Beyond the Bullet Points: Bad Libraries Build Collections, Good Libraries Build Services, Great Libraries Build Communities

Here is the tweet that led to this post:

“Bad Libraries build collections. Good libraries build services (of which a collection is only one). Great libraries build Communities”

Due to character limits it was often re-tweeted without the parenthetical:

“Bad Libraries build collections. Good libraries build services. Great libraries build Communities”

Let’s face it, this is snappier, but it is also apparently more controversial. There were a number of responses along the line that good and great libraries must build collections too. I thought it was worth more than 140 characters to add some nuance and depth to the tweet, so here we are.

Before I jump all the way in here…if you are an auditory or visual type, I made a lot fo these points in this screencast:

Now, back to the tweet.

First, there is nothing that says that good and great libraries don’t or can’t build collections. It is a matter of focus. If librarians focus solely or disproportionately on the collection, that is bad. This shows up in a couple of ways. The first is obvious: acquisitions with little or no input from members of the community. Are you adding to a collection because of what is on the New York Times bestsellers, or that’s what the jobber sends? Bad. If you aren’t looking at circulations data, having conversations with the community, or looking at ILL data: bad. 

I am reminded of this in the current debate around ebooks. There is a lot of talk about whether libraries should be buying ebooks at all. Someone asked me what I thought and I said that tactically librarians should build their own ebook platform that brings a lot of value to authors, and; two, ask your community. If you are planning on boycotting or simply staying out of ebooks, have you had that conversation with the communities? Does the community think it is a bad deal what the publishers are proposing? Are they ok with not having that as a library service? Note this is not simply asking meekly, but truly having a conversation where you are presenting an argument and showing the community the big picture and then listening.

If we are talking focus, what is the difference between bad libraries and good ones? Good libraries focus on users. That is they evaluate the utility of the collection is relation to user needs. What do people want and need in terms of the collection, and how does that balance with all the other things the library does (reference, programming, digital resources, instruction, etc.). Here not only do we look at user data such as circulation and such, but the whole user experience.

There was once a debate among the faculty here at Syracuse about where we should teach collection development. It was (and is) part of a class title “Library Planning, Marketing, and Assessment.” The instructor at the time didn’t like it there. How do weeding and marketing go together? Well, it turns out the questions you ask about the collection are like any other service: what are the objectives? How is it used? Is it easy to access (and assess)? The collection is a service like any other – it needs budgeting, planning, and a reason to exist. 

Good libraries understand that any time you add value to a user experience you are proving a service. Shelving? Service. Cataloging? Service. Weeding? Service (to save the user time and eliminate rapid access to out of date information). I know all of these things are wrapped up as “collection,” but by breaking them apart you can better evaluate them, and better accomplish them.

I pick the term “user” carefully in this part of the discussion, because I believe it is what separates good from great. You see a good library sees the collection as a service and therefore monitors and plans for its use. A great library sees the collection as only a tool to push a community forward, and more than that, they see the library itself as a platform for the community to produce as well as consume. The library member co-owns the collection and all the other services offered by the librarians. The library services are part of a larger knowledge “eco-system” where members are consuming information yes (a user), but also producing, working, dreaming, and playing. That is the focus of a great library. They understand that the materials a library houses and acquires is not the true collection of a library – the community is.

So, do good, bad, great, and ugly libraries have collections? Yes. But great libraries realize that the collection is not what sits on the stacks, but the members and their worlds. The focus is on connection development, not collection development. Will there be collections developed? Probably, but that collection may be of links, digital scans, books, building materials, video production equipment, performance time on a stage, and/or experts. 

This is clear in the discussion around school libraries. As districts around the country are eliminating school librarians they often cite that the hours of the library won’t go down. “We can keep the doors open with library aids, or existing staff in the building.” They ignore the data that shows that it is certified school librarians, not open hours, or the collection, that improves test scores and student retention. Librarians not libraries make the difference.

Once again, does the school librarian use a collection? Certainly, but great school librarians have a collections of lessons they teach, student teams that assist teachers with technology, and collections of good pedagogy. Want to save money in a school? Close the library and hire more school librarians. 

This tweet is not a call to throw out collections of materials – there is great value there – but to change focus and realize that that value comes not from the artifacts, but the community’s ability to improve. That value may come from licensed databases in academia. It may come from shipping containers full of paper books in rural Africa. It may come from genealogy materials in the public library, or special collections in the Ivy League. But for some communities it may come from the rich array of open resources accessible via any smartphone, or, increasingly, artifacts, ideas, and services created by the community itself.

Great libraries can have great buildings, or lousy buildings, or no buildings at all. Great libraries can have millions of volumes, or none. But great libraries always have great librarians who engage the community and seek to identify and help fulfill the aspirations of that community.

10 Replies to “Beyond the Bullet Points: Bad Libraries Build Collections, Good Libraries Build Services, Great Libraries Build Communities”

  1. I agree with DL entirely, though if I could add some detail from my own experience on the ground as a library assistant in the UK. Also if I could abstract out and for a paragraph lament the general state of the development as it stands of the management of our public libraries as a discipline in the UK.

    This point has been amplified with the recent public sector cuts, but the community library in our towns and cities seem to each exist at some point on a line between two polarities – at one end of the polarity is the community library of the hay day of the public libraries in the UK, the 60s and 70s, where every library had a librarian in charge, working to raise the culture (the ideas and activities) of the community that the library served through our literary heritage, and towards the end of increasingly meeting the needs of the local community (a more civilized society in which peoples needs are increasingly met). Further along the line from this end of the polarity and something which we have seen in more recent decades is the removal of the librarian from the community library, who is now managing several libraries as a group, and from a back office position – more often than not using popular but generic means available to them. Remaining on the frontline though in these libraries are the paraprofessional staff. Continuing along the polarity and at the opposite extreme, is the library in which self service has been installed, but also the library in which there are now no longer any paraprofessional staff (usually through colocation of a library with another organisation which then takes responsibility for day to day building management). At this point the library has become something along the lines of a supersize vending machine for books – it’s proactive role in the community relinquished for a more passive role and bookshop experience (which note isn’t entirely bad in itself which I will explain in the next paragraph).

    Now I would argue that any one of these above approaches is not actaully any better or worse than the others – the model for the community library finalised on should be a strategy decision. [Apols for using jargon here, this is not a normative document.] The type of library chosen should depend on the goals and aims of the library authority in question (and indeed this can be implied by their actions). I myself work across the full breadth of the library authority I work for, and witness first hand how very much the communities across the city I work in differ. The library that would serve one community could very much be different than the library that would be needed to achieve objectives for the community in another area of the city. The aims of the library can be achieved in some areas using means and methods where other areas have very different priorities and very different means and methods might be used. A ‘vending machine’ type model could be just as valid as a means (along with other strategies) towards achieving the aims of the public libraries and its role in our society, as the community library with the most highly qualified, experienced and skilled librarian that the community has been able to appoint to the helm. All would depend on the community itself, and an appropriate model for a public library that would serve that community.

    Moving on at this point to my second point, and taking the discipline of Information Technology management in comparison to community library management as a discipline. A literature search and more in depth reading reveals the management of IT systems as a rich body of knowledge; of ideas, theories, models, methodologies, etc., with many common themes and ideas and with a strong paradigm emerging — a quite mature discipline. Within the field of libraries and in particular community library management – librarians did in fact have quite a considerable body of literature from the hay day of the public libraries (as mentioned above), this seems though to be very much lost to this day and age, and while there is more recent research, methodologies, management tools, etc. have not materialised out of this, I think it can be argued that a discipline of community library management has not yet emerged. Yet it is very much needed in the age we live (as David Lankes phrases this we live in one of the most exciting ages for libraries and for those who work for libraries – the potential for the community library is very much one reason for this). Perhaps this is the point for community library management to emerge as a seperate discipline and not just as a reflection of the main central libraries.

    To conclude I would argue this is the time for a new generation of librarians to take an introspective look at their own culture, and to create a new culture for librarians and library staff working in our community libraries in the age that we live. Building on the knowledge of the past, but a new body of knowledge for the management of our community libraries – not just exploring the syntax of the field, but aiming for a discipline to emerge. A critical examination of the past and its relevance to the modern community library, The fields of knowledge that would to provide the basis for the management of the community library in the age that we live and towards the future.

    (By way of a footnote it might help if here in the UK we actually had a journal specifically for community library management.)

  2. Very interesting, thoughtful post. People who would think of boycotting e-books are forgetting that the basics of why we read and write books don’t change with the technology.
    By the way, as I read this, I feel a llama is looking at my post. Does anyone else see the line profile drawing of you that way? At first I thought he was smoking a cigarette. You have to squint your eyes a bit and imagine the nose bridge of the glasses is the llama’s perky right ear.

  3. In the spirit of everything old becomes new again,
    For decades the Maine State Library has grown a family genealogy collection by encouraging individuals to donate a copy of the genealogies they create while using our collection as well as other sources. These often unique titles frequently open the doors to new researchers.
    Recently we have received some in electronic formats which we gratefully accept. It is the content not the form that matters.

  4. Thank you, Prof. Lankes and commenters for keeping us all thinking and re-thinking. Just 2 cents here regarding, “How do weeding and marketing go together?” Personal experience tells me they are inseparable. Once I weeded and “cleaned” an elementary collection which included titles from the 40’s and 50’s (some of the oldies were included on a memory lane shelf) and removed titles which were not age-appropriate… etc. The look and feel of the space completely changed. Circulation increased and both staff and students fillied out “New Title Suggestion Cards” — these suggestion cards were ignored before the weeding.

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