By Valerie J. Gross
There’s a powerful movement afoot and it’s gaining momentum.
Hailed by Library Journal as “a 21st-century library model, with a position, doctrine, purpose, and curriculum worthy of study and consideration by every other library in America, if not the world,”  this effective strategy takes libraries back to their original purpose.
At the turn of the 20th century, libraries were established as educational institutions to deliver equal opportunity in education for everyone. Somehow, a century later, we find ourselves with a diluted purpose—so much so that fully one third of Americans do not know what we do.
As public, academic, and school libraries in the U.S. and countries around the world begin implementing this game-changing strategy, they are finding that their inherent value is no longer questioned. They no longer need to constantly explain why they are essential. No one looks at them anymore with a puzzled look, asking, “Tell me again what you do?”
Instead, these library systems enjoy instant recognition of, and increased respect for, what they do. They are seeing their statistics (visits, items borrowed, research assistance interactions, and attendance at classes and events) soar. Most importantly, they are receiving corresponding increases in their budgets and staffing levels.
For library staff, aligning themselves with this vision establishes a distinctive purpose, instilling great pride in themselves, their work, and the profession.
While developed for public libraries, the concepts apply to all types of libraries.
What exactly is this vision?
It is important to first understand what the vision is not. It is not “We support education” or “We play a role in education” or “We are an educational resource.”
Confident and crystal clear, the vision is much bigger: “We are education” — educational institutions in their own right, like schools, colleges, and universities.
The equation becomes more self-evident when we look at the complete definition of education, which includes:
- Information about a subject matter
- Knowledge acquired by learning
- Activities of educating, instructing or teaching
- The process of acquiring knowledge
- An enlightening experience
Involving the following components, the strategy:
- Repositions libraries as the provider of what the world values most: education
- Classifies library staff as educators
- Categorizes all that libraries do under Three Pillars:
- Self-Directed Education – our diverse collections and computers
- Research Assistance & Instruction – classes, seminars and workshops taught by library instructors
- Instructive & Enlightening Experiences – encompassing cultural and community center concepts, events, and partnerships
- Replaces traditional terminology and jargon with strategic language that people outside of the field immediately understand. For example:
- “education,” “instruction,” and “research” replace terms like “information” and “reference.”
- The word “class” takes the place of “storytime” and “program.” And “curriculum” replaces the non-descript phrase “programs and services.”
Embracing the Three Pillars is a great way to shatter the misguided notion that the only thing libraries do is loan books. This has never been the case.
Although loaning books is a major component of our overall curriculum, the Three Pillars visual readily conveys all three categories, each of which is critically important.
The tremendous power, effectiveness, and simplicity of this premise is that the very words we use convey the true value of our jobs and profession. It renders us indispensable—today, tomorrow, a century from now. Education is a given. And it is timeless.
It’s time to reclaim who we are, what we do, and why we matter. Plain and simple, we are education, what the world values most!
This article was published in IMPACT magazine and for further reading checkout Valerie’s book, Transforming our Image, Building Our Brand: The Education Advantage.
See what more top library leaders think about shifting the perception of public libraries:
- Tina Thomas: Shifting Perception: Valued for what we do
- Corinne Hill: Why Essentialness is Not the Problem
About the Author
An educator and attorney for 30 years, Valerie J. Gross, MM, MLS, JD, is President & CEO of Howard County Library System (MD), named 2013 Library of the Year (Gale/Library Journal). Valerie is the author of Transforming our Image, Building Our Brand: The Education Advantage (Libraries Unlimited/ABC-CLIO, 2013), which explains this philosophy in detail and provides implementation guidance.
 John N. Berry III, “2013 Gale/LJ Library of the Year: Howard County Library System, MD,” Library Journal 138, no. 11 (June 5, 2013): p. 30-33. http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/06/awards/2013-galelj-library-of-the-year-howard-county-library-system-md/#_
 Pew Research Center, December 2013, “How Americans value public libraries in their communities,” p. 26. http://libraries.pewinternet.org/files/legacy-pdf/PIP_Libraries%20in%20communities.pdf