Life Lessons from the Library: Do You Know What You Really Need?

A few years ago, in a meeting of library deans, we were discussing cost-cutting measures. One dean said that each year, she simply removed a couple of the more-expensive periodicals. “If faculty and students notice and complain, I can re-order them very quickly,” she said. Then she gave a small smile, “But no one never has.”

I was impressed by this wisdom.  So when I needed to do some cost cutting of my own, I went even further. Our library had a very expensive database, yet I’d never seen an assignment using it. In fact, I had never seen a single research assignment from that particular academic area. So I didn’t reorder it. Not one single faculty member ever mentioned its being gone. And for the few research questions from students, we were easily able to find materials in other sources. And life went on.

What struck me about this experience was this: If we had asked, we would still have those periodicals and the database. Faculty would have been clamoring about how necessary those materials were to their ability to teach and do research. And they weren’t lying; they truly believed that. The fact that they never used the materials didn’t mean that they never would.

It is a basic truism that we tend to think we need much more than we do (probably even more so when someone else is paying for it). I do this a lot. If I’m in charge of ordering pizza for a meeting and someone tells me that seven will feed sixteen people, I’ll order nine. Even though I’m single and live alone, I belong to Costco and have closets full of toilet paper, paper towels, and dusting towels because it’s better to have too much than not enough.

But perhaps true wisdom is being able to distinguish between needs and wants. And maybe even more important is the ability to know what is truly needed. Fear can turn wants into needs. It can whisper that we need to get as much as we can now because something might happen later and we won’t have the chance. Or that if other people have something we don’t, then there is something wrong with us. 

But in many cases, when we actually let go of things, we find that we didn’t really need them at all. In fact, sometimes we find that we don’t even want them any longer.  

There is a great deal of freedom in knowing what you really need; it allows you to say no to so much of the non-essential that surrounds us in our culture.

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