Librarians have long been identified as intuitive trend watchers. “What we do well,” noted one NILPPA advisor, “is analyze the gaps in community needs. We have become known for that.”
As one of the most democratic of all public institutions, libraries are obligated to serve people of all ages, economic strata, education level, ethnicity, religions, and walks of life. It is therefore imperative that librarians are attuned to changes in the community environment. They have long used the community data that tracks demographic changes and increasing diversity, and have often been the “first responders” to major social and cultural shifts that require new services and the availability of new skills, technology and information. To be effective in this role, libraries have to stay informed of the community’s goals related to academic achievement, immigration, economic development, health needs, and other core issues so that they can align with them in their core work.
Librarians easily adapt to emerging needs. Rather than being threatened by the profound changes in how people access information through technology, librarians set up programs and facilities to teach people how to use technology more effectively. When unemployment skyrocketed, librarians responded by creating job centers, organizing the data and training that aided so many to search for new jobs. They taught users how to write cover letters, prepare resumes, acquire new skills, and reposition themselves to survive the depressed times. As complicated new government programs were unveiled, librarians became experts in enabling people to apply for plans offered by the Affordable Care Act, understand the DREAM Act, and even prepare their income taxes. As more parents joined the workforce, libraries opened their doors to students, providing afterschool programming and social activities in a safe environment. As immigrants settled into new communities, librarians reached out to meet their information needs. Over and over, librarians have demonstrated their “high antennae” for perceiving community needs and organizing responses.
These skills don’t just come with the job — they are part of librarian’s commitment to service and their use of community information. Several advisors spoke about ways to enhance this community sensitivity as an important part of the growing use of programming.
The ideas presented included:
- The development of advisory boards made up of a cross-section of the community;
- Outreach to specific groups as the opportunity to present special programs emerges;
- Outreach to organizations serving underrepresented groups; and
- Requests for a place at the table of community development.
It was further suggested that libraries might promote themselves as models for listening to the community and become places that other organizations seek out for information about changes. By assuming a more public role as the barometer of significant community needs, libraries could become even more essential to others who interface with the public interests, including museums, cultural institutions, city and regional governments, etc.
The NILPPA research framework should include opportunities to identify and analyze best practices in community outreach and information gathering to be shared with the field.
How well do you think your library knows your community?
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