Monthly Archives: September 2014

Public Libraries Must Agree Upon a Mission If We Are to Survive


As Librarians we are repeatedly told that the average person doesn’t really know what the Library does. We worry about this. We recognize that this lack of understanding leads to reduced funding, marginalization, and potentially worse fates. We discuss at length how to address the problem. We market. We advocate. We promote. And still we hear from surveys and studies that people “love the Library” but they aren’t really sure what we do or offer. The more frighting notion is that by not understanding what we do they cannot truly understand why we exist.

I consider the folks at Forbes to be a fairly intelligent group (ok-there might be a few non-MENSAs in the group but lets not fight the hypo..); but look at this article by David Vinjamuri

” …public libraries in America: they are dynamic, versatile community centers. They welcomed more than 1.59 billion visitors in 2009 and lent books 2.4 billion times – more than 8 times for each citizen. More than half of young adults and seniors living in poverty in the United States used public libraries to access the Internet. They used this access, among other purposes to “find work, apply to college, secure government benefits, and learn about critical medical treatments” For all this, public libraries cost just $42 per citizen each year to maintain.”
“Public libraries for their part have been slow to react to the dramatic changes in publishing and reading that threaten their ability to fulfill their core mission of promoting reading. By focusing too heavily on giving patrons access to bestsellers and popular movies, libraries risk missing the significant opportunity afforded by the explosion in the number of new books published each year.”

So Mr. Vinamuri is pretty clear that we are community centers whose core Mission is reading. Really? Hmm…I thought we were about Information.

As a professional who has spent considerable time on the topic of Strategic Planning, Mission Statements are a go-to for me when I want to know why an organization exists. So I began pondering the correlation between this apparently massive disconnect between our efforts to advocate ourselves and the public lack of understanding of Libraries. I found something startling: We have created this confusion!!

If you spend 15 minutes searching every Library that pops to mind and you read their mission statements you will discover, as I did, that they are ALL over the map. In addition, so many of them are filled with the latest trending buzzwords/phrases such as: life-long learning, community gathering place, advance knowledge, community anchor, bringing people together, foster creativity and so on. What I did not see was a cohesive presentation of the mission/purpose of the Public Library. Next I turned to ALA documents and other professional sources and while I could find bits and pieces…I never found a clear, concise statement of WHY we (the Free Public LIbrary) exist. Even Wikipedia failed me! What I did repeatedly find was that the main task of a Public LIbrary is to lend books and other materials. Great! BUT WHY??!!

So, if you cannot find- you create. To that end, I submit (knowing some will inevitably disagree) that :

The Mission of the Free Public Library is to provide the open and equal access to information that is necessary for the existence of an informed citizenry able to participate in their government.

Because I believe this is the reason Free Public Libraries exist, I have NEVER had difficulty answering the ever-present questions of “Will Libraries become obsolete?” “Will Google replace Libraries?” “Will eBooks make Libraries irrelevant?” Of course not! As long as our political system finds its foundation in an Informed Citizenry there will always be a need for the Public LIbrary. That is- as long as WE remember why we exist. If we continue to make our Mission the latest trend then we will be our own demise.

A basic principal taught in business school comes from the 1960’s writings of Theodore Levitt, a Harvard Business School professor. Mr. Levitt forwarded the notion that, to be successful, businesses must focus on customer needs not on a specific product. He used the example of buggy whip manufacturers. If they had focused on accessory products for modes of transportation rather than JUST buggy whips- they might not have become obsolete when the automobile rolled around. Utilizing this same thinking, Public Libraries should focus on the primary customer need- information- and recognize that these trending buzzwords/phrases are great marketing tools that add to our Mission but do not replace it.

Why is it that we seem so determined to ‘jazz’ up our Mission with the latest trend? In a recent discussion I had with a group of Librarians I jotted down some of these buzz-words and phrases: Life-long learning, Community gathering place, Advance Knowledge, Community Anchor, Foster Creativity. It is my contention that these are METHODS to, RESULTS from, or REQUIREMENTS of fulfilling our mission…not the mission itself. For example: Literacy is a basic skill required to effectively seek and utilize information resources. Thus literacy is something in which Libraries have a vested interest but in and of itself it is not our Mission. A Library may become a community anchor as a result of fulfilling their Mission. Life-long learning is a method to the creation of an informed citizenry. The Mission of all Public Libraries in America is exactly the same – though the application is and should be radically different as dictated by the community the Library serves. This application is where the method, result, and requirements become unique; but we have allowed them to pervade our essential Mission.

During my search of various Library Mission Statements, I discovered that even the library’s that kept their Mission Statement fairly straight forward couldn’t quite resist the lure of including verbiage such as “Entertain”. For example:
“The Everywhere Public Library provides materials, information, technology and cultural opportunities to enrich, empower, educate and entertain people of all ages and backgrounds.”
Perhaps they felt these inclusions gave them an easy-to-point-to rational to encompass those less ‘educational’ portions of our offerings (such as DVDs and Romance novels). I would argue that we need no such rationals. Allowing all citizens access to those materials, such as film and television- from which we derive so much of our common vernacular and shared ideas, is as vital to participating in a water-cooler conversation as reading Plato will ever be (if not more). Who hasn’t referenced a popular film or television program in conversation to illustrate a point? (“I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse!”) If you cannot afford the DVD or Television- you may not have access to view the films [if you wish to] and therefore will never fully understand those references and thus the sublties of such conversations. Thus these offerings become essential to the fulfillment of our Mission.

We play a vital role in the provision of our Constitutional Republic. We should embrace and reinforce that role, not only as the privilege and honor it is, but also as the assurance of our continued relevance and essential nature. Why is this not enough? Do we feel our Mission must be ‘jazzed’ up to draw in patrons? Or are these divergent and mixed messages of our Mission a result of our own internal crisis about who we are as a profession? Did we feel that the public trust would be improved by disassociating ourselves with the image of a government entity?

Whatever the cause, this inconsistent message of the Mission of the Free Public LIbrary must stop! We should revel and stand tall in the knowledge that we are the sole entity (government or otherwise) tasked with providing equal and open access to information so that our citizens are able to become informed and thereby participate in their own governance. Fulfill that mission in whatever manner (literacy, life-long learning, entertainment, community gathering place) best suits your unique community- But let us stop mixing Mission and method. If we, the champions of this amazing service called the Public Library, can all agree on ONE Mission that is unique, essential, and timeless then perhaps our united voice would be enough to eradicate the public’s misconceptions about the Public Library. If we know who we are- so will they.

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21st Century Librarians are the original Growth Hackers


Just the other day I came across one of the biggest buzzwords of 2014: Growth Hacker. I was unfamiliar so I started digging.

Lauren Hockenson in her article on Mashup defines Growth Hackers as:

“The growth hacker is essentially a scrappy, resourceful and creative marketer with a knack for attracting users. It’s a must-have role in most startups because it helps put the product in the hands of the masses and expand word-of-mouth reach. And it won’t be going away anytime soon — even if the name fizzles out in the next few years.”

So essentially- a Growth Hacker is someone who grows your business with marketing tactics using inventive ideas due to limited resources.

Well! This sounds like every user-centered Librarian I know! “But Kimberly,” you say, “Every sources says that Gowth Hackers are for ‘startups’! Libraries have been around forever. We aren’t start-ups!”

While the definition of a start up by wikipedia shows no relation to Liibraries :

temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

No, we are not startups. But we have an aweful lot in common when it comes to challenges and keys to success! While all the different business sources seem to have a different “Top 10” of pitfalls, challenges, and keys to success, these 5 items consistently appear:
1. Inadequate Funding – for libraries that is an old song of slashed budgets and lost funding.
2. Poor Planning – how many years, meetings, or conference sessions have we endured to increase our planning acumen?
3. Staffing Problems – ranging from too few to disproportion in the grade levels (top/bottom heavy organizations) to needing new blood to our organizational memory retiring to “that’s not my job”. Where there are organizations there will always be staff problems just as there will always be sunburns with sunshine!
4. Competitors – Say it with me now: “Why do we still need libraries when we have Google?”
5. Poor or Inadequate Marketing – If we all just had a dime for every time we have heard “I didn’t know the library has/does that!!??” Marketing is something libraries are learning to do better everyday…but it still isn’t ingrained in us!

Libraries can lay claim to facing all of these challenges. In fact, these may be our be the “Top 5 Organizational Challenges For Public Libraries”.

Fast Company in their article on the current secrets of business marketing :

“Sean Ellis, a startup advisor who coined the term, put it like this: “The #1 requirement for effective, sustainable growth hacking is to start with a ‘must have’ product experience.”

But we can also stand proud knowing that we definitively have the MUST HAVE product of the ages…Access to Information.

So do you have a Growth Hacker on your staff to grow your patron base using innovative tactics?! YES? Then you, Dear Reader, are a true 21st Century Librarian!!

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Doing More with Less in 21st Century Libraries


… why are we still saying this?!!! It isn’t true and it isn’t possible. Its delusional and, worse, its harmful! Harmful not just to one organization; but to libraries everywhere. Libraries around the world fight every day for increased budget. Continuing to proudly promote the notion that we can do more with less if we try hard enough undermines every library budget effort.
Think of it like this:
If you have a staff member who says “I’m completely swamped! I don’t have a minute to spare!!” You give them a project anyway and they somehow find time to accomplish it without dropping anything else. Do you think that they were miraculously able to do more with less or are you more inclined to think that they were actually not using their time effectively to begin with and indeed really did have the time to take on a new project? The same theory holds true for the library and our budget decision-makers. If we say we are doing as much as possible with the money that we have and we need more, then our budgets are reduced, and we miraculously find a way to do more with less why WOULDN’T the budget makers assume that we were actually not using our money effectively in the first place!?

Where does this leave our credibility? What should anyone take us seriously the next time we approach with an outstretched hand asking for more funds? Isn’t it reasonable to assume that they will take a more critical view of what we are doing with what we currently receive every time we ‘do more with less’?!

When I hear someone say they are doing more with less I can’t help wonder if, in actuality, they were actually wasting money previously. While I’m sure this is not always true, sometimes it is and certainly there will be those around us that will think the same. The reality is the times are tight. The reality is the times have been tight before. The reality is that times will be tight again. We cannot do more with less; what we can do is less with less and we need people to understand that. We have to be honest, stop painting rosy pictures and start educating our communities on what these budget reductions truly mean to them. We are the experts on library service. Our communities don’t always know what is possible with adequate funding. It’s great to inform our patrons of our services and what we DO have to offer. However, it is also important to inform and educate about the services we COULD offer with adequate funding. People cannot lobby for or fund what they do not know exists.

We must stop being out own worst enemy and with our mantra of “we can do more with less” confirming for those who would reduce our funding that they did exactly the right thing! “Look! See. We reduced their budget and they are still fine!! We knew they had more money than they needed, this proves it!

If every time our budgets are cut we pat ourselves on the back because we took extreme measures to ensure that the public didn’t feel any reduction, where will the motivation come from for the community or politicos to EVER reinstate the monies that have been lost?? Instead of compulsively covering and self-consciously acting as if everything is fine for fear that someone might not think we are providing effective service, we need to stand up and say NO we can’t do more with less! We can’t even do the same with less and we most absolutely cannot provide the service our communities deserve and need with less!!

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