Because this is the business we've chosen

One of the most fascinating things about the Collins et al. book Good to Great is that the institutions they studied which turned into growth powerhouses all had some core mission, they only did things related to it that they could be the best at, and they optimized their financials across those activities to best serve the mission. Sounds simple, right?

If so, then what's the mission of the librarian in 2006? It's not an easy question. I've been stewing over it for two months, and think I've come up with the only answer that works for me. Yours might be different, but this describes what I'm here for, and the thread runs through every disparate bit of work I'm involved in one way or another.

I hadn't shared this with anybody until yesterday when I tried it out on rsinger, after he basically made the same point. He didn't laugh hysterically, so I'll try it out on the other eight people who read this.

My professional mission as a librarian is this:

Help people build their own libraries.

That's it. That's all I care about.

The staff at the companies highlighted in Good to Great would say about every single activity they consider involving their company in: "How does this help us help people build their own libraries?" They would also say: "What aspect of helping people build their own libraries can we be the best in the world at?" And, finally: "What is the simplest expression of the economic ratio at the core of what we're doing, and how can we optimize it?"

In the book they call it "finding your denominator" or somesuch. Google apparently optimizes around maximizing average request throughput per dollar. I don't know what a library's denominator is, but if you know anybody who does, please tell me. Being in an academic setting, and remembering the motto of (I think it was) the late former Yale Press director Chester Kerr that "faculty plus libraries equals publication," I'm tempted to think it might be "publications per faculty." But the community is much bigger than the faculty... so "publications per community member." But that sounds silly, and doesn't incorporate costs so cleanly.

The best I've been able to do with it so far is to further refine this to "information communications per community member", where "information communications" aren't just published articles or books or what not but also includes saved links, resolved references, papers read from a courseware page, items deposited into an instituional repository, and so on. There's something still unsatisfying about this construct, but still: show me an academic library that has a dashboard showing them the exact information communication/usage patterns of the designated communities they serve, and I'll show you a library director whose Dean/Provost/etc. know exactly how much the library is worth to the institution.

Another attractive aspect of the mission to "help people build their own libraries" is that it provides yet another obvious twist on Ranganathan's five laws of library science:

  1. Libraries are for use.
  2. Every reader has his or her library.
  3. Every library has its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. Libraries are growing organisms.

To which, of course, library 2.0 fanboys would add (perhaps correctly):

  • Libraries are social organisms.


Great Insight

dchud, this is one of the best library posts I have read. I hope folks think about your library denominator comments, in addition to your very well stated core mission.

I'm still not buying the statement "Libraries are social organisms", at least in the context of core mission. Libraries enable social interactions, but the social part is like an overlaying application, not part of the core function. I know all the Library 2.0 folks will take issue with this, but I'm not saying that the social aspect isn't related or linked to many libraries; it's just not "core".

(Library 2.0 'fanboy' makes me laugh)

I brought these concepts up two different groups yesterday. I think the 'personal library' idea is difficult for them to grasp right now, because there's nothing to point to help explain. Still, they nodded their heads in ways that seemed approving.

The idea of the 'research trail' (compiling all of the entities looked at to achieve a particular article or whatever) fascinated them. They loved the idea of being able to see 'beyond the bibliography' and see, possibly, the article that let them find the article that they are citing. Or the blog posting. And the thought of the users' annotating them, so you can potentially see the thought process that lead to the intellectual output...

Let's just say this went over well.

Now I just need to figure out how to pitch the personal library parts...


When I read this, I thought it meshed well with Ross Singer's idea of incorporating social bookmarking systems into the OPAC, thereby redefining the collection as "the body of stuff our community is reading". In light of New Jack Librarian's comment and Art's response, though, I wonder if Ross's idea is subversive of Dan's: that the idea of building a collection has become so slippery, the idea of a collection so dynamic, that Dan's mission statement is pregnant with more possibilities at first appears. (Which is probably good for a mission statement). It implies helping our users find and read more of what they like, keeping the stuff they want to keep and letting the rest slip away, following the discussions that arise out of what they read, all with a minimum of effort and technical drag. I'll sign up for that.

Oh, but how it is!

jaf: I guess we disagree - if the social aspect of information sharing isn't core to the mission of libraries, I dunno what is. It's all about multiple sets of hands and eyes moving over the same knowledge and through the same spaces. (which is why this whole "library 2.0" thing gets my goat, still. :)

Ross: yet another case where code speaks louder than words, eh.

pbinkley: tell me more about this "minimum of effort and technical drag" of which you speak...

technical drag

dchud: I would, but I'm too busy trying to update Flash so it will play your screencast.

building personal libraries

D.Chudnov: Having worked in the retail booktrade for many years the concept of 'helping people to build their own libraries' doesn't strike me as giving any cause for "hysterical laughter";but then, neither can I understand why Ross' groups should find the concept "difficult to grasp". Just as much as the book trade, libraries depend upon people who not only read books but buy them. Buying a book is a statement of intent, and intention is what brings people to a library, and indeed, assists the library in helping a particular individual. Books lead to books which then lead to more books; all personal libraries begin this way as the individual's search for a pattern in their thinking, or an 'occupation' for their mind, begins to take shape on their shelves. A book bought, or a book removed changes the composition and meaning of any library; as does the level of interaction between reader and the books on his or her shelves. One of the things an institutional/ 'public'library can do is teach not just how to 'build' a library, but how to use it: 'What does your own library know that you don't?' And 'How do I find out?'

Despite the emphasis upon reading and the reader in the current debates over the 'future' of the book/reading, very little attention has been paid to the function of the 'personal library' in the way people think about, and use books. (Witness the pursuit by the retail trade of 'fabricated' audiences: the 'Literate non-reader', or the 'Intimidated Shopper' are just two examples of its rather desperate response to the changing demographics of reading.) Perhaps the institutional/'public' library can add one more thing to its many activities, namely showing people that owning a library and using it, is a natural extension of coming into a Library in the first palce. from Michael Newman.

"...individual's search for a pattern in their thinking..."

I am currently studying about personal libraries. I agree with almost all that you've said in this comment. I think you can help on my inquiries related to this, especially your theory on the development of personal libraries. I am interested on a correspondence with you about your ideas related to personal libraries. This is my e-mail address: Thank you