Saturday, June 24, 2023

Information Ecology

An information ecology is “a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a particular local environment.” (Nardi & O’Day, 1999) I’d like to highlight two words from this, the first being system and the second being local. For the purposes of my research, the local-ness of the system is key, and I think it’s really important not to lose sight of how each library differs because of its governing locality. Even if two libraries were identical in all other ways, being on opposite sides of town would change their information ecology just by changing the populations they serve. In reality, no two libraries are identical, and existing “on the other side of town” can create differences in the ecology that have dramatic differences in the services that are provided. For instance, if all libraries in a city or consortium are funded equally from the budget, but one has three times the square footage of the other, the utility bills alone of the larger library could leave the programs, services, and staffing budget decimated. If the libraries are funded by square footage, smaller libraries who serve just as many patrons can find themselves spread thin when trying to address the community needs. If libraries are funded based on property tax contributions, libraries in poorer sections of town can have dramatically reduced budgets compared to wealthy neighborhoods, an inverse of the typical use patterns in libraries and one which re-presents wealth inequality as inequalities of service. The previous examples are all about budgets, but there are other municipal factors as well: A gorgeous new library with all the latest technology and programming services and an eye-popping collection of materials for all ages isn’t of much use if it’s stuck out on the edge of town without access from public transportation. This is exactly the situation of the crown jewel library in my town, a gorgeous building with a phenomenal collection -- it even has a coffee bar and a 3D printer. It’s amazing, and one of the most inviting spaces in the whole city. One of the reasons planners were able to spend all this money on the building and holdings was that the land that they found to build on was on the far edge of town, not even in the city limits; land in the city is expensive, when it can be found at all; the price goes down and availability goes up as you move away from the town center, so several acres over the county line seemed worth every penny. The County library is a 20 minute drive from the center of downtown; to take a Lyft or Uber would be upwards of $20 one way. 
And if you ask librarians to name the single greatest constraining factor for their particular branch library, school library, law library, or practically any other information services organization, they'll often say space. Information materials take space on shelves; computer labs and meeting rooms and coffee bars and viewing rooms take space for the patrons. And it’s all necessary for a library to work. So when the plans were rolled out for a large building with beautiful windows and expansive grounds and plenty of space, no one said “but it’s not on the bus line.” But, as a consequence, the availability of the best library for 50 miles in any direction is that it is unavailable for most of the library patrons in the city; it’s remote enough that it might as well be on the moon for those who would be most served. 
    One of the things I find interesting is how this simple difference has skewed the informational landscape in the city. The County library doesn’t only have a 3D printer and movie theater viewing room that the city libraries couldn’t dream of having; it also has passport services available, a notary, hosts a mobile DMV clinic every week, and serves as a voting location during elections. None of these essential civic functions that the County library provides are restricted by space, but somehow the City libraries don’t offer these services, making the libraries in the City far less civic and diminishing the overall opportunities for civic engagement for city-neighborhood patrons. This small thing -- being available on the bus line -- has an enormous impact on the information ecology for the City and its residents.