Public Libraries: Resource Community Network

A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a public library. Punchline: They approach the reference librarian and ask for the same thing. What are the odds? What are the odds that any two people at any given moment in time are going to want the same exact thing?

Public libraries offer a lot: media of course (still including books); use of computers; magazines; presentation/exhibition space; various programs (children’s are popular); if your library is well funded, perhaps a 3D printer; plus, of course, a relatively quiet place to sit.

What might the reference librarian offer our three spiritual leaders? They could be on a mission to help someone, so they may want resource help perhaps addressing family food scarcity, or a personal issue like social isolation for someone housebound. They could have sought government or nonprofit services, but maybe they didn’t think of it, or maybe they are shy around government agencies, or confused by them. Who knows: They decided to go to the reference person at the public library.

The librarian pulls out some brochures that describe various services and maybe offers specific contact information; perhaps the librarian goes online to clarify an offering. The group thanks the librarian and they go on their way: All’s well that ends well. Right?

But how well did this interaction actually satisfy their needs? How satisfied might you be if you went to a medical doctor with a symptom of concern and you received an attentive ear followed by a hand holding a brochure of suggested approaches, and then were sent on your way home? Stupid question? Comparing the public library with the services of a physician may not be as off base as one might think: Both librarian and MD are educated professionals in information fields.

This is how the American Library Association (ALA) describes reference librarian functions. “Reference librarians recommend, interpret, evaluate, and/or use information resources to help patrons with specific information needs. In small libraries all librarians may be called upon to perform reference duties; in large and/or academic libraries reference services may be highly specialized.”

Here is the librarian job description:

  • Assist library visitors in conducting research and locating resources
  • Organize all library resources so they are easy to locate
  • Coordinate and create community programs that increase library awareness
  • Evaluate library inventory needs and place orders
  • Identify technology needs and make recommendations
  • Oversee the work of other employees and provide feedback
  • Read publication announcements to get new texts

Of course, there are different kinds of librarians, each with its own requirements for education and entry-level experience. For starters, you should obtain a masters in library science (MLS). You will also need to satisfy other requirements in order to obtain certification.

How is all this expertise utilized? Public libraries can offer a wide range of services, from after-school programs for teens, to career and job retraining services, to cultural presentations. Libraries implement what they can, when they see a need for a service. In some cases, this can even include assistance for people who are homeless.

The ALA states in part: “For all of the other ideas of how to help those experiencing homelessness – food, clothing, personal or medical care – libraries can play an important role as partners or supporters of other service organizations. Information of most need to people who are homeless or in jeopardy of becoming homeless may include where to find shelter, food or a shower; accessible medical care; help in finding employment; or how to find a professional that can help stop an eviction or foreclosure.”

It’s probably fair to say that libraries experiencing homeless patrons are the libraries developing strategies to cope with this. And it can be a challenge. A homeless person can enter a library not necessarily knowing what they are seeking; it is then up to the librarian to address needs that may, or may not, become apparent. For example, assistance could include offering information on “where to find shelter, food or a shower; accessible medical care.”

Like a medical doctor addressing the symptoms a patient presents, librarians should be prepared to provide a professional level of service that attempts to address specific needs. By focusing on connecting patrons to locally available resources public libraries can enhance what previously had been a central function – a community’s reference and resource center.

Like a doctor who keeps current with the latest treatment protocols, the public library should strive to maintain working relationships with those who provide the community with services and activity programs, including government committees and nonprofit organizations.

Libraries can have a website links page showing a range of available resources. However, keeping up to date with resource availability is not simply a matter of maintaining links. The trick to successfully managing resources on a local level is to make information comprehensive, accessible, and organized in a way that encourages use.

First published in 1876, the Dewey Decimal System categorized library books and manuscripts by subject, making stored media easier to access. A similar system is what libraries need in order to make resources both available to the community and more accessible and intelligible.

The local public library can enhance what is meant as a reference desk by offering the following:

  • A directory listing of resources
  • A (civics) guide to local government – perhaps a tour
  • Annual nonprofit festival – tabling for organizations and committees to exhibit what they do
  • Displays created by service and activity providers
  • Meeting space for nonprofits

A directory listing of locally available resources should be the beginning of a relationship between organizations, the library, government committees, and the community.

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