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Researching Communities to Prepare for the Future

January 15th, 2010

In 2008-09, the Illinois State Library awarded an LTSA research grant to Lewis & Clark Library System to learn not what a library thought it needed for its community, but rather, to learn what a community needed from its library. The results were fascinating.

Our Researching Communities to Prepare for the Future study gained in-depth insight from 140+ people in communities across Illinois and discovered what community members expect from libraries over the next few years. Fifteen communities across the state participated in the survey, ranging in size from Oak Park and Palatine to Nokomis and Pinckneyville.

Public libraries provide many important services to local communities and as the economic situation across the country continues to slow, libraries are taking on even more responsibilities.  Libraries have traditionally provided reading material to people of all ages and backgrounds, and they continue to do so. However, they now provide Web access and training in online services, community programming, job hunting assistance, and more. For our study we looked at some service possibilities libraries might provide and asked community members to prioritize what services they would hope to receive from the library.

What did we learn?  That communities need 5 easily obtained things from their library:

The interviewed residents clearly stated that a friendly library staff is a service provided by the library. And that the staff needs to be knowledgeable about the community, the library, and other library services.

The library does not need to be a forest of signs, in fact less is more. But if the library staff is too close to the library’s layout, they don’t always see the library because they already know the library. Also, the participating residents definitely see the library’s Web site as part of the library, not a separate function.

While the interviewees don’t expect the library to stand guard over the children and teenagers using the library, they do expect the library to be a place where children/teenagers are welcomed and treated with respect. Staff should familiarize themselves with both physical and cyber safety, along with the library’s emergency plans.

Patrons of all ages are concerned their library does not offer services and programs for impaired patrons.  Often, 1e found that the interviewed resident didn’t know the services the library was already offering. As with the need for a safe place, refamiliarize staff with serving impaired patrons and promoting the library’s services to all audiences.

Libraries have always been a major cultural leader within communities. Most Carnegie-built library buildings have an auditorium, usually on the upper floor. The Researching Communities study showed that residents continue to want and need their library to be a cultural leader for the community.

To help the participating libraries and all Illinois libraries supply these needs, the research grant also developed continuing education training for individual and/or group use. These courses are a first step in continuous learning for all library staff, helping them meet the needs in the library’s community.

A recent American Libraries article highlights how valuable the Researching Communities study is for the library world. The January/February 2010 issue of American Libraries has a wonderful article that supports the concept we used with Researching Communities, what does the community want. Embracing Change for Continuous Improvement by Peter Hernon and Ellen Altman (page 52+)

Here are some quotes from their article, emphasis is mine:
“This belief needs to be set aside in order to determine what matters the most to customers, and how the knowledge gained can be applied to improve service delivery.”

“Present and potential customers make choices. Ease of use and likelihood of obtaining what is desired play an large part of driving these choices.”

“…customers’ view of library performance on such factors as timeliness, helpfulness, courtesy, reliability and responsiveness.”

We are proud of the public libraries in Illinois and hope you share our pride in the library staff at Illinois libraries. The final report and community reports are posted on WebJunction Illinois. Read through the study–how does your library measure up?

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