Magazine article American Libraries

Can Library Service Survive in a Sea of Change?

Magazine article American Libraries

Can Library Service Survive in a Sea of Change?

Article excerpt


The preeminent value in librarianship is, of course, service. Regardless of their other purposes, libraries are service institutions that exist, by and large, for the people who use them, and success must be measured by how well we serve our users and their communities.

Discussing values is important anytime, but it's especially so in the context of change. Service is still our most important value, but what our users expect from us--and what we expect to be able to do for them--are very different from the expectations of as little as a decade ago. Think of the changes that have occurred in providing reference services, delivering information and documents, and offering instruction. Networked computing and the digitization of text and other resources have moved and continue to move us toward a future in which we must reconsider what we need to do and what initiatives we need to take.

Change poses many questions: How do we best serve our users? What is the best way to deliver reference service? (For that matter, what is reference service in this new age?) How can we empower users to find the recorded knowledge and information they need? What does collection building mean in this age? Which role should document delivery and database subscription services play in library collections? And there are deeper issues: What is the nature of the library in the information age? What is its real value? What changes and what remains constant? What are the values we are striving to adhere to? Are our core values changing, and do they remain vital?

Many leaders, both within and outside libraries, have spoken about the enduring nature of values as a means of guiding institutions through changing times. Something at the heart of an enterprise goes beyond methods and procedures, a transcendent point that sets the course for moving forward. In 1997, Barry Braverman, a vice-president at Walt Disney Imagineering, said that the main thing to do in times of change is to get back to the core mission, which sets the course for what you do and tells you what you need to be doing. Successful organizations teach us a central lesson about the process of change: that professions and organizations have to have a clear idea of their purpose and values and must let that clear idea inform all their actions and methods, even when those methods inevitably change.

A notable characteristic of organizations that adapt successfully to change is their devotion to service as a core value. Many successful companies have succeeded by making service the number-one consideration in their mission. Herb Kelleher, president and CEO of Southwest Airlines, says service is a value you cannot just pretend to have or promote in marketing campaigns. For service to be a value that customers experience, all employees have to know that the institution has a real commitment to it.

The evolution of our values

A central question for libraries is whether the values that underlie our purpose and mission are themselves evolving. Do we need to revisit long-standing values such as service, or are we merely concerned with finding new ways to realize those values? A reading of early works on the values of libraries and library services tells me that our values, rather than changing, still stand firm. It was, in fact, research into the early values of reference services that inspired two colleagues and me to present a paper titled "Refinding Reference: Carrying the Reference Mission into the Libraries of the 21st Century" at Harvard College Library's 1996 Finding Common Ground Conference. We found value statements that closely matched ours in some of the earliest writings on reference services that we reviewed, including Samuel Swett Green's statements in the first issue of Library Journal (1876) and Eleanor Woodruff's 1897 piece in the same journal on the purposes of reference services. …

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