I had the privilege of speaking with Michael Stephens for his upcoming Fall 2013 Hyperlinked Library MOOC at the San Jose State University, School of Library and Information Science. The topic of our conversation was participatory library service, community engagement, the use of teams, and a few other interesting issues.
The following post first appeared on Tame the Web.
Note from Michael Stephens : I am honored to have written over two years of The Transparent Library with Michael Casey. I am pleased he took me up on an offer to do a guest post about participatory service for the Salzburg Global Seminar week. I asked him to explore where we’ve come from 2005 and where we are headed. This was the topic of a blog he started in 2005 and a book he co-authored in 2007. But the world has changed a great deal since 2005. Perhaps the biggest change has been that of the economy derailing many initiatives and services in public libraries. In the end, however, I think you will see that Michael still has a lot of optimism regarding the strong future of public libraries, especially those that embrace a participatory service model.
Participatory library services have come a long way over the past six years. You don’t have to look far to see libraries participating in social media outlets, interacting with their community through blogs and SMS, and polling their users with online surveying tools. Entire industries have grown up around the idea of the participatory library, just take a look at Springshare.
We see many great examples of public libraries using services like Facebook to reach out to, and engage, their community. The New York Public Library has almost 42,000 Facebook fans, Hennepin almost 6,000. Many other libraries around the world have created a presence on Facebook.
But in those two examples, as in so many other library Facebook pages, you see some interaction between the library and the individual library user, but most of what you see is one-way. Most library Facebook pages are used for announcements and events notification, not true communication.
Yet this is just one example. Take a look at the Blogging Libraries Wiki and click through to a few library blogs. Many of them are no longer active. Others are gone and the URL simply redirects to the library’s homepage. And when was the last time your local library sent you a survey link that asked you for your ideas? For many of you, the answer is either “never” or “not for a few years”.
Over the past six years we’ve seen and heard a lot of push-back regarding the use of new social tools in the library. One quote that comes to mind is from 2007, “Right now people are enamored of blogs and wikis and Facebook and this sort of thing. But that’s this year’s set of technology. Five years from now we’ll be talking about a whole different set of things.”
Ironically, the world still uses those same tools today. The only difference is that in late 2007 there were 50 million active Facebook users, today there are over 800 million.
So with this huge audience available to us, why haven’t we made greater use of the tools at hand? Why haven’t we moved beyond the idea of just talking to our community to actually engaging them? Or, to quote Tim O’Reilly, “How do we get beyond the idea that participation means “public input” (shaking the vending machine to get more or better services out of it), and over to the idea that it means government building frameworks that enable people to build new services of their own?”
The participatory library is open and transparent, and it communicates with its community through many mechanisms. The participatory library engages and queries its entire community and seeks to integrate them into the structure of change. The community should be involved in the brainstorming for new ideas and services, they should play a role in planning for those services, and they should definitely be involved in the evaluation and review process.
These are not new ideas. I put them to paper in my 2007 book. Some critics of that book argued that libraries have been doing these things for ages. I wish I could say I agree.
The economic downturn has created very difficult times for libraries in this country. We’ve seen many public libraries struggling to stay open and remain relevant in their community. Many libraries have had to reduce hours and lay-off staff. Some have reached out to their communities, not only for short-term help in raising badly needed cash, but also for long-term help with planning.
The importance of this participation cannot be overstated, especially in these difficult economic times. Taxpayers 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.
With limited resources, public libraries need to struggle for every dollar, and with limited tax revenue, funding agencies will part reluctantly with every dollar. It’s up to the library to be heard, to get its community of supporters to be heard. When faced with the question of who to cut, those funding agencies must know that a cut to the local public library can not be done quietly Public libraries are a core and critical resource in the community, and public library supporters are vocal and they vote.
Take a look around your library. Is there someone in charge of your social networking presence? Better yet, do you have a group of librarians charged with reaching out on Facebook and Twitter and, soon perhaps , Google+? You take reference questions over the phone and via text, why not through those other social outlets? And how are you involving those Facebook fans in your library’s planning process? Are you asking them to participate?
Your library’s blog may be shuttered for good reason — maybe your Facebook page has far more readers. Or, perhaps your blog went dormant simply because you didn’t assign someone (or some group) with the responsibility to keep it going. Whatever the case, spend a little bit of time reexamining all of the ways you’re reaching out to your community and reallocate resources in order to most efficiently talk to, and talk with, that community.
There are far more tools available to us today than there were in 2005. And our communities have grown over these past six years. Kids and adults of all ages are now far more involved and engaged through social networking outlets. The ideas of participation and transparency are no longer new — many in our community now expect these things as a standard part of organizational operations. By taking advantage of those available tools you may find that renewed efforts by your library are met with much greater success today than ever before.
It’s far from the end for public libraries. It’s easy, in these tough times, to only listen to the naysayers and prognosticators of doom, to only hear those in our community calling for the elimination of libraries. But limited tax revenues, the Internet, and eBooks are not burying the public library. Limited tax revenues will force us to become more efficient, the Internet is part of our future, and eBooks are simply another delivery vehicle. We control this future, and we can make it a successful one by making full use of the tools at hand.
Surveys… show that those who believe city hall is forthcoming are more likely than others to feel good about: the overall quality of their community; the ability of the entire information environment of their community to give them the information that matters; the overall performance of their local government; and the performance of all manner of civic and journalistic institutions ranging from the fire department to the libraries to the local newspaper and TV stations.
In addition, government transparency is associated with residents’ personal feelings of empowerment: Those who think their government shares information well are more likely to say that average citizens can have an impact on government.
This report points out what many have felt to be conventional wisdom, namely that transparency in government leads to greater trust, greater participation, and greater feelings of involvement and empowerment. But this latest report seems to knock gently on a door that should really be pounded upon. Transparency isn’t an aesthetic add-on to today’s successful government, it’s becoming a core expectation of the governed.
Transparency in governance is one of the most important ingredients in the continued health and success of democracy. This importance isn’t limited to the various branches of federal and state governments — it extends to every publicly funded organization, including public libraries (corporate transparency is a different subject altogether).
The recent economic downturn and the resulting government budget woes have put public libraries in what may be their most precarious position in almost a century. Budget cuts and increased criticism of all varieties of government spending have put many public libraries on the defensive, having to cut staff, materials, hours and services.
The Pew report is clear when it says, “those who think local government does well in sharing information are also more likely to be satisfied with other parts of civic life… Citizens who believed that their government was forthcoming about its activities were more likely than others to feel better about… the performance of all manner of civic and journalistic institutions ranging from the fire department to the libraries…”
Clearly then, public libraries want to be as transparent as possible in their operations. It also stands to reason that this “reward” for transparency flows not only from the taxpayer, but also from the funding agencies. Making both constituencies happy should be a priority.
The Pew report touches on relevancy when they examine the relationship between broadband internet access and lower perceptions of community life.
It is not clear in these surveys why broadband connections are correlated with lower perceptions of community life and local information systems. Perhaps, as some people take advantage of broadband connections they become exposed to more critical information about local government and organizations and they become more aware of information and conversations about community problems. Perhaps, too, broadband users’ expectations are higher about the availability of information and the ease of finding it – so, they would give lower performance grades if the local information system did not meet those higher expectations.
This past holiday season’s spike in eBook demand is a clear example of user expectations outpacing the library’s ability to remain ahead of demand. Library users expect their local library to have plenty of eBooks available for download — they are not interested in DRM issues or the perverse licensing schemes of eBook publishers. Our users simply want to load their new eBook readers with the same titles they’ve been checking out in print form.
As mobile devices supplant desktop and laptop computers as the public’s primary computing platforms, the expectation is that their library’s online offerings will be available on those devices in a usable format. But the list extends far beyond eBook readers and iPhones and Android phones — it extends to information.
The relationship between cost and quality has always been a difficult one for librarians. As our users gain greater access to information, they balance the quality of the information at hand with the cost of seeking better answers elsewhere, such as at the library. Many will conclude that the information they have is just as good, or almost as good, as the information they would get if they reach out to a librarian.
This poses many questions for librarians, such as how to market our skills to a broader audience, how to reach that broader audience, and what type of information will public librarians still hold a relative monopoly on. The answer to the last question isn’t simply “good information”. The quality of the information is defined by the questioner, and it is subject to the cost versus quality calculus.
I’m sure the authors of the Pew report didn’t have all of these things in mind when conducting their survey, but the results lend themselves to this exploration. Transparency and relevancy are two keys to the successful growth of public libraries.
We need to have, and know how to use, the tools our community uses. We need to have and deliver the information they need. And it is not as simple as saying that we will have the tools and the information. We must know what those tools are early enough that we can prepare, budget and train. We must know what information they need so that we have it and can deliver it. These are difficult expectations, and they pose serious questions regarding of the future of public libraries.
Meeting with vendors always makes me apprehensive, and the first few minutes of any interaction with a vendor will determine how I view them for a very long time. I have a tendency to thin slice sales pitches, and if things seem "off" then I am very quick to close the door on that vendor and her products. So what works and doesn't work in a vendor's pitch to this buyer?
1. Do make an effort to know my network and my organization. You may not know what my particular library uses as its ILS, but you should know that libraries maintain a large database of records. It's even better if you go to my website and learn about my organization — what are our numbers and how do we compare to similar organizations. And if you make an effort to "know" libraries then I'll really be happy.
Don't tell me that you're well suited to handle my needs just because you sold to the local school district. Our needs and our budget constraints are very different.
2. Do tell me a lot about your product and how it will assist me in getting more done for less money/time/effort. Citing a case study and offering customer references is always a plus. But stick to my needs.
Don't show me other products that your company sells and try to scare me into using those, too. I had a vendor recently who was showing me a very good backup solution but he started his sales pitch by telling me about his firewall product and tried to scare me with talk of viruses and SQL script injections. Stick to my needs, not your sales wants.
3. Do tell me exactly what I can expect to pay, including any service agreements or subscriptions.
Don't give me an equipment price one week and then a contract for maintenance after I've received approval for the hardware cost. I need to know all the details up front.
4. Do give me valid reasons for price differences. I don't mind paying more for quality, but I do mind paying more for brand or bling.
Don't belittle competitors without valid reasons. If another company that has a good reputation is offering its services for less then be prepared to explain why your product or service is more expensive, and please do that without trying to make me feel as if I am the only person in the entire world who would question why your service is so much better.
5. Do try to sell me a product or service that is properly sized for my organization.
Don't try to sell me something by saying that "this is what Giant XYZ corp is using." My organization isn't that big and we certainly don't have deep pockets. Conversely, don't try to sell me something that you sold to a one-location org. Know your customer, and your customer is me.
6. Do know that we are a tax-payer funded non-profit. We must account for every penny. And pennies are rare right now.
Don't make me ask for the non-profit discount. I'll never forgive you if I find out there was a discount available "if only I had asked."
7. Do respond to my silly and repetitive questions. I'm an INTJ and I deal with many issues every day — sometimes I forget technicalities.
Don't make me feel stupid for asking a question. Any question. No matter how stupid it really is.
8. Be transparent.
Don't make me find something out by myself.
Obviously there are many other issues that impact purchasing decisions, but these eight things play a very large role in whether or not I choose to do business with a vendor. Perhaps the unsaid word in all of this is trust. I need to trust my vendor. Your criteria may differ.