26 November 2012

Libraries, from Vaults to Supermarkets to Communal Kitchens

The film of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose: "...where are the books?"
The origin of our word "library" (or the French word for "book" or the old European words for "money") all stem from the ancient Indo-European term, "leub,” meaning, "to strip,” "to peel.” The obvious understanding is that information was preserved on - first - strips of bark, of leaves - then of "paper" made from such. But in my adaptation, the concept of "to peel" is the key: the library is a place where we peel apart the known world and begin to reconstruct it, for ourselves, and for our futures.

Image problem? Librarians in Movies - Part 1 (above)'
and Part 2 (below)
Libraries can be vaults, the safekeeping spots, used to preserve and/or to limit access to knowledge.  (see Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose)

"Incendie Alexandrie" by Hermann Goll (1876)
The safekeeping thing often hasn't worked out as well as has been hoped, despite current whining about, "what happens if the electricity goes out?" (see Alexandria Library Fire). Libraries can also be the Carnegie-style "supermarkets" of the 20th Century, a place where certain forms of knowledge and information are distributed in certain ways to certain classes of people.

For awhile I lived near Muskegon, Michigan. In the 1890s a "lumber baron" named Charles Hackley decided to reconstruct the then wild lumber town (which had recently helped rebuild Chicago after the Fire, but was running out of trees along the Muskegon River) into a "20th Century City." To do so he built schools, a hospital, started a bank, created parks, even founded social service agencies, but first, roughly alongside Andrew Carnegie bringing his first US library to Pennsylvania, he funded and built a contemporary library.

Muskegon, Michigan's Hackley Public Library
The library was intended to offer informal but effective education to the residents of the city. Certain books could be taken home, others, of course, could not. Certain types of books were on the shelves, but, surely, others were not. The learning might be "informal," but the library spaces were not. They were sacred-styled environments, hushed and reverent. The books were in English - with a few in Greek and Latin but none in the immigrant languages of Polish and Norwegian. Clean hands and clean minds were expected.

I am not knocking this. The Hackley Library, the Carnegie Libraries were huge successes, offering generations of Americans paths to knowledge, connections to culture, and vastly expanded world views. One need only look at the amazing series of gifts the New York Public Library has received from former immigrants who owe their education to the "free lending libraries" and classic library reading rooms provided throughout the last century.

But that was last century, and the tools of this century are different, the needs of this century are different, and the libraries of this century must be different.

Your Life Work: The Librarian
"love for books and love for people"
It is common for a certain class of librarians to mistake "library" for a place of physical preservation and "book" for a bound, paper-based, collection of pages with ink stamped upon them.
"Google notwithstanding, good, reliable information is only scantily present online," Mark Y. Herring, the library director at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, wrote in American Libraries in 2011(!), "The bulk of trustworthy, reliable information still resides only in aggregated databases, some of which are affordable only to libraries, since access costs literally as much as a compact car. While striving to be green, libraries still depend on the printed word. Moving to an electronic format exclusively (which, by the way, some libraries have tried) has been unsuccessful so far. “Nothing is more common" in experiment, wrote the famed late-18th-century chemist Joseph Priestley, “than the most unexpected revolutions of good and bad success.” Well, we may get to “electronic-only” one day. But so far our digital-only experiments have met with “bad success.” When we lose our physical libraries, where will the great masses of us find reliable information?"
When this attitude exists, libraries become museums, and sadly, increasingly irrelevant museums. And, in schools, museums usually do not get funded, especially irrelevant museums. If your school library is silent, used by schedule only (or "mostly"), focused on print, categorized tightly, "a place to read," or to "work alone," you have a museum - and you have already been replaced by: the internet, the coffee shop, the public park - you, the librarian, just haven't lost your job yet.

Marian from The Music Man
Today's library, especially the single-generation serving school library, must be something essentially different. It must be the Communal Kitchen of Intellectual Creativity. It must be a place of resources and collaboration, of tools and inspiration, of communication and, yes, "making."

It must be a place that is both noisy and which has "caves" for quiet. It must be a place of comfort - from furniture to food and drink - so that users can concentrate on creativity and learning, not rules and discomfort. It must be a place where information flows through every possible tool, in order to create the widest, and most effective, access. 

A place of shared creativity, a physical place but one tightly bound to the universe through digital tools. A place of energy and excitement - if we crave solitude and the paper book, well, we have our own spaces for that - books being portable and all. A place of open access - our computers, our tablets, our phones all link us to every conceivable library - why would we enter yours if you offer less?

And a Maker Fairea place where creativity, learning, and problem-solving are contagious and where creativity, learning, and problem-solving break through boundaries.

Today, the "vault" lies in our servers, spaced strategically around the planet. The supermarket sits in our pockets, we can tap a four or five inch screen and access, well, anything. But the kitchen remains a physical place. A place of creation, of comfort, of human communion.

That is what your school library must be, or it will not be at all in a very short time.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Barclay Davis said...

I absolutely agree. I have tried to take the kids I babsit to the library for an afternoon and they dread going because it is no fun for them. I enjoy going to the library, and go quite frequently, but there is only ever a few people in there. I'm not sure how they can make libraries more appealing to people but something does need to change because I'm not sure I can function without a library.