Library Entrepreneurship and Community Awareness

by Aldous Huw Smith

Over the last few decades, two significant developments have been largely responsible for a drastic alteration to the environment in which libraries function: one, the information-technology boom, has forced libraries to reassess and reconfigure the ways in which they supply information; the other, increasing privatization, has changed the climate from one in which libraries were dedicated to disseminating knowledge and information in the public sphere to all levels of society, to one in which the marketplace and the concept of information as commodity dominate and where guiding concepts of inclusiveness and free-access are being challenged. The contemporary library (whether academic, public or 'special') vies for its survival in a marketplace environment where information technology and network structures must be mastered and implemented and in which commercial forces compete for the 'market share' of user clients.

In this context, entrepreneurship is becoming less of an evil than it was once thought to be. (See, for example, the writings of such library professionals as Herbert White, Helena Strauch and Gifford Pinchot III). The problem is that entrepreneurship has become all but synonymous with the implementation of computer/digital technology and purely market-driven initiatives, in the expectation that this will solve library service problems and somehow, generate money or justify funding. At the same time, the purchase and implementation of technology, along with the establishment of trendy services necessitates cancelling or drastically reducing services that are not currently deemed popular but which may be intrinsically valuable and, just as importantly, ignoring other kinds of entrepreneurial options because they seem not to offer short-term financial gain. Short-sightedness and simplistic thinking displaces any consideration of long-term initiatives which might better ensure the credibility and survival of public libraries.

A discussion of the dangers of this naive and short-sighted entrepreneurial ethos, and outlines of some positive options to such tunnel-vision should start with a mapping of the territory. In testament to the significance of technology and economics we find, for example, a recent issue of Access magazine (the official publication of the Ontario Library Association) highlighting the technological evolution of the contemporary library. In this issue, Amos Lakos outlines the "constants" that represent the new library environment as:

The 'marketplace' side of the equation is summed up by Murdock and Golding:
Privatization... operates on two main levels. Economically it involves moving the production and provision of communications and information services from the public sector to the market, both by transferring ownership of key facilities to private investors and by making success in the marketplace the major criterion for judging the performance of all communications and information organizations (including those that remain in the public sector) (Murdock/Golding, 180).

The two processes, interlinked, exert a pressure under which not only libraries and their function are reconceived, but under which the very notions of user access to information, the nature of information and the once all but sacrosanct concept of the public sphere have been transformed. This transformation represents an insidious threat to individual and public empowerment - even while it appears to promise greater access and liberty vis a vis information and communication. Today, user-service becomes, more and more, a discriminatory affair, where the needs of the vocal and economically advantaged dominate.

An example of this paradox is presented by Leah Lievrouw, who differentiates between the traditional mass media information structures which "serve to direct the flow of information in the environment via gatekeeping, agenda-setting, or editorial control" (Lievrouw, 351), and the emerging structures, which she terms an "involving environment," which relies on "interactive information systems, and on individual information-seeking, -use, and communication..." (Lievrouw, 351). She concludes that "greater democratic participation may require a shift away from the informing to the involving information environment" (Lievrouw, 352). Free-nets and virtual communities are presented by Lievrouw as examples of this shift. Since these environments are "built" by groups of individuals having the necessary computerized information and communication access, they are not, according to Lievrouw, controlled by the "economic drive to maximize audience size, " nor is there a need "to drive content toward premature resolution or consensus: multiple issues and multiple perspectives about them are allowed to proliferate" (Lievrouw, 354).

The one problem with this scenario is the non-access for those who cannot afford either computers or computer training. As they exist today, community networks are, ironically, the 'pluralistic' voice of a homogenous group, the middle-to upper-middle classes. The ability to afford information-as-commodity is crucial, while the economic-cultural shaping of the individuals accessing these systems in turn shapes the information and interaction involved in such systems. Inclusiveness thus extends only to a relatively elite minority. Lievrouw acknowledges this fact when she writes:

... system availability is crucial in this scenario... Unless they are widely available, discursive information resources (at least the network "backbone" that connects them) are likely to be monopolized by the same elites that dominate the informing environment, as they attempt to preserve their social and political advantages (Lievrouw, 355).

In this context of economics versus democratic participation, libraries have a part to play, even in today's less than ideal fiscal conditions. Dedicated to serving the information needs of the community at large, the public library represents a bulwark of the public sphere and, ultimately, of democratic inclusiveness. Supporting principles and implementing service-initiatives which empower and involve the library's community - in short, giving more than lip-service to notions of democratic inclusiveness - makes economic sense for public libraries.

On the other hand, naive adherence to technocratic reform and vaguely articulated notions of the consumerist-business reality threatens to undermine the value of libraries, as many library professionals are aware. John Buschman, associate professor and librarian in New Jersey, writes, for example, that the evolution of technocracy might well result in "widescale distortions of professional and institutional agendas; [and] libraries becoming a disguised neutral outlet for information over which they exercise no control, thus abandoning their social purpose" (Buschman, 214).

In our era of economic restraint, libraries are often market-driven, rather than intelligent, in their choice of services. Choices are often made not because of the effectiveness or quality of technological services (for instance) but because perceived trends are conflated with user-needs so that one equates with the other. In our environment of squeezed budgets technology becomes the quick fix, with guesswork as its foundation. The end result of this is often a minimal degree of actual service or information value, generated by an ad hoc implementation of systems (which change according to fluctuating demand) and/or offered by affordable and more or less permanent services with limited value.

The selection of digital technology, materials and service must be based on the concept of quality as it pertains to value and be driven by an informed perspective on all options. The library professional evaluating new technological purchases, for instance, should be guided not so much by the cost, specifications and performance of any given technological tool as by an evaluation of what it delivers to the community of users. Network access, for example, might represent a tempting initiative, yet, on investigation, might not provide as much valuable information or knowledge to its users as a series of high-quality CD ROMs. What at first might appear to empower users - the Net's multiple and speedy access - might in reality mean that library users merely have access to a plethora of dubious information and data. The minimal actual value offered by such an initiative - even factoring in the supposed positive of being able to offer network access to those who cannot afford home computers - may not justify the finances, planning and personnel hours involved in establishing such a service. The librarian's responsibility to make informed choices based on thorough evaluation extends to such technological initiatives and options just as it applies to collection development or circulation policy.

This reality underlines a somewhat unpopular but highly significant fact - that the library professional, in performing such evaluations, plays the role of arbiter of standards for his or her community. To abandon this element of his or her role - in the belief that it is a denial of the democratic rights of users - is in actuality a subtle but significant denial of democratic principles. After all, providing information and information technology that is of little value simply because of a perceived desire for it in the community (or because its manufacturer's marketing is seductive), at the expense of less popular but more valuable information sources, means that the public has, essentially, been cheated and, ultimately, dis-empowered.

Today, we talk of the information age in terms of information-technology's value in empowering individuals. We seem to have concluded that we automatically combat ignorance, marginalism and other ills by providing a multitude of access-means to a plethora of information or data. Our present cornucopia of information and computer technology does serve that purpose, to a degree; however, implemented as it is in an ad hoc fashion, the positive results to the public are few, while the lion's share of positive results go to the corporate oligopoly. To cite Sale, "it is in the nature of the industrial ethos to value growth and production, speed and novelty, power and manipulation...And because its criteria are essentially economic rather than, say, social or civic, those changes come about without much regard for any but purely materialist consequences and primarily for the aggrandizement of a few." (Sale, 1).

Abundance of information does not equate with an intelligent, empowered populace when that information rises no higher than the level of tabloids, pop-journalism and byte-sized snippets of data, no matter what impressive technology provides it. By presenting an array of technological bells and whistles to the public and by simultaneously gliding over the fundamental issues of lasting value and accessibility, libraries only aid the conquest of style over substance. In the long run, neither democratic principles nor the public in general are served and the only winners are those already winning, the corporations and oligopolies which manufacture products and public opinion.

With this in mind, it is critical that library professionals reevaluate the simplistic view that technology and the consumerist ethos are fundamental to all entrepreneurial initiatives. As Maxine Greene puts it, " [w]e need to recognize that there is nothing intrinsic to the microcomputer or the video game or the genius machine or the word processor that makes it by definition liberatory. [We] are custodians of a human world from which we do not want to expel our children. We want to empower them to deal with the new artifacts. [We] want them to be more than information-rich... In a time when so much time is spent watching...and manipulating, a time when linear forms work in strange dialectic with the swirling images of video, we need to provide spaces for speech, for dialogue, for giving voice to what remains silent amid the sounds of the machines."

Information and self-education (which includes the process of forming opinions and learning how, when and where to articulate them) represent significant fundamental steps in individual empowerment. When the prevailing political and social mechanisms support a consumerist ethos which nullifies public empowerment, then it is important that energy and thought be focussed on the effective establishment and implementation of information environments for the education of the individual which are as free as necessary from those applied constraints. This is not to suggest that the dominant consumerist ethos is inherently bad; after all, it provides us with valuable goods as well as questionable or useless products. Nor is it to suggest that we can blithely ignore our small scale fiscal reality or the larger scale economic reality as a whole and somehow thrive on idealism. The point here is that concern for individual empowerment and commitment to and engagement with issues that impinge upon the community and the individual is not merely a 'worthwhile' social cause (and therefore, to some, financially worthless) - it is economically sensible and should be the norm, rather than the rare exception. In the context of empowerment, in order to survive and to thrive, the objectives of a public library should be more closely tied to the unique needs of its community.

As Donald Riggs reminds us, one of the significant characteristics of special libraries is their need to establish their usefulness, in an environment where they are relatively inconspicuous and are managed by people whose main concern is not libraries. Riggs notes that a special library's success depends, to a great degree, on its ability to "enhance the goals of its parent institution" (Riggs, 70). This is also the case with public libraries. Generally conceived of as inconspicuous institutions unlikely to upset the 'status quo,' public libraries are now increasingly envisioned as a species of non-profit Seven-Eleven meant to provide all possible varieties of information/leisure materials to all people, on a budget that makes this impossible.

An effective response to this dilemma is, first of all, a change of perspective regarding the nature and role of the public library. That is, the library can neither afford to be all things to all people, nor can it afford to remain inconspicuous. The successful library of the near future will be one that does a number of choice things well, and does them because it has ascertained - through its own investigations and through community involvement and response - that its services and materials are highly valued by its community. Furthermore, the library will succeed because it has effectively defined and promoted itself to that community. Rather than being the wallflower of public establishments, it has heightened its profile in the community it serves. In this context, entrepreneurship means more than simply 'toeing the (bottom) line' and, as a knee-jerk reaction to shrinking budgets, trying to squeeze money out of library users through the establishment of fees-for-service or committing large chunks of the budget to technological initiatives. The success of entrepreneurship in today's libraries demands a thorough knowledge of and commitment to the needs and rights of its community.

The difference between truly responding to community need and merely responding superficially to perceived demands depends on informed, thoughtful strategic planning and intercommunication between library and community. In this regard, Durrance and Van Fleet note that "focusing on demand, often in the guise of responding to the needs of the user, has trivialized the library and its role in the community" and that, since "people ask for what they know the library can provide, they are not likely to demand to have their information needs met" in other ways, so that the result is a "continued cycle of emphasizing the provision of [only] the popular materials demanded by users" (Durrance/Van Fleet, 34). In following this cycle, we return to the Seven-Eleven library model, where no one is well-served; superficial service is all that is affordable, as the library strives to provide a cornucopia of what is popular, and the user gradually expects less and less of anything significant from the library, until the institution's credibility is all but lost.

The key to the library's success, in both planning and implementation of services and resources, is the thoroughness of community-knowledge, of the very informing process that leads to service entrepreneurship that can effectively answer community needs in new ways. Newness does not equate so much with embracing novelty as with breaking out of hidebound habits of thinking so that truly informed entrepreneurial thought can be generated. This means, for example, that public libraries should be linking collection-development not in some general, vague way to the ethnic demographics of the community but in specific ways to the unique commercial, business and cultural nature of their communities. Just as special libraries answer to the research needs of the parent- organization, public libraries should respond to the research needs of community organizations (commercial or otherwise), especially where special libraries do not exist to fill those needs. Such initiatives represent sources of revenue either directly, (through fees for needed services, photocopying charges and so on) or indirectly in terms of community support for decent library funding and in terms of library use-statistics which justify continued funding.

The Atlanta-Fulton Public Library gives us an example of the latter type of initiative. In an attempt to help the youth of their communities stay in school, this library system initiated 'Homework Help Centres' in a number of branches, "including mini-libraries in Atlanta's public housing projects" (Durrance/Van Fleet, 33), an initiative that responds directly to the needs of the community in a substantial manner. Given that recent surveys indicate "that the public considers the library's role of supporting the educational aspirations of the community to be its most important role" (D'Elia/Rodger, 1994), such focussed educational initiatives would appear to effective for public service and the library's credibility.

A library that does not clarify and focus its service efforts in terms of such specific community needs misses opportunities for 'marketing' its credibility and value and gradually suffers financially due to community apathy. Similarly, a library that does not effectively advertise these services fails to promote or even outline its value to the community. Community-specific services and imaginative, effective promotion are key if libraries are to overcome the perception that they are 'grey' and of dubious value to their community.

Similarly, in context of the real empowerment of its citizens and both the increased profile and value of the public-library system, libraries would do well to promote themselves as forums for community involvement in issues of significance to the society they serve. Robert Cronenberger indicates the need for a measure of social involvement when he states:

We are facing a pretty bleak future both in terms of information overload and the increasing gap between what ALA calls the information literate and kids who don't have food on their table.... Likewise, we need to make people understand that the key element in a democracy is an informed citizenry; and that this is the task of libraries. Until we address these needs we are potentially headed for great difficulty, both in terms of what libraries do and in terms of what society needs (Durrance/Van Fleet, 34).

The public library can fulfil a community role by supplying information-material which facilitates education on multiple (even unpopular) aspects of issues, and by providing the physical facilities for debate and providing channels whereby the community may articulate its intellectual and social interests, perspectives and concerns, both local and global. While it is not the library's role to promote or defend one idea or set of ideas in exclusion of others, nevertheless it is critical that the library of the future become more active in its community. The library must be more political, more socially engaged and active rather than neutral, or, more accurately, neuter. The face of impartial reticence which the library has traditionally shown its community has signified as much an abandonment of principles as a support of intellectual/ideological freedom. By remaining passive, it has shown itself to be supportive of principles in only a general and abstract sense: commitment to principles as dynamic and activist social forces has been conspicuously absent. Even worse, in remaining passive, the public library has become inconspicuous, hardly an advantageous state to be in at this time of fiscal restraint. Given the choice of funding the construction of a car-park or of supporting an inconsequential library that does not truly serve its community's needs, we know where municipal funding will go.

If a social conscience is not enough of an impetus for increased community involvement then the changing demographics, linked with the market-realities born of this change, ought to make it clear that both the multicultural nature of communities and the serious inequities and issues of society dovetail quite snugly with the goals and survival of public libraries. It almost goes without saying that the public library's role is no longer to provide solely for a homogenous, predominantly Anglo-Saxon and privileged middle class. The increasingly multicultural reality of Canadian society demands that the public library truly serve its ethnic groups, rather than decline with its shrinking Anglo/middle class tax base.

Serving a multicultural community means more than the token hiring of ethnic employees, or showcasing ethnic costumes and (translated) literature and serving culinary tidbits on a Saturday afternoon. It means (for example) a commitment to the provision of quality educational, reference and leisure texts in specific 'foreign' languages, rather than a half-hearted offering of a few multilingual government brochures aimed at acclimatizing ethnic peoples and informing them of details they probably already know. It means doing thorough investigation into the information needs of cultural groups in the community, through effective and sincere liaison with the local Polish Hall, Ukrainian Centre, Vietnamese business community, and so on, (by way of the library's ethnic employees) and then coming through with resource and service answers to their specific needs, both educational and cultural.

Ethnic communities, in fact, are often strongly committed to their identity and culture, and ready to invest money and energy into meaningful educational and cultural opportunities. They also, apparently, hold libraries in higher esteem than their Caucasian counterparts. D'Elia and Rodger note, for example, that their survey indicated a significantly lower evaluation of libraries on the part of Caucasian Americans "than [on the part of] either the African-American or Hispanic-American respondents" (D'Elia/Rodger, 1994). A library that offers its ethnic communities the means to accomplish its educational and cultural ends (that offers them more than a well-meaning patronization), is one that will enhance its budget, its tax-base and its credibility. Something as apparently simple as the purchase of encyclopedias, religious books, videos or CDs in a 'targeted' foreign language can be the modest beginning of meaningful and lasting service to a hitherto 'invisible minority,' whose interest in the library will expand exponentially. The initial 'risk' involved in such entrepreneurial ventures is little more than that of investing in the library's multi-lingual or ethnic employees' time and effort (in short, truly empowering library employees) in the research and design of needed services and programs. If, as a result, a given public library eventually finds itself catering predominantly to 'ethnic groups,' if the very face of that library changes dramatically, then all well and good; it is effectively answering the needs of its users and its chances of survival in the community are greatly enhanced.

Library service/resource ventures, large and small, are and will continue to be misguided when driven predominantly by market-forces and ill-informed notions of what will serve, or impress, the public, and the value of their services will diminish accordingly. The net result will be that libraries will have failed to serve adequately or inclusively, and that our pluralistic, democratic society will suffer, in ways too subtle and too numerous to elucidate here. The Morino Institute, in 1994, hinted at this problem in a broad manner:

Community networking entrepreneurs face a formidable challenge: Are they part of a social phenomenon that is destined to stall or implode or do they represent a vibrant force, capable of building on the knowledge they have accumulated, adapting to a rapidly changing world and community needs, and ultimately achieving a positive, lasting social change in their communities? (Morino, in Chase, 52)

In response to this question, the Morino Institute argues that "a stalling is quite likely and, for some, already predictable. The surge in interest must be matched with an influx of significant funding and a step-increase in the functionality and quality of the underlying technology... There are few worse situations than an enormous build-up of interest that goes unsatisfied or, worse, is ineffectively addressed. There is a window of opportunity in which the community networking movement must establish itself in a sustaining manner" (Morino, in Chase, 53).

Libraries face this same window of opportunity. For libraries, however, community networking means more than establishing Internet access in the library or setting up a Free-net. It means investigating and understanding the community's needs, taking its pulse and working proactively to provide library services and to promote the library as a centre of community activity, both cultural and political. In this context, innovation and entrepreneur-ship represent more than a knee-jerk reaction to social, cultural or business myths and trends and become vital, informed and effective elements for the public libraries' continued survival and value.

Related Papers

Libraries are Centers of Social Consciousness and Community Involvement
Post-Fordist Librarians: Globalization of Information, Corporate Ideologies, and Ethical Conundrums
Theodore Levitt's "Marketing Myopia" Applied to Libraries
Ethics of Librarianship: Libraries, Intellectual Freedom, and Censorship in the Age of Technology
Future of Libraries
Frank Webster: Ideology of Electronic Sources and the Future of Libraries


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