The Suggestion Box

For most libraries, their users have one primary opportunity per administrative cycle to leverage their input and opinions into shaping their library for the better—the Community Needs Assessment (CNA).

The CNA is a systematic approach to finding out how well a library is meeting the needs of its patrons. Librarians will carry out a series of analytical projects and appraisals in an effort to determine what aspects of the library’s service is lacking. The library will then use the results of the CNA to inform their approach to augmenting the library’s services, ostensibly filling in these gaps in patron support.

It's most often the case that one or more components of the CNA incorporates some sort of direct polling of the library’s patrons—either via survey, questionnaire, or patron interviews. After all, a Community Needs Assessment that neglects to include some input from the community we’re meant to be assessing can only be so effective. Libraries should not be opaque information repositories whose systems do not intrinsically reflect the needs of the user.

The problem with CNAs is that they typically only come around once in an administrative cycle, if that. They can be seen as surveys of the library’s plusses and minuses. The thing about surveys is they’re merely a snapshot. And if you’re only doing them once per cycle, you’re missing countless opportunities for getting precious guidance from your community. So while the CNA may very well be the patron’s main opportunity for input, it should most definitely not be the only one.

Enter the suggestion box.

Every library needs one. To not have a suggestion box is to fly blind. Your pathetically occasional Community Needs Assessment—your library’s annual checkup—is great for identifying potential systemic changes to be considered. What it’s not great at: highlighting individual materials requests, fielding proposals and pitches for program ideas, addressing specific issues about other patrons, staff, or services, specific administrative complaints and circulation questions—in short, specifics; the day-to-day opinions and guidance (and suggestions) that, while unquestionably crucial to public library operations and management, are not within the purview of a Community Needs Assessment. (And if you’re only opening up your suggestion box when it’s time to do your CNA, you’re doing it wrong. You're probably doing your CNA wrong, too.)

Incorporating the suggestion box into a habit of constant introspection is essential to maintaining a vibrant, dynamic public library. Systematically reviewing the contents of the suggestion box (be it physical or digital) after relatively short intervals (weekly?) is to have one’s finger on the pulse of the community the library serves. It’s an unbeatable way to gauge the library’s capacity to meet the user’s needs and offers a rare glimpse into the user’s opinions about the library in general.

Does your impression of the library align with that of the user’s? Unlikely. The deceptively powerful suggestion box is a means of determining how (and by how much) these two views differ.

So, use it. You kind of have to.

Also, you should want to. (If you don’t want to, go work on oil rigs.)

Make it seem edgy or exclusive or “something for older kids and adults.” Encourage its repeated, overzealous use. Condone its abuse.

Embrace the obscene and inappropriate nonsense you find in there because that’s just the price you have to pay if you want to do this library thing right.

Tags: libraries, community

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