Conversations about space at The Urbana Free Library

During the Fall 2011 semester, at the invitation of John Gehner (a former Urbana Free librarian), students from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science course “Introduction to Networked Systems” which I teach worked with the librarians at The Urbana Free Library to develop a redesign of the computer lab. After John left, I worked with new Librarian point on the project, Joel Spencer. As Joel, GSLIS student and TUFL volunteer Ryne Luezinger, and I work to writeup the lessons learned from the redesign of the 2nd floor computer lab completed last fall, I’ve been thinking a lot about the process that was used. Students provided the first pass assessment of what the change might look like Fall 2011. Those ideas circulated amongst librarians and staff for a while and then were revisited during my presentation at a TUFL in-service Spring 2012. I believe this helped build buy-in by the librarians and library staff. This opened up the door for us to conduct the surveys and focus groups with patrons and librarians. From there, a design was presented for further feedback from patrons and librarians. And even the use of tape on the floor to mark new furniture placement just before install was valuable to gain further feedback. Throughout, we made it clear this would be an iterative process and that we needed feedback from many different people, including those who embrace change and those who are more skeptical and traditional. In so doing, I believe this helped build buy-in by the patrons as well. But also the feedback from the skeptics and traditionalists was important in helping to assure we preserved important parts of the culture of the lab users while also leading a process of change. The followup surveys and focus groups were another important part of understanding what worked well and what might be done differently down the line. They also served to further instill confidence that this was an open process that valued and respected diverse input. Because of this approach, I think this opened up a willingness to embrace further change, such as using the auditorium on a regular basis to add additional creative teen programming like the fab lab and makerspace activities.

These experiences do demonstrate that opening up additional space in the library may ultimately be beneficial for library services to the community. The report Confronting the Future, ALA OITP Policy Brief #4 from 2011 ( http://www.ala.org/offices/sites/ala.org.offices/files/content/oitp/publications/policybriefs/confronting_the_futu.pdf ) lists four dimensions on which strategic plans will need to be made within public libraries. From everything I’ve seen, I think TUFL has a history of being as much about the community as the individual, and meeting and group work space will be a valuable asset in continuing this tradition. But as the responses from the recent weeding debacle are indicating, and as has been evident from a long history of developing prized and regularly used collections, the community values the collection and archiving aspects of the library, so TUFL can’t move to being virtual or just a portal to collections stored elsewhere and stay consistent with Urbana culture. Knowing how to proceed will take more dialog than has currently happened if it is to stay true to who Urbana has been and is while also helping to lead towards who Urbana will be.

From everything I’ve seen, the consultant guiding the strategic planning process used pseudo-participatory processes that ultimately led towards, or perhaps continued, a strong top-down approach that historically does not achieve effective buy-in and certainly misses hearing from critical voices who would provide a broader understanding of core values and culture that should be preserved even as change is championed to embrace future opportunities. I’ve heard from multiple sources that the consultant didn’t really open up true dialog and indeed mocked and in other ways quelled differing voices. My impression from the different things I’ve heard is that the consultant at best used a participation-by-consultation approach that research consistently shows, while more ‘efficient’ in the short term time-wise, is woefully inadequate in developing a truly beneficial solution for a community.

The use of the auditorium for creative teen programming has been amazingly successful. Funding from the university Fab Lab and an Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity “Eliminate the Digital Divide Grant” have helped provide mobile equipment, and the DCEO grant has helped fund a part time community ambassador who has provided important additional human resources to distribute the developmental effort with librarians. THESE bold steps have been first pilots into what is possible in community space. But moving forward, at a bare minimum I believe the new strategic plan needs to be treated as a first draft and a truly participatory process needs to be used to proceed to a new final draft. In so doing, it might also be helpful to create a set of use scenarios that would describe what the library would look like if different strategic plan versions were adopted and used to redefine priorities for the library. A new book I’ll use for the first time in my Community Informatics Studio course ( Hernon and Matthews, ed’s (2013) Reflecting on the Future of Academic and Public Libraries) is heavily rooted in use scenarios, but it’s something I’ve been encouraging students to create as part of their community projects for some time now. It helps begin to bring to light the full ramifications of proposed changes, can spot potential pitfalls and help to minimize negative impact while maximizing benefits, and overall can facilitate the so called “valley of despair” that comes with the process of change.

There are many exciting models around the country of just how central a public library can be if a careful strategic plan is developed and executed that respects and builds from a rich past while finding creative ways to embrace the future. But models are useless unless they are adapted, sometimes significantly, for the local context. TUFL has been innovative, embracing “the cloud” 20 years ago back when the local implementation was called Prairienet. It is embracing innovation today with programs like the new teen Makerspace and Fab Lab. It has taken a heavy blow following the consultant’s embrace of a heavily top-down approach. Agonizingly, a rich resource of the collection may be permanently lost. But I heard one librarian say ultimately there is reason to be hopeful a stronger library can result from the new dialog that has started. I’m inclined to agree if the librarians and staff can be retained and their voices once again valued, along with that of the community.

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