Open Thinkering


Tag: libraries

TB871: Metaphorical linguistic expressions

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

Activity P2.9 asks us to identify “metaphorical linguistic expressions used by stakeholders when describing or making sense of situations” in my area of practice. I’m focused on the use of libraries, in general but particularly in Northumberland. More specifically, issues affecting their use.

In general, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the population think that libraries are quiet, unexciting places. So if pushed for a metaphor, we might find words like ‘sanctuary’ or ‘refuge.’ Librarians and those who love books (like me!) might see things differently, and use terms such as ‘diving into research’ or ‘unlocking a treasure trove of information’ which makes things sound a bit more exciting.

In addition to the Dewey decimal system, libraries tend to have collections of books which have been arranged around a theme. This ‘curation’ by librarians is akin to what art galleries might do with works of art, and putting books on display treats them as less of a commodity and more like art works.

Libraries are more than just about physical books, though, and as I sit in Morpeth library there is a corner dedicated to ‘Business & IP Centre North East’ whose materials enjoin visitors to ‘Join a thriving business community in your local library.’ Although I’ve only ever seen someone sit there bored, scrolling through their phone, waiting for people to arrive, I suppose the metaphor in use is something akin to knowledge being an ‘engine of growth.’

Some libraries play an important role in teaching digital skills to the community. This can be important particularly if people need to be able to claim benefits or look for jobs, which these days are both digital-first activities. Council members or senior administrators might therefore talk about ‘investing in digital infrastructure’ and then ‘harvesting data’ from users to improve services.

So we have a range of metaphors in play with libraries: everything from art galleries, to construction, to agricultural metaphors. As Laura and I have explained on the WAO blog, metaphors are powerful things which can unlock mental models in audiences that lead to different actions being taken. I can’t help but think that library services could do a better job about being more intentional about the metaphors they use in their communications.

TB871: Re-mapping my situation of interest

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

It seems I might have jumped the gun a little when mapping my situation of concern last week. As fellow student Diana Dimitrova kindly pointed out, some of my causal links weren’t so causal, and I’d used events rather than nouns.

So now, as I come to complete Activities 2.17-2.21 I’ve had another go at mapping the situation. There’s definitely more I can add to this, which I created using kumu.

A system dynamics modelling of a situation of interest regarding number of library visitors

There are three ‘reinforcing’ loops in the above diagram and two ‘balancing’ loops. The reinforcing loops have either no, or an equal number of, subtracting/opposing causal connections (indicated in red). The balancing loops have an odd number of these kinds of connections.

It’s worth noting that this is all theoretical at the moment, I haven’t actually checked on, for example, the relationship between number of people visiting the library and budget allocation.


  • Training: The more budget is available, the more staff training can be done. This improves staff expertise, which in turn increases library quality. In turn, this unlocks more budget.
  • Marketing: The more budget is available, the more marketing can be performed. This attracts more people to more community activities, which increases the number of library visitors, which in turn unlocks more budget.
  • Availability: The more budget is available, the longer the library opening hours. This increases the number of people visiting the library, which in turn increases the budget available.


  • Digital: The more budget is available, the more staff training can happen, which in turn improves staff expertise. This improves users’ access to the library’s digital provision, which increases ebook usage, and reduces the number of people visiting the library. This has a knock-on effect on budget.
  • Noise: The more community activities are run in the library, the greater the amount of noise. This has a detrimental effect on use of the study space, which in turn reduces the number of visitors to the library. This has an effect on the budget, which reduces marketing spend and the number of people attending community activities.

In writing the above, I’ve come to realise how all of my loops pass through the ‘budget’ node. While I’m sure that this is indeed a leverage point, there must be others in the system which I haven’t spotted. I need to go back and identify these.

Unless, of course, it is all about the budget, in which case libraries either need to massively diversify into paid services, or we need more public funding (or both).

TB871: Nominating an area of practice

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

In my last post, I realised that I might be quite interested in focusing on library provision as my area of practice. The module materials give the following guidance:

  1. interest – the area must invite your own personal interest, which may usefully be an existing or aspiring professional area of practice, but may alternatively be an area of more general interest
  2. practice – the area must have an associated central element of practical change, signalled by an adverb associated with some practical activity such as control, regulation, management or reduction
  3. scope – don’t define an area of practice too narrowly (perhaps use ‘immigration control’ rather than ‘checking passports’), and try to include different hierarchical levels (the practice may have local, national or international ramifications, or may include elements of policy planning, management planning and operational planning)
  4. perspectives – the area of practice should invite different viewpoints and associated meanings
  5. uncertainty – there should be significant possibilities of unforeseen change.
(Open University, 2020)

I have a personal interest due to using the library (I am right now!) and improving use of the library is a management issue. The scope is sufficiently wide, I think, even though I’m tempted only to focus on my local library. There are different perspectives on this issue, as evidenced by the group I was part of that dealt with the problem in the workshop earlier this week. And there is plenty of uncertainty with cuts to council budgets, changing demographics, and an upcoming General Election.

Area of PracticeLibrary ProvisionGeneralised role or area of responsibility, identifying generic types of concerns in library services.
Situation of InterestCurrent concerns about use of public libraries in NorthumberlandMore specific area of concern, situation or event that is perceived by someone as calling for some kind of intervention.
System of InterestSystem to increase uptake of libraries in NorthumberlandParticular arrangement of activities associated with a situation designed to achieve a particular purpose of boosting library usage.

I’m going to share this idea in the student forums (Activity 1.14) along with the diagram below which I created with Whimsical with a bit of help by prompting GPT-4 (Activity 1.15).

Concept map detailing aspects of Northumberland Library Services, with branches discussing key interrelationships, contrasting perspectives, and possible tensions related to technology, funding, community engagement, and digital versus traditional services.

Given a bit more time, which I’ll probably spend when we get to the first assessment, I could spend some time linking and renaming things. But I think this is enough to go on for now.