Category Archives: public libraries

People Who Can and Should Influence Change in Libraries

As library systems struggle with finding their relevance within the continuously and rapidly changing digital world, there are a number of things which we (library staff) all need to keep in mind.

The first point is probably the hardest thing to digest – to a certain extent it doesn’t matter what we think – what matters is what others think of us.  As libraries move to re-invent ourselves, which I would say we are doing at a relatively more rapid pace than we have in decades, stop any person walking on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word library.  I will put my money on one of the following three responses – books, fines or librarians shushing.

This provides us with what at times feels like an insurmountable set of issues to overcome.  Not only do libraries need to re-invent themselves, we also need to do it while conveying the message externally (in a way that addresses some of the traditional perceptions of libraries the community has come to know – an institution where people still experience barriers to accessing information or having social exchanges).

For this post – I want to write a few thoughts about how to influence change within libraries.  I think it is important to identify the types of attributes the ‘ideal’ staff member would have to possess in order to be able to work within an environment where change is occurring, to address and influence the above issues….

  • A person who sees the need for change and innovation, not only from the perspective of staff but through the lens of library users and non-users. Now it is important to acknowledge that there is a clear delineation between innovators and leaders verses managers.  Innovators and effective leaders who can drive a change process can come from anywhere within an organizations structure.  The issues is, do we allow that to occur – or do we limit it to the detriment of libraries?  Lets use private industry as a case study – if someone on staff within a large corporation has a great idea – would they stifle it because of the ‘level’ the person is within the organization?  For profit industries have a motivation (money and profit) which drives improvement.  Public service organizations also have a motivating factor – better customer experiences.
  • A person who is able to be humble and move beyond their role as ‘expert’.  Becoming an expert in engaging, finding the appropriate role for facilitating the link between people and information (or maybe even people and people), and linking and visualizing the role in which libraries can play in community, is a different kind of expertise that being a spokesperson who informs people of information or existing programs.
  • Someone who can move beyond the perceived barriers to community led work (resources, role of services, the unknown), and not allow these barriers to stop them from trying it.
  • A willingness to seriously accept trial and error – and report on the learnings that occurred when trying new and innovative approaches to working with community.  Anyone who says they ‘have got it’ to working with community – needs to re-evaluate.  When one person has always ‘got’ the answer for community – they need to review the concepts behind the engagement process.
  • A willingness to shift library based responses from ‘no’ it does not fit within our mandate – to how can we work with the community based information needs to make it (or them) fit within the libraries mandate.  If community members are expressing that they see a link between the library and their need, we should be encouraging staff to find the linkage – otherwise it is another lost opportunity for library service development.
  • An acknowledgement that the penalization of community and the concept of librarians as stewards (keepers and holders of information) is outdated.  Libraries once possessed warehouses of information – which community members can now find on the click of an iPad or laptop.  We are no longer entitled to creating barriers to large numbers of potential library users – especially when we should be trying to entice them to use library services, rather than limiting community use.
  • It is important for the ‘ideal’ community based library staff member who wants to be innovative to think about our role in the information exchange and how we engage with community outside the confines of the physical library branch.

This is only a starting point – and is internally focused…. Next we need to convince the really important people, community members, about the changing nature of libraries and our continuing relevance in their lives.

If they still only view libraries simply as a ware house of books, of late fines and fees or shushing when people talk in the library…….  then we have a 😦 future..

~Ken

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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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Libraries and Statistics – What are the Issues?

I originally wrote this in 2008, but never really knew what to do with it?  I am not against the use of quantitative statistics.  I actually quite enjoy doing multivariate stats, although I really haven’t touched it much since entering the library profession.

Using statistics makes sense for libraries.  Statistics provide our funders, boards, and senior administrators with a snapshot of the inputs and outputs occurring in libraries.  I hope to write a future posting which talks about the importance of using the narrative to ensure we are also capturing the impacts and outcomes of library services.

I hope this makes sense.. but here it goes.

Librarians, like most other professionals, have traditionally collected numbers, especially descriptive statistics, as a primary means of measurement, evaluation, and to justify or change current or proposed operations.  While quantitative statistics have served a valuable function within the traditional library environment, there are many drawbacks to using numbers to represent the attitudes and behaviours of patrons.

Using Quantitative Measures

While the collection of numbers is usually viewed as a non-biased methodology for collecting information, numeric indicators have a number of drawbacks.  Quantitative methodology is a deductive approach, where the researcher acts:

  • as the expert who determines the questions used to collect information or data, and
  • questions are usually generated by referring to other library studies (conducting a literature review), or by relying on their own expertise, to determine the concepts to measure.

When this occurs, we as library staff, define the concepts are important to measure. Staff also decide:

  • what questions to ask,
  • how to ask them, and
  • how to measure them.

This process should, but does not always involve, clearly pre-determining the concepts to measure.  This can provide a one time snapshot, or a more long term picture of a social phenomena.

Numbers permits us to test hypotheses, predictions, and causal connections between the measured concepts.  Under specific circumstances the use of statistical procedures allows for sample (e.g. small number of old age library users) findings to be inferred to populations (e.g. all old age users in the library system).

Issue I.

Ultimately, the numeric basis of quantitative research is one of its major weaknesses.  While concepts are asked and defined by library staff, so they can measure them, the use of common terminology is not always consistent.

(Example #1 – After a program library staff may ask the participants what they thought of it through the use of a five point scale: 1=Very bad / 2=Bad / 3=Neutral / 4=Good / 5=Very Good.  One person may have had a horrible time, but only interpret the experience as “bad”, while another might have been mildly annoyed by the person sitting beside them and then indicate their experience was “very bad”.  Therefore, the response depends on the definition the individual places on the concept created by the survey constructor – not how the survey constructor defined the concept).

(Example #2 – The number of library users in one library system can be defined as the number of people that check out books, while another system may measure the same concept based on the number of people who enter their buildings.   Therefore, when numeric data is collected and compared, between branches and other systems, it is very important that library staff constantly ensure that apples are being compared with apples – not oranges.)

Issue II.

By pre-determining the concepts to measure and compare, the librarian is viewed as the expert who knows, prior to data collection, which concepts or variables are important.  This process is very inflexible, and does not provide members of the community the opportunity to provide information about how they see the world, outside the prescribed measurement tool created by the librarian.

Issue III.

By far the most dangerous consequences of the improper use of quantitative statistics occurs when people collecting and interpreting data conclude that the findings are causal or predictive.  With quantitative statistics, the type of number used (nominal, ordinal, interval-ratio) determines which research questions can be asked, what questions can be answered, and what types of analysis can be performed.  For example, people may talk about the “correlation” between concepts, although correlation does not show causality – it is a measure of association – and is much more accurate when occurring between concepts measured at the interval-ratio level (not nominal level data (frequencies or whole numbers) which are primarily collected in libraries).

In addition, small samples should only be generalized to large scale populations, when library staff can tell the sample drawn  is representative of the entire library system (e.g. remember the old age user example discussed above. Survey results of a sample of old aged users can only be generalized to a population of old aged users, if the sample is reflective of the population).    If sample characteristics do not reflect the population, there is a danger of introducing bias into the results, and interpretations – which drive library policy (e.g. only older library users who are highly mobile filled out the survey, since the survey was conducted in winter and those with mobility issues could not come to the branch because of all the snow).  This is a real threat to library systems if done incorrectly, since a small innocent survey – which was improperly interpreted, is relied upon to direct future library services and policies.

~ Ken

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Introducing John Vincent

I’m delighted to have been invited to join the posters on this blog – and here I am just introducing myself.

I am based in the UK, and have been involved in libraries’ work towards social justice for a long time. I have worked in public library services in SE England and Londonsince the 1960s, and now coordinate The Network.

“The Network – tackling social exclusion in libraries, museums, archives and galleries”, to give it its full title, is a network of organisations and individuals working towards social justice. We started in 1999 as one of the positive outcomes of a major research project into public library policy and social exclusion (published as Open to all? in 2000).

Our major activities include the provision of:

  • information on initiatives that tackle social exclusion, contribute to community engagement and social/community cohesion, including publishing a monthly newsletter and a regular ebulletin
  • training and other opportunities for the cultural sector and related local services to explore, develop and promote their role in this field
  • a forum to advocate for partnership approaches to tackling social exclusion and contributing to the wider social agenda.

Although we received a small amount of development funding early on (at allow us to develop our work with museums and archives), we do not receive any external funding – our funding comes from an annual subscription for Network members and income from courses and project work.

If you are interested in finding out more about our work, please visit our website or email me.

As well as the broader social justice area (and how libraries can strengthen their links and deliver provision with other agencies), I am also interested particularly in how we can deepen our understanding of our communities – and hope to reflect some of these interests in my contributions to the blog, especially around working with LGBT people, new arrivals, children & young people in the public care system.

I very much look forward to starting a lot of dialogues!

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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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Censorship & parenting

I had two recent parenting experiences related to book censorship that I thought might be of interest to readers who liked (or liked to hate) my previous posts on creating house rules for my kid’s internet use and/or book rating systems.

1) Those adults don’t know what they’re talking about

I’m on the ALA OIF‘s listserv that sends out info on book/materials challenges all over the United States and occasionally beyond. (For non-librarians, a “challenge” is what we call it when someone wants a library to remove something from the collection, or move it from one section to another to try to hide/censor it.) The other night I followed a link on the list to this video clip about a mom in TX who just won an appeal to get “The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby” removed from her kid’s school library because the book contains the language “poo poo head” in it. This women’s son had previously been suspended for school due to an incident in which he called another child a “poo poo head.”

I showed the clip to my 8yo, because I knew he has and likes that book. I asked him what he thought, and he immediately said, “That’s silly. They don’t even say ‘poo poo head’ in that book.” He paused, thought for a moment and verified, “Nope, they never do.” He went and got the book from his bookshelf to show me. I skimmed through the whole thing, twice, and darned if he isn’t right! Oh, it’s chock full of potty humour: they say “poo poo” and “Deputy Doo-Doo” and “poopy” all over the place, but nowhere in the book does the phrase in question – “poo poo head” – actually appear.

Unless there’s some different Texas edition of the book, all these adults were arguing over a book they obviously hadn’t even read very closely, if at all. None of the online commentors on the news story seemed to catch this point eitherthat this entire book challenge is basically built on the premise that this book retroactively incited a child to say a phrase that doesn’t even appear in the book.

Following up on the concept, though, I asked my kid whether he thought a school library should have any books in which people do or say things they’re not allowed to do or say in school. He looked at me like I’d gone off the deep end, and asked if they were also making sure that Harry Potter and the Bible weren’t in the library too, because people fight in Harry Potter and they do a whole lot of bad things in the Bible!

2) Censorship vs Parenting

The very next day, I ended up having a conversation with a bunch of other moms about whether and how we guide our children away from books we think are too mature for them. One mom, with a young daughter who is an exceptionally voracious reader and capable of decoding material aimed at an adult audience, was having mixed feelings about having taken a book (one of the unquestionably-adult Southern Vampire Series) away from her daughter. On one hand she felt like it was unquestionably the right thing to do – this first grader was in no way ready for such mature themes – but on the other hand she felt a little bit like a censor. I’ve heard other parents express such mixed feelings before.

Here’s my take:

As someone who’s taken classes on the topic, read widely about it and even published about censorship, my take is that there’s censorship and then there’s parenting. People have all different definitions of censorship, but only very extreme views contest a parent’s right/responsibility to help their young (e.g. pre-adolescent) child select age-appropriate reading materials. (Unless your opinion of age-appropriate varies hugely from the norms around you.)

Lester Asheim has a statement to the effect that the goal of censorship is thought control. There’s trying to control what your kid thinks. And then there’s trying to help temporarily protect her from stuff she doesn’t have the emotional maturity to process at this time in her young life. This type of parental responsibility is the very reason we can insist that institutions such as libraries take stances *against* censorship – because it’s not *their* job to decide what your kid reads; it’s your job. It’s the library’s job to provide as wide a range as possible of materials from which you may make your selection.

I have no problem telling a kid of mine (or that I’m, say, babysitting) that a certain book they happen upon is a grown-up book and not for them right now. I would not do this as a library worker, however.While I would only recommend books that were clearly age-appropriate to a kid who was looking for something to read, I wouldn’t tell a child that a particular book wasn’t for them. That’s the parent’s job, not the librarian’s job.

Back to my parenting role, if there was a specific book my kid *really* wanted to read, and I was on the fence about in terms of appropriateness, I’d read it with him and discuss. A few times when my own son was considering a library book that was possibly disturbing, I’ve told him, “Hey, I don’t think you’ll like this book. It’s got some violence I think you’ll find upsetting.” Thanks to being a librarian and knowing other librarians to ask for recommendations, I can usually suggest a good substitute in lieu of the particular book, and so far my kid’s never decided he really wants to read any of the books I have concerns about. I find myself doing this less and less as he gets older, more socially adept and better at handling with scary and sad things.

I’ll never forget my grade 3 teacher telling me I couldn’t take a book she had (fairly bizarrely, in retrospect) deemed a “boy book” out of our school library. My mother came to bat for me and made it clear that she was the person to allow or not allow me to read a given (age-appropriate) book, and that my teacher should no longer try to control me or my thinking/reading like that. It was awesome. Not the book – I mean, it was good, from what I can remember – but the freedom from a teacher arbitrarily deciding what books I could or couldn’t read. Go mom.

In sum, there’s censorship and there’s parenting.

Censorship is deciding that no kid in the school should be allowed to read a book in which the villains use potty humour because it might give the impression that the school condones calling people bathroom names.

Parenting is helping your children find developmentally appropriate media, and working through the hard parts with them when they arise.

-Greyson

ps – Spellcheck doesn’t like “poopy” “poo poo” or “censor.” 

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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

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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