A recurring thought I’ve had lately is tied to the limitations of libraries. By that I mean the outer limits of what libraries can achieve as libraries. It’s all tied into my reflections on what it is at the heart of the library’s mission. I feel instinctively that we can’t get to a solid definition of what the library does without a firm understanding of what the library doesn’t do. Or rather, shouldn’t do. There are many burdens placed on the shoulders of library workers that just aren’t appropriate to a library. Maybe they are worthwhile services to offer, but they aren’t exactly proper to the library as a whole. An example that springs to mind is doing passport photos for the public. It’s certainly a nice service to offer for free, but I’m unconvinced that such a service needs to be offered by the library. It doesn’t strike me as being part of the library’s core mission. And insofar as it’s not, one could ask whether or not it’s a distraction from fulfilling that mission.

I take mission very seriously. An organization’s mission serves as its operational conscience, and you can hold up everything you do against the mission to make sure it fits and moves it forward. Vague mission statements create scope creep and that leads inevitably to inefficient allocation of resources. Beyond that, I believe that patrons can tell when our organizational actions resonate with our mission, and they respond well when they do. A powerful mission, when coupled with knowledge of the boundaries of what you can and cannot accomplish, can create a focused area of productive operation that leads to authenticity. There’s no replacement for that.

So what is the authentic library? We can start to flesh it out intuitively. Almost everybody would associate us with books. I think that having a collection for a community to use is definitely a part of the core library mission, though that’s not the sole component. I think the key is to focus not so much on the collection per se, but on the retention of information objects for retrieval and use by a community. A building without a collection is a community center, not a library. Likewise, a building with a collection that doesn’t get used isn’t a library either, but a warehouse. Libraries integrate these concepts: a collection for use by a community. Some libraries serve a highly defined purpose, such as legal research. Others are more ambivalent about the purpose behind the use – for public libraries, use for recreation and pleasure is just as valid as serious research.

There are things that naturally follow on the notion of maintaining a collection for community use. Libraries, in my view, encompass three main resources: space (in the library building, for storage of materials and as a place for patrons to access the materials as well as a place to be), collections, and staff. The expertise of library workers can’t be forgotten when thinking on these matters. In fact, I would hazard a guess that the more immediately impactful resources for the community are bound up in staff interactions. Library workers can serve as guides to the collection as well as the broader universe of ideas and stories. In public libraries, there’s a sense that library work involves the enrichment of the lives of the community members, not just a narrow role as an information professional. This opens the door for creative programming, but it also underscores the need for a clear sense of mission to keep the library’s programs focused.

I’ve found that sometimes there’s a temptation to disregard the library’s mission focus in the interest of using the library (and, usually, library workers’ time and expertise) for non-library initiatives. Some of these initiatives are laudable in themselves but put the library in a situation where it must provide out-of-mission services with little training or support. This is especially true in public libraries, where the library’s space resources are often used by marginalized members of the community. Because typically under-served populations often congregate at the library, the temptation is to turn the library into a social services provider. This is difficult, not the least because there’s a true and vital need in the community that is on display in our libraries. But the library itself must balance everything very carefully to avoid putting library workers in a position of providing services they are not equipped for and changing the mission of the organization in the process.  

In my view, the key to unraveling that particular knot lies in staying true to the authentic library. We need to know our organization’s true self: what do we provide, and how do we provide it? Then within that framework, we must work hard to be the most compassionate and caring organization we can be. That will sometimes mean turning aside from initiatives that land outside the purview of what the library can reasonably provide.

There’s also much that can be explored in terms of viable partnerships between the library and other organizations. I always prefer to see the library help these organizations fulfill their missions strategically within the library. With careful definitions of which organization is responsible for what, partnerships can help extend the reach of the library into the community while helping meet social needs when revealed in the library itself. All this without the expectation that library workers should add to their repertoire outside of their scope of expertise.

I think it’s critical that the library should understand its place in the community, and to care deeply for the members of that community. There’s a responsibility to be the best possible library for the community and its members. Realizing our limitations is an important first step to ensuring we can be that. And I’m firmly convinced that if the library can operate deeply within its mission focus, it will find success as an authentically beneficial organization for its community.