What is a library? Mission, vision, and inner workings.

I’ve recently started a new position at my public library, managing adult services (reference and circulation). Along with my colleagues, I also select materials (fiction in my case), plan and market our services, and help patrons. Our director is retiring soon, and our city is considering whether to renovate or even build a new library. Since librarianship is already a giant clockworks with many moving parts requiring perfect timing and maintenance to run smoothly, anticipating change is a challenge.

What’s so complicated about a public library? To begin, scheduling over two dozen of us, most of whom work part time and have other jobs as well, over seven days a week at two branches and a combined 80 open hours a week. Then there’s selecting, ordering, receiving, processing, cataloging, shelving, and checking out books, magazines, CD’s, dvd’s and e-books, and managing the non-circulating items. Signing up new cardholders, maintaining databases of cardholders and holdings, tracking where things are, what’s overdue, what needs replacing or repairing, etc. Managing our technology resources — the website, social media, online catalog, and subscription databases, staff and public computers with internet access, printers, copier, scanner, microfilm readers, circulation and self-check stations, and even a typewriter. Plus planning, promoting, and running programs.

We do all that in addition to our everyday work with the public. Yes, answering questions, teaching people to find and use materials and technology, assisting with research or helping someone find a good book to read. But also, as you’ve read here and elsewhere, public libraries are a de facto social service as we deal every single day with homelessness and mental illness and try to make the library pleasant and safe, as well as useful, for every person who enters.

One thing I’ve learned is that if your name tag says “manager” people tell you their views.  Some are concerned about the library being a gathering place for the marginalized in our community, or are upset about unpredictable or unusual behavior, unpleasant smells, or sleeping (all of which we do our best to deal with). Others worry that some people only come to the library for free computer time. Or that we have too many movies and tv shows on our shelves. Or not enough. Or the wrong kind. Each person who offers his or her opinion is really trying to get to the bottom of what a library should be.

According to our mission statement, the library “connects individuals with resources in order to enhance lives and build community.” Our vision statement calls for our library to “be a dynamic place, promoting the love of knowledge and the joy of reading.”  Dynamic — change is part of what we do, at the heart of responding to the needs of our community. Knowledge, reading, resources — we provide these in many forms, connecting people with books and quiet study space, email access and tax forms, literature and pop culture, and each other. We enhance lives by serving everyone, no matter how difficult that sometimes is. We build community — some days just by smiling and making eye contact with people who aren’t often treated with respect.

So what’s a library? An energetic, ever-changing public space, open to everyone, devoted to knowledge, reading, services, and resources that enhance lives and build community. And that makes all the difference whether we are keeping the clockworks running or planning for how to make it bigger, better, stronger, or more intricate.