The importance of connecting

You might think that the Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pennsylvania has little or nothing to do with whatever’s going on at your library. But here’s the thing. We’ve probably got a lot more in common than you think. The details may be a bit different but the overarching theme of our communities going through a massive, radical change is what brings us together.

In the past twenty years, technology and specifically the internet have changed the ways that our communities work. We’ve been brought together in ways that we could only dream of in the past. We share photos, stories, and ideas with the simple click of a button. Governments are able to be more transparent than ever by sharing documents online. We can purchase almost anything we need with a simple Google search and the click of a few buttons.

For communities, these changes have both positive and negative impacts. While all of our lives greatly benefit from increased connectivity, at the same time there’s the other side of the picture. Local downtown shopping areas may not be able to compete with the Amazons of the world, and Netflix may pull in a bigger audience than a night out to see a play in our town’s cultural centre.

We are in the middle of a series of what Suzanne W. Morse, author of Smart Communities calls “wicked problems”. These wicked problems, according to Morse “are not created overnight and thus the “fix” will take time as well.” But if there’s one thing that humans are good at, it is solving problems.

Morse goes on to state that confronting these problems “demands skills, talents, and people…” and with that it seems like a good time that we bring up the public library and its changing role in the community.

Public libraries have shifted their focus in our changing world. When visiting your public library these days, what you’ll see is a community focused centre that is full of staff willing to help.

Gone are the days when our librarians hid behind desks protecting information and avoiding public interaction. The library of today is a platform, a community-oriented space where the community connects with each other. The library of the 21st century is not unlike a laboratory, a place where ideas are born and can grow over a period of time.

One of the most important things a library does these days is to connect the community with each other.

Technology and the internet bring us together, yet at the same time it can lead to us feeling disconnected from each other. Humans will always need to have a physical connection with each other and libraries have become the place in the community where this can happen.

Just look at your local library and the slate of public events happening there: story time, crafts, book groups, and public art events. The specifics of these events are what bring people into the library, but it is the connection to each other that is the important thing that community members take away from these events.

These connections come in all forms: the parent who meets another parent at a story time and is able to share the joys and frustrations of raising children with each other; to the senior citizens who visit the library every day to read the newspaper and chat about politics with other senior citizens.

For local inspiration, look no further than Queensland’s own Ayr Library, Burdekin Shire Council. Their media lab and more specifically the Seniors Computing Class is a program that teaches digital skills to the community. But the true value of that program lies in the connections created at the library.

In an SLQ case study, a library patron named Diane highlights these connections in her comments. Not only is the library connecting her to her family through digital means, but it is also connecting her to others in her community that she may have not known otherwise.

“My grandchildren are on the Gold Coast and I would never have been able to keep the contact I have if it wasn’t more the Facebook and Skype those types of things.”

“I’m an import. I’d lived in the Burdekin for like 15 years, because we are involved with horses and just didn’t meet people at all. Since coming to the classes, you’re meeting more people, getting friendly with more people, getting more confidence with being classed as a local. It’s just a nice social atmosphere as well as the information side.”

The connections that libraries are helping build are the most valuable currency in our public libraries today. They show the importance of the work that a public library does in a changing community. When it comes to advocating for funding and support from our local governments and citizens, these are the stories that we need to share.

Be proud of the work you are doing and make it known that your library is a vital organisation for a healthy community. The changes we face in the 21st century may seem huge, but when communities work together amazing things can happen.

By Justin Hoenke, Executive Director of Benson Memorial Library, Pennsylvania

Justin Hoenke

Justin Hoenke is a human being who has worked in public libraries all over the United States and is currently the Executive Director of the Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Before that, he was Coordinator of Tween/Teen Services at the Chattanooga Public Library in Chattanooga, TN where Justin created The 2nd Floor, a 14,000 square foot space for ages 0-18 that brought together learning, fun, creating, and public events. Follow Justin on Twitter at @justinlibrarian and read his blog at http://www.justinthelibrarian.com.