Thursday, 14 July 2016

The WHY of libraries and librarians

Funnily enough, in the middle of writing this (which was actually months after finishing the book mentioned further down and starting thinking about it all), I discovered a library consultant had just written a blog post in which he says how important Simon Sinek's concept is for him. So it's not just me, Andy Priestner says it too!!

It starts with the Carnegie Library Lab online learning programme. Tom Forrest made our little group of Carnegie Partners watch a video by Simon Sinek then put into words the WHY, HOW and WHAT of our projects. I'll let you watch the video below so you understand what I'm talking about (it's 18:34 long and totally worth your time, but if you're in a hurry you can go for just the first 6 minutes).

Simon Sinek makes the point that most organisations know WHAT they do and HOW they do it, but not always WHY they do it - the WHY being their purpose, their beliefs, their reasons for doing what they do the way they do it. This WHY is essential as "people don't buy what you do - they buy why you do it"; it is the WHY that inspires people to "buy" into what you do and creates loyalty for your organisation (from both staff and customers). When you communicate you should communicate your WHY first not your WHAT, because your WHY is what people will react to the most. On another level, if you act according to your beliefs (your WHY) in HOW you do things and WHAT you make, it means WHAT you do to achieve your WHY can take many forms but still makes sense, for example branching into different products or services. What you do in your organisation proves what you believe in, what people do by buying into your products or services proves what they believe in.

Ok, that's a very quick summary (you should really watch the full video!) Simon Sinek wrote a whole book about this topic, entitled Start with Why. I don't often read non-fiction books, but this one came warmly recommended by a fellow Carnegie Partner so I stuck my teeth into it (no, no literally! Who do you think I am - I would never do that to a library book); it took me ages but I read it.

And it made me think. (I know, it's unbelievable - right!?)
It made me think about the WHY of libraries, their raison d'être, and people's perceptions of it. And it also made me think about WHY I am a librarian, what it is in me that makes me passionate about the role of libraries.

The WHY of libraries
It's not easy to phrase in a definite way what public libraries are for - in the profession and outside of it everyone has their own variation on the matter. A couple of years ago I was at a debate organised by CILIP North East on volunteer-run libraries; on one side were founders of a volunteer-run library, while on the other were professional librarians. I was struck by the fact the volunteer library people seemed to think a library was about books, whereas the librarians defined the library as being about access to information. I think the librarians' point of view then is representative of our profession: we do not believe libraries are about books - and yet so many of our residents (even those taking our defense), stakeholders, decision-makers think so. Where does this discrepancy come from? Where did we go wrong?

Could we have made the mistake of communicating too much on WHAT we do, rather than on WHY we do it? No wonder some of our customers or stakeholders don't understand why we are introducing digital and making activities in our libraries, if we have made them believe we were mainly about books. No wonder politicians say things like: "Public libraries are outdated; they have been replaced by the Internet" if we have made them believe the wrong thing about libraries' role. No wonder we're struggling for survival, if most people have no clue WHY we're essential to our communities.

In my last job interview - the one where I was actually re-applying for my own post, and if I failed I was being made redundant - I suggested re-writing the library service's vision and mission statement. It was probably a bit of a risky thing to say in those circumstances (!) but I ask you: does your library's vision statement say why the library service exist, what is its raison d'être? Mine doesn't. It jumps straight into the WHAT. It says " we do", "we will", "we have". It doesn't say "we believe in", "we are here for". It looks good but it's not enough: it's not inspiring, it's not going to make anyone think twice about cutting our budget again. Because it doesn't say WHY we do what we do, and it doesn't leave scope for our potential to do other things, to adapt to our customers' needs.

WHY I am a librarian
Now I'm not saying changing the way we talk about our libraries will save us from budget cuts - but if it helps change perceptions, wouldn't it be worth a try? Maybe something like this...
{WHY} * Libraries exist to defend people’s rights to enrich and improve their own lives, their environment and society.
[HOW] Our library staff make this happen by facilitating access to and the sharing of information, knowledge and culture.
[WHAT] We keep our buildings safe and welcoming, we maintain collections for members of the community to consult and borrow, we organise and host learning and social activities.
How's that?

Start with Why also made me think about WHY I am a librarian and why I am now so committed to public libraries it is hard for me to think of leaving them. The answer is easy: I believe in them. I believe in the role of public libraries; public libraries' WHY align with my personal principles and interests. Public libraries defend people's rights; I think if I wasn't working in a public library I might want to work for a civil rights association, or - as one of my friends once suggested to me - for a politician! (I did laugh in his face.)

Thinking about the WHY of libraries and of myself as a librarian has made me change the way I introduce myself and talk about libraries outside of the library sector. In my current role I regularly deliver workshops for entrepreneurs, inventors and established businesses - I always explain that I am an information professional (think Mystique in X-Men : First Class: "Mutant Librarian, and proud") and why I'm the person they need. But it is a stance I am now also using within my own library service, especially with frontline staff: explaining that this is what we stand for, all of us, together; this is why we exist and we do those things.
I have started using what I believe is the WHY of libraries to promote and explain the events I've recently organised - for example the hackathon. Organising a hackathon in a library, using library data released under an open licence makes sense: because libraries' raison d'être is to enable people to improve their circumstances and environment, by sharing information.
I've started using the WHY / HOW / WHAT structure in articles (though not in this one, otherwise it would be less chaotic!) and in presentations - and I should probably use it more.

And what about you?

Try this at home
Take a pen and a piece of paper - or grab your nearest device with a notebook function. And type/write down:
  1. The WHY of your library or information service - why does it exist in the first place, what is its raison d'être? What, as an organisation, does it believe in?
  2. HOW is your organisation achieving this? In what ways does it put its WHY into practice?
  3. WHAT are the kind of things you are actually doing, at the end of the line? WHAT services do you propose to your users?
Then take a breath, jump a few lines, whatever - have a little pause. And continue.
4. WHY are you, personally, in libraries? What is it you believe in that aligns with your organisation's purpose?
Then be ready to shout about it. Be an advocate for what you believe.


  1. A great post, thanks for sharing! Another great resource is David Lankes evangelising about his 'why' for librarians.

    1. Thank you very much! (Sorry I meant to reply earlier but was having problems with Blogger)
      I am a fan of David Lankes too...

  2. Hello, Aude!
    Great to see that Sinek's WHY still resonates with you. Thank you for inspiring others to use it too. I will encourage the new Carnegie Partners to read this.
    Best wishes, Tom

    1. Hi Tom, nice to hear from you and thank you for your comment! I think Sinek's WHY resonated with a lot of us in cohort 1.
      Best wishes, Aude.

  3. Hi Aude
    Tom suggested that we look at your post. I do agree with so much of it, I'm very tempted to read the book!
    Thanks for sharing it's very helpful.
    Best wishes

    1. Thank you, Frances! As I am not a big non-fiction reader I found the beginning of the book a bit boring (!) but that's because Sinek basically starts with what I had already learnt from the video - it got better after that ;-)
      Wishing you all the best with your project! Aude.