Some deliberation over aims and strategies is normal enough, but in most libraries there’s been an exceptional amount for some time now, indicating a widespread feeling that far reaching change is necessary or inevitable, but also uncertainty about what change is required. Change is upon libraries, but what change?
Libraries have been undergoing deep and far reaching change for a long time now so the expectation that more change is on the way must mean that the original problem requiring change has not been resolved, or was only partially resolved, or has intensified, or has changed into another problem or several problems. Libraries are in the middle of something – a storm, a convergence of storms, a perfect storm.
Despite this the popular conception of libraries as timeless and unchanging remains remarkably intact. How can institutions that have been wracked by change for many years now and face an uncertain future still be considered timeless and unchanging? What exactly are people thinking about when they think about libraries in this way? And what implications does this have for libraries?
My library is running a series of structured conversations for staff about the future of libraries, an initial step in a renewed approach to strategic planning. I usually avoid this sort of thing, not out of a lack of interest but simply because I dread the prospect of not clearly saying what I mean. But this time I threw caution to the wind and went along.
I’m always struck by the quite utopian terms people resort to when they talk about libraries – empowerment, growth, freedom, identity, belonging and so on. Another thing that strikes me, which I suppose goes along with the choice of terms, is how people say them – guardedly at first, and then excitedly and with relief when they notice that they’re making sense. I sat quietly listening to my colleagues, many who I’d never come across before, bring to the surface obviously deeply felt ideas.
In one of the breakout groups I joined someone said they’d always thought of libraries as “parks for the mind”. A discussion ensued about what sort of parks libraries might be – wildernesses, or carefully designed and cultivated parks. Someone else said that you can get lost in the wilderness, or eaten by bears, and you’re not meant to get lost in libraries, or eaten. In a library you’re meant to be able to find your way. Another person worried about who gets to decide where the paths go. The group was divided about whether there had to be park keepers or whether the park could be crowd sourced. Then there was a discussion about maps; that as long as there were maps you wouldn’t need paths. Someone protested that map reading is not always easy and that some people would need paths. Everyone agreed that that would be OK. Then the person who introduced the mind park idea mentioned that she’d recently began to think it wasn’t such a good metaphor anyway and that someone should try and do better. She also said she had a particular park in mind – the High Line Park in New York, built on a 2.33 km section of a disused elevated rail line, which runs along the lower west side of Manhattan.
The High Line in Manhattan, New York City at West 20th Street, looking downtown (south)
I came away from both conversations I attended feeling unexpectedly uplifted – not because everybody had agreed with each other (they hadn’t), or even because it was fun (which it was) – but because we’d begun to get at something important – the promise of libraries. I reflected on how lucky I was that coming to work meant continuously basking in the bright warm rays of a burning promise. But I did wonder about the gap that has to be crossed – between the promise and its fulfillment, metaphor and reality – and what a library like the High Line Park would do differently from any other library.
In most people’s minds libraries are identified with a deeply felt sense of promise. Thus libraries are imagined as relatively timeless and unchanging, even though they’ve been wracked by change for years. It’s the timeless promise people think about when they think about libraries.
The idea that libraries are imagined with a deep sense of promise is straightforward enough. However it is a little strange that the promise of libraries doesn’t seem to necessarily depend on actual contact with libraries. Libraries are highly valued by most people who use them frequently, but the same is true of a great many infrequent users and even non users. Why would you highly value something that you hardly ever, or never, use? It may be that the promise of libraries is always traceable to past experience – particularly the first experience of the possibilities of any decent library. What’s strange is that it seems to be able to endure with little or no ongoing affirmation.
It’s stranger still that beyond anchoring how libraries are imagined, the promise of libraries seems to autonomously shape how libraries are actually experienced. A very high proportion of library users identify their experience in libraries as being towards the enrichment/growth end of the spectrum, but, oddly, the proportion doesn’t vary all that much with what people actually do in libraries. It is to be expected that people undertaking in-depth research in a library, or attending an exhibition or an event in a library, feel they’re doing something quite special, but people using libraries for what are conventionally considered more prosaic purposes – hanging out with friends, doing homework, messaging, quietly gazing into space and so on – feel the same way surprisingly often, more often than would be the case in a different setting.
We feel good about libraries, regardless of the extent to which they practically figure in our lives, and when we’re in them, we feel good pretty much regardless of what we do. The promise of libraries has a potency of its own.
At 10th Avenue Square in High Line Park, a window over the avenue provides unusual views
We’re all so captive to an empirical, utilitarian mindset that any proposition that ideas may autonomously shape how the world is imagined, let alone how it’s actually experienced, is likely to be considered absurd. Surely it’s always the other way round – that what we think and feel comes from out there – that if people imagine and experience libraries as great it must be because they are great.
The proposition that the promise of libraries operates autonomously of the reality of libraries may even offend some for its hard not to take it as detracting from the reality; as implying that it doesn’t really matter what libraries do. However, I’m not proposing anything like that. In marketing terminology all I’m saying is that the library ‘brand’ is so strong that it becomes part of the experience. Strong brands do this; they become part of the experience, sometimes a big part.
The potency of the promise of libraries elicits the fierce loyalty of communities, which perpetuates the favour of governments, but also gives libraries leeway in undertaking the difficult work of adapting to structural change. It means that libraries can afford to take the sort of risks that successfully negotiating structural change requires. From the perspective of library workers the promise of libraries is motivating, or is solace in coping with tumultuous change.
But on the other hand the promise’s bright burning light can be blinding or intoxicating. When you can be loved for a promise it’s perilously easy to slip into the habit of simply invoking the promise in lieu of actually fulfilling it. Worse still, you can start to believe that invoking the promise is the same as fulfilling it.
I showed a draft of this post to my eighteen year old son. “Not bad”, he said, “but you keep talking about the promise of libraries and saying it’s wonderful and timeless and so on, without saying what it is. You need to say what it is.”
“I did say what it is”, I protested, “it’s like a park”. He looked at me sceptically, waiting for me to go on. “You know – empowerment, growth, freedom, identity, belonging … timeless, unchanging sorts of things”. He still looked at me sceptically.
“But how are you going to know what to do?”
High Line Park, New York - Looking along the 20th Street overpass as the sun sets
Up until about twenty years ago libraries could successfully fulfill their promise by doing pretty much what they’d always done. Now it seems that’s no longer enough – without it being clear what now is enough. Even so, the promise of libraries continues to burn brightly, but inevitably it will increasingly need to be replenished, which, amidst massive structural change, will depend on libraries having an increasingly acute understanding of exactly what their promise is.
I think of the faces of my colleagues at the conversations about the future of libraries I attended, their brows furrowed a little and their eyes turned inwards as they struggled to say what they meant, pulling up to the surface shining words like freedom, growth, empowerment, identity and belonging and metaphors about parks, and then the glee with which they tossed these words and metaphors amongst themselves.
We venture gamely out to our metaphors, sign-posts somewhere along the lonely road between the promise of libraries and its fulfillment. An option for libraries is to retreat from their promise, even under cover of actively invoking it, to withdraw to only a small part of it – a particular point of difference or a popular bit, or to manufacture an entirely new promise. The alternative is to travel the extra distance between metaphor and reality.
How would a library like New York’s High Line Park be different from any other library? What would its users actually do there; what would be there? What would the High Line Library actually do; how would it know what to do … how would it arrive at its aims and strategies? How would the ways that knowledge, creativity and energy flow and multiply amongst its workers, entirely by which any organisation comes to be what it is, be superior to any other library? These are all questions that cry out for definite answers; that call for more gleeful conversations.