PART I. Evolving Toward a Participatory Library Culture

While I had worked in libraries in the past, I entered librarianship trained as a business manager. I brought an entrepreneurial, problem-solving mindset. I brought for-profit and non-profit experience. I also arrived in this organization “in recovery” from a position in government… recovery from bureaucracy and rigid hierarchy. Because I am a genealogist, I came to this organization as a person who is naturally interested in hearing people’s stories. Here, I will share stories about my little public library as a potential template for how such shifts might be done on a larger scale. We are a microcosmic library laboratory, if you will.

So much of our conversation concerns shifting the intra-library organization toward development of a participatory culture. We must do this, certainly. The more hierarchical and rigid the organizational structure, the more difficult this culture shift will be.

However, the process of engaging with so-called “users” is not necessarily all sunshine and flowers. We need to be considering ways in which to build a participatory culture from within and from without, simultaneously. This is a rugged challenge!  As Kenney points out, we need to begin by “Meet[ing] People Where They Are—Not Where We Want Them to Be.” The thought continues: “Libraries are very good at organizing and presenting content in anticipation of users’ needs. From cataloging resources to creating booklists, to offering workshops and classes, we’re all about meeting people where we think they may be. The trouble is, not all individuals fit into our elaborate schema.” Kenney (2014) [Emphasis mine.]  Indeed, if declining “user” figures are indicative, libraries models of the past have not been meeting the needs of most people for the past decade or more. As a business model, this requires a radical shift in how we think and talk about service. And to shift perceptions and expectations of the “long tail” of people who have already been disenchanted is a gargantuan task.

The first recognition we need to make is that shifting cultures takes time. Be prepared to move slowly. When I took the position of Library Director two years ago, the library had never had any paid staff. I knew that to achieve any new vision for this library, I needed to earn the trust of ALL the volunteers, and all the patrons, and not just the library board. Many of them expected this “hot shot kid” to come in and slam them with new ideas and force them to learn entirely new ways of doing things. I surprised them.

“Genuinely friendly and helpful interactions lead people to accomplishing their goals, demonstrate respect, and tell people, “Yes, we really do care about you as a person.” Poor customer service usually diminishes even the most desirable services.” Schmidt (2013).  I spent two months in the library before I made any changes at all. Instead, I had intensive conversations with all the library volunteers. I asked them to teach me what I needed to know about their role in library operations. I asked them what was NOT working well in the library. I asked them about problems or questions that patrons brought to their attention.

I asked operational questions, certainly, but asking questions can be a slippery process. I asked many open-ended questions, then sat back to let them talk freely. These conversations were casual and completely open. There were not back-room or off-site meetings. Often, my initial questions were more about who the volunteer is and what the volunteer is interested in than how the library functions.

I knew as well, that “buy-in” for any new culture must come from the people who have been relatively happy with the library service. And so, I initiated conversation with everyone who entered the building. I asked questions about what their likes, dislikes, interests, and needs. I asked about their families, their roles in the library and in the community. I asked. I listened.

[SIDEBAR:  I really dislike the term “buy-in”.  The inference is that someone (the boss?) knows what is best for everyone in the company, and so they must spend time convincing others that this great idea was the people’s idea all along. 

No. No. No. This is upside-down thinking. This is emotional manipulation. Instead, a great organizational leader will learn what the staff needs and wants; learn what the customer needs and wants; and then, after reflection, will construct a vision which incorporates those needs and wants. No “buy-in” required.  But I digress….]

After two months, I fixed the one thing that all volunteers (and some visitors) had complained about. Slowly, volunteers and patrons began to see small shifts in operations, all of which reflected conversations we had shared early in the process. Some of the changes were operational: ensuring necessary supplies were ordered and on hand; clearing some cluttered areas; making forms and tools easier to find and use; creating a template for circulation desk operations. Some of the changes represent “catching up” on those community needs we were not meeting: a binder and online access to frequently needed social services; more access to interlibrary loan; more instruction about the digital library; adding e-readers and ensuring that those highly popular books or book discussion picks were available in multiple formats; adding more genre fiction to the collection [Seriously. This library was half literary fiction; half mystery. Practically zero romance, science fiction, fantasy! No wonder some folks never came in.]

Speaking of the folks who never came in… I also met with people off-site, and was particularly interested in meeting people who did NOT use the library. Yes. I would ask total strangers at the store, or in restaurants, if they ever used this library, and most importantly… WHY NOT?  Why not?  This had to be asked with humility rather than judgement. This had to be asked with a genuine concern for how this individual’s informational needs were not being met. This had to be asked with an understanding of the daily life challenges of local families.

In many cases, locals in the community believed the library existed mostly for visitors from away. They believed the library was about books [hello old branding!]. They had not visited the library since they were children. My job here was not to convince them they were wrong. It was to listen, and to return to the library with new ideas about how to be sure we had the information they needed, and that everyone in town would be informed (via town newsletter, via flyers sent home through the school system, via signage outside the library, and via word-of-mouth communication from all library volunteers). This was not a problem that would be solved instantly.

So. Two years in, we are fully participatory, right?  Well, no. It doesn’t work that way. But we are certainly leaning in the right direction. Because we are creating programming based upon direct feedback from guests and volunteers, our programs are well-attended. Our parking lot… and adjacent parking areas… are always full if we are open. The library is a community hub now, and more people come in who have not visited the building since they were children. They are curious about the ‘buzz.’

Part II of this blog concerns the transformation of organizations towards transparency.



All images are hyperlinked to their source.

Anderson, C. (2006). In praise of radical transparency. The Long Tail [blog]. Accessed 09 Sep 2017 at:

Casey, M. and Stephens, M. (2014). The Transparent Library.

Kenney, B. (2014). The user is (still) not broken. Accessed 09 Sep 2017 at:

Schmidt, A. (2013). Earning trust: The user experience. Library Journal [online]. Accessed 09 Sep 2017 at:

Schneider, K.G. (2006). The user is not broken: A meme masquerading as a manifesto. Free Range Librarian. Blog. Accessed 09 Sep 2017 at:

Schwartz, M. (2013). Tomorrow, Visualized: Library by design, Fall 2013. Accessed 09 Sep 2017 at:

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