This week I featured excerpts (here and here) from recent presentations by R. David Lankes. This passion and these ideas merit conversation and engagement — for if they remain a mere artifact, just another Powerpoint or post or tweet — they become part of a dynamic Lankes urges his audiences to move beyond.
So here’s what I say about participatory librarianship: bring it on!
Passion and aspiration
I am passionate about what our communities can be with better libraries as our shared resource, as beacons of our aspirations and deliberate public commitments to ourselves, to others in our communities, our country and around the world — and to past and future generations.
My impression is that, in general, public libraries have lost connection with their aspirational potential — that over the years it has become codified into rote utterances about the people’s university, equal access, freedom, innovation and a host of other inspiring phrases — while at the same time services have become similarly codified and ossified (largely) as popular materials circulation, limited conservative programming and rudimentary technology/reference instruction. The public has also lost touch with its shared aspirations and, despite recent usage statistics, seem less and less invested in their public libraries. This makes for a steady decline of the institution and, more importantly, of the richness and fabric of our communities.
Action and perspiration
What to do? Libraries need to take the lead by “finding their phoenix“. Why, because in the short-term libraries have more skin in the game than the public does. Also because so many people long to break down the consumption model and thaw the distraction, stress, cynicism and malaise that has kept us from investing in ourselves and our future. We need focus, help, inspiration and support to do it.
Here’s a radical idea. For the next 9-12 months, what if public libraries focused on a single new program: increasing voter turnout in an upcoming local election. This is an example, I think, of the participatory librarianship and leadership Dave Lankes advocates. I’d offer this encouragement to public library directors:
- Just do it. Don’t bring it to a committee or a board, don’t spend time seeking out best practices, just start and rely on your resourcefulness and the resourcefulness of your staff to do it. Outline a program and create a buzz with the range of community members you interact with all the time: parents, teachers, students, town officials … get the thing started, provide some basic structure and help the thing grow as more people come on board.
- Be like water. If something blocks your movement go around, under or through.
- Don’t worry about publicity; word of the initiative will get around. When speaking to members of your community, talk about the issues. Find out what questions people have about local governance or ballot issues or issues that need to be on the ballot, and provide them with good information and personal resources. Help foster meaningful conversations and connections between community members. When speaking to the press, foreground the community issues (for goodness knows how the press is prone to distraction) and let your actions tell the library story.
- Set specific task goals around dates, number of participants and deliverables throughout the initiative. If you fall short on a particular task, be honest about why and do better on the next one.
- Stay strong. Connect with your vocation and remember what drew you to librarianship in the first place. Keep hold and reignite the aspirational mission. Reach outside your familiar cast of “library people” for help and support; we’ll be there for you.
Imagination and celebration
Imagine the knowledge and best practices that will be generated.
Imagine the import on elected officials at all levels of government.
Imagine the impact on the young people in your community of having them play a key role in the initiative.
Imagine the ripple-effect of facilitating so many productive conversations in your community.
Imagine a public library renaissance. I can.
1These numbers are possible given the Institute of Museum and Library Services 2009 report, Public Libraries in the United States: Fiscal Year 2007, that counted 16,604 U.S. public library outlets and 145,000 library FTEs.