PART II: Evolving Toward a More Transparent Library

Bring Back the People

Shifting toward a fully participatory library necessitates movement toward openness and transparency. We simply cannot have one without the other. Secret board meetings, hidden politics… these do not engender trust in the organization, and trust is the key element required for increased participation. “Libraries benefit in all sorts of ways when they’re trusted institutions. Trust breeds loyalty, and loyal library users are more likely to take advantage of the library. What’s more, loyal patrons will also be more likely to sing the praises of the library to neighbors and colleagues. For libraries, thinking about trust highlights the importance of recognizing members as individuals.”  Schmidt (2013).

 

Bring Back the Fun

“Libraries—all libraries—should be fun, even in difficult times.” Casey & Stephens (2014). Increasing transparency includes making the library a more human experience. In our library, this means bringing the fun back. Encouraging volunteers to burst spontaneously into song. Bringing in the so-called “junk reading” materials. Building the collections which are ‘not books.’ Creating programming based on what people in the community find fun and funny. Inviting people to hang out at the library and feel free to ‘laugh out loud.’

“Letting librarians’ personalities show makes it easier for individuals to relate to—and therefore trust—the library…. There are plenty of opportunities for this: displays, events, contributions in newsletters, emails, and on the web, among others. Have some fun, be yourself, and ensure that your library’s brand makes it apparent that it is an organization filled with people. Remember, being fun and engaging folks doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dumbing the library down. Only people who take themselves too seriously think that way!” Schmidt (2013).

Casey & Stephens propose that “The talking library has no secrets and gathers as much input as it can. The transparent library both listens and talks. The transparent library is connected, breeding the expectation for open conversation. The transparent library establishes ways for our users to talk to us and among themselves with tools like blogs and wikis, community open houses, outreach events, and surveys.” I confess. I do more oral interviews with people than written surveys. This summer during the Build-A-Better-World campaign, I included a flip chart for people to write on, and they loved this activity!  Since then, each month I flip the chart, ask a new question, and collect their responses.  This will be a great guide for us as we schedule future programs, consider new collections, and plan the future of this facility.

I have shifted away from sending a complicated email newsletter and will be producing a monthly blog on the library website beginning this month. The email will simply notify people that the site has been updated, and direct them to our site. Our site already includes links to all sorts of information that I know our visitors and guests need (built using Symbaloo). Directing everyone’s attention to the website with a monthly blog will hopefully encourage more use of the site.

[Remind me to blog about the challenges of technology in a space where nearly everyone is tech-averse…. They want to see the data, but they want it “old school.”  I do not have time to do that work, and would like to collect and present data using technology. However, apparently  only I am willing to learn how to use such technology. Urgh. But I digress. Again.]

 There is a terrific assessment tool [Project Outcome] that I will begin to implement this fall. And I will [gently and patiently] teach our board members and volunteers how to use this tool to gather, analyze, and present information that we need to document and assess our services.

Bring Back the Funding

How is it that people in our community were unwilling to use a free service, or participate in free training, at a community library? They did not trust the organization.

Our tiny library has been a non-profit organization since its inception in 1932. The library was started and boosted by private enterprise and private donations. However, the library follows ALA standards for public libraries, and has worked hard to establish strong relationships with educators, town leadership, and local businesses. What the library board failed to do was be fully transparent in its operations. The board meetings were not traditionally open to the public. Board membership was picked from within a select pool of volunteers. The library had never asked the town for money, and so the budget and finances were kept private. Only board members were privy to this information. Much of the confusion for local, year-round residents of this community would have been resolved if this information was made public.

In 2015, at the same time the library moved to hire a director for the first time, they also asked the town to participate in funding. Board members were shocked at how the library was viewed by the voters of the town:  a private club organization; a library for the rich visitors to town; an organization already rolling in money. These were a few of the locally accepted mythologies, and my challenge was to turn that thinking around. Increasing organizational transparency, and openly advocating for the library using real data embedded in real stories is the strategy we are using to solve this dilemma.

So far, we have changed the policy for selecting board members, and have deliberately instructed the nominating committee to search for willing partners who are not currently volunteers at the library. For the first time this November, our 2018 Budget will be posted on our website, along with infographics about how our money was handled in 2017. Information about our endowment fund (which is about 1/3 what is needed to fund our staffing) has been made public, and people were shocked to discover that the organization is not hoarding cash.

Hand in hand with this, is a steady campaign to ask, ask, ask people to remember us in planned giving. Larger gifts from planned giving are what build and sustain the endowment. But if people already believe you are wealthy, they are very reluctant to leave you a gift in their will.

Building A Vision of the Future

This library is in a region where internet infrastructure is lacking. The library is one spot where people of all ages can use computers, stream information, or learn new technologies. Kids in school are learning and using computers daily, but parents cannot keep up. Seniors range from exceedingly tech savvy to absolutely tech resistant. The library is a place where they can begin to discover how much knowledge is available to them outside of books. Give a family historian one taste of Ancestry.com [the full version, not the free library edition] and they begin to ask for more tech training. Look up one article for someone who has no idea how to do an internet search. When you turn up photos and articles about their friends or family members, remind them that if they care to learn, you are available to teach.

“The average library decision about implementing new technologies takes longer than the  average life cycle for new technologies.” Schneider (2006). Our board is very interested in technology overall, but when I suggest Promethean boards that we can use during normal business as events signage, they blanche. How would that work? Isn’t that expensive? Two board members and I want 3D printers at the library. Others would rather spend the money on collections. “No one will know how to use this technology,” they say. There are three 3-D printers at the elementary school which are unavailable nights, weekends, holidays, or vacations. We have users, but no way to serve them.

“The vision for the Hunt Library is ambitious in the extreme: to “create spaces that encourage collaboration, reflection, creativity, and awe” and “to be a place not of the past but of the future.”” Schwartz (2013). For the past two years, I have been advocating for building an addition to the library. I have called this “programming space,” and created a website for one of my classes to show my vision for how this space should be used. The ideas for the types of programming in this space come directly from two years’ of open-ended conversations with volunteers, visitors, guests, and library non-users. Yes, this is an ambitious plan for our town. At the same time, are we not tasked with the need to envision and build libraries that will carry us into the future, rather than anchor us in the past? Hopefully, our renovation/remodel will both honor the past and reinvigorate the future.

Resources

All images are hyperlinked to their source.

Anderson, C. (2006). In praise of radical transparency. The Long Tail [blog]. Accessed 09 Sep 2017 at: http://www.longtail.com/the_long_tail/2006/11/in_praise_of_ra.html

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

Kenney, B. (2014). The user is (still) not broken. Accessed 09 Sep 2017 at: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/libraries/article/60780-the-user-is-still-not-broken.html

Schmidt, A. (2013). Earning trust: The user experience. Library Journal [online]. Accessed 09 Sep 2017 at: http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/11/opinion/aaron-schmidt/earning-trust-the-user-experience/

Schneider, K.G. (2006). The user is not broken: A meme masquerading as a manifesto. Free Range Librarian. Blog. Accessed 09 Sep 2017 at: http://freerangelibrarian.com/2006/06/03/the-user-is-not-broken-a-meme-masquerading-as-a-manifesto/

Schwartz, M. (2013). Tomorrow, Visualized: Library by design, Fall 2013. Accessed 09 Sep 2017 at: http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/09/buildings/lbd/tomorrow-visualized-library-by-design-fall-2013/

2 Thoughts.

  1. I read your blog post, Evolving Toward a More Transparent Library, with great interest. Thank you for mentioning the resources you’ve found such as Project Outcome, to name one.
    You also wrote that not all the board members would like to see 3-D printers and would prefer to add to collections. Can you introduce the idea of both, meaning a printer and some collections materials?
    From Notable Quotes:
    A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence; or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it. They say, “Huh. It works. It makes sense.”

    BARACK OBAMA, The New Yorker, May 31, 2004

    • We have one board member for whom the library will always and only be about books. Primarily books for adults. Specifically, only books they consider “worthy” to be in the collection. Fortunately, this voice is outnumbered by more visionary people.

      I do love that quote about compromise. When the board is evenly divided on any issue, we often use such means of compromise to bring the group to agreement. I personally dislike conflict, and frequently find myself moderating, facilitating, or otherwise assisting groups of people who cannot agree. Learning how to effectively compromise is an absolutely necessary lifeskill.

      I have found as well, that often people actually ARE in agreement, but the words each party uses to describe a situation may bring them to the conclusion that they disagree. Language is tricky. Most words and phrases have layers of meaning, and what is clear to one individual may mean something completely different to another. Communication is more than just clearly stating our case; we must also ensure that the other person received and completely understood the message. This becomes more complex when we are so busy jotting our thoughts in 140 character bursts. There is much room for confusion, and confusion can be mistaken for disagreement.

      Thanks for your thoughtful response to my blog!

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