Change–will it be your rack or your guillotine?

November 4, 2011

I’ve been reading a lot lately about what value public libraries give to their communities.  Some articles say that everything is on Google and libraries are neither used nor needed (see McTernan here) (I also find it funny  that the caption to this article shows people using the library!).  Others vehemently defend libraries (see Gaiman and White).   Unfortunately, libraries are probably one of the most stereotyped professions ever–the sh-h-ing, bun wearing crabby librarian defending her dusty old book collection persists even among the educated.  If you have been to a public library in the past few years, you know that this isn’t true.  Public libraries are very vibrant, busy places that serve their public well for the money spent.  According to this 2008 report, the average visit per capita in the U.S. is 5.1, and libraries spend about $36 per capita to provide library services and programs.  Use has been climbing over the past several years, not declining. So even if you aren’t using the library regularly, someone is!  And likely it is those who are less economically advantaged, who depend on the library for books for their children, entertainment, self-help, or computer assistance.

Although I am a librarian, I probably use my library about once per month.  I have taken advantage of some of the children’s programs when my son was smaller.   I regularly download and read books on my iPad.  However, I fully support the idea of libraries as a community resource, and I certainly am willing to pay for all in my community to have access to the vast array of information and assistance that comes with your library.  As one of the comments on the McTernan article notes: “I don’t use the hospital regularly, so should that be closed too?”

So how do we change these perceptions and remain the valuable resource to the community that we are?  Seth Godin in Small is the New Big discusses how businesses have a “guillotine vs. the rack” mentality.  Change is scary for businesses.  Instead of facing the fear head on and dealing with the change as positively as possible, even if this means a complete overhaul and change in your business (guillotine), they choose “the rack” approach–avoiding change for a slow, painful failures or even eventual demise.  Libraries are no exception: some have embraced change and taken risks, and some have been “on the rack”, only changing when absolutely needed. Despite the fact that many (most?) libraries have enthusiastically adjusted to a digital reality, stereotypes have persisted, thereby making these changes difficult to get into the minds of the general public.  As everyone purports to be an expert searcher, or is willing to just accept whatever comes up in the first page of Google, the perceived value of true expertise and expert resources is being eroded. 

Libraries are trying, but they need to go even further with change and be willing to try and to fail.  Should libraries cut back on branches and reference?  Should they hire more techie people?  Should they adjust their budgets from buying print or even online resources and focus on some other gap in their community that the library can fill as part of their information focus?  Ultimately, should the idea of a library be turned upside down–perhaps even changing the word library to something more in keeping with what libraries actually do today?

Libraries need to think of ways that they can be a truly community resource.  How can they do this?  Surveys, focus groups, committees, brainstorming activities with the community, and more outreach to various constituencies (such as businesses, schools, and hospitals) can be ways to get to the heart of your community’s needs.  Yes, these activities are time-consuming, and it means that someone will have even more work. However, if you care about your library and your public, this needs to be done sooner rather than later.  Change is happening ever faster, and it may be the difference between the rack or the guillotine for your library.

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