Back in October last year, I snapped up the opportunity to travel with my partner to Vancouver as he was sent over for work. I spent over a week exploring Vancouver, as well as a couple of days each in Seattle and Los Angeles. Having my days to myself with no partner in tow, I was free to do a spot of library tourism.
I visited the Vancouver City Public Library, Seattle Public Library and the Los Angeles Central Library. I also saw, but didn’t enter into, the library at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the Whistler Public Library. I enjoyed walking around the UBC campus for a gorgeous afternoon, and would someday like to see the inside of the library.
I was curious about a number of things of each library.
- how the spaces were arranged for their communities and what spaces were dedicated to which activities and initiatives such as adult literacy
- the library’s surroundings or where it was positioned within the city area
- how information and the collection was organised and how the signage of each library differed
I haven’t worked in a public library before, nor do I think I’ll intend to, so I viewed the libraries within the wider context, that being an information service (hopefully) delivering on market (community) needs. I experienced the libraries as a new user, a newcomer to the community.
The library space
I found distinct differences in how the spaces were arranged and what surrounded the libraries. Three out of the four public libraries were situated within the city centre, and two out of the five libraries were within close proximity to other cultural institutions. Three out of the four public libraries had coffee shops either surrounding it or in it. Seattle was possibly the biggest out of the three and had the most space dedicated to community use. The Vancouver City Library looked large on the outside, but when you walk inside the complex, coffee shops (with free wifi when you make a purchase) line opposite the front entrance.
Seattle City Library was impressive. Ten or so levels, with most spaces and collections for community use, and had escalators painted fluro yellow so you can’t miss them. A whole level was dedicated to desk top computers and collaborative spaces called ‘The Mixing Chamber’. LA City Library had spaces for adult literacy classes on the main entrance level, opposite the “popular books” section. But I found it strange though that it seemed only participants of these classes were allowed in. A few levels down and I found a room full of computers, and each other level had a section of the collection, which you entered via a door so noise couldn’t travel from the escalator corridor into the quiet study spaces. I didn’t find the spaces in the LA library inviting. You could almost hear a pin drop.
The library staff
Library furniture seemed to impact on the way the library staff interacted with visitors. In Vancouver, the library staff were situated behind desks and generally stayed there. I personally like the idea of a “roving” librarian as this improves the image of friendliness and may even help the staff become better engaged with the library’s visitors. In Vancouver, the impression I received was “I’m here. I’m at my desk but try not to bother me when I’m doing my work” or it seemed like “I’m here. I’m here because I have to be seen as providing a service.” I also thought there weren’t enough staff on hand to deliver timely services to visitors. I didn’t bother to wait for a pass to access the library’s internet. I went to a coffee shop instead.
In Los Angeles, this was taken a step further. The librarian behind the desk was busy working and would only assist visitors when they became “available”.
I thought this sign was appalling. What did this say to me? “I’m here on my special librarian pedestal. I’m so important, much too important to help you connect to the information that will improve your life, and I’ll assist you when I say I’m available”. Pitiful really. I didn’t feel welcome at all.
In Seattle, while again, the library wasn’t without desks (actually I don’t know where I have seen little to no desks at a library) but I did briefly have a happy chat to staff in the library store. I still wasn’t game enough to approach a librarian, but it appeared those at the store were so proud of their library and the library building. They genuinely wanted to be there and show off what the library had to offer. They were incredibly friendly and made me feel like I was meant to be there.
I think what bothered me so much was the way the staff seemed to hide behind these desks. The desks in the libraries were huge, and looked menacing and intimidating to a new visitor. There was no way I was going to walk up there for assistance, I’d use the service as a last resort. And that’s sad. Librarians are not paid to just deliver a service. I believe librarians should also be actively engaged with their communities and find new ways to do so. In this day and age, it’s not an option, it’s a necessity!
Directories and signage
I took photos of all three – Vancouver, Seattle and LA libraries – directories. I thought the directory provided a good summary of the key things to be found in the library. There were slight differences in terminology and how the spaces were arranged. The terms ‘check in’ and ‘check out’ were common to all and this came as no surprise. Groupings of subjects on each floor were relatively similar too but I observed some differences. Seattle and LA appeared to have simpler directories than Vancouver.
- Vancouver library’s directory didn’t indicate where you could speak to staff or check books in/out. But you only had to look to the right of the sign to see the circulation desk.
- Seattle and LA seemed proud of the city and history. Each had a gallery or space – LA library called it “Galleries”, and Seattle called it “Seattle Room”, which I thought was simple and easily communicated what you’d find there.
- “Fine arts” appeared on the Vancouver library directory. In Seattle and LA, just “Music”. Simple.
- LA library included “patents” in their directory, which was located on the business and science floor.
- Seattle library made it clear it delivered disability services, which I thought conveyed a more inclusive message that the library was for everyone.
I really liked the community reading area on the main level of the Seattle City Library. It was called “The Living Room”. I thought this was quite clever. It communicated both the expectations and activity to be found in the space. The terminology was also something people could relate to.
I don’t think a library can get away with not having wifi or internet access. There was a big difference in the number of computers between Seattle and LA compared with Vancouver. I’m thinking this had much to do with the higher number of people in the Vancouver library with mobile devices. Connecting to the wifi was most frustrating in Vancouver (believe it or not). I saw something, a sign perhaps, about free wifi. So I looked around and found my spot where I could catch up on some email. When I connected to the wifi, the log in page told me to go to the circulation desk for a pass. Aaargh! How annoying. Otherwise wifi in Seattle and LA were really easy to connect to and also reliable.
As a LIS Masters student, I found this little exercise valuable to the development of my understanding of information services. As I identified and reflected on different aspects of the service that captured my attention, I found this was testament to the knowledge I’ve already acquired throughout the course. My spot of library tourism has brought ideas to consider and called for reflection about how libraries – over there and at home – are presenting themselves and how they’re reflecting the values and needs of the communities with the services provided. I found walking into a library in a different city was like a lens into the community.
One thing that has stuck in mind is something I saw in the Seattle Public Library – private sponsorship. The library had teamed up with Starbucks to provided the children’s corner. I’m not sure if Starbucks is an appropriate sponsor for such an initiative but nonetheless something I think Australian (or Queensland) libraries should be more open to. Find a local business or franchise that shares the same values of the community and tee up an arrangement that will benefit both. Food for thought.
Initially, I was looking for potential ideas and alternative ways for delivering information (or library) services. What I ended up with was an insight; what I saw provoked thought about what might be working and what isn’t. Admittedly, I don’t get to public (community) libraries as often as I perhaps should. What needs to be re-considered though is the terminology in library directories. It seems this has been at the table for discussion for a while but I’m yet to see anything ground-breaking (I may be wrong). Talking about it isn’t going to change anything. What I do like and find encouraging is the increase in collaborative spaces. QUT library does this well. With more and more people coming in with their own devices, places increasing pressure on internet access, not in the form of computers but wifi and power points.
Following my reflection on the library visits, I’ve come up with some key questions libraries need to ask (or are already asking): -
- What will the community do in this space? What will they want to find?
- What will keep people here longer? What will keep people informed and engaged?
- What can the library do to make the space as convenient, approachable and easy to understand as possible?