3 Ways to Empower Your Library Patrons

Jun 19, 2018 | Articles

Community engagement is a hot topic in the library world today. To better serve their patrons, libraries are moving beyond a one-way transactional model to a more complex partnership model that gives the community more agency within the library. By deepening their engagement with the communities they serve, libraries are better able to provide services and resources that meet the immediate needs of their users and the wider community.

There is, however, a difference between “engagement” and “empowerment.” While engagement is an important first step, this notion is still focused inward toward the library — getting patrons interested in the library’s content, resources and programming.

“Empowering” patrons means providing them with the means, knowledge and skills to make their own decisions and best take advantage of the resources the library offers them. This service model is focused outward toward the individual, and it is based on trust. Libraries must trust that patrons know better than anyone else (including library staff!) what they want; in return, patrons must feel that their voices are being heard and that the library is evolving to meet those needs.

While your library likely already has a good grasp on how to promote community engagement, empowerment might feel like a new undertaking. To help, here are three ways for you to begin the important work of empowering your patrons.

1. Use feedback, not assumptions, to make decisions.

In a 2015 report on patron empowerment, OCLC reminded us that “it is imperative that libraries… understand the actual behaviors that users have adopted rather than relying on normative, idealized or outdated assumptions.”

Assuming you know your users’ needs and motives is an easy mistake to make. Now that you’re focusing on empowering patrons, it’s time to change your perspective: Instead of thinking about “the user in the life of the library,” consider “the library in the life of the user.”

One way to question your assumptions is through usability surveys. These surveys give patrons a say in how the library is designed and how it delivers resources and services. You can also gather feedback through targeted focus groups. Keep in mind, though, that empowerment is about trust — once patrons provide feedback, they have a reasonable expectation that you will implement changes based on their voiced desires. Consistent and transparent updates on the implementation of any patron-driven changes will encourage users to participate in future surveys and other empowerment efforts.

Usability surveys are just one way to elevate patrons’ voices. You can also crowdsource programming ideas, giving patrons the power to guide event and programming planning by completing online surveys or participating in online focus groups.

2. Focus on digital literacy.

Another way to empower patrons is by providing training on digital resources. In our ever-evolving technological world, digital literacy is important to any individual’s sense of empowerment. Just because something is digital does not mean that it is intuitive! By providing workshops on your digital resources, as well as technology such as smartphones and video production software, you are making it clear that your staff is committed to lowering barriers and reducing anxiety for your patrons. By promoting digital literacy, you give users the confidence to face technological challenges head-on and access resources they might not otherwise have taken advantage of.

3. Give patrons easier access to resources.

Here’s the good news: Since any steps your library takes to bring patrons closer to the information they seek helps empower them, you’re likely already working on this important initiative without even knowing it!

For instance, do you offer your patrons online access for tasks like placing holds, viewing account data and checking out or renewing materials? That’s a great start! Do a quick audit of the rest of your systems to determine where you can quickly and easily put the power in your patrons’ hands to make interacting with your library and your resources easier.

The online experience is also evolving, and people have become accustomed to on-demand services that provide instant results. With this in mind, consider investing in a solution that allows patrons to book spaces on-demand, without library staff intervention. These solutions empower your users by providing them with a convenient, friendly and secure way to book spaces within your library. They can help you further empower users by providing you with measurable statistics about how patrons use library spaces, which allows you to adapt your spaces according to users’ needs.

Overall, the keys to patron empowerment are giving your patrons a voice in your library services and providing them with easier ways to access those services. Don’t guess when it comes to patron satisfaction — go straight to the source for confirmation! Approach patrons as partners and you will find opportunities to both engage and empower them at the same time.

Kayla Fargo

As Demco Software's Marketing Director, Kayla champions our efforts to educate public libraries on the need for a robust community engagement strategy. She works alongside our other teams to ensure that Demco Software's solutions effectively complement and amplify libraries' community engagement efforts.