Friday, November 28, 2014

What is a public library?

Near the end of my tenure as director of the Douglas County Libraries, a county commissioner proclaimed the purpose of the public library was "to be a repository of books." That's a tragically limited view. 

I've been using another definition for the past several years: "the job of the public library is to gather, organize, and present to the community the intellectual content of the culture."

But that may need some amplification. "The community" doesn't have to be a city; it could be a school or university or company. Or it could be a genre of writing or music.

"Intellectual content" isn't just the usual suspects: books, magazines, movies and music. It also includes people - often the most immediately useful and convenient repository of information, knowledge, or wisdom. That's the meaning of our traditional provision of programs, guest lectures, author visits, public meeting rooms, and the hosting of community discussions.

"The culture" likewise has some elasticity. For a city, that might encompass not only what goes on within geographic boundaries, but the entirety of American or the emerging global culture. (And yes, it's a big job.)

In the very conservative Douglas County, people sometimes told me that the library was socialist. That's the libertarian shorthand for "an unnecessary program that steals my money through taxes."

So I find myself thinking of a slightly different definition of the public library these days, reflecting more broadly our contribution to society -- about why we exist, not just what we do.

Here it is:

The modern public library is a cooperative purchasing agreement, a social asset that promotes literacy, encourages individual discovery and creation, and builds community.
  • As I'll get to later, the library's "cooperative purchasing" not only provides brilliantly cost-effective access to resources for individual coop members (read: library patrons), it also has a host of distinct and significant social savings. 
  • A "social asset" is a tool that can be applied to shared local problems and opportunities. We can think of bonds that build public roads as one kind of asset, resulting in physical infrastructure. Libraries are part of our intellectual infrastructure -- and just as vital.
  • "Promotion of literacy." To quote Shirley Amore, current director of the Denver Public Library, "we own ages 0-5." And as I'll elaborate later, the public library's promotion of early and emergent literacy may be the most powerful strategy yet discovered for building a healthy and productive citizenry.
  • "Encouraging individual discovery and creation." There are thousands of stories, including my own, about how just one sensitive librarian (Mrs. Johnson, in my case) can transform individual lives simply by offering the right book at the right moment, or by providing the space to study, or the computer to apply for a job, or by quietly encouraging someone to make something: a book, an artwork, a model airplane, a business plan.
  • "Building community." For the past generation, we have mostly been dismantling public institutions, and replacing them with for-profit businesses. But libraries -- through their focus on sharing investment and resources, on institutions that provide tangible demonstrations of local values -- help us to find a new approach. It helps us become builders together.
Comments please: What do you think of this definition?


Rick Ashton said...

An additional element of the definition should be the public library's open and inclusive welcome to all. Especially in places where poor people and different-behaving people are actively shunned and stigmatized, the library's open doors are an exceptional expression of democratic culture.

James LaRue said...

Yes, and this seems to be one of two things "everybody" knows about libraries. We have books, and everyone is welcome.

James LaRue said...

Laurie Putnam writes:

I couldn’t comment directly on the page because I didn’t meet any of the identity qualifications: I don’t use my Google identity for professional work, and my WordPress site is on, not Just thought you might want to know about this commenting limitation.

Anyway, here’s the comment I’d planned to post:

I like it. The statement of purpose is more powerful than the description of what we do on a day-to-day basis.
You might try leading with the purpose—that the library is a social asset—and following with the "how"—through a cooperative purchasing agreement. Then you could follow up with the other piece of the "how"—by gathering, organizing, and presenting the community's intellectual content.

Something like this:
The modern public library is a social asset that promotes literacy, encourages individual discovery and creation, and builds community through a cooperative purchasing agreement. Libraries gather, organize, and present to communities the intellectual content of their culture. - Welcome

In November of 2018, I left my position at ALA in Chicago to return to my Colorado-based writing, speaking, and consulting career. So I'...