Sometimes, as a library professional, I feel like a cross between a bartender and a therapist. Patrons develop a rapport with you and like to talk about their lives. Sometimes it makes my day to connect in that way, but to be honest, other times it’s a burden. Maybe they found out they have cancer, or they’re elderly and being displaced. Aside from empathising, which is in itself valuable, I don’t know what to do with the information. We don’t think of this person in front of us as a resource or have the systems in place to attend to the information we’re receiving.
Rather than our day-to-day intel, we rely on community surveys to gather information, to glean something that might reveal what we’re doing right and perhaps what we could do a little better. Often, however, these surveys put the burden on the public to tell us how to do our jobs better. If we don’t know, they don’t know! Aaron Schmidt (2016) posits that we aren’t asking the right questions. He says we should be asking users about themselves. They know something about that! If you ask questions like: “What did you do this weekend?… Where do you like to travel?… Tell me about a time when you were focused and lost track of time.” (Schmidt, 2016, p. 10). You will learn more about your users than a likert scale rating of our services. You can then find patterns within the community of interests and needs and tailor library services to those community desires. Just as libraries remind patrons “that others have insights worth paying attention to, that there is beauty in our shared language, that in our struggles we are often not alone” (Stolls, n.d., p. 4), patrons, too have something to offer, to exchange. The patrons who come in to tell you their story are themselves libraries.
So, once you’ve gotten the information about what people want and need, the challenge is knowing what to do with it. The internet has created an educated and particular populace. They are looking for (and can often find) products and services aligned with their values, that are the best quality and the best deal. Capturing their attention is a challenge in a world that is in their face and at their fingertips. Pewrainangi (2014) says the answer to this challenge is to find the most valuable members, find out what they like and surprise and delight them. Like Schmidt, she says it’s important to not just identify library user demographics but what they do before and after visiting the library. What are their favorite things to do and consume outside of the library? She says to get to ask your patrons for feedback, become intimate with them, and use what you’ve gleaned to capture their attention. David Lankes (Pewrainangi, 2014) says that libraries should be dynamic platforms that enable community members to succeed. This reframes the library as a living institution, rather than a place that “sells” a fixed product. A living institution is harder to control and brand, but conversely it is much more delightful!
We can look like a library and have people recognize our branding all we want, but if the public can’t see the value in the library, branding means nothing. Sure, we might look good, but that only goes so far. So, not only do we need to listen to our patrons via a variety of channels, it is equally important to show them how we are responding to their feedback. Michael Stephens (2014) says that when you listen like this, you may not always like what you hear, and it may push the boundaries of your branding and what you think a library should be. If you want to be a living library, it is important to respond to user feedback and to share the story of the library’s evolution, that the library is a place for us to co-evolve. While some libraries invite amazing speakers to come and talk, many libraries are creating spaces for their patrons to have civil discussions about current events that affect the community (Dixon, 2017). They are inviting patron engagement in a whole other way. Librarians act as facilitators in those discussion groups to provide guidance, often employing the Socratic method to get people talking and thinking. And, in that way, the burden of being the library “therapist” is lifted. We have listened and responded in meaningful relationship to our community.
Dixon, J. (2017) Convening community conversation. Retrieved from https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=convening-community-conversations-programming#_
Pewrainangi, S. (2014). A beautiful obsession. Retrieved from https://287.hyperlib.sjsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/WEVE_May_2014.pdf
Schmidt, A. (2016). Asking the right questions. Retrieved from https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=asking-the-right-questions-the-user-experience
Stephens, M. (2014). Reaching all users. Library Journal, 139(3), 40.
Stolls, A. (n.d.). The healing power of libraries. Retrieved from https://www.arts.gov/article/healing-power-libraries