As a former social worker and now a librarian, I agree librarians are not social workers.  We are information specialists.  As information specialists it is our obligation to inform and educate ourselves before making statements like this.  The definition of a social worker can be found here and community led librarianship is explained here.
  • We are already doing it
    • That is great.  Since the approach was developed in 2008, it would be great to learn from one another.  Let’s collaboratively share and discuss best practices – a new site has been launched to do that.  Please join here!
  • We are already serving our current users well
    • Great.  This approach will ensure that the library system will serve current users even better.  For example, by building evaluation into each component of the service planning process, the community will inform the system if something is relevant to them before the program or service is launched.
  • It doesn’t work
    • Four major urban library systems across Canada used this approach extensively from 2004-2008, and the approach is being integrated by different systems in different ways.  This process was constantly externally evaluated and won national recognition and awards.  It has since been adopted and applied in other library systems and many other systems have expressed an interest in learning about the approach.  The only way to know if something does or does not work is by trying it.

The Unknown

When approaching a community and learning to listen to hear community identified need – the unknown is the most important part of the process.  This is where learning and innovation occurs.

  • This is not a prescriptive approach to work
    • This is not a repetitive task orientated approach to work.  As discussed by Ken Roberts from Hamilton Public Libraries, one of the future trends of library work is moving towards service not task orientated work.  This approach will lead to innovation – which in the current environment of rapid changes to the publishing and information management field, can only be beneficial to public libraries.
  • How will it impact my work?  I am unsure?
    • The good thing about community led work is that it is a two way process.  Library staff, along with the community will be involved in these decisions.  Library staff can become more empowered by participating in this change management process.

Thanks to John Pateman for feedback on this posting.



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Standardization as a barrier: LCSH’ing Community

Alright, I will freely admit I just put LCSH in the title to phish librarians – so please no hard feelings from my cataloguing friends (please do watch the video at the end)  … but on a more serious note:

There are some things that most of us would agree – to standardize seems to make sense or be in our best interest, or, the public’s best interest.  For example, no doubt, a lot of us would agree that a standardized minimum wage can be a good thing.  And, of course, there are lots of safety standards that make a lot of sense.

However, I think we can get caught up in believing that to standardize provides the best public service where libraries are concerned.  Or, better put, I think we need to be careful in the application of standardization with community led library services – especially since the needs of various communities (both geographical communities and communities of interest – e.g. web 2.0 users, youth, immigrants, etc.) vary so greatly.  “Models” across the board, do not always address specific concerns of diverse communities.  For instance, “Pilots” do not always work the same in every different community, or, neighbourhood.  What makes sense at one point in time or place, may not at another.  Each community is different.

From a community led perspective, it may be important to create standardized processes, which provide a set of guidelines on how to implement community led techniques (e.g. asset mapping, community entry, etc.).  However, even these standardized guidelines, allow for a certain level of variability or adaptation, in order to allow for the flexibility need to work with communities.  There application should not be a standardized linear (predetermined) process.  If it is predetermined, it is not community led.

Even our own individual interpretations of policies, and, guidelines may differ – causing variations in a standard.  I think we need to be more comfortable working with flexibility – and support each other when we make decisions outside of the “standard.”   This is how and when innovative new practices/services/programs can be identified, created, and evaluated.

So, rather than be annoyed when another person makes a decision against the norm, we need to try and understand why the decision was made and how that might affect us in the future.  I think we get too caught up with equating standards with “fairness” and equality.

I think we need to put that idea aside, and start applying equity.  Standardized guidelines are great to have in place for the times when you need them but I do think we need to be flexible in their application.

** For some chuckles – clink on this link to applying cataloguing standards onto community

Special thanks to others for input on this blog posting~!



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Making the Case for “Public” Libraries

Ensuring library services are meeting the needs of community members is an essential requirement for library services.  By being accountable to our local communities, we ensure that within our restricted budgets, programs and services are continuously evaluated and adjusted to meet the changing needs of community.  Therefore, based on evaluation – we must be open to the challenges of shifting how we identify, plan, develop and implement library services.

I agree with John Pateman that libraries have entered a Pandora’s box, by solely relying on statistics to justify our existence – “The minute that we started to count everything and quantify what we do – from book issues to fines income – we created a huge stick with which others can beat us… the real story is not that book issues have gone down from X to Y, but that MILLIONS of books are still borrowed from libraries every year” (CILIP Update September 2010).  In theory, as John further discusses in his article, libraries in and of themselves are public good, and this fact should be justification enough for continued support of public libraries.

However, as we can see from the U.S. case, the library as a publicly supported institution, can come under attack.  One of the first sectors to come under attack during the recent financial sector created ‘financial crisis’ is the public sector (ranging from teachers and educators, to firefighters and police officers, to libraries – link for Illinois example).  As discussed by Naomi Klein in her timely book Shock Doctrine, Milton Friedman and the Chicago Schoolers’ are prepared to take advantage of public confusion during times of economic crisis.

**OF NOTE – See NYTimes article on Privatization of Public Libraries from September 26th, 2010

So What Should We Learn From this and How to Respond?

While libraries are public goods, we need to be able to be prepared to make this justification.. and there is no time like the present!!  So, how should we proceed?

I am not advocating for replacing current measurement tools used by libraries.  Many of the indicators which we are using are very powerful and meaningful output measures.  These measures, which are primarily frequency level quantitative measures (which are difficult for using in multivariate – causal based analysis), provide a measuring stick for usage of library programs, materials and other services.  They measure concepts such as circulation statistics, gate counts, program attendance, and other quantifiable items.  Funders and the public have been taught to expect these measures, and will continue to demand them.

As described in the toolkit (see chart below), evaluation measures should continue to include these measures.  However, in order to display the impacts that library services are having on community, libraries need to capture and frequently report the narrative (qualitative) impacts.  The advantage of doing this is that this form of evaluation ‘picks up’ on the nuances of the social and human component of library services.

For example, if 70 people attend a library program and if this number is used as the performance indicator – the number does not provide information on the impacts and outcomes of the interaction between library staff and members of the public, or between community members.  These interactions, impacts, and outcomes are already occurring – where library staff are involved in the delivery of services (either within the walls of the library or out in the community).  What is needed, are effective mechanisms for library staff to capture and communicate effectively, from the voice of community, the relevancy of library services in meeting community identified need.

At a minimum, this information will allow for improved service development and increased justification for continued public support for the social good public libraries facilitate within the community.  In addition, it will provide us with the information to show the relevancy of our services to our local communities.

A great resource which discusses how to measure the impact of library services is Evaluating the Impact of Your Library.

Final Thought

So as library systems how are we doing?  A quick measure of success to determine how well we are collecting honest community evaluation is to think about the pace of innovative new practices being implemented within library systems.  If we are doing a good job of collecting this information, collaborative community based evaluation, should lead to service changes based on community identified need.

~ Ken

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Library Schools: Developing Librarians of the Future – Moving beyond Professionalism

As a recent graduate of a MLIS program, and based on discussions with classmates/recent graduates from across Canada, I am a little distressed by the sense of confusion recent graduates have regarding what it means to be a librarian.  There seems to be a lack of clarity regarding a unified vision or mission of librarianship.

Over the past few decades university based library programs (for librarians) and community colleges (for library assistants) focus most of their attention on creating professional skill sets and identities.  While there is debate surrounding the concept of librarians as professionals, others are moving the discussion beyond professionalization.  Instead of the focus being solely on librarians, it is expanded to the communities librarians are meant to serve.

As discussed by John Vincent from the Network in the UK “unless one puts some values at the core of librarianship (such as fighting for social justice), then it’s just an empty box of gadgets – which is why, I think, people get so het up about challenges to their “usual” role – if you aren’t clear what your role is, so you construct one based on professional identity”.

As more and more public library systems across Canada are recognizing and  beginning to shift program and service development from internal processes to needs based library service and community led library service planning (e.g. Edmonton and Halifax) – library schools need to begin viewing these developments as fundamental shifts in the way that library systems are working with community.

For library schools, this shift should not be viewed as an add on, or an additional course – instead it should be viewed as a mainstream approach: impacting the way public libraries and their staff across job classifications do their work.  There is a huge potential for library schools to prepare future librarians and library assistants to do this work.  This gap needs to be filled.  It will either be filled by library schools or by library systems hiring staff.  Discussion in universities or community colleges on this approach will ensure that library staff can work with community to determine the role library staff can play when meeting community identified needs.

Ample literature has been developed, and one of the key outcomes from the Working Together project was the development of a university course – with content – which can be adapted by each library school to prepare students for the new realities of library work.  In addition, there are a number of publications – either publically accessible or soon to be published – which should become part of the core curriculum.  Some quick examples can be found here.

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Public Libraries and the Role of Information

When the topic of libraries arise in communities, one of the first responses from members of the public has usually been books.   However, over the last while, I have noticed a shift in the public perception of the role libraries can play in communities.  I am starting to hear the community talk about the library (and library staff in the community discovering community need), as a place for community information.  This includes a place to inspire (or be inspired), to gather, and to seek, provide, or create information.

I have been thinking about what this means, and what potential application the community led approach (see here or here)  would have on this vision by community.  First I have to ask myself, how do people seek information?

People can gather information from a number of sources (none of which libraries necessarily have a monopoly on).  Sources may include:

  • Conversations (two way conversations – or large group conversations)
    • For example – creating a social space for larger conversations for immigrants and long time residents of a community.  These conversations allow for a sharing of information – and assist in integrating both immigrants and long time residents… they begin to develop relationships, trust, and share information.
  • Information out (a teaching style where people are passive recipients of information from ‘experts’)
    • E.g. Outreach and most programming in library branches
  • Written materials (this landscape is changing rapidly – especially for books)
    • Books, serials, etc.
  • Visual
    • For example… I was talking with a branch manager the other day, who talked about how quiet her branch was one day.  She began thinking about her networks and friends in the community: since they weren’t at the library where were they?  With the World Cup on – guess what – they were at the local pub.  Then it dawned on her, people were seeking information in a social setting, and they identified the pub as the social location where they could gather with other fans to watch the game.  So, why not also livestream the games into the branch (we have the technology)… also making the library a place where people can gather to watch events? (especially if they were under 19 – the legal drinking age, and didn’t drink)..
  • Audio (e.g. CD’s, DVD etc)
  • Computers  (internet, web 2.0 and now 3.0, and a mixture of some of the above)  ect..
  • And a relatively new source of information for communities – instead of coming to the library to retrieve information, people are coming to the library to create information.  A number of things can be done with this community generated information – it can be displayed, catalogued (yes – librarians would enjoy that!), stored etc..

If we as library staff decide to be involved, and position the library, as a place where community is actively involved in the information process – staff along with community will need come to an understanding of the role they each play in the interaction.  For community and libraries, evaluation will be key.  Only community members, as participants, creators and consumers of information, can define what worked (did not work) when they are trying to satisfy their information needs.  Thus, community members involvement in the entire process is essential.

This new vision for libraries would also mean that libraries would have to look at repositioning job descriptions and duties for all library staff.  This mainstreaming process [integrating community-led services across all aspects of library services – “where work is not just bolted on” and assigned to a few staff, Vincent, 2001] would build upon library staff expertise of sorting and retrieving pre-existing information – to facilitators of information creation and exploration.   What a dynamic and exciting future libraries would hold, not only for our communities, but also for our staff!

~ Ken


Filed under community development, public libraries

Technology and Libraries: Salvation or a Tool?

First, it is very important for me to acknowledge that I am NOT against the use of technology in libraries. I think we can all agree there are massive technological advances on the horizon which will greatly impact the future of libraries (and maybe even be the impetus for redefining the role of libraries in communities and how/what services we provide the public).  We are just beginning to see the tip of the technological iceberg which is coming our way.

As I have been attending conferences, or reviewing conference programs, I am seeing a lot of presentations around change within libraries – specifically and almost exclusively focusing on technology.  Some of these discussions are being framed – that technologies are or will make us more relevant to our communities. (For example I recently saw a presentation titled: “The Future of Libraries” –  New customer expectations are being driven by the new ecology of the web and big players like Facebook, Bing, Hulu,YouTube, Amazon, Google, and more.  Is your library ready?).  So, is this the future for libraries – or should technology be viewed as one of many different tools which will ensure our relevance to some of our community members?

On that point, I recently saw John Teskey, the President of CLA, speak at a conference.   It was interesting to note that he said that technology which has been implemented in libraries has not necessarily made libraries easier to use by members of the public.

This really struck a chord and I am not thoroughly convinced the future of libraries, and the relevance of libraries to our local communities, rests solely on the technological products which we put into library spaces.   I do not think that technology in and of itself will make us more relevant to our communities.

Where is this coming from?

Technology as a solution to problems cuts across various industries and organizations.  For instance, as discussed in the NY Times, the recent oil disaster in Gulf of Mexico, demonstrates the deliberate and hidden consequences of technological innovation.  While technology was viewed as providing the solution to oil shortages and US national oil independence, it also provided as mechanism for the disaster to unfold.  People tend to look for solutions to problems through the use of technology.

Parallels can also be found in the food industry, where Genetically Modified Foods [modified via technology] are marketed as the solution to a worldwide food shortage, although there is already enough food in the world and food shortages are actually caused by distribution and policy decisions.

Putting this back in a Library Context – The Impact of Social Inclusion and Exclusion

As we all know, one of the primary perceptions members of the public have about libraries is books.  We, as librarians, can contest that libraries are much more than a depository of books (it also includes computers, varying collections beyond books (DVDs), spaces for community engagement, etc.).   However, the perception of the library as being a place where people go to get books, while comforting for those with the literacy skills to access collections, is scary to others.

At the beginning of the Working Together project, we tried to understand  how people gain access to information.   As we discovered, people who are socially included tended to:

  • have a broad range of social networks (friends, professional connections, family) which they would tap into regularly to discover information, and
  • have access to, use multiple sources and resources, and feel confident to draw upon these resources when making decisions (e.g. library, personally owned or public technology, other organizations, and skills to use technology).

For them, accessing information via books and new technologies is normal behaviour.  However, this dramatically differs for socially excluded (or underserved) community members – who primarily use other resources for decision making including:

  • personal experiences, or the experiences of a close friend,
  • asking a close friend or someone they trust for information.

In addition,

  • their social life is more restricted and they may have fewer locations where they will seek information in public,
  • they are less likely to have technology at home (because of cost) or will have older technology which has been passed down,  and
  • they are less likely to be as ‘proficient’ using technology because they have not had the opportunities to learn them.

Technology as a Tool – Amongst many different tools

I believe that if librarians (all librarians not just those ‘working in community’) spent as much time thinking about working with and engaging our communities as we focus on technologies, libraries will be more likely to become community spaces which are (or will become viewed as) inclusive to all community members. Technology needs to be viewed as one tool, amongst many different tools, that (some) people currently feel comfortable using to retrieve information.

As we found  through the Working Together project people are much more likely to come to the library, and continue returning, if they have developed relationships with others (e.g. other members of the community, library staff etc.).  People are much more likely to return to the library if you introduce them to other people, than if staff introduce people to a book – or a new method for accessing information.  Once these relationships are built, librarians will be strategically placed to fill a gap which currently exists in Canadians communities.  Librarians as experts in the use of technology can help to develop community capacity using these tools – once relationships with non-library users and those afraid of using these tools are developed.

However, we should not view technology as a panacea for engaging with community – or making us more relevant to community – outside of those we (or the technology) are already relevant to.  Buying and building the technological infrastructure in and of itself will most likely only make us more relevant to individuals who are already comfortable with using the tools and make us more inaccessible to others.

If we position ourselves by developing new skill sets and repositioning ourselves in the community to discover and respond to information needs – and if the community identifies technology as a response – we will definitely be well positioned.

Additional Thoughts:

So, some important questions that we need to ask ourselves when investing in technology in libraries in the future may include:

  • While we are aware of the digital divide, and regularly talk about the concept in library school – how are libraries responded to those impacted by the divide? (e.g. Are we taking the technologies we have into the community? How are we determining how to make the technology accessible to people who not only fear technology, but also fear the concept of entering a library?)
  • Have we adjusted our approaches to teaching technology, making it more accessible etc.?
  • How is technology presented as an inclusive tool – especially when the same people you are talking to may be intimidated by libraries since they do not know how to read/write?
  • Are we building relationships with people, and based on those relationships able to determine information needs and determine role of technology in addressing those needs – or are technological purchases based on technological trends?
  • And, if Pateman (2004) is right, that ~30% of the public are actively using library services, what portion of those users are tech savvy?  What about current library users who are leery of technology?

~ Ken

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