The Everything Library

From Library Babel Fish, June 3, 2014

I’ve had a couple of my buttons pushed recently. (Yes, it is known to happen. I am practically an accordion. Press my buttons and watch me swell with indignation and make noise.) One was a discussion on a library Listserv that I haven’t been participating in regularly, so I missed much of the texture of the conversation but couldn’t resist chiming in. The question was whether college libraries should be called “learning centers” since now they so often house such a rich variety of learning support – writing centers, advising, media production, tutoring, and so forth. As you might expect I don’t like the idea that “library” is an inadequate name, just as I felt in 1969 when my high school tried to get us to call the library the LRC (since “learning resource center” was such a mouthful). It had more than books! It had loads of AV and machines that would turn us into speed readers! Somebody made a bunch of money on that scheme. As I recall, we still called it the library. The other popular term (which I suspect makes the rounds of the Listservs that academic deans and provosts read) is to call the library a “learning commons” now that “information commons” sounds dated. A friend who earned her degree in Scotland is confused by this the word “commons” which she associates with dining halls and vending machines. Which during finals isn’t inconsistent with our library, where studying requires an extraordinary intake of calories, but still, for her it’s not an improvement.

Then I happened on an opinion piece in Library Journal titled “Beyond the Maker Space” that for a moment I thought was satire. Providing “maker spaces” in libraries is a hot trend, and it’s a fine idea. A maker space is a common area where people can share knowhow, equipment, and socialize over making things – mostly technical things, but some also have sewing machines. (The Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco is a good example.) I suspect in part and perhaps unconsciously it’s an opportunity for libraries to seem more hospitable to young men by adding some geekery to counter the idea that libraries are for middle-aged women and small children. A particularly trendy piece of maker space equipment is the 3D printer. As cool as these gizmos are, it’s a little vexing how much libraries have seized on acquiring one as badge of relevance.

John Mitchell, the author of the LJ piece, thinks we should go further than simply adding maker spaces to libraries and welcome into the library all kinds of information, not just the kind found in books. He argues that we should consider creating magnet libraries that provide performing arts spaces and science labs. It would not only broaden our view of what information is, but would entice non-library-users into libraries. And cure that public notion that libraries are about books rather than information in all forms.

Librarians have always struggled to define what a library is (unlike library patrons who seem to have a pretty clear idea). The great American public libraries that were symbols of municipal pride were meant to help people educate themselves as free men and women, but were also a civilizing mission for communities being flooded with immigrants who needed to be made into proper Americans. In addition to the iconic “Free to All” inscription over the doors of the Boston Public Library is a statement of purpose: “The Commonwealth Requires the Education of the People as the Safeguard of Order and Liberty.” Some early library leaders wanted libraries to be domestic spaces, places that welcomed children and provided the gentle civilizing presence of women. John Cotton Dana spoke out against libraries as intimidating temples of books or “mortuary piles” and wanted them to be considered workshops, offices, and factories. That was in 1897.

So these  debates are nothing new. I’m all in favor of thinking broadly about what libraries are and can be. I understand that for many public libraries who bought into the hype that they should try to be more like Barnes and Nobles stores (which were designed to look like really big libraries with cash registers) are now realizing the limits of tying their identity to a particular kind of mass bookselling that is now threatened by another kind of mass bookselling. But we can’t be the Everything Store either.

Public libraries are beloved by their communities and are arguably held in higher regard than any other social institution. Academic libraries, while librarians fret about irrelevance, are used by nearly all college students, even when the Internet is more familiar and easier to use. Public libraries want to be as good as Amazon and academic libraries want to be as good as Google, but in reality libraries as libraries matter because they are one of the rare places left in our society that stands for communal sharing of knowledge for the common good.

Libraries are places where knowledge is shared and ideas are born and things get made and students can play with ideas and learn how information works. But libraries are not the only places for making and creating. We shouldn’t pretend that classrooms, laboratories, garages, studios, arboretums, workshops, garden allotments, performance halls, practice rooms, and kitchens aren’t also important sites of knowledge-making. Arguing that libraries need to somehow house and host everything because being a library isn’t enough is insulting to all of the other places where ideas thrive. And, in a weird way, an insult to libraries and those who value them, too.