Library Thinker Series: What is a Library?

There have been a lot of good posts and resources that I’ve been looking at recently about libraries and librarians that have got me thinking much more deeply about librarianship.

Aaron Schmidt talked about libraries without content.

Andy Woodworth explored the value of gaming in libraries and if it’s crucial to our mission.

Stephen Bell discussed how experiences give us more happiness than things.

Dave Lankes examined The Librarian Militant, The Librarian Triumphant.

Therefore I want to try something different on this blog for a little while in addition to regular posts, which I’m calling the Library Thinker Series. Each week I’m going to post a new question here. These are going to be pretty big questions (you could probably write a book on some of them). I’ll attempt a short, incomplete answer, but I’d also really like your attempt at answering it too. I know I don’t have all the answers and I would really like to see how other people approach these questions. I think it would be a fun exercise in exploring our profession where we might come to some insights together (sorry, I majored in philosophy. I have a warped sense of fun). So, the first question is:

What is a library?

This question came to me when Aaron Schmidt was talking about the day when perhaps libraries would have no content and when Andy Woodworth and commentators discussed if gaming is something libraries should be focusing on. If we can figure out what a library is, then maybe we can understand what a library is not. This would make it easier to answer questions like “should people be gaming in libraries,” or “do we need content to have a library?”

What actually is a library? So like any good researcher (or at least like most of the undergrads at my institution), I typed the full question into Google to see what the internet had to say about it. One of the first hits was of course Wikipedia. Here’s their definition:

“A library is a collection of sources, resources, and services, and the structure in which it is housed; it is organized for use and maintained by a public body, an institution, or a private individual.”

I notice three key things in this definition. First a library is a collection. This could be a collection of things or services. Second, it exists within an environment or structure. Third, it has people who organize and maintain the collection and the space.

For me this works as a definition. Collection, Environment, and People. If you do not have one of those things you do not have a library. A stack of books does not a library make. Under this definition I think Schmidt’s content-less library still holds up if there are still services that are being provided.

Is this definition too broad? What am I missing?

Andy Burkhardt


  1. Hi Andy. Thanks for mentioning the DBL post. I’ve written a number of posts about the importance of facilitating a library experience that delivers meaning for the community member. BTW, I like your concept. I guess I might call them “wicked questions” – ripe with ambiguity, with answers that shift over time and potentially problematic.

    Your question makes me think of something that came to mind while I was checking out the Darien Library video. There’s a “big” question that’s asked – what makes a library a “great, good place”. Various folks suggest answers to that, but no one suggests that the answer isn’t something librarians define – it’s something our user community should define and which we should work to create or facilitate for them. I suppose I might answer your question the same way. Should libraries offer games – if there’s a need or demand or it facilitates a better experience for the users – then the answer is probably yes. Should the library have content? Again, it should be driven by the community members. That’s not to say that librarians should be empty vessels having no opinions or ideas – waiting passively to respond to users. We should be anticipating what the users expect and work to put those things in place in the library or as services they can use (e.g., we need to have people who are subject experts who can answer questions and provide research assistance).

    Our job is to facilitate the experience (we can’t create an experience because each person experiences the library in a personal and unique way) so that each person would answer your question differently. So I’d say I’m more focused on how our community members would answer the question. I’m more interested in their answer than the answer we might come up with ourselves.

    I will look forward to your next question (what about “How do we get people who don’t use the library to actually use it?”).

  2. I like the idea of thinking about how our community would answer this question. I can start seeing some of the answers. “Oh, a library? That’s the place where I go get all the free books I want.” “That’s where I hang out with my friends and play video games and read comics.” “That’s a place where I go to get away from my roommates and get some studying done.” “That’s that place that has free internet.”

    I agree very much that a library should be driven by community members. If you simply start doing things or offering things because that’s what a library SHOULD be then you’ll quickly get away from the needs of your community. Offering gaming in a very small rural library might not be what the community wants and taxpayer support of the library could quickly dry up. At our library we do not collect very many graduate level works of scholarship simply because the majority of our population is undergrads who aren’t looking for those resources.

    I’m definitely going to be thinking about how not just librarians, but also how users would answer these questions. And I’ll take you up on using the question “how do we get people who don’t use the library to actually use it” next week. I’d love to hear strategies and thoughts about that.

  3. I think the definition is a good start, but I think the biggest piece missing from it is what you both discuss in the comments. The community. The users, or patrons, or students, or however we problematically define and describe the people we serve (or as you pointed out Steven, don’t serve), as well as the people that work there. When I first read the question you posed, my first thought was my library is about a community of learners. To me a library is a place, a group of people, an array of services, and a collection of both digital and physical stuff, whose aim is to serve a community. In my case, one whose aim is to empower our college community to learn, grow, and create in any way we can.

    And I believe that community works in both directions. One strength I think my library has is the fact that I can really can call our staff a community. We know, support, encourage and defend each other.

    As a sidenote, I think most definitions of libraries miss the personal touch, the answering questions and teaching parts, and the human touch aspect of the institution.

    Andy, I really look forward to the rest of the Thinker Series. I took one college philosophy class and cried myself to sleep through it, so I’m going to think of these as exercises in sociology instead 😉

  4. I really like Dave Lankes’ answer to your problem above about users/patrons/students/etc. He calls them members. This is because that is how they identify themselves and they also have cards. I think this idea of members gets at what we’re discussing. As you stated part of the definition of a library needs to include something about the community and the community is made up of members. There are also active and passive members of the community but they are both important because our members define us.

    Like Steve stated, our community is what shapes us. If we provide value, members want us to continue on that path. If we don’t provide value or do things that community members think are unnecessary or outside our scope we’ll soon either change or no longer be a library (i.e. we’ll either no longer get taxpayer funding, or in academia we may still exist but thought of very poorly and rarely used). Therefore I really like Steve’s point about anticipating member’s wants and needs. The best libraries are the one’s that are best in tune with their communities and what they value and expect.

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