I have not had a fun month and needing to finish this post about trust hasn’t made it any funner-er. Mainly because trust has been something I have felt lacking lately. Trust in me, probably not intended, but also my trust in libraries … definitely not intended. I work at the pointy end of what I think of as trust in libraries — Outreach — where library staff rely greatly on gaining the communities trust, to run events and programs we hope will serve, and I am always surprised and heart-warmed by just how much trust the general public seem to have in libraries, yet I don’t see it going the other way often enough.
It’s not always easy to trust organisations, although too often we need to — governments with our future, schools with our education, banks with our money — and yet there’s always a niggling suspicion that we may be trusting unwisely, that large organisations or corporations can’t really have our individual best interests at heart, can they? Public libraries (in Australia at least) appear to have avoided this slight taint, even though most are mainly funded by local government and closely tied to Councils. How these sometimes quite large Library organisations have managed to not only successfully gain their communities trust, but keep it, is an interesting topic. What’s more interesting to me is what happens when a Library starts to lose that trust…?
I started thinking about this concept of trust explicitly from a library and community point of view when it really came down to the wire of writing this post. Recognising that I am currently experiencing issues with trust (!), here are my thoughts on trust in libraries.
I think libraries have held a position of trust within their communities from the very beginning — with the items held in them recognised as worthy and authoritative and staff seen as keepers of knowledge — although these same libraries have not necessarily always been the most trusting of institutions themselves and library staff of the past occasionally look like knowledge hoarders rather than sharers ... ahem …
The idea of chaining books up in order to create “a free, open, and shared space for an entire community to engage in reading” is indeed fascinating (and I know a few librarians who wish we could do the same now!), but what is more interesting to me is how libraries have developed over the ages into the format we have today, one which is much more free and open than ever and one in which trust in an intrinsic force.
To me, trust in libraries consists of a number of factors (not all may be listed here of course, did I mention I am writing this down to the wire?!):
- Our collection must be worthy, authoritative and representative of a range of ideas and diverse points of view
- Our libraries are safe, neutral spaces with a focus on their communities needs
- Library staff are knowledgeable not only about their own ‘subject’ but about their community
- Equity of access is seen as a focal issue for libraries and library staff
Trust in the collection
It is incredible just how many books are published these days. And how many movies are made, how much music there is in the world … and so much of it is available from public libraries. I work in a library branch with a 40,000 item collection. It sounds huge and it is huge but there are libraries out there with more! It is an ongoing battle to manage the influx of new items and to check that every single one is not going to offend some portion of our community … in fact this is an impossible task but one which is an important part of a librarians role in creating and keeping their communities trust. (There is already a lot written about collection development, but this article speaks to why we need diverse items in our collection quite nicely!)
I recently had two feedback forms handed to me, one was a complaint from a patron requesting a novel be removed from the collection as it spoke poorly of a certain group of people ie. they were the villains of the story (and a number of our community members are this nationality); the other was a request from a staff member to remove a book titled Gypsy as this name was offensive to many people, although the content of the book was not at all related to the people themselves. Neither of these collection complaints are easy to resolve but they highlight that these kind of curatorial questions are faced by library staff on a regular basis, especially with moves to a less centrally controlled purchasing system. It would be an impossibility for library staff to check and approve each individual item in a 40,000 item plus collection, but we cannot solely rely on vendors to send us items which are appropriate for our community. Then again, when a member of my community requests a book which is virulently against climate change what do I do? At the time this happened my library purchased the book for the patron. If I were to be asked to do this again I would have to think long and hard about it. Is it censorship if I don’t? They could buy it or find it elsewhere … Will someone else purchase it for the library anyway? And shouldn’t people have the right to read the material and make up their own minds? Of course they do, but what about those other people who trust that libraries only hold items which are ‘authoritative and worthy’? Should we, indeed can we, be held to that account, to that standard of trust?
I don’t believe that we can to the extent which I would like to or else we run into other risks around under-representing diverse groups and ideas. I do believe it is necessary for libraries to focus on actively curating their collections — even to the point of refusing to purchase an item for our collections — if we are to uphold our place as knowledge centres and places of learning within our community and our society, however this must be done within a framework that seeks out diversity of thought and content and represents openly the trust that our communities place in us and which holds us to a higher standard. Not an easy task, but maybe it shouldn’t be.
Library spaces are generally considered safe spaces by the community, although often this is not technically true. After all, we regularly experience the kids who run around unsupervised and the bags, phones, laptops and lunches which are left all alone when a patron wants to go to the toilet or get some fresh air only to have disappeared by the time they get back. It’s a struggle to balance the fact that everyone is welcome in a library with the fact that this means theft is a regular occurrence, or that noisy teenagers often run amok, or that a homeless person may take up space sleeping, or that a child can fall over and hurt themselves. Should we crack down on who uses our spaces in order to make them ‘safer’ or is the very fact that anyone and everyone is able to enter and use the library space an intrinsic aspect of a communities trust in libraries and therefore a part of what makes them safe?
Being a safe, neutral, welcoming space is part of a libraries appeal to communities but it is important to remember that with diverse communities comes diverse needs and attempting to cater to all is an incredibly difficult act which rarely works in a libraries or a communities favour. But in order to build trust, libraries must work with their community and offer appropriate services and facilities to cater to a myriad of needs. At the very least, the understanding that a library service is attempting to do this very difficult thing may engender a certain level of trust from the community.
This idea of libraries as safe spaces also goes the other way. For library staff who regularly deal with aggressive, irritated patrons or sometimes people with a mental condition or something going on in their life which makes them less than friendly towards staff, moving out from behind the desk is a thing of trust. And it’s a thing which many library services are asking of their staff these days. I personally believe that it is important for library staff to not only get out from behind the desk, but to recognize that getting out into the community, engaging and actively reaching out, is so important when it comes to creating a safe space, a trusted space, and a space where library staff can recognise that yes, some people do ruin it for others, but hey, the rest of the community still need us to trust them and to work with them to build that relationship of trust.
Knowledgeable library staff is an important aspect of trust in libraries. It may seem like an obvious one, but learning to trust that I knew what I was doing and was good at my job was one of the first of many trust issues I needed to deal with when I began working in a library space. Simply by virtue of working in that space I had suddenly become invested with authority — students and other people just trusted that I was there to help them find what they needed to get them where they wanted to go. It can be a scary thing when suddenly you can make a claim and people generally believe you because you are a librarian!
My first full-time librarian role was as a Community Development Librarian and basically this meant everything and anything could land in my lap … and it did! I wasn’t at all prepared for the level of trust that I would need to have — not only in myself but in my community, my management team, my Council, my colleagues, the system (I mean really!!)etc… So many different areas which I never really thought about and certainly was never taught at library school (there’s really gotta be a blog post about that doesn’t there?!)
But when I embraced my role and actively fought for my community I not only earned their trust but gained my own. Even small things matter. I remember a particular question a patron had which required multiple phone calls to local and State government departments. He had tried himself and gotten nowhere, I tried — letting them know I was calling as a librarian from a public library — and success!
It’s pretty heady stuff, even now, because what it means is that the values of a librarian and a library service can actively influence a community. We cannot be neutral and serve our communities well, some group or individual will always lose out in that scenario, but we can and do attempt to be equitable. And we do this through our professional knowledge but also through the knowledge we have of the community we serve and the trust that they place in us and that we have in ourselves. Trusting our judgement, that what we do is valuable, that what we do is good, that what we hope to do is to serve their needs as best we can.
Equity of access
There is this idea in libraries that because we are (or at least claim to be) about equity and inclusion we must spend an equal amount of time on everything we do. Everyone gets the same amount of staff attention, the same amount of computer time, the same number of books able to be loaned etc… But whilst we may try to standardise certain services (for good reasons too i’ll admit) this idea is essentially flawed. We must give weight to certain things, certain truths, and we must also recognise that our communities trust us to do just this.
The little old lady trying to fill in the incredibly convoluted government form may need longer than the hour allocated as well as staff help. Imagine if we denied her this because our standard service is everyone gets one hour on the computer, no exceptions? Where is our equity of access here?
Or take collection development — this is often based on the surrounding community and their needs. Indeed it is most often in direct response to this that LOTE, AV or special collections will be developed. We cannot ignore that equity of access means responding to the needs of the community we serve and that this may not appear ‘equal’ at first but our community trusts us to deliver a service which works for everyone, whilst recognising those exceptions, possibly even celebrating them (Hello Italians in Carlton, thank you for the coffee)!
We serve our communites differently, through our collection and our programs and services, because they are different and we as library staff hopefully understand this and act accordingly. Libraries strive to provide programs and services to the under-served in our communities — which may differ branch to branch, library to library — but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) matter if you are a full-time professional, student, parent, senior, child or just someone who wants to grab a snooze in a comfy chair, all are equally welcome in the library. This is an essential part of the values of a library service and of library staff and from this it is important that we recognise the trust which is placed in us by our communities because if we forget this then we run the risk of losing that trust, losing our communities interest and, potentially, losing our libraries.
Our communities rely on the library to be a place of learning, to be worthy, to be authoritative, to look to the future and to future truths, to share access to knowledge as well as to teach ourselves and others. I have struggled with this post this month partly because I am worried that I will not be able to fulfill my communities trust in me and my library service. When risks are the only measure to judge an event, program or service and the community benefit and desires are not taken into account is it surprising that a loss of trust takes place? Library staff need to feel trusted too, not only by the community they serve but by the community they work within.
I have waffled on too much of course, but now it is time to finish at last and say one more thing about trust. I trust in my colleagues (well, most of them anyway), in my community and myself. And most of all, I trust in you. Thanks to anyone who made it this far, writing about trust has given it back to me somehow. Cheers.