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:
- Libraries are for use.
- Every reader has his or her library.
- Every library has its reader.
- Save the time of the reader.
- Libraries are growing organisms.
To which, of course, library 2.0 fanboys would add (perhaps correctly):
- Libraries are social organisms.