The Library is Empty. Your Move! (A Thought Experiment)

Oleg Kagan
Aug 17 · 3 min read

This is a thought experiment. There are a lot of conversations in our culture about what a library is, what it’s becoming, and what it should be. Let’s imagine that the library is empty. Is it a room of books? No. Is it a place where the librarian provides research assistance? No. Is it a makerspace? No. Is it a co-working space? No. Does it lend out tools and toys? No.

Well, maybe. But it depends on you!

The library is empty and you need to fill it. What is the first thing you do? Do you envision a building? A bookmobile? Is it even a container? Maybe your library starts with a librarian on a laptop in a coffee shop. Maybe it’s a dirt circle in the park. Where do you begin?

What do you do next? Whether you created a stately building (maybe a Carnegie Library?) or a contemporary masterwork like the Rem Koolhaas-designed Seattle Central Library, or what if your library did not begin with a container? What if your library began with a person. Who would that person be? What would they be like? Do they have a job title?

What if your library began with a statement? I didn’t say it had start with something material, did I? Maybe your library originated with an idea that you made real by shaping it with language? What words would your library contain?

Okay, what do you do next? If your library began with a 3D printer, do you print a table for it? What an elegant thing to do! But not strictly a necessity, your library can be created in whatever order you want; it doesn’t have to be sequential. Though you do have to create it one thing at a time and one might assume that the first is more important than the second.

So, if your library started with a shelf full of books, I’d be curious what those books were. How did you choose them? Then I might ask: Where would those books live? Its a trick question though because this is your library and those books could live only in your mind! Isn’t it interesting how whatever you choose to fill your library is also an expression of your values?

What is third in your library? Is it one thousand of the latest laptops? One thousand?? Sure, why not? I didn’t say you had to have one of something. Ideas, for example, like privacy, access, the freedom to read, and the commons, contain multitudes! Maybe the first, second, or third thing that comprises your library is a community? That could be a lot of people or just two. How you define the community or communities that make up your library is up to you!

This thought experiment is hard, isn’t it? Our libraries are so many things to so many people. But this isn’t about other people. This is about your library. So what’s the fourth thing you add? Look, you don’t actually have to add a fourth thing at all. Maybe you’re a minimalist.

Perhaps the fourth thing you add is a certain percentage of the city, state, or federal budget in perpetuity. I didn’t say your library needs money to run. This is your world, after all! But if it does, it might be nice to keep your library flush with cash. Hey, that could be the first thing your library is, a stack of bills. But I don’t want to presume.

What’s number five? Does it make a difference if you can only get five things to make up your library. Would you go and revise some of the others? That’s fine, but do remember what you chose when you thought this exercise was infinite.

What did your library end up being? I’d love to know. In some ways, library workers, trustees, board members, Friends of the Library, involved community members, occasional library users, and the rest of our society play a limited version of this game every day. So, the library is empty. Your move!


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EveryLibrary

Stories about libraries and librarians around America. We cover the breadth of experiences that people have through their libraries, and showcase the amazing people who work there.

Oleg Kagan

Written by

Writer and librarian. More at lifeinoleg.com

EveryLibrary

Stories about libraries and librarians around America. We cover the breadth of experiences that people have through their libraries, and showcase the amazing people who work there.

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