Saturday, November 23, 2013

Home and School and Library and City

You probably don’t know that I hold the illustrious position of President of the King Edward Home and School Association. Since September I've been chairing our monthly meetings as well as the occasional special meeting like the one when we as a group all sat around my dining room table and discussed what we wanted to fund raise for this year.

The best way to understand our budget prioritizations is to think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If we end up reaching our ambitious fundraising goal we are going to purchase 10 iPads for the school (yes, yes, I know that iPads are problematic as educational technology but when the Principal, the teacher's rep and the majority of your volunteers all want to work towards buying iPads, you commit to iPads). But before we spend any money on tablets, we’re going to make sure that we make good on our commitment to support field trips, school clubs, referees, replace broken music and sports equipment, and help pay for the festivities to send off the graduating class of grade eights.

But our primary budgetary goal that comes first is to continue to support the our snack and breakfast programs that we run in the school. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday a small group of committed Home and School volunteers meet in the school’s staff room and clean, cut and distribute fruits and vegetables into baskets for each class so that come first ‘nutrition break’ everyone who is hungry can have something to eat. Our school also holds a ‘Breakfast Club’ so that kids can start the day with food in their stomachs as long as they arrive at school earlier enough to take advantage of the program.  And that’s a key point - it’s not so much that there are many families in this neighbourhood who can’t afford breakfast (although they most certainly exist) but it’s more that there are many families who are supported by adults who have so many demands on their time such as part-time or shift work that on some days it takes all their available time and energy just to get their kids out of the house and to school on time.

The economic conditions of the neighbourhood where I live is changing and the make-up of our volunteers at Home and School reflects that change. Not long ago King Edward Home and School had many more active volunteers who were 'stay at home' parents and so the scale of the fundraising and social events were a degree larger than what they are now.  I don’t think it’s coincidence that our core volunteers are retirees (grandparents who are primary caregivers), work part-time or on contract, or are stay-at-home. When we lose an active volunteer it’s usually because of the good fortune that they've found full-time work.

This means that the nature of our activities as an organization has changed. We find that many parents are very happy to support our activities that support the school but they are likely to participate in our events only if they don’t have to commit to giving time. For example, many parents are happy to donate baked goods to a particular event, but can’t or won’t commit to helping out planning or putting on that event.

My experiences with Home and School has quietly shifted some of my thinking about the services that we provide as a librarian at a university. I know this because when I took the bus to work this week and watched all the students come on board, I couldn't help but wonder if they were starting the day with a good breakfast in them. And as I tried to see the library from their perspective, I realized that it probably means little to them that the library is the heart of campus learning (in so that we pump out text for reading that turns into writing that turns into publishing that returns to the library, the heart of the campus, and our arteries that pump out the text again and this allows the body of knowledge to move and grow and I probably should have stopped this metaphor before it even started) .  The most important service we might be providing is to simply being a warm, dry place to sit down before and between classes.

I'm comfortable going a good deal further than merely arguing that the presence of well-loved and well-used public spaces in a city is a collective good. I conflate that presence more or less directly with civilization itself. My reasons for thinking so are all pretty basic, even obvious, but I find that it sometimes helps to spell these things out explicitly. Consider:
Civilization means providing for everyone’s basic biological needs, among which are shade and some degree of shelter from the elements; clean potable water; and a safe place to use the toilet, and otherwise conduct the rudiments of bodily hygiene. These provisions need to be widely distributed and available throughout the community, situated in a way that allows them to be utilized without undue surveillance (and certainly without shame), and this can only happen under the conditions of relatively uncontrolled access that public space affords. 
The most vulnerable among us have the greatest need for such facilities, of course. They ought to be able to avail themselves of same for pragmatic reasons of public health, but also because being able to clean oneself up helps immeasurably with “presentability” when applying for assistance, or a job, or otherwise moving uncomplicatedly through the bourgeois world. (Speaking from personal experience, it’s hard to gather up the courage to walk into a clinic, a classroom or an office when you know perfectly well that you smell, and that the smell is offensive to the people around you.)

The above is an except from Adam Greenfield’s Public space, civilization and the self (long)

The reason why I brought the larger context of public space and ultimately why I've been reflecting on the matters of time constraints and civic participation is that I'm less than 40 days away from a year long sabbatical.  Unstructured time to pursue one’s own interests is perhaps one of the finest luxuries in the world and I am well aware of what a privilege it is.  I titled my sabbatical application as ‘Library as city, city as library’ and here is an excerpt of what I proposed to work on way back in September 2012:

In November of 2011, MIT Press published a set of twenty-four essays in a work entitled from “From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen: Urban Informatics, Social Media, Ubiquitous Computing, and Mobile Technology to Support Citizen Engagement.” The work explores the possibilities that mobile devices, mapping, gaming, augmented reality and other technologies may have on citizen engagement. Notably, there is no mention of libraries working within this context. Mobile devices allow for information to be geographically situated in a specific locations. How can the library distribute its collections on a map or in a space outside of itself in the places where they are immediately needed or brought to mind? This question has not been fully explored within the profession.

I briefly toyed with the idea of setting up a new, separate blog just to reflect this new focus of placing library work in a larger context that explores the notion of the smart city, spatial thinking, local knowledge among other important ideas related to geography…

(recently over lunch I inadvertently made my friends laugh with my proclamation that I needed to re-find my inner geographer “So you’re a lost geographer?”  Ha. Ha.)

... but I am a seasoned enough blogger to know that the title of a blog really doesn't matter much to the reader. And I know enough of my own site analytics that most of my traffic comes from real-time referrals from Twitter and Facebook. If a piece of writing resonates enough for someone who wants to share it, then it doesn't really matter where it comes from.

This particular insight probably requires a whole article to unpack and I'm looking forward for having the time and space to do so in 2014.