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What excellence requires, and what it does not

When we think of development, we mean improvement, which means getting better. Good, better, best: the path of development is toward best. And best is superior, great, excellent. In the Third World there are excellent libraries, and many others on the excellence path. But I think that few Third World librarians, or librarians in any country, would agree on what excellence is, or what the path to it is like. So I will offer some thoughts, promising my patient readers with a few lines of excellence — in poetry — at the close.

The fundamental questions about excellence are how to identify it, and how to achieve it. Definition and method: as always our most demanding challenges. We will keep our meditation in the sphere of librarianship, where the first question can be restated as “what are the qualities of an excellent library?” None of the usual quantitative approaches (building size, number of volumes, etc.) or output measures circulation, interlibrary loans, etc.) can give a satisfactory account of excellence. There are too many enormous libraries that are disorganized, inaccessible, and basically useless. There are too many busy libraries that disseminate materials of mass interest by of low intrinsic value (like entertainment videos, the new soporifics of U.S. public libraries). On the other hand, relatively small special libraries are often excellent, despite having collections of modest size and having few users.

Maybe the concept of excellence is easier to define if we follow Aristotle’s view that excellence is the exercise of unique capacity. We can then think of excellence as accomplishment of purpose (the purpose being that for which we are uniquely capable). Like all institutions, libraries are created and maintained for a purpose, or mission, that is expressed by their creators and supporters. If creation and support are correctly fused, the library will both a purpose and the means to engage that purpose successfully. Doing so, accomplishing its purpose, it achieves excellence — regardless of size or other resources. In this sense, there is potentially as much excellence in a children’s library in Teheran, or a village library in Tanzania, as in any modern university library of Britain.

The second question about excellence is how to achieve it. How does a library — which means its librarians — accomplish what it is supposed to do? I suggest that there are four essential components in a library that will carry it to this kind of success: (1) sufficient resources, (2) leadership, (3) competent staff, and (4) teamwork.

While libraries in wealthy countries usually have more extensive resources than they need, libraries in developing countries usually have much less to work with. But “sufficient” stands for a minimum resource level only, not a comfortable one; and sufficiency must be defined in terms of the individuallibrary’s purpose, rather than according to some ideal purpose. In other words, expectations should be appropriate to conditions. If other components are of high quality, a library can gain excellence with very limited resources; the history of librarianship in all nations offers ample testimony for this view.

Apart from resources, the other components of excellence are human. A true leader can produce astonishing results by bringing out the highest efforts of staff and inspiring harmonious teamwork. But even without such leadership, a competent staff can achieve superior results, if its collegiality is powerful. The indispensable components of excellence seem to be staff competence and harmony. Without them no leader, and no quantity of resources, can move a library along the development path from good to better to best.

If you agree with this much of my thinking, you may also agree that excellence is as reasonable an expectation in the Third World as it is elsewhere. Resources, obviously the outstanding deficiency in most of the Third World, are in fact not critical to success — they need to be sufficient, and no more. What is essential is a competent staff working in harmony toward a clear purpose that is suitable for conditions. Such a staff will benefit much from a gifted leader, but can do without one.

Competence requires study and practice; collegiality needs only sincere effort. Most of what excellence demands costs no money. It requires no huge buildings bursting with books and computers; but it looks for great human acts. In the words of Richard Wilbur:

What is our praise or pride But to imagine excellence, and try to make it? What does it say over the door of Heaven But homo fecit?

©1995 Guy A. Marco.

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