Reflections on the Night Library

Posted on March 20, 2019

This guest blog is by ELGL member Stephanie Chase, the director of the Hillsboro Public Library in Hillsboro, Oregon.

About a week ago, at the end of February, Twitter user Erin Glass posted the following tweet:

[alt text: “what if public libraries were open late every night and we could engage in public life there instead of having to choose between drinking at the bar and domestic isolation” -- Twitter user @erinroseglass]

The tweet sparked a lot of conversation, and what was perhaps most interesting to me was how quickly (and, I thought, overwhelmingly) the dialogue from public library staff turned negative. Initial response was to laugh, or call the idea ridiculous, or to turn it into a referendum on our pay,

[alt text:  “Cool but you better pay a living wage” -- Twitter user @HalpernAlex]

or by calling discussion around the idea “humoring” a “whim”:

[“...but sure let’s continue humoring the #nightlibrary whim of the public…” -- Twitter user @loxxness]

Basically: to talk about all the reasons public libraries couldn’t do this, instead of why we could, with a hefty dash of throwing the ideas of a user under the bus.

As my colleague Andy Woodworth said, the vibe was “this is the worst idea ever and how. dare. you. suggest it to us… it had all the professional courtesy of an acid bath[.]”

It’s simply not acceptable to respond to our public in this way, and it’s not good for the future of local government services, either.

Of course our communities want longer hours for our services, and of course, any extension or expansion of service needs to have a review of resources. Adding another entire work shift to keep public spaces open late (or, say, open the library at 6am for storytimes and coffee klatches for seniors, or the City’s permitting desk at that same time to match construction work schedules) without additional funding is only one way to respond, and not the most sustainable way.

But for us to attack a community member for an idea for service? To belittle them because that idea didn’t come with a full (and executed) funding plan? That’s a true shame.

As an innovator, I believe the only way we can get better is by thinking about what’s possible, instead of what’s impossible.

Brainstorming methods ask us to create first, and analyze second; we can solve problems by changing our perspective. At the Hillsboro (OR) Public Library, one of the methods we like best for reframing our thinking is the “Beautiful Constraint” method of Mark Barden and Adam Morgan of marketing consultancy eatbigfish.

Highlighted in the book of the same name (and more quickly accessible through a variety of videos on YouTube), the method asks us to combine a bold ambition with a significant constraint to create a propelling question; Barden and Morgan’s research shows constraints stimulate asking new questions and inspire more creative solutions. In this Night Library situation, that propelling question could be something like:

How can we provide Night Library service (keep the public library open until 11pm) without adding additional staff, and without negatively impacting existing staff and services?

The Beautiful Constraint method asks us to re-engage with the idea by returning to brainstorming, seeking to answer the question through a variety of “Can-If” statements. The book has a great selection of potential “Can-If” statements, designed to help re-frame our thinking. For example:

  • We can provide Night Library service if we resource it by asking current staff if they would like to work a night shift, instead of assuming we have staff who would not want to.
  • We can provide Night Library service if we substitute night hours on Fridays for morning hours on Fridays.
  • We can provide Night Library service if we fund it through private-public partnership.
  • We can provide Night Library service if we think of it as self-service time for users and have fewer library staff.

This method is a great way to take the first step of transforming something that seems impossible into a challenge to see whether we can make it possible. What if instead of thinking a public library (or local government) can only do so much, we instead considered that the possibilities can be endless, with the right resources (funding, partnerships, volunteerism, community engagement,  grants and donations, and so on)?

Every potential new idea is an opportunity to reflect on whether our own definition of service and purpose needs to be reconsidered or redefined in light of community input. It is our responsibility to figure out whether an idea floated by a community member and user of our local government services is or would be a priority in our community, and then seek, even if it is long-term, to make those priorities reality.

After all,

[alt text: “Landing man on the moon didn’t have a solid funding plan.” Twitter user @brendanfitz]

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