Public Participation via Web 2.0 Old Wine in New Bottles?

Stadtbibliothek Bremen on Facebook (Screenshot)
Stadtbibliothek Bremen on Facebook (Screenshot) | © Stadtbibliothek Bremen

For many years now libraries have focused on the needs and wishes of their users. Web 2.0 is now providing users with a fast and simple opportunity to have a say and take part in decision making.

Libraries can look back over a long tradition of fostering the concept of public participation, i.e. users taking part in decision making when it comes to structure, organisation or content of libraries. Both public and research libraries try to establish contact with their users in all kinds of ways in an effort to customise what they have to offer to the users’ needs.

Coordinating with stakeholders

“This strong bond with the wishes of their users has always been a tried and tested method of making sure a library functions well. This is why we are trying to get people to get involved,” explains Dr. Beate Tröger, director of the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek (ULB) Münster (Münster’s regional and University Library). “To do this we have traditional communication channels.” First of all there is the contact with the various faculties and departments; the lecturers and researchers working there are consulted on such matters as the ordering of stock and the provision of training courses. Furthermore we hold regular talks with student representatives. “These are old, proved and reliable structures through which we are able to obtain feedback on the fundamental direction the library is moving in.”

Co-determination has proven to be a little more complex when it comes to public libraries. “As we are dealing here with a heterogeneous audience, addressing customers is really only possible via specific target groups,” says Barbara Lison, the director of the Stadtbibliothek Bremen (Bremen Municipal Library). “What we do here is invite representatives of these target groups to events that are relevant to them, groups like the Association for the Disabled, the Ausländerbeirat (Foreigners’ Advisory Council) or the Senior Citizens’ Advisory Council. At those events we then discuss certain issues.”

Surveys and campaigns

Dr Barbara Tröger, director of the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek (ULB) Münster (Münster’s regional and University Library) | © Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek (ULB) Münster One instrument that has proven very useful as the basis for participation is the user survey. Opening hours, for example, are a typical issue that both types of library have to deal with. Surveys on subjects like this can be conducted locally or on the library’s website, although a lot more answers are returned in a very short time via the Internet.

“Every few years in North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, there is an online survey for the users of all the university libraries there. Every now and then many libraries conduct either large-scale surveys or - for example, with the help of pop-ups - smaller surveys,” says Beate Tröger. In addition people can use the websites to voice their criticism and ideas. “Many users, however, still prefer to air their opinions on paper – so we provide special praise and grievance cards or writing pads on which they can jot down their ideas.”

Above all it is the public libraries that organise special campaigns and drives that focus on co-determination, like the “It’s our birthday, make a wish” project to commemorate the 111th anniversary of Bremen’s public library – a project that mainly targeted primary school classes. “We were able to make two wishes come true for our children’s libraries – a puppet theatre and a “Silence Room”. “The latter, however, was not really one of our ideas,” says Barbara Lison. A further example was our “Kaufrausch” (shopping spree) project, in which young people were given a certain budget and were then sent out to buy media for the Bremen library.

Having a say in the ordering of stock

Library users have actually always had the opportunity to express purchase suggestions. “Furthermore they are implicitly involved in the ordering of stock, because whenever a certain number of their suggestions is registered, the various items are automatically reordered”, explains Barbara Lison.

Many research libraries are trying out the Patron Driven Acquisition (PDA) system – a system in which the users themselves set the library’s ordering process in motion. “The same thing applies here, too – we may well be using a new medium, but the co-determination approach to it is most definitely old hat – nothing new,” says Beate Tröger. “PDA uses exactly the same forms of codetermination as the other ways of allowing people to have a say. In no way do we feel overwhelmed. The users have to be encouraged more to get more involved.”

Facebook and Co.

Many libraries are on Facebook, they tweet or have RSS feeds to maintain intensive contact with their users. “Our latest survey showed amazingly that students actually see the homepage as the decisive medium for communicating with their library,” reports the head of the ULB - Münster’s regional and University Library. “I think that the general desire to articulate one’s needs is great. It is not however directed at one particular medium; it does not necessarily have to be Facebook.”

Both librarians agree that co-determination is a key issue and will remain one - whether with Web 2.0 or without it. In their opinion the social media have not opened up a fundamentally new form of public participation, but above all they have taken more a quantitative leap. “That, too, however, can most definitely have a major impact on the way a library perceives itself,” says Beate Tröger. “Knowing what your customers really expect is much better than poking around in the dark.”