A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Creating Community through Community

by R. Toby Greenwalt on July 7, 2014

I am not ashamed to admit I’m one of those nerds who obsesses over the marginalia in everything. I read liner notes to see who performs on favorite albums. I sit through the end credits of movies. And you better believe I go through the acknowledgements of every book I finish.

If you’re willing to read between the lines, these sections can be a gold mine. But let’s get real: I just want to make sure people are thanking their librarians.

On behalf of the profession, I’ll cop to narcissism here. I can’t say I’ve knowingly contributed to a published work, but I’m always glad to see another publicly funded research expert get his or her due. It’s encouraging to see authors speak about the role the library played during their formative years. But in each of these cases, it can take years or even decades for that individual to connect the library to their success. This is totally gratifying, and one of the main reasons I always read the credits. But I have to be honest: I’m simply not patient enough to wait for this kind of recognition. It’s not just for the authors. We’ve played a part in so many individual successes—better grades, successful job searches, literary obsessions—but we don’t often own our role in the process. It’s time we develop more of an ego about this. The changing nature of libraries stresses a shift to deliberate action on the part of the library, and the sense of “turning outward” espoused by the American Library Association’s (ALA) “Libraries Transforming Communities” advocacy campaign. Documenting these connections serves to recast the library experience in a new light.

At the Pima County (Ariz.) Public Library, former director Liz Miller would often send out congratulatory notes to teachers and coaches any time a student who used the library was noted for his or her accomplishments. “Hearing from the library director made the connection that the library knows what they’re doing and that we care. By acknowledging the library’s role, you create the opportunity to be acknowledged in return,” she said.1

Technology creates opportunities to document this activity in a manner organic to library service. Making these successes visible can inspire new patrons, and create new links between one visit and the next. As this takes root, it builds a better sense of continuity into the overall library experience—creating a space where library services links patrons, departments, and age groups alike.

Finding a Flow

How do we take this practice to the digital realm? Library technology is a complex patchwork of third-party vendor software. Getting these pieces to talk to one another is frequently inefficient and more often entirely incompatible. A true automated solution may not be an option. But we can find better ways to connect those elements of library service that directly connect with our users. By taking a wider view of how library services affect the end user—and ignoring the departmental silos that may have created those services—we can start to build a more deliberate flow through the overall experience.

One way accomplish this is through a continuity audit. Typically, auditing is done by making a huge list of all of these touchpoints. Once you’ve assembled the list, you (or your group) can analyze the list for patterns, identifying the spots that contribute to a net positive or negative experience.

Taking a very close look at all the ways the library “talks” to the patron is a great way to challenge your commonly held assumptions. Several of my colleagues have written about how paying deliberate attention to touchpoints can have a profound effect on how your users experience the library.2 Rather than focusing on the immediate effects of an interaction, performing a continuity audit adds a layer of seeing how all these pieces affect the patron relationship over time. Let’s take a look at how this affects the library experience at three different levels.


One-to-one patron interactions tend to be transactional. Is it possible to turn these transactions into a more meaningful, ongoing relationship? The Multnomah County (Ore.) Library is doing this through its “My Librarian” service, creating a framework where patrons sign up for in-depth readers’ advisory consultations with a dedicated staff member.3 The transaction becomes more intimate due to the deliberate creation of an ongoing relationship.

How does your organization “know” which books a patron has read, or what sources they’ve consulted? Can someone pick up where they left off, even if that person ends up talking to a different staff member? Building an institutional memory into customer relationships might be the next step in this direction. It will take some work to examine the comfort levels (especially with regard to privacy) your organization might have in building a structure that supports these relationships.


The continuity principle also applies to one-to-many services such as library programming and seasonal learning initiatives. How does the relationship with the library change as people move from one department to another? Someone who’s close with the youth services department at age seven might have a more antagonistic relationship with library staff at age fifteen. (Suffice it to say: if your YA librarian is the only one who’s friendly with the high-school crowd, your staff needs additional training.) Building complementary features into your services can help ease departmental transitions for staff and patrons alike. At Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, we are currently looking for ways to link our Labs program (which explores digital media and maker programming for teens) to our Job and Career Enrichment Center. Once the teen “graduates” from Labs programming, we can help transform his or her Labs experience into a marketable career skill. As you look at your own body of services, consider how each one ends. Can the end of one program lead to the start of another?


The social web makes it possible for users to share their library experiences on a many-to-many level, often without any intervention or prodding on the part of the library itself. The library can help facilitate this process by creating easy ways to package their library accomplishments in a social way. My former colleagues at Skokie (Ill.) Public Library created certificates for people who finished the library’s trio of basic Internet classes. Photos of these newly tech-savvy senior citizens made for easy viral content, and helped encourage new users to get their own technology training. Whether you’re using a #madeinthelibrary hashtag, or crowdsourcing photos for a slide show on your website, it’s important to consider how one person’s success at the library can help inspire many others to join them.

We Are Perpetual Motion Machines

In the twelve years since its initial publication, Michael Braungart and William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Pr., 2002) has become an essential text for those looking to understand sustainable design. Using the concept “waste equals food” as a jumping-off point, the authors sketch out a framework for creating systems where the byproducts of one part of the manufacturing process become the raw materials for the next. Chicago facility The Plant (www.plantchicago.com) is one such experiment in this model. Integrating a greenhouse, a brewery, a fish farm, and an energy storage facility, the recovered warehouse is on its way to becoming a completely closed system that sustains its own growth and consumes its own carbon footprint.

Libraries may not be able to create biological systems like The Plant, but we can create our own self-sustaining community information ecosystems. Capitalizing on the overlap between our many resources, we can create feedback loops that connect one library visit to the next. Over time, this will create a through line where library services reinforce one another from one life stage to the next. Making it all happen in public allows the accomplishments of one patron to inspire many others. Taking a closer look at how all these pieces come together allows us to build much stronger, more intentional relationships with the public.


  1. Liz Miller, personal interview with author, May 8, 2014.
  2. Some notable examples: Kate Sheehan, “On Kindness, Libraries, and the Big Picture,” Tame the Web, Aug. 31, 2009, accessed May 27, 2014; and Aaron Schmidt, “Signs of Good Design,” Library Journal, Feb.1,2011, accessed May 27, 2014.
  3. Kelly House, “Your Own Personal Librarian: Multnomah County Library Allows Patrons to Pick Professional Book Advisors Online,” OregonLive.com, Apr. 30, 2014, accessed May 27, 2014.