Reflection Post #2 – Participatory Services and Transparency

Participatory Coastal Redwood Forest Ecosystem!

I started this post during a family weekend trip to beautiful Mendocino County, California. Public wi-fi was rather limited, especially due to ongoing pandemic closures, so my initial draft was composed offline. I find myself viewing everything through the lens of libraries lately – on our trip, I saw community participation everywhere!

Participatory Road Sign?

Wondering about the public library system in large, rural, touristy, wine-growing Mendocino County, I looked it up when we got home. I was amazed to learn that 3,878 square-mile Mendocino County, with a population of only around 87,000 people and no single city larger than 16,000 (Ukiah – declining at 1% per year), boasts 5 public library branches, a bookmobile, and an outreach van, and an intriguing partnership with the county museum! Check out their impressive website!

Top-down services – The Traditional Model

At a fancy fundraising event for the library where I worked, foundation board members, local leaders, and benefactors took turns speaking about what the library meant to the community. Two common themes emerged in nearly every speech: books and storytime. Speakers enthused about the value of reading, and their fond memories of storytime with Miss Dorothy, whose career at this library has spanned at least three generations. Don’t get me wrong – this powerhouse octogenarian was still entertaining dozens of preschoolers twice a week in the Community Room. I was just frustrated that these prominent speakers, the ones with the power to fund the future of the library, appeared unaware of our newer programs, services, and resources. We clearly needed to work on transparency and community participation.

"For many years, libraries, like many businesses, were very unidirectional. Ideas flowed from the top down, services were created in highlevel meetings, implemented by a few, and rolled out to a (hopefully excited) audience. but, more orten than not, the services that libraries created served an existing user base. We created services for users when they were young kids, lost them as teens, got some of them back again as parents bringing in their own kids, tried to involve them in services such as reading groups, lost many yet again as they worked hard in midlife to save for retirement, and finally brought them in one last time as senior citizens, with targeted reading materials and programs for that age group." - Library 2.0

For my former workplace, and the many libraries that struggle to connect and provide forward-thinking services on a constrained budget, the Library 2.0 model offers examples of fairly simple ways to increase participatory library services. In Library 2.0, the two requirements for successful participatory programming are constant change and user participation.

Constant Change: Is the service frequently evaluated to ensure that it is meeting its expected outcomes and that it is still relevant? When the service no longer meets its expectations, is it updated or replaced?

User Participation: Was customer input used in the creation of the service? Does the review process continue to include customer feedback? Are library nonusers asked to participate in the service creation and review process? – Library 2.0

A few examples from Library 2.0 include;

  • Library-created blogs that encourage dialog between library staff and users, as well as internal library blogs that facilitate better communication among staff, management, and administration.
  • Allowing user customization of your catalog and Web site – users create their own “space on the site.”
  • Ann Arbor Library District’s website allows users to comment directly on the main page, and its catalog allows users to add their own “marginalia” on virtual catalog cards.
  • After-hours teen concerts at the Gwinnett County Library. I especially like this one because teens are put off by always needing to be quiet in the library.

Other exciting examples of participatory programming, from the Dixon (2017) article, include:

  • Columbus, Wisconsin’s “Root for Columbus Tree.” This simple, inexpensive passive program allowed library users to tie written “wishes” for their community, to the branches of the tree. The 450 wishes led to community conversations, in the library, about how residents wished to participate in their community.
  • Current events programming such as “Let’s Talk Race,” at Richland Library in South Carolina.  This led to hundreds of people participating in social awareness programming by the Richland Library.  What a powerful way to bring diverse community members together for civil conversation about challenging issues!
  • Documentary film screenings followed by facilitated conversations at Austin Public Library in Texas.

Examples from my own experience include a offered wildly popular monthly, after-hours Laser Tag events. Kids played laser tag in the stacks. The only down-side was that there were never enough spaces on the sign-up sheet. I envision an active online youth advisory platform through which kids and teens could advocate for and create more of this exciting type of program. I see now that I actually created several passive participatory programs during my time working at the library. My favorite was “I Love My Library,” which we ran in February 2020.  Users wrote “love notes” to the library on pre-cut paper hearts, then placed them in a drop box.  We screened them for appropriate content (yes, there were a few with obscene drawings and language), most were lovely, heartfelt, and much appreciated by the library staff.  Each day, I strung the latest love notes up on string all over the library for patrons to read and enjoy.

Here’s to a future in which people everywhere love their libraries.

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