Participatory Service in the Hyperlinked Library

citizen_participation_medThe hyperlinked library model is, above-all, user-driven and the one element that makes this all possible is participation. I’m not talking about participation in the sense that ‘it’s everyone’s library – all are welcome’, but rather that everyone is welcome to participate, literally – in planning services, in evaluating services, and by being present and actively engaging with the library community.  As Casey (2011) points out, this is waaay beyond “public input.”  It’s not even about blogs or Facebook or other social media tools, UNLESS, those tools are engaging patrons in a bi-directional flow of information. It’s about a conversation, not an announcement.

So, we have the LA Public Library crowdsourcing the design of their new facility , libraries offering display space for people’s personal collections, libraries providing digital storytelling tools and maker spaces, tool lending, teen festivals, seed-saving, garden-creating programs- you name it, somewhere somebody had a good idea and it became a reality…at the library. @joleneck said it so perfectly: “If we build it…they may not come. If they build it, they are already there!”  

Lightweight Library Programming

In reality, however, we can’t go implementing every idea that gets dreamed up. That’s why I  appreciated Harris’ (2006) point about using  “lightweight library programming”. Go easy; try it out; don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Have fun with it.  Adapt and recover. Harris’ thinking aligns with Mathew’s Think Like A Startup ideas, but is a bit gentler, a skosh less less adventurous. Yet, anything sounds possible with this concept of “lightweight” – it takes the edge of trying something new.  

Perhaps he’s also warning us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  We don’t necessarily need a wholesale replacement of all services and systems. Find out what is already working and leave it alone. Similarly, the library doesn’t need to provide all the pieces to the puzzle, or shoulder all of the costs of a new program. Harris’ (2006) conceptualization of the library as a platform instead of sole provider, means that the library provides the space, and even more crucially, the impetus, for the program, but the rest of the community- patrons and partners-  can and should bring something to the table.  Remember, the magic comes from community participation. Just as the ‘sage on the stage’ model of education is faltering, business hierarchies are being blown flat, and authority structures of all kinds are morphing, so too should the library evolve away from being primarily a provider of free content; of operating with a top-down information flow.  Escaping that unwinnable situation means reinventing libraries into what Stephens (2011) calls “community based space focused on helping people.”

Helping Who?

Harris (2006) also talked about libraries being “above the level of a single patron” (paragraph 18). Here, he urges libraries to meet community needs in a way that doesn’t impact what was already working for the majority of patrons. This really hits home with me, considering what went down here today at the library. I decided to study at a nearby library because I had heard that it had some neat features, such as a living ‘green’ roof, a teen room, and interesting commons area. And it did. It also had a big hullabaloo. That is, everyone there today experienced a frightening situation. An elderly man left the library and was accosted by a young, and obviously mentally ill, patron who followed him out, shouting profanities and stopping just short of physically abusing him. The screaming insults were heard throughout the library. Mothers pulled their children close. I grabbed my belongings and looked around for an emergency exit. It was not unrealistic to expect gunshots.  In the end, nobody was (physically) hurt, but everyone was shook up. That poor old man will probably never set foot in the library again.

So, I kind of hate to bring up this subject when we were so nicely cruising along, but it fits. What are the limits of ‘helping people’?  A  consistent portion of public library patrons are mentally ill, many of whom are homeless and wind up at the library to escape the streets. These are full-fledged members of our community. We cannot close our doors to them, nor can most of us, turn a blind eye to the situation. To the extent that they are disruptive, problematic patrons prevent libraries from being above the level of a single patron, so to speak. But we cannot pick and choose our patrons- that’s what country clubs are for- so we must come up with a community-wide fix, or at least  a patch. In any event, I don’t think libraries can be saddled with too much social work. In the context of ‘service before content’ (Schmidt, 2010) wherein the value of a library is tied to its ability to positively impact the community as a whole, dealing with the homeless-in-the-library problem feels a bit like an unfunded mandate. And not the only one.  It is well known that the public library is turning into the unofficial point of access for an increasing array of eGovernment services (Bertot, Jaeger, Langa & McClure, 2006). In 2011, Libraries Connect Communities reported that that 96.6% of libraries helped patrons apply for or access eGovernment services (as cited in Bertot & Jaeger, 2012, p. 32). As early as 2006, Bertot and Jaeger found that government agencies were referring people to the public library for both access and assistance, wherein libraries were increasingly becoming facilitators of eGovernment. Perhaps this is our rightful role- to come in where the government left off, but we can’t do it for free.


Bertot, J.C., Jaeger, P.T., Langa, L.A., McClure, C.R. (2006). Public access computing and internet access in libraries: The role of public libraries in e-government and emergency situations. First Monday (Online), 11(9)

Bertot, J., Jaeger, O., & Sarin L. (2012) Forbes Folly. American Libraries, 43(9/10), 30-33.

Casey, M. (2011, October 20). Revisiting participatory service in trying times  [Web log post]. Tame The Web (TTW). Retrieved from

Harris, C. (2006, January 10). SL2.0: Synthesis 2.0  [Web log post]. Infomancy. Retrieved from ” href=”″>

Schmidt, A. (2010, October 25). Services before content [Web log post].Walking Paper (Reprinted from Library Journal, June 11, 2010). Retrieved from ” href=”″>

\Stephens, M. (2011, April 15). Stuck in the past [Web log post]. Tame The Web (TTW). Retrieved from

photo credit: <a href=””>opensourceway</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;


15 thoughts on “Participatory Service in the Hyperlinked Library

  1. I think it’s great that you brought up the homeless issue in the Helping Who? section. Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean we can avoid it. Whether we like it or not, this is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. And it needs to be addressed, although I don’t know how. The humanitarian in me thinks we should serve everyone, the 5’1″ woman in me doesn’t enjoy feeling physically threatened, and will actively avoid places where I might feel that way. Earlier in the semester I posted an article under Interesting Stuff, and I think it highlights this issue perfectly. It’s about the Boulder Public Library converting from a book place to a community space, and reads like a textbook example of what we’re studying in this class. But go look at the comments.. the vast majority of them are about patrons who won’t go there because of the homeless issue. And I have to agree with them that it has become really bad. The BPL is in an absolutely beautiful location, with lots of shade trees, a large but shallow creek running through that is great for dipping your toes in on hot summer days, and a walk/bike path that is simply gorgeous. 10+ years ago I used to spend lots of my free time there, now I hardly go, and never go without several other people with me, because it no longer feels like a safe place. So what do we do about this? No clue.

    1. BPL sounds amazing. Do you think you would be more likely to visit if you knew there was a public nurse or some kind of social worker on staff? Their (the nurses’) work would probably not have an immediate effect on the ‘public safety’ issue, but I think over the long term, it may help keep situations from escalating and that nurse would probably get to know the ‘regulars’ or at least have the training and the mandate to recognize potential problems.

      1. Honestly, probably not. It’s the outside area I tend to go for there, and a social worker at the library isn’t going to fix that. Really it’s unfair for these commenters to be blaming the library.. the city of Boulder should be doing something to both help the homeless, and keep the area safe. But because it’s the library property, the library gets blamed.

      2. Favorite line: “…officials always intended to make the surveillance program public, but they wanted to first see what types of behavior they would see when people didn’t know they were being recorded.” Wow.

  2. I like the comparisons you make between Mathews and Harris. David Weinberger also wrote about the library as platform in LJ:

    One of his first points – “open to all” – is wonderful but it brings out the issues raised here about transient populations and the fact that many urban libraries deal with serving the homeless. This is indeed probably the hardest nut to crack. It will be very interesting to see what it takes: partnerships with social organizations and a true presence of social workers in or adjacent to libraries, models we haven’t considered yet, etc. Some folks advocate for a dual masters degree for some professionals: MLIS and MSW.

  3. Utah actually has a really interesting program targeted at ending homelessness and it sounds like it’s working pretty well. I apologize if this got linked within this class earlier.. I can’t remember who first linked it to me, but I’m pretty sure I saw it on my Facebook page, not in here:
    Of course, this isn’t something libraries can do, but if our government would handle the issue better, it wouldn’t leave so many libraries dealing with it.

  4. @wderman– the Utah program is interesting. Reminds me of Singapore where there are ‘public housing’ skyscrapers everywhere. But that’s tiny, rich Singapore and this is the big, complicated USA. We’re like those huge lumbering multinational companies that have a hard time responding quickly; perhaps that’s why programs should be localized or at least at the state level- they can be more nimble. Thanks for sharing that example. It gives us some hope. Not that homelessness will end, but that it can be, perhaps, managed more effectively.

    @michael : I have heard of some examples of public health workers being on staff in the library…for example, my home town of Tucson, Arizona (Pima County Public Libraries – PCPL) employs a public health nurse at a number of their branches, winning the PCPL a spot as one of the Urban Library Council’s 2013 Top Innovators ( I had forgotten about that. A crucial part of the program is that they link out to the nursing program at UofA so that insures a steady flow of workers into the program. Again, another source of hope. Librarians have to get out of the stacks and into community partnerships. We need to make sure that this kind of stuff is covered in the MLIS curriculum…maybe it is?

      1. @stephenie – go Wildcats! I call Tucson ‘home’ but haven’t actually lived there most of my life. I went to UCSD, but my husband is an alum of UofA’s Optical Engineering program. Both of our parents and some siblings are still in Tucson, so we go there often. I have desert blood and constantly miss the dry air, big sky, and the smell of desert rain. What did you study?

      2. @tmicka The Optical Engineering program at UA is fantastic! I brag about it even though I wasn’t a part of it. Haha. I was a History major and I loved it. I miss Arizona. Especially the monsoons. *sigh*

  5. When I took LIBR 204 last term, we talked a fair amount about homelessness and who is “allowed” in the library – can we set limits on who gets to use it? It’s an issue that seems to come up again and again. And in the participatory model, it almost seems to become an issue of who gets to participate, whose voice gets heard, and whether or not we should start setting limits on that as well.
    I will admit – I have a lot of library cards, but there are certain libraries I avoid unless I really, really need a book and they are the only place that has it, because of the general environment (homeless people sleeping in the stacks, for example). I feel guilty saying this, but it does make me kind of uncomfortable. But even so, I still don’t think restricting access to the library is the solution.

    1. @matthea – that’s interesting that you guys spent some time on homelessness in LIBR204; I don’t remember touching on that at all in that course. Each course section takes it’s own direction based on the various classmates and discussions, which is great.

  6. The issue of the homeless population in libraries is certainly a tough one. On the one hand, libraries are public institutions and they should be available for anyone to use. Then there are those who just ruin it for everyone. When I was getting my undergrad at the University of Arizona, there were plenty of instances with homeless men participating in sexual misconduct at the library. Not exactly something anyone wants to be around. So I think that libraries should still have codes of conduct that people have to abide by because, after all, it’s a PUBLIC institution and certain behaviors are just not acceptable when they infringe upon other people’s rights. It’s still a tough situation because you don’t want to create policies that target any population, but libraries still need to be safe…and hopefully welcoming.

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