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

  1. Anonymous

    I don’t believe I have ever, in 20 years as a librarian, read a more compelling argument for THE library Mission. I’ll admit (anonymously) that I’m guilty of being one of those who felt the need to “jazz” up our mission. It seems that in today’s society and market place that the most successful organizations are the ones that have the catchy buzz phrase, and we all know how much we want our library to be successful. I agree that when we take our eye off that ball “to provide the open and equal access to information that is necessary for the existence of an informed citizenry” we lose the sense of identity that should be the LIBRARY. Thanks for this compelling reminder.

    • Kimberly Matthews

      Thank you for your feedback!
      I believe WE have marginalized ourselves by trying to be trendy. No one every asks what the DMV, IRS, Elementary Schools, Dept. of Transportation do…they are necessary and provide a vital cog in the functioning of our lives and society. We have cars that must be licensed, children that must be educated, roads that must be maintained and a tax entity that collects the money to pay for it all. Somewhere along the way- WE took ourselves out of the loop of necessity by straying from our clear and essential role as a cog in the machine of our society. Usage had dropped…technology was changing…and rather than ride the wave and readjust with grace we panicked and tried to reinvent ourselves when all we really needed to do was simply find new methods to provide the unique Mission. Now we find ourselves explaining who we are and justifying what we do – all because we tried to ‘jazz’ ourselves up. What we should do now is re-embrace and reassert that unique Mission that has always been ours and that goes unfulfilled without us. “Sorry folks…we got a little distracted and wandered off the path…but we are back and fully committed to providing you open and equal access to information in innovative and new ways.”

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  4. bill Wilson

    Lifelong learning is a buzz-word? I don’t think so. Creating lifelong learners is a fundamental outcome of what we do in public libraries.

    • Kimberly Matthews

      Precisely. It’s an important RESULT (outcome) of our Mission. Not the Mission itself.
      Unfortunately it is our use of the phrase that warped it into a buzz-word/phrase.

      From Mirriam-Webster:
      1 : an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen 2 : a voguish word or phrase —called also buzz phrase

  5. bill Wilson

    Are you saying that the “informed citizenry” in your mission statement isn’t an outcome? Lifelong learning has been at the core of the public library mission since it’s inception in mechanics’ and “workingmen’s” libraries. I’m not saying that creating an informed citizenry hasn’t also been there as well. I’m just saying that lifelong learning (using that phrase) and “adult education” have been an active topic of the discussion of the public library’s mission for many decades. You may be interested in reading some of the writings of Margaret E. Monroe and some of her groundbreaking work with the New York Public Library during the age of McCarthyism.

    • Not to mention that the phrase “adult education” is so loosely applied to what the public library actually does, it has no real meaning. My PhD is in adult and continuing education, and public libraries on the whole do not “do” adult education. Providing space for adult programming is not “adult education.” They promote “life-long learning” and as Kimberly observed, it is an Outcome of what the library’s Mission is – a most valuable Outcome! Trying to make “adult education” part of the library’s mission is like trying to make “making money” a part of the Mayo Clinic’s mission – it is simply a result of the services they provide.

  6. Brian Auger

    Here in Somerset County, NJ, we pair our mission and vision statements to describe our role: “Somerset County Library partners with you to connect, to explore, to share and to discover.” “Together we enrich lives, expand knowledge and strengthen communities”.

  7. Tess

    Brian, You made me smile. I love what you wrote, “partners with you to connect, to explore and to share and to discover”. Sounds like an ad for a cruise line, don’t be surprised if Princess or RCCL borrows that line from you. I do believe Bill that Director Matthews is trying to say the age old reason for the existence of Libraries is an “informed citizenry” which if done correctly covers all the buzz word goals that people add to their mission statement that end up being fluff. Being “informed” enriches your life. If you are informed you have “expanded your knowledge” and if you are “informed” you “strengthen communities”. So it’s different words but an apple is still an apple!

  8. Lynn

    No, sorry but you are incorrect. Our government was never founded on an “informed citizenry”. Read your history – the Founding Fathers were appalled at the average citizen and thus we have a representative government and an electoral college, neither of which is constitutionally obligated to enact the will of the citizenry. Further, life-long learning is not a buzzword or a fad or a trend. It is the core mission of libraries and always has been. From the earliest libraries in antiquity through to modern times libraries have been archives, research institutes, and places for the “less fortunate” to educate themselves. Today, that education is self-directed and may be as light as reading a best-seller or as deep as researching a dissertation, but our mission is to allow that freedom to explore, learn, and expand horizons – to continue learning from the day we are born to the day we die.

    • It was Jefferson that first expressed the need for an informed citizenry. “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” If that’s not “founding” I don’t know what is. Three branches of government provide for a balance of power, a concern carried over from a monarchy, and the electors that make up the Electoral College are elected by the constituents from their state.

      Life-long learning was not “always” the mission of the library, because the concept and term are products of Malcolm Knowles work on adult education (andragogy) in the 1960s and 70s. If you Goggle it, you’ll get dozens of repetitions of the phrase “the term “life-long learners” created by Leslie Watkins and used by Professor Clint Taylor (CSULA) and Superintendent for the Temple City Unified School District’s mission statement in 1993” which simply proves that nobody really knows where it came from or exactly when, and pretty much sounds like a buzzword to me. But, it’s a powerful term to express that people are benefited by a desire for learning their entire life. In fact, Knowles and other supporters of andragogy espoused that the Great Generation was the last generation that could live a full life ONLY by what they learned in public schooling. Everyone who came after would not be so fortunate, because technology and other world changes were/are progressing so rapidly that in order to keep pace with life in general, people must continue to learn. So, your assertion that the Core Mission of the library has ALWAYS been life-long learning is miss-informed at best. There was no concept of “life-long learning” before about 1946 – the birth of the Baby Boomers. Let’s not forget that life-long learning is also an individual choice. It’s very definition includes “self directed” learning. Promoting the concept, enabling library users who want to embrace it and providing the means for them to do so, is all the methodology for fulfilling the Mission to “provide the open and equal access to information that is necessary for the existence of an informed citizenry…”

  9. bill Wilson

    I don’t quibble with the reality that the term “lifelong learning” is an invention of the mid-twentieth century (although I really do quibble with the notion that it’s a buzz word – if it is by the definition provided and the 1940s/1950s origin, it’s been “voguish” for nearly 60 years); however, the adult education theme in libraries really does have very old roots. The Atheneum concept and libraries grew together in the mid 1800s… Mechanics’ and mercantile libraries of the 1800s clearly had an adult education focus to their missions.

    • I don’t think anyone is calling LLL “voguish”, but I hope you can admit that many people who don’t fully understand the concept use it in a cavalier manner to fit their situation. Being a life-long learner is a personal choice to which we can lead people, but we can’t force them to be one.
      The adult education theme to which you refer was first applied in what I would label “special libraries” for vocational education purposes. Some evolved into public libraries, but the “free” public library that was open to all without any fees was slow to emerge in America. The mission of that “free public library” was the “free” and open access to information. But, even at its inception it was controlled by librarians and their belief in what reading materials people should read or even have access to. I guess I’m hyper-sensitive to the use of the term “adult education”, especially in quote marks, having an advanced degree in that subject area.
      Interesting discussion, thanks.

  10. Kimberly Matthews

    Wow! Thank you to all for such interesting Replies! You have all made me ponder the subject from several different angles that I think warrant their own Post. These coming posts will explore the Evolution of the PUBLIC library from many of the predecessors (and their Missions) mentioned in the replies and how that very evolution sustains the argument for one cohesive Mission.
    Stay Tuned….

  11. Bill Wilson

    Some really thought provoking stuff here! Thanks for getting the conversation rolling. Just one more twist to consider… I worry a little about the “informed citizenry” terminology. I love the Jeffersonian concept as much or more than the next person; however I worry a little bit that being “informed” implies that someone has the answer and is “informing.” While this is undoubtedly true in some circumstances, some of the “trendy” mission statements like the Anythink Libraries “opening doors for curious minds” does convey the idea that people get to explore ideas and can draw their own independent conclusions.

    • Kimberly Matthews


      Now that is a twist! I had never considered that anyone might interpret “informed citizenry” in that manner. I couldn’t agree with you more on the issue that Libraries must NEVER be in the business of shaping public opinion or crafting content or questions in a manner that guides the user to a predetermined answer/opinion. Quite the contrary we must remain that one bastion where ALL ideas are available.
      As JFK said “If this nation is to be wide as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all -except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors.”

      This is a fabulous conversation! To be continued…

  12. Tom Westlake

    I concur that a well informed citizenry is the bedrock of democracy, and that it is one of the most important functions of a library. I am sure that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin would agree. Modern libraries serve as a portal to information, whether in print or electronically. About half of the population in this country do not have high speed internet access in their homes. Libraries level the playing field for all economic classes by making information readily available to all, which is why Andrew Carnegie endowed so many public libraries. But in order to achieve that goal, you need to get that citizenry in the door first, whether as a community center, as a place of entertainment or a place that loans books.

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