[In this guest blog post, Julie Biando Edwards shares the genesis of the article “Community Centered: 23 Reasons Why Your Library Is the Most Important Place in Town.” The article, written by Edwards, Melissa S. Rauseo, and Kelley Rae Unger, was recently published in Public Libraries and is currently being featured on PublicLibrariesOnline.org.]
The genesis of our article, “Community Centered,” still makes me chuckle a bit. For a piece of writing in which we chose determinately and deliberately to focus away from technology, it had a decidedly technological start.
In 2010, Melissa Rauseo, the Young Adult Librarian at the Peabody Institute Library (Peabody, MA) and a close personal friend, posted an article on her Facebook page. The headline screamed the question “Are Librarians Totally Obsolete?” The author, Will Sherman, answers this question with a strong “no” and goes on to outline in 33 points why librarians and libraries are not only not obsolete, but “irreplaceable”, focusing on the ways in which librarians and our institutions must, and do, adapt in the digital age. After posting the article, though, Melissa added a comment along the lines of “I’d like to see an article listing the ways in which libraries and librarians are important community and cultural forces.” We had just finished writing a book chapter together, and I responded to her comment with one of my own – “and there we have the subject for our next project.” The idea was born. We enlisted our close friend and colleague Kelley Rae Unger, Adult Services Librarian in Peabody, and got to work.
We wanted to write an article that looked at the social roles that libraries play. While Sherman briefly hints at this in his post, we felt that the subject needed a fuller exploration. As current and former public librarians, we know that what our library does in our community goes way beyond helping people navigate through the digital age. In fact, often what we do is provide balance between the perils and promise of the digital age and the social and community needs that our patrons present us with every day. Arguably, as the digital age progresses, with no abatement and no way to turn back, we see people craving a sense of community and connectedness more and more. Patrons are looking for information, yes, but they are also looking to build bonds with their librarians, with other patrons, and with the community in general. They are looking to learn, but they are also looking to talk, to create, and to experience art and culture together. They have practical needs – a book they want, a form they need – but they also want to explore opportunities. I’ve argued in other writing that the library can be the place where patrons explore and experiment with the people they want to become. I also believe that the public library is there for the public, not just the individual. The library is the place where people can start finding – start building – the community that so many seem to crave.
As we compared notes on the types of services we wanted to highlight in our article, we decided to concretely place our ideas into the real world of libraries. Some of the great fun of writing this article was taking a look at what other libraries, around the country and around the world, are doing to build community. It is amazing to see what librarians are up to out there! The volume of innovative and creative programs and services is astounding – we only used a fraction of the examples we came across. It was gratifying to look around and see that librarians are responding to community needs in unique and progressive ways. Some of the endeavors to build community involved big, time consuming, expensive projects. Others focused on locally produced programming and collection building. Still others simply involved rethinking the best ways to use space, talents, and resources and making adjustments accordingly.
After compiling our list and our examples we realized that many librarians are already doing important work in their communities. Our hope is that librarians can take the list as inspiration and then build their own lists. Take a look at what your library is doing to build community and create culture, then write it down. Bring our list, and your list, to your mayors, city councils, library boards, and Friends. Launch a local campaign highlighting how your library builds community. Ask your patrons what they think, then build on their feedback and ideas.
There has been a lot of angst about whether or not libraries will survive the digital age and, if so, how. We agree that libraries need to change and adapt, but we also think that there are some things that we simply already do really well, really creatively, and that really make a difference. I’ve long thought that we need to focus on those areas in which we can make real change, rather than expend energies in places where we can’t successfully compete (note to libraries: we’re never going to be Google. Let it go). Rethink your library. Rethink its social role. Rethink your programming, collection building, and services. Think about the places in your town where you see people longing for community, for cultural expression and understanding, for civil discourse. Then take a look at how you can offer these things. Trust me, you’ll be filling a niche and you really will be on the road to being the most important place in town.
[To read the article, go to PublicLibrariesOnline.org.]