“Libraries exist as parts of larger systems. Public libraries are part of cities, towns, and counties… Almost no library stands alone. These larger host systems created the libraries, and they sustain them. Libraries rise and fall as their host systems rise and fall.”
-Eleanor Jo Rodger, “What’s A Library Worth?”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that libraries must go beyond talking about their stuff and counting their circulation. In order to survive, libraries must communicate their value and measure their impact. In order to thrive, libraries must align themselves with the goals of the community they serve and help realize those goals, hopes, and aspirations.
Lots of libraries are doing this for their communities. As Eleanor Jo Rodger put it in her outstanding article on the subject, these libraries understand the host ecosystem they serve and are contributing to its survival and success. But our external community is only one ecosystem we exist within. Public libraries hold a great deal of value for the internal community we serve as well.
Whatever our governing structure – municipal, county, regional, quasi-governmental – public libraries are generally a part of local government. Local government is an ecosystem-within-an-ecosystem with its own goals, hopes, and aspirations. Whether we are tightly knit to that system (like a municipal library) or a little further removed (like a regional library system), we can do for these ecosystems what we do for our communities at large – communicate our value, align ourselves with them, and contribute to their goals and aspirations.
Here are a few practical ways public libraries might do so:
Training Initiatives – Is your city/county placing an emphasis on training and development? Are they looking for cost effective ways to provide more training? You might send information about the Library’s computer classes to employees – or host a special class just for them. If you have resources like Lynda.com, you might send staff out to different departments to show supervisors and training coordinators how they can use it in their training programs.
Tech Initiatives – Is your city/county talking about revamping its website? Maybe a device loan program for employees? You might offer a staff member to serve on the web development team – or offer the library as a spot for usability testing before they launch. You might offer the library as the perfect spot to manage a device loan program, as you already loan lots of other things.
Information Initiatives – Is your city/county looking to get the word out about a bond referendum? Are they looking to recruit citizens to serve on advisory boards or commissions? You might let them know about a very busy spot in the community where hundreds of residents come every week for trusted information and civic engagement (sound familiar?) and offer that spot as a place for them to directly engage with the people they are trying to reach.
There is some investment here – proactive persistence might be required, staff might need to be redeployed, you might get told “no thanks” many times before you are told “yes please!” But the pay off is worth it. Here’s why:
When it comes time to consider resource allocation at the city/county/regional level, the decision makers and stakeholders of your internal community of users will understand what you external community understands – that your public library is a vital and valuable part of each ecosystem that can help it not just survive, but thrive.
Next time, I’ll share some of the ways we’ve been doing this at Chapel Hill Public Library. I’d like to know if you’ve had success in this area. Are you working with your local government to achieve a shared goal? Have you had success in communicating your value to internal stakeholders? Please share!