Curatorial Libraries

I.

The Rocky Mountain Land Library is on my mind today. It’s a library-in-progress, still in an aspirational phase, but darned if I don’t hope it works. As the New York Times describes it:

Imagine a network of land-study centers stretching from the Headwaters of South Park to the metro-Denver plains. Each site will be united by the common purpose of connecting people to nature and the land, but each site will have something unique to share:
South Park’s Buffalo Peaks Ranch will offer a 32,000+ natural history library, along with residential living quarters for anyone who would like to experience the quiet and inspiration of a book-lined historic ranch, set on the banks of the South Platte River, and surrounded on all sides by a high mountain landscape, with some peaks rising to over 14,000 feet.

I admire this kind of curatorial vision, and I like to think of a point in the future of libraries when this is the core of what most librarians do. In the Land Library, it’s situating research materials about the land in a site that is proximate to or integrated with the land itself. More generally, it’s understanding a particular research and creative process, so that materials relevant to that process can be optimally arranged in space and time. This curatorial approach to libraries is not revolutionary, but developmental. It builds on the outcomes of the existing model of collection development, which collocated researchers with the largest-attainable quantity of the highest-attainable quantity of resources.

Call it the collecting library, a solution to the information scarcity problem. The curatorial library is an adaptive reuse of that architecture to provide a solution to the attention scarcity problem.

This adaptation requires us to recognize that research and creative activity are complex and specific. The way each discipline works is distinct and it is always developing. Each practitioner will provide a variation on the themes of that discipline, as well, blending their own preferences with methods they learn from their mentors, borrow from colleagues, develop through their work with students and colleagues.

To support this, the library needs to deliver both utility (finding aids and resources) and usability (places, formats, and interpretation). We have a great, mature body of work in the first area, but I suspect we are just now in the adolescence of the second. The stacks and the reading room are more meaningful places now that we have digital libraries, because now we can ask what can only be done in each environment and what can best be done in each environment. Physical formats are more meaningful now that they exist in complement and contrast to digital formats, letting us ask in turn what can only be done, and what can best be done with each.

II.

The possibility of asking these questions pushes librarians towards an interpretive role. That is a delicate move for a profession that has an overt stance of neutrality but, if we want a diverse and inclusive library, we need to be attentive to the covert implications of our overt intentions.

I have an instinct to label this next step as “curation” on a simple hunch that libraries can learn from museums in this area, and since it’s their word, it’s a natural bridge to their expertise. But more than that, I think we need a word to keep us a step away from “interpretation” so that we create some time to have a serious conversation about diversity and inclusiveness. For that conversation to be effective it needs to be given leeway, but not safety.

Learning to do good curation while actively charting a course towards interpretation lets our profession do two important things. One is to send a signal to ourselves: diversity and inclusion are not just important issues, they are urgent. The other is to start developing the concepts, vocabulary, and critical understanding we need so that we can be successful in an inclusive, interpretive role.

To my ear, curation speaks to arrangement, to locating a set of things in time and space, a way of working that is adjacent to both our received and emergent practices. I hope that means a way for us to find a progressively better fit with the developing practices of our readers, without changing shape so radically that we alienate or exclude the readers we have.

III.

I joke that librarians are audaciously pragmatic, that, given the grand philosophical task of organizing all human knowledge we say “okay, but I am going to need some 3-by-5 cards.” In that vein, let me say that the reason I am an advocate for off-site storage and digitization is that I believe we need to take these pragmatical measures and use them to launch this grandly philosophical project of curatorial libraries.

Digitization and off-site storage reduce libraries’ reliance on physical collections and physical space. Reduced reliance leads to increased options. Creating digital versions of physical items creates new options by adding a set of affordances, in a fairly obvious way. Offsite storage does this by freeing up proximate space for adaptive reuse and, critically, by positioning the collections in a logistics hub so that they can be re-arragned in time and space more easily.

It’s not a warehouse; it’s a capacitor.

Our shift to digital collections and off-site services arose from preservation needs, maintenance costs, and space pressures that come from growing print collections, but this shift does not require abandonment of either of places or artifacts. Instead, I think we should view this as a method of creating lots of options at this stage in the development of libraries, so that we can create the best possible interactions with the most diverse set of users as we go along.

There are frustrations that come with that transition; I use the word “adolescence” for this moment in libraries quite deliberately. A lot of adolescence is just horrible bullshit that did nothing but cause us misery. We should try to prevent those scenarios as libraries develop. But the zits were a forseeable consequence of growing a new skin, and with appropriate forward planning and mitigation, a passing irritation en route to maturity.

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