Saturday, November 24, 2012


Recently, I discussed the issue of relevance with a group of librarians at our monthly "think tank" meeting. As we discussed the issue, it reinforced my personal opinion: that yes, we can be relevant, but we have to make some decisions about what makes us relevant - and then commit to those projects.

It seems to me that whenever someone says that libraries are becoming less important, someone from ALA stands up and shouts "We are so!", and then begins to list every reason they can think of for the relevance of libraries: we are job search support, computers and Internet for the low-income, we are more reliable than search engines, we are early literacy educators, financial literacy educators, a social hub, a meeting space, a haven for seniors, a place to learn ESL, educational support for schoolchildren, and on and on.

I fear that we're hurting ourselves with this lack of a coherent, cohesive message. In this economy, we are  in a position of needing to justify our continued existence and use of funds - not by shouting "How dare you?!" when someone questions that allocation, but by offering powerful, convincing reasons why donations and tax dollars given to the library are well-spent. Small projects and half-baked initiatives are not going to be convincing, not in the way we need them to be. 

I think we are going to need to narrow our focus. We might end up needing to spend less money and time on Financial Literacy in order to do a FANTASTIC job on early literacy. Because doing a fantastic job is the only way to win support, both from our users and from financial decision-makers.

Obviously, each library/library system will make different decisions about their raison d'ĂȘtre, leaving the ALA to give the same old list. But if we can choose and succeed at out own reasons for relevance, we won't need the ALA to justify our existence. We'll be demonstrating our value every day.