Obstacles to Participation: The Little Free Library Edition — A TTW Guest Post by Jonathan Pacheco Bell


listeningThis Little Free Library in Los Angeles is at the center of controversy. Little Free Libraries embody community participation and action.

The Little Free Library (LFL) movement has quickly caught on across the US. The dollhouse-sized miniature libraries are found on front lawns, parks, and public squares coast to coast. LFLs house books and magazines for community members. Circulation is free and runs on an honor system. The motto: “Take a book. Return a book.” As @michael pointed out in this Module 5 article, LFLs support literacy, stewardship, and community. They’re also examples of low-tech, high value localized collections that offer community enrichment and connection in public space. LFLs are a manifestation of community participation, action, and improvement. Who could object?

Rest assured, every community has someone who relishes being a killjoy. As this recent Los Angeles Times article explains, one L.A. homeowner has been ordered to remove the LFL he built in the parkway (grassy strip between the road and sidewalk) in front of his house. An anonymous angry neighbor complained to city hall. Such complaints happen often enough that LFL leadership published this guide for dealing with code enforcement complaints.

As Michael Casey notes, participatory libraries today face difficult times given the naysayers and prognosticators of doom. The story of upheaval caused by a tiny wooden book box in L.A. resonates with #hyperlibs and participatory libraries today. It illustrates the challenges we face trying to enlist participation for library initiatives. From this episode we can glean some cautionary lessons:

  • Obstacles to participation are inevitable – Know that there will be obstacles to participation. Participation requires time, effort, teamwork, investment, motivation and sacrifice — all the things that stoke resistance in some people! The sooner we identify the inevitable obstacles the faster we can develop options to address them.
  • Obstacles may be homegrown – We may think participation obstacles will come from cowardly, cautious, listless managers talking about “Nobody will use this service.” Know that resistance can easily come from within. The angry neighbor who reported the LFL was from the same community that overwhelmingly loved this service. We rely on participation from people close [geographically and/or digitally] to the service. They’re not always allies.
  • People are obstacles – Know that the people we want to participate can be fickle, defeatist, and negative. Some just won’t commit to an initiative, or they commit half way, no matter how great it is. They share none of our enthusiasm for participatory service. They’re naysayers who stomp on ideas. Despite how cool, populist, and innovative DOK’s user-generated content is, I’m sure killjoys griped about having to provide the photos. These kind of people are not the majority, but they do exist.
  • Institutions are obstacles – Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the institutional framework in which libraries operate. Public libraries are bureaucracies. They are functions of municipal government, which is historically and colloquially equated to bureaucracy par excellence. As discussed in my Context Book Review, pervasive red tape — codes, rules, standards, policies, protocols, processes — suffocates innovation in government. The offending LFL in the parkway is a problem solely because a long-ago-written ordinance defines parkway placements as dangerous “obstructions.” The well intentioned code does not account for the LFL’s actual use or context. Codes notoriously do not evolve with the times, largely because bureaucracy makes change difficult to achieve. Know that this kind of stifling environment undercuts motivation we need for participatory service.

Knowing these lessons ahead of time makes us better prepared to respond to the inevitable obstacles facing participatory service. Leadership is needed to deal with obstacles and ensure participation. Planning ahead, forecasting challenges, developing alternatives and creative solutions, exhibiting courage — these are hallmarks of strong leadership toward these ends. It pays off, too. As this article reports, the owner of the LFL in L.A. is fighting back, as is another LFL owner in Shreveport, Louisiana. Precedent and momentum are on their side. Just check out 9-year-old Spencer’s LFL story and video!

 

Jonathan is a Los Angeles Urban Planner and MLIS student at SJSU’s School of Information. Jonathan’s professional interests include library design, libraries as public space, and the role of public libraries in urbanized communities of color. His work has been published in UrbDeZine, Public Libraries, Public Library Quarterly, and SJSU  SOI’s Student Research Journal. He earned his M.A. in Urban Planning from UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs in 2005 and studied political science and architecture as an undergraduate. Jonathan will complete the MLIS in 2016.
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