A few months ago, I walked past a public library displaying a banner that read: More Than Books. I wondered to myself, “What exactly does that mean?”
On the surface, the staffers who decided to put up the banner most likely wanted people passing by to know that libraries provide a variety of services that go beyond checking out materials. Perhaps they also hoped that if members of the community knew more about these services, they would perceive the library as a relevant institution. Yet you would have no idea what offerings their library has from that slogan.
These days, there is much pressure to show and market the relevancy of our work. What exactly does it mean to be relevant? We could say it means that something must have a bearing on the matter at hand. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to being relevant to our communities; what is important to one group of people may not be to another.
Further, relevancy cannot be achieved in a silo. Staffers must connect with the public to uncover community assets and service gaps before developing or advertising resources.
In most communities, for example, early literacy is considered a matter at hand. But not all children and caregivers have the same needs when it comes to early literacy. Library workers must ask questions of stakeholders to learn what is wanted at the current time and under the current conditions. Using these connections and this knowledge, youth services staffers can then design relevant services with stakeholders as part of the process. Without input from local communities, programs and services may be poorly attended or underutilized.
Staffers must connect with the public to uncover community assets and services gaps before developing resources.
A few years ago, a large library system in the Pacific Northwest started a sensory storytime program in several of its branches. At one location, the children’s librarian found that very few families who lived in the neighborhood, which has a significant Somali population, attended the storytime. She approached community organizations and businesses to figure out why attendance was so low.
The librarian learned that the immigrant families who lived near her branch did not have the same attitudes toward neurodivergency as people who had been living in the US for a longer period. Some didn’t know what autism was, while others held different views of behavior and socialization dynamics or preferred not to address the issue outside the home. The sensory storytime was not culturally appropriate and therefore not relevant to this neighborhood. After the librarian had more conversations with community members, she worked with them to create services that better met the early learning needs of the area. This included more traditional storytimes in languages spoken by the population of the neighborhood and opportunities to bring families together for informal learning and community building.
By contrast, codesigning programs with your community from the start—and prioritizing its needs early in the process—can lead to relevant and successful services. In 2020, youth services staffers at Austin (Tex.) Public Library teamed up with members of the Austin Youth Council to determine how to meet the needs of young people in the city and provide support for those who work with youth. What resulted was the creation of a priority dashboard that guides work on issues such as mental health, self-advocacy, civic engagement, and digital access. The dashboard reflects services that have been improved through the partnership while acting as a launch pad for both partners to continue this collaboration.
How do we show people that libraries are relevant? Sometimes this requires staffers to explain and reframe the impact of programs and services. But libraries will have a difficult time demonstrating the value of their work if these programs and services aren’t built in and with the communities they serve.