Public libraries are an impactful and influential entity, with a constant focus on access and opportunities for all visitors, it is a safe environment where development is encouraged and incubated. Sometimes, the library is misrepresented as “just” a place to get books and research information, but as many are finding out, it’s so much more than that.
As discussed in previous posts, such as Library resources for overall health, Parents, babies and libraries, or Current technology trends in libraries, libraries have many different services, programs and technologies at visitors’ disposal, and these resources are vital to a public library. However, there is an integral factor involved here which deserves a spotlight…community.
The public library is, in many ways, a reflection of the surrounding community, perhaps to its best version. Meaning, what makes a public library unique is not its resources (although those do help) but it’s the ability to bring people and information together within a building where the culture is safe and familiar to the local residents. This is cultivated through library staff and the community that interact with library.
So how can public libraries effectively accommodate and honour the communities they reside in? The simple answer is to listen, analyze and act.
Listen, Analyze and Act
A public library accommodates their specific community’s needs by listening to library staff, and visitors. These segments understand and make up the pulse of the surrounding community. It is important not to force international trends or methods onto the library. First, understand what is needed at the current time.
Creating a public library that “speaks” to the community’s needs, allows the public to see the library as “theirs” which will make it the desired place for all age groups. Something library professionals and advocates fight to achieve.
A great example of this comes from a recent article ‘Beyond the books – Auckland libraries form the future’ where they include te reo or Māori language classes, among other resources. This addresses their community’s needs directly, as this language is spoken by the Māori people, the indigenous population in New Zealand. This initiative would not necessarily serve or be needed in libraries anywhere else but understanding that there are specific and unique characteristics of the community and tailoring your services to them is important.
Unsure how to understand what the community is asking for? Start by giving the library visitors a voice by having a dedicated email (or social media outlet) for suggestions or ideas directed to the library. Invite them to participate in a specific meeting to voice their thoughts or have a traditional suggestion box. Finally, listen to the staff! Library staff will be interacting and communicating with the community’s residents on a constant and continuous basis which will give them the knowledge and know-how that is vital to understanding and growth.
A great example of listening, analyzing and acting is what Vancouver Public Library (VPL) has done. They updated their strategic plan to identify priorities for a four-year period from 2020 to 2023. VPL wanted to hear from library users and non-users about the needs of the community. As they put it, “Help shape the future of Vancouver’s library!”
You can check out John J Schaub’s website HERE. John severed on the Vancouver Public Library Board for 8 years.
After listening and accumulating information and suggestions from library staff, visitors, other libraries and professional trends, take this data and review it to see if it fits your library. This is an imperative step because analyzing this information with the practicalities of budget, staffing and available resources will be crucial to effective implementation.
Often this area is glanced over, and information gathered is acted on without review or analysis. This leads to situations where libraries adopt trends or principles that may work in a certain part of the world but neglect the needs of the community the library serves.
The best and most rewarding step. Time to take action on the information you have gathered and reviewed. Take pride in your library’s different aspects and unique resources offered. This will occur if the library is tapping into the community and doing its due diligence to figure out what will work. Remember a superb public library that is innovative, and a community hub will look different in Kenya then it does in Ghana, Denmark, Canada, Egypt or Australia.
Measure the data
Alignment with the community is favourable in creating the best library possible, so it’s important to show the results. Make sure all programs, especially new ones, are measured in some form or fashion. This will be advantageous if library management can show the impact that is occurring through the decision making of the entire library staff. Ideally, this measured data can also help secure more funding or resources for the library as well. To read up on some free data measuring tools for libraries check out or post on Project Outcome or measuring outcomes in Public libraries.
This does not mean to stop
Libraries should never stop listening to advice, trends or information from outside your communities or communicating with and mimicking programmes from state-of-the-art public libraries around the world. This should focus public libraries in order to stay grounded and rooted in their own communities, while leading the search outside for things that can benefit and serve the community through the vessel that is the public library.
Libraries will always benefit from prioritising flexibility and curating the ability to wisely adapt on-the-fly. This is what allows public libraries to be viewed as an entity that drives leadership and innovation in the community.
Although alignment between library and community is significant, libraries should not stop building global networks, attending conferences, and allowing for development through professional contacts. This is all capital which libraries can put back into their communities.
Libraries Lead and Serve
A reminder to all libraries that embracing and empowering your community will help create, develop and strengthen the relationship between them. Still, public libraries should not retreat from learning and discussing with knowledgeable sources located outside the community.
Build up the community through the public library and the community will build up the public library in turn. Like any interaction or relationship, what you put into it, is what you will get out of it.
We will be back next week with another interesting article from the library world!
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