Getting Lost on the Way to Community Service

A popular library rallying cry in these defunded times calls for developing methods  “supporters” can use to advocate for “our” institutions. I see it in the way we want to draw attention to “values” we provide through readers’ advisory promotions, collection maintenance directions, and programming targeting youth. We want to demonstrate how thoroughly we learned the marketing lessons we taught ourselves across the past decade. At the same time, driven not only by the dreary economy but also by personal taste, we continue to view library building users who are homeless, psychologically disturbed and/or assertively dissatisfied as “problems” to be solved through well written policies that are attached to well followed procedures.

Have we come unmoored from the basic tenets of service? I believe we have at the point when we choose to try to sell what we have, monitor our users and compare them with each other, and forget that the public library is a civic service construct rather than a private market place. Fortunately, we haven’t floated out to sea so far that we can’t row back to the pier.

In the ALA sponsored webinar Transforming Libraries (8 March 2012), Syracuse iSchool professor R. David Lankes reminded participants that the heart of the library’s mission is the provision of service, service that builds the community.

One of the more provocative questions Lankes asked in the webinar is: “Why do libraries tend to look alike around the world?” By doing so, he asserts, libraries are working to provide a library identity rather than a community identity. Local libraries should, instead, seek to identify the community’s needs and attributes in order to be responsive as a true community service. Instead of marketing “us” we need to converse with the community to ascertain who/what “us” can and should be in this community that would assist the community, and its individual members, toward their aspirations.

Instead of staying mired in the quantitative descriptions we hope the community appreciates enough to see our funding worth, we need to remember to ask these evaluative questions:

  • What’s the best way, in this community, to support and encourage civic engagement?
  • What are this community’s aspirations?
  • What changes are needed for the community to attain its aspirations, both as a whole and as individuals and institutions within it?
  • How can we help to shape the best conveyance to create those changes?

The way to uncover this information, Lankes notes, is to change the method by which we’ve been collecting “community input.” Instead of asking, “What do you think of the library and would you want to use X if we let you?” we need to ask, “What do you need and where do you want to use it?”  It’s time to put aside survey forms and allow the free flow of conversation. That’s prioritizing community service over making sure the library gets the respect/money/understanding that we predetermine is “our” due.