Gorichanaz, T., and Turner, D. All the community’s a stage: The public library’s changing role in community information provision. The Library Quarterly, 87(2), 99–116.

Abstract. Community information is indispensable for modern life, but access to it remains challenging for many people. Historically, public libraries have been central in providing formal community information, but today such information provision is accomplished largely by informal networks of community service agencies. Thus, the role and the value of the public library in community information provision seem unclear. We find an analogy to this situation in design theorist Christopher Alexander’s conceptualization of planned versus natural cities, and we bring this to bear on an ongoing study of public library service provision to the urban poor. This work reveals implications and recommendations for the public library’s unfolding role in community information provision: public libraries may no longer be needed to provide formal community information, but they can engage as information shepherds with local community service agencies in informal community information provision.

People go through life with information---seeking, finding, experiencing, encountering, using, avoiding... This paper focuses on the intersection of community information and the public library---being, respectively, one particular kind of information and one particular kind of community service agency. Public libraries are situated within communities and serve the public through, among other things, the provision of community information, which allows people to fully be members of their community. In this light, the spirit of public libraries and the nature of community information seem to have much in common. This observation animates our exploration into the role the library plays in providing community information.

We begin by recounting a history of community information provision with an eye toward the library's changing role in the drama. As we will discuss, the library once stood in the limelight, a position that was epitomized in formal information and referral services. These formal services gradually faded into a spectrum of community information offerings taken up by diverse actors. Today, all the community's a stage, and the library and other community service agencies merely players.

To help us make sense of---and move forward in light of---this shift, we draw on the work of design theorist Christopher Alexander ([1965] 1988), who pointed out the shortcomings of planned cities as compared to unplanned cities. This discussion offers an analogy for considering formal and informal community information provision by public libraries, and it foregrounds a focus group study exploring the relationships between the public library and local community service agencies in one U.S. city. In this work, we attempt to bring theory from urban design to the everyday practice of urban public librarians. Alexander extols the virtue of the unplanned city---but, of course, no city is entirely unplanned. Likewise, informal community information provision is needed and effective---but, perhaps, it can be made more effective through strategic participation on the library's part.

The Library's Changing Role in Community Information Provision

Community Information and Community Service Agencies

Community information (CI) is what enables people to participate fully in their communities. It includes information about health care, financial assistance, housing, transportation, education, childcare, recreation programs, clubs, community events and government (Pettigrew 1996).

CI is distributed in three main ways: through everyday, informal conversations; by community service agencies; and by dedicated information specialists (Day 2007). In this outline, Day distinguishes between formal or structured CI (e.g., in printed or electronic directories) and informal or unstructured CI (e.g., as tacit knowledge held by groups and individuals). Through a survey of the literature, Day concludes that, in general, community members prefer to obtain CI informally through everyday conversations; on the other hand, formal CI sources are seen as last resorts. In other words, even though formal CI is readily available, people are less likely to use it. With this in mind, Day concludes, "Formal CI needs to flow into the information networks and frameworks of key people in the community who have the skills to translate and transform CI from the limitations of information systems into the language of the user in everyday interactions and conversations." (Day 2007, 105).

Community service agencies, then, can be seen as access points for formal CI, which can be transformed into informal CI and distributed more widely throughout the community. "As part of a network of services, these agencies benefit from having knowledge of other parts of the community services network so that they can collaborate and cooperate with other services" (Day 2007, 104). Indeed, Day (2007) chronicles how CI has been provided by community service agencies since the 1920s. Such agencies grew in number through the era of World War II, after which they declined. Then, in the 1960s, along with a rejuvenated interest in social services, agency interest in CI provision burgeoned anew.

Information and Referral: The Library's Starring Role in Community Information

Beginning in the 1960s, public libraries became important providers of formal CI through what became known as information and referral (I&R) services, largely because the provision of CI meshed well with the information services that libraries already provided (Croneberger 1990). Moreover, this period was marked by heightening urbanization, with many of the new urbanites lacking skills needed for city jobs; many of these people could not find the information they needed without assistance, and librarians were able to help. Within a few decades, most public libraries had incorporated formal I&R in their service (Poe 2006).

Still, I&R services in libraries met certain obstacles. Levinson (2002) described outright resistance against libraries providing I&R services: Some said it inappropriately stepped into the domain of social work; that it conflicted with the neutrality that librarians value; and that the handling of personal information often requisite in I&R was an inappropriate and intrusive part for librarians to play. Similarly, Poe (2006) concluded that, even at the time of her writing, many people did not consider libraries as possible sources for CI generally.

Today, however, this is some evidence that sentiments have changed: The American Library Association (ALA) policy statement regarding services to the poor says it is "crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society" (2012, 7), for instance by working with other community service agencies. To this end, ALA lists several "Model Programs" on their website of public libraries across the United States that successfully staff social workers and provision CI in other innovative ways (ALA 2016). Commenting on this trend in Public Libraries Online, Nemec-Loise (2014) called the public library staffing of social workers a "no-brainer," and a writer in The New Social Worker, a careers magazine for social work, expressed similar support (Trainin Blank 2014).

The Variegation of Information and Referral Services

Just as public libraries were never the only agencies providing informal CI, non-library agencies also began providing formal I&R services (Levinson 2002). Locally-focused I&R agencies emerged in many areas; over the years, compelled by digitization and automation, they conglomerated into large agencies that spanned the nation, some even operating internationally. In the United States, this conglomeration has manifested in the nationwide 211 telephone and online I&R service, which is maintained by the United Way. With the proliferation of Internet connectivity and the multinational I&R frameworks, I&R came to be perceived as less important a service for libraries to provide.

Commensurately, in the library and information science literature, research on I&R seems to have been absent since 2007. This is not to say that CI provision in libraries has disappeared, but only that it no longer takes the form of formal I&R services. Rather, the role that I&R services once played has been taken up by a range of less formal, localized offerings. One reason for this may be that a CI system that attempts to be too vast (a single system purporting to serve an entire nation, for instance) is necessarily disconnected from any particular locality and therefore risks alienating the communities it purports to serve (Hider, Given and Scifleet 2014). Visible in this trend away from centralized I&R is the prescience of Day's (2007) observation that those seeking information prefer informal channels, as well as Levinson's (2002, 168--169) ultimate call for a greater focus on local communities in I&R service.

New Foci for Community Information Research and Practice

No longer focusing on I&R, scholarly discourse has moved to the field of community informatics, which seeks to leverage information and communications technologies to influence social, cultural and economic aspects of local communities (Gurstein, 2000). Though community informatics tends to focus on the implementation of digital technology, some scholars favor a more general understanding of the term, as noted by Williams et al. (2012). Efforts in the sphere of community informatics have included making networked computers available to those who may not otherwise have access (Kwon and Zweizig 2006), implementing digital signage in public locations as a way to promulgate CI (Song, Sanka, Chetan, Paramjit and Mixson 2016) and tying the academic curriculum to community initiatives (Williams, Bishop, Bruce and Irish 2012). Notably, these efforts do not hinge on the participation of public libraries.

Outside community informatics, CI in general is still a topic of discussion in library and information science; and just as with community informatics, the library does not take center stage in this discourse. For one, CI has become widely available online, rendering the library unnecessary for accessing it in many cases. Mervyn and Allen (2012) describe how community information can be accessed effectively through mobile information technology to improve social inclusion. Indeed, Durrance and Pettigrew (2002) observed that digitally available CI has led to the increased use of CI. Still, in a wide survey of online CI portals, Hider, Given and Scifleet (2014) found that, though most portals were not lacking in information, they rarely met accepted standards for usability and thus their information was not always accessible to the people to whom it was relevant. This conclusion bespeaks a need for improved information-related expertise in online CI provision. Recent research has also foregrounded offline CI provision by non-library agencies. Westbrook and Finn (2012), for example, describe the provision of CI by law enforcement officers to survivors of intimate partner violence. Surveying the content and format of these documents, Westbrook and Finn find that the documents reflect a lack of information expertise and therefore are not as effective as they could be.

The Library's Role in Community Information Today

From these examples, it can be surmised that, though the library no longer plays a central role in CI provision, it still has a role to play. Indeed, scholars such as Hider (2016) have argued this:

Although people are now able to seek out CI independently by searching on the websites of community organisations themselves, libraries and other gatekeepers of CI still play an important role in facilitating the use of community services. (81)

To this end, Hider proposes a metadata structure for CI to afford integration among extant but disparate databases and directories of CI. Westbrook and Finn (2012) similarly suggest that public libraries can and should play a linking role in the small worlds of intimate partner violence survivors. "As public servants, library staff should be familiar with other community agencies" (Westbrook and Finn, 817). Speaking to the role of researchers in forging these links, Westbrook and Finn suggest that the development of a shared information model would be a step in the right direction.

It is also important to remember that the technological divide still exists, which is another place where the importance of public libraries is clear. Despite widespread and continually growing access to the internet and digital technology, there are still swathes of the population without access to these tools. Thus, CI provision efforts that rely on access to digital technology may not meet the needs of all users. This discussion recalls Pettigrew, Durrance and Vakkari's (1999) initial exploration of digital CI, wherein they concluded that, though the full impact of digital CI is not clear, it is unlikely that it will be able to meet the needs of all members of all our diverse communities. Though digital technology has proliferated over the past two decades, the reality of this situation remains.

The library's continued role in CI provision is not merely theoretical, but has played out in practice. Today, rather than starring in CI provision, public libraries act as partners with other community service agencies. Such partnerships are not widely-documented in the literature, but three examples of library--agency partnerships illustrate the diversity of possibility.

Described by Hovius (2006), the Hamilton Public Library in Ontario, Canada, has long taken pride in local solutions. The city of Hamilton was historically industrial; now, in a post-industrial society, the city has a high level of poverty amidst other social changes. In this milieu, the library conducted a government-supported study in the 1980s to determine possible local partnerships, after which the library forged formal partnerships with a number of agencies. As of 2006, the Hamilton Public Library counted over 200 partners with which the library provides CI. Through this model, the library does not refer patrons to outside agencies; rather, it works hand-in-hand with these agencies. Hovius describes how this model symbiotically increases the visibility of both the library and the partner agencies while allowing the library to focus on its core strength of information provision.

Meyer (2014) describes a somewhat different model of library--agency partnership, which is short-term and project-based. The University of Denver library has partnered with student organizations, offices and councils across campus in order to run co-sponsored events. Meyer describes such partnerships as low-hanging fruit, capable of bridging the gap between desire for improved outreach and the realities of limited budgets and time. Similarly, Dancy et al. (2014) describe an outreach program created by the National Library of Medicine that was successful in funding local community service agencies to carry out small-grant initiatives around propagating AIDS-related health information that was made available by the library.

Considering these partnerships, it is important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all, and models should likely adapt over time. As Kwanya, Stilwell and Underwood (2011) suggest, it is of foremost importance to take into account the given community's needs and characteristics in making decisions.

These partnership examples differ in scale and library type, but they illustrate the rich ways in which libraries today contribute to CI provision. These contributions are not rigidly formalized as in the I&R services of the past; rather, they reflect a more egalitarian dramatis personæ in which the library might play not a ruling monarch, but a shepherd.

Community Information Provision from an Urban Planner's Perspective

To better understand the value of the library's now-humbler role in CI provision, we can regard the drama from the seat of Christopher Alexander, a 20th-century architect and design theorist famed for his singular thinking. Whereas other design theorists were criticizing modern design through social and political arguments, Alexander advanced instead a structural analysis based on novel insights from cognitive science, which he published in the essay "A City Is Not a Tree" (Alexander 1988). The legacy of Alexander's argument has been enduring and fruitful, as evidenced by the recent publication of a volume reprinting Alexander's landmark essay along with a number of exegetical commentaries (Mehaffy 2016). Moreover, his work was a key catalyst in the development of modern discourse around urban self-organization (Portugali 2000).

In "A City Is Not a Tree," Alexander (1988) drew a distinction between natural cities, which arose more or less spontaneously over the course of centuries, and artificial cities, which were deliberately designed by planners. London is an example of a natural city---"London was not designed for cars. Come to that, it wasn\'t designed for people. It just sort of happened" (Gaiman and Pratchett 1990, 279)---and Brasília is an example of an artificial city. In Alexander's view, artificial cities are often seen as "lifeless" compared to natural cities, and his article seeks to explain why. Natural cities, he says, come to be organized in the chaotic-looking fashion of a semi-lattice, a mathematical concept denoting a set in which elements may be part of overlapping subsets. Artificial cities, on the other hand, are organized as trees, in which all elements in a set are arranged in concentric and organized subsets. In a tree structure, elements cannot be part of overlapping subsets.

Alexander (1988) argues that planned, artificial cities---which have the tree structure---do not reflect social reality. He gives the example of a planned city that separates pedestrian traffic from automobile traffic. In such a city, the urban taxi is impossible, since the taxi relies on the overlap of the pedestrian and automobile worlds. Another trope of the planned city, Alexander says, is the trend toward colocating all a city's performing arts venues. Scathingly, he asks: "Can the two feed on one another? Will anybody ever visit them both, gluttonously, in a single evening, or even buy tickets from one after going to a concert in the other?" (Alexander 1988, 78--79). Alexander argues that cities must be semi-lattices in order to be truly useful---and vivacious---because our needs as city-dwelling humans are varied and changing, we interact with different things in different ways, our worlds of work and leisure and shopping and eating are intertwined. Indeed, the elements of our very lives overlap.

Why, then, do we time and again design cities as trees rather than semi-lattices? In Alexander's view, it is an artifact of human cognition: "For the human mind, the tree is the easiest vehicle for complex thoughts" (Alexander 1988, 84). Semi-lattices, conversely, are devilishly difficult. "It is not enough merely to make a demonstration of overlap---the overlap must be the right overlap" (Alexander 1988, 82). The overlap must give structure rather than chaos.

Were Alexander in the audience watching the historical drama of CI provision recounted above, he might have seen trees and semi-lattices on stage. When the library played the central role, epitomized in I&R services, CI provision had a tree-like structure. The public library would have considered itself the arbiter and dispatcher of CI for the benefit of all. Now, when the library is but a player, like any community service agency, in providing CI, the affair rather reflects the semi-lattice structure. The library, rather than being the once-and-for-all provider of CI, now works in concert with diverse community service agencies.

A cursory reading of Alexander's (1988) work might suggest that we abandon all urban planning efforts in favor of letting cities develop of their own accord. This was not, however, his point. Rather, he suggested that we learn from his illustration of the benefits of the semi-lattice structure and the limitations of the tree structure, and that we consider the human gravitation toward the tree structure in design, all in order to design cities more smartly. In like manner, we do not argue that public libraries should wash their hands of all formality in CI provision. (Indeed, attempts to do so might recall Lady Macbeth---some things simply cannot be washed off.) Rather, we suggest that libraries can contribute smartly with other community service agencies, lending the best of their talents and coaxing from others their best talents, too, in the manner of a shepherd---or, perhaps, a skilled stage director.

Investigating Urban Public Libraries and Community Information Provision Today


We are engaged in an ongoing, three-year study on public libraries and the information needs of the urban poor in the United States (The Oral Present 2015). In our research, we found that the urban poor population in Cleveland, Ohio, had unmet CI needs. With the understanding that unmet CI needs constitutes a disconnect between community members and community service agencies, and in light of Alexander's (1988) critique of urban planning articulated above, we sought to discern whether and how the library could play a role in facilitating CI provision within the community. To begin to approach this, we held a focus group with members of local community service agencies. This study was meant to address the following research questions:

  • How are community service agencies getting referrals, given that the public library does not formally offer I&R services?
  • Is there an opportunity for the library to partner with community service agencies to better provide CI to the urban poor?

The Cleveland Public Library is an urban public library system operating 27 branches in the Cleveland, Ohio, metropolitan area. Historically industrial, Cleveland has experienced job loss in the city center since the 1960s, which has led to a declining urban core and more affluent suburbs. Today, Cleveland has a median household income of \$26,179 (2010--2014; United States Census Bureau 2016) and an unemployment rate of 5.7% (as of February 2016; Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016). This study focused on one particular branch of the library system, located in a service area that is predominantly African American and has a median household income about 30 percent lower than that of the city. This area is densely-populated and is adjacent to a growing downtown neighborhood. This branch was selected because a large proportion of its user base is underserved, and its staff have been long engaged in improving information provision to the underserved. In this sense, it can be understood as a critical case (Yin 2014).

We call the population under study "underserved" following Wray ([1976] 2009), who suggested that the underserved constitute a critical constituency for library service provision. Wray advocated for the term's adoption, noting that accepted names for this population have changed over time because of political and social pressures both from within and without. As we understand it, the underserved include: families with children (birth to age 17) living below the poverty line; individuals with disabilities; senior citizens; and those who are unable to access library programs and services due to geographic, linguistic, technological and socioeconomic barriers (State Library Advisory Council 2007). Within the broad group designated as underserved, our ongoing project focused on a group known as the "urban poor." In the LIS literature, the urban poor have been referred to in a broad range of ways, stemming from the efforts in the early 1900's to "Americanize" immigrants, to our modern efforts to assist the disadvantaged, needy and underprivileged (Childers 1973). In this paper, the underserved and urban poor are understood as those with poor social protection from risk---including limited access to education, employment, health care and housing (Gilderbloom 2008)---in which cultural, racial and social psychological factors play a contributing role (Wilson 1996).


The focus group study was conducted by Author Two with representatives of local community service agencies that had coordinated with the Cleveland Public Library in May 2015. Similar to other studies designed to gain baseline understanding (Friedman et al. 2016; Meyers, Fisher, and Marcoux 2009), this study relies on the focus group method as a way to increase understanding of how these agencies negotiate CI including with their interactions with the library.

To aid in recruiting participants, CPL librarians provided recommendations on what community service agencies to contact. Author Two then corresponded with individuals from the recommended agencies via email (or, in two cases, telephone), clearly stating that the agencies had been recommended by CPL but that the present research was being conducted independently of CPL by the authors, even though CPL would provide meeting space for the focus group itself. Twelve agencies were invited to attend, but some were unable to participate---all stated that not being able to participate was due to scheduling conflicts.

Bloor, Frankland, Thomas and Robson (2001) counsel that focus groups should be comprised of 6 to 8 individuals and be as homogenous as possible. Our focus group included seven participants employed with community service agencies in the neighborhood; their agencies, like the public library, were committed to providing services to the underserved. Additionally, each of the participants had coordinated with the library research site in some capacity in the past. The participants represented a variety of community service agencies that provided services in childcare, faith ministry, food, legal support, neighborhood mobilization and sexual violence. While there was no incentive for volunteers to participate, data gathered reveal a desire to keep up with local knowledge about other community service agencies and to maintain good relations with the library motivated participation.

The focus group was scheduled for (and took) 90 minutes. Author Two guided the focus group discussion to maximize self-management and ensure full participation that resulted in relevant comments (Morgan 1997). Author Two is trained in qualitative research methods as well as group facilitation skills. She has taught these skills nationally and internationally in community settings, LIS education and LIS professional development. At the start of the session, participants were given a copy of the protocol (Appendix A), which included questions about how users come to the agencies, whether users are generally qualified for the agencies' services, the extent to which agencies know about the services provided by other local agencies, how community service has evolved in the area over time and how agencies have collaborated with other agencies. One participant had to leave early, during the final three questions; Author Two followed up with this participant and discussed the final three questions via telephone. All data was audio-recorded with a standalone recording device and transcripts were professionally prepared. Author Two took handwritten notes to record nonverbal data including gestures, facial expressions that emphasized points made, head motions that expressed agreement or disagreement, and the like. At times, she asked participants follow-up questions to clarify meaning behind such behavior observed.

Participants were guided to introduce themselves in a way that allowed them to retain some degree of anonymity. However, the individuals spoke and acted in ways that reflected their wanting to get to know each other better. For example, at the end of the session, they all---on their own---exchanged business cards.

Data analysis was conducted by both Author One and Author Two. Each author independently open-coded the data in multiple rounds using the constant comparison, looking for emergent themes (as described by Braun and Clarke 2006). Then the two met to discuss their differing interpretations and reach consensus. This process took place over several meetings and several weeks.


In our analysis, the major themes that emerged were:

Urgent need: The community is underserved and in need across many dimensions. These needs are manifest in individuals as urgent needs, such as needing food to eat today.

Getting qualified users: A continual challenge for community service agencies is matching their offerings with people in need. Oftentimes people approach an agency with needs that the agency cannot address.

Wanting to help: Our participants are motivated on a general level by a desire to serve. In practice, they serve in a specific way as defined by the agency they work for, but in principle there is no reason their service should be so limited.

Collaboration among agencies: Community service agencies work together, by co-sponsoring programs and services as well as by mutual referral.

These themes are not isolated; rather, they intersect in important ways. Community service agencies are able to work together out of a common motivation to serve and because working together leads to more qualified users and thus better addresses the community's urgent needs. This account is given in more detail in the following paragraphs.

Based on their experience as public servants embedded within this community, our focus group participants see the community as one in which the number of people who need help far exceeds the availability of help. At the same time, any given individual may have multiple needs, requiring the services of more than one agency. These needs are often urgent. Arl, who works in a childcare service agency, put it poignantly:

And you really do have to provide that immediate service---and if not, you may miss them. When someone calls and says, "I need childcare today," if you don't have it [that day], you never know if you'll be able to get that parent back. ... You can't really say, "Well, come back and see me next week. I may have something [then]," because for them it is that urgent.

Such urgent needs reflect the dynamic and transient nature of the community. For underserved community members, conditions can change fast and be unpredictable. In such a milieu, community service agencies that hope to effectively address community members' needs must be nimble.

Following up on this, Rin, who works at a food service agency, described her experiences taking applications for food-purchasing assistance, demonstrating that the population is not only in need, but also transient.

By the time the case worker calls them back to do their phone interview, which is necessary to complete the process, they are out of minutes on those phones. There's no way to contact them, so now they go ... all this time without benefits.

Meb echoed this and added that she, in her legal services role, focuses on providing as much help as possible in the moment of the encounter in case the person is later unreachable.

Our focus group participants, as employees of community service agencies, are motivated by a general desire to help. Indeed, the participants -recognized and felt united by this shared motivation. With this unity, participants described working with other agencies to serve their clientele. This plays out through a sorting and referral process that was part and parcel to the jobs of all our participants, because in many cases individuals who approach an agency for assistance do not have precise understandings of the services that agency does and does not provide. Meb, in legal services, for instance, said that many people did not know that they only deal with certain kinds of legal cases, and that many people did not know that or understand the legal distinctions. As Meb said:

What we're really more interested in is effective referrals because we already have way more people coming to our doors than we can possibly serve. ... For us it's about making sure that the folks coming through the process are the folks who we are most likely going to be able to help.

When an individual was determined to be unqualified for an agency's service, they were referred, when possible, to other agencies. Von, in ministry services, described it this way:

Most of our folks may need services that we really can't provide, so we try to point them into the right direction---whether, let's say, there's a church member who might have some expertise in the sort of penal or lawyer end, or anything that can contribute to ... getting redirected right to the provider.

In this vein, participants mentioned being registered with numerous, often overlapping referral agencies. Many described having a network of partners, though these were not formalized networks or partnerships. Some of these agencies partnered with the library, which was valued as an accessible and neutral public space; in our findings, these partnerships were always initiated by the outside agencies rather than by the library.

Finally, participants described their agencies growing along with their communities' changing needs. This reflects the reality that, though individuals must be qualified to use a particular agency's services, that agency can, over time, grow to in turn become qualified to meet those individuals' needs. As Cran said, "We understand we need to meet people where they are." Gil described this kind of growth concretely, saying, "For years we were pretty much providing food pantries and hot meal programs and so forth. It's only in the last couple of years that we've had this hope center."

Though the focus group method allowed for economical data collection from a diverse group of participants, it has a number of limitations. Participant responses should be seen as not exhaustive. Moreover, the nature of focus group conversation is based on consensus-building rather than detailed contrast and comparison. Thus it is possible that nuances in the community went unrevealed in this study. Still, the findings we outline here provide an evocative glimpse at the processes underlying information and service provision in this community.

As mentioned above, this focus group emerged from an ongoing research project. We hope to repeat this focus group study at two addition research sites in the future in order to bolster the findings presented here and discover additional insights, especially in the context of the other activities of our project.

The Future of Public Libraries and Community Information

Viewing these findings from the seat of Christopher Alexander (1988), it seems that the interactions among the community service agencies we studied form a semi-lattice structure through which CI is circulated informally. In this structure, the role of the library has been minimized. This seems to be because the library is most accustomed to providing formal CI from center stage, as described earlier. Such structures are tree-like in nature. It is understandable that the library should naturally gravitate toward tree-like structures of partnership, as they are easier to design, describe and assess, but the information needs of communities such as the one we studied may require a different approach.

We can conjecture that models of CI provision that take the tree structure cater best to formal CI, while those in the semi-lattice structure cater to informal CI. Prior research, as discussed above, demonstrates that information-seekers generally prefer informal CI. Indeed, this arose in our own findings. As Arl said:

Reading is an issue. Printed materials are not always the best. If you have someone with a printed material that can also explain what the printed material is telling you about, and it's someone that you trust from your community that is telling you to go, we see that we tend to have more people show up that way.

With this in mind, we ask: How can we take Alexander's call to design meaningful semi-lattice structures in this context and thereby foment informal CI exchange---which inherently seems to defy systematicity---in order to more effectively provide CI to the underserved?

In this light, we can see that today the library has an opportunity to again become an important player on the stage of CI provision, but it must play the role of shepherd, providing guidance within the semi-lattice, rather than monarch, who would impose a top-down, tree-like structure. Such a view is consistent with recent suggestions that the public library still has much to contribute when it comes to CI, as argued by Westbrook and Finn (2012) and Hider (2016). For instance, in the Cleveland community we studied, we found one such opportunity. As we discussed, the community service agencies refer individuals among each other in order to maximize their respective numbers of qualified users, often because community members do not understand what these agencies do and do not do. This reflects a lack of CI on the part of the individuals. As an information-related deficiency, the public library has an opportunity to ameliorate the situation by lending its information expertise to the semi-lattice structure already in place.

As a small step forward in this regard, libraries should take advantage of their skills in information provision by educating community service agency members on basic information provision skills, such as the rudiments of the reference interview. Incidentally, Finzi et al. (2011) discussed a context wherein volunteers acted as I&R professionals regarding citizenship information without any professional training; in this role, they faced a number of barriers that could have been overcome with some training. Libraries could more formally and widely offer this type of training. Doing so may, moreover, serve as an added source of revenue.

A second recommendation is for libraries to better inform the community service agencies about what services other agencies (including the library itself) offer, and perhaps formulating events that involve multiple agencies meant to facilitate informal exchanges among the agency representatives themselves.

Amidst all this, libraries must continue to seek to find ways to publicize their own efforts. Not only is this important so that those in need can be informed about community services and information, but so that the library can be recognized by its constituents, other agencies, funding partners and government for its value as a community connector.

These recommendations illuminate a number of paths for further research that should be followed in the future. Liangzhi and Binbin (2013) describe a government initiative in China to "informatize" rural communities through top-down, formal information provision, and they describe the challenges the initiative must overcome in order to be successful. This initiative has a tree-like structure. In Anglophone scholarship, it seems accepted that informal CI provision would be more effective, and based on our discussion in this paper we might conclude likewise that a semi-lattice structure is more effective for informal CI provision. Would adopting a more egalitarian, bottom-up approach in China be similarly more effective? Or would the cultural climate within China render it ineffectual?

This discussion also begs further conceptual research in library and information science on the topic of self-organized complexity. This concept, as it relates to information, has been discussed on a theoretical level (see Haken 2006, Bawden 2007), but heretofore it has not been connected to praxis. Bridging the research on self-organized complexity in urban development and information studies---such as through further analysis of the writings of Christopher Alexander and scholars who have come since---may offer depthful, new insights into library and information science research and practice.


In this paper, we explored the provision of community information by libraries and community service agencies. We first surveyed the historical development of community information (CI) provision by libraries, and then we considered that trajectory in light of Christopher Alexander's (1988) discussion of tree and semi-lattice structures in urban design. We found that libraries have traditionally preferred a tree-like approach to CI provision, but the social realities in underserved communities today may require a different approach. Indeed, we found evidence for this in our focus group study of community service agency representatives, who work together in a semi-lattice structure to meet the needs of their community. The library has been largely excised from their work, leaving it somewhat inefficient and wanting of information expertise. This presents, in our view, an opportunity for the library to rejoin the stage, but it will have to do so in such a way that respects the semi-lattice structure that is already in place. These findings contribute to an ongoing understanding of changes in library service models, which can be used as other libraries seek to implement their own partnerships for the provision of CI. Based on this discussion, we suggest that a shepherded semi-lattice structure, in the case of CI provision, may be more effective than a tree-like structure.


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Appendix A: Focus Group Protocol

Going around the room, briefly introduce yourselves, sharing your name and the agency you are with.

What primary clientele or populations does your agency serve?

How does your primary clientele hear about services your agency provides? How do you know this?

Prompt: Radio, flyer, billboard, word of mouth, social media, etc.

What have you found are the best ways to get information about your agency to people who are likely to use services it offers? Why?

What challenges does your agency face when working to get information about your agency to people who are likely to use services it offers? Why?

What is the hardest population to reach?

Prompt: What are the least effective ways?

Do those who come to your agency already know (or have correct or enough information about) what you offer and know what to expect of your services?

Prompt: Or, do you find that you first need to provide basic information about what you do?

Do any of your agencies have a sense of other agencies offering community service(s) in this area, neighborhood, region?

What criteria do you consider when keeping aware of other agencies?

To what end do you maintain an awareness of this information?

How would you describe the availability of community services in this area (over time)?

Prompt: Some describe community service agencies in Cleveland as coming and going, as not being stable. Would you agree? If you agree, what keeps agencies becoming stable?

Has your agency cooperated with (an)other agency(s) to make your services available?

If yes: How? What worked? What could have been different?

Prompt: What your agency want to work collaborate with other agencies? Compatible mission/purpose? Staff? Location? Reputation? Hours? Parking? History of cooperating? Other?

If no: Why not?

Prompt: What makes your agency not want to work with other agencies? not with cpl?Do you ever refer your clientele to other agencies? To the library? Why to the library, what are some of the most common reasons? The most unusual reasons?

Have you cooperated with the public library to make your services available?

If yes: How? What worked? What could have been different?

If no: Why not? What would make your agency consider cooperating with the public library?

For those that have collaborated with other agencies... Has your agency ever ended a cooperative effort with another agency? What motivated that ending? What aided the ending? What made it challenging?

If your agency received a windfall, a large sum of money, with the stipulation that it be used to disseminate information about what services your agency offered, how do you think it would to be spent?

Would your agency borrow space, on a temporary basis, if it was made available from the public library? Why or why not?

Prompt: To use in support of service delivery events, marketing, operations, other?

Prompt: For 1 day a week/month? For 1--3 months? For 6--12 months?

Do you think other community service agencies of which you are aware would borrow space from the library?

Finally, we're planning a library event in which we hope to try out some of the ideas we're learning from this research. We'd like to hear your thoughts on what we're planning. Our first idea is an "information farmer's market" event, in which community members would visit the booths of participating agencies. The second is a group reference event, in which a team of community agencies would work together to address the needs of a community member.

Would these work to get information, including about community services, out to the community?

What might make your agency want to participate in an event like this?

Would your agency consider being a part of this event?