The Case for Community-Led Librarianship

by Christina Wilson, Head Editor, INALJ Alberta

The Case for Community-Led Librarianship

ChristinaWilsonIn a recent presentation by John Pateman, CEO, Thunder Bay Public Library, I learned how public libraries are positioned to become more relevant by adapting community development approaches to library service. Along with his colleague, Ken Williment, Halifax Public Library, Pateman has authored Developing Community-Led Public Libraries: Evidence from the UK and Canada (Ashgate, 2013).

Pateman is a compelling and knowledgeable speaker who is passionate about libraries truly addressing community needs. This is the path to sustained relevance, particularly in the face of changing perceptions on the role of the library in society. The traditional library brand has been equated to books and other printed sources of information and is now challenged by the eBook revolution, among others. Pateman argues of the need to discover new roles that allow libraries to continue to be relevant to society, our professional selves, funding bodies and the public.

During his talk, Pateman outlined a clear and practical case for applying and adapting community development approaches to public library service, supported by examples in which library staff developed new service models to achieve the goals of relationship building. Staff gained additional skill sets and approaches to make local library systems relevant to community-identified needs. Several examples were given to demonstrate how this approach was successfully applied to the full range of community members – from the socially excluded and underserved, to lapsed users and even active library users. He argues that, by making public libraries more inclusive and accessible, library workers improve services for all members of the community.

Pateman emphatically pointed out that the community led approach to library service must be implemented holistically and systematically to be successful. He argued that it’s not a rebranding exercise but requires a deep cultural commitment from library staff, management and even, library boards. This kind of change is not easily achieved in all settings, and so must be planned and implemented incrementally and with a great deal of evaluation. For instance, community-led libraries require library staff to be truly collaborative among themselves and with community members who need to be engaged in identifying, developing and implementing library programs and services. Evaluation must occur throughout the entire process to ensure forward movement and to identify and celebrate areas of success.

Pateman’s thought provoking talk compelled me to read the book so that I could learn more about the work leading up to the development of this model and the practicalities of implementation.  The book did not disappoint. It is practical, clear, easy to read, and full of evidence and examples. It’s practically a blueprint for establishing a community led model of librarianship and strongly recommended to those interested in implementing this approach. Progressive library systems looking to ensure the continued viability of services can utilize and adapt this approach to fit the specific context of their local community. This ensures that library services are driven by community need – expanding beyond those already receiving services to also include those with the greatest needs. The authors also detail the challenges to be aware of when implementing the community led model in specific library settings.

Developing Community-Led Public Libraries is an important book for public library practitioners because it presents another way to show the library’s value to society. Community led service is a compelling future for enduring library services that could help libraries build resistance to constant budgetary pressures. The book is also valuable for new librarians and those seeking employment in public libraries because it introduces a new value system and language, based upon of community-led librarianship. Pateman and Williment posit that the bright future for public libraries is based upon inclusivity and meeting community needs. These are lessons worth learning today.

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