I’ve been looking at previous attempts to document libraries (public libraries in special) through narratives from librarians and users, oral or text, with the aim of trying to identify gaps and fruitful themes, have a perspective of how these narratives have been/are being published, and use them as a basis for how the interviews I’m planning to run myself with public librarians and library users should be followed, what to ask with what objectives, and how to best publish them.
Here is an account of the main reference works of this kind (‘documenting the library through narratives’) I’m taking in consideration for my research; they are five in total, and I’ll split them in three different blog posts. This one is the third and last.
4. Public librarians on blogs and social media
As librarians work with information technologies, and as most of these aim at enabling and accelerating communication, we can find lots of narratives and other kinds of documents about libraries provided by librarians throughout the World Wide Web. They are not unified or organised in one place, though; they are many many fragments of the contemporary librarianship profession (keep in mind I’m always referring to the anglophone world here) which can be found on Twitter, WordPress blogs, Institutional websites, Facebook, Instagram…
If one aims to study 21st century librarianship in the UK, for example, she can do so by approaching ‘the Web as archive’ and look at librarians’ activities and communications online to try to understand it. As Professor of digital humanities Jane Winters put it: It is hard to imagine how one might study the history of the developed world in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century without recourse to the archived web. The traditional tools of the historian’s trade—newspapers, letters, diaries, the records of government and business—are commonly, and in some instances now solely, online. Some of these have been transformed—think of the relationship between, and intended audience for, a paper diary and a blog – while others are broadly similar in form and purpose but the method of delivery and consumption has changed. Our primary sources are increasingly on the web, whether we like it or not, and this is a trend which is unlikely to be reversed any time soon. (‘Coda: Web archives for humanities research—some reflections’. In: The Web as History)
Tumblr webpage I work at a public library, for example, shows ‘stories written, curated, and edited by Gina Sheridan’, a public library manager in St. Louis. More than all else it is about glimpses of curious library situations and interactions with library users, presented in mini narratives. Local Studies librarian of Kensington Central Library Dave Walker, on the other hand, came up with a blog (which according to himself ‘is’s been a huge success’—it does look like people like it!), The Library Time Machine, in which he posts contents of the library’s archive, mainly photos, with comments and information from the archive itself but also from his own vast knowledge about the area—his local studies librarian knowledge. It is pretty impressive, with beautiful photos and often funny observations. By his own initiative, he keeps this blog that really opens up to anyone the Kensington Central Library’s Local Studies content. Not really about the everyday of the public library, but more about the kind of material that a local studies public librarian has in hand and knows (a lot) of.
Then there are the blogs that are kept ‘collectively’ like Shelf Talk, which is ‘is created and maintained by the staff of The Seattle Public Library’, with content about books they recently acquired, book recommendations and reviews, events at the library and in the city, some interviews with authors, and more. Similar to this is the Islington (Council) Libraries account on Twitter @Islingtonlibs, as an example here from London, which also helps publicise the council’s news. Justin Hoenkes’s @JustinLibrarian Twitter account is a mix of the things we can find in public libraries’ ‘collective’ blogs and social media accounts and more personal librarians’ blogs, plus personal non-library related content—all very interesting for an anthropological study of 21st century public librarians!
A few observations to take from all of this to my research:
• Personal ‘self-documentation’ of public librarians’ activities and perceptions are essentially result of personal efforts, like Dave Walker’s; there’s no current institutional support for librarians to document their own narratives and think of ways to document themselves nor the library and its activities, to ‘document the documenter’;
• ‘Curious incidents’ and funny interactions with public library users make nice little stories, good anecdotes, but in my view they seem to lack meaning. Someone in future might be interested in studying exactly this kind of communication, but in terms of ‘documenting the public library’, I’m not sure if this kind of ‘document’ is specific enough—perhaps they don’t differ much from anecdotes a bookseller has to tell about the everyday in a busy bookshop, for example. Anecdotes like the ones from I work at a public library, then, might be good to reveal aspects of the basic human interactions that may happen in a public library, but cannot replace more comprehensive, non-anonymous, more contextualised accounts from librarians and users to be captured and kept as historical document of the library;
• It would be great to have all this self-documentation of libraries and librarians in an unified, searchable platform (which isn’t Google)—well that is what I’m aiming for with housing interviews with librarians and library users in Layers of London. WordPress and Twitter might give a feeling that we are more connected than we actually are; lots of libraries and librarians talking about similar issues and doing similar things but not actually talking to each other;
• Once again, the missing public library user—except when he figures as the funny/lost/agressive/loving anonymous character in anecdotes written by librarians; unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a blog called ‘John the public library goer’ or a Twitter account of a ‘@JoannaLibraryUser’. I really must do my best to reach out to these silent users and give them a voice. (Spoiler: won’t be easy, and I predict that by the end of September I will have much fewer interviews with public library users than I initially planned and hoped for);
• If I want to run meaningful interviews I must first look thoroughly into this online life of the public library; one of the libraries I’ve been planning to contact is Finsbury Library, part of Islington Libraries, so I have to make sure I’m updated on their activities and the kinds of things they’ve been doing before running the interviews. Even though some questions to be asked about public libraries are a bit generic, more specific ones can be thought as a way to get closer to the reality of that library—the principle of public libraries may be universal, but each local library is unique.
5. Mass Observation Archive
Librarian, library historian and academic Alistair Black has used the Mass Observation archive in order to understand what kind of historical perspective we can get of Britain’s public libraries from records and diaries of public library users. He wrote two articles with his findings: In the public eye: A mass observation of the public library (with Melvyn Crann, 2002), and The past public library observed: User perceptions and recollections of the twentieth-century British public library recorded in the Mass-Observation Archive (2006).
About the Mass Observation itself, we learn from their website that ‘The Archive values the importance of capturing and using records of everyday life. At the heart of its work is safeguarding these records for inspiring learning and research and ensuring they continue to be made available for future generations’. It does sound a lot like what I am attempting to do with interviewing librarians and library users and uploading these documents to Layers of London. So it would be very useful to understand what Black found in the MOA’s records and if he believes this kind of information is valuable in terms of historical research.
The Mass Observation Project, which has been running since the 1980s, involves ‘450 volunteer participants on the Mass Observation writing Panel. These writers (often known as “Observers”) respond to “Directives”, or open-ended questionnaire, sent to them by post or email three times a year. The Directives contain two or three broad themes which cover both very personal issues and wider political and social issues and events. Some examples of Directive themes include: ‘The countryside’; ‘The Big Society’; ‘Age and Care’; ‘What makes you happy?’.
From the ‘List of MO Directives from 1981 to the present‘, we learn that two recent editions involved public libraries: 57) Summer 1999: The Public Library; Body Piercing & Tattooing; Current Events; 76) Autumn 2005: Sex; Public Library Buildings; Hurricanes in the USA. This is the 1999’s directive sent to Observers about ‘The Public Library’ (click on it to be redirected to the original pdf file on the MO website):
This questionnaire is very useful for me to think about the questions to ask to the public library users, and also to the librarians. Even though the archive of answers of the Observers can be accessed only in-site (in Brighton), it would be interesting to try to build on this work and ask questions that can provide material for comparisons. From their analysis of the public library from MO’s Observers perspectives, Black & Crann concluded:
”The main aim of the ‘Mass Observation of the Public Library’ was to generate an extensive ‘open access’ public commentary on public library activity and status; on where the public library stands in the public eye. This aim has been achieved in that over 200 narrative testimonies on the contemporary public library are now deposited with the MOA and are freely available to researchers. It is hoped that the project will serve to publicize the MOA approach as a complement, or alternative, to the range of social science methods currently employed in the library and information studies and services fields. There is no reason why periodic large-scale MOA surveys of public library users cannot be conducted in the future. Also, it may be in the interests of library authorities to mount local mass-observation exercises along similar lines. Further, the testimony collected inevitably provides, as a by-product, a valuable source of evidence for research by future analysts and historians of the public library; serving not only as a primary historical source but also as a temporal benchmark against which future investigations can gauge changes in attitudes to, and use of, public libraries.” (‘In the public eye’, 2002)
The approach of Mass Observation allows them to build quite a large archive of responses; it is clear that my approach, that is, the non-anonymous and personal recording of people’s voices, lacks the possibility of multiplication. However, I do not think that either Mass Observation or The Interviews with Librarians and Users for Layers of London are dealing with the matter ‘how much is enough’, or ‘how many people’s records should I have to be representative?’. I do not believe these are the right questions, as these projects do not aim to provide generalisable, ‘representative’, stories and documents; instead, they aim to provide an archive for future investigation, and it is on the hands of the future researcher that will look into these materials to understand them as documents in an archive and what they mean as such. What I can do in building and providing this archive is making available as much context as possible, and as much information about how and why it is being put together the way it is as I can. Of course, when I come to the point of having a corpus of interviews, I can look at it with critical eyes and point out the limitations and problems of the collection, but it is clear that it is not a survey aiming at maximising fidelity to reality and making probabilistic projections and calculating accurate statistics; it is rather a web archive of documents.
Following this series of analysis of ‘ways of documenting the library through narratives’, I can proceed to coming up with better, meaningful questions to ask to the interviewees, as well as better locate my project in relation to other previous similar endeavours. In a next post, I will try to describe in more depth the Layers of London website, what are my views about it, and why it is the place I chose to house the ‘Interviews with Librarians and Users of Public Libraries’ collection.