Thursday, May 3, 2012

Rebranding the Community Library: "Shhh is a Four Letter Word"

A marketing friend sent me a link to the Imaginibbles video about Anythink Library. "Shhh is a Four Letter Word" piqued my interest right off the bat because of its clever title. However, as someone who values the quiet that I can find in library spaces, I also had some concerns.

Anythink Library is the name adopted by the Rangeview Library District in Colorado in an attempt to re-brand their institution. The library and its employees have gotten much recognition and praise for their work. Library Journal devoted an article to them and described their remarkable turn-around and forward thinking perspective. When learning about them, I was impressed about their "rethinking" of all they do. As a self-proclaimed anti-Dewey decimal person, I was equally happy to hear that they dropped the numbered system in favor of a subject based system. (That works well for my archivist sensibilities, at least.) I love their proclamation in the video that they aim for "connecting with books and experiences." There is certainly a lot to love here in searching for a new 21st century vision for community libraries.

There are some things that I didn't love.

What do YOU think about this statement by the narrator of the Imaginibbles video?

"I want a library that's not outdated and irrelevant. A place where I can explore my curiosity instead of being shushed out the door. A place where discovery reigns. I want to be encouraged to get loud and get involved. I want a library where anythink is possible."

I don't know about you, but this strikes me as slightly disconcerting. As a kid, my library was the place where I could "explore my curiosity" and "discovery reigns" in my mind every time I open the door of a local library. What's with all this loud stuff?

I am not a shushing librarian, but there is something to be said for quiet spaces. Here is where I come from on this... I am currently reading the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. This book talks about the advantages of quiet for communities and for thinking. I am basically a quiet person. I like my quiet library. Quiet talks about why society values extroversion over introversion. Are the extroverts taking over our libraries too?

I have nothing against group activities in a library space, but I hope that Anythink isn't throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. One of the advantages of libraries is they give us a place to be by ourselves, to think on our own. In the video, one woman tries to show another woman something that she is reading. The woman she shows "shushes" her. The shusher is approached by the library police who tell her that "Shhh is a four letter word." Really?! I hope that the library isn't going whole hog on this idea. I hope that they offer quiet spaces and loud spaces. Why the complete reversal?

There was one other thing that struck me negatively in the video. Librarians are called "guides." I am a proud librarian. Yes, I have guided library patrons to find resources they need for life long learning, but I do that as a librarian - not as a "guide." I understand that they want to make the librarians more approachable at Anythink and that they value the skills of the non-librarian in creating a great learning space for people, but why devalue our expertise in the process? To me, it feels like that is what they are doing. Rather than getting rid of the word "librarian," perhaps the word itself can be rebranded along with the library?

My post is not trying to put down the work of Anythink. In fact, I love more than I dislike here. Everything I've seen and read about this library indicates that they are trying to make things better. They are not afraid to change and probably not afraid to change back when things aren't working. I love the obvious community feel they have established. I love that they see themselves encouraging not just reading, but also music, video, science and more. However, while they are showing that "magic can come from chaos" I hope that they also show that magic can come from solitude and lone contemplation and that there is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with being a "librarian" either. In fact, I think it's pretty great.


  1. Oh, Melissa, you always make me think beyond my initial knee-jerk reaction! I do love the idea of libraries being more open to conversation and centers of community. But I too have found the quiet of libraries to be restorative. I think a number of libraries are doing a good job of offering a nice mix of community and conversation along with solitude and self-directed exploration. As for the name change, I just think guide is way too generic. You can be trained to be a guide in a day. It takes a lot longer to be a librarian. And a good librarian is absolutely invaluable -- even in the age of google.

  2. I'm so glad the video piqued your interest, Melissa.

    I was thrilled to see how engaged these kids were with their library space and each other, but I absolutely agree that there is something to be said for quiet spaces and room to think. Without seeing the building in person, my guess would be that although the video focused on the innovative changes (and spaces and activities), there are probably a number of more traditional nooks and crannies as well.

    My local library is a treasure. It's a place where I spent a LOT of time as a child and a young adult. Though I've been long absent from the quiet spaces within its ivy-encased walls, I am now enjoying a return to these halls and corners with my daughter. She has suddenly fallen in love with this place, despite its atmosphere being a stark counterpoint to her usually boisterous personality.

    Libraries face tough times these days. You know that better than I. Perhaps there is a middle ground that can be reached - some way to embrace both the dynamic and the reflective. Maybe they could set up a sort of time share between the two types of activities - making room for both the quiet kids and the more physical ones.

    It will be interesting to see how they make out with their new programs.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. I am an extrovert and a librarian who works in the loudest academic library I have EVER been in, and you know what? I HATE NOISY LIBRARIES! When I was getting my PhD I struggled to find library spaces that were quiet enough, and resented how (even in the 1990s) undergraduate Just. Didn't. Get. It.

    Don't get me wrong. I am definitely an extrovert, I love conversations, I especially love scholarly conversations, and was certainly guilty of carrying out such conversations in library spaces especially early in my graduate career (ahem). BUT: there's a time and place for them, and that place is... a coffee shop! a nice bench outside! I need the quiet space to clear my head and help me concentrate. Even extroverts (or, at least, some of us) need quiet space for thinking and imagining and creating. I also believe that students need to be able to teach themselves how to concentrate, and that being able to find a quiet space to help quiet one's mind (and, these days, devices) is a valuable thing.

    Really, for me it's a matter of designated space: the library should be the quiet space; other places are for talking. Too much quiet just means needing to find the conversational space; too much noise means needing to find the quiet.

    (Also, Melissa, I totally owe you an email. It's been a pretty crazy few weeks. Sorry about that).