The Social Physical Library: fostering connections & giving patrons a reason to come inside


The fate of the library's physical space in a digital era often comes up in discussions of libraries' futures. At times, I've found that future physical space hard to visualize, outside of less shelves and neato computers and funky sleek study spaces, etc. (like Dave's fairly standard vision in the most recent strip). I've found it hard to imagine why people getting most of their books/movies/music/reference service through the library's digital branch will come into the library building, unless they don't have their own computers or are coming for storytime (a social experience I think folks will continue to find valuable for a longer while).

This morning, I thought of a reason patrons might come inside. A way to make a visit to the library full of potential for them every time they walk in the door. A "you never know what you might find" kind of a thing. A way to build community, foster local connections, empower our users to learn new things, and accomplish this all--perhaps most importantly, these days--on the cheap.

People love making online connections (Facebook, Twitter), but they want local connections, too--that's why we see Twitter apps to find local people to follow (and resulting tweet-ups), dating apps to let you know if someone single that might be a good match for you is in the same coffee shop as you right now, and to some degree, the success of Foursquare (where you can see who frequently visits the same physical spaces you do). But, while you can freely start chatting with someone local via Twitter, you don't usually feel as free to strike up a conversation with a stranger in physical space. We assume people are on social software sites/using social apps to be social, and it makes them easier to approach, especially if we see we have mutual interests. In person, we have no way of knowing if anyone else in the building is also a big China Mieville fan or also writes Modern Family fanfic or also wants to learn Tagalog, unless by some chance we both have the same phone, use the same apps, and are currently using those apps--and even then we have no way of knowing whether they'd like to talk to or work or study with someone else in person right now.

One of my library system's objectives is to serve as a gathering place. Our mission is to "nourish minds, change lives, and build community together." I know many libraries have similar missions. One way libraries strive to build community is by offering programs--lectures, YouTube viewing nights, open mic poetry readings. Folks come together and hang out with their neighbors with similar interests (if only passively, while  listening to a lecture in the same room together). The thing with events, though, is that people have to a)hear about them, usually in advance b)remember to come to them (if they're still in the mood), etc. They also c)usually require a significant amount of planning on the part of library staff, and perhaps even some money.

What if (in addition to these events) there were neat, social, community-building opportunities for patrons to engage in whenever they happened to step foot in the library? That didn't require planning on the library's part, or remembering on the patrons' part? That were targeted to their own individual interests? That fostered connections between them and their neighbors? That made stopping by the library just to see what's up in the building worthwhile, as opposed to only using the digital branch? That helped people to learn and to better use our resources and our spaces?

Here's what I'm thinking: a living, updated-in-real-time site (somewhat like Twitter or Foursquare in the way it works--and it would need IM capabilities built in), ideally displayed prominently on a large screen in the lobby/entrance, but workable even if it was just on the web via a link on the library's home page (that automatically loads when you use the library computers, and that wireless users can choose to load). The page's content:

Who's Here? (and what are they doing?)

The large prominent screen (almost like a flight status screen at an airport) would be nice because most of us are curious--even if we're just dashing in to the library, not logging on to a computer, we'd glance at the screen to check it out, then maybe find something we want to stay for. You'd automatically look at it when you walked in the door.

But, for cheapness, for budget-cut times, let's say it's just a site or page or "living bulletin board" or whatever would be the most apt word (it won't catch the eye of the dashers-in, but will still attract those who sit down and log in). In college libraries since way back when, there have been whiteboards or blackboards in the lobby where students can leave messages for their friends (I'm in study room A, 3rd floor). This digital page/board could also be a way to leave messages for friends, but, more importantly, it would provide a way to leave messages/invitations for strangers. Fellow patrons, but not necessarily even acquaintances yet.

Patrons can create user names and leave "statuses" if they're interested in connecting with other patrons in the library. You wouldn't log in if you didn't want to be bothered, or didn't want to let people to know you're in the library: you'd only use it if and when you wanted to.

I'm envisioning content like this:

member: burbuja
right now: working quietly, but interested in practicing my Spanish conversation skills. Message me if you are, too, and we can have an informal conversation circle

member: gwangai
right now: reading aloud to my kids in picture book area because we missed today's storytime. Here with your kids? Come on over and we can have our own spontaneous storytime--more the merrier!

member: oliogirl
right now: cramming 4 Moudry's chem midterm. If u r 2 and want a study buddy, holla

member: bellzy98
right now: anyone here have protractor and compass w/them that I could borrow for a few min? Msg me

member: jacksonp
right now: working on my blog about ham radio stuff. Feel free to contact if interested in blog/forming group

member: utherdoul
right now: chess in teen area, anyone?

member: newjillcity
right now: drafting biz plan for my potential new small business. would love to talk to anyone who's done this before or is a running a local small business, to share tips and strategies

member: elloyd74
right now: I bet I can beat you at Boggle

What excites me about this is that unlike, for ex., on Craigslist, you wouldn't have to look for someone to practice Spanish with, contact them, make an appointment and settle on a place, and then meet them there: you're already in the place--your library. Sure, there might not be anyone there that day that wants to practice Spanish. You might not find a connection every time. But some days there will be, or there might be someone who didn't know she wanted to practice her Spanish until she noticed that someone else in the library wanted to--the availability of the option might awaken the dormant or idle interest. Key words: spontaneity, serendipity, community.

I think this could work really well at academic libraries and busy publics, and it doesn't seem like it would be that hard to design and implement. What do you think? Has anyone heard of a library doing anything like this?


Shelf Check #460

Shelf Check 460
A Library Designed for the Post-Print Era (article at Fast Company's Co.Design)



Shelf Check #457

Shelf Check 457


Shelf Check #455

Shelf Check 455


My Video for the It Gets Better Project

[one more cross-post from Poesy Galore--then back to the usual :)]

(some images modified after borrowing from the generous


Being Visibly Queer-Friendly: Please Consider It

[cross-posted from Poesy Galore]

Six GLBTQ teen suicides were reported in the month of September. Six that we know of. Six that made the news.

I urge you, if you work with kids in a library or school or afterschool program or religious organization, to please consider wearing something (or posting something in your office, if kids visit you there) all the time that identifies you as GLBTQ-friendly. At 36, out since 18, I still feel a little lift (and gratitude) when I see a rainbow sticker on a car or posted in a shop window (or, for that matter, a queer magazine with all the other magazines in a library). It still makes a difference to me.

When I was 17, in 1992, a professor of mine wore a pro-GLBTQ button on his bag, and seeing it made my heart beat faster. I bought one and wore it (this was a button that simply said that the wearer supported GLBTQ rights--not that the wearer was GLBTQ) from my dorm room all the way to the bathroom. Then another girl opened the bathroom door, and I turned red and ripped it off before she’d even seen it, and buried it in a drawer back in my room, and even then worried that my roommate would find it when I was out of the room. Just conjuring up that moment for some weird reason makes me feel scared enough, now, to need to pee. I couldn’t wear the button yet (when I came out a year later, things went a bit too far the other way: I hardly had one piece of clothing that didn’t have some kind of queer slogan on it)—but it made a difference, however small, that someone I knew and respected—the professor—could wear it without blinking or even mentioning it, like it was perfectly normal.

I remember that dark swirling feeling I had in high school and the first year of college before I came out, the feeling that if people knew who I was that their stares would crumble my body to dust. I remember blushing a lot, and feeling my stomach sink a lot, and feeling hunted and baited by the few people (I think it was only a few) who suspected. I remember feeling ice cold when I walked by their lockers. I remember feeling like my sexuality was the source of their deepest amusement, their most hilarious joke among themselves. That they daily looked forward to that moment when I would pass by and they could make me pay for who I was, if only with their eyes and cruel, knowing grins.

I was never openly, loudly bullied, and I never had more than three or four people who made me feel bad. I’m trying to imagine what it feels like to have a huge portion of your school—including adults at your school—enjoy making you feel bad, ashamed, sick (that’s right--not just making you feel bad, but enjoying it, thriving on it, feeling a little thrill when you walk by or when they think of some new clever way to attack or hurt you). And then going home and having their intolerance follow you onto Facebook or Myspace or in texts to your phone. Bullying without borders.

As GLBTQ rights are slowly won, each generation of GLBTQ people tends to think that it's easier for the new one coming up. I know I've been guilty of thinking "Well, if I was 11 in 2010 instead of 1985, I'd have come out at 11." In 1985, I didn't even have a vocabulary to describe who I was--I honestly didn't know what "gay" or "lesbian" even meant. In 2010, most kids know what it means. And they see successful, out, unashamed GLBTQ folk, at least on TV. And maybe their schools have GSAs, though I’m sure some kids are afraid to attend meetings (I know I would’ve been—my siblings went to the same school. I might’ve been ready for a GSA, but I wasn’t ready for my family knowing I was interested in one). But perhaps there's a mistake in thinking this stuff makes it easier.

In addition to seeing Ellen and Kurt on Glee, today’s GLBTQ teens are also seeing GLBTQ rights discussed almost every day in the media. Eat breakfast. Wait to see if the country decides folks like you are allowed to be in the military. Pop a Diet Coke. See a photo of Fred Phelps picketing funerals with a “FAG BURN IN HELL” sign. Take a bus. See a campaign ad arguing that you should never be allowed to marry. Right at that moment when change seems to be accelerating--a biracial president! Gay marriage legal in Iowa!--is when we see a huge backlash against the change. People that were passively racist/homophobic/etc become actively so. People, goaded by anger and irresponsible politicians, somehow feel it's okay to make remarks they wouldn't have made before. Hatred in the air and on the airwaves trickles down to kids. Opinions get magnified into passions and crusades.

And there are parts of being a queer adolescent that, even when role models are available and rights are won, are humbling. So entrenched is the default assumption that everyone is straight that straight kids don't have to come out to their parents. And coming out, as long as GLBTQ folks are considered "lesser" (and discussions of sex between generations are considered taboo) in the U.S., isn't easy--even to accepting parents. For one, you usually know your orientation before you're ready for your parents to think of you as a sexual being. And when an 11-yr-old girl tells her parents she has a crush on a boy, they don't respond, "How can you know you're straight when you're only 11?" Queer 11-yr-olds are regularly told they can't possibly know who they are yet. Finally, as long as GLBTQ folks are considered lesser, you might have the feeling that you're disappointing your family, letting them down by being queer, giving them one more thing to have to "deal" with. This is not a great sensation to be running around with as a young teenager.

We can help young queer kids by knowing about things like the It Gets Better project, I'm From Driftwood, and The Trevor Project--and promoting them through posters or buttons or bumper stickers, so kids can see and learn about them without having to ask for them (which they might not be ready to do). We can also help by visibly wearing a button on our lanyards or bags that identifies us as queer-friendly. Kids will notice, even if they don't yet feel comfortable approaching you to talk about it. I wear a "Be Proud at Your Library" button on my lanyard that I whipped up at Zazzle. It costs $2.10 to get a button from Zazzle. They're easy to make. Consider making one--or customizing the one I've linked to (you can change text to "school" or whatever fits your situation)--and wearing it. You can also make shirts, stickers, posters, and more. Note: before buying anything from Zazzle, check at RetailMeNot for promotional coupon codes--Zazzle regularly offers them.

Why buttons and bumper stickers? I think it's extremely important to be visibly queer-friendly out in the world, especially in less metropolitan areas. Some kids aren't ready to attend GSA meetings, and some may even shy away from watching queer-friendly YouTube videos if it's on their home (or even a library) computer. Seeing a car pass by with a friendly sticker while your mom's driving you to your piano lesson doesn't require a kid to pursue anything: it just happens. And we need to reach (and not judge) kids who aren't ready to pursue anything, but may be comforted by seeing a queer-friendly face (or bumper).

Please consider making or buying and wearing or posting something that identifies you as a GLBTQ-friendly adult, and passing this post on or writing your own. We are needed.