I’vebeen thinking a lot lately about my personal philosophy of libraries. It’s incredibly important for work at the moment, as we’re turning the page beyond the treading-water approach we were forced to adopt during the pandemic. As our libraries approach a return to normalcy, we have to ask ourselves fundamental questions about what libraries are for their communities, and what is core to their mission. In this context, I believe that libraries need to have an approach that is as pragmatic as it is idealistic, as moving forward absent either of those elements will leave something missing for our library organizations. Libraries aren’t merely corporate structures. At the same time, we can’t reside in the self-congratulatory talking points of yesteryear. We need to make a thorough case for libraries that connects with people and resonates with their experiences. I’m convinced that this is the ultimate path to relevance.
We recently held a meeting about this topic at our library, and every manager from across the system attended. It helped me to clarify my own approach and what I think could be a very useful expression of library values as we build back services following a worldwide pandemic. As we all spoke about why we work in libraries, I was struck by the power of each person’s story. Everybody came to the organization with different experiences and perspectives. For some of us, being in the library was a measure of utility: we had stumbled into it and for whatever reason, stuck with it. Others came to libraries as avid patrons — spend enough time in the library and eventually you might get pulled into its gravitational pull. Some of us are true believers: we champion the power of libraries as valuable institutions for a free society and an avenue to enrich the lives of those on the margins.
I’ve had some time to reflect on the conversation. I think that for me (right now, anyhow) the guiding star for me is the power of stories themselves. Since the dawn of human history, we have used stories as tools to help make our universe intelligible. We use stories to cope with difficulties, understand the unknown, and to bridge the gap between people. The telling of stories is an intrinsically human act: it passes along experience in the most basic way possible. Experiencing stories is our species’ way of affirming that we are not alone, that others exist and can share their lived experience. Of course, there is more to this as well. Much of our nonfiction narratives are stories in their own right, as we struggle to come to a more perfect understanding of the entire cosmos and our place in it.
If we recognize the innate humanity intrinsic to storytelling and story-hearing, we can derive some strong values from these ideas. First, the human experience is incomplete without stories. There’s a positive value in stories that transcends the bare basics of animal living — the fact that we each live out our own stories and impact the stories of those around us is a mysterious, powerful truth about our existence. The human mind is hard-wired to find patterns and meaning in the world. And this necessitates stories: every attempt to understand ourselves is an endeavor of story: myth, legend, allegory, biography, fiction, and onwards.
Libraries land squarely at the intersection of storytelling and story-hearing. The communication of ideas and thoughts and experiences that makes empathy and witness to truth possible. It’s the ability to measure one’s own story against those of others, and to grow and be changed in the process that eases the human struggle and allows for development and diversity. The library must operate to facilitate the communication and access of stories. This improves the human experience of the community which they serve. In this context, I believe we must make a positive value statement about stories: a human life is enriched through diverse perspectives and opinions, experiences and narratives. If this is so, then the library’s primary duty is to protect stories and bring access to them to the community.
Every community has its own story, just as each individual has theirs. As communities and individuals exchange stories and learn more about diverse experiences, values of tolerance and understanding emerge. Likewise, the idea of exclusive goodness in one particular story pushes back against the open exchange of stories. We live in an age where clan values in popular culture have begun to supercede the narratives of thosein the minority or who dissent from an “official” narrative considered to be at the heart of the prevailing culture. This is a strike at the authenticity of the stories being told, an attempt to invalidate them (at best) and suppress them (at worst). The library, if it is to effectively promote the retention and transmission of stories, must advocate for the authenticity of the narratives that it has in its care and to fight against the clannish impulse to suppress the voice of “other” in the face of a prevailing cultural narrative.
Libraries, in this vein, must serve the truth. One one hand, in the subjective narratives that authors have supplied, libraries have an obligation to uphold the truth in people’s lived experiences. On the other hand, we have an obligation to uphold the factual truths that make up our understanding of the world. The work of the past to build up, expand, and revise this knowledge is the shared common story that has been given to us through the ages. Understanding the truths in history and science are just as important as upholding the validity of the lived experiences of humans. The library balances these duties in how it cultivates its collections, and how it positions itself in relation to other organizations and movements outside of itself. In this light, libraries aren’t so much “bastions of democracy” as they are protectors of those things necessary for democracy to exist: values of diversity, commitment to truth, and access for all to the shared knowledge and experiences of humanity. Without these things, democracy will fail.
As I ruminate on these values, many more practical things begin to stand out to me. Libraries can’t be mere storehouses of stories, they must facilitate access to them as well. In a digital environment, that means developing programs and services that bring library patrons through the electronic barriers to access. It means a general commitment to literacy, both in print and digital.
Another area that can go underappreciated is the library’s duty to allow space to encounter stories and truth. There are almost no spaces left in our society where one can study, read, or access digital information without the expectation of spending money. Libraries must make space for patrons a priority. In the future, I believe that space is going to be at a premium in libraries, as the physical footprint most libraries occupy is woefully undersized. I believe that many libraries have been designed around the “warehouse” model of yesteryear, where library workers were gatekeepers to a well-ordered trove of facts. As we develop this deeper sense of purpose and access, we will need to put an emphasis on expanding spaces for patrons to be.
If all of this sounds rudimentary, it’s because it is. But we’re going back to basics in the wake of the pandemic, and we’re reevaluating everything that we do. As we’ve asked ourselves “why?” about this or that service, we’ve been tripped up by the language of relevance that has been developed over the last 30 years. Libraries, in the struggle for relevance in the post-digital revolution, began to take on tasks and services that might be outside the mission of libraries. As we settle into a new reality with scarce resources, high staff turnover, and new expectations, it’s more important than ever to understand what it is that we do. This is just one perspective, and I’m sure I will understand more and reflect on this notion as I observe our libraries move into this new future.