ASSOCIATES (2007, November, v. 14, no. 2)


Bear Thoughts #7: Assumptions Underlying Library Work — II

Frank Exner, Little Bear
North Carolina Central University


This column examines more of the assumptions that we base library practice on. In Bear Thoughts #6 we looked at:

  • Assumptions about the collection
  • Assumptions about the collection’s organization

  • In Bear Thoughts #7 we will examine:

  • Assumptions about Services and Programs
  • Assumptions about Management
  • Assumptions about Patrons
  • Remember, every kind of work has these assumptions: managers are supposed to maximize profit because that is the role of business and teachers are supposed to maximize learning because that is the role of education.

    Of course, there are many people who do not accept the basic assumptions on which their professional practice is based. There are doctors who refuse patients based on their ability to pay (thus doing harm first); there are lawyers who only take easy cases (though I would think that people with difficult cases would need lawyers more).

    The assumptions of library staff affect our work lives by offering solutions to many problems but, by their invisibility, can allow problems (or solutions) to be invisible.

    Now, on with the column …


    First and most basically, we operate on the assumption that our patrons’ needs can be met. This assumption affects us in two ways: personally and organizationally. On a personal basis we have to believe in our skills or every day would be a nightmare. On an organizational level we have to believe that answers are to be found or reference services can not be offered.

    We do, however, have to be careful (both personally and organizationally) not to let this assumption lead us astray. Just because we find an answer that would satisfy us doesn’t mean it will satisfy a specific patron. In fact it is possible that our collection doesn’t have the needed information at all, no matter what we think.

    And then there are programs. The ways that programs are requested can be affected by a remarkable number of cultural, linguistic, psychological, and sociological variables. We may not understand what is really being asked for try as we will, and once understood some requests can’t be met. We can only understand the problem and do our best.

    The next assumption is that patron needs are predictable. If we didn’t believe this (or at least operate as if we believed this) we couldn’t develop reference collections in an orderly way. Orderly growth in the future is established by expectations met in the past.

    Possibly this assumption should be combined with the assumption that we can meet patrons’ needs. That assumption refers to interactions in the present, while the assumption that patron needs are predictable refers to interactions in the future. On the other hand it is often useful to think about present problems separately from future problems, so I’ll leave them separated.

    And the final assumption about services and programs is that the requisite short- and long-term personnel will be available. Without adequate personnel some programs and services must be sacrificed or be performed inadequately (or both). Of course we all know that this assumption is met as often as Halley’s Comet returns, and that is often the source of our work-based stress.


    The most basic assumption about library management (although it may be an assumption undergirding the existence of our institutions) is that the social commons exists and includes libraries. Sociologists defined the social commons as that set of institutions whose functions support all people as a group like police, fire, and education. And, yes, libraries too. It was named for areas like the Boston Commons where anyone of any social status could graze their herd. In the last thirty years many social philosophers have discussed the state of the commons, concluding that it is shrinking, even disappearing. As far as libraries are concerned, this appears in the ideas that we are insignificant and that the Internet does everything that we do. It isn’t true of course, but try telling county commissioners (or their equivalent governing bodies).

    The next assumption about management is that libraries are a unique kind of institution. Because of this assumption library management is taught in library schools; management learned elsewhere is not good enough. The same assumption is made by educators. Unfortunately our funders do not think that our institutions are unique; they think that the libraries under their care are just another government (or university or company) department. Maybe we need to learn how to see ourselves as others see us.

    The last assumption about library management is that the community’s needs are predictable. We have to believe this (or at least operate as if we did) or we couldn’t develop collections and services in an orderly way. As we have noted, preparation for future growth is based on past success. As materials budgets grow smaller, this assumption is less and less true, but, for the sake of our sanity, we have to act as if we believed it. (When does stress become insanity, anyway?)


    Up to this point we have been discussing the assumptions underlying our libraries from the point of view of internal operations. Patrons, however, are a major part of our business, too. And there are three assumptions that we make about patrons.

    First of all we deeply believe that they really want our services. This is an article of faith among many of us who do library work. Research keeps telling us that we are the last people asked for information (e.g., faculty go to their own journal collections first, then friends collections, then the collections of other faculty in their department, then the collections of their peers on other campuses, and finally to their library). But we know what we offer and we work our hearts out to be what our patrons want us.

    We also believe that our patrons are reasonable. We all know that some patrons aren’t rational, but, in our experience, most are OK (eccentric, maybe, but OK). All of our training and experience is based on this assumption. If patrons were not reasonable, our work world would be much more unstable than it already is. When they aren’t rational, in fact, we call them problem patrons and place them outside our purview.

    The last assumption that I will discuss is that patrons won’t have an ulterior motive. This is necessary because our information organization structures and work patterns are based on addressing the patrons’ expressed information needs. An ulterior motive undermines all of the things that libraries are and do. It is fair to say that open honesty is the most important single criterion for a library to operate successful.


    This column was the second (and last) about the assumptions that underlie the operation of our libraries. In this column we examined:

  • Assumptions about Services and Programs
  • Assumptions about Management
  • Assumptions about Patrons
  • Remember that most of the assumptions discussed in Bear Thoughts #6 and #7 are necessary for us to do our day-to-day work. If we don’t believe in our own skills, in the basic ability of our institutions, and in our understanding of our patrons, we are in very bad trouble. (I know, many of us think we are already there every day. But it could be worse. [Couldn’t it?])

    Whenever you are facing what feels like an intractable problem, examine your assumptions about the issue. You will be amazed how often your solution will be the one chosen. See you next column.

    Frank, Little Bear is a Squamish Indian originally from British Columbia, Canada. Currently he lives in Durham, North Carolina and can be found at North Carolina Central University’s School of Library and Information Sciences. His new book, “Creating Identify: North American Indian Names and Naming,” will be published by VDM Verlag in 2008.