Thursday, June 20, 2013

A personal visit to The Urbana Free Library

Yesterday morning (Tues 17th June 2013) I found myself at the Urbana Free Library, which is the focus of a lot of attention in library land at the moment. I count it as a professional privilege to have spent two hours with some of the most inspirational public library staff I have ever met. Here I offer a few observations and opinions based on my visit to the library.

I’m travelling through the USA for the next two weeks on a VALA Travel Scholarship, investigating existing and planned projects where fibre-broadband rollouts affect libraries. The twin cities of Champaign and Urbana in Illinois were my first stop, and I met with lots of people from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, The Champaign Public Library, the University’s library service, UC2B (the Champaign-Urbana broadband company) and The Urbana Free Library. It was a wonderful and inspirational two days.

That morning the local paper’s front page had a story about the library issue creating a lot of news and concern with some people. At the library, I toured the building and spent about an hour speaking with Joel Spencer and Amber Castens, both Adult & Teen Services Librarians. While touring the library, I acknowledged that I had read the news and was aware of the comments about the library. They didn't shy away from the issue, and it came up briefly several times during our discussion. I didn't press them on any details, because I was there for other reasons. So we had no in-depth discussion about details, people, decisions, and repercussions.

Two things stood out for me.
1) Joel and Amber are two of the most quietly committed, passionate, caring public library staff I have ever had the privilege to meet. I only spent two hours with them, but you know the feeling you get about people – it’s the way they talked about their jobs, their community, the people they served. You know these people are here for the love of the job, not the pay or conditions.

2) That afternoon as I skimmed some of the ‘news’ and opinions about the issue at Urbana Free Library, I quickly became concerned that some decisions, by some people, and the reactions and responses by some people involved in the library has tarred the whole library staff and service with a similar brush. 

We all know that issues are complicated, and it’s easy to oversimplify. It seems this issue has a way to run, so before taking up the pitchforks and racing to the barricades, please take a moment to consider that this is a real workplace, with real people. From my visit, some staff appear to me to be doing a wonderful job delivering some amazing library programs to a community with more than its fair share of challenges. It’s OK to make observations and constructive criticism, but please tread carefully and professionally. 

Joel and Amber; Rock on – you’re my new library heroes.


**Update, Tues 24th Sept 2013 - I've just come across this post by Martin Wolske about Urbana Free Library. The piece is a considered and mature reflection on the Urbana Free Library, and I'd encourage you to read it:
Martin is a Senior Research Scientist in Community Informatics at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois. I had the pleasure of speaking with Martin (via Skype) while I was visiting Champaign-Urbana. 

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