From Library Babel Fish, September 19, 2012

I am finally getting around to reading Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, and was struck by a list he provides in his introduction of “qualities of mind and heart” that are necessary for citizenship and which colleges should help their students develop. Quoting them in their entirety, they are:

  • A skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past.
  • The ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena.
  • Appreciation of the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of science and the arts.
  • A willingness to imagine experience from perspectives other than one’s own.
  • A sense of ethical responsibility.

As I read them, I thought “oh, but this is also what libraries are for.” They, too provide opportunities to connect past and present, to encounter the knowledge of diverse disciplines, to explore new perspectives, and – while many library users may reduce library ethics to “don’t write in the books” and “return things on time” – to open minds while valuing the even-handed evaluation and application of evidence.

Though it is in the classroom and while completing assignments that most students gain experience with these habits, the library can and should provide a laboratory or studio in which to practice them. Wandering beyond assigned readings and textbooks gives students a chance to exercise their own judgment and make it stronger.  Encountering conflicts in sources sharpens students’ critical senses. Exploring unfamiliar things provides a sense of the vastness of the world, made less intimidating as students find fragile filaments of connection. And even the humblest of public libraries offers its community the chance to experience the world through fresh perspectives, one of the functions and delights of reading for pleasure.

As I was reading Delbanco’s list, I was also thinking about the fights over who decides what education should be. That was a battle at the heart of the University of Virginia’s recent unpleasantness. A handful of politically appointed board members felt (based on Wall Street Journal articles and their experiences in business) that they knew better than the university president what the university should be. Fortunately, the community rallied, the state grew embarrassed, and the president was reinstated. That was a completely unnecessary and unhelpful attempt to exercise power while showing contempt for those who actually work at the university.

I was thinking, too, of the Chicago teachers’ strike, which seemed at least in part an attempt by teachers to insist that they should have some say in the matter of what education means and who should decide. The shorthand for this came down to the use of test scores as a measure of teachers’ competence and in decisions about which “low performing” schools to close (which are – imagine that! – ones located in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, where teachers can’t work test-score magic no matter how good they are).

In the case of libraries, I worry that we are abandoning or at the very least absent-mindedly mislaying our values and our capacity to improve the lives of those who use our libraries by taking too utilitarian an approach (“our job is to deliver the information people want”). We design our systems to deliver the goods and bolster “productivity,” but not necessarily to encourage making connections or thinking deeply and critically. Consuming and producing take the place of creation and contemplation (such old-fashioned terms). As Don M. Randel put it in a recent issue of Liberal Education, The Market Made Me Do It.” We compete against one another as businesses and sports teams do and, in the process, we contribute not to the habits of mind and heart that Delbanco lays out, but instead to widening inequality.  When we put delivery of information to our communities first, we neglect our broader interest in equalizing access to information.

We librarians seem anxious to prove our value these days, but what we really should articulate more clearly and loudly is our values. When we focus on defending our existence to our administrators, we end up (as Meredith Wolfwater points out) with a focus far too narrow, too parochial, too myopic to ensure that our values inform what libraries should be.


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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.