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Internet Librarian 2013 – Building a Participatory Library

Matthew Hamilton

Matt presented on the programs of his library, the Anythink Library in Colorado.  We’re here to refine and refresh the services we bring to our communities.  Increasing participatory opportunities is consistent with the changed expectations from the public.  Retailers are changing their approach to bring people into brick and mortar stores – e.g. Converse offering concerts.  This works for libraries and museums as well.  We need to keep the different generations engaged.  As much as people like socializing online, there’s been a push-back toward creating genuine in-person experience.  By supporting patrons’ opportunities to express themselves and contribute dialog to the public sphere, we stay true to our values of access to information.

Instead of thinking about how they were going to build and lay out new buildings, they thought about how they would create an experience for their users.   Matt recommends reading The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon.  The 5 stages of engagement are a useful construct to use in examining how institutional experiences measure up.  Library models of participation—Library 2.0, library as conversation, library as platform.  A majority of Americans used a public library in the past year – 59% used the physical library or the library website or both.

The Digital Public Library of America is attempting to bring to life the idea of library as platform.  Matt wants us to think about diversifying our participatory experiences—taking them from the digital realm and into the physical realm.

There are three categories of public participation in scientific research.

Contributory projects have community members sharing information.  Example: people writing valentine’s cards about someone they love and posting them up on a wall in the library.  Another example: they asked a question—Would you risk jail time to defend your favorite book (yes or no). People voted with tokens.

Collaborative projects involves community members having an influence over the outcome of the project.  Example: They have an outdoor classroom, providing the space and most of the materials.  The kids decide what to do with it.  The library brought in goats to eat back some overgrown areas of land.  This accidentally turned out to be a participatory experience as people asked the goat handlers questions.

Co-creation participation.  Example: community gardens provided by the library—dirt, water, space, plot sign-ups.  After that, though, the community members form teams, set policies, organize group buys and watering schedules.  This met organizational goals of increasing access to healthy foods and building a sense of community.  Each garden runs differently because it’s decided by the local users themselves.  Another example: National Dance Day.  Although initiated by a library staff member, most participants came through word of mouth.  They didn’t know what the outcome would be but provided the tools.

A project intended to be contributory but that ended up being co-created.  They make experience zones—small interactive exhibits (think of it as an unstaffed program).  The zen garden they set up became a sandbox play space—people brought in their own beach toys.  Their CompuGirls program teaches girls various technology and software skills and learn about social justice.  The library provided the space and promoted it, but the CompuGirls staff designed and offered the program.

The library revamped their space to add group collaboration rooms, technology space, etc.  At a branch where they don’t have space for a permanent installation of this type of space, they have “the studio” which offers teens the opportunity to participate as much as they want with the software and technology available.  They had a Grammy night where teens who’d made videos, music, etc. were given awards.

For participatory services to work you need institutional commitment — budgetarily and for staff to be trained and willing to work with the community in new and different ways.  At Anythink they build from day one a set of expectations that staff will be open to experimentation and their customers’ curiosity.  Staff and supporters are handed a great poster that begins–”You are not just an employee, volunteer, or board member.”  There is still staff reticence to new ideas.  When they opened their first digital media lab staff were intimidated and afraid.  At their annual Tech Fest staff development day they divided into groups based on interests and worked with mentors to produce content and showcase it at the end of the day.  A spirit of play helps staff meet customer needs with a light heart.  The organization also becomes more flexible.  People crave experiential learning.  Look at your organization’s goals and form participatory library experiences to support them.  The library must be committed to increasing participation.

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