Collective Individuality

“Collective Individuality: How libraries can support individual action” State Library Victoria Public Library Planning Meeting.

Abstract: Library networks need to change from platforms supporting similar services across libraries, to platforms that allow libraries to better look like and serve their unique communities.

Script below video

Below is the script I used for the video…typos and all.

So, you are meeting to discuss the next 3 year plan for the public library network. As we’ve just seen, a lot can happen in three years. Our phones get smaller, our computers get faster, oh and global pandemics and the first land war in Europe since the 1940s happen. 

I’ve spoken to a lot of librarians around the world about the effects of the pandemic and identified two trends: disruption and acceleration. Disruption is pretty obvious. Facility lockdowns, masking mandates, protective gear and the like. But what is remarked upon the most, is acceleration. That the disruption sped the adoption of new policies, procedures, and technologies. More libraries went fine free. Many libraries that required in-person signup for library cards implemented virtual sign ups and renewals. Experimentation with online programming – from author talks to gaming to you name it- became the default way of offering service. 

When the pandemic began, most public libraries were quickly reduced to ebook loans and wifi in the parking lot. Yet a month or two later libraries were offering virtual Storytimes, telemedicine services, wifi hotspot loans. Later libraries became polling places, testing, then vaccination centers teaming with industry and public health. Bottom line is that the past three years have not been a holding pattern, but a runway launching new initiatives, transforming library staff from organizers and friendly faces to content creators and innovators – still with friendly faces.

I tell you all of this because I am not going to spend much time on the pandemic in thinking about the next 3 years of how public libraries can work together. What I am going to talk about is how library networks are transforming. That transformation may have been accelerated by COVID, but the heart of that transformation has been in the works for decades.

I’ll start by giving away the ending: library networks are more important than ever, but only if they allow individual libraries to innovate and become increasingly unique points of local services, with library professionals, not service standards, forming the focus of the network. Or, put more simply, I see the future of the network not helping us work together by everyone sharing the same services, but by empowering library staff to become hyperlocal.

This is a change in the work and nature of the network. It is possible because of how successful library networks have been to this point on things like standards. Through the mutual adoption of standards in cataloging, circulation, reference, and the like, we have expanded our basic functions so we can more seamlessly work together. I’ll call this a platform – we have built a platform that allows us to share materials, records, and statistics. These standards allow us to do our work better…but they are focused on the work of librarians, not on the impact in our communities.

Libraries across the globe are using the platform largely in place to shift their focus to centering the community in their work, and in creating truly participatory spaces that are co-owned with the community. From buying books based on our community members’ requests to having writer residencies to maker spaces, library services are no longer just library staff offering services, but having the library facilitate the sharing of knowledge within the community. All while retaining the values, mission, and means of librarianship developed over the centuries.

Because each community is different, and our libraries now better reflect the community, our libraries are increasingly looking more and more like their localities, and less and less like some standard image of a library. There was a time when you could go into a library in Kenya, Melbourne, or Texas and expect to see about the same thing: a refence desk, books on shelves, etc. Now you may walk into a library hosting a comic book festival in Oslo, a farm in Upstate New York, or a community wide meal in Philadelphia. 

The things that connect all these unique libraries, are people. The community members themselves, certainly, but also librarians and other library staff that are constantly identifying what is best about the community and sharing it beyond the city border, and simultaneously looking beyond their own borders for great ideas to adopt to their local needs. This is the task of an educated professional, an innovator, not simply clerks.

But, this is all a bit abstract, allow me to take this thesis – as libraries better serve their communities by better reflecting them, the need for library networks both increase, and change – and illustrate it.

First, let’s take the obvious – communities are unique. They differ by their populations. Communities are shaped by their demographics, issues of class, wealth distribution, and their history. However, and perhaps more importantly, they differ in their aspirations and needs. Does your community seek to be a place of making, with roots in manufacturing. Does it seek to be a place of learning with reading and publishing first and foremost? Of course, all communities may want all of these things, but their emphasis and unique character will rise to the top.

I now live in Austin, Texas. It calls itself the world capital for live music. In advertising, in civic events, in all sorts of ways, music is a theme. If you ever fly into the airport, you’ll be welcomed with musicians playing in the terminal. Does this mean that everyone is musical. Take it from my 3rd grade violin teacher – absolutely not. But it is a point of pride for the community and a brand to the rest of the world.

Communities also vary by the resources they have in place. This may be a university, or a dramatic countryside. In Seattle, the public library is a technology intensive experience. In the hills of the Netherlands, you can “check out” a nature trail for hiking.

As we all know, our communities are also shaped by how we chose to govern ourselves. The taxes taken, the regulation passed, the allocation of property, the ideology of the electorate all matter and make the places we live unique. Our libraries need to reflect this.

This idea is already found in the commercial sector. Chain restaurants hang local imagery, or add local flavors to their menus. Local businesses build relationships with customers so brand loyalty becomes more than just transactions. International corporations create regional subsidiaries.

And the best libraries around the globe are capturing this distinct local flavor in how they run. Take the Fayetteville Free Library in upstate New York. In Fayetteville as across the United States, the librarians saw underrepresentation of girls in the sciences and engineering. To address this gap the library teamed with the local community to offer a summer camp for girls. Campers used 3D printers, built machines, and played on non-Newtonian fluids. At one point folks in the library had pom poms whizzing over their heads as the girls tried out catapults they designed.

If you look at that camp, however, it is not simply librarians offering programs. The campers learned from female engineers that lived in the town. They had talks from female jet pilots who worked less than an hour away. In the activities campers saw their neighbors as experts and role models in something more powerful than a YouTube video or online webinar.

Compare this to the Toronto Public Library three hours away. TPL offers classes in digital privacy. But instead of classes on the dangers of FaceBook, citizens can experience how machine learning works and see directly how algorithms can automate bias. This privacy work has turned into work with the tech industry to ensure citizen data is handled ethically. Different places, different resources, different approaches, both libraries doing the same job – making society better through facilitating knowledge.

In Charleston South Carolina the library became a polling place during a contentious election to reassure community members of the integrity of the election. It also opened its doors as a COVID testing facility, and later, a vaccination center. The library put out ads that featured librarians telling why they got the vaccine, turning the trust they had built over decades into beneficial action. Trust, by the way, not in books or buildings, but trained knowledge professionals they had come to know and count on.

Libraries in a network need not be pushing for uniformity, but must increasingly take advantage of the network to allow it to become more focused on communities, and more unique. I know that sounds like a paradox – come together to be different, but it works.

In some ways it is like the internet. The internet is not a single network or a single set of technologies. Instead, it is a common set of standards that allow just about any piece of unique technology to talk to other unique nodes on the network. Mac/PC, Wired/Wireless, massive data center, a single mobile phone all can connect together in support of very different user experiences. On a daily basis you use the internet to play games, send email, maybe submit taxes, watch movies, just about everything. And the person sitting next to you may use the same network to do very different things.

This collective individuality can be seen in two libraries in my home state of Texas. Texas is very large. It has big cities and a lot of small rural communities. I believe this will sound familiar.

80% of the citizens of Texas are served by 20% of the libraries. These tend to be large urban and suburban systems like Dallas and Austin. 80% of the libraries in the state serve 20% of the population. Towns of less than 25,000 and many more like Pottsboro Texas that serves 1,500 people. If you compare a Pottsboro Public Library to the Austin Public Library, you find the differences you might expect. Pottsboro has an annual operating budget of $35,000 compared to Austin of over 58 million dollars. Pottsboro has 1 full time staff and the director receives no salary. Austin has over 400 staff and the director has a six figure annual pay check.

Yet both are part of the same statewide network and supported by the same state library. How does that play out? While Austin has some great services, the Pottsboro Public Library, housed in an old rural post office, is recognized as one of the most innovative libraries in the country. 

It offers esports teams, it has VR and robotics programs. It has a full library of things, and beams free wireless internet to houses in a 2 mile radius using whitespace in the radio spectrum. During the pandemic, the library opened a telehealth room, with a private external entrance and high bandwidth connection to a regional health center.

How can such a small library do all of this? Through grants from the state library and by building a strong connection to local government. They are able to demonstrate their value to neighbors with the data the state library gathers on positive outcomes. 

Pottsboro still uses the common platform offering the same online ebooks and databases as Austin through statewide licensing agreements. But these basic services allow the state library and Pottsboro to fly and create a special connection with the citizens of this rural Texas town. Can you imagine the potential if every town in Victoria had as innovative library, regardless of size, as the citizens of Pottsboro? 

This way of thinking about library networks, and libraries in general, is new in the past decade or so. It breaks a century of seeing libraries as efficient access points put in place by Melvyl Dewey. Dewey and his compatriots sought to minimize the unique aspects of libraries to make them more efficient. No more every library having its own cataloging scheme, now we all share one universal system. An idea that would eventually decimate the ranks of catalogers – replaced with copy cataloging. 

But you have to understand this move as rooted in the time Dewey was working in – the rise of industrialization and the assembly lines of Gerald Ford. Dewey and Cutter and the librarians of the day saw the end of libraries unless they could operate on an “industrial scale” – his words. Libraries needed to become standardized, right down to the education of the librarian.

Parts of this view have value – the platform, but it has been taken too far. At times we have forgotten that the goal of librarianship is not the efficient organization of stuff, but the enlightenment of people. Our goal should not be to spend less money, but to effectively open more minds. We are not in the book business. If we were we wouldn’t wrap them in plastic and let people take them home. We are not in the building business, if we were all libraries would look alike. Instead, our communities now build them as one of a kind cathedrals of knowledge.

When Oslo built its new main library, it sought to have world class architecture that would match the startling design of the seaside opera house it was built next to. When the building opened they brought over only half the collection of the old library. Not to make room for future book buying, but to make space for people to collaborate, to entertain, and the work.

What we are in, then, is the people business, and more than that, the people learning business. And that takes people. The library network we build tomorrow should not be around the efficient passing of materials, but finding the best ideas to elevate our communities, adapt those ideas to our local diversity, and then share what we learned with the rest of the libraries in the network. The next library network is a network first and foremost of librarians. 

The age of toolkits and meeting in committee to form best practices is over. The network of tomorrow is a peer learning network where librarian and library staff from director to first year clerk, can connect to peers, take classes, and, most importantly, share great ideas.

What does a network founded on peer learning do? It offers mentorships. It arranges for staff exchanges where librarians can do residencies in other towns. It works with network members and global experts to develop courses. It offers new forms of certification. Instead of certificates that document participation in workshops, it offers a dynamic portfolio of competencies that documents the continuous learning of staff.

The network we need acts as a sort of scribe – a responsive body that transforms innovation into instruction. No longer finding what works, assuming it works everywhere, and creating a step by step guide. Rather it identifies innovation, documents it, and works with the innovator to train others in how to adapt, not simply adopt, new services if they fit the local community. 

The network effectively collects data and stories on the libraries in the network. Data makes stories real, but stories make the data matter.

The network is constantly scanning the environment internally and externally, infusing the network with good ideas in the form of speakers, research papers, and connections to peers across the globe.

The learning network hosts hybrid participatory design charettes – bring together a truly diverse body of staff and community members to explore new ways of offering services to youth, seniors, business, government and the like. These ad hoc teams build pop-up experimental libraries to try out ideas in a safe space for constructive criticism.

The networks we need also act as ready partners in research. We should be able to work with scholars and companies on research projects, being able to quickly stand up multiple libraries to partner.

In the European Union, environmental scientist were able to work with a European wide body of libraries to gather pollution data, and just as importantly, train citizen scientists to collect data in a study. 

No longer should scholars approach libraries simply as places citizens can meet. We need to be partners that instruct the researcher about the power of libraries, privacy, and diversity as original data is collected.

You have a great task before you. To build and direct a group of aligned organizations through one of the most turbulent times in recent history. Yet we know that getting through these times takes agility and inventiveness, not a monolithic boiler plate of service definitions. The future prosperity of our communities, of our democracies, of our very climate, will come not from one grand vision, but local ingenuity harnessed and spread. That doesn’t come from a single committee, or a single service, but from hyperlocal commitments to a better tomorrow. It was this promise that founded our libraries in the first place. It is time to do it again.

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