In Michael Stephen’s piece and reading from the Library Journal, “The Age of Participation,” he poses the question “What walls could become windows into the operation of the library?” while discussing participatory services. I am intrigued by the topic of participatory service and transparency because it makes so much sense, include the users in decisions and changes that have an impact on them, open two-way conversations, create environments that encourage this communication, build trust by demonstrating and practicing this in our actions. Strikingly, I continue to encounter arenas where the walls are up and fortified, even when they appear to be open.
A few years ago San Francisco State University opened their new university library, which contains many wonderful features of a modern and forward looking library: open spaces, areas for students to congregate to work on classes together, white boards to scribble on, private rooms to meet and collaborate, computer labs, LED flat screen information signage, comfortable seating, and plenty of light. However, when you walk into the main area of the library, after passing a great coffee kiosk, the barriers and walls surprisingly go up.
The circulation desk is staffed by student assistants who do not look up when someone walks by or comes to their counter, even though this area takes up half of the space of the main floor; this is a missed opportunity for building community, connection, and a link between the library and the user. The moment a student, patron, or user walks in you want them to feel welcome and acclimated. Similarly, the reference librarian is situated across from the circulation desk, near the front and usually does not make eye contact (they appear to rotate between librarians, so sometimes someone will nervously look up). I have actually used the reference desk on occasion and they are quite nice and well informed. But a nervous Freshmen, who is intimidated to talk to an adult and write their first research paper is unlikely to feel that the library welcomes them with the formidable wood barrier enclosure of the reference desk and circulation areas. Furniture is a main barrier between communication here. Consciously or not, this sends a message of do not bother us, do not ask questions unless you have a good idea where to go on you own.
Thinking about this in terms of participatory service, it seems to me that the SFSU Library looks great, incorporates some good ideas but is failing at removing barriers (tearing down walls) between itself and its primary patrons, opening up conversations with ease, and welcoming newcomers with a potential thirst for knowledge and inquiry – engaging all. University libraries are important centers for young people to create and learn. A. Schmidt discusses the importance of making a connection in the article on “Services Before Content,” writing, It’s not do-or-die quite yet, and there’s still time to shift our efforts toward an unparalleled user experience.” Schmidt underscores the importance in participatory service to provide open, two-way access foremost, even if you cannot provide all the latest bells and whistles as a significant service of a library and librarian. Envisioning ways to engage users and open communication is key to changing dynamics and strengthening participatory services within the library.
Schmidt, A. (2010). Services before content.
Stephens, M. (2012). The age of participation.