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Power to the People : Libraries & Participatory Decision Making

Jane Cowell
Nov 1, 2017 · 5 min read

From my recent travels as a Library Tourist and attendance at the World Library and Information Congress in Poland I was struck by the commitment of Finnish Library Managers and Aarhus City to involve ordinary citizens in making and influencing public decision making in library planning and library programs.

In Helsinki, the new City Library will open in 2018 after a significant planning process, based on a Central Library review undertaken in 2007. One of the early participation platforms used was the Tree of Dreams in 2010. This was a digital platform, as well as a real tree touring the City at different events, that collection people’s dreams as leaves for the tree branches. Over 2000 dreams were collection and this was further analysed and led to pilot projects and trials to develop content and services for the new library.

Dokk1 in Aarhus focused on Design Thinking tools to develop participation and with a motto of Talk Less Do More they set about their planning with citizens by involving different groups to design their own future library. By getting to know their communities at a deeper level library staff then were able to focus on the citizens’ problems (not the library’s problems), looked at behaviors not demographics (to inform design), observed patterns and journeys of their citizens (to inform library experiences) — in short looked with fresh eyes at their communities and then had fresh eyes to cast on library interactions and services.

With participation as a leading principle service design for both the Helsinki City Library and Dokk1 planning involved citizens and hands on workshops. For Dokk1 this led to an amazing library built for humans and human interaction. For Helsinki City Library the vision is for a library as a place to play, a place to meet, a place to work and a place to read. Again a library that has at its core spaces for people and different experiences based on a human need.

These two library services have taken the idea of participation much further and are now working with their communities with participatory budgeting. Yes the citizens get to decide what the library budget is spent on. The first stage for both Dokk1 and Helsinki City Library was for library programs. There were community workshops to develop pilot projects within a particular budget limit. For Helsinki City Library this was a sum of $100,000 Euros. This funded four pilot projects chosen by the community from eight possible projects that were the result of the community workshops.

For Dokk1 in Aarhus, there is active encouragement for citizen activism and a commitment to support an involved democracy in public government decision making. Their teams are active in the branches to reach out to the local community and are empowered to prototype simple responses to community requests. Need a workshop area — a simple table and chairs set-up is put in place and staff then observe how the community use it. The participatory budget program was based on projects with a budget limit of 25,000 Kroner and different projects were developed from the community and then voted on. The winning idea was posed by two twelve-year olds for a gaming room in the library. They lobbied hard in the community and won the votes. The outcome was a surprise though. Because the particular branch had limited hours when the teens wanted to access the gaming room the library was closed. And the library did operate with an Open Plus model (see previous blog on this) but no-one under the age of 14 years can be in the library unsupervised. There was also a project posed by a group of seniors in the community that did not win the vote. When they heard of the problem they provided the solution. They would ensure that their group would be in the library at the same time as the gamers and they became the Gaming Grannies.

Helsinki City Library have taken this participatory budget focus further by opening collection material selection to users including the collection for the new Central Library.

My three key takeaways from learning about this participatory decision making focus are:

  1. It is really hard: this was a key learning shared by library staff from both services. Letting go of the power to decide is very hard for library staff. Especially if the community wants different outcomes from what the library staff, in all their wisdom and knowledge of libraries, proposed. Library staff needed to learn to live with complexity and learn from that very real challenge of letting go of control.
  2. People Power takes a lot of time: Library staff can be very challenged with ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ all wanting to decide. Library staff need the skills to keep asking questions and to keep the conversation going and to listen deeply and not act immediately. It was also clear from both Library Services’ experiences that the community needs to be on a learning journey with you and to build the capacity for their involvement in decision making. A great way to starting is with future library service workshops and projects with a defined budget. It is important for the community to know what it is the library is asking them to develop and decide and Library staff need to be able to distill this message. This is a journey to have with your community over time. And like any journey you need to develop your tools and skills to start — but you should start.
  3. It is worth doing: there are real outcomes of mutual trust, shared ownership, real relevance, improved customer understanding and improved community knowledge. The connection of the library to the citizen is also stronger. It will be interesting to see the reality of the new Helsinki City Library and see if the experience of Dokk1 plays out in Helsinki too in 2018. Significant increase in use, great partnerships that realize new services and a deep understanding of the value of libraries within the community is evident in Dokk1. Both Library Services also experienced increased politician involvement and support as they recognized the strong people involvement in the services. A double win.

Citizen Engagement is key to solving future challenges in the Public sector and there is growing expectation that democracy moves from representative democracy with politicians choosing for the people to an involved democracy where people do the choosing. Technology will only enable this change and where best to start this engagement than for people to be invited to be more actively involved in their public library.

First published on Public Libraries Connect on 1/11/2017

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