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Community Reference

June 21, 2002

This will never be a jingle, but I liked William James’s insight: “The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.”

This is not a mere truism; communities are made up of individuals, of course … by definition. But the push and pull between community and individual desires is a competition that every society has faced.

Let me leap back into the less rarefied air of public libraries: One of the hallowed services offered by librarians is the fielding of Reference Questions.

These are traditionally inquiries made by individuals seeking anything from facts (such as a name, date, recipe, motor vehicle statute) to guidance toward a range of resources (“I want information about the current drought in the West”).

A fellow librarian has given a lot of thought to a kind of twist on this tradition. Jamie LaRue, Director of the Douglas Public Library District, has guided his staff toward thinking about the “Community Reference Question.”

In other words, what are the questions that his community is trying to answer, what are the issues that the community needs help addressing?

Again, this is not a trite idea; of course individuals will ask these questions, and usually for their own interests, but often those interests are replicated in the community. Such was the case when we added a number of books about water laws.

There may be only one person in our community right now deeply interested in the history of General Custer, or the history and technology of Mexican textiles, but there are many people interested in water.

Another patron recently asked for information about forming a homeowners association. Here’s a good example of an issue that will affect many people, whether they like it or not, and given the prospects for further development in our county, it is an issue that will likely reappear. We bought two helpful books.

The Community Reference Question is an interesting twist. It follows naturally from what libraries have done all along, but it’s a different way of looking at the library’s relationship to its community — like looking through a prism one way, then rotating it slightly and … voila! … the world looks different.

To a certain extent, it’s simple: When a lot of people ask about something, we buy books about it. So, in this way, we’ve always had books about, say, xeriscaping.

But recently, and especially this year, the question has become more philosophical. People are reconsidering their relationship with their local environment. We live in a desert; how much grass should we expect to grow? Are trees more important?

We’ve stocked up on books about dryland gardening in general to help with planning, design, plant selection, and so forth.

“How does your garden grow?” has become a community question.

Someone else recently gained responsibility for a road: Did we have information about road construction and maintenance? We did not, but we do now — two good manuals about roads.

We answered an individual’s inquiry, but we also recognized a community issue, and so it serves our community well to add this information to our collection.

Similarly, the proposed mine near Poncha Pass raised debate. We ordered titles such as “Evaluating mineral projects” and “Surface mining,” as well as related mining topics, such as “Mine health and safety management.”

The issue will be back.

This library is your library, and it is also the community’s library. We like to serve both.


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