Deconstructing librarianship (from the South)

Edgardo Civallero
Mar 11 · 5 min read

On true commitments and false rebellions (3 of 4)

Time taught me that over the years

one learns less than one ignores (…)

Time taught me to distrust

of what time itself has taught me.

That’s why sometimes I hope

that Time could be wrong.

Tabaré Cardozo. “What time taught me.”

Time has shown me that, despite everything and everyone, headwinds and sticks in the wheel, librarians and their libraries often come through the many difficult and conflictive situations they face. Sometimes with more than original solutions; others, not so much. And, in general, with a lot of sacrifice and effort.

I have seen libraries turn into dining rooms and cultural centers, and others publish their own homemade books, made with recycled cardboard. I have seen them organize raffles to raise funds, or rely on local artists for concerts, exhibitions or auctions for the same purpose. I have seen them join community and citizen associations to enrich their activities and be more useful to their people, and involve their patrons (not “clients”) in the reconstruction of a wall or in the painting of a ceiling. I have seen them come out to stand up for their community in very serious conflicts, and serve as a shelter in difficult times. I have seen them rise like beacons, and plunge into the trenches of citizen resistance.

None of this is written in academic manuals, none of it is in action guidelines and international recommendations. That has not been something to talk about, that has not been something to worry about, because, apparently, it has not been libraries’ business (that probably has something to do with the so-called “neutrality”, or with that “ivory tower” so often mentioned and so rarely challenged). Or because it is said that such situations are rarely reached.

Until they are.

I have seen libraries that did not resign themselves to die and became a backpack that traveled from door to door or from school to school, on the shoulders of a librarian without a place of her own (and without a salary). I have seen a thousand and one ways to overcome crises, to face issues and challenges, to stand up to them and, in many cases, to turn them around and come out stronger. I’ve seen it in small libraries. And in very large ones. Because size, big names, and major sponsoring institutions save no one from the downfall. They may just delay it.

The curious thing is that today’s librarians have not invented anything new. All we have to do is sit down and talk with an elderly colleague to hear all kinds of survival stories: for example, anecdotes of handwritten catalog cards on cardboard cut out of shoe boxes and books repaired with flour and water paste to survive one more read… They, in turn, had already heard similar stories from their predecessors (and learned their lessons). All these experiences show us that, for decades, there has been a huge gap between daily librarianship and the one taught by professors, articles, conferences and books. Academic, technical and administrative librarianship provides us with some tools (valid and valuable, of course); the rest, which is usually the most necessary, we have to learn it at our own risk. Or invent it, if it doesn’t already exist. Or receive it from others who have already created and tested it, through “informal” channels.

At this point, the big question arises: if librarianship and other disciplines related to knowledge and heritage teach us little about the daily practice of a librarian, because we are the ones who “walk the walk”, the ones who share ideas and experiences, and the ones developing new possibilities… what are they for?

Wouldn’t it be time to start to change them, to deconstruct and rebuild them or, at least, to seriously debate them, to enrich them, to twist their course towards different horizons? Wouldn’t it be time to put certain positions and statements in check, to challenge current definitions, to build theory and methods from our own perspectives and experiences, to turn our learning (successes and defeats alike) into more-or-less solid and coherent structures — structures that allow future generations not to find themselves so orphan of categories and ideas when they are at the forefront of any knowledge and memory management institution?

As much common sense as such questions seem to harbor, I doubt that they will receive any kind of answer in the near future. I detect an inveterate rigidity in the current schemes of our disciplines, protected by certain specialized academicisms, by certain statuses that do not resign themselves to giving up their place… And, why not say it, by certain ideological tendencies that prefer to persist and take refuge in a handful of stagnant statements instead to open themselves to what is happening around them: events that speak loudly of the need for change, of the urgency to rethink what we do and, above all, of how, why and what for we do it.

Despite such a notorious lack of flexibility in our small, great professional and academic universe, I know that there are currents of thought and action that have been set in motion. Many times they do it in what I call “the margins”: that wonderful and inspiring network of roads “on the side of the world” where it is allowed to experiment, fall and get back up a thousand times, and create new perspectives (or retake the old ones with another look, innovating). I firmly believe that, in this context, it would not hurt to record, organize, make visible and disseminate our experiences. Because, after all, that is the information we need the most: the one that is most difficult for us to learn and the one that is least accessible.

We need to know, then, that beyond the next manifesto, the next roundtable, the future “recommendations for…” or the top-ten digital tools for the next month, we have a lot to do. To learn more than we ignore.

And, as the old Argentinean song said, so as not to give time the opportunity to pass in vain.

Letters from a librarian in the South

Chronicles of a librarian in Galapagos & nearby

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