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The Purpose of a Library

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
February 14th, 2018

By Karen Diaz, Interim Dean of Libraries

Recently, I attended a leadership training event. The trainer encouraged attendees to think about the difference between our function and our purpose.  To illustrate the issue the trainer showed us a photo similar to those in this news story. Clearly, the function the men in superhero costumes were performing was cleaning windows.  But by dressing in superhero costumes to do this work they fulfilled a larger purpose. They provided a healing environment for children who were suffering from pretty horrible diseases by including a sense of fun and happiness.

Bringing this thinking into a library context, it’s hard to pinpoint the function of a library, much less its purpose.  Some might say that a library’s function is to preserve the cultural record. Others might say it is to promote lifelong learning. Yet others might consider it to be a community center focused on meeting both educational and entertainment needs. Many library vision statements include language like “collect, preserve, and provide access to information.” When you look at staff positions there are all sorts of more traditional functions that are carried out: such as cataloging and archival processing, acquisitions of materials, reference, interlibrary loan, systems and technology support, circulation, instruction, and communication. There are newer functions in some environments such as learning technology, open access publishing, copyright services, and more.

But what is the purpose of a library? Many folks thought that after Google there would be no more purpose for a library. Yet, not only do they continue to exist, they continue to be built, renovated, and cherished. Clearly libraries aren’t just about providing books to people, so much library content is now digital. But even as content becomes more digital, we now see “bookless libraries” appear as physical places. Some of the spaces include “new” ideas such as makerspaces that suggest that libraries aren’t just places for consuming but also for creating content.

Joan Lippincott wrote a nice summary of the 2017 Designing Libraries for the 21st Century annual conference.  She notes that the keynote speaker, architect Craig Dykers:

…asked the audience what he described as a rhetorical question: Are libraries places for information with people in them or are they places for people, with information in them? He concluded that ideally today’s libraries, as they have always been, are places for the interaction of people, knowledge, and technologies.

His conclusion, I think, begins to get at the purpose of a library. And while the purpose has to include people, information, and technologies, the term “interaction” is neutral and indicates that there is no concern as to what happens between the three players. Libraries in fact have identified a number of “core values” over the years. Barbara Fister recently gave a presentation at a symposium in New York on “Libraries in the Context of Capitalism” called Why We Can Have Nice Things. It’s a fascinating exploration of the American democratic ideals of libraries in the context of a capitalist culture. She highlights values of:

  • Access, Lifelong Learning
  • Service, The Public Good, Social Responsibility
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • Democracy, Privacy, Diversity

She notes that even though these values sometimes run counter to our economic culture they have endured, even if sometimes influenced by, the rest of society. But the point here is that the interaction libraries provide is laden with values. We do care about the nature of the interactions.

So let’s go back to the window washers’ purpose raised earlier. Their purpose was to create a healing environment for sick children. Can we create such a statement about the purpose of a library that is at once simple and yet inclusive? That involves our functions but also includes the values we intend to provide particular outcomes to those who use libraries?

I’m inclined to say that the purpose of a library is to enhance the democratic and intellectual lives of its community through exploration, collaboration, and discovery. But even that, I’m afraid, is not quite it.  What thoughts do you have?

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