Magazine article Information Today

Inflection Point: Libraries and Community Data

Magazine article Information Today

Inflection Point: Libraries and Community Data

Article excerpt

When librarians really take a hard look at serving their communities' needs and wants, a funny thing happens: They bump up against not only the beliefs their neighbors and patrons are exploring by visiting library resources in the first place, but also--here's the good part--the cultural triggers that underpin those beliefs (those embedded responses to lived cultural history that make us most us).

Here's an example. Brampton, Ontario, a city of nearly 600,000 people just outside Toronto, has a substantial South Asian community (one of the biggest in all of North America) comprising immigrants new and old, Punjabi to Gujarati, Kashmiri to Keralan.

So what does one make of the library's nighttime hives of extra-dedicated study sessions, with South Asian teens gathering there in numbers that would put far bigger institutions to shame? Is studying what's really going on? Yes and no. All of that studying is actually a highly evolved method to end-run a community culture still influenced by traditional arranged marriage. It's a dating strategy. Understanding cultural triggers is the essence of actionable intelligence about your community's interaction with your library.

Fugitive Populations

Recognizing that cultural trigger opens another line of inquiry: What if the teens at the library could be a lens on the dietary behaviors of their elders, many of whom suffer from undiagnosed diabetes? The parents and grandparents are a "fugitive population," almost impossible to reach by orthodox research practices. But what if the children could be induced to talk about their parents' diets? Might insights gleaned from their own dining room tables help relieve a diabetes epidemic? We shall see: I'm part of a team of researcher-entrepreneurs seeking to use mobile technologies to understand how to engage with fugitive populations.

Why? Because libraries are trusted entities. More than a few of those Brampton teens may well have first been exposed to English in the children's section of the library. But that's half of the answer. The other half is the old saw that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The second generation might well hold the key to the longevity of their parents' generation.

Contextualized Data

Libraries and fugitive populations are a social researcher's dream. My team and I are designing a similar methodology to engage the teens most impacted by Canada's forthcoming legalization of recreational cannabis--a fugitive population if ever there was one, not least because no one really knows what lies ahead.

What we're after here is an open tap of community data, all the more valuable because the data is contextualized in the first instance. This syndication of the original shared personal narratives opens the prospect for deepening community engagement around potentially divisive political issues. What we foresee, in essence, is the pre-validation of a political initiative by "telling its story" via the voices closest to the issue--the fugitive populations themselves.

Here's the fun part. Breaking the silence about assumptions of power, hierarchy, and control incites social action in ways comparable perhaps only to the power of the book. Seeing to the heart of these things is something libraries have been about since their doors first opened.

Often, the most paradoxical discoveries bubble up. A recent study about social isolation in seniors upset a long-cherished belief that pets are a comfort to the isolated. …

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