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What Is The Purpose-Based Library?

by on October 14, 2016

Every so often a new phrase, buzzword, or philosophy about library service comes along and throws a different light on what we do, and how we do it. There’s been a lot of talk and interest in “the purpose-based library” recently. What’s that all about?

I had an opportunity to speak with Steven Potter, library director and CEO of the Mid-Continent Public Library in Kansas City, Missouri who recently co-authored a book on the subject. The purpose-based library connects with the community, collaborates to better reach goals, measures what is useful and shows value, and continually improves. Summing up, Potter says, “It is all about re-embracing the vitality of our profession.” [1]

Sound familiar?  Over the past few years, there have been several campaigns, reports, and training opportunities on similar thoughts, some through our own professional organizations, and some through other arenas. Libraries have a plethora of tools at their disposal right now – all of which speak to the need to be more community centered and valuable. If you are looking to transform your library, measure outcomes, be the center of your city, or be more purpose-based, the following organizational programs are some great ways to get started.

The Libraries Transform campaign, an initiative of the American Library Association under the leadership of then-President Sari Feldman, was designed to increase public awareness of the value, impact, and services provided by libraries and library professionals. The highly graphical Libraries Transform campaign provides great ready-made pieces libraries can use to showcase the transformative nature of today’s libraries and elevate the critical role libraries play in the digital age.  This is an easy way to get clear, colorful graphics that you can use in your building, on your website, or in your print items right out of the box.

Project Outcome is the Public Library Association’s latest field-tested outcome measurement initiative. “The goal of Project Outcome is to help public libraries understand and share the true impact of essential library services and programs. While many public libraries collect data about their services and programs, what is often lacking are the data to support what good they are providing their communities, such as programs serving childhood literacy, digital and technological training, and workforce development. With Project Outcome, patron attendance and anecdotal success stories are no longer the only way libraries can demonstrate their effectiveness. Developed by library leaders, researchers, and data analysts, Project Outcome is designed to give libraries simple tools and supportive resources to help turn better data into better libraries.  To start measuring the true impact of your public library, join Project Outcome today!”[2]

The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation is not a library organization, but libraries are finding that the premise of the institute, a desire to “turn outward” to your community, dovetails beautifully with the movement to be seen as more relevant to their communities.  Turning outward means using the community, not your conference room, as the main reference point for decisions – from the strategies you and your partners pursue, the partners you choose, how you start and then grow your efforts over time, and even how you structure and run your internal organization.  The Midwest Collaborative for Library Services (MCLS), along with the Library of Michigan, believes greatly in turning outward and becoming more relevant and valued in the eyes of the community.  They have embarked on a collaborative project to train a cohort of Michigan librarians in the Harwood method – offering scholarships, training, and coaching calls in order to assist their member libraries in becoming more outward looking and purpose-based.

Seeing so many similar ideas grow organically out of our field during a rather short span of time,  make it clear that the library field as a whole is feeling the need to reshape how we tell our story, and how to best show the value in what public libraries do.  If we don’t tell our story well, who will?


[1] Steven V. Potter(Director) in telephone interview September 2016.

[2] http://www.ilovelibraries.org/librariestransform




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