FAQ: Policy & Procedures

Recently I was told by a librarian that they have never heard a compelling reason to work on policy. And we’ve all heard some librarian say (or said ourselves) we want practical solutions, not more theory. Some libraries don’t even have a procedures manual, because they think they can just figure things out as they go along–and of course, all the library’s personnel are on the same page, and implement policy equitably, right?

But policy, procedures, & theory are interconnected and all utterly necessary to public library practice.

Policy is not only cover-your-ass legalese considering the worst possible outcomes, but is also a statement of what you are doing and why. It is your first (and 2nd and 3rd…) line of defense against challenges, an outline of your goals and visions, and a map to the services you provide.  It should reveal your hopes and dreams for your community and your library’s place in it.

All of this rests on theory.

You want to make your community better and stronger, right? (I’m going to assume you do, because NO ONE goes into public libraries for the money!) Well, you have some theories on how you can accommodate this desire, which may involve literacies, or making things, or balanced collections, or storytimes, or a caring staff engaged in community affairs. These theories evolve into services and collections through practice and policy.

  • First, you decide x is the thing to do to make the world a better place (this is the theory).
  • Second, you write the roadmap for getting you there (this is the policy).
  • Finally, you follow the map, hopefully in an equitable and helpful way (these are the procedures).

Without a coherent set of policies, grounded in a strong mission statement, and elaborated in a comprehensive set of procedures, it is all too easy for public libraries to get their reputation for fussy, arbitrary, power-grabs. All too often a lack of coherent and visionary policies and procedures reads as “because I said so” bureaucratic bullshit. One staffer will require one set of behaviors, while another staffer allows another. And the rules don’t seem connected to the sense of welcoming, even revolutionary free open-access and social engagement that public libraries are actually about (in my opinion).

In light of public library makerspaces, many people are fumbling around with creating policies and procedures. I have been asked about policies and procedures a lot. I have spoken about the excellent East Troy Library’s makerspace policy, in a previous post.

Now, I’ve revised that policy to something that would have worked well in the library where I was a director, included some of the policies and procedures I created there, and offer you this sample Policy & Procedure Manual.

My goal is to ensure that creative spaces in libraries are socially just. This means that all people should have access to tools and information that they can use to pursue whichever dreams, visions, or ideas they deem fit. This should happen in an environment that is collaborative and supportive, so not only the education, job-skills, or even creative needs of the community are met, but also social and emotional needs, such as confidence, resilience, friendship, wonder, and plain old happiness.

I engineer these goals (my theories!) into the policies and procedures by trying to balance the needs of the many and the needs of the few, ensuring as many uses as possible are enabled, and that all sorts of social-emotional-creative needs are able to be met, instead o simply focusing on “don’t burn yourself on the extruder” types of policy/procedures.


Metaphors of Privilege

Latest discourse analysis of makerspace rhetoric–this one examining the metaphors and metanyms that librarians who offer makerspace services use, versus those used in the professional literature and blogs. The image of the poster looks VERY pink on my screen, apologies if this is true for you as well. You can download the pdf here.

metaphors of privilege

ABSTRACT and references–at least the prepublication version. Please see iConference proceedings for 2015 for the citable abstract.



Policy for library makerspaces

owl oopsI am regularly asked for a policy for a library’s makerspace offerings. I’ve seen many of these, and provided a brief one elsewhere on this blog. But I was thrilled to recently be offered a shot at looking over East Troy Public Library’s policy. East Troy is a small town in Wisconsin, and is part of a group of libraries offering a mobile makerspace. I’ve been consulting with them for the past couple of years.

This file is the DRAFT policy penned by the wonderful director Alison Senkevich, along with my comments and suggestions. While it is not the final, approved policy, I love the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the policy.

My main recommendation: Ensure that a comprehensive procedures book is created alongside the policy to guide specific, quantitative guidelines for staff to follow when training, and ensuring use of the materials is up to the policy’s standards. If they do that, I hope to be able to share that as well!

Let me know if you have ideas, recommendations, or amendments you’d like to propose. The makerspace model in libraries is full of promise, but without strong policy, any makerspace will probably look like the 3D printed owl on the left of the photo above–starting out well, but devolving into chaos. (Note: the cat you see in the background was responsible for this mess. We call her Pandora for a reason–she is the original curious, and destructive, cat.)

East Troy Library General Makerspace Policy_comments


Research in library makerspaces–a good idea?

I was recently at a meeting in which one of the participants challenged the idea that LIS scholars should investigate what occurs in makerspaces “after the fact.” Her point (as I understood it) was that the practitioners should have the skills to pragmatically assess outcomes, instead of awaiting for white-coated researchers to come & tell the practitioners what was “really” happening.

I had to let this percolate a while. Because while she was absolutely spot-on, she was also absolutely missing (part of) the point.

My answer to this critique is that we need both feet-on-the-ground practitioners and theoretically-rich scholars to look at stuff together. Librarians should do outcome measures assessment. AND scholars should do research. Ideally each would help the other do their thing better for the good of the field in general. But I feel like this needs some fleshing out, so I’ll do this here:

  1. Some reasons why practicing librarians could kick ass as researchers

Practicing librarians (contrary to the expectations of some academics, many of whom have never worked in a library) are pretty smart. They are fully capable of the reflexivity, theoretical richness, and careful conceptualization that good research entails. They are not trained to do this, but so what? Anyone can learn anything, and learning research skills, though a complex task, is well within the range of any moderately intelligent person.

Librarians have the added advantage of understanding the complexities of a case—why something relates to something else, why so-and-so does that, and how x caused y. It can take a researcher AGES to learn this stuff, and they never get it all.

Librarians are situated where the action is. Researchers have to make up fake situations (we call them experiments) if we can’t get access to the “real” action. (Yes, there are other reasons for experiments. Whatever.) Researchers are dying to get access to the real empirical data and  interactions, and librarians are marinating in the stuff. Lucky them.

Practicing librarians are already gathering all kinds of data, including survey data and all sorts of metrics.

  1. Why they generally DON’T kick this research-ass

They are not, as I noted, trained in research. They often ask really lousy questions, which are not carefully explicated, and don’t link practice to any sort of overarching theory (all of which could be said about a hunk of LIS research in general). They may or may not be well-read in social theory, and they likely have no idea of the scope of LIS research in general. They often don’t have access to the expensive databases containing the research articles, or don’t read research for a variety of other reasons.

They may be too close to the stuff happening. Reflexivity is possible, but challenging. They also may be too close to see that their stuff is interesting or useful for a general audience. They may have relationships with patrons that both help AND hinder research (I think this is likely a wash, with somewhat more advantages accruing to being situated and participatory already, but I have little evidence to support that opinion).

They may be looking “too” micro at stuff that could be explained with “macro” level theory. Anything from Bourdieu to Heidegger might be useful in conceptually linking what’s occurring on the ground, but they may not know that.

Practitioners are gathering data, but this data may be too inwardly-focused or individualistic to be useful, other than a “how we done it good” explanatory case study. Their outcome measurements might be focused on the “wrong” thing, or at least and unexamined set of assumptions (again, so so so true for LIS research in general).

Here’s an example: at the meeting where this issue came up, the focus was on “learning.” When one focuses on learning instead of other outcomes, one uses a particular set of measuring tools and assumptions that may not be the most ethical ones, the richest ones, whatever. Or they might be exactly what is needed, for very particular reasons. But if those reasons aren’t carefully sussed out, the research won’t be useful at all. Case in point: the “social capital” research done by a few people in LIS (not the awesome Norweigan PLACE studies) doesn’t appear to really understand social capital, uses quirky tools to measure it, and isn’t very generalizable.

Finally, in the interests of time and maximizing service, ideally practitioners would focus on practice, and scholars focus on research, with a lot of partnering up and cross-pollination. In this way, practitioners don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but can add the amazing to a project, and let the academic types do the theoretical backstory work. And academics will add the depth and flavor (in a perfect world) and perhaps even some new points of views to practice. And let’s face it, librarians have enough on their underfunded plate without having to learn research from scratch on top of it.

But, for whatever reasons, some practitioners appear to dislike theory, academic researchers, and the idea of academics doing research in their libraries. Not sure why. Probably LIS does a lousy job of teaching theory and showing how it literally frames every decision we make from the moment we get up in the morning. But I hope more practitioners will start seeing the benefits of partnering with scholars to get grounded, useful research done on topics like:

Library fines—I’m working on this right now. What happens when fines go away? We don’t know, because no one has done the research since 1988.

Library boards—are they helpful or do they hinder? When does which thing happen? Are there best practices we could be disseminating to use our trustees insights while not getting bogged down if they try to micromanage? Don’t know, there’s no research.

Library policies—what happens when you add or change a policy on just about anything? We largely don’t know.

Library programs—there are like 2 things published on these. I exaggerate very slightly—other than the barely-researched-storytime, we know nothing.

And so on. I’m hoping the UWM SOIS Public Library Collaboratory will help to bridge research and practice so we can learn this stuff, and start gathering useful data that practitioners can actually use in their funding, staffing, programming, policy-making decisions. If you are interested in participating in research at your library what would you want to study? How involved would you want to be?