Library as Platform

I recently applied for a promotion. As part of the interview, I had to prepare a presentation that answered this question:

Please provide us with an overview of three great ideas VPL can use to digitally engage with residents, and what first steps the library would take towards adopting them.

This entry is my way of working through this question. I’ll publish part 1 tonight and part 2 tomorrow after the interview.

I’d like to answer this question in reverse, because I think that addressing some of our organizational infrastructure issues will provide the necessary foundation for success. But first, a story.

What Should We Call Me?

A few years ago, the division I work in was called the Virtual Library. We proudly boasted that the library’s website would be our 22nd branch, and how everything a person could access in the physical library would be made available through our website. We had electronic resources, provided reference and instruction help via chat, and made it possible for patrons to have access to a big part of the library’s collection 24/7. Yet for all of this, the library’s website was missing the one thing that people come to the physical library for: a sense of community. The website wasn’t a place for people to gather, our patrons had no sense of membership or ownership, and despite our best efforts to introduce interactive and attractive elements to the site, it remained a destination for people who had specific, clearly delineated tasks to carry out. It wasn’t – and isn’t – amenable to conversation and collaboration, and like the library itself, it was focused on provisioning resources instead of engendering connections. It was — and is — a portal: a place people pass through on their way to other places.

Four years ago, the division name was changed to Online Information & News. This was a step in the right direction because it helped library staff shift our thinking in terms of information that lives online versus information that lives offline. It helped staff thinking shift, but most of our public signage still said “Newspapers and Magazines” and the patrons mental models were mapped to accessing to a specific type of resource. Two years ago we created an Information Commons with the idea of providing more access to computers, more technology training and more space for teamwork, but we still referred to the division as Online Information & News. As long as that name was present, in the public’s mind it would keep us tied to the act of providing access to physical resources, be they computers or archives for printed data. We wanted to bring life, connection, collaboration and communication to the space, and in some ways we were successful. Our floor is busier than ever, and patrons seem to be happy that we made more computers available. But more often than not, we see people looking at computer screens instead of each other, and the only time conversation seems to happen is when we’re soliciting input for public consultation.

How, then, to change the public’s minds? How do we move from a space that fosters passive consumption toward a place of vitality, creativity, and community? The way we do that is by addressing our organizational underpinnings, and by radically re-shaping our infrastructure so that it supports creation. I’m not talking about moving furniture – I’m talking about incubating ideas.

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