Thursday, August 28, 2008

Librarians & Rules

Pardon my pontification, if you will, but I have something on my mind. In a conversation about my upcoming internship with my mother yesterday, she made the observation that librarians were "sticklers for rules". I've been thinking about this. It seems unfair, yet it is difficult to argue with this point of view. In the defense of librarians everywhere, here are my thoughts.

When you are talking about "managing information," and "serving your community" you are conversing on very large and nebulous subjects. In order to make progress, you have to narrow your focus to certain specific goals; you can only work towards so many ends at one given time.

First of all, in order to serve a community, you have to define who the members are. In an academic setting, you are supporting students and faculty; in a public library, the residents of the local geographic area. But once you know that, you have to look further - what are their specific needs and how do you serve them? Well, you have to decide what the primary needs are. And in order to meet those needs consistently and measurably, you have to document them. Once you have documented service policies, covering types of materials, service hours, and so on, you have to follow them in order to be sure you are serving your community effectively. Items outside those documented areas are outside the library's purview, until such time as the goals are re-assessed and updated to reflect changes or developments in the community's needs. Rules.

In order to operate on a day-to-day basis, there have to be rules to ensure consistent and non-discriminatory behavior. Librarians have to set up careful guidelines to help prevent personal opinions or bias from affecting their level of service to the community, whether those biases are based on information content or patron identity. The same set of guidelines apply to everyone, all the time, in order to preserve a fair service to everyone. More rules.

When you are managing information, you are restricted by format behavior and preservation needs, by local and national laws, and by the usage requirements of your community. How best to preserve both content and container of your information may be under debate, but once it is determined that preservation is required, some action must be taken. For consistency's sake, guidelines are needed for handling of all the various formats contained in the institution. Local and national laws are external rules that are imposed upon the library and must be upheld. And the requirements of the community, as noted above, have to be laid out and defined. Still more rules.

In short, in order to accomplish anything - to manage the information and serve the community - guidelines have to be established in order to direct activity and measure its progress. And progress measurement is important for any organization who survives on outside funds, and would like to continue to receive those funds.

In some hands, it's true, library rules can become weapons rather than a tools, or excuses to do things they way they've always been done without reassessment. When following rules, it is sometimes easy to forget why they are in place, and simply act upon them out of habit. It is up to the library management to try to avoid these behaviors, and to re-visit established policies and procedures periodically to make sure they are still serving the community and managing the information in the best way possible.

Unfortunately, the public has very little insight into the difficulties of serving so broad and open-ended a mission as "manage information to best serve the community." To those who bump up against the execution of these rules, it may seem that librarians are unnecessary sticklers. But if materials are defaced or not returned, the community cannot use them. If government restrictions are ignored, the library may be held responsible and penalized. If preservation steps are not taken, materials may become unusable over time.

In my experience, the rules of librarians usually have a considered purpose. They may not be convenient to the individual, and the purpose may not always be apparent, but the fact remains that librarians are sticklers for a reason; so that they can fill their mission as completely and fairly as possible.

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