Librarians don’t own public libraries, communities don’t own public libraries, the individuals who make up our communities own public libraries. That ownership comes with privilege, and it comes with responsibility.
Have I mentioned yet my conviction that libraries are about people? They are not about buildings or collections or how many computers you have available. Libraries are about people exchanging ideas to create knowledge. R. David Lankes provides suggestions in the Facilitating Thread of The Atlas of New Librarianship regarding the how-to of creating libraries that invite people into a conversation they feel motivated to pursue and that engender an environment in which members feel safe to share their opinions and seek further inquiry. He discusses access, knowledge, environment, and motivation. One particularly thought-provoking example of the relationship between library, librarian and member that appears early in the chapter (page 65, to be exact) is that public libraries are not public spaces, they are civic spaces. This subtle difference in language is an important one, as the word “civic” carries with it connotations of responsibility and belonging while the word “public” denotes openness and accessibility. While we certainly want our libraries to be accessible and open to our members, it is important for our members to understand that with their membership comes the opportunity of responsibility.
I realize “opportunity of responsibility” sounds like a phrase your mom might have used when trying to get you to clean up your room; but I’d like to challenge you to think about the real opportunities that are available to you when you take responsibility for something. When you take responsibility for an idea, an activity, or a group, you define and enhance your ownership of it. Library members who feel a sense of responsibility toward, and ownership of, their libraries empower themselves to be involved in collection development decisions, collection access decisions, and policy making decisions. Librarians who take the time to facilitate learning about making effective choices regarding these responsibilities benefit by working with library members who are more invested in the well being and vitality of their libraries. Putting responsibility for our libraries in the hands of our members gives us all power.