So many of the messages from the readings and videos over the past couple of weeks have deeply resonated with me; this is what libraries are truly about.
Yes, we all know that libraries are traditionally considered to be about books and more broadly about information, but libraries truly exist for the communities they serve. The books and the information are for the people. The services and programs are also for the people. If the people do not use these things, there would be no point for the library to exist.
Fortunately for us current and future librarians, many people do often turn to libraries for information (though probably mostly in the form of books still). In general, people often turn to other people for help, but usually only if they feel comfortable doing so or know that the person that they go to will be capable of helping them. To best serve its community then, a library needs to established itself as a safe, open, inviting resource that can help. Connecting with the members of its community is probably the best way to do this. I loved what Aaron Schmidt was saying in his article “Asking the Right Questions: The User Experience;” libraries need to get to know the people in their communities as people in order to figure out what their needs are and design programs, services, and policies to then meet those needs.
Even better news? People already form connections in so many ways, so a library can tap into that connection, such as through social media. The clever ways that various school, academic, and public libraries involved the members of their community is just inspiring to learn about! And the creativity! The Idea Box in the Oak Park Library became so much more than a simple room by involving the people who walked through the library doors. I absolutely love the concept of inviting people into the library to have fun, explore, mess around with different ideas, or share something with the world in a casual but collectively meaningful way.
Currently I am still working in the classroom, but one day I hope to transition to the high school library. When I do work in that hypothetical library for teenagers, I cannot imagine not implementing so many of these ideas. Getting input from the students and staff about its design and what is available at the library. Learning more about the students and staff as individuals in order to determine what else they might enjoy seeing or doing at the library. Creating spaces for students and staff to get creative and connect with one another at the library. All of these concepts would not only lead to the library being used and appreciated more, but most importantly, it would have an impact on the people in the school, the students and staff that the library exists to help.
I am not a well-organized person. Despite the binders, folders, and crates of hanging file folders that I use in a desperate attempt to keep the literal thousands of papers in my classroom organized. Despite the carefully designed bullet journal of my own creation. Despite the label maker in my closet and the drawers, boxes, and fabric storage bins containing all manner of objects. The idea of organization is there, the potential, I might dare say, but when the stacks of papers on my desk cover the entire surface and I haven’t gone through my mail in two weeks, I cannot in good conscience call myself organized. And I definitely cannot call myself tidy.
According to Tim Harford in his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives, this is not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, it could be beneficial in a number of ways! Although counter intuitive at first glance, the major concepts behind Harford’s book are actually quite logical: mess forces people to think more, predetermined targets can skew future data, feeling in control is more helpful than feeling tidy, and trusting a computer too much can lead to danger.
Music artists forced to improvise are more creative. Students forced to focus more to figure out what something says retain more information. Drivers forced to think about where the road is going are safer and more considerate of others. A number of the chapters of Messy addressed this idea that disorder can lead to positive results. The entire point of developing a practice into a habit is that the brain literally does not have to think about what to do. While undeniably useful when it comes to eating healthy breakfasts, exercising, and accurately applying mathematical formulas, the side effect of not having to think about our habits means that we think less about what it is that we’re actually doing.
This idea applies to all people in every aspect of their lives. Students trying to learn, office workers trying to be productive, bicyclists trying to get home safely, and people both using and working at libraries. In order to meet the needs of its patrons, a library needs a decent amount of organization. People visit libraries expecting the books to be organized the same way today that they were yesterday. The method used to check out and return books should be consistent. However, mixing things up at the library could spark new and improved use. New displays can catch the eye of someone who planned on merely picking up something they had on hold. Artwork from the community could inspire someone walking by to try something new or to get involved in some way. A group gathered for an event in a more open portion of the library – rather than always being behind closed doors – could beckon more attendees. The results could be people feeling more connected, trying new things, meeting new people, or even just finding new books that they otherwise would not have looked for.
Harford also discussed how setting targets based off of statistical data can sometimes have undesirable results. In his book, he gives one example of ambulances bringing patients to the hospital within 8 minutes of answering a call. Statistical analysis showed that this was a good goal, as this time frame tended to lead to better outcomes. However, pushing ambulance drivers to meet that arbitrary goal that is only indirectly related to their actual job – safely transporting a patient to the hospital for treatment as quickly as necessary depending on the situation – both ignored other positive indicators and neglected other possibly negative factors. Similarly, librarians need to be careful not to focus too much on the data and forget why they are analyzing the numbers in the first place – to determine if users’ needs are being met. Meeting those needs is the priority, not having the numbers that some authority has decided reflects their success in doing so.
One of the aspects of Harford’s book that I personally found the most validating was the idea that clean, cookie-cutter work spaces were proven through scientific research to not lead to the most productive workers. Rather when workers had the option to control their own environment, however tidy or messy that ended up being, they were much more productive.
This idea that those actually using a space benefit the most from it when they are allowed to provide input on its design echoes the ideas of Casey and Savastinuk in their Library 2.0: A Guide to Participatory Library Service; “empowering the user” through “user-centered planning” is something that libraries should take into consideration when designing their spaces and their services (2007). The entire concept of participatory services reflects this very idea.
One of the more serious portions of Harford’s book included the tragic tale of an airplane that crashed when a storm led to an equipment failure that lead to the autopilot system being turned off, leaving three professional pilots who did not know what to do. Of course, they theoretically knew what to do, but the situation was so unexpected that they did not react quickly enough. Over reliance on computers and technology in general, especially when it comes to making decisions in the place of a human being, can lead to dangerous outcomes. For librarians, the system behind the scenes needs to be extremely well-organized in order for the librarians to do their jobs. In fact, this is one of the major benefits of technological developments to libraries today. As described by Michael Buckland in Redesigning Library Services: A Manifesto, the so-called “Automated Library” allows librarians to focus less on the behind-the-scenes cataloging and data storage while also easing searching. However, librarians need to make sure that they do not get over-reliant on technology. Librarians should prioritize the needs of library patrons over the computer, whether that means figuring out a fine error or ordering books not recommended by the computer’s analysis.
Overall, this book was an excellent read, with applications not only for librarians when considering their organization of the library itself, but in the interaction of the library patrons with the space, the services, and the librarians themselves.
Buckland, M. (1992). Redesigning library services: A manifesto. Berkeley: American Library Association.
Casey, M. E. & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Medford, N.J.: Information Today.
Harford, T. (2016). Messy: The power of disorder to transform our lives. New York: Riverhead Books.
Reading the foundational readings over the past couple of weeks, I kept thinking of the book Who Moved My Cheese? that we read in my 204 class. It is obvious and undeniable that libraries are changing, in multiple ways. Especially with the dramatic increase of technology over the past couple of decades (which I am still realizing the extent of, as that is the vast majority of my life), libraries have been fundamentally changed in how they operate. The Automated Library is much more commonplace than a strictly Paper Library; I haven’t seen a library use those cards that are stamped with the due dates that slide into the envelope attached to the first page since elementary school.
Anyway, back to change. Change in all things is inevitable, and like the authors of the foundational readings say, it is something that some people have difficult accepting. The importance of being willing to change, however, is inarguable.
My favorite aspect of the readings though was actually the discussion not in how libraries have already changed, but in how they have the potential to continue changing, and not just in a reactionary way. The focus of changing not just how we as librarians use technology to make the behind-the-scenes work easier and faster and better but how we as librarians serve our patrons by providing different services that either we could not before or there was no demand for before. With changing times comes not only adjustment, but opportunity. Library 2.0, Electronic Libraries… not every library will look the same and incorporate all of the same ideas, but isn’t that the beauty of it? Libraries have the potential to do so much more than they have done in the past. And not as a replacement of their traditional role in society, but in addition to it. No one wants the New York Public Library to remove its beautiful reading rooms and Children’s Center, or for their local library to stop carrying the latest best sellers. But changing times and new technologies should not scare librarians; instead they should enable librarians to better meet the needs of the people who walk through their doors.