A characteristic of librarian discourse immediately jumped out at me when I broadened my advocacy work nearly a year ago, though framing it succinctly had been elusive until I read Kim Leeder’s post on the future of libraries. She notes:
I hear a little shrillness in the voices of many librarians who speak or write about the future. We argue with the world at large, insisting that not everything is available online, that libraries are not going out of business. We are insecure about our future and whether we’ll have jobs in ten or twenty years.
I’ve noticed a few patterns:
- Taking umbrage, as in some of the responses1 to Seth Godin’s recent suggestion about how to restore libraries’ relevance in the digital age. It’s pretty clear Godin’s blog post hit a nerve…
- Setting the record straight, as in Connie William’s thoughtful response to a Santa Rosa school board member’s support for taking teaching librarians out of school libraries and returning them to the classroom. Regarding the member’s impression that “kids use technology on their own” and “libraries are used only for hanging out” she replied:
a strong school library — one staffed by the team of teacher librarian and support clerk — is a dynamic learning center where students learn new research skills, practice skills they learn in class, research information they need for assignments and find good books to read.
Connie’s article is a passionate, articulate statement on the value of good school libraries and librarians, and I highly recommend it. What it tacitly steps over though, as do so many similar articles & blog posts, is an appreciation for the way many people see libraries these days. Now short articles and blog posts have limited capacity for addressing complex issues, so rest assured I haven’t applied unduly high standards to the examples referenced here. Also know that I understand how frustrating and painful it is to be professionally devalued, I really do.
That said, these responses lie toward one end of a dialectic continuum. At the other are self-admonitions by librarians, peppered throughout library journals and the blogosphere, about their institutional inability to “market themselves”. More limiting than these poles, however, is librarians’ reticence to engage with the public about library services. I’ve experienced it firsthand and see it in things like this interview from the ALA 2010 mid-winter meeting. Here, Karen Klapperstuck and Andy Woodworth suggest greater dialogue among librarians about successful programming and services — and while the spirit behind the idea is fantastic, I wonder whether it will be as productive as Karen and Andy would like it to be if patrons are not part of the dialogue.
Ex Libris President Carl Grant and librarian Toby Greenwalt have perceptively pointed out that “[library] end-users don’t see libraries the same way librarians do” and “… the contrast [in perception of libraries] between our users and our non-users is remarkable“. It therefore seems unlikely that dialogue among librarians and existing patrons will surface the information needed to attract new ones. For programming and service augmentation, in the near term I’d recommend personal dialogue with local residents who currently do not use their libraries.
I say this because I talk about libraries with non-users all the time. The vast majority of people I know have not used a library since college.2 Nonetheless, we speak about them frequently. I generally find people have strong conceptual support for libraries as well as reasonable and specific ideas about what would attract them to one. Their ideas come loosely formed at first, through reflections on their information needs in childhood versus today, in statements about how the resources they provide for their children are better than those offered by their library, or via mild complaints about how their libraries are behind in terms of service delivery. After a few minutes though, good ideas start flowing about what would make public libraries more valuable today and what societal needs they might meet in the future.
A survey or similar communication tool wouldn’t get at the data and insights people have shared with me. This is because non-users don’t think much about libraries and need a compelling invitation to pause a moment to consider them. Once they do, folks almost always have meaningful impressions and questions to share that don’t fall neatly into a spreadsheet the way survey responses are designed to do. So, if a survey isn’t the best approach, what is?
- I’d try recruiting a volunteer or two to engage non-users — someone who cares about libraries but isn’t heavily invested in a particular paradigm or set of services. Volunteers with experience soliciting and communicating user preferences, like people who do market research or product development or technical project management might be especially helpful. They could also recommend good timing and forums for the outreach.
- Another approach might be to partner with a local newspaper on a project to determine what people in the community want from their library and then report on how the library is working to deliver it. (A smart editor could get a real good journalistic series going here.) An initiative like this would benefit the newspaper, the library and the community. It could also work with a local college or even the right business sponsor.
- Or, if your library has budget available (grit teeth now), firms such as Library Development Solutions may be able to help with your assessment.
As important as public outreach is, it’s only part of what is needed to make libraries more relevant to more people. (Think of Henry Ford’s oft-cited caution about listening too closely to users: If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.) What’s also needed is executive leadership to be constantly looking ahead, watching the clouds, anticipating the storms and sunshine to come and shouting from the hilltops about accomplishments and offerings.
1Just call me Tenzing Norbook, I guess ♦ Leaders, sherpas and teachers in our libraries ♦ Seth Godin and the Future of Libraries ♦ The actual future of the library ♦ Seth Godin is wrong about the future of the library
2My cohort is between 35 – 55, college educated, employed full-time with alternatives for accessing information and entertainment.