Creating a library culture

In 1957, S. R. Ranganathan articulated five laws of library science:

  • Books are for use
  • Every reader has her book
  • Every book has its reader
  • Save the time of the reader
  • A library is a growing organism

Books now means “books” and refers to computer access, DVDs, e-readers, books, magazines, newspapers, web access, programming, safe spaces and overall information access. I’ve been doing some reading, by non-librarians, taking us to task for holding onto our “library culture.” While praising us for being early technology-adopters, we apparently insist on applying that technology within our framework, rather than our users. Ahem. Someone clearly did not talk to an actual librarian before writing this up. I think we can all agree that Law #5 drives our approach to Laws #1-4. And our library’s culture drives how we grow that organism.

One of the best ways to pick apart our library culture is to ask: how the heck did we get here? Simple, but effective. Were decisions made with long-term thought or were we trying to save/spend money? Where did users fit into the process? WHO made decisions and why? Often I see elements of libraries that clearly reflect an individual’s thought process and idea of what is best. With a visionary thinker, this can mean a sustainable culture in which users greatly benefit. Or it can mean 1960s architecture with no windows and a leaky roof. Or worse: no books in sight, only computers (true story.)

Hopefully your organization has short and long-term goals and mission statements. These are helpful. They are often born out of painful, tedious meetings and negotiations. I hope yours include users. The trick is not coming up with goals and missions, but coming with tangible actions to implement our lofty notions of what our library should be like now and in ten years. It’s like creating the future while predicting it. Some thoughts on ways I see my library creating and reflecting culture:

Our primary users are students. Not only do we hire student workers, we ask them to contribute to shaping the library. A colleague of mine runs a student leadership group in which student supervisors train student staff in leadership to help them grow personally, professionally and academically. Regular staff helped plan initial training sessions which are now run entirely by graduates of the leadership program.

 I am training a team of students in reference and they felt empowered to create a This Day in History display in the front of the library based on what they learned in a session. They update it pretty much every day and get compliments and inquiries about this work. Other students know these student staff have research skills and approach them for help. Research shows students often go to their friends long before databases or librarians for assistance in assignments. So why not train their friends in providing reliable help? Further, we have a Geek Squad of students and other specialized skill students who can do things from rewiring dorms for faster internet to provide excellent customer service to schedule students for desk shifts.  Students leave with substantial resume material.

Something I hope to develop more is including students in assessing user perceptions and needs, then creating programs out of collected information. A recent article in College and Research Libraries News highlights a school doing just that (Students research the library: Using student-led ethnographic research to examine the changing role of campus libraries by Gina Hunter and Dane Ward.) One of our goals is to steadily increase our electronic book collection. My summer research includes developing an assessment tool appropriate to our college to examine users’ perceptions, use and preferences for accessing e-books. Including students in developing an appropriate tool, marketing campaign and means of access (i.e. apps) will be crucial to success.

Our library culture is flexible. We’ve realized we probably need to change our furniture in the next few years, acquiring light-weight yet sturdy moveable pieces to enable users to easily rearrange space. We often host training sessions at night to accommodate schedules. For us to be sustainable, we MUST use systems that can easily adapt to individual needs. This is an essential component of our culture. It means I check email six days a week. Sometimes seven. But it also means my culture is just as flexible for me. If I need to work at odd hours to get a project done or accommodate my personal life, I can if it does not impose on others. I can ask our Media department to help me create a video to convince teens to become librarians and they will gladly assist. An effectively flexible culture is give and take for all members, not just giving to users.

If you are interested to read how one librarian is building a library culture from the ground up in a culture not her own, check out Rachel Wightman’s blog on her work in a Ugandan library. This post inspired my thinking this week: http://alibrarystory.blogspot.com/2011/05/cross-cultural-library.html

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