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The Obligation of Libraries

by on October 13, 2015

Obligations: a duty or commitment; an act or course of action to which a person or organization is morally or legally bound. I have been thinking recently a great deal about obligations in relation to the library. On the one hand, it would seem a library’s responsibilities are clear cut and that at least library supporters would all agree on this institution’s obligation.  However, this is not always the case.

One issue that recently came up for my library involved appropriate number of open hours. With a population base of a bit over 5,000, my library is open fifty-one hours a week. But one board member felt this was inadequate; they suggested being open sixty hours a week, while another argued that being a small, relatively rural library our resources were already strained and we should reduce our hours. The discussion turned into one of obligations. What began as a discussion of the library’s obligation to patrons evolved into a discussion about the institution’s obligations to staff.  With a small staff (4.5 FTE), increasing hours would put additional strain on library workers and in particular the director, who would in effect, become ‘on call’ seven days a week.

For me, the discussion raised another issue: is the library’s obligation to the existing demographics of the community or to a more diversified perspective?  Specifically, consider collection development, programming, and displays. Should we offer only that which applies to our known community’s demographics? Or should we try to broaden outlooks and horizons? Many times our decisions in these areas are shaped by our users.  We might put up a holiday display because we believe our community expects or supports that perspective. But are we sure? Should we, in fact, be displaying alternative views as part of an obligation to support lifelong learning? Would we draw more users if we expanded beyond our perceived local culture?  Is this not part of obligation, also? While it may be easy to say we should do both–support our community’s demographics and expand on the status quo–the finances and/or politics of many libraries may not allow for such a broad spectrum of activities or materials.

We can also expand this question out to larger professional organizations. Is the obligation of a state agency to all institutions within its jurisdiction? One might answer, yes, of course!  But the question becomes whether this is a feasible possibility.  In most states there are urban and rural libraries, large bureaucratic establishments, and small independent organizations; there may also be municipal libraries and libraries in nonprofit organizations, with differing structures and needs. On a national level, the issue is confounded as there are an even greater number of variations.  Consider something as mundane as where a national event will be held?  The problem arises that no one location can inherently serve everyone.

Personally, I believe all public library organizations of any size have the obligation to provide a broad base of perspectives, as reflected in materials and activities, and the obligation to strive for as much diversity as is feasible. To that end, on the national level, I support organizations that make mindful efforts to rotate conference location. On a local level, I support state agencies that offer diversified support to different levels and kinds of libraries.

On the daily level of library operations I make a conscious effort to assure my collection is diverse in terms of the topics and peoples it represents. I seek out programs that are unique or unusual. I am ecstatic when I find things that most people have not encountered and thrilled when I hear patrons speak of finding something they never knew about before. I am considerate of all holidays and celebrations–not only putting out the materials or iconic images of those who most participate or that which is most common.

When I consider my obligations for my library I think about challenging common thought patterns, offering a path into places unfamiliar, and helping to support diversity; those considerations shape my obligations to my library.  I see this as my obligation not only to my library, but to my community and the well-being of our world.

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