Libraries provide new operating models for a successful society
FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE MODERN LIBRARY movement librarians have unselfishly shared their best ideas, innovations, strategies, management insights, and plans with one another. While there has been some competition and rivalry among libraries, it has never hampered the profession’s willingness to share success and failures.
This sharing has built the greatest libraries and library system in the world. It also distinguishes libraries from commercial enterprises that sometimes offer similar products and services.
Librarians have been loyal to library service and to the publics they serve, not to a specific library in which they happen to work. While many careers have been built on a reputation of innovation, originality, and the execution of great service, the ideas behind those reputations have quickly spread throughout the profession and into its libraries. Those ideas, regularly borrowed and reapplied, get tested and refined, with new ones hard on their heels.
The measure of library success has always been the impact of a library’s contribution to our quality of life. The greater that impact, the more the ideas behind it have been distributed and applied in other libraries.
Sometimes those ideas have become the library fads and fashions of their time and been adopted everywhere. Good examples are library building design and renovation and the organization and management of collection development. Library buildings nearly always reflect the current architectural and design styles. Centralized collection development (and the parallel policy of collecting for popular demand) has been the norm for decades, although it began in a few libraries. It was championed by the Baltimore County Library System, Towson, MD, under the direction of Charles Robinson, and it spread like wildfire. When I entered the profession in the early Sixties, more traditional librarians than Robinson called it “the Towson heresy.”
Technological innovation has a similar history. The OPAC and the automated circulation system came on as the technology developed to make creating them easier. Ultimately, they morphed into the variety of integrated library systems and add-ons that are now the norm for handling everything from the library’s website and online catalog to its internal and external system needs. The willingness to share these developments and to cooperate in building the networks and cataloging ventures quickly made them standards.
These examples make it clear that despite frequent pleas for libraries to “do it like a business,” library progress in technology, collection management, and building design has helped libraries progress faster and more successfully than many, if not most, commercial enterprises.
Currently, the library field is responding to what some perceive as a threat from commerce to its traditional role as a lender of books. The emergence of the ebook has accelerated this perception, if not the threat itself. But new models of library service continue to spring up that eschew that limited role as book lenders, illustrating instead the central role of libraries as centers of community interaction and discourse, places filled with resources for community development, individualized inquiry, problem-solving, education, and public programs of enlightenment and entertainment for any public they serve, whether in a city, small town, school, or university.
The success of these new roles for libraries will be measured, as always, by their contribution to the quality of life and work in their communities, not in profits or revenues. Owing to that, and especially to the continued sharing of their best ideas, libraries could be the first enterprises to provide models of efficient application of technology, innovative thought, and effective management to build a better future.
Libraries have already shown society that nonprofit agencies and government, convincing citizens to divide costs through taxation or philanthropy, can provide needed services more efficiently and at lower cost than competitive enterprises. They can serve more people for less and meet more community needs and do it without wasteful competition.