Reflection # 1 or Thoughts on Boutique Librarianship: Foundational Readings

The Library of Babel (Borges) was fascinating and recalled many fiction favorites:  The Foundation novels, by Asimov leaped immediately to mind; also, Eco’s The Name of the Rose; and finally, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store, by Robin Sloan. Libraries are containers for mysteries, and librarians are mystics in pursuit of absolute knowledge. Or, perhaps of absolute classification of knowledge. Or, perhaps of infinite enjoyment of infinite unanswered mysteries which underlie all human knowledge. Either way, what bliss! Isn’t this a terrific metaphor for the hyperlinked library? One cubicle of information links us to another in endless fascination and discovery?

Buckland’s history of library evolution (paper library; automated library; electronic library) seems like a manifesto in search of a cause. In 1992, the author recognized that a hyperlinked library was probable (although the term is not used here), and that in the future most people will be able to locate information quickly by themselves. This paper reflects uncertainly about the future of libraries (book repositories) and librarianship (the keepers of the books) at the dawning of digital data accessibility.

By 2007, the shift from librarian-defined library toward a user-defined library is gaining ground. Casey & Savastinuk examine why people do NOT use libraries, and established guidelines for creating programming and/or collections to better serve those information communities. This is the beginning of moving libraries away from being “sacred institutions” and toward becoming community partners in education, social networking, and economic development. Like any savvy business person, librarians needed to think less about the “ideal” collection or program, and more about providing what the customers require.

Mathews brings entrepreneurship and librarianship face-to-face. All entrepreneurs embrace change. This is the nature of striking out on your own. Change happens every second of every day, whether or not we like it! Why not embrace that, and use that in our library operations. Evolution is natural and inevitable. Let’s divorce our thinking from the way it has always been done. Let’s hone our questioning and listening ability to hear what needs to be done and then do that!

All of these readings resonate strongly for me as a library director. Since I arrived at my little library, I have been practicing (and demonstrating for our volunteers) what I call “boutique librarianship.”  While I do written surveys (on paper and online) several times each year, I find it much more valuable to get to know our guests and make sure that the library provides what they require. For some, that is indeed great books. For many others, the library is a place for conversation, discourse, debate, and even light-hearted gossip about television shows or celebrities. For others, the library is the only reliable place to use the internet and stay connected with the people they love, or the services they require. This does not mean that we can always provide whatever they desire right away. It does mean that they leave our building knowing that their needs and wishes have been heard, and that action will be taken to fulfill those needs and wishes as resources become available. The end result of this type of service?  More resources ‘magically’ become available!

I teach our volunteers to greet everyone who enters the door as a guest. To ask if there is something in particular they would like to find or to do or to learn today. To ask questions, spark conversations, make introductions with other guests, make people feel that this is a warm and welcoming place with folks who really care.  When I go into the community, I am always advocating for the library. I always ask strangers if they use their local library, and if they do not, I ask why. When I assist someone with technology, I ask more questions. I invite them to visit again for personal instruction. I ask if they would enjoy a class or workshop on what they are investigating. I build programs around what people in the community find interesting. This is easy in our small community. Is boutique librarianship possible in large urban communities? I learned these skills working in a five-star hotel in a large urban community. Sure. It’s possible.

The thing is, you never know how any person could appreciate your personal interest. You never know how your kind interaction might come back to you and your organization in a positive way.

Beware. The inverse is also true, as all entrepreneurs know from harsh experience. Treat one person with lack of respect or with unkindness and you open the door to many recurring negative experiences. For example, I have several volunteers who are especially hung up on “how things look” or “how people look.” One day a woman entered the library. She was unkempt. She wore dirty, torn overalls and barn boots. Her hair was wild. Her manner of speaking was brusque. She entered with the loud announcement that she had often passed the library but never come in because the library was never open. My volunteer practically attacked her at the entry to the library and told her off. I was new to the library, but not to guest services. I came forward from where I was working and put myself between the volunteer and this guest. The volunteer retreated behind the circulation desk, as I invited the guest to tour the library with me, and as we walked, I asked many questions. After about 30 minutes, the guest was relaxed, impressed with our facilities, our collections, and our programming. Would she return? On that day, I did not know if my actions could overcome her first impression.

Why is all this important?  It turns out that this woman owns extensive ocean-front properties here, and in her hometown on Long Island. She is well-educated and well-connected. She also enjoys gardening.

Never, never, never judge people by the superficial. It will bite you in the ass. Every time.

And yes, she is a frequent guest in our library to this day.


Foundational Readings:

Borges, J.L. (1941). The library of Babel. Accessed 09 Sep 2017 at:

Buckland, M. (1992). Redesigning library services: A manifesto. American Library Association. Accessed via Berkeley Digital Library.

Casey, M.E., and Savastinuk, L.C. (2007). Library 2.0: A Guide to Participatory Library Service. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc.

Mathews, B. (2012). Think like a startup: A white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism. Accessed 09 Sep 2017 at:

2 Thoughts.

  1. This:

    “I teach our volunteers to greet everyone who enters the door as a guest.”

    Such a lovely statement and the story you share resonates with me. I appreciate your humanist approach to guiding your library. The concept of boutique librarianship is fascinating! Hope you explore these ideas more.

    • Thank you! As I began reading for this class, I felt I had found my philosophical home. So much of my librarianship is based upon experiences in other types of businesses. I am increasingly confident now that our library is on the right track!

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