As we investigate the exciting potential of participatory service as a means to implement materials, resources, and services that public library users actually want, I’m left with the impression that before initiating these conversations, libraries must take meaningful steps to overcome the massive PR problems they currently face. Clubb (2017) observes that while users largely demonstrate the desire for “more self-service”, “more seamless access”, and other elements which might make the library their “third place” of choice, users also remain unaware of digital resources, programming initiatives, and other important ingredients which go beyond the age-old perception of libraries as book warehouses (p. 3783).
So, if libraries apparently aren’t doing the outreach necessary to communicate their ever-evolving features to a critical mass of users and nonusers, how can they hope to establish a baseline of understanding from which users can propose and evaluate interesting, innovative, fun, ideas, that can be practically implemented within the library’s mission and budgetary constraints? Casey (2011), writing from within the context of encouraging participatory service amid the grim economic circumstances of the Great Recession, asserts that “[t]axpayers are more and more reluctant to part with any percentage of their diminishing paychecks. Getting them to participate, at any level, will go a long way towards gaining their buy-in” (para. 12). But, how can we attract users’ and nonusers’ participation amid insufficiently funded, poorly designed outreach campaigns which fail to communicate what the library’s all about in the hyperlinked era?
Furthermore, Casey’s choice to identify potential library enthusiasts as “taxpayers” conveys all-too-familiar attitudes regarding the US’ tenuous relationship to public infrastructure and social services. As we look to international library models—such as Dokk1 in Denmark—and their thriving participatory service initiatives which utilize technology to strengthen community ties, I’m inspired by such imaginative uses of public spaces and resources; yet, I can’t shake the suspicion that Dokk1’s innovation is inseparable from Danish values of social democracy, well-tended public spaces, and cutting-edge social services, all of which necessitate considerable public investment via taxation. Progressive library spaces seem all the more possible, practical, and exciting, within the context of a society which largely views public investment with a sense of duty, respect, and even wonder. In the US, where reactionary book challenges threaten to defund rural public libraries, and where urban librarians are routinely exploited as de-facto social workers—even administering Narcan, in some cases—as a condition for their public funding, library services reflect a starkly different attitude toward public investment.
That said, I don’t doubt that many libraries—particularly those in more affluent, politically progressive areas with decent local tax revenues—have the financial means and community buy-in necessary to implement inspiring, valuable resources and programming informed by user input. Given the resourceful use of limited budgets, and outreach efforts which effectively communicate and promote the library’s hyperlinked vision, any library theoretically should be able to meaningfully involve its user base in the decision-making process. Programs such as Open+ offer working models of community involvement on a radically imaginative level. However, in a society defined by increased privatization and outsourcing, which might not demonstrate a Scandinavian level of commitment to publicly funded “third places”, capturing the community’s awareness and imagination regarding the future library’s potential might present an uphill battle.
Casey, M. (2011, October 20). Revisiting participatory service in trying times. Tame the Web. https://tametheweb.com/2011/10/20/revisiting-participatory-service-in-trying-times-a-ttw-guest-post-by-michael-casey/
Clubb, B. H. (2017). Public libraries. In J. D. McDonald & M. Levine-Clark (Eds.), Encyclopedia of library and information sciences (4th ed., pp. 3781-3800). CRC Press. https://doi.org/10.1081/E-ELIS4-120044295