The What Versus The Why

When the topic of conversation turns to change, it’s not uncommon to hear an academic librarian say something along the lines of “before we change we need to really understand why we do what we do – what is it that defines what we are all about”. Others might describe that as having the ability to articulate the library’s core values. It might even be something found in a mission statement.

I recently heard a library presenter run through a list of these potential “why we do what we do” possibilities. For this presenter one emerged as the most clear rationale for the why of an academic library – or perhaps any library. The word used to describe the “why” was “connection” as in “we connect the user / client / customer / community member with information / content”. That was this presenter’s answer to the “why do we do what we do” question. I think there is much more to this than just connecting people with information, and that the act of “connection” is not actually a “why” but a “what” – and yes there is a distinction.

In a previous library position the actual mission statement, something along the lines of “This library exists to connect the students, faculty and staff with the information they need to succeed.” Not bad. But now I realize that this act of connection is not the “why” of an academic library. Rather, it is just one “what” of the many things we do for our communities. The “why” and the “what” are different. Let me explain using the Golden Circle framework advanced by Simon Sinek. The Golden Circle has three concentric circles. The farthest circle outward is the “what”, the middle circle is the “how” and the innermost circle is the “why”.

WHAT = the results we get
HOW = what we do in order to get the results (think process)
WHY = our beliefs, cause, purpose

Connecting people with information is a good thing, and an important function for any library. What makes it a “what” rather than a “why”, according to Sinek, is that it is a result – not a cause or purpose. Do you come to work everyday to make sure people connect with information? If that’s our cause or purpose, why should anyone care about academic libraries when they can get connected with information anywhere, at any time. The “how” of connecting people with information is all the things we do behind the scenes to make it work: developing budgets; having acquisitions workflows; processing materials; setting up loan policies. You get the idea. But it all starts with the “why – or rather it should start there. In his book Start With Why, Sinek provides examples of inspired leaders and organizations that succeeded where others failed because they had a much clearer vision of “why” and started their work by being able to understand and articulate first from the center of the Golden Circle.

According to Sinek, the absence of a “why” is a problem that often leaves us uninspired about our work. Most of us academic librarians understand the “what” and the “how”. The hard part is the “why”. We may have failed to spend time thinking about the “why”, and that is where we should begin. The “how” and the “what” should flow from the “why”. What would a “why” sound like for an academic library? Here’s a possibility: “We believe our library transforms its users from one state of knowledge to a higher state of knowledge.” How about: “We believe our library prepares community members to succeed as citizens, employees and scholars”. Those, to me, speak more to having a real purpose for why we should exist. Those statements are about believing that our work is going to make a difference – but only if we pursue our cause with great passion. It is not merely a result of our activity. It is a reason to perform the activity whether the result is connecting someone with a piece of information, helping them publish a scholarly article or getting a job.

I am still thinking about these ideas and what it means to develop a “why” statement or position for an academic library. If this post helps you to have a better sense of the difference between the “why”, “how” and “what” that is a start. Sinek’s web site has more information if you are interested in exploring this further, but feel free to share your “why” statement as a comment.

7 thoughts on “The What Versus The Why

  1. In our recent strategic planning review we revised our Vision and Mission statements thusly:

    Vision: We are a collection of dedicated professionals whose partnerships with the community result in the creation of a healthier world.

    Mission: To guide the members of our community through the world’s recorded knowledge to better health decisions.

    We work in a health sciences library, which explains the particular slant.

  2. Not an academic library per se, but a good “why” / mission statement:

    “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.”
    — Board of Trustees, Boston Public Library

  3. I wonder if making a big deal about the why vs. the what is appropriate in this case. I think you’re right that “connecting people with information” is a “what,” not a “why.” But the library presenter you mention may have thought it was implicit that connecting people with information is a good thing (indeed, you say exactly this yourself in your post!), and the “why” is then obvious: librarians do what we do because connecting people with information is a good thing. Actually, I think something like this is probably correct, though we might need to modify it by adding that we don’t just connect people with information, but we help people to discover the information they really need or want and then we connect them with that information. And again, in general, helping people to discover the information they need or want and then connecting them with it is a good thing, and that’s why we do it! Simple! Or maybe I should say, why can’t it be that simple? Of course, we could look into the particulars of why people need information, like “to become better citizens,” and “to reach a higher state of knowledge,” but I think this might be unnecessary, and maybe a bad idea. For there are lots of reasons people need and want information, some are lofty and some are not. But even when the reasons people want information are not lofty, they still have a want that needs fulfilling, and librarians can help with that. I guess we need to believe that, overall, helping people with their information wants and needs is making the world a better place. But I think this is probably true. Do we need to have more of a “why” to justify or explain librarianship than this?

  4. Paul – I am glad the post got you thinking about the why versus the what. If the only thing we did as academic librarians was connect people with information (again – think of it as a result) – then just saying that was the answer to the “why” might suffice. In fact, I want to emphasize that in using the Golden Circle framework – the “why” is more about your belief or your purpose than just why as an explanation for what we do. But we do lots of other things as academic librarians beyond connecting people with information. We do instruction to help students be better researchers. We preserve our collections. We offer cultural programming. To my way of thinking, the “why” as I’m thinking of it drives all of those things. I would also say that better understanding the “why” of your library (or your practice) is not just to justify or explain what it is we do – rather it is a guiding force in helping us determine how we do things and the messages we communicate to the user community. If you read the book Start with Why you will learn how different organizations build loyalty among their community by articulating their “why” through their actions and services. So would your users be loyal to your library just because you connect them with information – or because they believe that what you stand for is important to them as well. It’s late and I’m probably not articulating this as well as I’d like. But your questions are good ones. I think if you spend some time with Sinek’s book you’ll get a better sense of the importance of being able to articulate the why of the library organization.

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