Transparency and Relevancy

The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a wonderful resource. They have provided libraries, and many others, with a wealth of quality research over the years. Their latest report (How the Public Perceives Community Information Systems, 3/1/11) focuses on transparency in governance, but it also brought to mind the issue of relevance — both are topics of importance for public libraries.

Transparency

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.

Relevancy

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 relationship between access and expectations should not surprise anyone. Those with access to an expanding wealth information set their standards accordingly. We, as librarians, have been witnessing this for over a decade. As our users gain high-speed connectivity, adopt the tools for audio and eBook downloads, shift their primary computing to mobile platforms, and learn to navigate the many online information sources (whether accurate or only slightly so), we as librarians need to advance with them in order to remain relevant in their lives.

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.


Questions regarding this opinion essay and suggestions for future topics are welcomed in the comments area.