Tuesday, July 24, 2012

An interview with rock star librarian, Smitty Miller

As dedicated readers know, I spent some time last year in charge of the Ottawa Public Library's two bookmobiles. Our buses are 14 tonnes and 12 metres long (but believe me, size isn't everything. That is, until you get a fuel bill).

There are many interesting projects out there experimenting with new ways to provide mobile library service. One of my fellow NELI alums, Smitty Miller, has developed what may well be the best new mobile service idea: LiLi. LiLi stands for Library Live & On Tour!, and Smitty is LiLi's Tour Manager, and a Community Development Librarian with Fraser Valley Regional Library.

Here are some press clippings about LiLi:
I sat down, in the virtual sense, with Smitty recently to ask her a bit more about LiLi's journey. Here are her thoughts.

What has been your most successful event or community visit with LiLi so far?
The most successful stops have been the community visits. Although I know we are exposed to more people at the big events, the times when I know that LiLi is making an impact on people’s lives seem to hold the essence of what I hoped we would accomplish. Having said that, it gets a little gritty sometimes. I’ve been to a number of food banks, soup kitchens, transition houses, prison release halfway houses, etc. It can be sobering.

I was at a homeless shelter the other day. A woman came up and asked me what I was doing there. I told her I was with the library. She said, “Oh Oh! I’m in trouble with the library.” I said “Well, let’s see what we can do about that.” I looked at her account. She owed some money (under $50). I heard the whole story: her landlord was arrested and the police kicked her out of the house when they took the landlord away. She could only take necessities like a toothbrush. People came and threw everything else in the house into a big dumpster…including her library books. This was 2 years ago. She hasn’t been to the library since because she was scared that she’d get in trouble. In the meantime, she’s lived at various locations and with no fixed address. She goes to the shelter to get a hot meal.

All I could think was: do we really want to be another weight on this woman’s world? I waived the fines. She went back to the library that day.

What has been your biggest challenge since LiLi hit the road?
Personally, it’s been the physical demands of the job. I have to lift an event tent onto the roof of the car. I stand outside most days in the heat…or the cold. It’s much more physically draining than I’d expected.

On the service front, the biggest challenge has been enduring the events/stops that are not effective. I’m in my first year and we’re still defining WHERE and WHEN LiLi will be most effective. Since Library Live and On Tour is an adult literacy initiative, I have to be careful about how I present the car. The Xbox has been a problem at a couple of events because it becomes a ‘kid-magnet’. Not that I mind the kids playing, but it’s my mandate to have conversations with the parents.

Would you do anything differently, if you were starting this project again now?
I’ll have to say that I did a lot right! And that’s because I had time. If things had gone at the speed I would have preferred (I’m a tad impatient), I’m sure I would have had many more problems. My lesson in this is that it is necessary to ‘take the time’. I kept an internal blog for the library’s employees and my conversations with my colleagues helped slowly bring LiLi to form.

Having said that, a lot of the challenges I’ve faced have been due to simple ignorance. If I did it again, I would know differently.

For instance…who knew you had to worry about gross vehicle tonnage? There was a weight issue toward the end of the car development….would the event tent make the car too heavy to drive safely? Could I really take 3 passengers as well as all the equipment? The end of that story is that we decided to remove the back seat (2 more people would have made poor LiLi groan).

How did you introduce LiLi to the rest of the team at Fraser Valley Regional Library? How do you stay in touch with them about your work? What has been the response from the team?
As I mentioned earlier, I kept an internal blog going during the development of LiLi. If they were interested, they could read that anytime…and comment if they wanted to. It was certainly a challenge to communicate what I was envisioning. It was so clear in my mind (and, thank goodness, in my supervisor’s mind). But I was constantly searching for the right ways to succinctly explain the marriage of flashy PR with community development.

Now that LiLi is on the road, and my colleagues can see her in action, there is an almost audible “AHA—OH…Now I get it.”

There was very little resistance at the start, but there WAS hesitation about what my colleagues’ roles would be in the Library Live scene. Understandably, folks worried about there being more ‘on their plates’.

Keeping in mind that FVRL has 24 libraries located in 15 different municipalities, this is the way it works:

2 Parts

Part 1: Events
  • the library supervisor/manager identifies community events he/she would like for LiLi to attend (this would happen 1X year…in a meeting with me)
  • the library supervisor/manager fills out a ‘booking form’ and sends it to me. (I maintain a calendar on our Intranet so that any staff member can look and see where/when LiLi is booked at any time).
  • if there are registration fees involved, the local library assumes those.
  • I follow up with the event contact people as required.
Part 2: Community Stops
  • the library supervisor/manager identifies ‘underserved’ targets for their community (i.e. Homeless? Seniors? Immigrant?)—again, set at our 1 meeting per year.
  • the library supervisor/manager sends an introductory email (I provided them with a template for this) to any community partners/agencies they hope to connect with LiLi.
  • when I receive the CC of the introductory email, I send an more detailed explanation of what LiLi does and ask the community partners/agencies to invite me to their locations.
It looks like a lot, but really, it’s just a matter of informing me of events and making introductions. I do the rest. The supervisors are getting into the rhythm of how it works now and the process has been effective to date.

Oh, one other important thing. I get a lot of ‘out of the blue’ requests (often from folks that see me at an event and want to invite me to another one). I never book an event or a community stop without running it by the local library supervisor first. It’s critical to know that I aim to serve as an extension of the local library, not as an independent entity. They know their communities better than I do…and it works best if I do THEIR bidding.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about the Library that you and LiLi have encountered?
The biggest? That the library isn’t for everyone. This comes from both sides of the fence. Marginalized or socially excluded people don’t feel they belong at the library because the library is an important place for smart people who read. (Keep in mind that they get kicked out of libraries a lot, too). On the other hand, middle class folks can BUY their books and often think that libraries are only where homeless people hang out.

If I had to shout one truth from a mountaintop, it would be that the public library exists for everyone in the community: the smelly, the wealthy, the fat, the brown, the ones with carts, and the ones with homes. This does not mean that the public library is an appropriate place for every kind of behaviour (that’s why we kick people out, right?). But the services the library offers are as important for those who walk into the library as for those who don’t. That’s what LiLi is trying to do: be inclusive.

What do you think is the most important step that a librarian tied to a physical branch can take towards engaging marginalised communities?
Engage with the people who DO come into the library. I have seen staff members bristle when an obviously down-on-his-luck guy comes into a library. They anticipate trouble. They expect bad behaviour. I’m not so idealistic that I believe this is a cure-all, but you wouldn’t believe the difference if you look the guy in the eye, welcome him to the library, and tell him he is welcome to ask for assistance if he needs it. Yes, we must sometimes address little issues (please put your shoes and socks back on, sir), but when you have a ‘relationship’ with a person, they are likely to behave better. We all discriminate in one way or another, but we must try to identify those discriminatory tendencies. Being aware of them is the first step. From there, we can have those inner conversations with ourselves that lead us to treating every person we encounter with respect and the same level of service.

In addition, be part of the conversation with local social services. Introduce yourself to community agencies who serve marginalized people. Then (and this is where it gets challenging) LISTEN. Don’t tell them what you will do for them. Listen to what they need. In my view, this is the biggest problem libraries have with community partnerships. We have traditionally ridden in on our white horses and given the ‘natives’ what we think they need. What makes a library a useful part of ‘community development’ rather than just ‘community outreach’ is that we must open a conversation and then…wait.

We say: “Here is what the library can offer. Can you think of a way that we can help you serve your clients?” Then we have the conversation. We remain flexible. We work together to define services. We work together to deliver them. We work together to evaluate their effectiveness.

It’s all about the conversations…and the relationships that grow as a result.

How do you see LiLi and outreach services changing and growing in the future?
I think we must shake ourselves out of some of our traditional thinking. The library is not just about books. Books are a small part of what we do. (I told someone the other day that thinking of the library as ‘all about books’ was like saying that the supermarket only sells soup.) We must find an effective way to communicate this.

The library must continue to take its services outside of the library’s walls. There are lots of folks out there who have a right to our expertise…

If we don’t want to continue being seen as rigid, elitist institutions—we must stop acting in rigid, elitist ways. How do we do that? You tell me…


  1. Brilliant article. I'm so glad we're lucky enough to have Smitty working at FVRL.

  2. Did you know that you can shorten your long links with AdFly and receive dollars for every click on your shortened urls.