SCRATCHING EACH OTHER'S BACKS
by Marylaine Block
Librarians sometimes complain that community leaders, reporters, and even citizens don't really understand what they do. As it happens, that's not a unique problem, but one that government agencies of all types also suffer from. Try this experiment: ask people to name ten services performed by their city and county governments and see how many can name more than police, fire protection, schools, and road maintenance.
Like libraries, city and county governments are eager to tell citizens about their services. Like libraries, they're frustrated at how hard it is to do it because news media rarely report on their work except when there's a controversy or spectacular failure. At the same time, there's plenty of media time devoted to vague grousing about high taxes and (unspecified) government waste.
Librarians are actually in a position to do something about this, and as people who claim the promotion of good citizenship as part of our raison-d'etre, we should do something about it. How?
We could offer a series of public meetings in which the heads of city departments explain what services they provide, at what cost, with what economic and quality-of-life benefits (increase in property values, decrease in insurance costs, the community's ability to attract new business, etc.), and how those services measure up against those of other communities. Department leaders could also describe the different means they provide for citizens to offer complaints and suggestions and apply for agency services.
The library would, of course, be one of the agencies given an opportunity to explain itself.
Such a series would be of great benefit to the citizens who attend, because each is bound to learn about at least one service they need that they'd previously been unaware of, and learn how to make their own voices heard.
But it would be even more of a benefit to the public agencies, a chance for them to present their cases in the inherently civil forum of the library building.
It would be an opportunity for government to be understood not as a financial black hole into which too much of our money vanishes, but as an agency that enhances and supports community life, and as the essential foundation upon which all other community functions build -- business, education, public health, and recreation. In such a forum, government officials could explain how they make budget decisions, how they choose which projects to support, how they plan for a future they as individuals may not even live to see.
Since we could reasonably assume that attendance would be limited, it would be incumbent on librarians to get permission from all parties to make recordings of the meetings. The library could then circulate them and make both the transcribed text and the recordings available from its web site.
Need I add that these forums would present numerous benefits for the library as well?
The first would be the opportunity for the library to make its own case.
The second would be the gratitude it would get from other agencies for offering them this opportunity.
The third would be the opportunity for librarians to talk to the heads of each and every agency and ask them how the library could help them solve their problems. Is there information these officials have a hard time finding? Do they need to spread a message to segments of the population who happen to be regular library visitors? Are there ways in which the library and the agency could work together on programming? Might the agency like assistance from technologically adept librarians in developing and testing their websites, or starting a weblog? Might its employees benefit from training offered at the library?
At this point, some of you may be saying, "Yeah, like we need more work to do. We don't have enough staff to do what we're already doing, let alone for that kind of outreach."
Well, why don't we have enough staff? Could it be because, whenever there's a budget crunch, the bloodletting begins, as every agency scrambles to defend its own turf, demonstrate that it matters more than any other agency? Could it be because, when that happens, a library whose abilities and benefits are poorly understood becomes a juicy, fat, inviting target?
Isn't it likely that if all the different agencies understand that the library is an invaluable resource and a partner that helps them achieve their goals, they won't thoughtlessly sacrifice its budget?
Promoting good citizenship is an admirable goal, which libraries should do for its own sake. However, doing a really good job of it just might, indirectly, be a profitable one as well.
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Life did not take over the globe by combat but by networking.
Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan. Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors. University of California Press, 1997.
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