Turner, D., and Gorichanaz, T. (2018). Collaborative connections: Designing library services for the urban poor. The Library Quarterly, 88(3), 237–255.


In response to the increasing predominance of online information, urban public libraries have effected many changes, such as redesigning their interiors to add more computer stations and revamping their reference and instruction services to provide technology support. At the same time, library staffing and service hours have been reduced. Library users continue to have access to expert assistance, but this is increasingly only available via self-service and online resources. Though these changes have met the needs of many library users, research over the past forty years maintains that significant populations prefer to interact with information by talking, and these populations have been disenfranchised by certain changes in the library world. These underserved populations include families in poverty, individuals with disabilities, senior citizens, and residents of all ages unable to access digital library services because of geographic, linguistic, technological and socioeconomic barriers.

This paper presents findings from the Oral Present, an ongoing (2014–2017) IMLS-funded research project examining how urban public libraries are meeting, and can continue to meet, the information needs of the underserved. This project focuses particularly on the urban poor, an underserved population comprised mainly of racial minorities with poor social protection from risk—including limited access to education, employment, healthcare, and housing—into which culture, race, and social-psychological factors play a contributing role. The social and economic status of this population remains largely stagnant because this population lacks access to the social connections required for socioeconomic mobility. Recent efforts to improve the quality of life of the urban poor have aimed to get members of that community online. Though these efforts have led to some positive outcomes, they have failed to improve economic prosperity, political participation, and social interaction in the urban poor. Researchers have found that when members of the urban poor gain access to online information and information communication technology, they continue to desire mechanisms for in-person socialization with other community members. This may be explained as a persistent preference for oral information. Access to online information must be coupled with effective social connections that foster the flow of such information. Thus the overarching research question of this project is: What information service models work best for meeting the information needs of the urban poor—people who largely prefer oral sources of information in making life decisions?

This paper focuses on how libraries can function as social innovators in furnishing oral information through working with other community agencies. We present best practices and recommendations as exemplified in our findings. Findings presented in this chapter will provide public library professionals, library and information science educators, and other professionals who provide information to the urban poor with an increased understanding of how oral information services may be designed, organized, and managed.

Background: The Oral Present

The Oral Present, Urban Library Services, and the Underserved attributes the limited success of library services aimed to meet the information needs of the underserved (Sin, 2009; Wolfson, 2013) to strategies that ignore many of these individuals' preference to interact with information by talking (Farrell, 1978; Heath, 1983; Ikoja-Odongo & Ocholla, 2004; Ong, 2005; Purcell- Gates, 1995). The project focuses on one demographic within the underserved, the urban poor, by addressing four main information needs in research findings that have not been addressed in the rush to digitize library services:

  1. Their exclusion from democratic, economic, and social participation

  2. Their reliance on oral communication and community remembering

  3. Their lack of trust for information derived from outside the local community social network

  4. The need to build online information-seeking expertise in urban poor communities.

These are discussed in detail in the following sections.

Exclusion from democratic, economic, and social participation

Recent research has shown that social connections, which involve informal or non-published social information (Case, 2007; Turner, 2009), are instrumental in helping the urban poor change their quality of life. However, recent efforts to improve quality of life have aimed to get members of that community online. Although these efforts have some positive outcomes for this population, overall the projects fail to improve economic prosperity, political participation, and social interaction systemically (Frisby-Greenwood, 2013; Wolfson, 2013). Further, DiTomaso (2012) finds that social and economic status of African Americans, who along with other minorities are likely to be a part of the urban poor (Pew, 2012), remains unchanged because its members routinely lack access to the type of social connections needed to achieve socioeconomic mobility. In short, it appears that increasing and facilitating access to online information will not bring about social change. Instead, in order to bring about change, access to information must be coupled with effective social connections that foster the flow of informal information.

Reliance on oral communication and community remembering

The Oral Present investigates how the urban poor talk about their information needs in order to contribute to the design of information services. While oral histories involve reminiscing about one's past (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2006), the oral present refers to how people talk about the present day (Turner, 2009). In addition, unlike longer oral history documents, oral present artifacts can involve shorter presentations, a wider range of topics, or perspectives that are not recognized by an authoritative body or that continue to evolve and change (Turner & Allen, 2013).

The project emerges from new understandings about oral information, categorized as informal information (Case, 2007; Turner, 2009). People prefer informal information when they want to find out about something new (Daft & Lengel, 1983; Fidel & Green, 2004; Mackenzie, 2005). Prenatal women rely on oral information to build relationships with key information providers to become informed (McKenzie, 2009); co-workers use it to build teams and socialize new colleagues (Hall, 1993; Mirivel & Tracy, 2005; Meehan, 2000; Sole & Edmondson, 2002); community members (who rely on old technologies) consider it when deciding whether to adopt new technology like smartphones (Burrell, 2012); and managers share it to convey important information (Case, 2007; Turner, 2012b; Leckie, Pettigrew, & Sylvan, 1996; see also Bhaumik, 2005). Literacy scholars find that those who rely on oral information—referred to as members of oral cultures—use it to remember and appeal to community experts instead of to some (external) authority (Ong, 2005; Street, 1995; Vansina, 1961). Although these distinctions have long been studied with regard to pre-literate cultures (Ong, 2005; Vansina, 1961), multiple literacy and new literacy scholars have found that many people in present times rely on combinations of orality, literacy, and other skills (Farrell, 1977; Street, 1995). Moreover, scholars find that poor people in urban communities frequently engage with oral information (Ikoja-Odongo & Ocholla, 2004; Ong, 1979, 2005; Purcell-Gates, 1995). The Oral Present project attributes the limited success of certain library programs to how service strategies aimed at meeting the information needs of the urban poor ignore how these individuals orient toward oral information.

Lack of trust for information derived from outside the local community social network

This discussion is consistent with the small-world model of information seeking, which posits that people rely on in-network providers of information, usually oral information, over out-network providers (Chatman, 1996, 1999). A key aspect of this model is that community members tend not to trust outsider information sources. For this reason, library information sources may not be valued unless they are tied to a local (personal) network connection. This project studies how the urban poor rely on in-network providers of (primarily) oral information. These findings will enable us to determine the circumstances in which the urban poor consider public libraries to be insider information sources.

The need to build online information-seeking expertise in urban poor communities

While the Oral Present project recognizes preferences for oral information, it also acknowledges the inevitably textual nature of online (community, education, financial, employment, government, and more) information and librarians as key stakeholders in information provision services (Nardi & O'Day, 1999). Research about the impact of an urban broadband adoption initiative aimed at low-income neighbors, such as the Freedom Rings Partnership's KEYSPOT program in Philadelphia, finds that combining Internet access with cultural and social interventions is more likely to mitigate complex problems of poverty, social isolation, unemployment, underemployment than is the provision of Internet access alone (Wolfson, 2013; T. Wolfson, personal communication). However, library professionals may not be familiar with the idea that the urban poor prefer oral information or knowledgeable about how to provide services in ways that instill trust among these community members. The Oral Present seeks to contribute to service models that position libraries to help urban poor communities leverage their oral-information skills to gain the expertise they need to access online global information resources.

Finally, traditional library service models privilege the structure of the institution—with, for example, collection descriptions and categorizations that do not reflect users' information needs. Libraries design, deliver, and assess services by relying on demographics, questionnaires, surveys, and statistics. Those who rely on oral information are at a disadvantage in environments where information is provided exclusively or primarily through text, whether online or on paper. Library professionals and researchers increasingly call for new approaches like offering specialized services for branches (Pew, 2012), ensuring that diverse individuals have a place at the library decision-making table (de la Pena McCook, 2000), and engaging community members in conversations (Lankes, 2012). However, the information needed to implement these recommendations is lacking. The Oral Present project will provide the missing strategy in the form of a response to the following research question: What information service models work best for meeting the information needs of the urban poor—people who prefer oral sources of information in making life decisions? To answer this question, two sub-questions are posed:

  1. What key information needs of urban poor communities are currently being met with oral and/or local network resources?
  2. What factors make orally-based library services effective for the urban poor, and how such services be effectively designed and evaluated?


This project sought to address the sub-questions outlined above as a way to approach the overarching research question. Over the course of this three-year project, we devoted one year to each of three large public library systems: Cleveland Public Library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the Seattle Public Library. We used a participant action methodology (PAR; Kemmis, McTaggart, & Nixon, 2014; Lewin, 1946; Mehra, Peterson Bishop, Bazzell, & Smith, 2002) in a way that involved conducting interviews, observations, surveys and a focus group (Kindon, Pain, & Kesby, 2010; Patton, 2002) with various constituents.

In each year of the project, the project team studied an urban public library system by focusing mainly on one of its branches and the information needs of the community it serves. Specifically, PAR was used to investigate the use of talk in designing, offering, and evaluating library services in that branch. Data was gathered from local community members, including those who did and did not use the library. Iterative cycles of needs investigation, resource design, and service evaluation led to an effort to develop of a framework for effective service delivery. The research progressed in the following three stages at each site:

  1. Site orientation and selection. The criteria used to select library staff interviewees ensured that each was knowledgeable about and charged with making decision to ensure library services offered meet the information needs of urban poor community members. Most interviewees were branch manager or central administrator librarians. Initial analysis of that interview data and staff recommendations were used to select, for further study, a branch that serves an urban poor population.
  2. Community acquaintance. Once we selected a library branch, we surveyed community members in order to better understand the information behavior of eligible library users, whether or not they used the library. We also surveyed eligible library users at non-library locations including gathering spaces in two different churches, a food pantry, and a large senior housing complex. At one site, we also conducted a focus group consisting of representatives from community service agencies that had partnered with the library for information dissemination activities.
  3. Service development. Based on what we learned from the first two stages of research, we sought to design and implement a service or program that would help the selected library branch address unmet information needs of the community it serves.


Our findings are organized in response to the two sub-questions posed above, which together respond to the overarching research question of the Oral Present project.

Meeting the information needs of the urban poor

In our study, we found that urban public libraries are meeting (some of) the needs of the urban poor by leveraging demographic information, emphasizing timeliness and bolstering their approachability, reputability and perceived abundance.

Aligning information needs with demographics

First, we learned that librarian participants seem to align demographic information with key information needs. When describing the information needs that the library meets, most interviewees named the demographics of community members served. Those demographics include a broad range of persons such as former prisoners, immigrants, and persons who are poor or have less economic resources. In discussing the urban poor specifically, our librarian participants commented that that they are best able to meet the information needs of young children (e.g., through homework support), parents seeking to support young children (early literacy), and others seeking to get online.

On the other hand, many acknowledged that a library user's demographic could predict some, but not all, of their information needs. As one participant noted, "communities are not homogeneous."Another provided an example:

Black people… it's this monolithic group… The uninformed would think that, but it's very complex. It's not like that at all… I've encountered this so many times during a program like 'all black people go to church.' No, they don't, and so then if you think that then you're going to miss the boat.

So, key information needs of urban poor community members are somewhat correlated to their demographic group. However, those needs can be very complex and often urgent.


When librarian participants describe meeting the key information needs of urban poor community members, a theme of timeliness arose. Often, information is needed immediately or urgently. One respondent describes how patrons would enter the library with one immediate need, sometimes related to other needs. If the person could not get help in that moment, they may leave and not return. A different librarian noted how library users with key information needs tend to be without other options for tending to their needs. One community service agency representative who participated in the focus group provides an example:

When someone calls and says, "I do need childcare today," if you don't have it you never know if you'll be able to get that parent back. If there is a resource that they need right away, if you can't provide it that day, you can't really say, 'Well, come back...'

As mentioned above, urban poor library users may come to a librarian with one information need that is actually linked to several information needs, each dependent on the one before. For example, a person may need to find emergency childcare so that they can then find transportation to get to a health appointment or a job. Another patron may seek information about transportation because their car broke down on the way to another appointment, after which they planned to go to a free clinic that offers services only in a limited window of time.

Oftentimes these information needs are addressed by librarians with oral information because that format makes it possible to take into consideration the variables inherent to such complex information needs.

Based on our data, we found a number of elements that are involved in providing oral information that is trustworthy and credible: approachability, reputability and abundance.


While in librarianship accessibility generally refers to whether and how library users can obtain needed information, our findings suggest that accessibility with this particular community also involves approachability—the librarian putting out the proverbial welcome mat. Time and again we found that orality was crucial in welcoming urban poor community members to library resources. Of media outlets mentioned for marketing programs and services, oral media sources (e.g., word of mouth, radio) were discussed as being most effective. Librarians at all three sites stated that radio advertisements were effective when made on radio stations that poor community members listen to. The seven community agency representatives in the focus group also shared this view. Social media was mentioned less frequently, but was seen as an extension of word of mouth. For example, one librarian described how nearby residents texted each other to encourage what resulted in record attendance of a somewhat impromptu program featuring barn animals. In another example, a librarian participant described seeing members of the urban poor enter the library and then leave if they are not greeted by staff members.

This finding becomes even more interesting when juxtaposed with our survey data: 38 of the 43 eligible library users we surveyed at the first research site mentioned using oral information when asked in an open-ended question how they obtain needed information or solve problems, whether or not they obtained that information from the library.


The library has a reputation of being a trusted community resource, but this should not be taken for granted. We found that the library still has to work to maintain its reputation, and one way it does so is by relying on oral information.

Oral information directly and indirectly facilitates the meeting of community members' information needs. One librarian described talking openly with community members to encourage them to attend a program about violence in intimate relationships. Despite talking to many library users directly—singly and in small groups—and indirectly through community agency partners, no one attended the program. However, when asked if she would offer the program again, she did not hesitate to reply, "Oh, heavens, yes!" This was because brochures about the program, left throughout the library, had auspiciously disappeared in the days after the program was scheduled. The librarian explained,

Don't forget, our library is a "Safe Place."… As a teenager… I'm not sure if I'd want to walk into a room that dealt with teenage sexual assault. Now, would I come the next day and grab the literature when nobody else is looking? Yeah. So that's why we will continue to do programs like this.

The librarian shared that talking about offering the program, offering it, and making information about that topic in multiple formats not only helped disseminate needed information but also enhanced the library's reputation. It becomes clear that this information would not have been disseminated had the librarian not talked about it widely with community members.

As discussed previously, most eligible library users mentioned using oral information to obtain information they need. We also noted the role of orality for obtaining needed information from trusted sources. In our research with eligible library users in urban poor communities, we found that oral information sources (i.e., people) are trusted because they are thought to have the experience or knowledge required for and relevant to the problem at hand. Along with good friends and family members (brother, "my old lady," best friend), such trusted sources include figures whose careers give them authority, such as 211 (a public phone-based service), library staff, lawyers, and doctors. As one participant commented, "I don't talk [just] to talk."In toto, these finding suggest that community members talk to those they trust to get needed information.This demonstrates why libraries need to engage with oral information to maintain their reputation as trusted community resource.


The perception that the library has plenty of resources is another element that leads to meeting information needs. Evidence of this perception is seen in how nearly all the eligible library users, whether or not they used the library, could name at least one type of resource, but usually many more, that libraries provide. Additionally, most library users do not distinguish among types of library staff (e.g., librarians, non-librarian staff, security guards) or between the library and outside agencies providing services onsite. Evidence of this impression emerged from all research participants— eligible library users, librarians, and community agency representatives alike. For example, a library user mentioned having talked to a librarian about a legal matter when in fact she had spoken with a representative from a legal services agency which staffed a monthly program at the library. So, the impression that the library housed everything contributed to it being considered credible.

The perception that libraries have abundant resources is tempered by some of our findings. First, a few eligible library users expressed having used the library as a child or a young student or described their effort to ensure young people in their lives had access to the library. However, they expressed not using the library themselves, in a way that implied adults provide for themselves and the library was for young residents. This theme is worth mentioning because it emerged at each research site. Put another way, the impression was that the library has everything kids, but not adults, needed. This led some community members to not use the library.

The data suggests that using oral information in a variety of ways is essential for libraries to meet the information needs of urban poor community members. Such use includes orally-based marketing, conversations about libraries, and conversations with "librarians"—again, noting that most library users do not distinguish between types of library staff members nor between library staff and community service agency representatives. "Conversations" here refers to oral exchanges, however brief, and regardless of whether they are focused on information needs.

Designing and evaluating library services for the urban poor

As described in the previous section, providing oral information can lead to the use of library resources. Not only can oral information address immediate information needs, but it can foster trust and value in library services more generally. From there, we sought to determine how library services can be designed for oral information—and then evaluated.

Talking to eligible library users

Our librarian participants repeatedly commented that urban poor populations require more one-on-one attention than the library system is set up to allow. Librarians made efforts to greet library patrons and to talk with them about library resources outside of library venues, in addition to talking with them when providing information. Such interactions focused on upcoming library programs or other resources, community information, or about the patron's well-being. However, staff members are spread thin. Computer time is limited, and many staff are monolingual but serve multilingual communities. Moreover, not all librarians are suited to settings where oral information is preferred. The latter may lead to burnout, disinterest, or lack of skills that can impact the extension of library services that involve oral information. To mitigate such challenges, librarians not only talk with eligible library users, but also facilitate ways for others to talk with them.

Arranging for others to talk to eligible library users

It is not surprising that the researchers found wide recognition that the library alone cannot meet the information needs of the urban poor. Whether to market or disseminate information, librarian participants describe engaging in a wide range of relationships with community members and community organizations, especially those with a high level of influence throughout their community. Librarians engage in a wide array of types of relationships both with community agencies and eligible library users. These types of connections may be formal, informal, project-based, or long-term. While some involve an entire agency, others involve one or more of its representatives and, likewise, one or more librarians.

In an example of an informal and less publicized relationship, a branch manager quietly contacted the leader of a grassroots, anti-gang group and asked him to check in on a young library user. Her staff had seen the man being pressured by local residents rumored to be involved in a gang. An example of a formal relationship is found in the interdependent agreement that one library site forged with multiple types of partners—cultural organizations, government agencies, non-profits, recreation programs, and corporate entities. The partnership involved all these organizations working together with the support of external funding, from yet another source, in order to realize a common vision. In this example, the library system contributed leadership and management skills to this collective partnership, helping to ensure its ongoing success.

Library staff puts in considerable effort to manage these relationships. One librarian participant described that when an organization became a less desirable community partner—whether because it had lost key staff, funding, etc.—the library did not end the partnership. Instead, it suggested that the organization could more effectively partner with a non-library organization. When asked if this strategy resembled weeding the organizational relationship, the librarian agreed. Additionally, all seven representatives of community service organizations who participated in our focus group agreed that they prefer to partner with the library, as opposed to other community agencies or organizations, because it is expertly managed and has adequate, clean, and well-lit facilities in convenient and safe locations. These findings suggest that librarians approach relationships similarly to how they manage other library resources. That is, they actively seek partners willing to engage orally with library users, and they manage other resources (facilities, staff time, marketing resources, etc.) necessary to ensure that those oral interactions can happen.

Leveraging resources

One factor in the design of information services that were used by urban poor community members involved acknowledging how services based on oral information require resources that the library may not have, including staff time. This factor led to another: finding ways to leverage existing resources to obtain the needed resources. One member of the research team observed how several branch managers at each research site encouraged her to talk casually with library staff members. A few arranged times for them to talk with her. Librarians explained that they encouraged non-librarian staff to form a habit of talking with all kinds of people. One continued describing how such informal exchanges helped keep community members in the library—using library resources, asking staff questions, or even returning to the library on future occasions. In other words, talking with such community members made an impression that the library is an inviting space in which all are welcome. Upon reflection, these exchanges served not only as small talk, but also as recruitment (i.e., into LIS degree programs) or training functions. Notably, librarians facilitated conversations between the researcher and staff that resembled how they facilitated conversations between library users and community service agencies. Given that this use of oral information emerged as a key part of information seeking, future research is needed to explore more exactly when the reference interview begins for members of urban poor populations (Irvin & Turner, 2016).

Evaluation strategies

Librarians use informal strategies to evaluate library services based on oral information. They note how many attend programs. Several observe trace data, as mentioned in the example above in which the brochures disappeared. Many talk to library users and observe how they interact with library resources. One librarian described a program for teens girls, the success of which was judged by the number of attendees as well as the number of non-attendees who orbited the program in ways expected of young people in that development stage. Other interviewees observed how they would share information about a resource with one community member and soon after other community members would enter the library seeking that resource.

As we have discussed, librarians engaged in conversation to assess marketing, dissemination, and staff training that involve interactions with the urban poor. What may not be as obvious in each of the examples is the near-continuous assessment—however informal—of these interactions.

Whether asking for feedback, evaluating formal—including trace—data, internally reflecting, or engaging in more formal performance evaluation processes, librarian participants repeatedly describe assessing outputs from their organizational efforts; community needs; and, their own skills, knowledge, and abilities in the context of meeting the information needs of the urban poor. One librarian describes the challenges involved in assessment as follows:

It's difficult to navigate what can be offered in the community as it relates to what's needed and where the library is trying to place themselves in that spectrum of need, and how, on what level, are we going to be placed. I think that's what the library is trying to figure out. As each year passes, the library needs to reposition themselves on that spectrum, and it's moving further to the right, and the budget is moving further to the left.

This pattern of routinely assessing efforts facilitates the effective management of resources and maintenance of relationships. In fact, that these three areas of responsibility dominant the findings explain how libraries contribute to collective impact (American Library Association, 2016; Collaboration for Impact, n.d.; Kania & Kramer, 2011) to ensure they can aid in a wide range of activities needed to meet the information needs of those who prefer oral sources of information when making life decisions.

Re-defining success

While high program attendance seems to define success, librarians described how they assessed three different programs that each resulted in relatively low turnout. Recall the program about abusive relationships that no one attended but was still determined a success because relevant information was disseminated. Next, despite staff offering a program that they knew would be popular among neighborhood African American teenage girls and telling many of them about it when they saw them, fewer attended than expected. However, the targeted population came to the library as the program ended and wanted to know how it went—they wanted to know how it went and who attended. In other words, one outcome was increased use of the library by the target population, though it was not the type of use expected. Success was determined by taking into consideration a wider range of information needs relevant to the teenage demographic, the anticipated audience for this event. By contrast, a third program that resulted in low turnout was deemed unsuccessful because it reflected an instance in which librarians acted on an assumption that went against their practical knowledge in offering it. The librarians who organized the event assumed members within the same demographic of a speaker with national recognition would tell others to attend. They didn't. In retrospect, the organizers commented that they should have marketed to other demographics to ensure a greater turnout, which occurred when the same individual spoke in a different city venue.

Overall, we suggest that the success of orally-based library services should be defined: based on a careful consideration of the demographic(s) of a target audience, with regard to how resources are acquired and used, or by paying attention to what happens during and after its implementation.


Practices for partnerships

The rich set of relationships managed at each site seemed as varied and as much a mainstay of the library as its collection. This observation makes it possible to see parallels between efforts used to manage the relationships and efforts used to manage the library collections (Turner, 2015; Turner & Gorichanaz, 2016). Moreover, while it is clear that libraries maintain an array of partnerships within their communities, the role that libraries play within the partnerships may not be as clear. Is the library's role one of full partnership, where each contributing equally as in a tree network, or do libraries consistently provide some type of leadership service that helps ensure the collective impact of the complex, cross sectional (or interdisciplinary) partnerships in which it invests? Future research, including the final outcomes of this ongoing study, will likely lead to more informed answers to such questions. For now, our findings also reveal insight into what happens when the relationships are less active or inactive.

Although participants discussed many partnerships as being in the past and in other ways signaled that collaborations had ended, they spoke of these relationships in interesting ways from making casual references during reference interviews or small talk to making announcements during community events or library programs. In effect, mentioning the inactive partnerships seems to help establish credibility, not unlike citing a previously published work in a formal publication. Their references described activities—"when we first partner with a new group, it helps to suggest possible programs that they may have attended or heard about, like the one with the genealogists of color that was widely attended"—or a specific demographic—"it's helpful to know the community when working to establish new partners like by mentioning, with this one new group, that our bookmobile once stopped weekly at the local residence for Cambodian refugees in its area, which gives them a sense that I'm not new to the community." In four null examples, librarians engaged in relationship building that proved ineffective. In one, a librarian described challenges involved in attempts to offer programs with different faith-based organizations:

Some people believe that the faith-based community would play a role in [partnering to do outreach] with teens—well, [with any demographic], period, really, but I hate to put it that way, because you have to understand: they're interested in keeping their services under their roof, and any sort of outreach by a church inside a library would become problematic.

On a different note, librarians at two sites described the impact of change on library users. Among members of the urban poor, this impact could be very dramatic, which suggests a sense of collective ownership. To explain, librarians comment that local library branches provide consistency for urban poor community members who experienced tremendous change (e.g., loss of child custody, family/friends, housing, jobs, etc.). To mitigate the impact of changes in staffing or interior design, libraries may cultivate a practice(s) to better inform library users of anticipated changes in some appropriate manner. For example, library social media may announce staff transfers and inform library users of their new branch. The library could post physical postcards "sent" by former staff members, who could be asked to create them prior to their departure. Or, before and after pictures could be posted for a short time after remodeling. Library staff might also tell community members, who they deem likely to share the news with others in their community, about anticipated changes.

The theme of relationships emerged so consistently in the data that it became important to explore this more nuanced aspect of how they are used to meet the information needs of urban poor community members. The relationships may become inactive; however, they do not seem to entirely end. Some may again become more active, while others become points of reference that—to come full circle—help establish the library as a well-connected, engaged, and inviting local resource. Investing in relationship building seems to result in a positive regard for the library that combines with the already existing impression that the library is accessible and approachable in ways that begin to inform the type of trust that members of the urban poor may have in the library.

Skills, knowledge, and abilities involved

Based on this analysis, the most effective models to use for meeting the information needs of the urban poor, a population that frequently prefers to interact with oral information, are ones based on connection. While public libraries have managed connections with community members and organizations in a more traditional role of community information and resource provider for much of the last century (Gorichanaz & Turner, 2017), complex challenges involved in this aspect of a typical library mission call for a sustained interdependency that can range from contractually obligated to inactive interactions. It becomes clear that libraries frequently contribute considerable resources needed to maintain this interdependence as determined by observing how often library expertise, location, facilities, reputation, and more play a role in their success for reasons that make the public libraries a success independent of any partnerships. This is not to minimize contributions made by non-library partners or to claim some take greater advantage of shared resources.

This different level of contribution is effectively recognized in the collective impact model that acknowledges the need for one partner to assume a leadership role to ensure the ongoing success of the collective (Collective Impact, n.d,), as viewed at the second research site in at least one high profile city-wide partnership. It makes sense for public libraries to take the lead, a substantial contribution, because they are funded as part of our tax base (a public trust). We recognize that relationships with community entities are essential for libraries to meet the information needs of the urban poor.

In light of the complex challenges that communities face today, is it time to formally extend the role that the public library plays, as keeper of public trust resources held within the boundaries of the library, to resources beyond those boundaries? Additional research is needed to answer questions like these. For now, sufficient evidence suggests that the most effective model for libraries to use to ensure that they can meet the urban poor's information needs is a "collaborative connections" model, or one that involves active maintenance of a wide set of community members and organizations. The remainder of this section outlines skills, knowledge, and abilities involved when incorporating oral information when making library services resources available to members of urban poor communities.

Moving beyond tradition

When working to manage resources, including relationships, and assess efforts to meet the information needs of the urban poor, librarians convey some surprising deviations from traditional practices. Several mentioned the effectiveness of Trojan horse–styled programming, or of offering a fun activity and having representatives from human service organizations tabling on the sidelines. Others described designing programs for teens that helped them "save face," or that catered to their adolescent development stage by purposely having the program run over its advertised time or repeating it within a short timeframe for those who had missed it seemingly for social reasons (also discussed above). Overall, participants using non-traditional approaches routinely accounted for complex challenges related to illiteracy, the inability to speak English, joblessness, having a criminal record, homelessness, poverty, and negotiating personal safety whether from violence in the streets or in the home. In one extreme case, a librarian described how a man she helped left the library and then, while crossing the street, was shot and killed.

This and other examples sit in stark contrast to how the librarianship profession has traditionally embraced and valued neutrality. Data gathered demonstrate that the only way that urban public librarians can be effective when working to serve the urban poor is to recognize that they are not neutral. Reverend Starsky D. Wilson (2016), a policy advocate who recently helped the residents of St. Louis, Missouri, navigate a significant period of civil unrest, describes the opposite of a neutral place as a safe space that provides clear boundaries, multiple perspectives, and sanctuary. Librarian participants described providing what seemed like a kind of safe haven in which it becomes possible for library users to gain relative distance from complex, competing personal priorities and seek information that may help change their quality of life, if only for the time in which they interact with library resources.

Noting this additional aspect of urban public library work, some librarians find working with the underserved to be fulfilling. Others find it challenging, as mentioned above. They face burnout and become overwhelmed in part because they lack preparation for the kind of hardships for which they essentially bear witness.

Implementing the collaborative connections model of service provision will likely be more effective by ensuring librarians—and perhaps all library staff regardless of title—have skills for dealing with witnessing the plight of urban poverty. Some libraries recognize and attempt to mitigate this dynamic by hiring social workers (Nemec-Loise, 2014). While only a handful of extremely disturbing incidents emerged in the data, staff were more routinely exposed to community member hardships that may be described as emotionally triggering or psychologically troubling in the context of ongoing, known pressures also impacting urban public library organizations—including budget shortfalls, aging infrastructure, changing technologies, and evolving user expectations. Future research is needed to help library systems find ways to help staff prepare for and cope with challenges and rewards involved in efforts needed to meet the information needs of the urban poor. Likewise, one participant commented that, "Library education also needs to train future librarians on cultural sensitivity, interpersonal relationships, communication, etc." Perhaps with such training, more librarians would question, as one participant did, why library programming for urban poor communities that focused on community deficits—like, childcare, education, health, and housing needs—dominate, instead of sitting alongside programming focused on creative expression, the human experience, and fun.

Non-traditional collection management

Participants expended a great deal of effort managing relationships with community members and community organizations. The librarians described their strategies of researching and evaluating these entities in order to determine whether and how to partner with them. These skills may look familiar. By framing the set of relationships in which libraries maintain as a collection, one can begin to recognize how skills used to manage more traditional types of resources transfer to this important set of responsibilities (Turner, 2015). When asked to confirm the assertion that skills used to manage relationships resembled those used to manage library collections, all agreed with their colleague who expressed agreement and added that on occasion they even needed to "weed" partners. Moreover, librarian administrators may consider library knowledge about the existence, stability, and services of community organizations as an asset that may be of interest to city and county officials.


While our research instruments did not directly focus on assessment, participants described using a range of means with which they evaluated community information needs, outcomes of library efforts, and their own skills. The librarian participants certainly use formal assessment techniques, but more evaluate needs and outcomes in informal ways. The researchers noted how statistics gathered to evaluate library programs—mainly the number of attendees—missed the nuances captured in the data as reflected in the following comments from two participants:

In all this, the library needs ways to measure the outcomes of its efforts. Traditional measures are number of library card holders, circulation counts, turnstile counts and sometimes reference interview summaries. These miss a lot, such as people who read a book onsite and don't check it out, and people who get face-to-face help outside the framework of the traditional reference interview. In particular, outcomes assessment needs a way to account for qualitative outcomes and not just quantitative ones.


There needs to be a better link between research and practice.

LIS educators and researchers would do well to help identify more effective ways for public librarians to evaluate how they are meeting the information needs of the urban poor, whether or not they themselves prefer to interact with oral information.


The Oral Present research project finds that the best model that urban public libraries can use to meet the information needs of urban poor populations who prefer to interact with oral information is the collaborative connections model. The findings reported here clearly show that urban public librarians understand the important role they play in the need for social change and that they rely on community relationships as a key component in ensuring that those needs are met. This provides evidence of librarians' ongoing work to ensure that those within urban poor communities can access needed information by not only making that information available in dialogues made possible through library partnerships, but also by creating safe and trusted spaces in which the urban poor may access that information.

The collaborative connections model recognizes that managing those relationships involves the library working to identify with which community member or organization to partner; contributing resources that may differ in type and amount from the partner's in order to maintain and ensure benefits of an active partnership; assessing outcomes to which that partnership leads; and, determining how to leverage the partnership even well after it becomes inactive. Although public librarians already engage in aspects of the collaborative connections model, more research is needed to inform full implementation that can position libraries to engage in partnerships that ensure the information needs of all members of the urban poor can be met.


This project was generously funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services through Grant #RE-07-14-0051.


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