Holding Us Back | Office Hours

A new report from Pew Internet and American Life, “Library Services in the Digital Age,” should be required reading for all in LIS education, especially those involved in strategic and long-range planning. For LIS educators, this is yet another call to action for reevaluating core and elective course ­content.

“What’s holding librarians back?”

This question is from a friend who has done great work in the museum field. During a recent conversation, we pondered what’s preventing many libraries from ramping up community engagement and user-focused services. I argued for a few factors: in some places (not all) there’s a lingering emphasis on collections over users, a lack of a future focus by administrators, a lack of public awareness, and, frankly, confusion on how to go forward into a landscape that seems new and ­frightening.

A new report from Pew Internet and American Life, “Library Services in the Digital Age,” addresses some of these factors, particularly in the responses from library staff surveys included in the report. It should be required reading for all in LIS education, especially those involved in strategic and long-range planning. For LIS educators, this is yet another call to action for reevaluating core and elective course ­content.

Services in mind

A “notable share” of respondents would use services such as app-based access to collections, technology petting zoos, and “Redbox”-like kiosks throughout the community. Stats hover around 60–70 percent for “very likely” and “somewhat likely” responses. This is a big deal, and those services absolutely merit discussion. What’s not surprising: no respondent mentioned QR codes.

Meanwhile, the description of libraries as “book warehouses” is giving way in many communities as collections evolve and space is at a premium. Users and library staff alike broadly agreed that moving collections out to make room is a good thing, though some librarians expressed concerns. Positive statements, such as this from a librarian—“We don’t have space to waste on things people don’t use. It’s not about us—it’s about the community”—emphasize the user direction that should illuminate planning for the future. In terms of current viewpoints and future ideas, quotes from library staff are likewise revealing: “The administration is overly hesitant to make any changes to services, even small ones, for fear of repercussions for other branches in the library district.”

The study also notes that people use the library website to search the catalog and find basic library information, even as library web presence promotion is lacking. “When I receive the emails, they never reference the website,” writes one user. “I didn’t even know they had a website....” Another intriguing fact: respondents want the library to use the channels they use—Facebook and email, specifically.

Reaching out

It’s easy to focus on the folks who use our services consistently, the ones who borrow materials, attend programs, and bring children to story time. The next step I would call “radical community engagement,” and it begins with statements like this: “I think our strength is in our ties to the community and the relationships we build with our customers. That should be our focus and should drive how we develop our programs and services in the future.” Golden! The need to be vocal can’t be overemphasized: “We need to change the concept of the library as a restricted, quiet space—we bustle, we rock, we engage, but so many people in the community do not know this.” The Pew report is evidence that tapping in to community needs and interests is paramount for libraries, and active interaction with citizens, business, nonprofits, and other entities is a promising future. Open the doors to local experts and creators to teach and share.

More than teaching

Take a look at the “About” page for the 4th Floor project at Chattanooga Public Library. “While traditional library spaces support the consumption of knowledge by offering access to media, the 4th Floor is unique because it supports the production, connection, and sharing of knowledge by offering access to tools and instruction.” This exemplifies the potential of thinking beyond collections to a library space that promotes creativity and collaborative learning. Just as Chicago Public Library’s YouMedia space has inspired similar spaces, the 4th Floor will set a standard for the next evolution of what we consider a library.

I’ve mentioned Daniel Pink in this column before; in A Whole New Mind, he talks about a focus on creativity and empathy and how those who think with the right brain will “rule this century....” I think it’s the converse mind-set that’s holding us back. This quote from the survey scares me the most: “If I had wanted to teach people how to make stuff, I would have been a teacher. I think libraries are more about helping people learn for themselves.” That’s certainly not the mind-set we want coming out of library school or guiding our libraries. We can teach our students about these new things, but if they enter a workplace culture that doesn’t support transformation, their skills will go to waste. Librarians should seek to encourage and facilitate learning of all kinds within our spaces.

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A. Mary

After working/volunteering in libraries for over 25 years (with merely an LTA earned last year), considering the current (ever-changing) state of technology, librarians should be gleaned from (and I am not being flip) employees of businesses like Best Buy, Apple Store & their kin. First, find those who are adept at the latest technology, interested in its ongoing evolution, and THEN narrow it to those who love reading, literature, and are socially adept enough to pass on their expertise to others (patience always being a virtue). Pay them what "taxpayers" think they're worth, keeping in mind that these kinds of employees will want to be sure "their" library (workplace) has the latest in all technology. Not enough money in the budget? Let the taxpayers vote with their pocketbooks...or keep the present "librarian" pay scale & "do without," which is the most likely outcome given today's economy.

Posted : Jun 29, 2013 11:32

Barbara Petruzzelli, Mount Saint Mary College

I'm really not sure what libraries you're referring to in your first paragraph. The libraries I know - the ones I use, the ones I read about, the ones I work/ed at, where my friends and colleagues work, both academic and public - are all about user-centered services and engagement with their communities. They're among the first to apply (maybe not universally well) emerging services/technologies to meet the future needs of users. They are not overly focused on collections nor are they frightened. You might have found the libraries you describe a decade ago or so. Perhaps this is the disconnect with library education - an outdated notion that something is holding librarians back.

Posted : Jun 27, 2013 12:30


By sharing my enthusiasm and a little sheer dumb luck, I found out about the MakerFare on the 4thFloor. I had seen an article about 3D printing in the newspaper and read about Meg and about the fact that the library was in talks about getting a 3D printer of its own for community use. Having previously dealt with corporate bureaucracy and lengthy approval processes, I figured that the library getting one anytime soon was a pipedream. When I found out at the MakerFare that the library already had a printer and that the space would be available the following week, I was simply amazed; and I had a new recurring reminder in my phone calendar every Monday and Friday. It turns out that I don't need that particular reminder- I remember it all on my own! Backing up- I am (at least somewhat) literate. However, I am not someone that would ever be accused of being a “reader”. Or a casual reader. Or even the accidental reader. I think in the past decade, and this is not a matter of pride (just fact) I have probably started and finished… four books? Maybe? And that decade even includes a portion of my college career. I used to devour books as a child and then… quit. All that to say that I have spent more time in the library of my own free will in the past couple of months (since I have discovered the 4th floor of the library and the 3D printer) than in the past couple of decades of my own free will (I did, by necessity, spend time in the library at in college). I think collections are important. I think having archives of real paper, books and magazines with real bindings, and not merely a 01100010 01101001 01101110 01100001 01110010 01111001 translation of reality is important. That isn’t to say that conserving space isn't important, and branching out to be able to reach the community and engage and involve them in a meaningful way isn’t ultimately even more important, because without engagement and members the doors will no longer remain open. It is almost always worth teaching the manual method so that the technology behind the newfangled device can be better understood, or at least hopefully appreciated (learning to do math (NOT using fingers and toes!!!) on paper before using a calculator, using a hand saw before plugging in a circular saw, learning HTML before using a WYSIWYG program, etc.). But there is a place for moving forward and using the tools that are available, and diversification, as long as it doesn’t harmfully dilute the original mission, can help bring more community involvement. I, for one, am a prime example of what can happen for the library with the right diversification; not only did I get a library card, but living outside the city limits I didn’t even debate whether or not it was worth paying for.

Posted : May 03, 2013 11:18

Meg Backus

Thanks for the mention, Michael! The "radical community engagement" part is, for me, the most exciting component. The space we've cleared out and reclaimed for public use at the library was being used for storage, and to open it up, invite Chattanoogans to come in and co-own/co-create the space with us to make the library of our dreams has been liberating--it seems to capture what public libraries are truly for. The library is simply providing a platform to support the imagination, ambition, and generosity of the Chattanooga community. Together we are making the world we want to live in.

Posted : Apr 19, 2013 04:25


Meg - Your last line touches my heart and speaks to the role I see librarians playing in the 21st Century - active participants in making the world better. It might be via all the things discussed above, all the technologies we have available and all the chances we have to engage with our communities.

Posted : Apr 19, 2013 04:25

Patricia J DeLois

I know reference books--dictionaries and whatnot--are obsolete and uncool, but for those of us who still use them, it's hard to hear that libraries are not about collections. A library IS a collection, a collection selected by professionals to serve a particular population. (Of all the classes I took in library school, the one that served me best was Collection Development.) What you're talking about is more like a community center. Nothing wrong with that, but the space we can spare must be dictated by the collection and not the other way around, because the collection itself is chosen to serve the community. It's not "collections over users," but collections FOR users. ALL users, not just those who want what's new and popular. The problem with giving the patrons "what they want" is that it presumes patrons already know what they want, and furthermore, I fear, it presumes that they want the same things everyone else wants. It's this consumerist mindset that has no place in a library. Patrons are unique individuals, not a marketing demographic. Sometimes they know what they want, and sometimes they want to discover something new. I'm not against creative spaces and whatnot. It's entirely consistent with the library's mission to make space available for patrons to use as they will, but I don't want to see it happen at the expense of those folks who use our services consistently, checking out books and bringing their children to story time. I don't want to hold you back, but I'd like to slow you down a little bit. The collection needs to be right here, where patrons can see it and touch it and flip through the pages if they like. You know what scares me? The fact that so many librarians are so willing to abandon their focus on literacy. Not entrepreneurial literacy, or technological literacy, but plain old READING. Not because we love books, or because Literature is Beautiful, but because LITERACY IS POLITICAL POWER, and the public library is the poor man's university. For the sake of a better-informed community and a more functional democracy, we exist to make knowledge available to the self-directed learner, because libraries ARE about helping people learn for themselves, and yes, if I wanted to teach people how to make things, I would have been a teacher. In fact, I WAS a teacher, and I left it to become a librarian.

Posted : Apr 19, 2013 10:45


I would argue that librarians are not abandoning literacy, they are embracing a broader definition of the word - just as you mention in this insightful comment. Call it transmedia navigation, as Henry Jenkins does, or a term I find most fascinating: life literacies. I would say the library and librarians should be as siting, guiding and collaborating people with their needs way beyond the pointed page to every type of literacy required to get along in this fast changing world. A better-informed community might be best served by not only having access to text-based content but all the other forms of communication and expression available - just as the 4th floor does - transcending consumption to "production, connection, and sharing of knowledge."

Posted : Apr 19, 2013 10:45


We ignore CONTENT at our peril. Too often we are spending more time on the device rather than what will go in it. As Duncan Smith says, it's not just delivery, it's DISCOVERY.

Posted : Apr 19, 2013 10:45



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