Saying “Yes” too much

Earlier this summer the library journal named the Ferguson Municipal Public Library as the 2015 library of the year.  In the announcement article Library Director Scott Bonner speaks about the library’s approach to community engagement in a way that resonated with me.  He says:

“I defined the library mission as widely as I could. I wanted to look back at this time and regret saying ‘yes’ too much instead of saying ‘no’ too much.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about the library’s mission and how broadly we can define it so that I can say ‘yes,’ and not be gatekeeping and stopping things.  I want to say ‘yes’ to everything I can…I’d rather do too much and have things go sideways than do too little.”

Here, Bonner expresses a professional philosophy that I have been developing over the years without having expressed it as succinctly.  Simply, I want to say “yes” too much instead of saying “no” too much.

Ever since I’ve been working in academic libraries (10 years now) I’ve disagreed with policies that uphold the security of the collection above its use or value the convenience of the staff over patrons.  It’s not unusual for libraries to have these types of over-protective, exclusionary policies that usually involve the restricting access to resources, but I feel that they are counter to the purpose of a library.  In a library I used to work in, the best media equipment was kept under lock-and-key and not allowed to circulate lest it come to any harm.  I’ve also encountered the policy of books being classified as “special collections”, “reserve”, or “reference” because librarians and/or faculty do not want them to be stolen.

I understand limited access for truly rare or unique items, but it’s run-of-the-mill books or media that I typically see being restricted.  I also understand that any time library material is used that there is wear-and-tear and even the chance the item can be lost or stolen – but that’s a risk I’m always willing to take.  Isn’t the whole purpose of a library’s collection to be used?  Why wouldn’t we prefer more open access?  In 5 years would you rather be able to say that the collection is in pristine condition or that the collection has seen so much use that it’s in tatters?  I would hope most librarians choose the latter.

Hey, recent LIS graduates, do remember the first law of S.E. Raganathan’s five laws of library science?  Here it is:

  1. Books are for use

That’s rule number one if that gives you any indication of it’s importance.  Now, certainly libraries have grown beyond just books, but the philosophy of openness and access holds true today.  And it’s a philosophy that should continue to be part of the foundation of library operations.

Collection access rant aside, I believe most librarians are drawn to this profession because of their desire to help others.  That basic desire lends itself well to the “say yes” philosophy.  Sometimes too well.  One of my recognized weaknesses is being too accommodating, a push-over sometimes.  I’ve ended up helping patrons when I should have referred them to other departments, and I’ve bitten off more than I can chew by trying to make a project work where failure was inevitable.  Perhaps the reason I was drawn to this idea is that it allows me to view my weakness as a strength.  But, you know, for each “yes” that leads to a failed project or some loss for the library, I believe there are other “yes’s” that lead to fulfilling collaborations, worthwhile explorations, and happy patrons.

So the next time there’s a kneejerk “no” reaction or even if a policy dictates a “no” – ask yourself what would really happen if that “no” were a “yes” and you may find an alternative worth considering.

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