Why I hate the word “support”

When we wrote the library’s new mission statement a couple of years ago, I issued only one rule:  the word “support” could not appear anywhere in the document.   When I think of “support,” it’s always followed directly by “hose” and images of my ancient great-aunts, now long departed, which is not at all the image I want for a library these days.  But I also have two serious reasons for disliking the word.

One is that, in library mission statements, it’s often a weasel word.  A typical statement goes, “Our library supports the curriculum of Our College.”  Well, yes, I would hope so.  Far better to support the curriculum of the college that pays the bills than the curriculum of some other college.  By using “support” in the statement, though, the library gets away without claiming specifically what it does, what role it actually plays in the curriculum.  What does “support” mean in this context?  Anything and nothing.  The word is not useful for planning library initiatives, communicating intentions to users, or assessing library programs.  But it’s not a word that will raise any hackles with clients; who would argue with a library providing support?  It’s easy and innocuous because it’s meaningless.

My other reason for hating “support” is that it removes the library from the main action, whatever that may be.  There’s The Thing, and there’s the support of that thing, but they’re not the same, and The Thing is what’s important.  Support is reactive.  Sometimes support is passive, as when the library offers a service and people use it or don’t use it, as they choose.  But say The Thing is student learning.  To that Thing, everyone who works at Davidson College is “support.”  The action occurs in the minds and hearts of students.  All teaching, all resources, all help, all facilities and services—it’s all support.  Different kinds of support, to be sure, but support.

So, in our mission statement (in which “support” truly does not appear), we make several specific claims about how the library impacts learning and teaching at Davidson:

  • We collaborate with others in teaching students to think, most formally through our information literacy program but also in other programs and encounters.
  • We provide and organize resources and environments that help students, faculty, and staff achieve their goals.
  • We embrace technology and look for ways to apply it to our work and leverage it for the benefit of our users.

It took some doing to get to those three bullet points, some intense conversation.  We had to think about everything the library does, ponder what’s most important, and define our contribution.  In short, we had to figure out what “support” meant.  Having done that work, though, we can set priorities, tell our clients what we can do for them, and assess our performance, none of which we could have done if we had weaseled out and just said, “We support the students, faculty, and staff of Davidson College.”