Canadian Library Month occurs every October and during this time librarians have the chance to celebrate their activity and users have the chance to reflect on the important role libraries play in their lives. To learn more about libraries in Canada, we had a chat with Stephen Abram.
Stephen is a renowned library trend watcher, keynote speaker, innovator and author of the very popular Stephen’s Lighthouse blog, as well as hundreds of articles and many books.
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your activity in the library world?
I am the Executive Director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries (FOPL), where I represent Ontario’s 306+ public library systems to all levels of government. I have deep roots in Canada’s library sector as a Strategy and Direction Planning Consultant for libraries and the information industry. I am also the Principal of Lighthouse Consulting Inc.
I have been President of the Ontario Library Association, the Special Libraries Association (SLA) internationally and the Canadian Library Association. I teach at the graduate level at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information (iSchool) as well as planning iSchool Symposia.
2. We are all aware of a certain existential library crisis in some countries but how is the situation in Canada? What challenges do you face?
While some define the crisis in purely funding terms, the real existential crisis is of professionals’ ongoing struggle with defining our relevance in the 21st Century. Speaking with one voice in a time of fragmentation amongst many roles is a challenge.
That said, I believe that funding success is merely a measurement of how well you have lobbied for and communicated your value to your funders which is not the real goal. Our real goal is to move minds and that requires a sincere change in our own mindsets. One of the great advocates of these changes is R. David Lankes which is shown through his books, articles, presentations and blog.
The best way to promote libraries is through telling stories and providing a platform for our members to communicate to those in the funding communities and government, the value and impact of libraries. However, you have to have your research, studies, reports and data in order and to build on that.
3. But how can libraries get this intimate knowledge of their communities? What initiatives do you take?
There are a ton of wonderful initiatives in Canada and the province of Ontario. When I joined FOPL as Executive Director almost four years ago, we identified a few things that weren’t in our current strategic toolkit. We were determined to change this.
In alliance with all major Ontario associations and agencies, we collaborated on two summits where representatives from every library system in the province, indigenous libraries, and partner/vendor organizations met at the Royal York Hotel to choose and prioritize the top four goals we would work on collectively. These were called Libraries 2020 and Libraries 2025. We set out to get funding based on these goals and received a one-time grant of $15 million (plus a further $3 million) to achieve our goals.
Stephen Abram speaking at Libraries 2020 Symposium at the Royal York Hotel
We didn’t know our data.
The public library annual data collection was tied up in a government mainframe and locked up in PDFs. We successfully lobbied to have the data made available. We developed a service where all library systems could order custom peer library reports and compare themselves on these measures.
We didn’t have a strategy that provided a single learning system for the provinces’ libraries.
We bought, populated, and promoted a new e-learning system called LearnHQ for our libraries. It now has thousands of courses on all topics for librarians, technicians, library board trustees, leaders, managers, and more.
We didn’t have up-to-date data on what the public opinion was in Ontario about public libraries.
FOPL carried out a full scale, professional survey of Ontarians. This was a valid survey upon which we could rely on to demonstrate the love Ontarians had for their public libraries, the high respect they have and usage. Also, for example, their attitudes towards new services like maker-spaces, technological change and e-books.
We didn’t have a solid branding and marketing strategy.
We invested in face-to-face interviews to discover our ‘brand’ as a public library. We landed on a great tagline, “A Visit WILL Get You Thinking!”, and launched this with a three-year commitment nationally promoted through a revitalized Ontario Public Library Week and Canadian Library Month.
“A Visit WILL Get You Thinking!” tagline
We couldn’t afford to advertise in major periodical and newspapers or on television.
FOPL used money from our strategic investment funding from our libraries to develop a social media strategy. We hired a social media guru to train all library systems in Ontario on the critical components of social media success. Our early results showed 500% to 750% growth in social media engagement for our member public libraries. This is called OpenMediaDesk.
Our big initiative this year is to respond to the Ontario government’s Culture Strategy Public Library Program Funding Review which we suggested doing to move towards modernizing the province’s relationship with public libraries. We have conversations with the civil servants who matter and making progress to ultimately ‘ask’ for an additional $65 million in a new funding framework as we lead up to a provincial election.
4. How can libraries actively engage with all parts of the community?
This is a big question! Off the top of my head, there are a number of ways:
1. Develop an engagement strategy and set priorities for engagement.
You cannot hit everyone at once and, while each niche shares your community, age, stage, ethnic, and other demographics often predict the needs and you need to focus on that for successful communication and engagement. In Ontario, the government leadership is pushing a focus (with funding eventually) on refugees, new Canadians, indigenous communities, arts and culture employment, seniors social isolation, anti-poverty, pre-schooler readiness, teens and college readiness, and digital skills training.
2. Get out and engage in the community and they’ll engage with you.
Many Canadian public libraries have created community liaison librarians who get out into the community with programs, events, mobile maker, books, early years centres, and so much more. Each target outreach is based on their goals.
3. Listen! Talk to principals and teachers. Talk to teens in their world, not your world.
I’ve done engagement in soup kitchens and half-way houses where I was delighted to find that every resident had a library card! Visit seniors’ centres and see how you can work together. You’re only limited by your imagination, leadership, and energy.
4. You can’t do it all alone and you can never have enough staff or too many partners.
Consider using the Tamarack Institute’s ABCD community asset mapping approach. Map the services in your community related to social services, education, business, culture and more. Then analyze the results and look for potential partners and gaps. Filter the results through your library’s strategic priorities and make choices of whom to contact. Over the years you’ll be intimately webbed through your community and have a delightful range of partners to engage beyond just your member.
5. Do you have some final advice for librarians worldwide?
We’re a few years into this and have made progress on many fronts. We’re now focusing on what we need as we move forward. This includes some things that we all must consider:
– We need to focus on leadership skills and competencies for our staff as we transition our senior leadership to retirement.
– We need to hop on the digital programs band wagon and ensure that our digital branches model has as much of the physical branch experience as they can. Examples of this are, Lynda.com, Khan Academy, TED, and Gale Courses – the thin edge of the wedge.
– We need to build our skills for lobbying and influence (and the respect for same). We need to build stronger relationships with the policy makers and politicians. A smallish cadre of trained librarians with these power-skills is our goal.
Hope you have enjoyed our talk with Stephen Abram. In case you want to find out more about Canadian Librarians and their strategies, you can get in touch with Stephen on Twitter at @sabram or by e-mail at Stephen.Abram@gmail.com. We will be back next week with another interesting article!
Share your insights with us and our readers!
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