Everything Old is New Again is the title of a 1999 article in American Libraries by Douglas Raber, author of the excellent and eye-opening book, Librarianship and Legitimacy: The Ideology of the Public Library Inquiry. The article suggests that the Inquiry, a comprehensive assessment of public librarianship initiated by ALA in the late 1940’s, continues to be relevant to libraries today. While in library school I discovered Raber’s book in the stacks of Cleveland Public Library. The book was so inspiring that I got ahold of 3 of the 7 volumes of the Inquiry (thank you, CPL!) and read them also.
Now the next piece in my story: My colleague Keith Curry Lance had recom- mended a podcast series to me. It is called “Longshots” and is broadcast by Sarah Long, Executive Director of the North Suburban Library System outside Chicago. I decided to take a listen and chose a December 2008 interview with Cathy de Rosa and Jenny Johnson, primary authors of the OCLC study, From Funding To Awareness: A Study of Library Support in America. A couple of months ago I studied the first half of this voluminous and highly graphicized report. In case I never got back to the second half, I thought I’d see how the audio book version went.
In the podcast Jenny Johnson reported that:
We conducted several focus groups that gave us a sense of what the types of messages are that really are likely to move [potential library levy/referendum supporters]. Specifically transformation. I think we have a tendency in our space…to think in terms of focusing on information. And what we learned was it’s really the power through libraries to transform the people we serve and allow them to reach their potential that really resonates with potential funders.
Ok. Now compare that to this quotation:
THE LIBRARY FAITH. Throughout the years librarians have transformed their concept of function into a dynamic faith. This faith has sustained the men and women who have built and operated American public, as well as university and research, libraries and the men of wealth and political position who have provided for their financial and legal support. It consists of a belief in the virtue of the printed word, especially of the book, the reading of which is held to be good in itself or from its reading flows that which is good.1
“Good” that flows from reading the printed word. “Transformation” that comes from information. Kinda similar, wouldn’t you say? Consider Cathy de Rosa’s elaboration:
[From our study] there were a couple really surprising things…Maybe not too surprising findings if you really think about them…One of the things we found in the study is that an appreciation of library [sic] really transcends use, if you will, that people see it as a U.S. right for citizens and they want to fund it even if they themselves don’t use it.
Again, it isn’t just about information access for all. de Rosa reports that:
…while [information access] is an important service, the funding reason–the reason behind why libraries offer information—is really the compelling reason why they’re willing to fund us. So, while we’ve pushed so hard the information, information, we really need to—as is often the case in marketing—talk about, and what does that mean for my community? And that’s really a fundamental shift in what we have been doing collectively as a community in advocacy. And it’s a critically important finding out of this study… It is very common in marketing that we talk about what we deliver—we have new books today or…new software, if you happen to be a software provider—instead of what value it brings to the community.
So, library marketing and branding devotees are beginning to see the same light that shined more than thirty-five years ago on one of the founders of library evaluation, Richard Orr. His milestone 1973 article describes evaluation in terms of quality (of collections, services, facilities, etc.) and value (benefits to the community).2 Within a few years, social program evaluation theorists Michael Scriven and Jane Roth had coined two fundamental terms for their profession—merit and worth—which mean the same as quality and value.
Definitely, there have been pioneers clearing these pathways for us. And now 21st century librarianship seems to be reaching a (gasp!) consensus. Merely reporting what information resources libraries make available and how often these are utilized is not enough. We need more convincing ways to portray libraries as valuable and viable public institutions. But, how exactly to do this?
1 Leigh, R.D. (1950). The public library in the United States: The general report of the Public Library Inquiry. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 12.
2 Orr, R.H. (1973). Measuring the goodness of library services: A general framework for considering quantitative measures, Journal of Documentation, 29(3), 315-332.