“Recognize the social, cultural and economic dimensions of information use.”
When a library opens its doors, to whom is it beholden? While there are as many answers to that question as there are libraries, we can use some broad brushstrokes in response. Obviously, a library is beholden to its backing institution, be it a city government, school board, or a University’s regents. Secondly, many libraries could not function without private donors. These individuals, philanthropic organizations, and “Friends” groups therefore merit some credit or special regard. The unfortunate outcome of this exercise is that the regular patrons of a library – be they city residents, collegiate or grade school students – can come in as #3 in the algebra of importance.
But if a library is to be vibrant, to be a living part of its community or institution, if it is to truly fulfill its purpose, this is the most important group to engage. With library executives generally on point to deal with political dilemmas and fundraising issues, it is often up to the front-line staff — the reference and access services librarians, the paraprofessionals, the clerks and pages — to set the tone and make the decisions that will inspire an active community relationship. In order to find the best ways to create or maintain a strong community engagement, the staff on the library floor must consider the social, cultural and economic factors of information use.
The Social Dimension
Librarians are responsible for ensuring that their institution meets the needs of its users in a variety of ways. To the community, a library is more than access to books and media, or even internet access. It can be a focal point for community involvement and opportunity. In smaller towns, the library may be one of few open, public buildings for community gathering. For urban neighborhoods, the library can be a haven against the volume and traffic of the street.
Information professionals need to develop an understanding of the demographics of their user-base in order to properly serve their constituency. Correctly channeled, this information allows library staff to turn their institution into a community’s “Third Space” (after home and workplace).
I recently considered questions of architecture and how it affects services and the social use of libraries, in the changing context of San Francisco’s Ortega Branch library (recently demolished; soon to be rebuilt). I submit my blog post on the subject as evidence of my recognition of the social dimensions of information use.
The Cultural Dimension
Inadequate library service to disadvantaged communities is nothing new, particularly to ethnic minorities and immigrants. Early public libraries were not concerned with providing access and materials to non-English speaking minorities. In researching the history of the San Francisco Public Library, I discovered that the 19th century iteration of the library carried no materials at all in any Chinese dialect, despite the 1870s San Francisco population being ¼ Chinese. Given the cultural divide of that era, it’s not particularly surprising information. However, far more surprising was my discovery that the Chinatown branch of the SFPL didn’t start collecting Cantonese and Mandarin language materials until the 1970s.
Since then, the Chinatown Branch has done a marvelous job of making up for lost time; it contains one of the largest public library collections of Cantonese and Mandarin materials in the world outside of Asia. This unique collection not only draws nearby residents, but also pulls in Chinese-speaking patrons from all around San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay Area. As a result, the Chinatown Branch has both the highest usage and circulation numbers of any SFPL branch. This marvelous success story is an example of how a branch library can meet the cultural needs of its community. It demonstrates how focused services can strengthen a library and its ties to its local population.
Questions of cultural issues and language barriers to information use also affect academic libraries. When I took LIBR-230, Issues in Academic Libraries with Professor James Schmidt, I analyzed a study on academic library reference services to English-as-a-second-language students. The study revealed that the test patron had an unfortunately high rate of unsatisfactory reference inquiries. At a University setting, where all students purportedly have the same access and privileges at the library, it is imperative that efforts are made to offer equal services regardless of student background. While it is not necessarily possible to have librarians fluent in every language spoken on a diverse, international campus, it is possible to provide all librarians special training that will assist them with reference inquiries in which the patron has only a limited use of English.
I submit my critical look at this study as evidence of my understanding of this reflection of societal aspects of information use on the University campus.
The Economic Dimension
At their best, libraries are a great economic equalizer. Public libraries, in particular, are key to disenfranchised communities as a means of free materials, digital access, job-search assistance, and community networking. It is imperative that public librarians provide equal access and service to the complete spectrum of users. Reality, however, can make these ideals hard to accomplish. Since libraries can have marginal budgets, often only libraries in affluent areas have all the resources they need to truly engage with their community. Libraries in less affluent areas frequently have to do more with less.
Even libraries with sufficient means can encounter community pressure that makes equal service to all a challenging proposition. In my interview-based paper titled “A Tale of Two Neighborhoods”, first submitted as evidence for Competency B, I related the difficulty faced by San Francisco’s Park Branch Library, on Page Street in the Haight-Ashbury District, in appeasing wealthy homeowner associations while still reaching out to the area’s substantial vagrant population.
This paper also compares the issues faced at the Park Branch to the community outreach efforts at the Chinatown Branch. Therefore, I submit that paper again for Competency C, as it addresses both economic and cultural aspects of information use.
Exhibit C-1: Living Cities, Living Roofs and Living Libraries (blog post on The Pinakes).
Exhibit C-2: Assignment 2, Critical Notes | Available upon request
Exhibit C-3: San Francisco Public Library Branches: A Tale of Two Neighborhoods | Available upon request