Libraries as Values-Driven Participatory Culture Hubs
by Brendan Howley
Why libraries? Libraries expand the commons. Public libraries are one of the last truly human places in a homogenized, digital world. We live our daily lives in a digital media Jacuzzi, where everything feels new and novel. Except it isn’t. Libraries matter because they’re the cornerstone and touchstone of shared stories—they embody and set free the culture in which we live.
| Libraries are not only a vital barometer of community prosperity, but the conversations they can spark through programming and social media will redefine participatory culture.
Why should we care? Because libraries ensure the following:
- Diversity of voice
- Social equity
- Transparency and social accountability
- Access to the building blocks of an open society
- Access to trusted repositories of community data
- Access to business intelligence for centers of small business and entrepreneurship
Amazing, isn’t it? There’s more. Libraries are critical community resources because the essence of belonging to the commons is being wrong. Why? Because whenever we engage in a conversation in a commons setting, our belief system changes—it’s how we learn. Being wrong is the beating heart of human exchange. In this sense, social media is almost invariably a fail, a kind of mass distraction. Social media, as usually practiced, is rarely an exchange of views.
Further, we live in a time of accelerating media fragmentation on the one hand, and on the other hand, of acute “massification,” in which many people feel a loss of voice and influence. They are at once socially isolated and completely consumed with their own beliefs. Hence the allegiance to clear untruths and the rise of fake news. This noxious brew is made even more toxic by a tangible collapse in attention span. The polarization of ideology we experience daily hinges on the battle for attention. It’s not a pretty picture.
Not so long ago, in London, one of the great packaged-goods companies of the world announced the future of its branded communications strategy: a 3-second commercial. I shared this story with my redoubtable Auntie Mil, 92, a Londoner and Companion of the Order of the British Empire. “This is a joke, right?” Mil asked. “No,” I replied. “It’s true.”
Understanding the Self
We need what restaurant critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s Ratatouille ordered: some perspective. In other words, what the world needs more than anything else in the hail of media crossfire is context. And this is precisely the public library’s stock in trade.
Libraries aren’t merely an antidote to fake news and the “data-pointing” of human behavior in the age of Big Data—i.e., reducing human lives to points of data in vast databases. To the contrary, libraries are the curators and custodians of what makes most of us— and libraries are profound (and profoundly useful) lenses on reality for the communities they serve.
We are involved in a daily struggle to belong, but on our own terms. The public library’s role is to help us have the tools to grow our interior lives so they can be part of something bigger. Libraries are the living, breathing toolkits for one of the most basic human instincts: to understand the self.
In today’s digital media landscape, the paradox is that mass media, even as it fragments, is struggling to reach smaller and smaller audiences. This paradox extends to the data spun off the analytics studied by those who are monitoring these new-media landscapes. “Small data,” the measurement of local or tribal audiences, seems to be the future of understanding human connection. The upside of this is that because everyone is a potential media channel, we are our own measure of classification. We experience this every evening when we watch Netflix, which is of course governed by highly personalized choices.
None of this will amount to more than yet another spike in social isolation if it not for the sharing of context. Context is how we understand how to relate to one another as we share stories. And isn’t this the essence of libraries? In my last column, I examined the role of libraries and the politics of poverty. Since libraries help us build our own understanding of our own values, they have a profound influence on the value networks that we choose to identify and contribute to.
Value networks drive community value co-creation. And that value co-creation is the essence of our quality of life and prosperity itself. The fact that we as human beings are just beginning to understand how to co-create human value digitally is perhaps one of the great untold stories of our time. We are far from getting it right.
Open Media Desk Update
The Open Media Desk (OMD) project has now reached some 60 library systems, serving in aggregate half the province of Ontario at the end of April 2018. The work with library marketing staffers to understand inferences from social media metrics has yielded three major insights.
First, there is an inherent value in recognizing and understanding patterns of community behavior as revealed by the analytics of shared social media stories. Second, trendspotting, a vital element in understanding how best to design and provide engaging community programming and outreach, naturally flows from social media. Third, we are discovering that elusive audiences—audiences we didn’t know we had—reveal themselves when we understand the cultural triggers that engage their appetite for shared stories.
In other words, storytelling is a community-insight intelligence tool whose application turns the notion that information is something to be pushed at an audience inside out. What we’re discovering, week by week, with OMD is something that appears to be at once compelling and easily implemented: If you know the right stories to tell, you can incite your audience to build your audience.
Now what’s really cool about this is eerily simple: The best stories for libraries to tell are local ones. There has been much talk of libraries as community hubs, as service and knowledge providers within the community. OMD seems to demonstrate a deeper value for libraries. The telling and sharing of local cultural stories is what defines the conversation about community hubs.
The equation looks like this: If you want your library to become a community hub, focus on library programming and outreach that maximize your community’s perception that libraries have changed their mode of contributing to community value co-creation. Libraries are not only a vital barometer of community prosperity, but the conversations they can spark through programming and social media will redefine participatory culture. We see this every week in our OMD sessions. It’s happening.