Every library is unique. Despite all the decades of work trying to standardize library operations, systems, collection organization, buildings, human resource management, governance, and even collection development, each library still differs from every other library. While few librarians would argue that point, it is obvious that a great deal of effort has been expended to make the practice of librarianship more homogeneous.
Sometimes that labor has been successful and made our profession more efficient and less costly, and, most important, it has helped those who use libraries to encounter familiar services and aids in any library they visit. The Dewey Decimal System is one example. Shared cataloging is another and has made OCLC a tool for the world. Yet it is easy to find experienced library catalogers, especially those who have been at it for a long time, who will list the details and values that have been lost and the negative changes to catalog records that have come with their standardization. I remember, with a certain nostalgic amusement, the battles of the passionate Henriette Avram of the Library of Congress to convince and/or coerce American libraries to adopt and adapt to the MARC record in their catalogs. I have also tried to locate books by subject in the huge variety of new, supposedly better alternatives to the Dewey classification for arranging titles on library shelves. It is no surprise that few if any of these arrangements are compatible with any other. Indeed, even libraries that still use Dewey frequently vary in their classification and shelving methods.
Though we have often, if not always, recustomized these efforts to systematize, they have served their important purpose, saving us hours of work by sharing things like cataloging, making it possible for users to move from one library to another with ease, and liberating librarians to focus on that most challenging operation, finding the unique characteristics of users in their communities and companies and on their campuses and the special desires they expect a library to fulfill.
It is fascinating to realize that endeavors such as centralized collection development, which emerged from the “give ’em what they want” movement, normalized both book selection and acquisition, yet they also remind us that the singular needs of library users are the decisive factor in whether a library serves it constituents effectively, successfully, and efficiently. What users want is rarely always the same from one library to another.
My favorite recent example is a giant urban library system that understood how local it needed to be. It moved away from a successful history based on ensuring that its users had quick, early, and easy access to the most popular titles. Instead, it discovered that there were hundreds of languages spoken in its profusion of service neighborhoods and that each of those neighborhoods needed more than books and materials in its native tongue. As important or more so, the residents of those communities needed help in mastering English in order to navigate their new culture and the requirements of living in that city—especially when it came to getting jobs and to guaranteeing that their children got all they could from the local school system.
The best libraries, whether great urban systems or tiny rural institutions like the one in my hometown in New Hampshire, are the best because they have discovered those needs that are particular to the users in their community. You see this in libraries all over America.
Yes, a great deal of what a modern library of any type does will be standard from one facility to another, but the real evidence of a great library is how it meets those special needs and wants that are unique to its society. While the standardized tools make our work more efficient, the localized customization of services provides the margin of excellence that makes each library special. Vive la différence!