Big ideas for libraries in communities

I was super excited and completely terrified to be shortlisted to pitch my idea for what digitization in public libraries could look like. Public speaking is scary for me, and getting up in front of a room of people to present one of my ideas is even more scary. I haven’t really worked with digital collections, so it feels quite  presumptuous  to pitch my ideas about how I think this could be done to people who actually work in digital collections.

It was also  exhilarating. Thanks Baharak Yousefi, SFU Surrey Library, for doing a great job organizing this event. I’ve been  chatting  with colleagues about how to get beyond the operational business of work and make time to think about why libraries matter and think about the kinds of collections and services libraries need to develop to be useful and relevant.

The audience was invited to leave comments, offer critiques, or suggestions on slips of paper for the presenters. Two of the comments that I delighted me were “libraries are memory institutions” and “love the idea of preserving collective memories”.

I’m so thrilled to have the chance to turn my pitch into a funding proposal for the Vancouver Foundation who announced that they will be funding two of the projects up to $10,000. Yahoo!

activating the library as space – an update

Over a year ago I wrote about some of the programming we could do to start to connect with our community and activate the library space. We’re starting small, but there’s some progress. We’ve co-hosted two poetry readings and became a venue for the important event on campus, the grad show.

The library is located at street level, which makes it easier to find than most of the other spaces on campus. Also, there are huge windows facing onto the street, so if there is something happening in the library, it’s visible to the public. During grad show we moved the furniture and installed an 8′ high sculpture made out of reclaimed wood. This was such an unexpected thing to see in the middle of the library that many people came in from the street to find out what was going on.

Koja by Anna-Karin Johansson

On Edge Reading Series

We co-hosted two poetry readings that are part of the Canada Council funded On Edge Reading Series, that is also connected to a creative writing course. In the fall the delightfully odd Garry Morse read, and in the spring the poet performer Erà ­n Moure read.

These were relatively easy events to organize, as the instructor had obtained funding so the poets could be paid at proper Canada Council rates, selected the poets, and worked with me to select poets that could project in the library space without a mic and who would enjoy reading in a less controlled environment. As this was connected to a course, we had a guaranteed audience of about 30. For both events people from the general poetry and arts community also attended. Someone who came out for the first time said that he decided to come to the library reading as it seemed more public than a reading in a classroom.

Listen to Garry read (~3 minutes long)

View a photo slideshow of the evening

Grad Show

This year was the first time the library participated in grad show as a venue. It was a massive success–I’ve only heard positive things from students, their families, faculty, staff, technicians, the wider community and library staff. It’s hard to explain to people at research universities what a big deal grad show is. I didn’t understand it until I experienced my first grad show. Most universities produce peer reviewed articles and research; our outputs are creative: sculpture, performance, animation, film, ceramics, writing, wearable electronics, communication design, fonts, and interactive design.

Initially it was a tough sell to convince students to show their work in the library space. Right now students prefer to show in a white cube environment, with the Concourse Gallery being students’ top pick. The students who did chose to show in the library were gutsy and courageous. Reviews in The Vancouver Sun and The Georgia Straight singled out pieces that were in the library for being excellent work. I think they stood out more in the library because there was more room to show and because it was an unexpected non-traditional gallery space.

On Opening Night, Joanna Peters performed her piece in the mezzanine. We opened up the second floor fire door so that people could easily flow between the upstairs galleries and the library. Over 1000 people came through in 4 hours, and Joanna’s piece always had a big audience.

Being part of the grad show also meant that I got to serve on the curation committee. This is way outside my comfort zone and terrified me more than a bit. The other faculty, who are all professional artists, as well as educators, were really generous with me and mentored me through the process of curating a group show of over 300 students. Locating all the work (and making sure that the students were happy with the location), documenting each piece so that maps could be made, working with the technicians to make sure that the large difficult pieces were hung safely and mediating stressed out students who were in tears, was a massive amount of work.

The most important part of being part of the grad show for me was shifting the library to be a user-centric space. Grad show is the most important event for our users and our physical space is a reflection of that. It demonstrated our commitment to supporting and celebrating our students.

While running around solving logistical problems I also got to hear honest feedback from faculty about what the library was doing well and what we needed to improve or fix. One faculty member said that he’d given up on the library several years ago, but our active participation in grad show and my desire to hear his complaints about the library changed his attitude towards the library and our services. His feedback likely couldn’t have been captured in a survey, and a survey couldn’t have started to repair the broken relationship.

We’ve already brainstormed ways to make the library better next year for grad show. We’ve thought about hosting one of the bars at the circulation desk and being a central information hub where people can find out where specific works are located. Everyone has suggested that we have art in the library year round, and we’re figuring out the best way to make that happen.

The poetry events and grad show were fun, but more importantly they were ways that we could connect with our community and start conversations about what the library could become in the future.

Why “Work Like a Patron Day” won’t work

I first read aboutA   Work Like a Patron Day on Aaron Schmidt’s Walking Paper.A   At first glance Work Like a Patron Day seemed like a good idea.A   He proposes that library staff:

  • enter and leave the library through the public entrance (not the staff doors)
  • use the public restrooms
  • use the public computers to do your work
  • reserve public meeting rooms for meetings
  • follow all library policies
  • sit in the chairs/use the furniture meant for the public
  • use only the patron interface for searching your catalog
  • pay your library fines (no waiving them the day before!)
  • use a database youà ¢Ã¢”š ¬Ã¢”ž ¢ve never used before

This idea floated around the library blogaratti (1, 2, 3) and was even included on the Library Success best practices wiki.

Something was nagging at me.A   I knew that Work Like a Patron day was fundamentally flawed but couldn’t put my finger on why, let alone articulate it.

Annette DeFaveri instantly pointed out what’s wrong.A   Annette was the national coordinator of the Working Together project, that looked at systemic barriers that socially excluded people (for example, homeless people, Aboriginal people, new immigrants and the working poor) faced in public libraries.A   She said that this approach assumes that our patrons are just like us, and that our experience using the public spaces of the library are the same as our patrons.

In “The Culture of Comfort” that was published in Information for Social Change she writes:

Librarians are a barrier because we are mired in a culture of comfort. Like most people we remain where we are comfortable: comfortable with the programs we offer, comfortable with the services we provide, and comfortable with the people we serve. Even our challenges are comfortable: to do more of what we always do for the people we always serve. As a result we often fail to serve communities that do not look, feel, or think like us.

Work Like a Patron Day won’t give many new insights on how many of our patrons experience the library, especially folks who do not currently use the library.A   The assumptions are flawed and it is a comfortably limited way of analyzing library space, staff and services.