Having recently returned to public library work, my librarian heart is filled with joy when I witness daily the interactions between people in an information-rich environment. To see people alone or in groups, with or without help from staff: browsing, reading, typing, thinking, relaxing, engaging, talking, working. Using every chair and computer in the library, finding the sunny corners or the quiet nooks, spending time or simply picking up or dropping off books. Multiple uses, a variety of people, and limitless possibilities.
And I am delighted to see how staff light up when they relay stories about a particularly meaningful patron interaction — stories that demonstrate how one person can make a difference in the life of another person. I’m talking about more than helping people find the information they needed — which is, after all, a library’s core service and immensely valuable. But it’s also the person who helps a mom with screaming children check out her stack of books quickly. It’s the person who assists with downloading an ebook, connecting online or engaging through social media — supporting that access to the information that people need. It’s the person who is happy to listen to what someone thought of a book they are returning, sharing reading recommendations. It’s the friendly greeting that lets a person know there is someone in the library who is happy to see them today, someone they can ask for help if they need it, someone who makes them feel welcome.
And we want our library members to always feel welcome — because the library is not just there for them, it belongs to them. We want them to see the library as the place where they can pursue their dreams, where they can learn, and share what they know with others. Where they not only have a voice, but can find a place where they can do what they need to do to build their own knowledge — whether that’s an opportunity to engage with others or simply a quiet safe place to read and work.
Libraries are in the sharing business. We continue a strong tradition of sharing resources — books and more.
But in this current context — this globally connected information economy where content has never been more plentiful and accessible, where people can be easily overwhelmed with the tsunami of information, when people are feeling more socially disconnected, despite the hyper-connectedness of our world — our role is evolving to a more active one to ensure our communities can participate in the new connected economy.
This new role of libraries supporting community’s participation in the information economy is a transformative one. It represents dramatically innovative change of libraries in response to changes in society. Comfortable with change or not, libraries need to adapt to the evolving needs of our communities. The library as we know it is changing.
In supporting knowledge creation for the community, it’s our job to facilitate connections and conversations. And sometimes those conversations start with a simple smile, or assistance with a photocopier. Sometimes they start by simply providing a safe haven. Because conversation, learning and knowledge-building are about human connections and trusting relationships.
What does this mean? That every interaction counts. And given that work with people and institutions can feel messy and uncontrolled, our work is not only important, it can be a real challenge. Those of us who work behind the scenes need to support those who work with the public as much as possible, to ensure their environment runs as smoothly as possible so they can focus on their work with people. All resources that can be diverted to the “people work” must be prioritized over “working with things.”
I’ve often thought that “library science” is a misnamed discipline. Or at least the term presents only part of the picture, for there is more art than science to our work when you see the work as being about people. Yes, there is science to managing the processes, ensuring the work runs as efficiently and effectively as possible — but all of that work is in aid of the human side of libraries, and making a difference in people’s lives. And that takes relational trust.
I was reminded of this recently when reading a New Yorker article by Atul Gawande. Gawande, for those who may not be familiar with his work, writes about systemic changes in medicine. His book, Better, is arguably the best book on changing a system.
His July 29 New Yorker article, Slow Ideas: How Innovations Spread, looks at the difference between good ideas and innovative practices that spread, and those that haven’t. He states, “To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way.”
Gawande has spent a lot of time studying how successful medical innovations have spread. His insights boil down to relational trust. He writes, “Technology and incentive programs are not enough. ‘Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,’ wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.”
Gawande sums up with this: “Human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change. People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change.”
Exciting times we find ourselves in as librarians who create value for our community, knowing that the library belongs not to us, but to our community. And that it’s our job to share generously and support our community and ourselves — one person at a time — in learning and living in the information age.
Every human interaction counts.