What I expected was a town-hall kind of situation, where people spoke and asked questions of the library board. (I know that Seattle is on the cusp of being all town-halled out, but I think, in this case, a discussion about the library would be a worthwhile one.) What I got was a weird, corporate-style ideating meeting, the kind of "dialogue"-as-a-verb insincerity you get at any business meeting.
A collection of librarians wearing name tags stood around a bunch of large rectangular signs made of foam core on easels. People milled about, and the librarians encouraged people to note their opinions on the foam core. For one sign, a librarian handed out circle stickers, which people were supposed to affix to the library branches that they use the most. On some other signs, people were supposed to assign circular dots to signify what they consider the most important thing about the library. For instance, you were supposed to mark whether you were interested in physical materials or digital/electronic media on one sign, and you could use dots to mark whether you wanted the library to focus on "providing shared computers," "updating the library with infrastructure to support new technologies (e.g. iPad outlets, etc.)" or "Access to digital content."
On other signs, people could stick post-it notes with their ideas for various questions. Under "What innovative methods can libraries use to provide physical content?" someone wrote "Maybe Ebooks. Maybe." Under "What innovative methods can libraries use to provide digital content?" someone wrote "Google Books links," which is a useful suggestion, and "Helping bridge the Digital Divide," which is not. The answers to "What's the best role for the library in the age of streaming media, the Kindle, and the iPhone?" were "Ignore these please" and "Wait a decade." Several people want a Belltown branch of the Seattle Public Library. Others want the reduced hours to be restored and even expanded. To the question "What consumer product could the Library learn from in terms of creating a well recognized identity (branding)?" someone wrote "Apple—Iphone or Ianything!"
One of my fellow survey participants was complaining to a librarian about the fact that she felt unnoticed by the librarians at her local branch. The librarian responded: "That's great feedback. Thanks for letting me know that," and then handed a circle sticker to the next person in line.
A few dozen people wandered around from board to board, sticking stickers to signs and writing on post-it notes. City Librarian Susan Hildreth made an appearance, thanked everyone for coming, and informed us that there were some very special guests in attendance—the Library Board of Trustees . Nobody gave a shit. Hildreth urged us to take a free cookie for taking part in the "conversation" and reminded us to sign in at the main desk so the library could "capture your e-mail addresses." Hildreth said she'd be getting in touch with me soon to talk about this program, and I'll report on that when it happens.
So, here's the deal: This morning, I said that SPL is maybe going in the wrong direction. I think this "conversation" is more of a symptom of the problem—SPL leadership giving the library an apersonal, corporate flavor—than a cure. But I still think it's important to go to these things. This is not a conversation. This is a real-life version of one of those annoying internet customer service surveys. But you should go and make your voice heard, even if it's just to complain about the tone-deaf way that SPL is going about this.