CLA Session Notes – "Systemic Barriers to Library Use: Libraries Engage the Socially Excluded"

These are my notes from probably the best session I attended at CLA (okay, it tied with Michael Geist's session on copyright but those were two totally different things.  Or were they?) 

To put it in perspective, I wrote maybe a page in my notebook at most sessions I attended.  I took six pages at this one. 

This session featured:

Annette DeFavri, Coordinator of the Working Together: Connecting Libraries to Communities Project, Vancouver Public Library, BC

John Pateman, Head of Libraries, Lincoln County Council, Lincoln, England

Brian Campbell, Director of Systems and Special Projects, Vancouver Public Library, Vancouver, BC

Background on the Project from OLA Website
(CLA didn't have this much info in their conference blurb and I couldn't find a web site specifically for the Working Together project):

“Working Together” is a demonstration project funded by Human Resources
and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), Office of Learning Technologies
Community Learning Network Initiatives (OLT), that is intended to run
for a period of three years, with annual funding approval.

There are four library systems participating across Canada: Vancouver
Public Library, Regina Public Library, Toronto Public Library and
Halifax Public Library. Within the three years, the four libraries will
develop and test models of working with marginalized or economically
disadvantaged communities in order to identify what these communities
expect from libraries and to determine approaches of what and how
services may be best delivered; as well as demonstrate ways that
libraries can transform how they work with these communities by
providing experience, models, tools and a philosophy which encourages
working with these communities as an important part of library service.

In Toronto, the project is being carried out in the Flemingdon Park and
Thorncliffe Park communities where a high percentage of families live
below the low income cutoff measure and where many new immigrants
settle to begin to look for employment, education and English language

The poster session will share the experiences of the first year of the
“Working Together” project: community asset mapping, meeting the target
communities, developing programs and partnerships, planning for the
next phase

Here are the notes I took from each speaker's presentation:

Annette DeFavri
– Why is this project needed?  Socially excluded people tell them that libraries are for people: who read, who are smart, who can use computers.  When they do come to the library, they don't want to  interrupt staff who always look busy, they feel that there's a “high school or secret club vibe” that they're not a part of, they have anger towards institutions, and that they often don't feel welcome because they're not welcome. 

(I'm man enough to admit that I teared up as she went through the responses of people as to why they don't use the library.  This would be the first of many times during the presentation that this happened.)

– a lot of these barriers are rooted in librarian's professional culture
– fines are a huge barrier – libraries should look at ways to eliminate or forgive them
– even bigger than the fines issue is that people simply don't feel comfortable discussing fines or coming in to talk about them. 
– librarians need to assess “library context” for what they do but also the “community context”
– librarians don't have a culture of change, we don't listen to community, patrons
– unequal relationship between staff and patrons.  Often staff don't wear name tags so we know their name but they don't know ours.
– food and drink policies can be an issue for people who carry their food with them. 
– library culture is currently “collect and protect” but should be “community information providers”
– we need to remember that without people, there are no libraries
– instead of arguing about whether to call them “customers” or “patrons”, we should call the people who come into our libraries what they are – “neighbours” (was this a point from the Stephen Lewis speech that she reiterated?  My notes aren't clear.) 
– librarians need to take risks everyday
– Annette is starting a new CLA interest group on “community access” (may not be the exact title.)  If you're interested in joining, e-mail me and I'll pass along her e-mail address. 

John Bateman

– heads and hearts are the barrier, we don't think and we don't feel
– self-criticism of our profession is hard
– libraries are used most by people who don't need them and least by people who need them the most
– it's a fundamental shift in how we operate but we should move to a “needs based” library service, not equal to all because that never works.  (Someone asked in the Q&A how we can maintain our neutrality by being activists like this and Brian Campbell responded that there is no such thing as neutrality and that by saying you're neutral, you're admitting that you're part of the status quo that causes these problems.)
– “needs based” means we treat people differently based on their needs
– “needs based” policies can work in any library anywhere
– we need to actively engage local community.
– improving things for excluded people will improve things for all patrons

– 20% of patrons are active, core users who want more of the same thus the status quo.  Of this 20%, 47% want free books, 26% want space savings, 20% want trusted source/help
– 30% are passive/lapsed users who use library infrequently or who used it once but no longer do.  To reach this group, there was a “Love Libraries” campaign in the UK which showed this group wanted better selection, facilities, author events (although the study was sponsored by publishers so maybe it had a bias?)
– 50% are irregular or non-users, don't read beyond library needs, we need to do more with outreach services (schools, bookmobiles, sales or giveaways) which are all traditional services, just taken to people
– need to differentiate: “community outreach” works in the community, “community development” works with the community
– overall, librarians need to shake-up our culture of comfort and see world thru eyes of disenfranchised

Brian Campbell

– Brian starts with a moment to acknowledge the street person who was murdered a couple nights ago just as the conference was getting underway.  Who was he?  Did he have a family?  Did he use the library or was he turned away?

(cue more tears, not just me but probably most of the audience.  We'd seen the gathering of other street people to leave flowers and console each other when we&#39
;d gone on the pub crawl.  Did he have a family?  Obviously.  Did the library turn him away?  Who knows – some definitely would have.)
– how can we become relevant to people like this young man?
– there's a corporate invasion that's changing the language of libraries
– libraries serve middle class traditionally even though they are the people who can afford books, they can afford to pay for commercial information services (ie. home internet access)
– poor are afraid of us because of our rules, culture, environment
– lack of pictographic signs in libraries is a major issue that a literate person rarely considers
– we need to give understanding of how libraries work to people who don't come to them.  Think how foreign would it be to enter a library for the first time?  What is that desk for?  Can you take any book you want or only some?  Do you need a key to use the washroom?
– libraries get lumped with schools, prisons and other unfriendly institutions
– think what institution we most resemble when you walk in the door?  At least at his library, the one it most resembles is a prison.  What's the first thing you see when you go through the electronic gates at the front?  A guard. 
– our economic system demands poor people, it's not through their individual choice or character that they are poor
– we need to think how they see us, not how we see them
– we also need to realise that this process is ongoing and can't have an end point
– we need a human element, not just focus on numbers
– we need to lose our fear of different/other people
– library schools need a Community Development course
“Working Together” – December 2005 Feliciter article has more information and background about the project

If anybody who was at the session has more information or can think of anything I've missed, feel free to e-mail me and I'll add it.  Sessions like this are exactly why I think the CLA should have transcripts of every session available after the conference.  There were no less than three other sessions I wanted to go to at the same time as this one and it was literally a random pick that made me choose this one.  Many of my colleagues who wanted to attend this session didn't make that same choice. 

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