Ditching The Hype and Focusing on The Community

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This is where I live. This is the community I serve.

Like a computer our brains need to be restarted every once in awhile. Events and shifts over the last few years of my life have made me realize this. I no longer work to only serve kids, tweens, and teens. I no longer live in an urban area. I no longer live in a world which I fully understand. My life these days is very different than what it used to be, and with that I feel the need to reset myself. This post is an attempt to put this reset into practice using words to coalesce my thoughts into one coherent belief that moves me forward in my work as a librarian.

I believe that a strong part of the future of public libraries will be in focusing our efforts and services on a hyperlocal level. This differentiates from where I believe public libraries are focusing their efforts now, which is looking outwards towards everyone else in the profession to see what they are doing before acting themselves. No more is this apparent to me than the recent effort for public libraries to shift a lot of focus towards STEM/STEAM/Makerspace/Coding efforts. Please do not get me wrong: I believe in teaching and exposing citizens to things such as these, yet at the same time I do not believe in a one size fits all solution that can be applied to every public library. This is the case here, as it was with eBooks and any other “trends” in recent history.

The idea that we should be focusing our efforts and services on a hyperlocal level instead of looking outwards towards everyone else in the profession is doing became clear to me when I was completing a survey sent to me by our State Library. In that survey, participants were asked about STEM/STEAM/Makerspace in public libraries and nothing else. I understand that the point of the survey was to better understand the libraries in my state, but while reading it I thought of the following scenarios as I imagined another librarian in my state reading the email:

  1. The State Library is focused on STEM/STEAM/Makerspace in public libraries and we’re not doing this at all so we must be very behind.
  2.  The State Library created a survey about this, so it must be very important and I must get behind this trend even though I do not know if it is right for my community.
  3. I need to learn more about all things related to STEM/STEAM/Makerspace in public libraries and if I do not I risk losing patrons and support.

I understand that not everyone will follow one of the paths that I laid out above, but many will.  Human beings are creatures of habit and enjoy following the leader. There is probably something embedded into our DNA that makes us this way.

The problem with following the hype and trend of the moment is that it is usually fixated on something that worked well for one particular library and that it does not translate well to other libraries. When I lived in Portland, ME I felt like my library was focused on what happened everywhere else and the idea that “if they’re doing, we should be heading that way too.” In reality, Portland was its own very unique community that needed a specific set of programs and services. A huge part of why I moved to the Chattanooga Public Library in 2013 was because they were looking (and still do) at their programs and services on a hyperlocal level. Programs like DEV DEV, The 4th Floor, Makeanooga, and many more worked and continue to work because they are programs for that community, not programs that were copied/pasted from what someone else in public libraries was doing.

Why are we at where we are now? I believe that social media, large organizations, and large publications have led the charge towards public libraries focusing outwards towards everyone else in the profession instead of inspiring those in the profession to think for themselves and focus inward on their communities. A culture of “here’s how to be successful with your public library in 5 easy steps” combined with ego boosting catchphrases like “rock star librarian” have not helped us but instead presented public libraries with the path of least resistance.

How do we change the conversation? 

  • We need more public librarians out there willing to share their stories about how their focus on a hyperlocal level is benefiting their public library and their community. To start, I recommend following the work of librarians and libraries in New Zealand and Australia. You can do that by starting here with this Twitter list that I have compiled. The work done by the people and organizations is focused, inspiring, and uplifting.
  • Share through any platform that you feel comfortable with. I personally would like to see an increase in public librarians writing more and maintaining their own blogs or Medium profiles
  • Remind each other that our communities come before everything and to keep the message positive. Support and reminders from other public librarians is one way that we can spread the message that we need to focus our work locally.

Ditch the hype. Don’t copy and paste. Focus on your Community. This is what I believe to be the path forward.

Community Engagement Projects in United States Public Libraries by Frances Tout

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Everyone needs a pick me up and some inspiration from time to time, and Frances Tout report titled Travelling Librarian 2015: Community Engagement Projects in United States Public Libraries (for a pdf of the report click here) was that inspiration for me today. I was originally pointed to it by a colleague who said “hey, part of your work at the 2nd Floor at the Chattanooga Public Library is mentioned in this piece.” It was super nice to read about the positive experience Frances had during her visit to the 2nd Floor. I was and remain very proud of that place. It was a great chapter in my life! Much love to Lee Hope, Vicki Prater, Kaye Rose, Olga Russell, Janice Keene, LaDonna Spruill, Ali Banks, Jessie Meyer, Alondra Gomez, Victoria Caldwell, Megan Emery, and many, many others that helped build the 2nd Floor and make it what it is today. It is really neat to see all of that work live on.

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Thanks for the kind words Frances!  🙂

The big takeaways I got from this excellent report were as follows:

  • The emphasis (in US Libraries) is now very much on programming rather than stock.
  • Every library’s community is different, engaging with communities and meeting the needs of individual communities is vital, there is no one size fits all when it comes to programming

It’s great to read these things when you’re in the middle of them. It reaffirms the work that we do and why we do it.

Follow Frances Tout on Twitter @francestout
Read more from Travelling Librarian 2015 @ the blog

Thank You Chattanooga

As you read this, my family and I are heading North through Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia on our way to the next stop in our journey…Pennsylvania. A moment in time like this…a moment of great change and growth…lends itself well to looking back on growth and transformation.

I’ve loved every moment of my time in Chattanooga. I have watched my family and I grow in so many different ways. We’ve become more of a solid Hoenke Family Unit than ever.  We know what we want to do in life, how to do it, and how to stick together through it all. We’ve watched our boys grow from little dudes into even bigger dudes with great imaginations and ideas. They have friends that they’ve met here in Chattanooga that have greatly influenced their lives. These are the kinds of friends they will have through their whole lives. The South has been super kind and amazing to our family. When people ask me what makes Chattanooga great, I tell them this: It is a town full of good people who want to do the best for the community.

Aero, April 2013
Aero, April 2013
Finn, April 2013
Finn, April 2013

In April 2013 I had no idea what it took to be a manager and a leader. Over the past two years, I have dove headfirst into these topics with the help, guidance, and mentorship of all of the folks I’ve worked with at the library. I’ve learned to take my ideas, harness them, craft them, and collaborate to make them work. I’ve learned how to delegate, a VERY important thing that all librarians should learn. I thank the Chattanooga Public Library and everyone that I’ve worked with over the past two years for the great experiences we’ve been through and lessons that they have taught me. As a librarian, I think I’m at my best these days because of these great opportunities in Chattanooga.

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Day Three @ the Chattanooga Public Library. The 4th Floor. With the great Mary Barnett.

All in all, Chattanooga and my experience in the Chattanooga Public Library have once again reinvigorated my belief in that the public library is the epicenter of the community. It is the place where amazing people come together and share an amazing experience. The photo you see above was taken on The 4th Floor of the Chattanooga Public Library on my third day working at the library. The entire space was turned into a disco, a librarian party and get together for the Tennessee Library Association Conference. It was quite a beautiful experience where great people came together over something they are passionate about….libraries. I connected with some of amazing co-workers (like Mary Barnett who you see above) for one of the first times. These connections were key to the work that we all did in Chattanooga. We came together, go to know and understand each other, and we gave the community the things they needed.

I’ve learned a lot in my time here in Chattanooga and I will always remember these times. It has been great and now it is time to move onto the next journey. Here we go.

Thank you Chattanooga. We love you.

The 2nd Floor PLUS STEM School Chattanooga

Over the past few months, the Chattanooga Public Library has collaborated with the STEM School Chattanooga on a project with juniors for the Project and Problem Based Learning curriculum. The project that the library presented to the students dealt with 3D Printing: How can we create a 3D Printing station that allows the community to walk up to the 3D Printer, watch a video tutorial that introduces 3D printing, and in the end have the customer leave with a great 3D printing experience and an object.

Over the next few months, the students and their teacher Michael Stone worked on what a 3D Printing station looks like, what it includes, and then spent the time building the station in their school Fab Lab. The end result? Check out the image in the tweet above! It’s a beautiful station like structure that was created by the students. The words 3D PRINTER represent the various stages of 3D printing….from first layer to the honeycomb structured middle to the end product. Using the laser engraver, the students also created a plaque that proudly displays the STEM School Fab Lab logo. Finally, the students put together tutorial videos for customers to watch so that they could get acquainted with 3D printing. You can watch those videos here: Beginner Video and Advanced Video.

I’m super happy with the results and I couldn’t ask for more. The 2nd Floor of the Downtown Chattanooga Public Library is all about the public library as an experience, and the 3D printing station created by the STEM School fits perfectly in with the vibe of the 2nd Floor.  I look forward to working with the STEM School and their students on more projects in the very near future!

For more of my writings on 3D Printing, click here!

For the FAQ’s and details on 3D Printing on The 2nd Floor of the Downtown Chattanooga Public Library, click here!

Management Style

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Thank to Finn Hoenke, Aero Hoenke, Haley Hoenke, Elias Spruill, Janine Veazue, Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Chuck E Cheese, Marvin Gaye, The cast of Star Wars, and many others for making my office a nice place to be.

Did you die?
Did anyone else die?
Did you burn down the building?
Did anyone lose an appendage?

If you answered “no” to all of those questions, you are doing a great job of being a librarian in a public library.

-Justin Hoenke’s Management Mantra, 2014.

2014 was the year that I threw myself into management in public libraries. Was it scary and stressful? Yes. Did I survive? Well, either I’m writing this or clone Justin exists, so it’s up to you to decide.

The questions I’ve been asking myself this year go like this: What does a manager do? How does this change what I already do at the library? Do I need an office? What does one do in their office?How does one lead? I’d like to share my experiences here on this blog in order to help those in a similar situation out and to also maybe inspire other youth services librarians who are looking into management. Trust me: if I can do it you can too.

What does a manager do?
A manager takes the first step carves out the path for their staff to follow. A manager provides guidance and enthusiasm for the staff. A manager is a strong voice and supporter for their staff. I always refer back to a quote I learned in my ALA Emerging Leaders class for inspiration:

“The leader’s job is not to provide energy but to release it from others.”
Frances Hesselbein

A manager takes a step back and lets their staff shine. They listen to what the staff needs and does their best to communicate that vision to the rest of the library. Managers can make a job fun for their staff. I truly believe that when we’re having fun with our work some of our best ideas happen and in turn, those affect the community in a positive way. I tell my employees: have fun and see what happens. I think it’s working.

How does this change what I already do at the library?
I am one of those people that has an idea every minute. Let’s try this. Let’s try that. This is the vision and this is how we can do it. As I moved into management, I had to teach myself how to calm down, trust others with their ideas, and play the long game. Playing the long game gives you an insane amount of patience (FYI: having children does that too). It allows you to sit back and let things happen naturally.

Your idea of working in a public library will change considerably when you move into management. The focus is still and will always be the community, but in addition you have staff to manage. You will no longer be on the public service desk all day. It will be a shock. You won’t get as many of those hi-fives from kids, tweens, and teens. You won’t get as many of the awesome perks that come from working public service: directly helping people, making a little part of their life better, and more. But here’s the thing: your decisions as a manager and how you inspire your staff help make those moments possible. You may no longer have the direct connection to the public but you are still making a huge difference in your community.

Do I need an office? What does one do in their office?
I am a big fan of working in public. As public employees I think it is our job to show our funders how we work, what we’re doing, and be as transparent as possible. But you know what? After becoming involved in management I’ve started to understand the need to have an office or an “away from the public area” at times. When you’re thinking about big picture stuff you sometimes just need to be alone. You need to shut the door. What does one do in their office? These kinds of things. I also highly suggest filling your office with things that make you happy. Photos. Pictures. Drawings. Weird things that you collect. But don’t be a hoarder.

How does one lead?
I can’t answer that one for you. All that I can say is that you try, you fail and then you succeed and then you fail again and then you succeed and that cycle never ends. You find what works best for you, your staff, and your community. Note that I put YOU first because, yes, you have to put YOU first sometimes. Without a happy and fully functioning YOU things won’t move ahead. Treat yourself well. Once you do that, you will be on the right path.

564 Days (or, the story of THE 2ND FLOOR thus far…)

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The 2nd Floor of the Downtown Chattanooga Public Library has been in its current state, a place for ages 0-18 and their caregivers, for 564 days, or 1 year, 6 months, and 16 days as of today. If you’re visiting The 2nd Floor for the first time today or have visited us over the past 564 days, you’ve probably wondered what it’s all about up on the 2nd Floor.  This post is my attempt to explain all of that and more to you.

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The 2nd Floor of the Downtown Chattanooga Public Library is all about people.  It is a place where the community, library employees, out of town guests, and more can connect, share an experience, and learn something. It is a place where lifelong learning and fun meet in the middle, get all messy, and create something awesome.

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The 2nd Floor is a constant work in progress. Repeat visitors to the 2nd Floor always remark how “things have changed quite a bit” and that there’s “a lot more” than there was the last time they visited. Their observations are spot on. We may not have the newest furniture, shelves, tools, and more around (it’ll come), but we change everything around enough to keep it fresh and exciting for the community. We use what we have to make this place a great experience for the community.  If something works, we keep it around and refine it. If it doesn’t work, we let it go and try something new. To be the best library for our community, we have to move forward and meet their needs.

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When you visit the 2nd Floor, you won’t see endless rows of books in the space. Instead, you’ll find a well groomed collection that represents what the community wants. You may see two rows of The Hunger Games on the shelves, but they are there because the community asked for them. You will find our books arranged and presented in a way that best reflects the needs of the community. The picture books are as low to the ground as we can get them at the moment to allow for little hands to find what they want. The graphic novels have their own unique areas.  Our non-fiction shelves for middle aged readers are overflowing because that’s what the community wants.

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As I said above, the 2nd Floor is all about people. But we have to remember that a library is also made up of the people that work in it as well. The 2nd Floor is home to some of the most amazing colleagues I have ever had the chance to work with. Some have been here 15 years and some have been here 6 months. No matter how long they’ve been there, one thing connects us all: a passion for what we do and a great care for our community.  All of our 2nd Floor employees bring different attributes to the table: creativity, reliability, organization, energy, and more.  All of these attributes meet in the middle and create something amazing. Simply stated: the 2nd Floor staff are awesome.

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3D Printers, iMacs, button makers, video games, and more are just things that live on the 2nd Floor.  Yes, they are nice tools to have in the library and it is great that we can give our community access to them.  I am fully aware that not every library can have the same tools that we have in our library. But here’s the thing: they are just tools. The 3D printer will stop being the cool and popular thing over the next few years. The computers will need to be replaced. Items will break.  These are all ok scenarios. They are all just items. They are all just things. Without the community coming into the library to use the 2nd Floor, they are just empty, unused things. It is what the community does with these tools that makes their place on the 2nd Floor so special.

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The tools that your library offers to the community should reflect what the community needs. Does your community not want a 3D printer? That’s ok. You don’t have to get a 3D printer. It can start simple: pens, pencils, and paper. That’s an art and writing station. It can grow to include some hand-me-down or donated items, like a sewing machine. If it needs to, it can grow from there. In the picture above, one of our frequent library users is using an older sewing machine brought in by one of our library employees. They used it together to make a robe just like Hermione wears in Harry Potter.  It was a great experience using tools and items that we had all around us.

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The 2nd Floor is flexible. It has rules because it needs rules in order to survive and function properly. But the 2nd Floor is open to interpretation. The community will make it what they want it to be at that moment. In the photo above, the 3D printer has become the test subject for a teen’s interest in learning how to do time lapse photography. Flexibility and the desire to take a chance on something new allows your community to thrive and grow.

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The 2nd Floor is unique in that it doesn’t push kids, tweens, teens, and their caregivers into age specific corners. It’s about following your interests and sharing a positive interaction with someone…a family member, a friend, or someone you just met.  When you open up your library to interests and interactions like these, some great moments can occur. Instead of checking the IDs of everyone that enters the the library, the library employees are free to then interact with the community and develop relationships. They are able to chat and connect. This is where something magical happens and what I consider to be the best part of the modern public library experience: The library as the place where the community connects.

2014-05-03 12.54.56Sure, we have all this great stuff you can borrow. We have loads of programs and experiences for you if you visit our physical locations. We have loads of downloadables that you can enjoy on your device. All of that is great. But what makes the library magical is when people connect: all ages, all genders, all races. They come together to learn and have fun. They put everything aside and enjoy a moment together. From those moments, bonds and connections are made. Some last minutes. Some last a lifetime. Those connections are what helps our communities grow.  Healthy communities lead to happiness.  Happiness is something global. Happiness is something that spreads everywhere. It all starts with one interaction and it grows.

David Weinberger at the Chattanooga Public Library

Not the best photo, but it's David Weinberger with an image of Sim City behind him so that's pretty awesome.
Not the best photo, but it’s David Weinberger with an image of Sim City behind him so that’s pretty awesome.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing David Weinberger speak on The 4th Floor of the Chattanooga Public Library as part of Startup Week Chattanooga. I have long been a fan of David’s work, especially his Library as Platform article in Library Journal, so seeing him speak was an extreme jolt of inspiration and excitement that came at the perfect moment.

I won’t recap his excellent presentation here but I did live tweet some of his key quotes (if you want to look through my twitter feed, here you go) but I will say this: if you have a chance to hear David speak about the library as a platform, do not miss it. His ideas make perfect sense in the world today. The library as a platform allows the public library to become an integral part of the community fabric.  It allows the public library to live and breathe along with its community.

I also got a brief chance to share what we’re doing on The 2nd Floor with David, and he had super kind things to say about our work today in his blog post (read the full post here):

Go down to the second floor and you’ll see the youth area under the direction/inspiration of Justin Hoenke. It’s got lots of things that kids like to do, including reading books, of course. But also playing video games, building things with Legos, trying out some cool homebrew tech (e.g., this augmented reality sandbox by 17-year-old Library innovator, Jake Brown (github)), and soon recording in audio studios. But what makes this space a platform is its visible openness to new ideas that invites the community to participate in the perpetual construction of the Library’s future.

This is physically manifested in the presence of unfinished structures, including some built by a team of high school students. What will they be used for? No one is sure yet. The presence of lumber assembled by users for purposes to be devised by users and librarians together makes clear that this is a library that one way or another is always under construction, and that that construction is a collaborative, inventive, and playful process put in place by the Library, but not entirely owned by the Library. Via Joho the Blog by David Weinberger

It was a great day to be a librarian yesterday. It was a great day to be living in Chattanooga yesterday. I’ll carry those good vibes on today and make a positive impact on the world.