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What We Talk About When We Talk About Public Libraries

Posted By Hugh Rundle On October 23, 2013 @ 6:30 am In Uncategorized | 6 Comments

former East Ballarat Library

East Ballarat Library (c/o raaen99 / Flickr)

In Brief

The early founders of free public libraries intended them to achieve particular outcomes: a place for working people to access the wisdom of the classics, to socialise and to become more informed and educated citizens and avoid spending their time idling, lonely or drunk. There is, however, little incentive for public librarians to undertake the research required to test whether these outcomes are being achieved. In this article I explore the state of public library research in the Australian and international context by highlighting the low participation rates of public librarians in peer-reviewed article and conference paper publication. I then consider the incentives and disincentives within public library management structures that inhibit research by public librarians. If we are to manage public libraries in an effective and scientific manner, public librarians must be encouraged to undertake rigorous research and public library administrators must clarify the particular outcomes they are seeking.

When you’re a librarian in Melbourne, the figure of Redmond Barry looms large. An Irishman trying to build a life in respectable nineteenth-century London society, after his father’s death Barry found himself on the other side of the world just in time for the proclamation of the new colony of Victoria and the gold rush that followed. Barry was instrumental in the establishment of the University of Melbourne, the Victorian Parliamentary Library and the Melbourne Public Library (now known as the State Library of Victoria). Barry was a complex man. He was keen on the forms of British high society, snobbish in his attitudes to literature (he refused to stock fiction in the Melbourne Public Library) and very much a man of his time in his attitude to women. At the same time, Barry became well known for representing Aboriginal defendants at court (usually for free), presided over the acquittal of the Eureka rebels, and his Melbourne Public Library was one of the first free libraries – open to any person over the age of fifteen years at no charge –  in the world.1

Barry, a very proper British Empire conservative implementing radical new social experiments, exemplifies the complex birth of free public libraries. Whilst many in the USA look to Thomas Jefferson as the father of modern public libraries, the reasoning behind the provision of free public libraries in the English speaking world is in many ways best understood by examining the arguments in Britain and her empire in the mid nineteenth century. The British Public Libraries Act 1850 was passed just a year before Redmond Barry convinced the Victorian colonial government to build the Melbourne Public Library and the Parliamentary debate highlights both the reasoning behind the establishment of public libraries and their long history of political controversy.

Liberal Members argued that the provision of public libraries would “afford the working classes in our populous towns proper facilities for the cultivation of their minds, and the refinement of their tastes in science and art”, and that if workers remained uneducated and uninformed they were more likely to be whipped up into a mob. Conservatives argued that the bill would simply lead to working people (and landowners) being taxed so that the idle middle classes could enjoy reading newspapers and books in their ample leisure time, or alternatively that the library buildings would be used by radicals as ‘lecture halls’ to spread sedition.2

As for Barry, he explained his push for the establishment of public libraries in a speech at the opening of the Free Public Library of Ballarat East several years later in 1869:

The hours of labor reduced to eight3, leave to artisans, tradesmen, and other dwellers in towns a very large portion of the remainder of the twenty-four virtually unoccupied. The high rate of remuneration for every kind of labor places within the reach of all, means to indulge in the sensual excesses so destructive to health, strength, and reputation, temptations to which are so numerous on all sides.

How is this leisure to be disposed of? In the public-house? the singing-hall? the dancing-saloon? which hold out seductions somewhat more dangerous, methinks, to honest labor than those presented by a library; or in listless inaction, in weary unoccupied solitude? That cannot be. While man is a social animal society he must have, and better a thousand times that he should he should seek relief from the tedium of unemployed hours in the improving conversation of worthy authors, dead or living, than in the debasing, brutalising communications from which it is so difficult otherwise to escape.

It was this fear of the working class either rising up in rebellion or sinking down into depravity that ultimately drove the establishment of free public libraries. When it seems that every month brings another opinion piece proclaiming the death of libraries, complete with comments from those arguing their taxes should not be spent on such things, we should remember not only that this argument is at least 150 years old, but that the point of public libraries was never just the cheap provision of books.

The men involved in the mid-nineteenth century debates on free public libraries intended these institutions to achieve certain aims – refinement of tastes and manners, education in practical skills, reprieve from loneliness, an increase in sobriety and, it appears, an avoidance of singing-halls and dancing saloons. Thirty years later, Carnegie had much the same aims.4

So the question is – are we meeting these goals, or their modern equivalents? Are we doing our jobs well? Are we measuring our performance against these goals, or are we actually measuring something else? What is it that we talk about, when we talk about public libraries?

Read-only culture

Recently, as part of a project to develop a workplace learning network, my library ran a survey of staff so we could understand what professional reading and learning staff were already undertaking, and their level of interest in publishing professional texts.5 Of the librarians who answered the survey, nearly all of them listened to, read, or watched professional texts, but only about half were interested in producing them. We don’t currently have further data from staff about why they’re interested in reading but not writing, but this survey result is not an outlier in the wider world of libraries. When it comes to professional development and professional literature, public librarians have been underperforming for many years.

Consider to what sort of librarianship the most successful journals are dedicated. The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) currently publishes two academic journals – Australian Library Journal (ALJ) and Australian Academic and Research Libraries (AARL). That is, one generalist library research journal, and one dedicated to academic and research libraries, respectively. In 1988 Auslib Press began publishing Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services (APLIS), but this publication ceased in 2012 with the retirement of AusLib Press founder Dr Alan Bundy. I contacted Dr Bundy to ask for some background on APLIS. He noted that

For the 25 year life of APLIS … Australia was one of the very few countries with a public library journal at a critical juncture in the development and recognition of public libraries as the most used and valued community provision. The other countries were the US, UK and Scandinavia, of which only the US still has a public library journal.6 This can be seen as either a failing of the public library sector or as a sign of its maturation, with public librarians being more willing to now publish in general library journals.

But are public librarians really more willing to publish in general library journals? On the face of it, the answer does seem to be a qualified “yes”. My quick analysis of articles7 in Australian Library Journal over the last five years shows that around 30% were on a public library theme and 40% generally applicable, with articles centred around school, special, and academic libraries making up the remaining 30%. This is certainly encouraging, although it is still the case that academic and research libraries have their own ALIA-published journal in addition to ALJ. When we talk about public libraries in peer-reviewed academic articles, it’s not to a large enough extent to justify our own journals.

Showing up

The real difference between public and, particularly, academic librarians can be seen at conferences. ALIA figures show that there are 27,500 library and information workers in Australia and 7,500 of those work in public libraries.8 That’s roughly 27% or at least one in four.

In Australia, there are several national library conferences, but the two big ones are both biennial – the VALA conference and the ALIA Biennial. At the 2012 VALA conference public librarians presented at four out of forty-five sessions.9 This means less than nine percent of presenters were from public libraries, compared to twenty three percent of attendees. At the 2012 ALIA conference public librarians presented at six out of forty sessions, or fifteen percent10.

It might be argued that these conferences are just not the type that attract public librarians. Perhaps public librarians prefer to share information and research in a less formal way? Maybe we just go to different conferences? It is true that events like Victoria’s annual young adult literature conference Reading Matters are important to the calendars of public and school librarians, but events like this differ in their scope and aims. At Reading Matters there are no professional research papers presented – it’s a valuable event, but it’s more like a Writers Festival than a professional conference. The problem is not the style of the conference11, but the content. Meeting Morris Gleitzman might be fun and inspiring, but it doesn’t really enlighten us about whether lending his books to kids achieves the goals of our library services. When we talk about public libraries at Reading Matters, we talk about what children might enjoy about certain authors’ books. We talk about what those authors try to do with their stories. We talk about how we respond to those stories ourselves. We don’t talk about how we have tested our strategies for ‘relieving the tedium of unemployed hours’ for young adults, using replicable processes.

Access

Even when we’re wanting to find out about research, public librarians simply don’t have the same access to academic journals as those who work in universities. I have been unable to find any hard data on this, but an understanding of the average public library work environment reveals the potential problems.

Many library services subscribe to hardcopy journals for their staff to read. These journals are then routed around the organisation to staff who wish to read them. Hardcopy journal routing is inefficient – bottlenecks can develop if particular staff members are tardy with their reading, the staff at the end of the routing list receive the journal weeks or months after it is issued and once it moves on staff can not easily go back to an old edition.

Most public libraries also subscribe to at least one or two journal aggregators such as Proquest Research Library or EBSCO’s ABI/INFORM Global. The budgets of most public library services do not stretch nearly as far as academic libraries for this sort of thing, however, so inevitably public libraries provide access to fewer publications. Universities also provide access to a much wider range of journals, providing access to a wider pool of research from related fields.

These factors then affect the crucial matter of familiarity. Whilst in theory all public librarians are highly skilled and knowledgeable with regard to the use of academic journal databases, in reality the proportion of public library patrons who require or ask for assistance with these products is quite low. Inevitably public librarians have less of a focus on them than other knowledge such as the state of current popular fiction, how to navigate through ever-changing library ebook services, and recommended picture books for potty training. Public librarians are not looking at journal databases, talking with academic students and academics, and discussing academic research topics every day like most academic librarians do. This difference in work environments can push the idea of research to the back of public librarians’ minds.

Looking for our car keys under the street light

When I first discovered there was a journal called Evidence Based Library and Information Practice I thought it was a pretty weird title. After all, what other kind of library and information practice could there be? Later it struck me that the reason we don’t need a journal called Anecdote Based Library and Information Practice is that we see it happening around us every day.

Public librarians meet a lot to discuss issues, ideas and programs, but we don’t objectively measure the effects of our programs as well as we could, and, as we have seen,  rarely share them in a scientific way. This is not to say that public librarians don’t think about why we do what we do, but the incentives are skewed towards easily understood metrics – ‘bums on seats’, door counts, total loans – rather than the more difficult to measure but more useful research around how our services actually affect people’s lives. Horowitz and Martin noted that this problem even extends to the journal papers that are written. In their report from the ALA 2013 Conference, ‘The librarian as practitioner/researcher: a discussion,’ Horowitz and Martin remark that,

To improve research, librarians must start with research in mind. Too often, a librarian collects data to solve a problem or to answer a question, and then decides to write and publish an article.

Consider the questions asked in Victoria’s annual public library statistical report. This report is used for many purposes and is generally seen as a ‘like for like’ comparison of library services in the state. Each year, libraries self-report on things like the number of items in their collection, service population, loans, website hits and expenditure. These figures are (usually) fairly black and white – the number of items in your collection is what it is. The report records things that are easy to measure, but it does not, and can not enlighten us about whether any particular library service is achieving the goals elucidated by Redmond Barry and other public library founders. It has little to say about the ‘improving conversation of worthy authors.’ It tells us nothing with regard to any particular library service’s success overcoming listless inaction, or weary unoccupied solitude. Even if Barry’s goals are not to your taste, and you feel that fighting the scourge of dancing saloons is a little passé, setting target numbers for their own sake is of little value to any worthwhile ambitions. If the number of database searches increased this year, is that because more people are finding information that improves their lives, or is it because the interface changed and people need to perform more searches to find the information they want? If your wifi usage increases because more people are sitting alone at a study desk losing their savings at online poker, is that a success? This isn’t library science – it’s accountancy.

Ironically, the comprehensive research that does measure the broader effect of library services is usually undertaken by non-librarians. When the Public Libraries Victoria Network (PLVN) decided to fund its Libraries building communities report it engaged New Focus Research, a research consultancy. When the Dollars, sense and public libraries report into the financial benefits of libraries was commissioned, SGS Economics did most of the work.12

These reports are excellent documents and have been used by Victorian public libraries to make their case for funding and compare their practices to their peers. They are widely considered to be ‘landmark’ studies, either the first or one of the most comprehensive of their type, and have been cited in papers calling for more effective metrics for library service provision. The fact, however, that they both had to be commissioned by a sector lobby group, rather than being undertaken by library professionals or academic researchers as a matter of course, is telling.  Whilst there are a few academic researchers with a professional interest in public libraries, there are simply not enough of them, and they cannot work effectively alone. Public librarians need to be actively involved in the research, pairing their knowledge of day to day public library practice with the research methods expertise of full time academic researchers. When we talk about public libraries, our data often comes from other professionals.

Carrots, sticks and culture

Ultimately, these barriers are not insurmountable. The most important reason for insufficient research on public libraries and what we do is a lack of appropriate incentives.

At a basic level, we might consider who makes decisions about funding, and who are the ‘customers’ of each library. In universities it is senior academics and academic boards full of people who (presumably) value research and science that make the funding decisions,13 and students and academics who are the customers. In public libraries it is Councillors or board members drawn from the wider community who make the funding decisions, and the general public who are the customers.

Local Councillors are mostly concerned with keeping their constituents happy, so the question is not necessarily “what is the most effective library program and management strategy” so much as “what is the least-cost operating model that keeps local residents happy?” In universities, schools and corporations there is generally agreement from all stakeholders on the purpose of the organisation. The library’s role in supporting that purpose should therefore be relatively clear and universally understood. “We provide value to the organisation by helping achieve the goals of x and y” is the ‘elevator pitch.’ Therefore the library has a vested interest in proving that it achieves the goals of x and y.

In government, particularly local government, there is often disagreement about the purpose and priorities of the government itself14, making the library service’s position ambiguous. “Our services are popular” becomes the safer ‘elevator pitch.’

The structure and incentives within public libraries therefore differ compared to other libraries. If you asked the average public librarian why they don’t write up and present conference papers they would probably tell you they are ‘too busy’. What this really means is that they have stronger incentives to do things other than undertaking and writing up research. ‘Too busy’ happens because there is no incentive to produce research and no sanction for failing to do so. Worse, given that supervisors and managers operate in the same environment, there may even be sanctions (implicit or otherwise) against spending time researching, publishing and presenting findings. In my own state of Victoria, the Local Government Act requires local councils to publish details of all interstate travel by Councillors and employees – details eagerly read by local news media looking for stories about junkets and government waste. No prizes for guessing what impact this has on the ability of local government employees to attend national conferences held outside the state.

Public libraries also tend to have a relatively flat staffing structure, with little opportunity for promotion (Particularly if one has no desire to be a manager), no ‘tenure’ and no concerns about ‘faculty status’. The Research in Librarianship – Impact Evaluation Study undertaken in the UK in 2011, for example, showed that nearly 60% of public librarians in the study indicated that ‘engagement with research’ was not rewarded in the formal career review process in their workplace. This was in marked contrast to those working in academic environments, and even in special libraries. In an organisation based upon research such as a university or professional firms, research is more likely to be encouraged, rewarded, or even required.

This lack of incentives explains the final problem for public library research – that of support and encouragement. To again take Australia and ALIA as an example, ALIA has a Research Committee which aims to assist the creation and dissemination of library research. Currently the make up of the Committee is six academics, two academic librarians, two school librarians, one librarian from the State Library of New South Wales15 and two members in other information related roles, both with extensive academic backgrounds. None work in public lending libraries – likely because of the same disincentives stopping public librarians from participating in research. Inevitably, their backgrounds mean that these Research Committee members will be drawn to academic and, perhaps, school libraries when considering what research to encourage. Through no fault of their own, the committee members are unlikely to have a strong understanding of the work undertaken in public libraries and what research opportunities may be present. They are also unlikely to have deep connections to the public library community.

The research assistance available from the committee and ALIA is also heavily skewed towards things that would assist academics. The ALIA Research Fund is useful for those needing funding for a research project, but for public librarians what they actually need is regular paid time off from their day job, rather than cash. This is not a problem unique to Australia or ALIA – Micah Vandegrift also identified it in ‘Rewards and recognition in libraries’ which mostly considered the American experience.

The relationship of public librarians to professional research seems to suffer from a positive feedback loop. Since so little research seems to be of benefit to their daily practice, librarians from the public library sector are less likely to prioritise reading and contributing to the body of professional research. Because public librarians make up such a small proportion of those producing library science research, the body of research in turn continues to concentrate mostly on other areas, particularly academic library practice. And since so little research seems to be of benefit to their daily practice…

When we talk about public libraries, what we talk about should be the missions and goals of our libraries, and how we are achieving them (or not). When we talk about public libraries, we need to be able to do so with evidence. When we talk about public libraries, it should be more than just talk.

If the corpus of library science research is to be relevant to all libraries, it needs to reflect the reality within all sectors. University graduates and Professors are a poor model for the broader population, so any research based on their needs or reactions is only partially applicable to practice in public libraries.

Science and research is all about learning and improving things. Without high quality, professional-level research taking place by and for public libraries, we rely more on guesswork and heuristics than real evidence, and potentially miss enormous opportunities to improve and enrich the lives of our communities.  Thinking about research questions is also likely to help us to think about why we provide library services. As Aaron Schmidt reminded us just last week, when we talk about public libraries, we should focus on people, not tools.

Now what?

There are a few things we can all do right now to increase the amount of public library research:

Develop missions with measurable outcomes

Redmond Barry was pretty clear about the mission of public libraries. Barry, and the other early proponents of free libraries, wanted a place for working people to access the wisdom of the classics, to socialise and to become more informed and educated citizens and avoid spending their time idling, lonely or drunk. Most public library missions these days are much more vague than that, which makes measuring our success in meeting them difficult.

Collect better data

Much of the data collected by public libraries is about our collections and resources – how many, how expensive, how old? It’s time for us to do more to quantify how people actually use our services.

Investigate and use Open Access journals

There is an increasing number of open access library journals.16 Most of these allow readers to subscribe via RSS, making keeping up to date easy. Public library managers can encourage staff to access these journals without any extra cost to the organisation.

Make friends

Academics and professional organisations should actively encourage public librarians to take part in joint research projects conference papers presentations with academics and librarians from other sectors. A partnership between practitioners and academics can only benefit both, and will help  both to normalise research within public libraries and increase the scope of academic research.

Play favourites

Conference organisers could consider a quota system for presenters to ensure the public library sector is well represented. Consider ways you can assist librarians who may be unfamiliar with the process of writing a conference paper, or provide incentives for those who have never been to a conference.

Make time

Public library managers and directors should consider whether you can make space within your librarians’ schedules for research, and consider making it a measurable requirement of their jobs. This could be a variation on Google’s famous “20% time” – perhaps “10% time” – to perform or write up research projects could be both offered and required as part of all professional positions.

Network

The idea of a ‘Personal Learning Network‘ (PLN) has been embraced by many librarians and educators. This concept can be expanded to assist more hesitant staff to embrace the opportunities of using online sharing tools to find relevant research and ideas by creating a ‘workplace learning network’ based on the same principles.

Show off

Setting up your own institutional repository, or partnering with a local university to use theirs, can showcase the work that your library staff are doing and prove that your work has impact. The Parliamentary and National libraries of Australia, for example, publish staff research papers on their websites – there’s nothing to stop local public libraries doing the same.

Conclusion

For our public libraries to remain relevant and useful, the way they are managed and the services they provide must be based on evidence and relevant best practice. Everything we do must be considered in the light of our stated purpose and mission, and whether it gets us closer to achieving that mission or purpose.

Currently, there is too little incentive to scientifically test whether our practices achieve our goals. Public library sector representatives and professional organisations need to consider how they can encourage more public library research by academics – whether by way of grants, research funds or other mechanisms. Public library directors and managers should consider whether their long term interests and goals are better served by giving space to their staff to pursue controlled studies and other research. Conference organisers should consider what mechanisms they can use to encourage papers by public librarians. Academics should consider widening the scope of their research papers to include public librarians in their research. Public librarians should consider whether we can really call ourselves professionals if we are not testing the value of what we do against the aims of the institutions for which we work. If we are merely measuring our performance against targets, rather than goals, our communities will not be best served.

Redmond Barry, WIlliam Ewart, Andrew Carnegie and even Thomas Jefferson were not interested in public libraries for their own sake. All were, in their different ways, social reformers. When they talked about public libraries, they were interested in the ends they thought the provision of public libraries could achieve. If we are to know whether we are achieving the ends these men hoped for, more work needs to be done to identify the barriers to public library research, and how they might be overcome.

Get on that, Library Science.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

A huge thanks to Constance Wiebrands for graciously agreeing to review this article, to Dr Alan Bundy for politely responding to my impudent enquiry, and to Lead Pipers Brett Bonfield, Ellie Collier, Emily Ford, Gretchen Kolderup. Without their wise and helpful advice this article would be a half-formed and poorly articulated thought bubble. Of course, if you think it still is, that’s entirely my fault, not theirs.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READINGS

ABC Radio National. Redmond Barry: visionary or scoundrel. Big Ideas. Broadcast 25 June 2013. http://hugh.li/l/5U

ALIA Conference 2012 program and abstracts. http://conferences.alia.org.au/alia2012

Barry, Redmond. Address on the opening of the Free Public Library of Ballarat East. 1 January 1869. http://hugh.li/l/5W

Bundy, Alan; private correspondence. 2013.

Carnegie, Andrew. Wealth. The North American Review. Vol 148, Iss 391 (June 1889) pp654-665 http://hugh.li/l/5X

Cruickshank, P, Hall, H and Taylor-Smith, E. Enhancing the impact of LIS research projects. Oct 2011. http://hugh.li/l/5Y

Horowitz, L., & Martin, J.. The Librarian as Practitioner/Researcher: A Discussion. Evidence Based Library And Information Practice, 8(3), 79-82 (2013) http://hugh.li/l/61

House of Commons debate 13 March 1850. Hansard vol 109 cc838-50. http://hugh.li/l/5V

Huysmans, Frank & Oomes, Marjolein. ‘Measuring the public library’s societal value: a methodological research program’. IFLA World Library and Information Conference. August 2012. http://conference.ifla.org/past/2012/76-huysmans-en.pdf

Public Libraries Victoria Network. Annual survey of Victorian public libraries 2011-12. http://www.plvn.net.au/node/18

Schmidt, Aaron. ‘Focus on People, Not Tools’. Walking Paper. published online 14 October 2013 http://www.walkingpaper.org/6000

VALA Conference 2012 programme. http://www.vala.org.au/vala2012-conference-programme

VALA Conference 2014 brochure. http://www.vala.org.au/vala2014/vala2014-SE-brochure.pdf

Vandergrift, Micah. ‘Rewards and recognition in libraries’. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. 25 Sept, 2013. http://inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2013/rewards

 

You might also be interested in:

  1. You can learn more about Barry’s extraordinary life in this excellent podcast from the ABC’s Radio National []
  2. Given that it was just two years after the 1848 revolutions across Europe, this concern was hardly unfounded []
  3. The eight-hour working day was introduced in Victoria in 1856 []
  4. Regrettably information regarding his opinion on singing-halls remains incomplete. []
  5. I’m using ‘texts’ in the literary theory sense here []
  6. I believe Dr Bundy is referring to Public Library Quarterly here []
  7. Between 2008 and October 2013 ALJ published 26 articles about public libraries, fifteen about academic libraries, 12 about school or special libraries, and 34 which were either generically about librarianship or were did not fit any of these categories. These numbers do not include the special 2011 anniversary edition which was entirely filled with re-published articles from earlier volumes. []
  8. This is slightly ambiguous, the public library figure is FTE from 2010-11, the other is unclear []
  9. Not counting vendor presentations or keynotes []
  10. Not counting keynotes []
  11. Reading Matters is way more fun than the ALIA Biennial []
  12. Admittedly this study was an economic one, outside the expertise of most librarians []
  13. At least in terms of how money is spent within the university – obviously overall government funding is a different matter []
  14. Hence ‘politics’ – one need simply glance towards the recent US Federal Government shutdown to observe this phenomenon in extremis []
  15. In most Australian states these are non-lending public research libraries []
  16. You’re reading one right now. []
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