I have a slightly different perspective now – I feel strongly that focusing on customer service, analyzing patron needs, and promoting and advocating for libraries are essential activities.
But I worry that marketing and business models are too focused on the needs of the majority.
For my non-librarian friends I will post the Library Bill of Rights, which was written by the American Library Association.
The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services.
I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.
One of the library’s essential responsibilities is providing for the information needs of all patrons, and that includes both the marginalized and the obscure. Surveys, usage statistics, and comment boxes are great for justifying popular needs, but people who are not library professionals may not understand the value of purchasing resources which are interesting to the very few. Libraries do not operate under the same motivations as businesses, and should not be answerable for to the same measures of success.
In this economy, while governments are evaluating if libraries are necessary budget expenditures (they are!), the business model is an even more tempting paradigm for assessing worth. When money is the issue, it makes sense to look through the eyes of people who understand how to make it. What’s the market share of libraries in the business of information? Is it providing a good return on investment? There is some interesting research which shows that libraries are indeed a good return on investment, both in academics and at the public level.
To me this is good news, but also beside the point. To me the library’s value rests just as much in it’s unpopular services and materials. Libraries are a place where the unpopular can and should be included. They are an expression of free speech, not because they are places where the marginalized can go to be heard, but because they are places where the marginalized can go to read.