Magazine article American Libraries

What's It All about? beyond Equity of Access

Magazine article American Libraries

What's It All about? beyond Equity of Access

Article excerpt

It is a truism that a group or agency formulating a plan should define a single essential goal or purpose toward which the plan is directed. Such a goal is sometimes referred to, wince-makingly, as a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). The essential purpose of any library is to serve its community--city, county, state, national, school, college, university, corporation, etc.--through a variety of interactions with the human record, that vast accumulation of recorded knowledge, information, and visual and textual creative works made by humans over the millennia. An individual library can plan and set policies with one overarching question in mind: How does it enhance the service given to the community and its members?

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I believe that the ultimate purpose of a library association, of which the American Library Association is the oldest and largest such institution, is less simple to define. We associate voluntarily, banded together in mutual interest to ... what, exactly? We know what we are not. For example, for tax reasons, ALA cannot act as a trade union or professional association concerned with the details of pay and working conditions of individual members, cannot issue certificates authenticating advanced study or acquired skills, and cannot engage in certain political activities. Some would argue that there is no over-arching purpose for ALA that subsumes all others, and that it exists to do a number of different things, such as hold conferences, issue publications, create communities of like-minded persons within the Association, advocate and lobby for libraries, accredit library and information science programs, and defend intellectual freedom.

Striving for universal access

I suggest that there is an overarching purpose that unifies all of ALA's efforts and provides a way of measuring its worth and effectiveness. Robert Browning told us that our reach should exceed our grasp "or what's a heaven for?" The essential goal I propose may never be reached in our lifetimes, but perhaps that makes it even more worth the striving. The ultimate state of being to which we should aspire and to which all our efforts should be directed is universal access to high-quality library services.

There are many areas of life in which inequities of service are seemingly taken for granted. From health care to education, we, as a society, if not individually, accept that services will not be equal for those who are poor, aged, or very young, as well as those who live rural areas, have physical or mental challenges, belong to ethnic or social minorities, or fall into any of the categories that divide us one from the other. …

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