A Conversation with Authors John Huber and Steven Potter

Discussing how to survive and thrive in a self-service world

July 28, 2016

The Purpose-Based Library cover art

How do you demonstrate the value of your library? And how can you approach your institution’s challenges in a new, more purposeful way? John Huber and Steven Potter sought to find out. In their recent book, The Purpose-Based Library: Finding Your Path to Survival, Success, and Growth (ALA Editions, 2015), the authors address these and other issues related to the future of libraries and community transformation.

Huber founded the management consulting firm of J. Huber and Associates in 1986, and Potter is library director and CEO of Mid-Continent Public Library in Independence, Missouri. An excerpt from their book was published in the July/August issue of American Libraries.

What made you want to write this book?

HUBER: Libraries are under pressure to not only reduce cost but to justify their very existence. As a result of my library consulting work, I realized some important questions had to be answered:

  • Can libraries survive in a low-staff-supported, self-service-driven world?
  • If we continue to reduce staff, how long before a library is no different from Google or Amazon?
  • If libraries are no different from Google and Amazon, can they survive?

Having worked with Steve and Mid-Continent Public Library on many projects, we have had many opportunities to share our thoughts on the future of libraries and soon discovered that together, we might be able to answer these questions.

POTTER: John and I were having dinner one night and talking about the future of libraries, particularly how libraries need to adopt new services to remain relevant. We discussed that a library could face challenges to be more efficient and effective in how services are delivered and how sometimes those efficiencies could create new resources and new capacity to take on more meaningful services. Those services could allow your library to realign your purpose from “a warehouse for books” to an agent for community change and transformation.

Why would ALA members find the book helpful?

HUBER: This book shows libraries not only how to survive a self-service world but also how to succeed and grow by embracing their true common purpose: community engagement and transformation. If you are to transform or improve a service or process, you must first define and understand it. When it comes to a book or media service performance, this is somewhat straightforward. However, it is not straightforward for the soft side of library services. How do you measure improved early literacy? How do measure job résumés? How do you define a healthy and thriving community? Our book shows how you can do that and how you can measure and market the monetary impact on your community.

POTTER: It is important to stop and periodically rethink why we do what we do. I think The Purpose-Based Library provides a framework for people to consider different ways to address our traditional mission and to approach those challenges in a new, purposeful way. This book also joins in the conversation that all public libraries are having, specifically, how do you demonstrate value? Our value is not wrapped up in the number of books we circulate or the number of people who visit our buildings. While those numbers are nice indicators of how busy we are and the general health of the library, they don’t tell us how we are fostering transformational change in our communities. Being a purpose-based library challenges you to do those things and to have those conversations with your staff, your board, your advocates, and your funders.

What is the most surprising thing you discovered while working on this book?

HUBER: Through my research I discovered there is no current means to define or measure a healthy and thriving community. If there is no common definition or baseline, how can we measure progress? How can we benchmark? How do we know if our efforts are having an impact? Without this basic definition, we will continue to walk in a maze of our own creation.

POTTER: There were several things I discovered. The Purpose-Based Library was my first book, and so many of the technical processes of writing a book were new to me. I was surprised at how much John and I agreed on the direction and content as we wrote the book and how easy it was for us to collaborate, even though we live 250 miles apart and never sat in the same room to write it. Interestingly, we discovered at the very end, after we turned in the final draft, that we disagreed on one point. But that was the only point in the entire book. At an author panel at the 2015 ALA Annual Conference, we had Start a Revolution author Ben Bizzle arbitrate our difference of opinion. If you were in the room, you know the issue and Ben’s opinion. Read the book, see if you can find the difference, and ask me or John at one of our presentations if you can’t find it.

What are you reading right now?

HUBER: I am reading Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. I enjoy historical fiction, and the series immerses you in World War I, showing the horrific waste of tens of millions of human beings whose fate was sealed by the decisions of a handful of men—decisions that led to world-changing revolutions and the eventual fall of many of these giants.

POTTER: I just finished My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor and am finishing up a reread of When the Boomers Bail by Mark Lautman. This book is incredible and really does give libraries justification for how to help provide “place” for the 21st-century economy. I’m very eager to read the new biography on Winston Churchill by Candice Millard and the Good Lieutenant by Whitney Terrell. Both are great authors and good friends of our library and of the Story Center at our Woodneath Library Center.

What is your next project?

HUBER: I am working with many libraries to streamline their service processes. I am also assisting libraries to strengthen and market their strategic plan with community transformation and performance metrics as a driving force to repurpose staff.

POTTER: I’ve been talking with ALA about writing something on our Story Center program or our small business support and outreach programs.