Friday, 22 June 2012

ABF 2012, part 2/4: public participation

From 7th to 9th June 2012, the ABF (Association des Bibliothécaires de France - the French library association) held its 58th annual congress in Montreuil, near Paris. And I was there! I had been invited by a friend on the ABF regional branch committee for the wider-Paris area to help out during the three days. This gave me the opportunity to attend several sessions, most of them directly linked to the conference theme: 
The library, a public matter

The last session of the first day and the first workshop of the second day both focused on how to engage with the public in implementing policies and defining services, with numerous examples.

Dominique Tabah opened the second Thursday afternoon session by talking about her experience at Montreuil libraries. She explained that requests from the public must be collected, identified and analysed with attention, be they from library users or non-users. Those requests can be difficult to satisfy but always deserve an answer on what the library service can and can't do.
How do we collect these customer opinions? Dominique Tabah gave several examples of the work Montreuil does with teenagers. Montreuil libraries have a teenage reading committee that meets once a month to select new books for the teenage collection. This is useful to understand what these readers think and expect of the collection. Occasionally, the young people involved also defend their choices in a public debate in front of other customers. Montreuil also asks of middle school pupils doing their work placement in the libraries to survey their classmates on their perception of the service. On top of this, the work placement pupils are also expected to give to their class a tour of the library.

Next, Anita Beldiman-Moore, from Sciences-Po Paris, talked about collecting data on the use of the service and the opinion of customers in a university library.
Sciences-Po have had "test weeks" when staff record the number of enquiries they get by topic as well as depending on the time and the location. This system showed when were the busiest times for each location, and whether the questions asked actually matched the purpose of the designated enquiry desks. For feedback on the quality of the service, Sciences-Po Library uses focus groups and home-made online surveys. It has also started taking part in the international LibQUAL+ survey, which measures the gap between the minimal and maximal level of service customers hope for with the level they are observing.

Xavier Galaup, from the Haut-Rhin regional library service, focused on the importance for libraries to co-create services and contents with their users. Among the examples he mentioned were Helsinki's Library 10 and its music recording studio, more and more libraries putting historical pictures on Flickr for customers to identify or share related stories, a series of "Our customers have got talent" evenings in a town library in Northern France, Brest's local history wiki, a Belgian library streaming website with music from local bands (whom listeners can vote for), ... and many others. You can view his presentation below - in French, but, erm, with pictures!

The Friday morning workshop offered the opportunity for delegates to share thoughts and practice on whether and how to involve customers in some traditionally "librarian-only" tasks. I am going to set out the questions and some of the comments voiced, and then leave you to think about your own answers, and maybe to share and discuss them! Here are the topics:
  • Weeding: what legitimacy has the librarian to act on a public collection? This can be a problem especially in university libraries. Solutions discussed included informing users before the items are discarded, for example by marking items beforehand so that researchers using them can indicate their disagreement, or making lecturers take part in the weeding process.
  • Delegation of acquisitions: who has the right to decide what to buy for the library collection, and to what extent? This conversation actually ranged from the pressure of public policies/the local authority to the system of packages imposed by some providers of digital resources (only a few resources the library is interested in, but no choice to get them other than pay for the lot). I was surprised no one mentioned supplier selection (I almost did) - maybe it doesn't exist in France?
  • Is classification the last bastion of the librarians, where they are the only ones to decide and they can do whatever they want?
  • The customer as a source of knowledge: should there be a public policy on human knowledge to implement? Example: a living library where actual people are added to the library's catalogue.

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