Molly Raphael: Transforming Libraries

American Library Association President Molly Raphael began her address at the Central Library with an invocational reading: "The best restaurants in the world are, of course, in Kansas City. Not all of them; only the top four or five."

As any Kansas Citian worth his or her celery salt knows, those are the opening lines of native son Calvin Trillin's American Fried, the book that put Arthur Bryant's on the map. In fact, Raphael claims that she and her husband still have -- and still occasionally consume -- sauce from a two-gallon jug purchased at Bryant's 30 years ago.

"Lest you worry that the 30-year-old sauce might have spoiled," she told the audience of nearly 200 in Kirk Hall, "I assure you that nothing could possibly be living in that sauce. It's so hot!"

But Raphael didn't come to KC just to praise our food.

The Missouri Library Association's annual conference was held in Kansas City October 5 - 7, 2011, with most events and activities taking place at the KCI Expo Center.

Wednesday night, October 5, at Central, Raphael outlined some of the biggest challenges facing libraries today and offered solutions for going forward. The title of her speech was "Libraries: Essential for Learning, Essential for Life," and it was previewed by an editorial in the Kansas City Star earlier in the week.

The biggest obstacle Raphael put forth was all about perception. No one in the library profession would argue that libraries aren't essential to the welfare and growth of the community -- indeed, of civilization. Lawmakers and other decision makers, however, tend to view libraries as "ancillary," "discretionary," and just plain "nice to have."

Only by being viewed as critical to a community as police and fire services, Raphael argued, can libraries ensure longevity.

Raphael noted that in the '90s, pundits said that the Internet would drive libraries out of business. That didn't happen, and even now, in the Googlized early 21st century, many libraries are seeing only increases in demand and use.

But how to convince public decision makers that libraries are more than just places to sit and read? According to Raphael, libraries must do three things: (1) meet the unique needs of their communities, (2) build cases using studies and research, and (3) rally users to talk about the transformational power of libraries.

First, in order keep moving forward, libraries must identify the needs of their communities and deliver services to meet those needs in new ways. Raphael used our own Library's well-reputed public programming as an example, saying that our calendar of special events addressed our community's need for discussion and engaging content. (Our Health & Wellness Center could also be considered an example of identifying and meeting a communal need with outside-the-box Library services.)

Other examples of the ways libraries are meeting new needs: focusing on virtual resources; proving portals to content versus access to in-house archives; placing less emphasis on collections and becoming collaborative centers for entrepreneurs and creative people in the community.

Next, to show how libraries impact their communities, we must look not at inputs (i.e. how many books are in the system) but at outcomes. And then we must back those outcomes with research data that shows why they're significant.

A few examples: What's the effect of a summer reading program on children's reading levels? How does an academic library contribute to student learning or attract research funding? By answering these questions with real-world statistics, libraries can show evidence of their value.

Third, Raphael proposed that libraries' approach to self-promotion must change. Rather than telling our stories ourselves, we should tap users to spread the good word. "When we who work in libraries tell our story, there is almost always a perceived element of self-interest," Raphael said -- after all, we're trying to keep our jobs.

But when patrons share their library stories, that element of self-interest disappears, Raphael said. To get community leaders to view libraries as "transformational" rather than "informational," we must encourage users to speak out about how libraries have transformed their lives.

"As a public librarian," Raphael said, "I frequently witnessed the power of people from our community telling our story. I often met with elected officials and other community leaders to talk about our programs and their value. In tough economic times, I knew they struggled with how to make the best decisions they could, including the officials whom I knew valued library services. What I saw time and time again was the profound impact that a parent, or a teacher, or a business leader, or a community activist could have in making the case for us."

Despite a note of urgency in her address (these are still tough economic times), Raphael made it clear that this is an exciting time to be working in libraries. Even in an information-soaked age, libraries remain a transformational force for good. And it's up to all of us -- including our patrons -- to let community, state, and national leaders know.

About the Author

Jason Harper is the web content developer at the Kansas City Public Library. He has been tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, and YouTubing for the Library since 2010.