Book Review: The Thriving Library
This is a book about public libraries. I might sound disappointed in saying that, in fact I was surprised. Having spent my working life in specialist libraries, I know little about the public library sector and was slightly afraid that what I would find would be irrelevant or uninteresting. But I soon discovered that this was to be one of the most exciting professional texts I'd read for some time. It turns out that you can learn a lot about good practice from any successful library, irrespective of who its users are because what matters is dreams, commitment and courage.
Marylaine Block has put together the results of a survey in which she has collected examples from more than 100 libraries with impact well beyond their immediate communities. In fact this is "In Search of Excellence" for libraries. The author identifies eight important themes at this time of "a perfect storm", i.e. with conditions for libraries decidedly adverse, and offers eight ways to survive and succeed. At the end of each section she includes an interview with a professional who has particular insights into the previously discussed point.
In so far as financial pressures, new technology and social change have an impact on every library, this is a book relevant to all branches of the profession. The author is not interested in things that every successful institution does in the same way but focuses on what really matters in local communities: creating the reading habit in the young, the library as a public space, partnerships, Library 2.0 and the role of the library in helping the community to achieve its aspirations.
The strength of this book is in the detail and in the inspirational words of those people who have ensured the success of difficult projects in the face of serious challenges. The dreams and hopes of staff who are committed to turning their library into a place of 'enchantment and discovery', a place where teenagers can display their talents, a place where it is 'cooler to hang out than the mall'. It might not be every library director's dream to have their institution rated as the 'Best Non-bar Pick up Spot' or to have an entry in the Guinness Book of records for the longest non-stop reading aloud event; but even if the ideas in this book lie outside your comfort zone, the inspiration will do.
One of the strongest points that come across is that libraries need to be marketed proactively and imaginatively. You could choose a Google whack event which challenges the community to a competition with its librarians or fulfil an ambition to turn the library into the 'city's living room'; anything goes – own postal stamp, advertisements on buses, 'startling statistics', thoroughly researched return on investment figures or even a library mascot. It is crucial to speak the language of the user and there is no denying that often 'the medium is the message'. Blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, instant messaging should all be communication options. The library must become a place for state-of-the-art technology and this is also the key to personalised services. If you do not use RSS feeds, texts or e-mails to recall your books and have not yet customised your Web site for small screen devices, now is the time to start worrying. Libraries have pages on MySpace and many are citing them as "friends". Library pictures are being posted on Flickr and Web sites are being bookmarked on del.iciou.us.
A good library has to use technology but its main goal should be to extend access and eliminate barriers, and that means eliminate barriers to all: teenage boys, alienated communities, immigrants, the elderly, the incarcerated and the homeless.
In spite of the North American focus and the scale of some of the projects which might be well beyond the dreams of public libraries in this country, this is an informative, rewarding and, above all, inspiring read which should be on the professional shelves of every library.