I’ve been thinking a lot about community. It’s another concept that frequently shows up in library discussions. Libraries exist to serve their communities, and in turn, communities support their libraries. This seems pretty simple. Every community is different, so every library engages with its community in its own way. I work in an academic library. Our FTE, the fact that our professors focus more on teaching than research, the unique proclivities of our student body, our policy for non-college users, and many other factors determine how we go about our work.
Yet, I can’t help thinking about the other communities I work in. Every librarian is a member of a professional community with its own practices, expectations, and ethics. Academic librarians also live in academia, another kind of community that extends beyond the local characteristics of their particular institution. Each of these communities can challenge the others, sometimes in obvious ways and sometimes in subtle ways.
Lots of examples of these challenges come to mind. Should an academic library use natural language on its website or in its signage? In a public library, that might be a no-brainer. It’s not quite as straightforward here. What is the right balance between the professional ethics of intellectual freedom in collection development with the research strengths and political inclinations of the institution one works at? The obvious answer is that intellectual freedom overrides everything, but we all know that we have to make choices due to requests, budget, space, and time. Here’s another one: if one college brings in therapy dogs for stress relief during finals week, should we too? The benefits are apparent, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for us.
The examples could go on and on. Many of the difficulties libraries of all kinds face coalesce in the fact that they actually serve multiple layers of communities. (Sometimes there is fragmentation even within one of those communities). How do we deal with that?
As in so many other instances, dialogue is key. Within each of those layers, librarians should be in dialogue with the community. The back and forth is essential, because each side gains understanding that way. Speaking with people is important, but a significant component is placing competing ideas in a conversation of sorts. Ideas in relation to other ideas gain context. That context is what will help us make decisions. Once again, I have a specific example. At my library, we started a focus group made up of student workers. They do a variety of things, but the most important is serving as a sounding board for many of the things the librarians want to do. The librarians, with their ideas gathered from the profession or academia, can gain the necessary context from another of our communities this way. And it has been immensely helpful as we have looked at our website, policies, programs, and signage. Things that look one way from a professional point of view look another way from a student user’s point of view. But that’s not all. We have that back and forth at work. The students also learn about the librarians’ perspectives. They learn why some ideas are not feasible or desirable. And all because we were able to talk with each other.