A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Rules for Reflectors

by R. Toby Greenwalt on January 8, 2014

It happened again, librarians. We’re at the end of another year, and hopefully all of you are making strides toward 2014 with a certain amount of confidence. I hope this finds you with an eagerness to start things anew—be it a calendar or fiscal year.

But before you turn the page on 2013, take some time to reflect for a bit. Technology has a way of starting something new before the paint has even begun to dry on what just came out. It’s easy to feel like you’re running behind. Jumping on the Next Big Thing bandwagon can be tempting, but you’d be surprised to see just how much you can accomplish when you commit to push a project as far as it can go.

And there has been no shortage of these accomplishments this year. Given that we’re in full navel-gazing mode, I thought I would take the opportunity in this issue to play a little “Where Are They Now?” with all the efforts we’ve chronicled this year.

The movement to build digital literacy skills in libraries is gathering even more momentum. Following its initial launch in July, PLA’s DigitalLearn.org website is starting to take root as a resource hub for many of us working to provide technology training to the public. Featuring discussion forums and tools for exchanging classes, handouts, and other learning tools, the space serves to save many of us from reinventing the wheel. For learners, DigitalLearn’s growing suite of training modules provide a great jumping-off point for those looking to gain basic computer skills.

Things are starting to come together in the quest to better measure libraries’ impact on their communities, too. This year’s Star Libraries Report from Library Journal included discussion of what’s missing from their performance measures, including major trends like public Wi-Fi use.1

PLA President Carolyn Anthony has made better metrics a priority during her term,2 convening the PLA Performance Measurement Task Force to determine new standards for quantifying library outputs. And new assessment tools like the EDGE Initiative ( launching in January 2014) and the Impact Survey will give libraries a more comprehensive understanding of all the moving parts within their technology infrastructure.

And we can’t forget Tumblr! Tumblr has quickly vaulted to prominence within the library world, emerging as a useful means for connecting with adolescent and twentysomething patrons on their home turf. The timing couldn’t be more apt: I’m a part of my local school district’s technology committee. The district recently decided to stop blocking Facebook from their Wi-Fi network, and the collective shrug that came from the student representatives tells me it might be time to move on. Tumblr is also growing as a networking tool within the profession, with more than one hundred organizations and nearly five hundred individual librarians occupying the official #tumblarian register.3

There have also been a number of gains in the field of youth-centric technology. Rather than rolling out an iPad or a Makerbot as a novelty, many children’s librarians are working to integrate technology in such a way that it complements existing learning objectives, such as STEM or early literacy. There are examples of this all over the country, but Chattanooga’s Dev Dev is notable for turning learning to code into a monthlong summer camp, with help from stakeholders in the community.

Finally, there’s much to be said about how libraries are expanding their audiences, looking beyond their immediate patron bases in order to build a critical mass of engaged users. The monthly librarian curated top-ten booklist LibraryReads is going strong since its launch in September 2013, attracting more than 3,400 participants representing over 1,800 libraries to vote on and promote the hottest titles each month. And the National Library Teen Film Festival, spearheaded by librarian Cory Eckert of Gallup, New Mexico,4 just completed its first installment, bringing five finalists together to compete for best short film honors.

All in all, not bad for a year’s work, librarians.

Tips for Taking Stock

So why do we revisit this stuff? Given that I had to re-read all of this year’s installments of The Wired Library before starting this article, sometimes it’s all we can do to simply remember what we’ve done. In other cases, the repetition can help to get the word out to audiences that missed out the first time. Above all, it’s an opportunity to revisit the process, and figure out ways to move the initiative forward.

Whether it’s for a digital or an analog effort, asking the right questions during your reflection process can help your organization become more flexible. Here are a few to help you get started.

Who else needs to know? Who are the stakeholders that can have the greatest impact on your project? Should you talk to your director? Your board? Perhaps an elected official, a member of the press, or a member of a community group? Sometimes, all an initiative needs is for the right person to hear about it. Don’t be shy about talking up your achievements, and don’t forget the old saw about people needing to hear about something multiple times in order for it to sink in.

What stories can you tell? If the stakeholder in question is somewhat wary of technology, it may help to provide some context for how your project will bring about positive change. Frame the initiative in light of your tangible outcomes. If you can create a narrative using actual people from your community, so much the better.

How do you adjust, rather than starting from scratch? Design should be an iterative process. You can’t expect to have a perfectly polished version of your project right out of the gate. How do your endusers actually use the service in question? Is there a cumbersome process to get to it on your website? Do they have to jump through unnecessary hoops to get started? If you can get your patrons involved in your testing—either by asking them directly or by using a screen capture program, such as Silverback, having some direct insights can really help you to see your new service from their point of view.

What’s the ceiling? It’s also important to be realistic about how many people you can target with your project. Using an external site (like Tumblr or Pinterest) or designing a mobile-only tool may get you a built-in audience, but it can come at the expense of users who might come across your service by visiting your website. Consider the tradeoffs, and make sure your the size of your potential audience justifies the amount of work you put into the project.

How can you build continuity? Above all else, it’s important to remember that no library project exists in a vacuum. It’s easy to design a tool (or run a department) without considering how certain rules or procedures affect the rest of the user’s experience in the library. If these procedures are onerous, or if they run counter to procedures in other parts of your organization, you run the risk of making the overall library experience more frustrating for your customers.

Taking a more thoughtful approach with this process can help you to consider how all your services fit together organically. Take something like the Harvard Library Innovation Lab’s Awesome Box,5 a book drop for any item a patron deems sufficiently awesome. Typically the act of returning an item to the library has a sense of finality to it—you drop off the book, and that’s it. Returning the item to the Awesome Box records the item’s record and posts the title to a website. Others can visit the site to see what’s awesome and place holds. What was once a terminal action is now a springboard for conversation and further use of the library. There are opportunities like these all over your library, if you’re willing to look for them.


  1. Keith Curry Lance, “LJ Index 2013: The Case for New Outputs,” Library Journal, Nov. 1, 2013, accessed Dec. 4, 2013.
  2. Carolyn A. Anthony, “New Measures for a New Era,” Public Libraries 52 no. 4 (July/August 2013), accessed Dec. 4, 2013.
  3. Kate Tkacik, “Tumblarians: Libraries/Librarians on Tumblr,” The Lifeguard Librarian, accessed Dec. 4, 2013.
  4. As far as notable library efforts are concerned, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another effort Eckert helped spearhead. Storytime Underground is a resource-sharing network devoted to highlighting best practices for making storytime a memorable experience.
  5. Annie Cain, “Awesome Box Pilot,” Harvard Library Innovation Lab Blog, accessed Dec. 4, 2013.