What is the purpose of a library? Thoughts from Dorothy Stoltz

Let’s take a moment and look for the potential within a library’s situation to create practical, yet extraordinary and inspiring, opportunities where individuals and families become self-reliant and thrive. How can the library add value to the lives of those in our community? Learning and growing are natural forces in humanity no matter the book format or learning platform. Let’s celebrate the spirit of learning.

How can libraries partner more effectively with parents, schools, and others to help a community thrive, especially while treading the convoluted pathways of new and emerging technology and budget concerns? Like Benjamin Franklin’s Junto, a group of likeminded aspiring artisans and tradesmen “formed … a club for mutual [self] improvement” to enhance their community,[i] the library celebrates human creativity, curiosity, and courage.

“Leading the examined life,” as Socrates described it, can inspire the library as an organization to cultivate a creative, reliable, and compelling service environment. By examining, on a regular basis, what works and what doesn’t work, a library can tap the strength of an orderly and poised process for decision-making. In this way, a library is better poised to train staff and otherwise make pragmatic digital media decisions to support parents and children. When a library creates a learning philosophy, where each employee is responsible for their own learning, it can connect staff to the library’s purpose to support human growth. A library’s self-discipline to grow and learn as an organization in order to serve its community magnifies the possibilities and the opportunities to be able to do so.[ii]

Valerie Smirlock, consultant for Maryland department of education, says:

Librarians have the perfect opportunity in storytime sessions to shape interaction with children in such a way as to promote social and emotional skills. By connecting parents to local resources, librarians can also encourage parents as they help their young children develop self-regulation skills, the most important skills for children entering school. Can the children sit still? Do they get along and share with others? Are they beginning to identify and express their emotions? Can they follow directions? Having these kinds of conversations with families in a non-threatening place like the library can effectively get more parents the kind of support they need around challenging behaviors and appropriate social and emotional skill building.

Serving families with high needs—educational, financial, and emotional—often does not yield the same high statistics as other library programs. However, offering library opportunities, including access to technology, to these families is part of serving the community. For deeply troubled parents, making referrals to social work-type agencies has been a successful method. Our relationship goal is to be professional and amiable without becoming drinking or shopping buddies. [L]ibraries [have] the freedom and flexibility to focus resources to support “high needs” families without jeopardizing [a library’s vision] to help every family inspire their children to enjoy learning.[iii]

Libraries can offer opportunities for adults and children, together, to engage their minds through play and learning activities, digital media, books, information, conversations, and reflection time. Libraries can offer opportunities for children to plant seed thoughts, if you will, in their own minds that will germinate, blossom, and ripen as they grow into young men and women. A thinking person will value learning and develop pragmatic habits of contemplation. A thinking person will contribute to the world by treating others with goodwill, tolerance, and helpfulness, and by expressing useful, joyful, and perhaps even dazzling ideas in life.[iv]

The public library is an organization of bits and pieces—books, technology, learning activities, staff expertise, and other excellent resources. The idea is to go beyond thinking about individual pieces and tap the strength of the whole—the central purpose of a library. This purpose can be described as the enlightenment of humanity in a practical way. In this way we are not only helping a storytime mom find recommended early literacy apps, but supporting her efforts to be her son’s first teacher. A thirteen-year-old is not only participating in the Escape the Ordinary summer reading program, but challenging himself to think in new ways to enrich life. We are not so much searching for a copy of The Boys in the Boat for the local barber shop owner to enjoy reading about the 1936 Olympic rowing event, as much as helping him explore the concepts of grit, teamwork, and starting with the end in mind.[v]

[i] Shaw, Peter, ed.  The Autobiography and Other Writings by Benjamin Franklin.  New York: Bantam Books, Inc. p. 53.
[ii] Forthcoming ALA Editions book: Inspired Collaborations: Early Childhood Partnerships © Copyright 2016 by Dorothy Stoltz, Susan Mitchell, Cen Campbell, Rolf Grafwallner, Kathleen Reif, and Stephanie Shauck.  All Rights Reserved.
[iii] Stoltz, Dorothy. “A Smorgasbord of Possibilities: Maryland Libraries Address Their Charge.” Children & Libraries. Summer 2014. p. 23, 25.
[iv] Adapted from Stoltz, Dorothy, Conner, Marisa, Bradberry, James.  The Power of Play: Designing Early Learning Spaces. Chicago: ALA Editions. (2015) p. 11.
[v] Forthcoming ALA Editions book: Inspired Collaborations: Early Childhood Partnerships © Copyright 2016 by Dorothy Stoltz, Susan Mitchell, Cen Campbell, Rolf Grafwallner, Kathleen Reif, and Stephanie Shauck.  All Rights Reserved.


Dorothy Stoltz
Outreach and Program Services
Carroll County (MD) Public Library.

Little eLit is a collaborative think tank of professionals thinking about the topic of young children, new media, and libraries. Individuals who share their viewpoints, experiences, and presentations in Little eLit blog posts are expressing their personal views and do not represent Little eLit as a whole.

About Amy Koester

I'm a youth services librarian with a penchant for exciting ideas and engaging programs. It's a sure bet that if you talk to me about STEAM, whimsy, and trying new things, we'll be best friends forever.

Posted on April 29, 2015, in Libraries and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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