Evolution of the Social Compact

Map Location
F, G, 6
Thread Location
Page 29

Elizabeth Gall

Agreement Description

The community a library serves, and society as a whole, are quickly changing. Ranganathan’s 5th law of librarianship states that the library is a growing organism. Because both the library and its surroundings are changing, the relationship between them is also in a constant state of flux. As the social compact among the library, librarians, and members evolves, libraries and librarians must constantly reevaluate their missions. Before considering the mission statements, however, we must first examine how the social compact has changed and how that change has affected members’ expectations of the library and librarians.

The already prevalent and still-growing dependency on technology has had a large impact on the social compact among the library, librarians, and members. This has presented libraries and librarians with the opportunity to effect change as they attempt to work within the new social compact. The challenge comes not in recognizing the need for change but in determining the best way to forge ahead. Libraries and librarians have different mission statements. However, neither can be effective unless it is compatible with the other.

Librarians have informally operated within the new social compact as it has evolved with the changing needs of members. However, the current mission statements of the libraries in which they function limit them. It is much easier to change the mission statement of the librarian than that of the library because it is less formal and subject to fewer obstacles. Where a library mission statement is subject to discussion and approval by boards, committees, librarians, members, and so on., a librarian’s mission statement is much more personal. As librarians interact with patrons in their daily lives, they are exposed to changes in the social compact as they occur. Once they have learned of the changes, librarians can immediately refocus their mission statements to meet them.

Libraries, in contrast, must go through an official process to change their mission statement. I have never heard of a library that allowed patrons, librarians, or administrators to access and edit its mission statement in real time. Even as the library adjusts to meet the community’s changing needs by increasing online services, adding computers with Internet access, developing new programming, and so on, it is unlikely that the mission statement has been amended to reflect these changes. By the time the mission statement has been changed, it is likely that a whole new social compact will have developed. One could argue that a broad, theoretical mission statement would give both librarians and libraries room to adapt to new social compacts as they form because it imposes few limits. Conversely, a broad, generalized mission statement might cause confusion and inhibit growth because it does not give enough direction.

A more specific, detailed mission statement carries its own set of problems. In their article, “Revisiting Library Mission Statements in the Era of Technology,” Svenningsen and Cherepon argue that library mission statements should include all kinds of formats. Is referencing specific formats a good idea? Changing technology plays a large role in reshaping social compacts; however, not all technologies are going to stand the test of time. Ten years ago, a library may have argued for the inclusion of zip disks, a technology that is rarely used today, in their mission statement. A specific mission statement, especially regarding technological formats, will need to be revised much more frequently than a more general one. Library mission statements are much more effective if they are outcome-specific. It is up to the librarians and their mission statements to ensure these outcomes are achieved given the current social compact.

The most important element of both library and librarian mission statements is an emphasis on the user. This is especially true as we make the shift to web-based resources. Children, teens, and young adults turn to the Internet for many of their information needs. They are less likely to seek out help from a librarian even when visiting library Web sites. Librarians and libraries must be vigilant not only in fulfilling evolving social compacts but also in educating and supporting members. Many members are unsure of the librarian’s ability to effectively utilize new technologies. Ultimately, they fear that librarians are evolving at a slower pace than the institutions in which they work. This is the exact opposite of reality. Librarians must reassure members that their mission statements and abilities are effectively evolving as they reach out and embrace the new social compact.

Related Artifacts

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