I was chatting to a friend the other day. He's a lecturer and, like many people in the academic sector, his school was being required to justify its worth to the university in business terms, which was proving difficult. For one thing, it just doesn't seem right philosophically: while the university can, and does, work closely with business should it actually a business itself? For another, those of us over the age of thirty have had so much half-chewed and often misunderstood business-speak spat at us over the years that even the best-conceived and well-founded attempt at setting out a mission statement for our organisations will set off a five-bell alarm on our bullshit meters. But ignoring it and hoping it'll go away isn't an option. These things have a habit of hanging around like a bad smell on the landing and if you don't provide the necessary input somebody else, who may not necessary have your best interests at heart, will. So he was chafing at the question: "given that there are private companies providing similar or the same services as you, what is your unique selling point?"
This sounds horribly familiar.
Since well before the days of Best Value Fundamental Service Reviews public libraries have been facing similar questions. The public sector as a whole has being doing it for a generation. It's sadly inescapable in the consumerist society we find ourselves in today. We can't wish it away, we've tried that and it doesn't wash. People who care about public libraries -- not just librarians -- are stepping up and making the case at a local level and, increasingly, nationally as well. Campaigns like "Voices For The Library" are starting to do a really good job at pulling together the value of public libraries to communities and individuals alike. This is great, but it's only half of the job. It's important, we need to support and share it, but there's something else needing doing.
There is an oft-cried lament: "why is it so-and-so who always gets interviewed or consulted about public libraries and not us?" Well... always being available is one reason. A journalist or researcher desperate for copy within a tight deadline can always find a place for an off-the-peg statement from a convenient source. A politician or chief executive trying to manage the eternal search for the efficiency saving that will deliver more for less is in the market for easy-to-find solutions.
The other, more telling reason, is that the statement will be presented in a vernacular that makes sense to the person who will be using it. Whatever you may think of the worth of the advice being given, these people have got one thing devastatingly right: they are talking to their audience in the language they understand. The advice being presented makes sense to the audience because it references the priorities and terminologies that are part and parcel of their workaday realities. Conflicting advice, if any is being made available, is usually presented in a way that isn't easy to relate to those realities. And so...
So public libraries need to find voices that talk to these audiences. Journalists, politicians and chief executives aren't, for the most part, businessmen but the vernacular that they use is derived from corporate business-speak. We need to be able to communicate our values and our worth in that vernacular. Some would argue that this is selling out. I would argue that this is being professional. You explain to a child how to use the library. You explain to a new borrower how to find the books they want. You explain to a student the importance of information literacy. You explain to a colleague the nuances of a new library system. If you used the same reference points and vocabulary with all those audiences you would fail. But you wouldn't do it, would you? What you would do is explain: "this is what it does, this is why it's useful to you" and you would make sure as best you could that it made sense to them. So why is it any different when we're talking to the movers and shakers and purse-string holders? It isn't. We need to explain that a world without public libraries would be less rich but more expensive. We need to explain the return on investment provided by having professional library staff and the added value provided by the librarians amongst them. We need to explain that public libraries can teach government departments a thing or two about distributed asset management; efficiencies through effective resource sharing and active, personalised online service delivery. We need to ask why our mayors can find a book in a library a thousand miles away but not know what information assets can be found in their town halls.
We need to do these things and more. And this would need to work hand-in-hand with the voices to the community that are already being established. By explaining our worth to both sides of the political (small p) machine there is a chance that the true potential of public libraries could be recognised and exploited for the benefit of future generations.
Oh, and my friend? It took us a few minutes once we took a step back to have a look at the picture properly. The private companies may be doing a serviceable job of teaching people how to use the tools presently to hand to do the work currently required. The job of my friend and his colleagues is to also teach people how and why the tools are designed and made and how they can evolve or be replaced to adapt to changing circumstances. The private companies are equipping students for the next five years; the university is equipping them for the next twenty-five years.
Just the same as public libraries are resources for life, not just for exams and the workplace.