substantive stories for sustainability

Libraries often operate under the auspices of public good and public will. We’ve all heard the stories from local benefactors or library supporters that begin “As a young child, I took refuge in the stacks of my local neighborhood library…” and “The library was the only place where I fit in…” or “Without the library…” As powerful as stories and anecdotes can be to our partners, patrons, and holders of purse-strings, it’s not enough to simply argue that it’s “the right thing to do” to sustain them. In happy, bountiful times, when everyone’ feeling prosperous, even generous, perhaps “Libraries Change Lives” is good enough. Meanwhile, we’ve spent a lot of time counting – counting our resources, our processes, and our patrons’ use of the library. Take these last two points together. We take for granted that “Libraries Change Lives,” and believe, or perhaps hope, that the number of things we can count along the way will be enough to keep doors open when times are lean. We’re learning now: it won’t. We’ve got a long way to go before we “Prove it!”

In their book “How Libraries & Librarians Help,” Fisher and Durrance (thanks Patrick) identify an “urgent need to tell the library story more effectively.” Economic downturns, swings of the political pendulum, the clear need for vital services like police and emergency services, all call to question the services of the library, especially if we’ve not taken care to match them with community needs, or stayed in touch with our community about how we’re meeting them. Many libraries have found more robust “business reasoning” to be effective in determining and articulating value because it requires that we look at a bottom line and determine if what we’re doing makes sense based on needs, resources, and outcomes. The bottom line for libraries is not a financial profit, it’s sustainability.

But to get to sustainability, we have to know where we are, and where we have been. Telling our libraries stories, not only through traditional library metrics, but through measurement and analysis of the impacts or outcomes of our services and programs, is one way to help ensure that we get there. When our stories are more substantive, we’re getting closer to “proving it”.

How does your library tell its story? to patrons? decision-makers? supporters? partners? If you have a good example or contact of someone who’s actively accountable through regular evaluation AND doing a great job getting the word out about it – let us know – I’d love to chat with them.