June 20, 2024

The Mission of Librarians is to Empower

empowerempower – give (someone) the authority or power to do something – Oxford Dictionary of American English

Someone whom I greatly admire recently set me thinking about the mission of librarians. David Lankes has that effect on many of us. In a talk late last year at the Digital Library Fall Forum, Lankes recast the usual statement about the mission of libraries in a provocative way.

One of the first things he did was to insist that we stop talking about the mission of libraries and start talking about the mission of librarians. It’s librarians who make a difference, not our buildings. He then went on to recast the typical mission statement to something much better:

The Mission of Librarians is to Improve Society through Facilitating Knowledge Creation in their Communities

Now I can get behind that in a lot of ways, but in typical style David set off my own thinking on the matter and I ended up at a different place. In the end I think it’s likely we are talking about the same things, but I happen to like my briefer formulation. For me it boils down to this:

The Mission of Librarians is to Empower.

OK, but what do I mean by this? Let me break it down for you.

Librarians empower:

  • Individuals – Librarians help individuals gain new knowledge, answer questions, access expensive resources, use computer networks, and so many other things that help them to realize more of their personal potential.
  • Organizations – Librarians make organizations more effective by providing the information services they need to use their human and physical resources to their fullest potential.
  • Communities – Librarians create and manage community resources that make communities more powerful and resilient.
  • Society – Librarians collect, manage, preserve, and provide access to the resources required for individuals to contribute to society as informed citizens regardless of their financial resources or social status within the community.

Librarians empower by (partial list):

  • Increasing knowledge – This is perhaps what we are best known for — providing the books and articles and other resources that our users need to increase their knowledge.
  • Providing access to tools – Libraries have frequently branched out to providing access to tools, whether it be a popular tool lending library or more recently in-house access to expensive 3D printers.
  • Providing access to networks – Since shortly after the Internet came into the collective consciousness, libraries have been front-and-center in providing access to this network to those who couldn’t afford access to it at home. And we still are.
  • Assisting in skill development – With the economic crash in recent years libraries have been the “go to” place to reskill and find a new job. This role will likely only increase in the future, and we’ve even seen a public library recently offer a way for high school dropouts to earn their diploma. Where there’s a gap in services to help people to get ahead, you often see librarians stepping in to fill the void.
  • Add your method here – Society evolves, and librarians evolve with it. Although those of us on the front lines of adoption didn’t feel this way at the time, librarians actually flocked to the Internet much faster and in greater numbers than many professions did. Just look at Realtors® if you don’t believe me. So I have great confidence in the ability of librarians to adapt and to continue to offer services that our users find compelling.

Given all of the above you would think that society would reward librarians very well. But we all know that isn’t the case. The reason we are still here is that we do it out of love. We love that every day we get to get out of bed and make the lives of others richer and more fulfilling. We love that we are focused not on making more widgets or making them cheaper, but on helping individuals live more fulfilling lives and helping our communities and society at large to prosper. We love our jobs because there is much to love, and none of it has anything to do with money. After all,

The mission of librarians is to empower.

Photo courtesy gaelx, CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.
Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. Michelle Harper says:

    I love this Roy. Librarians exist to curate digital content and to connect learning communities to learning objects and resources. Also, how about library as publisher and co-creator of content as well? Many are creating and digitizing their own resources, transforming them in the process. In schools librarians are also the most digitally savvy of the personnel and are actively helping make teachers make the digital shift, particularly in regards to Common Core Standards and NGSS (The Next Generation Science Standards). I would also then add the role of curriculum support as well, although that doesn’t seem strong enough to describe what they do or their potential.

  2. Angel Bisares says:

    Librarians exist because they partake to a mission of greater heights. The mission of the librarian that is to transform individuals. Librarians as educators would be able to touch the hearts and minds of the individuals who come to the library who seek for information and guidance. More than the resources of information that the librarian can give is to show compassion to people who are under served, those who have less opportunities in life, the jobless, those who are lonely and those who are sick spiritually and psychologically who need to be healed.

  3. This article really speaks to me (as does the inspiring work of Dr. Lankes). I suppose it is up to us in the field to figure out how to stretch these mandates beyond what we’re already doing in a way that does the most good for the greatest number of people. Sounds like a worthwhile journey, albeit one that is never finished. Onward!

  4. Yes, Yes. And libraries have the opportunity to empower in new ways that have just barely been tapped by connecting people with people. Whether we call it “empowering” or “facilitating knowledge creation” (I love them both;) Maybe it’s about broadening our idea of resources to include people and organizations in our communities as resources that we can find, organize and share. There are some community engagement efforts out there focusing on convening groups as the way to empower as opposed to needing to have expertise in a topic or own the solution to a problem. Thanks for a great post Roy.

  5. Thank You for a great article. Perhaps one could add another dot to the “Librarians empower by (partial list)”: facilitating or creating relations between people/communities etc..
    In the County Library of Roskilde we have made some experiments on that topic by expanding the idea of makerspaces. We do not provide a hacker or makerspace, but have made a People’s lab. It is a two year development project that will examine how libraries in collaboration with their various partners can create open innovation environments (http://folkelab.dk/english).

  6. This is good article and one that gives the library profession a goal of a much higher purpose. I guess if you look at it this way you can get the motivation to empower others in your community’ daily.

  7. Erna Winters says:

    I think you can also empower people by asking them what they want to learn, and not only adress their reading and information skills, but maybe also musical, technical OR other skills. It is not that you as Librarian should have this skills, but you can organize workshops so they can learn on their own conditions. We have grat experiecnces with practizing with the theory of Howards Gardner and Reggio Emilia. Great stuff to put citizens in control of what Libraries should offer.

  8. The libraries actually provide the information literacy skills required for empowerment. The shift of the libraries from the traditional conservative role to this dynamic role of empowering the information-seeker is a welcome change.with the very open access to information gadgets and resource materials in any format, the society is informed and empowered.

  9. I am now saying this slightly differently. Now I say that “Librarians empower individuals and the communities of which they are a part.” Not sure if it’s better, but it’s a bit more specific.