Why you should be thinking of your library patrons as an audience

8 May 2011

In my last post I talked about eBooks.  There will be more on that later, particularly addressing some of the systemic and economic questions.  Today, I'd like to explore some ideas for expanding the traditional roles of public libraries.

Last week there was a lot of discussion in Australia about Lindsay Tanner's new book, Sideshow: Dumbing down democracy.  Personally, I found the book a little disappointing, mostly for the reasons outlined in this piece from The Drum, but also because it didn't really add anything not already said over at Possum's Pollytics or Grog's Gamut.  The main thrust of Tanner's book, however, is undeniable - the Australian media's reporting of politics and government, in common with their colleagues across the English-speaking world, is becoming increasingly useless to the general public. We are not given thoughtful analysis of policy or discussion of ideas, just an endless cascade of 'gotcha' interviews, dissection of  opinion polls and baseless leadership speculation.

So what does this have to do with public libraries?  Well, I've been thinking about what a pro-active "library and information service" (an increasingly popular term) might look like.  As well as Tanner's book, last week the long-awaited Dollars and Sense report into the economic impact of Victoria's public libraries was released.  You can follow the link to see  why we get $3.56 back in value for every dollar invested, but the interesting thing for me was looking at the charts showing on what patrons and non-users of libraries wanted to see libraries spend more resources.  Patrons mostly wanted a broader range of material, faster.  Non-users interestingly wanted libraries to spend more on promoting their services - possibly just after learning of all the services they provide.

Thinking ahead, this suggests we might like to think about a successful library in the near future being one which:

  • is prepared for the impact of mass proliferation and use of eBooks and other electronically-distributed information & recreational media.
  • markets its services and facilities in interesting and effective ways.
  • constantly explores and experiments with new and effective ways of providing high quality and reliable information & creative stories to its patrons, or what may increasingly be considered its 'audience'.

Ebooks is something we looked at briefly in the last post, and I'll continue to post on it in the future.  For now, let's simply consider it in terms of future libraries being organisations that deal mostly (but not exclusively) with non-physical information containers - a library without books. Before you start banging the table in outrage, I'll start by stating that I think the Newport Beach model is a road to nowhere and an example of what happens when people who, (to borrow from Oscar Wilde), know the 'price of everything and the value of nothing' take control.  A library without books is perfectly possible, whereas a library without librarians is like a surgery without a surgeon.

What we might like to consider is a service that looks like Melbourne's Wheeler Centre.  The Wheeler Centre came into being as a consequence of Melbourne's listing as the second ever UNESCO City of Literature.  The Centre isn't a collection of books - we already have plenty of those, which was the reason for the listing in the first place.  What the Wheeler Centre does is host conversations, lectures, workshops and other events centred on exploring ideas and stories.  Melbournians like this sort of thing so much that there's also the popular Melbourne Conversations program run by Melbourne City Council.

Perhaps you're looking for something a little 'harder'?  Data rather than philosophy?  Maybe you're just trying to understand the connections between various corporations, or you've lost track of all the billions of dollars your government is spending and want the sort of quick and reliable explanation that our modern news media seem incapable of offering?  Well, say hello to Information Is Beautiful - home of the Billion Dollar-o-gram.  A pro-active library service wouldn't wait for patrons to ask for this sort of information - they'd produce it themselves and then throw it out into the world via online channels (and maybe even a nice big poster inside their buildings for more traditional among us).

The problem of information in the twenty-first century isn't necessarily access, although there are still plenty of problems there - look at the problems with Freedom of Information policies and laws worldwide for starters, and a future post will also be looking at copyright.  But even with those restrictions most people are drowning in, if not information, then certainly content.  For many public librarians staffing the reference desk, it's just as common to be asked to recommend books on a particular topic, or simply 'a good read' as it is to be asked where to find a particular piece of information or a particular title.  There's no special reason why those recommendations need to be restricted to hardcopy or to books.  Sites like paper.li provide a neat way of viewing social media link content on the topic of your choice, but mostly it's just a popularity contest in much the same way Google organises link order - often useful, but not always revealing.  Exciting, pro-active and locally-focussed public libraries will sort and disseminate easily understood presentations of information relevant to their patrons and local area.  They might, in fact, start to look as much like ProPublica as the Wheeler Centre.

A few days ago Fairfax, Australia's only serious competitor to News Corporation, announced they would be outsourcing all of their sub-editing for the two main mastheads The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.  As Mic Looby noted, Fairfax has given up on journalism and is now only interested in content.  For decades now newspapers, and certainly magazines, have simply been vehicles to sell audiences to advertisers.  With the advent of the world wide web, audience could suddenly be tracked by story and the downward spiral accelerated once editors realised an online 'paper' mostly full of stories about paedophiles, football and Lady Gaga would attract far more 'clicks' and 'eyeballs' than a painstakingly researched feature article on the pros and cons of a particular government policy.

So we have the 'Sideshow', and we have the 'death of print', and in the UK and USA we have a lot of public libraries losing funding and staff at just the time they could be evolving into something even more positive for society that they already have been for the last several centuries.  With enough courage we could see a return on investment much greater than $3.56 per dollar.  You want high quality local information?  Forget the local paper - get down to the library.