From Library Babel Fish, August 11, 2014

Andy Woodworth, a public librarian activist and professional thought-provoker, sent out a tweet last week that really made me think:

The semi-profound question that is haunting me this morning: are libraries moving toward building monuments or moments?

He was responding at least in part to an article in the Boston Globe. it’s one of an entire genre of articles, raising the alarm about books being weeded from public libraries to make space for other things such as newer books and space for new programs. It sounds pretty alarming to “purge” up to 180,000 books, though it’s worth bearing in mind that there are 23 million items in Boston Public Library’s catalog and 132,000 volumes are added each year. A photo accompanying the story shows empty shelves. Empty shelves look sad and disturbing, but it takes time to properly weed a collection, so shelves sit empty for a time until whatever renovations are planned can happen. It sounds as if every book taken off a shelf based on how long it hasn’t been checked out will be examined by a librarian so keepers will be put back, but some neighborhood branches will reportedly lose 25 – 40 percent of their books. There are deadlines and quotas and to some it all seems like a betrayal of what libraries are for – which, in many people’s minds, is books.

To Andy, this is a pantry theory of libraries – people feel reassured if the pantry shelves are full, even if they are full of dusty things that have been pushed to the back of the pantry shelves and are well past their expiration date. (However horrifying it may seem to believe a book has lost its value, sometimes they really have.)

As it happens, there were three other stories that popped up in my Twitter feed within an hour of Andy’s comment that all had a different take on what libraries are. There was an update on the fact that public libraries have patrons who are homeless. Hey, everyone is welcome, including the over 600,000 Americans who happen to not have a fixed address at the moment. There aren’t that many places in our society where everyone is welcome, so it’s not surprising that libraries may be the most likely place for a middle class resident to be in the same room as someone who is homeless. Some libraries try to provide more than a safe place to hang out – they help connect people with available resources. Philadelphia’s central library has a café. That’s hardly newsworthy; what’s somewhat unusual is that it’s staffed by homeless people, who also keep an eye on the restrooms to make sure they aren’t being used for bathing or washing clothes against the rules. This hasn’t displaced books – system-wide, over 6 million books and other media were checked out last year.

Then again, maybe the public library can be your office. Fast Company evaluates whether, now that we’re all entrepreneurs, working from the library might be a nice alternative to working from home or paying to rent loft space with other urban creatives. The story covers different approaches to these innovations. Some librarians welcome new identities like this one, arguing it’s time to shake off the book fetish because information is so much more readily available these days and it’s much easier than it used to be to purchase from an online retailer those long-tail books that hardly anyone but you wants to read. Some non-librarian library defenders disagree and think adding extra programs and services is foolish mission creep; if you want a place to use your laptop and drink coffee, why go to the library when there’s a Starbucks on every corner? For one woman in the Fastcompany story, it’s a lot better to pay for a shared office space because you can network with the right people, and the right people don’t hang out at public libraries. But I loved what a real estate agent said, working in the Brooklyn Public Library between showings: “It’s inspiring . . . I see all kinds of people doing all kinds of things, and it motivates me.”

Monuments are usually designed to inspire. But here’s a large and impressive building that is inspiring to this individual because of what happens in it.

The story ends with the warning that “trying to accommodate everyone in a finite space is just begging for a turf war.” Yes, that does sound familiar. But then, conquest itself isn’t always pretty. In the same issue of Next City, which has a feature about the future of “the fustiest of urban amenities.” (Fustiest? Seriously?) Adam Feldman has a dissenting opinion. He critiques Bexar County’s famous “bookless library” which opened last year and prides itself on having no printed books, because it’s the future and everyone needs to learn technology and also it will be cheaper. (Tell that to Random House, which will allow a library to license an ebook that only one person at a time can read for five times the cost of a printed copy.) The bookless library is a monument of sorts – a monument to a particular view of what is in the past and what the future will be. Feldman (who, as it happens, works at Philadelphia’s Free Library) thinks it’s a mistake. He makes a case for books (which Phil Bradley has responded to in a blog post with which I concur in part and dissent in part). But he also makes the case that libraries are not about books or computers. They are about learning that’s available to everyone throughout their lives.

The meaningful life-changing core of the neighborhood branch is and remains the radical, flexible, dynamic education model that librarians build using every electronic, physical, and human resource at hand . . . We librarians are the tenacious masters of this planet’s most effective freedom school, but we can never really seem to explain it to anyone outside our ranks. Librarians, whether public employees or private academics, are as a profession collectively fighting to make sure that when someone wants to know, there are no barriers to satisfying that emergent curiosity.

So, what are we building? Sometimes we build monumental structures that reflect a particular view of what knowledge and community are about. But the buildings themselves and the way that they lock a particular perspective in stone or steel and glass are symbols of something that is fluid and shared and made of a mind-boggling number of personal and shared moments, the varied experiences of a vast number of people who use libraries throughout their lives for different things – and for the same thing. They are inspired to participate in a commonly-owned space that is dedicated to the value of freely exploring the world. The idea of a library – the radical idea of a library in an era of individualism – is a monument to those common moments of comfort, delight, discovery, and curiosity. It doesn’t change. It always changes.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.