Working with the Free Library of Philadelphia

Read the following post from our team member, Tennyson Tippy, to learn about one of our new curriculum development projects.

As the needs of people and patrons evolve, libraries everywhere must adapt to shifting cultural expectations. Long gone are the days when a librarian could sit at a reference desk, fielding questions from patrons throughout the day. Libraries now must work to define their purpose within their communities and with their communities. To foster this change, in 2017, The Free Library of Philadelphia received a Laura Bush 21st Century Library grant to improve community engagement skills among library staff. They hired language connectED to develop the curriculum and facilitate the workshops over the next 2 years.

But to develop this program, language connectED needed to better understand the experiences and needs of library staff. So, I assisted as a researcher, interviewing library staff throughout the city,

I worked with Language ConnectED to develop a six question interview script. Our goal was to ask specific but open ended questions intended to draw insight and reflection from these library professionals regardless of their circumstances. Yet in a large, diverse city like Philadelphia, though library professionals may share a title and job description, their experiences can vary profoundly from branch to branch. For instance, the job duties of a children’s librarian working in a predominantly middle class neighborhood may differ dramatically from one working in a low income neighborhood with high crime rates.

In order to gain the most insight into the lived experiences of these professionals, I occasionally needed to go “off script” in order to get a response that would provide the insight and reflection needed to help guide the curriculum development.  This is referred to as conversational interviewing.

In conversational interviews, the interviewer reads question as worded and then uses whatever words necessary to convey the meaning of the question. This approach can sometimes take longer than standardized interviewing, where questions are worded exactly as asked with little input provided from the interviewer. However, for our purposes, we sought to engage our respondents to share as many details and insights as possible. We weren’t seeking to find specific data points or measurable outcomes so much as insights that would help us to create an inspiring and relevant training program.

The qualitative insights gained from these conversations will support the design and development of the professional training program to be launched in 2018.