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An article by Rianne van Melik
1 February 2023, 12:05
Community librarianship (Bibliotheekblad 2023-2)

Libraries are going through a major transformation; changing from book libraries to "people's libraries". With this development, the concept of community librarianship has come into vogue. Inspired by the work of Professor David Lankes, among others, 'traditional' librarians are being retrained as community workers all over the world. Community librarianship is about working with - not for - groups in society to better meet their needs. This trend has significantly changed the daily practice of library work.

There are all kinds of scholars who have defined practices; what their practice theories have in common is that they involve a combination of elements. For example, according to British sociologist Elisabeth Shove, practices are determined by people's competences, but also materialities and meanings. Think of driving a car: how you drive a car depends on your driving skills and traffic knowledge as well as the make of the car, the quality of the road surface, traffic density, and the meaning that driving has for yourself and society, such as a sense of freedom or unsustainability.

With this framework in mind, Merijn Hazeleger - master's student in Human Geography - investigated the daily practices of librarians who attended EducationNext's post-HBO community librarianship programme. He spoke with staff from four Dutch libraries and shadowed them for a day. Together, we recently published his findings in the Journal of Librarianship and Information Science. 

The study shows that numerous 'new' community activities are organised in and by the library: from clothes-swapping fairs to FIFA tournaments with penalty shooting in the car park. Being such a people's library requires certain social skills and knowledge about building communities, as is central to EducationNext's training. In addition to these competences, material qualities are just as important. Strategically positioned tables and chairs can invite visitors to stay longer. Mobile furniture and flexible walls allow for open spaces during busy activities, as well as nooks to practice shielded TikTok dances. Despite this flexibility, space often proves to be a limiting factor. The library where I volunteer consists of one large room, requiring potentially sensitive IDO [Information Point Digital Government] conversations to take place in public. Acoustic office units exist (even nano-coated against bacteria, fungi, and viruses!), but there is no room for them. "Then we'll just have to hold those conversations in the disabled toilet," someone joked recently. Three of the four libraries surveyed are housed in multipurpose accommodations where more space is available, but often at additional rental costs. 

Community librarians encounter more barriers, such as skepticism among colleagues about the new meaning of the library. This ranges from management questioning the educational programme or not budgeting for it to colleagues not wanting to listen or saying they do not have time to answer requests for help. Having to convince people almost daily of the library’s social importance extends beyond the library walls, such as 'sales pitches' to subsidy providers like municipalities. "We bring so much they often don't see," sighed one respondent, while another spent as much time answering a request for help as registering it online. All this understandably evokes a lot of frustration. Achieving the library's social mission, therefore, goes beyond acquiring and sharing knowledge. It requires continuous interaction between competences, available time, space, and resources, and managing expectations.

See also: Van Melik, R. & M. Hazeleger (2023), Routinised practices of community librarians: Daily struggles of Dutch public libraries to be(come) social infrastructures. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science. DOI: 10.1177/09610006221149203.

Translated with (free version)
Translation of Dutch column in monthly magazine Bibliotheekblad (2023-2)

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