I’ve said it many times before: Libraries and library staff are good at many things, but we are not good at defining for our patrons what it is we actually do. In the quest to hang on to relevancy, we’ve expanded our services, programs, and materials and filled in gaps in our communities for things like food distribution, childcare, passport application, and more. Mission creep has long been known to have detrimental effects on libraries, their staff, and the communities they serve. Meanwhile, time and time again, we fail to meaningfully describe and promote our fundamental mission and the specific library services that support that mission.
The Mission of Libraries
Before we can talk about the kinds of services your public library — and, yes, other kinds of libraries — likely offer, it’s first useful to understand what the purpose or mission of libraries is. Hugh McGuire offers a useful outline in his article “What Are Libraries For?” Personally, I would expand the definition to something broader, like “to act as a steward of information,” but the basic premise remains that libraries are in the information business.
“Information” is slippery, and while it may not have been intentional, it’s not hard to imagine that we justified things like programs (that is, events put on by the library) because there are definitions of “information” out there that apply to programs. What are programs if not the dissemination of some kind of information or another? Consider book clubs, for example. Book clubs are opportunities for patrons to share and obtain information such as others’ opinions and perspectives of a written thing (which is yet another piece of information). Story time, movie nights, instructional sessions for first-time home buyers, craft programs, and more all fall under this idea. And the idea of the library as a “community space” isn’t contrary to this mission, as the physical space facilitates the library’s ability to act as a steward of information.
Why Communicate the Mission?
Our first challenge is to communicate the concept of information with the public if we are to better define what it is we do as an institution. It’s not an easy one, I’ll warrant that. Because the concept of “information” is increasingly nebulous, it becomes more and more difficult to capture the idea of “stewardship of information” for people whose lives and careers don’t revolve around it.
The good news is, while it’s our first challenge, I think the communication of this mission can be embedded in nuggets. This is where “what do libraries do?” comes in. By better informing patrons of what, specifically, it is that libraries (generally) offer, the understanding of what the informational mission of libraries is will build naturally. Along the way, we’ll also see the benefit of not having to put so much energy into justifying our existence and funding (because, if we do this right, it ought to be more obvious) and, by better defining what we are we will, by nature, better define what we are not.
And why is that last bit so important? Simple: If we believe that mission creep contributes to compassion fatigue and burnout in general, and we agree that compassion fatigue and burnout are things we want to avoid, then it makes sense to eliminate mission creep to the greatest extent possible. If what falls under mission creep is what we, from a mission perspective, are not meant to do, by defining what it is we do do and, consequently, defining what it is we don’t do, the expectation that libraries will fill community gaps and otherwise expand services in ways that contribute to mission creep ought to drop. Libraries can then spend more time, effort, funding, and so on in doing what it is the staff is professionally trained to do and investing in library services that better align with the overarching mission well, rather than kind-of-sort-of attempting these other activities in a way others are far better positioned and trained to handle.
What Do Libraries Do?
So, what are some of these activities that support the fundamental mission of libraries?
“Reference” is just a fancy way of saying research assistance, put simply. Several times, I’ve had folks give into their information needs and cautiously come up to me with an, “I’m so sorry to bother you, but can you help me find books on gardening?” or “I know you’re busy, but any chance you can help me with finding tax forms?” It hurts every time I hear this, because the whole point of me sitting at a reference desk is to provide reference services. After I’d seen it done at other libraries, I finally put up a sign in an acrylic holder that says something to the effect of “Please interrupt me! Your question is more interesting than whatever I’m doing.” And it’s true. Often, I’m doing something like reading the news at the desk because I want to be able to drop whatever I’m doing quickly in order to serve the public. (But, at the same time, it’s unrealistic to sit there and stare at the wall for two hours, waiting for someone to approach.)
So, yes, reference! If you want help finding information, this is a service your library definitely offers. And be sure you’re defining “information” broadly. Auto repair shops in town? We got you. Books compiling the letters of famous people? Sure thing. Reliable sources on whether that news story you just heard about is true? Let us help! Whether you need a quick answer to a trivia-like question or a list of books, articles, or other resources on an obscure topic, we can make it happen.
One of my favorite services and a subcategory of reference is readers’ advisory. It shouldn’t, but it always shocks me when I hear from someone that they didn’t realize they could ask their librarian for book recommendations, even while turning to their kindergartener to say, “You love to read; you should be a librarian!” Even my mom was somehow surprised to hear this when I spoke with her recently. “It wouldn’t have even occurred to me that I could ask for a book suggestion,” she told me. I wanted to tear my hair out. While many libraries offer a formal system for requesting book recommendations like through an online form, most of us are prepared to do it on the fly. We have tools and training on those tools to suss out the perfect read for the person asking. Any librarian worth their salt will ask you questions like what was the last book you read that you really liked or what kind of pacing you enjoy in a book, especially if you come up with a request for a “good book.” We can usually suss out what a “good book” means to you with these kinds of questions. If you had a book you loved and don’t ever expect to read anything as good again, give your librarian a call. I bet you one book recommendation we can find something you’ll like almost — if not exactly — as much, if not more.
It’s also worth noting that readers’ advisory doesn’t end with books. Many library staff love movies, music, and other media, and you’re likely to get great recommendations for whatever kind of entertainment you enjoy.
Researching your family history can be daunting. Many of the databases out there have paywalls or are otherwise inaccessible to the general public. We can help! Many libraries offer genealogy programs to help patrons get started on their own heritage journey. Some even have librarians who specialize in genealogy and offer appointments for library users who want one-on-one help. Even if your library does not have staff dedicated to genealogy, you can still generally count on your librarians to help you get started with the genealogical databases the library subscribes to and answer questions about searching along the way.
We may not be Apple’s Genius Bar, but whether you’re using a library device or one of your own, chances are there are a few people on the staff who can help you. This is more challenging during the times of COVID because, often, tech assistance requires closer physical proximity, but with remote options, we still may be able to help even while social distancing. I’ve helped folks set up new cell phones (including some work with Androids while I was still an Apple user and had no personal experience with Androids — we were still very successful and the patron continuously requested me specifically for future visits), walked them through downloading ebooks to their iPads and Kindles, helped them retrieve forgotten passwords for email and other accounts, and so much more. Librarians are, in most cases, around technology all day long. And with our keen researching and troubleshooting skills, technology assistance is a natural part of our duties. In general, you may find that digital natives working in libraries are more likely to be able to help with more complex tech assistance requests, but really most staff members should be able to get you started in the right direction.
Job Search Help
While we can’t fill out your job application for you, we can help you find the most relevant and best resources for your job search. Some libraries even offer job search workshops, which will enable you to get some extra eyes on your resume and maybe practice interview skills. (That said, you probably won’t want to bring your resume up to the librarian at the reference desk and ask for a critique — that requires a skill- and knowledge-set not necessarily specific to the training we get as librarians. Some librarians may still be willing to take a look and give you notes, but be aware that it may not serve you well, ultimately.) Libraries often have databases and other organized resources dedicated to career building and some libraries have librarians specifically hired to work with job seekers and business folks. Don’t forget many libraries also subscribe to databases like Lynda (or, LinkedIn Learning), where you can take free courses (with your library card) to gain new career-relevant skills.
Not everyone wants to invest in a printer, especially since so much is handled digitally these days. But every once in a while, you really need a hard copy of something. Fortunately, many libraries have printers available to the public. Prints often cost a bit of pocket change, though some libraries offer free prints. Many of the libraries that offer printing also offer copying and scanning. And don’t be intimidated by the large Xerox-or-what-have-you machine. Staff can usually help navigate these devices with nimble ease. Looking to fax something? That might be a little tricker to find since the technology is generally considered pretty outdated, but some libraries do still have it available for patrons and it doesn’t hurt to ask. You might also ask about shredding small quantities of paper, too, if you need it.
If you’re comfortable using technology on your own, you may still need internet access. Whether you prefer a desktop with an ethernet connection or WiFi on your own device, you’re likely to find either at your library. It’s usually best if you have your library card with you if you want to use one of the public computers, but many libraries also have a guest pass system to allow visitors on the computers. Meanwhile, if you prefer to work on your own device, WiFi access at public libraries is free. It depends on the library whether or not there is a password (though, in my experience, it’s unusual if there is one). And, if you need a place to plug in your device, there are typically outlets available for users. Just be sure to bring your own charging cable and adapter, as these are rarely available at the library.
Let Your Library Surprise You
So go forth, and use your libraries! This list is just the very basics of what most libraries offer, and by no means complete. If you were surprised by anything (or even if you weren’t), do yourself and your library a favor and go check out what else they have to offer.