Windows and Mirrors

What is the role of the library in the twenty-first century? What will it be in the next? Specifically, what is the role of the library when it comes to culture and society?

It is easy to engage in futuring what library technology might look like in a hundred years. We have almost always been good at thinking in that way. One thing that is more difficult to predict is the future of culture and by extension, how culture will be reflected in our libraries.

I will dismiss out-of-hand the arguments that say we are heading for a paperless culture and that all information is bound for the fathomless depths of the internet. Those self-same knee-jerk reactions to technology advancements have been commonplace for the entire past century and libraries are still extant, books, newspapers, magazines and all. It is inarguable that technology has changed certain aspects of the world but culture is a more complex animal than a lot of people give it credit. Yes, having the internet in your pocket has changed your behavior, it might have even changed the way you use libraries, but that hasn’t changed human culture that much when you change the scale from the individual to a community or even to a society.

Maybe I should loop back and try to define how libraries are an extension of culture. I would wager that the library collection has the most to say about how the library is a mirror of the culture it serves. This is also a problematic view because of the myriad different types of libraries there are.

There are public libraries, academic libraries, special and tribal libraries, archives and special collections as rarer forms of the library, and alternative libraries that only loosely fit the model or resemble libraries in some way.

Tribal libraries are a clear window into libraries as a cultural manifestation and a good place to start. Tribal libraries, very often, have cultural, linguistic, and historical preservation of a tribe written into their very mission. If there were an archetype of the ‘library-as-culture’ I would look to them first. If there is technology offered, it is often there because the rest of the tribe has limited access due to poverty, geographical remoteness, or both. What books are on the shelves? Are there legal books, probably, tribal societies are often statistically plagued with more crime than other cultural isolates. Are there books on health or a community garden as part of the tribal library? This can be seen as a reflection of overall poor health or poor access to healthcare that requires a greater degree of self-diagnosis and treatment or a mistrust of Western medicine on -the-whole. Are there historical archives, indigenous language books, books on religion? These are all major facets that collectively make up a culture.

Let’s look at other types of libraries now, what of the special library, my current and very specific haunt. My information resources are largely paperless but then, if I include the interior design resource library (which isn’t under my authority but is a library or archive none-the-less) I’d say that we are 75% paperless and 25% archival reference material at the architecture firm I ply my trade in. There are rogue libraries everywhere inside this firm as well, on everyone’s personal desktop computers and on their dedicated and shared network drives. Does all of this inform on our culture though? I’m not sure it does, it is practical, it is the cost of doing business. If we had a historical archive or a collection of oral histories that might approach a cultural record but the firm’s that take the time to do this or even see the business value in it are few and far between. None of the cultural markers found in the tribal library are found here, at least not as codified, organized information resources. I would count the special library out if our purpose is to find that cultural mirror.

What of the academic library? Surely, that is a reflection of our culture? Not really. The number of individuals that make it to a university that has an academic library available is pretty small in comparison to the rest of society. The academic library’s collection is normally vast and as inclusive of as many cultural facets and fields of study as it possibly can be, but this doesn’t make it a reflection of our culture, just a curator of cultural traits. There is a plague of options in the academic library, too much to choose from, every facet of human knowledge and action from every corner of the globe. Perhaps it can inform on human culture in its totality, but that is a different ask, isn’t it. The Media Centers (why was that term changed from library again?) found in the primary schools fall under a similar mission and scope as the college library. One could investigate the collections here and make the argument that this could inform our culture to some degree, to be a small stain-glass window into what our children will become and the culture they will form, but that will discount too many facets of what culture on-the-whole actually is.

Special collections and archives are getting closer, much closer, to a mirror into our culture but they fall into the same camp as the tribal library. They have very specific collection criteria and missions. They focus on a few things and create an information microcosm around those reduced scopes. Instead of a full length mirror they are more a tiny obsidian scrying mirror placed in a bowl of shimmering moonlit water.

What does that leave us with? The Public Library. Is the public library the most accurate reflection of our culture, if one went looking for it? If so, how does that inform on their mission and their collection development activities? The word ‘reflection’ is actually used by the Wisconsin Public Library Associations general mission. The context is that public libraries are to be a reflection of the community that they serve. Community is different then culture but community, or communities, are really one of the base units of culture as a noun. I agree with this general mission, it is an important and core function of the public library. In being a mirror into the community with their collections and services, are public libraries also a window into the wider culture that they exist in?

Why even ask these questions. Culture just happens, right? Why even try to measure it, to view it, to observe it? Framing a window into existing culture, using the public library as this window, allows librarians to perform one really important task that almost no other single profession can, that is to help nudge culture in one direction or another. I am fond of making a joke of the famous Stan Lee phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.”, but in this case it is less a joke. Librarian’s have many superpowers and this is one of them. Through collections and services provided at the public library level, real cultural change can take place. If there is a culture that is dominated by media blasts that reinforce conformity, oppression, or deception, should it not be in the public librarian’s ethical code to stray from orthodoxy in collection development and to break from a strict bondage to societal approval?

I’d like to explore this thread in coming posts, particularly if the public library can help to, not normalize, but construct niches for alternative spiritual and metaphysical thought and belief systems as a way of nudging culture in a more inclusive or diversified direction. I’ll close today with the reassertion that shifting the mission from being a mirror of community to being a window onto the landscape of culture, public libraries position themselves on the front lines of the battle against those negative (but very human) cultural traits that hold us back from realizing much better futures.