Crazy or brilliant? Libraries thinking outside the box

October 21, 2011

Yesterday I attended the Illinois Library Association Trustee Day conference.  Great programs–really inspiring and informative.  I was particularly struck by the program entitled “Technology for Trustees.”  This was less about how trustees can use technology, and more about how your trustees can support new and exciting ideas.   Below are some examples of how this has happened at two libraries in the Chicago area. 

The program was presented by Toby Greenwalt and Mick Jacobsen at Skokie Public Library, and Anne Slaughter of Oak Park Public Library.  Skokie does a thorough job with social media and pushing information to its patrons, having a full-time person who monitors and manages this information. It puts a chat box on many of its pages, including on each catalog search page, to outreach to their patrons at the point and moment of need.  Skokie also has a really cool Digital Media Lab that has a variety of technology (video, audio, various software) for free use by its patrons.  For example, teens come in and make rap videos, and self-employed graphic artists use their software to do their freelance work.  Oak Park offers “petting zoos” of technology–staff can touch and play with these devices and become an informed source to assist their patrons with troubleshooting and set up of their personal devices.  There was also discussion of assisting the local business community by offering similar “petting zoos” for business leaders, either at the library, or in their business offices.  Each of these programs offer staff and the community the ability to learn new skills and gain confidence in a quickly changing technology world.

These are just a few great examples of thinking “outside the box” regarding how libraries can serve their communities.  Libraries have always been places to creatively explore–many an inventor has had their “a-ha” moment from reading and exploring in the library.  As digital media becomes a more  important part of our everyday lives, libraries can and should step up to assist with this transition. Many people, particularly older individuals just getting started with social media, feel comfortable with their library and librarians, and we can capitalize on this good will by being instrumental in teaching these technologies and offering free and safe places where our patrons’ creativity can run wild.

The message to the trustees was to be willing to think ahead and creatively, and be willing to try new ideas by supporting these initiatives.  Don’t be forced into an old way of thinking, and don’t assume you know what patrons want without action to find that out.  Beginning a new initiative does often mean more work for staff, and can take an ongoing investment, but the benefits for the staff, community, and library itself may well outweigh these initial outlays. 

What types of “crazy” ideas do you or your staff have for your library?  Are there any that you can begin to develop, perhaps using a business plan format, that could be viable for the upcoming year?  Can you shift some budget from print materials or journals to fund something like a “petting zoo”?  When you think about your patrons, what are the consistent messages you are getting (explicit or implicit) that show a lack of service on the part of the library?  How can you fill that gap?

Great ideas often begin by sounding impossible.  Cultivating your trustees or other public officials, showing them how these services benefit your community, can make these ideas possible.  Your public will thank you.


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