Libraries and building communities

These notes come from a talk I attended earlier today at the National Library of Australia on building online communities. The speaker was Chrystie Hill, Director of Community Services at, from Seattle, WA.

It was interesting to hear about her journey as she spoke using stories, and didn’t just regurgitate facts.

She spoke of the shift in services for things like reference – both physical and in the virtual world. She experienced this when being educated. She has worked in the Seattle Central Library and says that the space is now much better to work in. Then she introduced her four seminal realisations (my term, not hers):

See The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg is about connections between people: pubs build communities.

She also spoke of John Seely Brown and The Social Life of Documents (on FirstMonday): documents build communities.

And Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam and the decline of civic engagement & social capital in US: capital and networks build communities.

Is your library relevant to you (& your needs)? She said hers wasn’t (at the time) and her most important need was to know what her friends were doing: individuals build communities.

Libraries were not accepting their role as community builders (maybe they still don’t understand that role at all?). But US public libraries became carriers for public Internet access in the 1990s. Eventually home and work use of the Internet also grew. People soon began to find themselves on the web – publishing, subscribing & sharing. It became a story of communities and collaboration on a scale never seen before. Now libraries (& librarians) have to be involved to stay relevant. It is about conversations. It is about people who are saying “here is what I am doing”. People sit behind all the tools and experience. It is also about what your friends are doing. So many tools are now available that it can seem overwhelming, so step back and look at what is behind it all.

So, where is the library?

People are finding their own answers easily on the web themselves. Library use is going down while use of email, online bookstores and search engines is going up!

Can libraries cope where the stuff isn’t completely organised or controlled? Probably not. Many public libraries are closing in the US because they lost their relevance and then they lost their funding. See Content, not Containers (an Information Format Trends report from OCLC, 2003).

Do libraries just = books? Do our users think of us for other information needs? Do we just stop making it feel like church?

She then went back to the new Seattle City Library (image appears above in this post) and said it is what a library should look like (if only!). Real visitation went up 300% in its first year. Public access computer use quadrupled. Its spaces are very inviting and its services are very innovative: multi-lingual programs; online assistance; teen services (via MySpace) – with 50% boys participating!. They are building communities daily and get 1,000s of teens involved.

She said we must do better jobs in all libraries. Online tools help us to see our roles as connectors, facilitators, and community builders.

Currently, Chrystie is writing a book and blogging (one of several). She spoke for a while about the work of – helping to build relevant vibrant, sustainable libraries in every community. Most content comes from members and partners. All of it is wrapped around social engagement. Public access computing and personalisation services were key to this and to building real communities.

What do they do?

They connect, create and learn:

Connect: using wikis, (others follow this without it being promoted, they just find it – they just use one tag to share stuff for all, eg. we could use AWMWSG or AWMRC), micro-blogging (they use Twitter), phone, Flickr groups, Facebook groups and events, and alternate spaces (eg. LinkedIN, engaging widely!)

Create: blogs and wikis, (I suspect schools might find this easier to find than our content on or our blocked content on YouTube), and staff are encouraged to contribute elsewhere (blogs, publications, etc.)

Learn: active learning is encouraged, staff/members are surveyed – What was your greatest achievement last year? (part of bi-annual member survey on – results were visually presented in a tag-cloud), speaking engagements, blogging internally and externally encouraged for all staff.

So what does this mean for us at the Memorial? I think we are heading in the right direction. We are not there yet, but we’ve made a good start and even though we might complain about some restrictions placed on us by out IT staff, they have already facilitated much more freedom and innovation in our organisation than many, may others (judging by the tone of questions asked of Chrystie). Our management too have been both supportive and visionary. How many national cultural institutions can boast that they now have these words as their first listed corporate priority for the 2008-2011 period: “Enhance online access through use of emerging web technologies and improved web content”?


  1. Kent

    Thanks for the summary – I was wondering what sort of restrictions are placed on your activities by IT staff, and your ideas for working around these. (Is it by blogging on external sites? Having youtube, etc host your content? Or are the problems deeper/core business?)

  2. Mal Booth

    Compared to many people elsewhere (in the goivernment, cultural and education sectors), we don’t really seem to suffer from the same restrictions on internet access. AWM staff have access (for work purposes) to sites such as YouTube, external blogs, Facebook, Flickr, Ning, etc. Access is granted in order to encourage staff to learn about the use of and possibilies for us to use social media. We have our own blogs, using WordPress (eg., but the content on those are usually kept to posts about our collections, exhibitions and military history.Just a personal opinion here, but I often think that the last people who should be making internet access decisions in organisations are the IT staff.

  3. chrystie

    Wow! This is a great summary of my talk. Thank you so much for the notes and for your commentary on how your library is doing.My sense from my travels in AU while I was there (very short time) is that your situation may be exceptional. Everywhere I went, people asked me questions about how to get and retain access to the Internet and to tools of the participatory Web; this has been a problem in US school libraries (still is) but public libraries generally have access (but may still have their own limiting policies). Thank you for leading in many ways for other libraries. Having examples to draw from – even when we “fail” – is extremely useful to libraries trying to make the case for continued access, experimentation, and evolution towards retaining our relevance to the communities we serve.Please, keep in touch! Cheers.

  4. Mal Booth

    Hey Chrystie, great to hear from you. I am glad that you liked my notes. I liked your talk. I was sure that we were doing the right thing when some colleagues who went told me that there was nothing much that was really new in your talk, because I know that is not generally the case in Oz, as you say. It was very satisfying for me because it meant that we had probably been not wasting our energy over the last 18 months or more. I loved the way you introduced concepts through stories (& I hope I can follow your lead with some big talks that I have coming up!) and avoided using heaps of slides full of dot points. I will definitely try to stay in touch. Thanks again for your insights and inspiration.I

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