Blog Written by Morgan Ritchie-Baum, MLIS
In a recent Pew Research study, 65% of adults said that libraries help them grow as individuals, and 49% mentioned that libraries help them focus on things that matter in their lives. While these statistics are encouraging, Library Anxiety is a real phenomenon- the idea that even when one is in need of a librarian’s help, libraries can be pretty overwhelming spaces, which stops many patrons from asking for the help they need. Further, from searching for the best electric shavers in Consumer Reports to navigating online job applications, these quests for information can be highly intimate and personal. As a graduate student in the Department of Library and Information Studies (LIS) at UNC Greensboro, and as a volunteer in my local library’s downtown reference department, I became interested in how public libraries can leverage resources and space to create environments that encourage patrons to seek out help when needed and to empower individuals and communities with the information and tools they need to be successful in their own lives, on their own terms.
Enter Impact Through Innovation Kickbox. As part of my final coursework for my graduate degree, I had the opportunity to explore how innovation thinking could help libraries create more comfortable and accessible spaces for those seeking assistance. With a small cohort of other LIS students and the support of the library at which I volunteered, I explored how we could design resources and space to better support digital literacy education. The “ideate” step of Kickbox – seeking input from sources both within and outside the field, seeking insight by actively observing and thinking divergently about the problem – shifted my entire perception of researching and problem solving. I talked with individual experts in several seemingly unrelated fields – professionals working with individuals experiencing homelessness, IT professionals, educators, and the library patrons themselves. By asking questions, discussing observations with my cohort, and feeling free to think through “bad ideas,” I began to combine, capture, and investigate potential “solutions” to the problem I was considering. Ultimately, I presented an idea that built on a current library program – one that provides library patrons with one-on-one tech assistance – but was informed by insights gained through the ideation process. My proposed program would create a space with both the digital tools patrons needed and dedicated help from community members. Community volunteers could engage with patrons that needed help and give patrons space and time to problem-solve for themselves, knowing that access, help, and support were ready when they were. The ultimate goal of the program was to “graduate” patrons from needing digital literacy help to offering that support in their own communities – taking the skills and help received in the library and sharing those outside the library, where they live and work.
With the support of ITI Kickbox, and through interactions with my cohort, teachers, library staff and patrons, I discovered the benefits of having “bad ideas,” experiencing unexpected turns, and heading back to the drawing board. There is so much to learn from this process! I was able to present my idea to the library’s administration and, although the program may not have become part of the services offered by the system, I participated in an engaged conversation about what could work and what wouldn’t work. I believe a program and service like mine could really “move the needle” in terms of how public libraries provide information and instruction and, ultimately, empower communities. Today, as a reference librarian in a public library I regularly discover opportunities to share, connect, practice, and relearn the tools and processes introduced to me via ITI Kickbox. For me, embracing questions, finding answers in unexpected places, and giving myself the opportunity to reframe perceived failures have truly opened a world of innovation!