Core Values Must Come First

In the past few weeks I attend two equally thought provoking presentations. Although the content was radically different, as were the presenters, – one a library science professor and the other a business faculty member and corporate consultant – there was a common theme in each talk that resonated strongly with me. Both talks, in a way, were about a subject much on the minds of academic librarians these days. How do we adapt to a radically transforming information landscape in which our very relevance is put to the test?

The first of the two was David Lankes, Associate Professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. I heard him present at the Connecticut Library Association where he spoke about the “library as conversation”. Lankes urged the audience to keep asking ourselves two essential questions: why are we doing this and why does it matter to the people for who we do it? The answers, it was suggested, would emerge from a fundamental understanding of our core values, from which we could then develop innovative resources and services to better serve our communities. Lankes’ advice to the audience: “Be the wave machine, not the wave”.

The other presenter was William Gribbons, Professor of Information Design and Corporate Communications at Bentley College, but also a consultant to dozens of corporations. I heard him give a talk about user experience at a professional development program at the Rutgers University Library. Gribbons made a strong case that academic libraries could no longer win over students and faculty with links to e-resources alone. When all information providers look the same, only by differentiating the library could progress be made. According to Gribbons a unique user experience is carefully designed and constructed, but whatever that experience is it should be shaped by the organization’s core values.

While neither speaker actually defined what a core value is or how one discovers it, I think Lankes came close by instructing the attendees to work at understanding what business their library is in. He thought the business of libraries was knowledge creation. I like to think it is learning and promoting academic success. There are other possibilities but I believe all of them must be based on creating relationships with our users from which they will obtain meaning. When we understand the business we are in and how that translates to creating meaning for our users those core values will emerge.

So where do we begin? Exploring and articulating a library’s core values, as you’d expect, involves some soul searching, both individually and collectively, and collegial conversations – among staff and with the user community. But these two rather different speakers pointed to much the same thing: core values must come first. Having a sound, basic and fundamental understanding of those values will drive efforts to develop a plan for innovation or provide a better user experience that will guide us through disruptive technology change, hyper-competitive information environments and the many other challenges that are sure to confront academic librarians.

10 thoughts on “Core Values Must Come First”

  1. These thoughts are right on. We are so caught up in remaining relevant and trying to convince our community that we are needed, that we rarely stop to think about what is at the core of our libraries. Is it community service? Is it knowledge dissemination? Is it research collaboration? I don’t know. Rarely do we ask ourselves what our core value is or should be. Until we do, the library will never be “the heart of campus” we all desperately want it to become. We need to identify what makes our library important to our community and take pride in it, instead of constantly trying to transform our institutions into mediocre versions of the next-best-thing.

  2. I’ve long worried that we’re becoming helpless accessories to the apparently irreversible sort of trends discussed in Nicholas Carr’s canny Atlantic Monthly article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (see link below); so I would like to suggest that the core values of academic libraries should include some which register the importance of providing resistance to such trends.

  3. A few years ago, when we were deciding what category to place library science databases on our web site, I suggested linking them to education. We should not equivocate. We are not service providers. We are educators. If we don’t define ourselves as such, we will always be playing a secondary role in academic communities.

  4. I think it kind of works both ways. If you’re easily distracted then you will click on the link, but if you actually have interest in the story then you will stick with it, I do most of the time anyway.
    I also think that having links to subsequent or necessary information is really important, like how wikipedia has links to any words in the encyclopedia. It provides the possibility for a very thorough understanding of the subject inquired on in the fastest way possible ( or at least that I can think of). When you click on a link to go off subject all you need to do is hit the back button on the browser and continue exactly were you left off one or two or six articles more educated about the subject than when you started reading. Yes, if you have a short attention span, or get more interested in the linked subject then you will have gone off on a tangent, but you have to remember that most internet articles are alot of fluff in the first place. I think the wikipedia style linking should be the standard for all text based information.

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