With a wide range of ‘things’ happening in and around libraryland, including Library 101, Stephen Abram’s paper on open source (pdf), Mark Albertson’s opinion piece on the changing purpose of libraries, and Laurel Tarulli’s recognition that not everyone fully understands what it is that librarians do. It all leads me to think about the ongoing identity crisis of libraries and librarians and what we can do about it. To resolve an identity crisis, we must start with ‘what is it that libraries are for?’
This question will inevitably lead to a wide range of self-assured, but diverse, answers followed by a smaller range of more complex and uncertain opinions on the purpose of libraries and librarians. Clarity on this topic is also not helped by the diverse types of libraries (Academic, Public, AskPro – I mean Special libraries and so on). Here is a selection of the self-assured responses:
- Libraries are for the lending of books
Indeed, the earliest libraries were just this this – a small business, museum or other place would take it upon themselves to educate their neighbours by lending out their collection of books. As collections increased, these places would need innovative means to organize and provide access to such books and innovative people to do the innovative work – thus librarians were invented. Current libraries continue to offer ‘the lending of books’ as a key service. However, as processes slowly became replaced through automation, ‘librarians’ (meaning those with a Masters degree in this case) have been taken away from these activities in favor of a more broad slate of activities like instruction or management.
- Libraries are for educating people of all ages
Since reading inevitably increases the brainpower of communities, an educational role for libraries seems fairly obvious. In academic and school libraries, this role is the most obvious and apparent, since the institutions that host them are largely educational ones. The educational role for public libraries is also substantiated by the departments that govern many libraries. In British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan (at minimum) public libraries are governed by Departments of Education.
While the educational role for libraries is strong, it is not perfect. For instance, many assume ‘education’ to be analgous with ‘courses’ which, while many libraries do offer courses of all types, this activity is not particularly core to what libraries actually do. An early article that I wrote about e-Learning highlighted what I thought about the prospect of public libraries attempting to ‘teach’ their way into the public’s hearts:
“Online course” has not really caught on as effective service in the public paradigm. While it may be difficult for library professionals who have spent a good amount of their lives taking courses to realize this, the broader public is more than happy to be finished with their schooling and be in a place where they can earn their own pay and learn at their own pace. In general terms, online courses do not sound fun to “Josephine (Joe) Public Library”. They sound like obligations or New Year’s resolutions to go alongside “lose weight” or “spend less.” Worse, they reinforce stereotypes about the public library as an “ought to” place, rather than a “place to be.” That means that to “Joe (Josephine) Public Librarian”, e-learning sounds like a flop before it even takes shape in an organization.
In the public library context, and perhaps in a variety of contexts including Academic libraries, ‘education’ is an unsatisfactory or incomplete answer to the question ‘what is the purpose of a library?’
- Libraries are for preserving and/or promoting community culture
The cultural role of libraries is also supported through governance as Ontario, PEI and Manitoba all have their libraries under Departments of Culture of one sort or another, while Canada’s National Bank continues to be under the Department of Heritage. Quebec’s merger of its Bibliothèque Nationale into the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) further supports the idea that libraries have a cultural role to play.
The cultural role for libraries is also frought with problems because it pits them into competition with museums, symphonies, archives, concert halls that are more closely tied to cultural development and yet offer services that involve the development of culture rather than the storage of it. The cultural role for libraries is largely a supportive one at best and does not speak to the value a library has in the community.
While I have covered three important roles for libraries, I have definitely not exhausted a wide range of purposes that can equally be championed. Here are a few examples:
- Championing information rights including the avoidance of censorship
- Introducing the public to new and emerging forms of information formats, including the Internet, Social Media and Gaming.
- Promoting the economic development of a community by encouraging innovation and providing key services to tourists, immigrants and new residents.
- Fostering a love of reading and learning, particularly in children.
- Being the public place for the community, where people can interact, socialize and be visible.
And so on. This list is hardly exhaustive, but it covers some of the key roles people insist that libraries play. It is such a hard call. Libraries appear to have so many priorities that they could not possibly be considered ‘expert’ at fulfilling any single one of them. Worse, some of these roles, it could be argued, ‘crowd out’ private sector services, using tax dollars to distort free markets. For instance, couldn’t gaming programs be offered by a local business for a charge, rather than offered for free through public library programs?
My person view is that the identity of libraries are so tied to their communities that there is no end of roles for them. That’s why I titled this post ‘Libraries are Miscellaneous.’ The reality is that the purpose of a library depends heavily on the culture, location and structure of its community. That’s why I really enjoy and press the ‘Community Relations’ role it can play. Libraries, especially public libraries, are extremely adaptive to community needs and can play the role of ‘catch all’ where other institutions such as hospitals, universities and schools really struggle to play such a role.
The risk, in my view, is that we pay too much attention to what other libraries are doing and immediately follow suit because ‘that’s what a library is for.’ Or, perhaps worse, we fail to do something completely different from other libraries because there are no library pioneers to look to for guidance. We cannot do everything that every library is doing – and we should not feel ‘behind’ because we fail to do every latest cool thing. Ethically, we should be very conscious of the ‘crowding out’ theory as well — we simply should not compete — to an unfair advantage — with services already available in the community.
So, if you ask me what ‘the purpose of a library is,’ I would say that libraries:
- look at their communities to determine needs
- apply encouragement and leadership to the community to see if they can meet their own needs
- point to and promote community assets (including books, meeting rooms etc.) when they can be helpful
- continue to be a growing organism ala Ranganathan
I don’t know if these count as new “Rules of Library Science” or a “Darien Statement” but that’s the closest I can get to understanding what libraries and librarians are for.