Participatory Service in Real Time
“Looks like you’re famous!” my coworker said on Thursday, later in the afternoon, when I sat in the break room having a snack during my 15-minute break. “Yes,” I said, “I am famous, but seems like my fame comes and goes!” We both smiled. My coworker had heard the news swirling around the library staff room. Viola had saved the day! Viola had stepped in at the last minute. Viola had facilitated the discussion for the monthly book club members. For the first time and with only an hour’s notice–actually, less than an hour’s notice.
Several events conspired to toss me right out of my shelving duty on Thursday and into the large community room for the hour-long book club discussion. I showed up to work and my manager grabbed me as soon as I wheeled my first shelving cart out into the library. She was feeling sick, battling a cold, and she did not feel in the best shape to facilitate the book club discussion. Also, she had heard that I was planning to break from my shelving shift and attend the discussion, because I had read the book assigned/selected for the month, a book connected to West Africa, a book I could relate to because I was born and raised in West Africa. Yes, I had talked with the circulation coordinator and arranged a break in the middle of my shift. The manager wondered if I would be able to step in and help her. I said “yes” without hesitation.
The discussion went well. About twenty library patrons attended and we had a vibrant discussion about the novel “Homegoing” by Ghanaian American author Yaa Gyasi. It is an amazing book, and I am so glad the public library where I work selected this book, with the in-put of staff and patrons. I am so glad that I took the time to read the book, when I saw it on the book club reading list. I am so glad I planned to be at the book club meeting, something I have not really taken the time to do–but recently, I have been making more of an effort to step out of my staff role and attend events as a patron and participant.
This experience highlighted for me an important facet of participatory service. If opportunities are given to us to participate in something–an event, a discussion, a decision, a process–then we have to seize that opportunity to participate. If I had not planned to participate in the book club this month, then I would probably not have been called upon to help facilitate it. I would have missed a chance to share my knowledge about Africa. I would have missed a chance to connect with the amazing patrons who make up the book club.
More and more, I am learning that I have to view myself as a participant. I can be many things, now that I work in libraries. But I must not forget that I am a participant. I must not always wait to be invited to participate. I must be ready and willing to participate, to act like a participant, not a bystander. ~Viola
After the discussion, it seems that the book club members trickled into the library and shared their reviews of the event with the library staff. They said they enjoyed my presence and participation, offering so much praise that the circulation coordinator called me aside and told me that they said I was amazing. The manager, who had attended and participated (while allowing me to facilitate things), also came up to me and said she will be calling on me to lead discussions in the future.
The most memorable thing for me–one of countless memorable moments during the discussion–was what happened when I shared that I grew up never truly feeling at home anywhere, thanks to my multicultural and multiracial heritage. One member of the club immediately said, “This is your home!” I smiled, raised my arms up into the air and said “Yes, the library is my home.” But I think she meant that this place, this town, this country, this space where I am right now, is my home. The book club members made me feel at home, a feeling that is so very fleeting and rare for me. What a gift! And did I mention that the book we were discussing is titled Homegoing–wow!
Recognize Talent: No Egos Allowed–Or Only Tiny Egos Allowed
Another great thing about my experience on Thursday was that I did not feel my ego was involved at all. There was a job that needed to be done, and it just so happened that the person around and prepared and most appropriate to step in and help out was Viola. It could just as easily have been someone else. I agree with Stephens and Casey that we need not be “timid” about our talents, and the flip side of this is that we extend honors to others and celebrate or “recognize” the abilities of others (Casey and Stephens, 2008). We must be insecure about our accomplishments or those of others. Instead, we can call on these to accomplishments and skills to enhance the atmosphere and services at our libraries.
During the book club meeting, I was able to put my shyness aside, talk about very personal realities related to growing up in Africa and to my own psychological life, while also connecting my thoughts to the book and discussion at hand and asking others to share their thoughts. However, perhaps even more importantly, my manager was able to share the spotlight, giving me the center of the stage, so to speak. She introduced me to everyone and she allowed me to speak openly and freely, enabling us to take the conversation in new and fascinating directions. She did not censor me, during the event or prior to it. She didn’t coach me. She trusted me to do a great job. She praised me afterwards and credited me for speaking so personally, about emotionally painful things. I told her that this is how I live my life–I guess you could say I practice my own brand of “radical transparency” (Anderson, 2006), and I tend to share a lot about my personal life with others. She invited me to consider the future possibility of doing this again, of facilitating another book club meeting. This indicates her great leadership style and skills, and the fact that she does not lead with her ego but invites staff and patrons to participate in library services, as best she can.
Transparency of the Self: On Openness and Trust at the Library
I felt that my skills and knowledge were recognized, too, because the manager had read a published interview I did earlier this year, a copy of which I shared with the lead/senior librarian, who had in turn shared it with the manager. The manager later mentioned that she thought of the things I had said in my interview and knew I would be perfect person to help out with the book club. I am glad I was brave enough to share my highly personal interview with my boss, the lead librarian, and glad that he openly shared it with the manager, too, and that the manager connected my abilities to an opportunity to help out.
This seems to be the great beauty of transparency in any organization. The more we know about each other and the more we share information about ourselves and the many facets of our work, the more we can be of service in multiple ways. I could have chosen to hide the side of my life that no one could ever guess at, just by looking at me. I could pretend that I don’t have a certain background, personally or academically or artistically. I could be a shelver/staffer who says little about where I have been and what I have done. But that would eliminate the possibility of me doing more for the library. As my manager said after the book club event, “Viola is wearing many hats today!”
The other facet of transparency was the lead librarian choosing to share my interview with the manager. And then the manager sharing with me that she had in fact seen it and read it, which I did not know about prior to Thursday. I had shared my published interview and some of my poetry with the lead librarian, some of my intensely personal work, because I want my book of poems added to the library poetry collection and because I would like to offer a poetry workshop at the library next year for National Poetry Month. I was nervous about sharing my work, but hiding it felt even more uncomfortable. Plus, I had to let myself trust the lead librarian and manager, trust that they would not respond negatively to my artistic work and initiative.
It is easy to talk about transparency with patrons, sharing with them as openly as possible. But it is quite another to talk about transparency between staff, especially higher level and lower level staff. It is easy for higher level staff to feel threatened if they invite lower level staff to the table for decision-making and more egalitarian participation in services. This feeling of being threatened is a tragedy, this sense that if leaders allow others to shine then that somehow means their jobs might be taken or stolen or their power corroded. The fact is that, with more transparency, there is the opportunity to build more trust (Stephens, 2011; Schmidt, 2013).
With more trust, people can openly share their “hidden” talents and make the library a more interesting and vibrant space, a space patrons will feel drawn to because they are bound to find something there that speaks to them or volunteer information about what they would like to see happen at the library. For instance, a patron who visits our library regularly pledged to attend the poetry workshop and bring others to it, once she heard that I was hoping to share my poetry with library patrons and had asked the lead librarian to consider doing something for National Poetry Month.
This Library is Home
The library, in my opinion, is a space that can be viewed as a home for many. Patrons who visit the library can feel at home, welcomed there. Staffers and volunteers who offer their time and talents can also feel at home. If patrons do not feel at home, then they probably will not return, they will not feel a desire to come back and visit again. If staffers do not feel at home, free to be themselves and share their views, then they are likely to search for jobs elsewhere, taking their talents with them. Staffers are more likely to believe in the work they do if they are able to experience a transparent work environment, where open communication is practiced and staff are not narrowly focused on their specific or singular roles but are made aware of what others are working on and what is being planned for the library (Casey and Stephens, 2007a; Casey and Stephens, 2007b). Patrons who love the library also give to the library, offering support that is often much needed. Communities that feel welcomed in the library will fight to keep the library doors open when budgetary constraints threaten to shut their libraries. The library cannot afford to alienate people (Casey, 2011; Schmidt, 2013; Schneider, 2006).
Our work in libraries is truly about inviting people in and welcoming them as patrons, as staffers, as honored guests, and not just as participants but as “hosts” (Stephens, 2012). This welcoming attitude can be extended beyond participatory services and expanded to include gestures that remove “barriers” to access, gestures such as forgiving or eliminating library fees and overdue fines (Dixon, 2017).
It benefits the library to make people feel at home and informed of what the library is doing, while also offering opportunities for the patrons to participate–but all of this hinges on the library being open, transparent, willing to keep people truly informed about its operations and agendas and even its spending/finances (Kenny, 2015).
Libraries have to reflect what is relevant for the community and its members, making sure to cover as many needs and realities as possible. I love this quote by Brian Kenny (2015):
Finally, librarians must always keep in mind that whatever it is we are proposing, it has to be about creating a better library for the public. When patrons learn about a new library initiative, they’re not interested in how our work is changing, or how libraries are transforming. They are looking to see their needs, hopes, and dreams reflected to them. And if we’re not doing that, not only will we see our proposals fail, we’ll soon be out of business.
My book club experience this week was made more participatory for me because a book was selected that felt relevant to me, the entire discussion covered topics that felt near and dear to me. The book club covers many books, not all of them will be books or topics that I can relate to, but it is sufficient that they have some books and topics that meet my needs. I left the event feeling energized and happy to be a member of the library community, and it is an awesome feeling. I felt that I was a patron, a staffer/facilitator, and participant, all at once.
I felt seen, heard, welcomed, celebrated, and so much more. If patrons and other staff can feel this way, from time to time (if not every day!), this will no doubt help them feel that they are a needed and wanted presence in the community. This is something our western, highly individualistic society desperately needs, and Sebastian Junger writes about in his wonderful book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (Junger, 2016). I love this quote from the opening of his book, which I think is a great summary of what we as LIS professionals can do for our communities through our library services and our very presence and kindness (Junger, 2016, p. xvii):
Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.
Anderson, C. (2006). In praise of radical transparency.
Casey, M. (2011). Revisiting participatory service in trying times.
Casey, M., and Stephens, M. (2007a). The transparent library: Living out loud.
Casey, M., and Stephens, M. (2007b). A road map to transparency.
Casey, M., and Stephens, M. (2008).Check your ego at the door.
Dixon, J.A. (2017). Nashville, Salt Lake City, Columbus eliminate fines.
Gyasi, Y. (2016). Homegoing. New York: Knopf.
Jungen, S. (2016). Tribe: On homecoming and belonging. New York: Twelve/Hatchette Book Group.
Kenney, B. (2015). Lesson’s From Seattle’s Failed Bid to Rebrand its Public Library.
Schmidt, A. (2013). Earning trust: The user experience.
Schneider, K (2006). The User is Not Broken.
Stephens, M. (2011). The transparent library school.
Stephens, M. (2012). The age of participation.