Friday, September 12, 2008

Some thoughts on libraries and their roles

Over the past several weeks I have read a number of articles pondering the role of public libraries. Directly or indirectly all share a common theme, which is, to borrow the title of one article, “How to Future Proof our Library.” Personally I find that a rather ominous title, which conjures up images of libraries designed like Vauban fortresses or late nineteenth century armories with firing slits for windows and an intimidating, glowering massiveness. Which, mercifully the articles do not advocate or even consider!

One in particular struck me as addressing, albeit indirectly, a common misconception about libraries and their community role. Entitled “The Storied Library” by Walt Crawford, it actually deals with branding, or if a term from the world of marketing grates a bit, the stories a library has to tell about its community, the niches it fills, the ways in which it determines the community needs it will address and by so doing remains relevant to those it serves. So how many stories do we have to tell at Otis? There are several ways to frame the answer. We could count the number of on line data base uses per annum, the number of weekly visits, the number of books, CD’s and DVD’s circulated, programs offered, persons served by Literacy Volunteers, reference questions answered, and a myriad other quantifying factors. To paraphrase Crawford, our stories are in total the substance of what we are, what we do, and how we place ourselves in our surroundings and the lives of our patrons.

What I also like about Crawford’s approach is the reconsideration of information as the paramount library function. Heresy! No, not really. Designating or defining libraries as the information place is limiting and arguably leads to a narrow definition of what libraries and librarians do. We are certainly about information, which he defines as service designed to “bring resources to people for their education, enlightenment and entertainment.” That sounds more like the work of Otis Library and its staff. To that I would also echo Crawford’s addendum that “we serve as a safety net for the displaced and a primary place where young people learn to love reading and knowledge.”

This bountiful definition leads me to believe that we need to address the declivity between what librarians and libraries do and what users think they do. To use only the single element of information, in an environment in which profit increasingly shapes accessibility to information libraries represent just the opposite model, with digital and print, sources conveniently available, complete with a human resource for help. This is what one observer categorizes as the “quintessence of the sustainable information movement.”

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