Interfacing Our Literacy

check-outPeople have no idea what a library is. Two separate librarians uttered this phrase to me without hesitation. It was expressed with joy and a big smile. The joy comes from the sense of opportunity to enrich people’s lives. The smile is that of hope and enthusiasm.

“INTERFACE IS WHERE THE EXCHANGE

EITHER EXISTS OR IS LOST”.

Libraries existed as early as ancient times. Today’s library around the world is in a quick transition from what most of us are familiar with. What do you know about the library near you? I thought I was a reasonably educated patron of libraries until I set out to write this composition.

I was curious what people actually know about libraries

It was interesting to consider what they should know.

And then, how do we make people care about libraries?

In Roald Dahl’s Matilda, a librarian at the beginning of the story provides the book’s subject the means to escape a reality, of growing up in an extremely dysfunctional, corrupt family. As fantastical as the details of the story might seem, the power of literacy is one that most of us regard as unquestionable. It is evident in our lives each day. Starting from your alarm clock to fixing your own breakfast, the ability to read makes every step of the way that much more accessible. As you go further in life, literacy connects us to become the society we are.

“Knowledge is Power” is a well-known phrase, coined by Sir Francis Bacon back in 1597. Access to knowledge is key to that power. Literacy was never cheap and a strong society is a literate one. The technology that brought us the book has come a long way. From being the property of the elite and the wealthy, the book is now a widely available product in a variety of prices. The evolution of the public library dates back some centuries ago. Together with the book, it has reached a point where questions over what the library should be are shaping it into its future.

People still come to read and acquire knowledge in a library. In order to facilitate the focus required for effective learning, we need to be considerate with each other’s space. I grew up appreciating the need to be quiet in a library. However, it is a public space. So the tension between socializing and privacy is always there. The librarian of my youth was usually the person in charge of policing readers’ experience.

library

I’ve had an interesting conversation a few years ago with a librarian. One of the things she mentioned caught my attention: they are working hard on finding ways to gain public interest because otherwise they will lose their job. For me it was disturbing. I understand that it is difficult for anyone worried about their livelihood to separate themselves from the justification for their work. As a member of society who supports libraries wholeheartedly, I am interested to find ways to discuss this support without bias.

When my daughter was a toddler, a friend of ours re-introduced me to the library. It had been a few years since the previous time I visited one. I always found them useful if a bit stuffy and restricted spaces. But in my search to occupy my child in more than one way, the library seemed like an excellent variation. It turned out to be one of our favorite venues.

I’ve been borrowing books, including eBooks and videos for quite a few years now. This is great and usually painless. At times there is a book in high demand so it might be frustrating to wait for a copy. We live close to a few jurisdictions so sometimes I benefit from a wider selection. While in the library, staff have always been very friendly and absolutely helpful. However, interaction with them is usually restricted to what I need from them within the scope of services they provide.

Naturally, books are still an extremely valuable asset of libraries. In her younger years, our daughter could attach to a single book. She could listen to us reading it for her over and over again. On a lighter note, borrowing a book was a fantastic way of posing a restriction over how long we can stay with it. When she started reading on her own, the excitement of going to the library became even bigger. And of course we already knew that we could borrow more than just books.

Eventually, there are other functions this space needs to address. As information technology advanced throughout the years, the needs of the public from the library have shifted. It is less of a reference hub and more of almost anything else.

Activities of the library exist, that are not directly related to books. You can’t miss the notice boards going in and out of the library. This is how my wife and I joined a discussion in one of the reading clubs. It was a great way to gain exposure to interesting information. This time it was a highly recommended book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Interacting with other readers of the same book was a bonus.

Librarians experience the shift in services they are required to provide at the front desk. Their interaction with the public provides valuable information as to how well the services provided are accepted or even acknowledged. The library is a complex system. What it offers and how it can be accessed is a layer of information that needs to be communicated. How to provide this information to a person without overwhelming them, is a daily challenge.

A friend of ours is a storyteller. She might have filled this composition with praise for librarians and the library more quickly than I could press the enter key to start the next paragraph. In storytelling events you truly experience the friendliness of librarians. Our friend is deeply grateful for their helpfulness and dedication to literature and literacy.

For a few years now, our library has been operating a digital lab. The public can come and compose music and edit it for free. Along with that, one can sign in to various online services, all for free, as part of the membership to the public library. The world around us is developing in such a pace, that not only the library is facing challenges of what services it can and should provide.

In spite of the access to many cheap and free services, life is becoming more and more expensive. As a publicly funded organization, the library is forced to forge alliances. Solutions might sometimes come up as compromising necessities. However, collaborations provide the opportunities to reach economies of scale, better outreach and circulation.

Urban development is one of current days’ realities. It is both an opportunity as it is a challenge for libraries. Funding resources are always at a shortage. When politics are involved, libraries are not immune to becoming victims. The story of the Troy Library is a cautionary tale of how things can get wrong. Creative thinking and quick action have worked out in this one. Not every story has a happy ending. When libraries are designated as amenities, it is all too easy to sacrifice them for the sake of a balanced bottom line. Fortunately, many see it as a crucial organization, to a degree that is almost unquestionable.

But what does urban development mean to us? Our cities are becoming more populated. The needs for public libraries are growing with our cities. The services required are constantly expanding. Cities grow naturally in some cases. In most cases, immigrants are a significant source of urban growth. These residents face many pressures that a good library system can effectively respond to. It is worth noting that many talks relating to this topic exist and you can reach them easily on the web. Here is a talk that covers some of the achievements libraries have with their public.

One of the gratifying sides of being a librarian seems to be the endless gratitude of immigrants for the help they get. Programs are available for resume writing, language skills and more. The position of the library within the network of social agencies is crucial for the success of both resettlement and the society into which immigrants move.

As both librarians I spoke with have said, people have no idea what a library is. With all the great intentions, the interface between institutions and the individual is where the exchange either exists or is lost. We have a fantastic infrastructure of support systems. And still, the people who can benefit the most from them, many times don’t. Language barriers for immigrants, time challenges caused by work load and family pressures are simple realities we need to acknowledge.

“PEOPLE HAVE NO IDEA WHAT A LIBRARY IS.”

The challenge is real. How to connect users with the services they look for and need, may seem simple and straightforward. However, institutions sometimes become burdened with too many tasks for their own workforce to handle.

My conclusion for this  article is open to investigation. The dynamic nature of life allows us to explore many options each day. Libraries need our help in forging the way to stay relevant. For each community, the balance between needs and aspirations is different. Asking questions is a good way to inspire responses and solutions.

Here are some to start with:

  • What are the main types of audiences a library has?
  • What are the characteristics of these groups?
  • Which are the best places to reach these audiences?
  • Who can do the job?

But the best insight to date I can offer is LAST: Listen, Ask, Suggest and Take action.

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