Communicating with our users

Here in Halifax, Nova Scotia, our public library is completing a planning programme for a new central branch.  These sessions have given members of the community an opportunity to give their opinion on not only what things should be in the new building,  but also on how libraries in general support the communities they serve.   More and more people, I think, now understand that a public library has for a long time been more than just a book depository; the plans for the new central library demonstrate the city’s belief in public libraries as community anchors of arts, culture, and learning.  Public librarians in Halifax, I think, may be feeling loved right now. (You like me, you really like me.)

Just up the street from the future site of the new central library is my place of work, one of five universities in Halifax.  On our internal Yammer system, librarians, IT staff, and teaching faculty at Dalhousie have been taking part in conversations about the nature and mission of the library.  It’s the sort of group that lets us talk about what’s going on within the profession and on campuses across North America, and it lets us react, debate, and think about what we’re doing now and where we could be going in the future.  Yammer is a great service – you should open an account for your library if it doesn’t have one yet.

Yammer is a great internal communications channel, but it doesn’t help us gauge our core user group (students, namely).  Yammer’s purpose is not to help us reach out, of course – it’s there to help us brainstorm amongst ourselves.  All the same, since HPL’s last consultation occurred last week, I’m been thinking quite a bit about how well our library is communicating with its own core user group.  Our arts and social science library, the Killam Library, has a well-used Questions and Comments board – students even respond to our responses.  We have Facebook pages and a Twitter account.   And we talk to students at the reference desk and we have conducted our own LibQual surveys.   But when it comes down to it, I don’t think a Facebook page or a Twitter account cuts it.  People use Facebook to talk to their friends – not to stay in contact with their academic library.  Comment boards are used when people are driven to speak due to a spectacular or god-awful experience – they don’t capture the everyday mood.  And LibQual surveys, as strong as their samples and methods are, take forever for us to code, decode, analyze, and then put into action.

What am I getting at here?  I’m talking about real communication, people.  The people of Halifax have fallen in love with Halifax Public Libraries all over again because the organization developed interactive community consultations that captured the mood of the city.  I think most libraries could learn a thing or to from HPL when it comes to user engagement.  That doesn’t mean we have to hold large consultations, though.  What matters is not the size of the consultation but that the organization gives their core user group ample opportunity to speak and be heard.

Mary's excellent communication skills makes her a top-rate librarian (click to see video).

We can improve in this area, starting today, at the reference desk.  Let’s not be afraid to ask questions to our students at the end of the reference interview, and let’s not be afraid to keep track of their answers.   There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t ask our users what works or doesn’t work for them at the library, and there’s no reason why we can’t track and tabulate these numbers the same way we do with the number of directional or instructional questions that are asked in a shift.

Ask yourself what you’re doing to actively communicate with the people you serve, and ask yourself how you’re capturing what they say and turning it to good use.  Asking our students questions will not only give us context on their perceptions of the library, but nurture the relationships we build with them every day.

Halifax Public Libraries : Building Communities

Last Thursday (10 June 2010), I had the pleasure of attending the first of five planning sessions for a new central library in Halifax.  Downtown Halifax has required a new library quite a few years.  Why is this?  The Spring Garden branch holds the system’s

  • government documents (it’s a depository library)
  • main business outreach unit
  • main reference unit

But the 50 year-old building fails horribly when it comes to:

  • Accessibility (stairs everywhere! few elevators!)
  • Community meeting space (1, maybe 2 rooms?)
  • Children and YA Services – wedged into the basement level (The branch does wonders down there, but a better space is needed)

The good news is that Halifax Public Libraries has already secured the land and funding for a new downtown branch, and it has already contracted the services of two architectural firms to build a new library just across the road from the current site.  The great news is that HPL and the architects have committed themselves to real civic engagement through the entire design process that will culminate in a proposed design in November 2010.

Photo Courtesy of HPL
The Library and Community Involvement

Thursday’s meeting shows us that community involvement is HPL’s priority in the process.  Rather than hogging a microphone and telling the public what they’d like to do with this potential space, librarians and architects turned the session over to the assembled group and asked them to answer conceptual questions like “What can the Library do for you and what can you do for the library?”.   Each time a new question was raised, attendees were asked to move to a different table in order to discuss things with a new group of people.  This process organically developed themes from the ground up since the public brainstormed on their own accord about what a new library needs and what a city needs in a library.  In the end, the public was able to tell the architects, designers, and librarians what was important to them and what the new building will require to meet their vision.

HPL rejected a top-down approach to surveying community needs and all parties came away better because of it.  Although a top-down approach likely would have determined similar themes such as accessibility, sustainability, community space and learning centers, the actual process used on Thursday night reminded the community that they are the library system’s primary stakeholders.  Giving the floor over to the public (I’m part of the public on this one) showed us that our input is not just desired but is formally required before the architects can go forward.  It reminded us that if libraries are the civic centers that nurture the growth of communities through collections, services, and programming (and they are), then it is imperative that the community take a lead role in the design process.  Halifax Public Libraries isn’t just paying lip service to community engagement on this path toward a new central library.  Rather, they’re determined to have the community involved in every step along the way.

Photo courtesy of Halifax Public Libraries
Real civic engagement

Speaking as a member of the public on this issue, the meeting reminded me that community action and awareness is a real thing at the library.  It’s real easy for people to think about municipal government as nothing more than the organization that clears roads in the winter and maintains parks in the summer.  The library, however, is an arm of the municipality, and it’s the part of the municipality that’s in the trenches working with people and for people every day to make their lives better.  What we saw at the HPL Planning meeting last Thursday was real evidence of Halifax community building by, with, and for the community itself.

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