Missions and visions: Do public libraries have a consistent picture of their role?

Professor Philip Hider

The cynic might be of the view that what public libraries set as their official ‘vision’ or ‘mission’ is intended as much for the benefit of their political overseers as it is for their publics. Nevertheless, many public library authorities do publish some sort of statement about how they see themselves contributing to their communities, about their role. Many of these statements can be found somewhere on their website, albeit sometimes in a rather remote corner of it. Given the way the role of public libraries has increasingly been seen, at least according to the literature, as one of fostering ‘community wellbeing’ and ‘social cohesion’ as much as one of providing access to information, it would be interesting to gauge the extent to which this is reflected in their official pronouncements. Not much research appears to have been done in this space, though I have tracked down a study by Shannon Barniskis (2016), who analysed the content of the mission statements produced by a sample of public libraries in Wisconsin, finding a range of themes that included notions both of knowledge and recreation, framed in terms of both community and individual benefits. The author was critical of the way in which many of the missions promoted libraries as ‘user-centred’, but nevertheless afforded very little agency for members of the public to shape library services and policy: users were recipients of libraries’ largess, rather than co-creators of libraries’ value. Also of interest was the amount of ‘copy and paste’ that the author found amongst the statements, suggesting a possible lack of authenticity. As public libraries around the world revisit their roles and missions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is timely to extend Barniskis’ research by looking at the mission and vision statements provided by Australian public libraries. Members of the LRG are about to embark on this piece of research, and so public library authorities might want to check their website links!

Barniskis, S. C. (2016). ‘Deconstructing the mission: A critical content analysis of public library mission statements.’ Library Quarterly 86 (2): 135-152.

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