This isn’t the first time I’ve featured this TED talk on my blog. To summarize the salient points for the purposes of this post, Gladwell talks about the epiphany of multiple “perfect” spaghetti sauces. While researchers were baffled by the feedback regarding what constituted the best sauce, it was only when the data points were clustered into groups that the realization that there were multiple answers became apparent. It’s one of the reasons we have a variety of flavors and types in our food products these days and extends well beyond the spaghetti sauce market.
I think it is long overdue that the same epiphany should be applied to how the profession imagines the role and design of the public library. The traditional model of library service relies heavily on formats and mediums as the product or service of the library. Even recently, deviation from this approach leaves to the professional outcry when libraries go bookless or turn more towards community center facilities and offerings. For all the lamenting and teeth gnashing that goes into the condemnation, there seems to be little (if any) thought given as to whether or not these changes are meeting the needs of the community that they serve. In whining about the death of the traditional library, what is overlooked is whether this meets a core principle of public librarianship: serving the changing needs of the community.
This brings me back to the idea of multiple “perfect” spaghetti sauces. For all the standardization that occurs within the profession and the tired call of “All libraries should do X” of the conference circuit speakers and presenters, public libraries are still very local reflections of their communities. In trying to be ‘everything to everyone’, the public library is in danger of becoming important to no one. Our professional loyalties should be with access and service, not formats and mediums. Our core constituency are the people for whom there are gaps in information and knowledge access. If these needs can be met by turning the library into (what some would call) an internet café, then so be it. If it means ignoring ebooks and digital resources in favor of print books and materials, then so be it. What matters here is the community, not the expectations or opinions of remote colleagues or antiquated notions as to what a public is or is not.
We as a profession have arrived in an age when one size no longer fits all when it comes to information access. Rather than looking to the outside for validation, librarians need to look into their communities and adapt accordingly. Just as there is no single perfect spaghetti sauce, there is no single perfect design and execution of the public library.