Friday, June 28, 2013

In the Business Of What, Exactly?

A question I read a lot in blogs, articles and social media posts about librarianship is that librarians need to determine what they are in the business of, exactly. And I find that question odd and funny. I'll do my best to try to deconstruct it (and I don't mean using Derridean tactics!).

The argument goes that if librarians and libraries could market themselves better, then they would spend less time explaining their worth to outside parties. And, of course, every library argues their business differently (I will address the problem around the word business soon). An academic library will argue that their business is to support research; a public library will argue that their business is providing access to resources (among other things); a special library will argue that their business is to support, say, legal research in a law library, or organize and access government documents or whatever it is that special libraries do, exactly (that one I'd like an answer to but it's too varied for a general response). Each division in a library is going to offer something different. As a former instruction librarian, I would argue that my division was to instruct users on how to find and evaluate information efficiently, which is bland, a catch-all and ultimately another way to say support academic research.

So, the argument goes, if people knew this information, they would stop refusing to fund libraries and libraries would attract more users. What I think this argument is a reductionist argument and it is increasingly prevalent. Reduce what you need to say to 140 characters or less to be attractive to people out there. If you can't make it fast and snappy, you will lose people's interest and lose the ability to convince people that what you offer is needed and important. All this need ignores the fact that what libraries do are complicated and difficult and varies based upon the user. A library is a different entity to each person who uses it and how do you package that? It's not like toilet paper or a TV show. It's not a single idea or a single salable idea.

Which gets me to the business part. If business means occupation or trade, then it is entirely appropriate to ask what libraries' business is. But business, in our use, always refers to a for-profit activity or a place where activity goes on that involves the exchanging of currency, for the profit of one financially and the profit of another in terms of goods (I go to Target. I give Target my money. Target makes profit and I have the ability to clean my clothes now.)

As a librarian, I was not in the business of making money. (Well, to be fair, the university library I was at was obsessed with making money and we were told to spend less time on teaching and more time on activities to make the library money) I was in the job of providing access to resources and helping people navigate those resources, whether they be a topic for a paper, a scholarly article or a DVD for a long weekend. Other than late fines to teach a user that an item isn't their property, libraries don't make profit (and really, late fines just cover what they can't get other things to cover).

I work for a small accounting firm. While I use many of the same skills as I did as a librarian, I am very much in the business of profit. Unlike the library which is either an extension of a business, a university or a government, we need to money to pay the rent, keep the lights on and pay me.

The problem with calling a library a business or asking what is it's business is that it implies that a transaction needs to take place and often for the profit of one or another. That reduces the potential that a library has in every moment, to every user. Rather than asking a terrible question like what are libraries in the business of, we should be asking, what possibilities can a library fulfill?


  1. I'm for public libraries as much as the next person. I think the question though isn't about money; it's relevance.

    We should ask ourselves the question: "what purpose does the library serve?" Google are on a mission to organise the world's information and make it accessible; Wikipedia are a massive collection of often well-cited human knowledge. A wide collection of public domain books are digitised and available for free. The *need* for a shared repository of resources dwindles in a digital world.

    So, then, what's the purpose of a library? In my view, it's expertise. It's the ability to tell you what you're looking for when you don't really know yourself. A library is a place to work or to be read to if you're a small child.

    If it's not the responsibility of the library itself to promote itself in these areas, whose is it? Bring folks in the doors again and again; resources should follow naturally.

  2. You are offering one reading of the library though. Libraries are also great social equalizers. Want to watch a movie, get a book? It's really hard for some people to afford internet or Netflix instant or buy books. Libraries bridge that gap. If you look at recent reports, people are navigating the internet through their mobile devices. I've submitted my unemployment report through them and it's a pain. How do people get access to computers? Libraries bridge the increasing (at least in the US) digital divide.

    They also offer a lot of social programming, like summer reading programs which have been proven to help kids' retain literacy skills over the summer. Many of them do movie nights and author clubs and meet the author events. It just depends on what you want the library to do.

    I just think it's interesting that people see value to special and academic libraries but public libraries always need to prove their worth and relevance. And I think the business language is wrong. Do libraries need to advertise and promote? Sure. But not with business language.

  3. 1. Public libraries are gearing up to be Obamacare registration sites.

    2. Fines in academic libraries often go to the university, not to the library.