"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Jan 13, 2010

Reflections on some informational interviews

Over vacation I had a great opportunity to talk shop with the reference supervisors at the Cambridge and Newton libraries, and they have been so kind as to give their permission for me to reflect on these conversations here.*

I came in with a set of questions largely pertaining to how their libraries are making sense of and coping with changes in society, technology, the ways in which people view libraries, what people expect from libraries, and how librarians are conceptualizing what we do. I also had some questions about community engagement in their libraries, spurred by the great class on information use in communities that I just completed. The interviews didn't always stay "on script," but whether we were discussing my specific questions or not, I got a lot of valuable information that helped to fill in my picture of what is actually going on in the real world of library practice right now.

In what follows I'm not trying to be comprehensive; I'm more attempting to hit the high points of the interviews and reflect on what stood out most to me from what we discussed.


On the whole, Cambridge seems to be in a pretty good position right now. They've just moved into a beautiful new facility (an expansion and renovation of the original main library). I was told that the library garners consistently high rankings by residents, and they definitely seem to be well-positioned for some exciting growth in the coming years.

In part since I just completed a course on community information use and community engagement, one thing that really stuck out to me is the high level of community support. I'm definitely interested in trying to figure out what libraries do that makes them central figures in their communities. High-quality service is of course a factor, and from my brief time in the library (the interview was actually performed behind one of the information desks, so I got an especially good look at how the library provides reference service!) it seems to me that Cambridge staff are making a good effort to provide useful and relevant services to their patrons. But high-quality service is just a start. I had some speculations on other factors that might affect community support for this library:

One interesting characteristic of this library that may be a factor is its physical accessibility. Part of their website states that "Cambridge is unique among Massachusetts libraries in that most residents of the City are within walking distance of their public library." I learned that people from adjacent towns sometimes use the Cambridge branches because they are closer than the libraries for the towns of which those patrons are residents (there is a regional consortium; cards from any member library are valid everywhere in the consortium). One of the keys to public support is certainly getting people to come in, interact with the library, and use its services; I wonder if the accessibility of branch libraries increases library use in Cambridge, and therefore community support?

Something that came up as a definite factor in the support that the Cambridge library enjoys is the fact that many people who work in the city government are regular library users. This makes sense -- if the people who control the funding perceive you as valuable, then you are likely to be funded. The next question, of course, is how one gets the people in control of funding to perceive the library's value. In Cambridge it seems as though the situation may be self-perpetuating at this point. Other libraries may need to cultivate this perception in local leaders.

Another interesting thing that we discussed was the library's connection to various other community agencies (e.g. the historical society, legal information organizations, etc.). This didn't explicitly come up as a factor related to the library's community support, but from what I learned in my community information class, I think that the connections that the Cambridge library has built with these other organizations probably play into its community support as well. (The support of institutions and organizations in the community is as important as the support of individuals.) These connections don't seem to be made in a formalized or structured way. My interviewee said that his communication with outside agencies is often informal, and driven by what library patrons need or are asking about. He described it as a matter of knowing where and/or when to refer patrons to places that can help them better than the library -- for instance, he said, he is not a business reference expert, so if someone has a more complex question he may send them to the Boston Public Library's business librarians.

But there was definitely a sense that these referrals could be used for the benefit of the library, too. My interviewee noted that when you speak well of others (e.g. "You should try these folks, they are really helpful and great people") and they hear of the praise, they tend to think well of you in return. He also said that he engaged in some informal networking, just getting in touch with people at various organizations occasionally to catch up and to tell them that they should let him know if he could help with anything. I tend to think of networking as a very formal, structured thing. But it's clear how a friendly offer to help if anything is needed, and referrals coming from the library to an outside organization, could build a perception of the library as useful, helpful, and open to connecting with other groups. In fact, building connections in this way might help to make the library seem more sincere in its desire to help and more actually useful than press releases or meetings or whatever else libraries do to try to connect with outside organizations (clearly I am still fuzzy on this, but that's why I asked about how it works to begin with!).

A couple of other interesting ideas from this conversation:

One thing that came up a few times, and that I hadn't thought about in this way before, is the ways in which libraries can discourage unwanted behavior by small changes in the space and the atmosphere. I think that for many people, the impulse in dealing with bad behavior is to create policies to say that patrons can't do certain things and procedures to sanction them if they violate policy. These kinds of policies and procedures are definitely necessary, but some comments that my interviewee made suggested a supplementary approach -- why not change the affordances of the environment to make it harder to engage in undesirable behavior to begin with? For instance, when one library (I cannot remember if this was the Cambridge library or a different one) had problems with inebriated patrons passing out in the large, comfortable armchairs, his solution was to remove those chairs and replace them with hardbacked ones that were not so easy to fall asleep in. He also saw staff as very important in creating an atmosphere in the library. Even staff who are not physically large can have assertive body language that garners respect for the librarians, the physical facility, and the institution, in that way encouraging patrons to behave well.

This was a way of thinking about shaping patron behavior that I hadn't deeply considered before. I generally prefer the carrot to the stick, but it's often hard to think of ways to encourage people to behave well vs. discouraging them from behaving poorly. Now I've started to think about how creating an appropriate physical space and an atmosphere marked by welcoming yet assertive librarians could stem many problems before they start.

Our conversation covered much, much more than this, but in the interests of keeping this post to a semi-reasonable length and of not spending all evening writing, I will stop there.

Except... the building. I have to talk about the building. It is very, very new, and it is beautiful. Unfortunately I didn't have time to see it all, since I had to run off to my next interview -- but I got a mini-tour of the first floor, and that was enough to get a sense of what the library as a whole is like. The new expansion is huge and airy -- lots of glass, high ceilings, overall a very open feeling. The furniture is pale in color, which adds to the sense of lightness and openness. In contrast, the renovated older section is all wood-paneled and dark. I really feel that it has recaptured the rich, sedate beauty that it probably had when it was first built. I wanted to go sit in the reading room and just soak in the atmosphere. And though the two sections are nearly polar opposites, somehow the transition between the two doesn't feel strange. It is just moving from one beauty to another. I only hope I get to work in a library so gorgeous one day. I want very badly to get back sometime to have a more thorough look around. And if anyone reading this is ever in Cambridge, I encourage you to go visit the library!


One thing that we talked about a fair amount during my Newton interview was the importance of technology skills. My interviewee encouraged me to try to get on the cutting edge of technology. In addition to understanding technology, it's important to be able to discuss it on many different levels: she noted that librarians deal with patrons who have a wide range of technology skills, from people who can't use a mouse on up to people who probably know much more than the librarian. (This is something that I have definitely observed in my time on the reference desk; I'm still practicing how to quickly get an idea of the patron's skill level and how to tailor my own instruction to their skills.)

Technology skills involve much more than Microsoft Office and Internet browsing or even Web 2.0 skills: my interviewee said that libraries are moving towards information provision via methods that are online but not the Internet, such as databases and ebooks. It's going to be important for librarians to have proficiency with these technologies, which I think should include knowledge of how to evaluate them (since they are often purchased resources) as well as knowledge of how to use them effectively.

One thing I really wanted to ask about in this interview was a community information database, sponsored by the regional consortium, that I'd found linked from Newton's website. It looks great -- it's a searchable resource of various organizations and groups in the consortium's member communities. However, I learned that the database isn't used much, at least not at Newton. (I would say that this is probably true more broadly as well: I haven't found another link to the database on other consortium library websites I've visited, and I spent an entire summer at the Brookline library -- which is also part of the consortium -- without learning about this resource.) One of the major issues that my interviewee mentioned is that it is very time consuming to make entries -- up to an hour per organization. Also, she said that while this kind of resource was very useful before the Internet became widespread, now Google is a fairly good substitute. I was a little sad to hear that something I'd gotten so excited about actually wasn't terribly useful, but in light of my interviewee's comments, it made sense. With limited staff time, and the value of having that information collocated in that way diminishing due to the existence of powerful Internet search engines, I can see how it is worth spending perhaps a small amount more time and effort finding information via search engine in order to save the large amount of time and effort that it would take to enter the information into the database in a usable way. This got me thinking about how we have to connect our big ideas to the reality of our situation as early in the planning stages as possible. I thought the database sounded like a wonderful idea, but in light of resource constraints (in this case, largely staff time), the value it provides is not sufficiently great to justify what it would take to maintain it. Furthermore, this kind of balance can change over time. In the past, the database was more valuable because it collocated information that could be difficult to find. Before most organizations had webpages and before good search engines existed, the database was probably sufficiently useful to justify the resources spent on its upkeep. Now, however, the kind of information it contains is fairly easily available for someone with a little bit of knowledge, so it may not be worth the time and effort to keep it up to date. To me this suggests the importance of continued evaluation of the services we already provide, to see if they are still worth the effort invested.

(I have further thoughts related to this, but they are no longer specific to the conversation on which I am currently reflecting, so I will save them for another post.)

But I've gone on a bit of a tangent. Returning to what we actually spoke about in the interview, one other thing that came up almost as an aside was the importance of trying to just get people into the library and break down barriers as much as possible. This idea arose in connection to some brief discussion we had about a teen fine forgiveness program at another library. Fine forgiveness can be a pretty radical step -- but if it gets someone to return to the library who otherwise might never have come back (and if it isn't given over and over to the same person or people!) then I think that it ultimately will create net benefit for the library. A patron who is given a second chance has the potential to become a library supporter instead of someone who feels indifferent or antagonistic. And a strong group of supporters is very important to ensuring that libraries have the funding they need. A library may gain more from a formerly delinquent patron who becomes a supporter than it would have by forcing that person to pay old fines. (Of course, this can be a politically touchy issue -- fines are revenue. We noted that it can take some courage and willingness to stand up for what one thinks is right to try to get superiors to agree to such a program.)

After concluding the interview, I had the chance to explore the building. The Newton library is very classy -- sharp lines, black furniture, white walls, red/rust carpet. The building was built in the 1990s, and it seemed well kept up, and very comfortable. It has a central atrium which extends up three floors, and given the propensity of such architectural features to cause echoes, I was surprised at how quiet the library was. There are plenty of windows affording pleasant views of the surroundings, and comfortable armchairs are placed in groups of two to four throughout the building. I felt it would be a lovely place to come and curl up in a comfortable chair to read or knit for a while. There were also tables and hardback chairs, of course, as well as study carrels -- something I haven't seen in great quantity in many public libraries. The building has an art gallery, which is a nice touch. In terms of physical layout, I was a bit surprised to find A/V on the third (top) floor. I would expect this to be a popular, well-circulating collection, and thus to be placed closer to the library entrance. However, when considering the physical space I'm not sure how easily it be put elsewhere in the building. The library doesn't have a teen room, but there is a YA area which is clearly marked with a colorful sign. I was pleased to see that an effort was being made to create a space especially for this population.

Overall Observations

Finally, here are some things that I noticed in both interviews.

I'll start with something that seems true in every public library I've become familiar with, not just these two: There is never quite enough staff. Everyone is busy, and as a result there isn't always time to get to extra things that might be fun or interesting but are not crucial. This issue particularly came up in relation to libraries' ability to do new things with technology; new technology has to be investigated, and if it is adopted then it becomes someone's responsibility to set it up and maintain it. Sometimes there isn't time to add this responsibility on top of all the others that librarians are juggling. I feel as though this issue is exacerbated due to the economy and the resulting budget issues nationwide, but it may always be a problem to some extent. There's always something more that could be done. It seems to me that there will always be a balancing act between old and new responsibilities when a library considers adding any new kind of service or programming.

Another commonality I discovered between the libraries was that at both, keeping track of user needs depends a good deal on informal practices, particularly the day-to-day interaction between users and staff. This is not to imply that other procedures don't exist. In some follow-up e-mails, my Newton interviewee described some of the more formal ways that the Newton library evaluates its programs and services, including questionnaires distributed to the public, a Teen Advisory Board, and paying attention to what's being said in literature in the library field. My program puts a fair amount of emphasis on more formal evaluation and research (we are required to take one class in research methods, and the importance of evaluation has come up many times); informal evaluative methods are not discussed as frequently. I think I'd like to know more about how different libraries integrate informal ways of evaluating into what must of necessity be a more formal decision-making structure in the administration. Ultimately, it seems that there would usually have to be a formalized way to collect and use these informal evaluations. I think that it would be useful to know how libraries do this -- whether there are a few typical methods or whether the ways in which this is done are more idiosyncratic.

Overall, these were great conversations with two interesting and engaged librarians, and I was grateful that both took the time to meet with me. I've got a lot to chew on as a result of these informational interviews, and I hope that I can take some of what I learned back to the classroom next semester to fuel discussions with my classmates!


* Just as a note, they have both read and approved the relevant portions of this post before I made it public. I have not used their names to protect some amount of their privacy.

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