Notes Toward an Introduction To An Essay Entitled “Why Be a Public Librarian?”

Part I


This is a return to “first principles”. Well, not really a “return”: a “first stating” of “first principles”. Many of the conclusions I reach here could well be filed under “re-inventing the wheel”; but originality was never really the point. The purpose of this exercise was for me, myself & I to reach an articulated conclusion about my own beliefs regarding public libraries and their importance. I wanted something more than a vaguely felt “instinct” about the matters at hand. What the conclusions are was far less important to me than how I reached those conclusions. So, to begin the beguine.


As I said in a previous post I would like to “progress” within public libraries, most likely meaning to a Librarian role of some sort. There are many reasons why this has not yet come to pass, but to my mind one of the main stumbling blocks has been, in part, psychological. Again, as I wrote in that previous post, it seems to me that all public library staff need to be able to justify their role – what is the (public) service being provided – as well as their own personal inhabiting of that role (i.e. what do I bring to this role? – assuming the role is intrinsically valuable).


I cannot claim to have thought in great depth about these matters in relation to my current position (a Library Assistant), but I could at least – if asked – provide a coherent, reasonably detailed, description of what my role entails and, most crucially, why I think that role is, still, of value. I don’t, however, think I could say the same were I asked why I want to be a Librarian. If I were fortunate enough to be interviewed for such a role and were I asked the – I assume – fairly standard question “why have you applied for this position?” (or variations thereof), I would struggle to answer, precisely because I have not yet articulated for myself why I believe the position of Librarian is of importance in a library service.


Actually, that’s not entirely fair: I know why Librarians are important because I know, from my own organisation, the valuable role they play in, say, leading Event management and making tough decisions about stock holdings (among other things). But that is an institutional justification – Librarians are important because they perform role ‘X’ within a larger structure – rather than one that addresses the question at the philosophical level of analysis I am searching for. That is to say, what we might call “the institutional justification” is an explanation that, to my mind, rather seems to beg the question – insofar as that explanation consists of the very aspect under examination: Librarians are important because they complete the tasks allocated to “Librarians” within the wider Library system. It does not answer the “Why” in the question “Why Librarians?”; instead the explanation merely re-states the original problem by explaining what a Librarian does. It does not explain why Librarians should exist in the first instance; and it certainly doesn’t help me – or anyone else – to articulate why they would want to take on such a role (excusing, for the moment, such obvious responses as ‘better pay’).


It is clear, then, that part of the problem here is that, in order to satisfactorily explain “Why Librarians?”, we must first be capable of explaining to ourselves – and others – “Why Libraries?” It is, therefore, not the role or the importance of Librarians per se that I need to make cohere before I can confidently put myself forward as a plausible candidate for such a position – it is the very existence of libraries themselves.


More specifically, I require a justification for public libraries themselves. This is partly a matter of contingency – public libraries have never faced such a barrage of demands that they justify their place in the budgetary hierarchy – but it is also, to my mind, a more theoretical requirement. By this I mean to imply that I see public libraries facing a different, more difficult, set of questions relating to relevancy than a specialist, research, or academic library would, at any given time and regardless of the wider financial context.


Actually – again – that is not entirely fair, nor even accurate. The matter of justification is to some degree a matter of contingency, because the kinds of questions I am thinking of relate in some degree to the issues raised by the “age of digital” (both as an information source – Google – and as an entertainment/cultural resource – that is, e-books and their like). What role does a public library play when users can have those needs that were previously met by such a service instead fed at a time and place of their own choosing? But the reason why I initially wrote that the question of justification was not, in its essence, a matter of contingency is simply because I want to drill down even deeper than that; I want to begin at first principles and get to a level of analysis that tells me why public libraries in and of themselves are worth believing in. If the entire edifice of our social forms were to collapse tomorrow, what claim would public libraries have on our communities as a resource worth recreation?


This is something I have struggled with for as long as I have consciously framed the question within the mind. To most other minds, however, the answer is most likely obvious (if that mind belonged man made of straw): Libraries – of all kinds, not only those in the public sector, are important because they house books. Books are the thing, the key to the highway. They are important in-and-of-themselves. Books – and access to books – define Libraries. How many times have we heard public library patrons (and staff) bemoaning the perceived decline in importance of books within those institutions?


(Again, back to that man made from straw).This is the same kind of argument, broadly-speaking, that tags National Socialists as cultural barbarians – goose-stepping morons more inclined to burn books than to read them. “A travesty!” we cry. How can anyone destroy books in this manner and yet hope to remain civilized? This is when we reach for our revolvers (figuratively speaking, of course). A simple enough equation: book burning=barbarianism.


Obvious, no? Except not for me. I’ve never been entirely convinced, on an instinctive level at least, by this argument (and – zing! – that straw man is taking quite the beating here). Part of the problem is that I am not sure I am quite as much as a committed bibliophile as I should be. That is not to say that I don’t love books, or reading books – I do – but I always slightly suspect that that affection is nothing more than a personal preference. By this I mean that, while I enjoy that activity, I appreciate that others may not, that they may prefer alternative ways of seeking enjoyment or intellectual fulfillment.


So, I’ve always been interested to hear evidence of why books in-and-of-themselves are to be valued. For example, a recent article in the New Scientist caught me eye for precisely this reason, presenting as it does evidence that “[r]eading literary fiction temporarily enhances your ability to empathize with others.” This isn’t really a fresh argument –  but it does, at least, seem to present a scientific basis for a belief in books – and, thus, Libraries. We could say: books are important because they present people with a new way of seeing the world, expanding their emotional sphere and, quite literally, by making them better people; public libraries, therefore, are to be valued because they provide democratic access to a resource that makes people better humans in a way other entertainment sources do not.


But even this argument does not seem to truly answer, for me, the question at hand: “why libraries?”. Because, of course, the article merely states that reading “literary fiction” increases readers’ empathy – and not the act of reading a book specifically. It is not the book in-and-of-itself that provides that increase in emotional awareness, it is the act of processing the informationcontained within the book that achieves that end. The same argument can be set against any other justification for reading books; that they increase general literacy skills; that they give the reader a wider sense of the world; that they provide facts & figures and ways of arguing – all of these are arguments about information; specifically, the communication of information between one (or more) person (the author) and a second (or more) person (the reader).


And it is that communication that I think is key – not, crucially, the manner of its delivery. Printed books – while clearly an efficient improvement on their predecessors (papyrus rolls, or such like) are, in the final analysis, merely a method of communicating information. Printed books come in all shapes and all sizes; they can be beautiful or mundane, functional or decorative; but they are not, in themselves, what is worth preserving. That comes between the covers. All the books in the world could fade from existence, and humanity would be no worse for it – provided the information that was contained within those volumes was preserved in some other format. That is to say, other forms of information communication can supersede books and that should not necessarily be a cause for concern. People may wax lyrical about the “tactile” properties of books, about the pleasures of sitting in a comfy seat “curling up with a good book” (though the “curling” bit always sounded somewhat uncomfortable to me) – but in final end the information between the covers is all that matters.


And if information – whether for study or for leisure – is the thing why, then, libraries? Because there are now a myriad of other information communication methods that exceed books in their ease of use for the majority of the population, especially as that population becomes increasingly “born digital” – and outside of committed bibliophiles I can’t see that books will be valued in the long-term as a method of information communication any more than whatever comes after them. This may sound like heresy for a (wannabe) library professional, but I simply do not think books in-and-of-themselves are that important. That is to say, I am not sure that I wholeheartedly believe in books as the primary form of information communication in the way I suspect other Library professionals do (Straw Man! This essay hath need of thee).


Neil Gaiman has recently written a piece extolling the virtues of libraries, commenting that you value libraries if you “value information or culture or wisdom”. A fine, high-minded, sentiment indeed. But I don’t necessarily think the second part of that proposition follows logically from the first, for the reasons outlined above. If people can now access information, culture, or wisdom from their own home, why should public libraries have a monopoly on the value society finds inherent in the maintenance of those goods? To be blunt: what do I care where people get their information, their culture, or their wisdom from – as long as they get it? Clearly, this does not hold true for other kinds of libraries – academic, specialist, etc; those libraries provide access to specific, technical, forms of knowledge that may not be so easily accessible online or through e-books. But for public libraries the clue to the problem is in the name: they are an explicitly public service. If the public can – and does – go elsewhere, why shouldn’t they? Should we not simply accept this? Have public libraries seen their historically-contingent purpose reach its technological end point  – a revolution come & gone?


This is, then, precisely why I found myself unable to commit emotionally to the idea of public libraries themselves and why, consequently, I could not conceive – at least on an unconscious level – of working for a public library service as any kind of “calling”. Which is why – partly – I’ve been professionally adrift for much of the last seven years or so; how could I commit myself to a programme of study (something I did consider – in fact, I got as far as accepting a place on an Information Studies MA course; that the course was cancelled before it begun was only half the tale), or convincingly complete a job application, if I could not even articulate to myself why I believe in public libraries?. I got the public library blues, indeed: stones in my passway, always crashing in the same car; a denial, a denial. So, from despair – to where?


[to be continued]


One comment

  1. […] opinions of library and information services (especially completing the long-projected Part II of this piece), and tweet more – join more timetabled Twitter chats (#uklibchat, for example) – and […]

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