Community Engagement and Libraries: Two Movements -Two Counties (Any Similarities/Differences?)

So, in the US, the Harwood Institute and ALA have teamed up to begin developing tools for libraries to engage with community, while in Canada librarians have internally been developing a community engagement framework from a Community-Led perspective.  This is quite interesting that similar movements are happening in both countries.

I must admit that I have been so entrenched by community-led library services that have developed in Canada over the past 10 years, that I am to biased to make any conclusions at this point on this topic.

However, I think it is important to highlight some of the resources and it would be great for the readers of this blog to share their input.

From Canada:

Canadian Library Associations Community Led Service Network Blog (with a link to Community-Led Resources)

From the US:

Libraries Transforming Communities (with tools developed for library staff)

What are your thoughts about the two approaches?



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Determining and Displaying the Value of Libraries: Time to Take this Seriously

Now I don’t want to muddle into this very touchy subject, but I think it is important to talk about how libraries are currently trying to show their value and worth to funders and members of the public (especially given Paul Ryan’s house budget proposal released yesterday).  Post the 2008 economic crisis in the US, and with the current state of libraries in the UK, I think there are a lot of learnings librarians should be actively talking about.

Last spring when I attended CLA, I heard a presentation from Sandra Singh at VPL. Basically, she set up her speech by indicating that we need to face the facts, municipalities (and counties) are expensive to operate. Depending on the region in which you live, your local government may be responsible for a number of local deliverables, including policing, fire, infrastructure (new and upgrades), education, libraries etc. Some of these are mandated as essential services, so there is little wiggle room in budgets – while other are more prone to potential cuts.

Based on this, especially with massive infrastructure deficits looming, I believe the feeling was that libraries only have a few years to begin to display our value to funders.

Traditional Approaches

We all know by now that output measures (primarily reflected in numbers) has been the way in which library staff have tried in the past to show value for service. Funders expect, and will continue to expect these traditional measures, in part because we have taught them to. However, statistics only provide a superficial overview of the activities occurring in libraries. Statistics are no longer enough, especially in a world with shifting needs and uses of libraries by community (e.g. movement to e-material, people using space in different ways, etc.) Statistics are still good measures for one off programs, where relationships have not been formed and long term impacts should not be implied. Libraries need to become more innovative in measuring and displaying our worth.

Another traditional approach, based upon 1960’s economist cost benefit analysis, is value calculators. These techniques try to place a monetary value on a social good – using the library. These indicators may make sense to some people, but it is hard to commodify a social good in dollars.

Let’s Use Caution Moving Forward

First, during a recent OLA Education Institute series put on by Edmonton Public Library, Mark McHale a Community Librarian, mentioned a very interesting phrase – ‘paralysis by analysis’. The purpose of any research process should not turn into an academic endeavor or exercise, but should be fundamentally influenced by praxis (leading to the creation of better outcomes).

Second, conducting research beyond the scope of nominal level (descriptive statistics) is a skill set. It may be time that libraries seriously consider hiring staff (or partnering with organizations such as local universities) that have strong backgrounds in both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Innovation – Moving to More Descriptive, Longitudinal and Qualitative Methods

So what might our funder and members of the public be looking for when determining the social value of libraries?

One question that each library system (either public or university) must begin to ask themselves, is have they either asked or listened to their funders to determine their needs, and where the library may fit. This fundamentally shifts the discussion from libraries marketing our results to funders to library staff understanding the local, state or provincial priorities and possibly finding a fit and aligning to ensure the libraries relevance.

When it comes to research what should we be doing differently?

One thing libraries need to stop trying is to prove that our actions are stopping something from occurring. What do I mean by this? For example, we all know that keeping youth off the streets may in some contexts lead to less crime. However, we cannot prove this, because the crime did not occur (since the youth were in the library). Now we could look at separate cohorts, youth that do and don’t use library services (with similar backgrounds and characteristics and try to imply these findings). But let’s not go there…. Instead let’s employ research methods that display to funders the differences we are making in people’s lives.


Aren’t libraries already starting to do this with logic modeling? Yes, kind of… kind of not. Everyone is talking about logic modeling, it is very complex, and I have seen very few cases where it is being done correctly. There may be simpler qualitative methods available to us which can do the same thing, with less confusion.

The premise of qualitative research, much like community-led library work, is the in-depth nature of the process (research and relationships with people). Longitudinal research is key. For instance, one effective method library staff could employ is to take a long running program that has the same participants coming to the program (e.g. a literacy program), and interview people at various stages of their program participation. This could be done at different library sites, such as branches or community meeting locations. Over time it would be interesting to see if common themes arise. This would help to determine if the program itself is the cause of any changes in people’s lives, not some outside confounding factors.

Let me be clear though, we can set the bar for the length of a longitudinal study – maybe to even a year or less (with computer training classes/resume writing – maybe two months)…

There are numerous examples of qualitative best practices (e.g. case studies) which library systems should be exploring to show our value and worth. A fundamental starting point in exploring these techniques can be found by reading Lincoln and Guba’s Naturalistic Inquiry (1985) and the many important works which cite this groundbreaking book.

The absolute irony is that libraries are already providing services which are relevant to a segment of the community; we just need to learn how to accurately capture and display it to the public and our funders.

A Number of Valuable Lessons – and also “Dangerous Ideas”

You might wonder why I am adding this into this blog posting.  Feel free to give it a watch – I think it ties in nicely to the budget proposal mentioned above.

From David Simon – executive producer and writer from The Wire: “We believe in the idea of trickle down, we believe in the idea of the market knows best – to the point where we are now that libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought.  It is astonishing.

People are saying, I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profit, I am not connected to society, I don’t care how the road got built, where the fire fighter comes from.  I don’t care who educates the kids – other than MY KIDS.  I am me.  The Triumph of the Self.”

~ Ken

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Is Library A Loaded Term? Meeting People Where They Are

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?


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Politics …

More of a thought than a full-blown post!! I get fed up with people who say that libraries – or, indeed, anything else much – are not political (in the widest sense, not necessarily party-political), and I was thrilled to read an article quoting John Amaechi, speaking about the Olympic Games, in which he expressed this far better than I can:

“I’m so tired of the Olympics being able to hide behind this ‘we are not political’ banner at the same time as being intensely political … All you have to do is look at the event where they announce who will get the Games. Look in the audience and it is prime ministers, premiers and royalty. I’m sorry, you are implicitly political in nature.”

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The Canadian Library Associations’ – Community Led Library Service Network has put together a resource list focusing on equitable library service development.  Reading these articles would put any librarian in good standing, and provide them with approaches to ensure library services meet the needs of populations or groups they are working with.  You can find it here

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“LGBT people and the UK cultural sector …”

I’ve been taking something of a back seat over the last 18 months or so, primarily because I’ve been writing – and the results are about to be published! January 2014 will see the publication of LGBT people and the UK cultural sector: the response of libraries, museums, archives and heritage since 1950


I’m intending to post more here in 2014 – especially about libraries in the UK.

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What is the Purpose of Engaging Communities?

As you have probably noticed from past posting in this blog, I fundamentally believe that community engagement is the path in which libraries need to take in order to ensure their relevance to communities. I was recently shown by a co-worker one of the best documents I have ever read regarding the use of community engagement by organizations from the perspective of organizational leaders (see Rick Harwoods Organization First Approach document here). I strongly encourage everyone to read this!

It has taken me a while to try and process this document.  This document shows us that there are other necessities outside of engagement which drive organizations – such as stability, plan implantation etc.  And after some initial feedback on this posting, it is important to acknowledge the heart of the issue I am trying to get to here.  Do organizations engage communities to ensure their services reflect the needs of communities and are the most relevant they can be, or is engagement seen as a process where organizations talk with community members in order to fulfill a mandate created by the organization (e.g. goals/objectives).  Rick Harwoods document provides us a lot to chew on.  As it indicates in the introduction:

“Just when leaders and organizations need to turn outward toward their communities, they turn inward toward their organizations.  The dominant focus becomes their own programs, strategic planning, fund-raising, internal board matters, branding, and other related activities. It is in this realm that leaders believe they can exert the most control and where they feel most confident in their abilities.   Other research and initiatives we have undertaken clearly show that the more leaders and organizations try to turn outward and focus on the communities in which they work, the more they reach for inward practices for guidance about what to do. The result is a cycle that binds them ever closer to a posture of inwardness.”

It also clearly delineates that some peoples definition of engagement, or the rationale behind it, does not match Rick or mine.  At times it is easy to forget how language can at times be lost in translation.  One’s belief or definition, does not necessarily matches someone else’s.

Some additional key points I have taken away from this document is that there is safety in allowing staff members within organizations (libraries in this case) to defining what they consider is important to address, such:

  • Services/programs and the role of the library in community,
  • measurement tools, and
  • ultimately policy and strategic directions.

This makes me wonder, is engagement viewed by some as a deductive process, which is:

  1. Inherently a top down approach
    1. Providing certainty to responses (during the engagement activity), since reality and the questions asked of community are based on the ‘expertise’ of professionals.
  2. Usually based on theoretical or research model – where we as experts may predetermine the parameters of response people provide …

This makes library work and service planning easier, but the engagement process may not eventually lead to what I believe is the best intended outcome from engagement – ensuring library services are more relevant to individuals in local communities.

Shouldn’t libraries be employing a much more exploratory and inductive process to determining community need?  This would introduce:

  • Uncertainty – and with that innovation
  • Allow for library staff to acknowledge that the community is an expert of its own needs,

A (excuse the term) bottom up approach, where engagement leads to finding patterns, exploring and hearing issues – and feeding these into the strategic planning process, seems to make more sense to me.  This seems to me to be best for library service innovation – and the continued relevance of library services.

However, I wonder if for some this uncertainty is viewed as too risky?

What is the risk to libraries if we don’t take the later approach?

Is there a balance between the two? (thanks John – for this thought).


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