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.