The Mission-Collection Connection


How many of you can rattle off the mission statement of your place of employment?  

Since I have worked in public libraries most of my career, most public library mission statements focus on the needs of the community. In my not-so-random sample of some public libraries, most included words about connecting the community, information needs, fostering life-long learning, etc. Too often there is a disconnect between that mission and the boots on the ground decisions. Each library is unique to that community. Each library has a target audience/user. No one library can be expected to be filling all the needs of every single unique individual. 

Missions are the starting point of every everything we do in a library. I have spent nearly two decades trying to pound this concept of mission and collection into the brains of librarians. Public library collections are about the general public. University libraries are about students, faculty, and research. The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian have missions that are primarily about conservation and preservation. This isn’t difficult. However, at the core, when it comes to adding or weeding a particular item, all of a sudden these differences aren’t clear. 

My partner in all things library and I have been lucky enough to be hired to talk to many librarians on some of these very issues. Let me share some examples of the disconnect: 

  • A small public library in suburban Ohio (about 50,000 physical items) was gifted a 20 volume set of New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. It was a beautiful set of books. It also took up 2 stacks. It hadn’t been used once by any patron for as long as it was in their collection. 
  • My partner and I got into a heated discussion with a librarian from a small public library in rural Minnesota, about a biography of Lincoln published in 1945. He insisted it was important to researchers and should be preserved. No one, except the librarian, had checked it out. 
  • A small library in Michigan where the librarian spent 80 dollars on a coffee table book on the rare birds of Hawaii. 

Notice that the books themselves weren’t the problem. Content was not the issue. These were choices best suited to other libraries. The 20 volume set of Grove, was a more appropriate choice in a university or professional music collection. The small public library was tight on space for the new materials and this unused set was taking up valuable real estate. 

The Lincoln biography may very well have been an important biography for researchers. However, researchers didn’t tend to go into the middle of nowhere to access this biography. They probably had access to a university collection. If this library actually NEEDED to get a copy of this particular biography, they could interlibrary loan it from the universities and larger public libraries.  

Finally, the rare birds of Hawaii coffee table book seemed out of place in Michigan. Coffee table books, regardless of the topic, were losing popularity with users. Yes, it was a beautiful book and there might be some interest in rare birds of Hawaii, but was this particular purchase the best use of collection funds? 

I encourage you to revisit your mission statement regularly as all library activities flow from that directive. Our communities are changing along with world events (thanks COVID-19). No doubt COVID has changed priorities in libraries. Mission statements help keep libraries focused on what they can do and not waste time trying to be all things to all people. Make that mission statement your mantra for all things in library service.