Mission Accomplished or Mission Creep?

Recently, I read an article about the fact that the Tucson Public Library is placing public health nurses in its libraries. (http://todayhealth.today.com/_news/2013/03/28/17401367-more-than-just-books-arizona-libraries-add-public-health-nurses?lite). Not for borrowing, which is an intriguing idea, but to interact with and provide personal health assistance to the patrons on-site in the library. And it’s not that the public health department or the city or county asked for nurses. The library itself decided that nurses were an appropriate response to those visiting the library that obviously had either no access or no desire to avail themselves of the public health nurses already available at the “usual” places. In fact, the article states that this is part of a widely accepted transition of public libraries into community centers. Which leads me to my buzz word of the month, perhaps of the year….no,no, even of my entire career. MISSION CREEP.

Just the word itself is creepy, containing creep within. And doesn’t the word creep engender stealth somehow? It’s creeping, it’s slowly advancing, like the Blob. Every profession is subject to it. But nonprofits are especially susceptible because they so often are either chasing the money, or responding to a perceived or identified community need. That’s what public libraries do. Librarians are taught to respond to the community in ways they surmise the community needs and wants. And that’s just what Tucson did. I feel sure if you surveyed the good folks there, the majority would say the idea makes sense and will contribute to the city’s overall efforts. But what if you polled ONLY those people who use those branches, or polled those who used to use those branches but no longer did for any reason other than having moved away. Hmmm. I wonder.

Public Health Nurse at a Tucson, Arizona Library

Would a city hospital ever consider opening up a public library as just another service it provides? Would the local Division of Motor Vehicles make counselors from Planned Parenthood available while you waited in line? How about if the Department of Public Works began making people available to help you with lawn and garden care green initiatives. Gotcha, didn’t I? That last one made sense to you, I bet. And there’s the problem. The line between logically expanding one’s mission and mission creep is so fine it’s nearly invisible. My problem with mission creep is that too often it happens because of the perception that the existing mission isn’t appealing enough in a marketing sense. For Pete's sake (who the heck was Pete anyway*), if you don’t believe your primary mission is “enough,” then how can you ever expect to convince others?

I’m not suggesting new services aren’t desireable. I’m just suggesting that we be careful that new services don’t drag us so far away from our mission that the original mission is devalued. Unless, of course, that’s what you want (more on that below). The general public already thinks, thanks to a consumer culture that has more or less become our entire culture, that libraries are filled with dusty old books that nobody reads because the entirety of all printed material is now online. If public libraries must survive by becoming something other than public libraries, I’m ready with a “go for it.” But then change your mission. Missions aren’t commandments given from above, they are meant to be guidelines. And guidelines can be changed. If you really believe that libraries are on a widely accepted trajectory to becoming community centers, then just embrace it. But don’t expect patrons who actually want a library to continue using you and supporting you.

Ultimately, although it probably seems obvious I don’t understand the nurses thing, what bothers me much more is that the original mission of providing reading and information to a general public striving to become and stay informed and enlightened human beings, is becoming so devalued in our culture, that libraries must struggle to reinvent themselves as social outreach centers. And then don’t have the nerve to say that’s what they’ve become. And believe me, I’m not placing my library on any pedestal. We have work to do here at PPL on these issues, and future blogs will talk more about that. Let me know if you have any thoughts. kbullard@provlib.org

* origin of for Pete's Sake - this is actually a substitution for a profane oath. Pete is thought by many to refer to St. Peter. Thus instead of using God or Christ's name in the oath, St. Peter, eventally shortened to Pete, was substituted. It was first recorded in 1903 according to Oxford English Dictionary.



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