Thursday’s Improving Society Question

On page 129, Dave talks about libraries and agenda, and having a clear purpose in mind. From my own experience working in a public library, I can say that many people who use the library see it as simply being there to serve their needs, not as an institution with a purpose and agenda. Should libraries have an agenda, something to work toward, or should they be developed by the community in response to the community’s needs? If libraries do need an agenda, how do librarians remove their own biases to make sure they are best serving the needs of the public?

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  • Anonymous

    “Should libraries have an agenda, something to work toward, or should
    they be developed by the community in response to the community’s needs?”

    We might ask if these should be considered separate things. If serving community needs is the goal, developing an agenda would be the planning that goes to help realize that goal. I think many organizations feel it best to have such an agenda devised by a group of library professionals and informed by community voices, as opposed to entrusting the task entirely to the community itself, which could be an overly difficult effort to organize. If done well, though, the agenda the library comes up with should still be plan to better serve the actual needs that the community expresses and experiences.

    Moving into the second question, though, opens up some larger questions as to whether all that is actually possible. Lankes spends considerable time addressing whether the often cited goal to be as unbiased as possible is actually a pursuit worth striving for, or if instead librarians should be intellectually honest about the shared values and biases they (and their communities) might have and how those biases should be handled in the context of different situations.

    How do you feel about these approaches? If one concedes that true objectivity is impossible, is it still worth trying to come as close to that unreachable ideal as possible? What are the potential benefits or drawbacks of this approach? If taking the approach of intellectual honesty, wherein biases are rationally examined for potential benefit or harm in different contexts, what difficulties might arise (on a personal, organizational, or communal level) in doing so? Could such an approach lead to both more difficulties and more benefits than the more absolute goal of objectivity?

    • Anonymous

      I think you’re right that the library’s agenda should be about serving the community’s needs.  While people can never be totally objective, I think it’s worthwhile for librarians to try to be as objective as possible when making decisions on behalf of the library and its members.  Some of the difficulties in that process can be recognizing confirmation bias.  Librarians should make sure that when they consult people for opinions, they’re not just having conversations with people they know will agree with them. 

      I think the best approach is for librarians to be very self-aware in recognizing their own biases and knowing how those biases affect the community (the rational examination you talk about).  It may also help librarians to keep some sort of evaluation method for any major decisions they make: even just a short check list to examine why we’re choosing what we’re choosing.  We’ll never be unbiased, but we can keep our biases in check so that they don’t negatively impact the community.

      • Matthew Gunby

        So, devil’s advocate for a minute here, because I have honestly heard these arguments made and while I have some opinions on them, I would like to hear if anyone else has any thoughts they would like to share.  Is the library’s community: the entire geographical community, the community of taxpayers, or the community that uses the facilities?  The first option seems the most likely, because a library should be all about democracy. 

        The second seems initially, in my opinion, the most distasteful, but I don’t think we can discard it easily.  In a philanthropic endeavor, many would argue the donors should have a large say in what happens.  As was brought up in another chapter (or another class) libraries are not public property, so their relationship with the local government and local taxes is not as direct as other public facilities.  Would it be easier to defend a library’s position if it were public property? 

        Finally, the last one seems to be too exclusive: isn’t it the desire of libraries to get the involvement of their entire community?  Yes, but… assume an academic library has a fairly eclectic selection, but finds that only history students (yes I seem to be fixated on history at the moment) are visiting the library.  When the collection is updated the option becomes available to update the history collection or include more poetry and fiction (yes this is a false dichotomy, but I am trying to flesh out a point), some might argue go with the latter and sell that idea to the English majors to expand their involvement in the library, but isn’t this punishing those who use the resources for a hoped benefit to the library?  You can argue both are paying tuition, but doesn’t that return you to the previous argument? 

        We keep considering the desire to limit bias, but I’m not sure that bias is necessarily a bad thing.  It is a biased view that minorities should have the same rights as the majority.  It is a biased view that people should have access to a vast array of information regardless of their socio-economic status.  These are very strong biases that I hold, and I will work towards them even if they impugn the biases of my community.  Absolutely realize some biases are harmful and ought to be mitigated, absolutely realize the needs and desire of the community you represent, but also realize that even this community may be partially your own construct, and that is okay as long as you are willing to change your viewpoint if the situation necessitates it.  

        • Marie

          I would just like to applaud Matthew for this incredibly in-depth answer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

        • Anonymous

          Hypothetically, it’s possible that the English majors weren’t using the academic library because it didn’t have enough literature (or the literature was outdated).  In that case, getting more literature could be more about making the library accessible than about punishing history majors.  I think that defining a library’s community based on who’s using it is too exclusive because it ignores the fact that there may be potential library members who aren’t using the library because it doesn’t serve their needs in any way.  Academic libraries are a good example to use for this argument because their community is easier to define than other libraries.

          I think in most public libraries, the answer is some combination of the first two options, in part because the geographical community and the taxpayer community are mostly synonymous.  I don’t think libraries should be restricted to members of those communities (although I understand why budgetary restraints sometimes make this necessary); however I think when public libraries are looking to what the community needs, they should look to the geographical community. 

          It should be interesting how these issues affect digital libraries.  How do librarians ascertain who is part of their community in a digital space?

          • Pamela Espinosa De Los Montero

            What about exposing your community to different perspectives outside their community. In other words, inviting material into your collection that was neither requested nor reflects your community’s members?  In an urban population you may have a great deal of diversity in your community, but in another setting you may not.  Will your collection solely reflect the members within it or can your collection bridge, in Lankes terms, “a conversation” to other communities?

            I just thought of this because I feel that a good library exposes you to things that are both within and outside your identity and knowledge.

            As in Molly’s point, I wonder if the community will be limited by neglecting to include materials for members that are not as active or not even present?