August 28, 2016 by Sharee Cordes

‘Participatory’ – it’s hard enough to say, even harder to get your head around!

‘Participatory’ comes from the root ‘participate’.  Sounds easy enough, it must be getting people to come in and be involved in my programs right?  Well, sort of, but I think it is much more than that so I thought I would explore this concept a bit more.

There is a lot of literature about participatory museums and I think this concept is more understandable in the museum context.  Nina Simon says that we create a participatory organisation by “inviting people to actively engage as cultural participants, not passive consumers”  If people are passive consumers in a museum they are simply coming in and looking at content that curators have laid out for them.  If they are actively engaged they are manipulating, adding to, and actively interacting with that content.  However, in the library context it is not so simple to delineate.  In libraries, people are always actively interacting with content.  They are taking books off the shelf and reading them, they are searching through books to find the information they require, or they are coming in to participate in an activity. Rarely does a patron visit the library to simply look at the content that the librarian has placed before them.  I love the concept of participatory museums, but I struggled a little to see how this is different from what libraries are already doing.

I was excited to find a recording of Nina Simon’s talk at The Future of Libraries Conference in 2015, as it explains the concept further and connects it to libraries.  She explains the two goals of her museum; to empower people, and to build ‘social bridges’ or connections between people in the community who are different.  These are factors that have been identified by Putnam and others as being important in building strong, successful communities.  How might a library work if it were to adopt these goals?

Simon outlines four strategies she has implemented in her museum to achieve this goal.

  • practice the art of invitation – thinking deeply about ways to invite people to contribute that will encourage them to put their best selves forward and bring something meaningful to the table.
  • build alliances on many levels – Simon achieves this by using a community first programming method.  Instead of planning activities for the community, they collaborate with their target communities to find out what their needs and assets are and then work out what projects and collaborations could stem from these.
  • think platforms – engaging as many people as possible by converting some programs to platforms that could be used by the largest number of users.
  • make space – make space for people to try things, and make mistakes rather than shutting down their ideas.

I think R. David Lankes is thinking along similar lines to Simon, although unfortunately I don’t think his expression of the idea is quite as clear.  Lankes, in his book The New Librarianship Field Guide, claims that the mission of librarians is to “improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”, he expands on this by saying that knowledge is created through conversations.  I think the idea of empowering people and building social bridges is inherent in this type of knowledge creation.

Have a look at how Pam Sandlian Smith is empowering people and building social bridges at her library in this fantastic TED talk .

Let me finish with a quote from Nina Simon’s talk that I think sums it up, “what it’s about is feeling the value of being connected to a community and being in a place that matters to them”.

Let’s make sure our libraries places that matter.




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