Monday, March 12, 2012

What Makes A Great Library, Part I

In a recent article about Books on Demand coming to the Brooklyn Public Library, the CEO and President of BPL, Linda Johnson, made a startling statement. "What makes a great library is still up in the air." The statement seems innocent enough, yet there is an underlining theme that has rippled through the library world for far too long. Simply, librarians still can not define the institution and the work they do in a concise manner that rings of value and necessity. The idea that a CEO of a large public library can not define what makes a great library is, to say the least, disheartening. The translation of that is answer is "I have no clue." Sorry, but that is unacceptable coming from a CEO/President of any industry, let alone a library. Librarians and library advocates should demand in their leaders that they not only know the "greatness" of our libraries but are proactive in keeping libraries thriving though the next century and beyond. The time really is now to make the case for libraries. If this is not done, then libraries deserve to become like a balloon with an air leak. It will drift with no direction into obscurity.

Historically, libraries have always known their function in society. It was a place where the community shared books, ideas and information. When the concept of a public library was first conceived there were no doubts as to what was the vision for the institution. However, time has a way of eroding away memories and ideas. Libraries are not "safe" from this cruel fact. The Internet was the first "tool" to plant the seed of doubt for library users and librarians. Doubt that there was a need for a public library. Doubt that anyone would want to visit a library on a Saturday afternoon just for leisure. Doubt that the institution would survive the technological wave. With all these doubts, librarians went on the defensive and have been waiting for the ball to be punted back to them ever since. In a nutshell, libraries have lost their identity, their soul. The question remains, what makes a great library?

Time is also known to be a healer of wounds. Admittedly, many may say that libraries are on life support at the moment, but it doesn't have to be that way in the future. Quite frankly, its all about having vision, courage and fortitude to withstand the changes and moving forward. In any industry success is based upon having a vision, motivating others to follow that vision and achieving goals one step at a time. Librarians have been trained to think more like "public" employees who have one set way of accomplishing a goal. Step one fill out tons of paperwork for one computer. Step two cut through tons of red tape. Three gather support in city hall and from patrons. Four start the process over again because the budget was cut two weeks before step one's paperwork got to the right desk. Sound familiar? Librarians either have to break from local government control or beat the system that local government creates. Perhaps Its a combination of break and beat that will save libraries. Yet, the question remains what makes a great library?

The qualities of a good library are easily detectable. Good material circulation numbers, programs that are pretty well attended and predictable, and finally a staff that is qualified to do their duties. That is the minimum of what any community would demand of their library. A great library on the other hand, has the qualities of the good library plus the "extras" that can't be measured. It is what will give some libraries the edge in surviving and leading the way into the future. What is this extra that every library needs to be great? That question can be explored in the next entry.
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