A Library SME in Community

SME means “subject matter expert”, and SME in ‘Community’ means someone on the library staff who is a subject matter expert about your community. Borrowing primarily from the field of training, SMEs are those individuals who have expert working knowledge in a particular topic.

From our vast resources at Wikipedia;

In general, the term is used when developing materials (a book, an examination, a manual, etc.) about a topic, and expertise on the topic is needed by the personnel developing the material. For example, tests are often created by a team of psychometricians and a team of subject matter experts. The psychometricians understand how to engineer a test while the subject matter experts understand the actual content of the exam. Books, manuals, and technical documentation are developed by Technical writers and instructional designers in conjunctions with SMEs. Technical communicators interview SMEs to extract information and convert it into a form suitable for the audience. SMEs are often required to sign off on the documents or training developed, checking it for accuracy. SMEs are also necessary for the development of training materials.

OK. So what does this have to do with librarianship?
• What is more important to the survival of the 21st Century Library than an intimate knowledge of your community? NOTHING!
• What is more critical to developing a relevant 21st Century Library than a working knowledge of your community? NOTHING!
• What is more useful to developing a relevant 21st Century mission and services than understanding your community’s needs? NOTHING!

Ergo – NOTHING is more important than having a SME in Community on your library staff. It does not have to be the Director, because if you follow the model outlined in the Wikipedia explanation – there is one librarianship SME and other SMEs in other areas – like Community – who could be a marketing or PR person, depending on the size of your staff and library system.

If you think you can accomplish a traditional ‘community needs assessment’ adequately every few years when it’s time for a new Strategic Plan – you could not be more wrong. Developing the required depth of knowledge about your community is almost a full time job. It takes many hours and constant interaction with community organizations and leaders to keep track of all this information, and it has to be constantly evaluated using critical analysis, not just casual observation. Documentation regarding trends, changes, events, activities, new developments, emerging leaders and factions, and virtually everything community related must be collected and kept to substantiate whatever conclusions the SME in Community develops.

This is not your SLIS professor’s ‘Community Needs Assessment 101’ – that will not work in this 21st Century environment.

If you’re wondering how to do all that, and what the SME in Community needs to know about the Community, read on.

You’ll recall that one of the new 21st Century Librarianship skills is Customer Targeting.

For decades ‘community needs assessment’ has been a pillar of librarianship, and more recently such undertakings have led to marketing efforts for library services to help improve circulation – the last great 20th Century library metrics.

At MyStrategicPlan, “a nationwide leader in on-demand strategic planning services”, there is a comprehensive Post on “customer targeting”, in which they present the idea that…there are six customer “types” and where they fit into the customer hierarchy.

However, a broader application of understanding your customers is in understanding your community. What are the demographics of your community? Not just population and data, but really meaningful information such as; ethnicity beyond simple statistics, economics beyond household income, employment beyond just major employers and the employee pool, education beyond just the percent of high school graduates, culture beyond just local ethnic events or holidays, transportation beyond just what is available, and life styles beyond simple economic indicators. There is much more to understanding the community than data! Even surveys, which are all biased toward those willing to take the time to respond, will not provide the type of in-depth information the library needs to provide relevant services. It requires someone from the library to be out in the community – participating!

Traditional community needs assessment endeavors to periodically collect community data using survey and demographic analysis methodology. That approach is nowhere good enough for today – let alone tomorrow. The analysis must be much more comprehensive and current. It must be information collected from within the community in a context of the community. It must be meaningful to the library’s SME in Community, so that it can be translated into library services – and marketing.

Below are some suggested areas of information to analyze.

• Legal service area
• Where patrons live (Are they spread out over great distances? Describe how people and communities are distributed within the library’s jurisdiction. Where do they congregate?)
• Age brackets of patrons (Whatever brackets seem appropriate for library needs)

• Average household income (Median household income also)
• Unemployment rate
• Percentage of families below the poverty line
• Economic resources the library can draw on

• Percentage of population over 18 with 12 years of school completed, 16 years, more
• List the schools in your community (elementary, middle, high, post-secondary, public and private)
• Describe the library/media facilities in the listed schools (do they define or serve any specific library services niche)
• Higher education institutions library services (do they define or serve any specific library services niche)

• Describe the cultural and recreational activities that are popular in the community served
• List the cultural and recreational facilities available in the library’s service area.
• List the cultural and recreational organizations that are active.
• List civic groups active in the area (their goals and interests and services)
• Community public communications (newspaper, radio, newsletter, message boards, etc.)

The most comprehensive outline for community needs assessment that I have found is from the Community Analysis Research Institute (CARI) Model© which establishes four units of analysis for communities: Individuals, Groups, Agencies, and Life Styles. It requires more depth for 21st Century application, but it provides an essential starting point and organization.

One of the major failings in virtually all community needs assessment approaches is the lack of connection between what the analysis reveals, and what that means to the library in terms of application of the information toward creating, abandoning or revising services and programs. What does it mean that xx% of the community has an average household income of $xx,xxx? What does it mean that the community has no cultural center? What does it mean that the community celebrates Ground Hog Day with a parade? What does it mean that the community starts public school the first of August each year? What does it mean that the community is a “university town”? Maybe there has been a logical reason for that.

This is where ideas and approaches like the “deeply local” approach of Kathryn Greenhill’s Getting deeply local at our libraries can benefit libraries in the 21st Century. I have emphasized that the 21st Century Library Model is customized and specific to each community. There is no universal one-model-fits-all, so each library must interpret their community for themselves. In my Post The Revolutionary Library of April, 2011 I wrote the following.

Even though there will continue to be a generally agreed upon body of knowledge for the profession that is taught by SLIS, and debated by gatherings of librarians, as well as some long-held tenets professed by associations of librarians – the ways in which we think about and perceive libraries in the 21st Century MUST fit the rapid and continually changing environment and circumstances of the future.

21st Century Library Paradigm:
The 21st Century Library will be defined by those librarians running the library to meet the needs of its local community, more than by the profession, or schools of library and information science, or by any association of librarians’ principles.


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2 responses to “A Library SME in Community

  1. I was pleased to see this matter addressed. In the new operating model we have a position for a Community Engagement Coordinator-the title is moveable-whose role is to (obviously) engage with community members but to also to help us adapt our services to changing community circumstances.

    • Sounds like you’re way out in front on everything I dream up. I’m starting to think you should be writing this Blog…..hahahahaha.
      I am very interested to hear how that Community Engagement Coordinator position works out for your library and community.

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