Saturday, November 20, 2010

Flailing: Why the Library is in Trouble

Modern librarians live in fear. If you tell a librarian that the internet (or the Kindle) is killing the library, they'll dismiss you, or laugh at you, or get angry, or some combination of the three. And yet, they are terrified. The very fact that we have to constantly shout "We are relevant, we are relevant!" speaks for itself.

So...why are we relevant? Ask a dozen librarians, and you'll get a dozen answers. Computer access! Job search assistance! Fiction books! Storytimes! Reference help! Online databases! Book recommendations! Community meeting rooms! Concerts! Video games for teens! Small business resources! Programs for senior citizens! Friendly, personal service! All library workers (including me) will inform you that libraries are not just about books. Now ask them what libraries are about. In fact, ask the people I work with what our library is about. I don't think you'll get any consistent answers, and therein lies the problem.

We've all got great ideas for what the library could do. We just don't know which ones to focus on. Two years ago we were rebranding ourselves as a cultural center. A year ago, we were raving about the value of libraries to job hunters. Three months ago, we were trying to launch ourselves as the primary resource for small business. The latest issue is Early Literacy.

"But those are all great things," you say. "What's the problem?"

The problem is that this haphazard list of "great things" leaves us flailing. Our ultimate goal is to help people, but we aren't really sure how best to do it. I feel like we're a store that sells car parts, yarn and shoes, with a space in the back for ballroom dance classes. It's the "Whatever-popped-into-my-head Emporium!"

We're flailing, and we need to not be. We need to know where to focus our energies, our event planning, and our marketing. We don't want people to see us as being just about books - well, how do we want them to see us?

Recently, a group at my library began to work on a new mission statement. They collected descriptive words and phrases that they felt applied to our mission. I've seen a part of that list: "Empower," "enlighten", "global citizen." These seem like Dilbert words to me, empty of actual content. If our mission is to empower through knowledge,* what are we talking about? Legal advice? Homework assistance? Helping battered women? Colon health awareness? In my opinion, the whole process needed more time, more thought, and most of all, more direction. Someone who gets paid the big bucks needs to stand up and say "This is what we're doing, this is our focus, this is who we are." They need to be specific and then they need to stick with it long enough to let people form a new image of the library.

Tune in next time to find out my plan for making libraries vital and relevant in today's world! (Most librarians have one, trust me.)

*Not our actual mission statement. Mission statement has been changed to protect the innocent.

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