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Breaking Down Barriers to Library Services

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Breaking Down Barriers to Library Services

Edmonton Public Library, Alberta

Innovation Synopsis

In 2012/2013 EPL conducted a ground-breaking study to identify barriers individuals face in accessing basic public library services. Working with 11 underserved communities and 174 representatives of those communities, we identified the top five barriers preventing people from accessing and using fundamental public library services.


Underserved communities are difficult to identify and difficult to access as they are precisely those individuals who are not using our services and with whom we do not have a relationship. EPL’s community-led service model provided the resources, and networks necessary to build relationships and make connections with individuals in these communities. This year-long study would not have been possible without this consistent and successful history of community-led work. Prior to this study, EPL could only assume what barriers people face in accessing library services, and thus also make assumptions about how best to mitigate those barriers. When libraries gather this sort of data, we are faced with two particular challenges: respondents may be reluctant to criticize the library, and respondents may be reluctant to admit to barriers that they consider stigmatizing (e.g., inability to pay fees, low literacy). Standard library approaches to data gathering, such as surveying, would not have addressed these challenges. The methods of this study in concert with the pre-existing trust and relationships EPL has cultivated, allowed us to overcome these barriers to robust data collection and gather a rich, contextual set of data.

Key Elements of Innovation

The Barriers Study was unique in its attempt to comprehensively identify all underserved communities using a rigorous methodology, including literature review, surveys and interviews with EPL Community Librarians, and customer data analysis. , Identified groups included: Aboriginal People, At Risk Teens, Homeless People, Low Income Adults, Low Income Families, Adults with Low Literacy Skills, Geographically Isolated Communities, Newcomers, Seniors, and Teen Parents. A qualitative, mixed-methods approach using interviews and focus groups was selected for the study. Using community-led techniques, connections were made with 174 individuals across the 11 populations. Ultimately, EPL collected over 34 hours of recordings in which these 174 individuals shared their stories of library experience and access. The depth and breadth of this data provided EPL with a rich understanding of barriers to access in underserved communities.

Achieved Outcomes

The EPL Barriers Study has identified the top five barriers to library access as:

  1. Library Policies – People have difficulty understanding and navigating public library policies;
  2. Fees – People are afraid of, cannot always afford, and do not feel like they have options for paying fees;
  3. Transportation – People have difficulty travelling to the library;
  4. Service Awareness – People do not understand what library services exist and how those services can benefit their lives; and
  5. Literacies – People lack literacy and digital literacy skills.

As a result of this study, EPL has implemented a no ID access card (enables borrowing of one item and internet access), eliminated/forgiven fees that are over 3 years old, instituted a single loan period for all item types, and established the first epl2Go literacy van that provides a full range of programming and digital literacy services to underserved communities. Staff training has been redesigned to ensure that all front line staff understand EPL membership, customer conduct, borrowing, fee policies and procedures, and that all staff enforce these policies consistently.

Finally, EPL is currently investigating and anticipating the implementation of a universal daily fine amount for all item types