General, Leadership, Management, Uncategorized


You’re probably familiar with the popular site Librarian Problems and the hashtag #librarianprblms.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about LIBRARY problems.  The essential question I’ve been asking when faced with an issue to address, a decision to make, a resource to allocate, or a problem to solve is this:

Are we solving a library problem? Or are we helping solve a community problem?

At CHPL, we’ve had the great good fortune to work with Aaron Schmidt on a year-long LSTA grant to assess and improve the user experience on all fronts. It’s transformative work that will have an impact long after the grant cycle ends.  In one of our earliest workshops with him, he brought up this idea and it has stuck with me.  I can’t even recall the context or the slide from the slide deck, but the message was this – Let’s make sure we are solving a community problem and not a library problem.

library problems

It’s simple, right?  This is the essence of the business we are in, right?  We are problem solvers!  Whether helping a job seeker with a resume, a student finish a project, or making our space available for free tax help, we solve problems for and with our users and communities.

However, sometimes we lose perspective on the problem that needs solving.  Sometimes we get overly invested in solving problems of our own creation and we forget to ask the essential question – “Whose problem is this?”

Here are a few refrains I often hear:

  • “How can we increase program attendance?”
  • “We have to get our circ numbers up.”
  • “How can we get more people to use the databases we pay so much for?”

I think that these are all library problems.  Libraries do something – plan a program, acquire materials, subscribe to databases – and then solve the problems that arise from those things.  The solution to these problems isn’t a better program flyer or more displays or ordering promotional materials from the database vendor.  

The solution is to ask the right question, so that we use our resources to solve a community problem, not a library problem:

  • “What programs does our community want/need/desire?”
  • “Are we purchasing materials that meet our community’s interests?”
  • “How might we support the learners in our community?”

An example of how we’ve started using this framework?  Language learning software subscriptions.  Like many libraries, we review our databases subscriptions every year.  Like many libraries, we generally review usage numbers, competitors, and pricing.  Like many libraries, this led us to frame the problem as Mango versus Pronunciator versus Rosetta Stone versus Transparent.  Like many libraries, the problem we were trying to solve was “Which of these products should we buy?”

This year, we moved the conversation to “What languages does our community want to learn? How might we support that learning?”  The data shows that, by a large margin, our users want to either learn Spanish or English as a Second Language.  Once we know that and frame the question differently, it becomes less important whether a service offers 50 or 500 languages.  It becomes more important that they offer the languages our community wants to learn.

Furthermore, when we ask the right questions, there are more right answers – more solutions to the problem.  When the problem we try to solve is “How might we support the language learning needs of our community?” then the solution goes way beyond subscribing to one database or another.  The solution might be offering classes, making space for one-on-one tutoring, offering bilingual story times, beefing up ESL collections, etc.  The solution will definitely involve talking to those language learners  in our community and getting a better understanding of what they want to learn and how we might help them.

When we ask the right questions, we arrive at answers that will help us solve the right problems.  Then we can move from measuring outputs (how many people attended a program) to outcomes (what happened as a result of attending that program). Then we can position ourselves as more than providers of programs, collections, and services – we can position ourselves as community problem solvers.

I’ll write more about our work with Mr. Schmidt in the coming weeks – in the meantime, you can read about the project in Library Journal.

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