Thoughts on the Destruction of the Library Universe (or something like that)

Recently, there were two articles that got my attention and gave me all those warm science geek feelings on the inside that I get when I hear something extraordinary. The first was a report I heard on NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday which raises the possibility that the laws of physics are not the same all over the universe. Specifically, that the strength of electromagnetism (the force that holds molecules together and a mathematical constant here on Earth) is found to be stronger or weaker in different parts of the universe. This means that life as we know it could never happen elsewhere because the bonds would never form or never break. In essence, the constants of the laws of physics may not be constant at all beyond our own tiny corner of the universe.

If the first story I mentioned was about bending the rules of physics, this one would be breaking them. The second article is about a set of experiments in which neutrinos were found to be traveling faster than the speed of light. Considering that “[t]he idea that nothing can exceed the speed of light in a vacuum forms a cornerstone in physics – first laid out by James Clerk Maxwell and later incorporated into Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity”, this would be some very big news indeed. While this is a long ways from being widely accepted within the scientific community, the mere notion creates wonder at what it means for the technology possibilities of the future. This is an exciting time to be alive.

In reflecting on these discoveries as it relates to the library world, the profession has certainly set forth a variety of constants (or standards or rules, whichever term you prefer). There are prevailing and controlling notions of what a library should offer its communities, how it should organize its materials, and what kinds of skills are required for the next generation of librarians. I can’t help but imagine that similar circumstances to the two scientific findings are present in the library world; that the things we like to think of as constants apply differently depending on the location and context or even go beyond the constraints that we believe exist.

Think about the constants (or some of the new constants) of the library and I want you to think about them in the context of your library. Do you really need a reference desk? Do you need to use AACR2 for cataloging? Can you measure your “output” on more than circulation, computer use, and attendance? Do you actually need a social media presence? Could you divert money away from the collection in favor of programming and services? Do you need more shelves and materials storage or couches, chairs, and benches? 

Even in limiting the scope of answers to just public libraries, I have a feeling that if you were to plot the answers there wouldn’t be a overarching consensus. Furthermore, I think it would show how absolutely fantastically diverse the public library community is (and I would daresay the same would prove true for other library types.) I contend that the constants we like to teach to the upcoming generation of librarians are actually highly contextual, remarkably situational, and possibly dangerously fixed. A lack of creativity will not kill off the profession as quickly as a lack of acknowledgement of the inherent flexibility within each library. No two libraries are truly the same, yet we try our damnedest to standardize and homogenize them through our approaches to collections, services, and design. Why is that?

I’m certain that I’ll get some pushback on this post in terms of people pointing to examples of libraries bucking or discarding something that is seen as a perfectly acceptable constant. I’m certain they exist and I applaud their efforts, but I still feel that the majority of libraries are woefully fixed to certain professional constants that may not be relevant, useful, or even pertinent. I’m looking forward to a deeper discussion in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Destruction of the Library Universe (or something like that)

  1. Yes, you will receive pushback. 🙂

    When I look at my library, and when I look at all of the changes we’ve seen over the last few years, I see a remarkable creativity, a willingness to experiment, and a kind of flexibility that I never thought possible. When I go to conferences, and when I talk to other librarians, I hear examples of similar approaches. Perhaps I’m just fortunate, but I don’t see evidence of the kind of stasis you’re writing about in this post.

    Back when I was working in the UX field (in corporations), a manager once said to me “best practices are for people who lack imagination.” While a certain amount of that is true, best practices become conventions for a reason: they’ve proven to work across a wide variety of situations. Think of how ubiquitous the “logo that links to the home page” convention is across websites. But even when faced with using best practices to help make a decision, I think most of them look as guidelines to follow, not as hard and fast rules.

    Or maybe I’m just feeling a bit more optimistic about libraries than you were when you wrote this post?

  2. What is relevant, useful, or pertinent in my library are those ideas that we contextualize in the needs of our users, the capabilities of our staff, and the culture of our institution. We bring ideas together, discuss them for validity to our situation, and then implement them (and then do a lot of troubleshooting).

    Think of consortia. Many consortia band together for economic reasons and find that their member institutions face similar issues beyond economic constraints. Best practices in this instance arise out of a shared context. While standardization may be the means, the end is a toolkit stocked with tools from your neighbors who have dealt with the same problem you now face.

    The UK manager is brave and perhaps imaginative. But with only so much time in the day and the challenges mounting all the time, why wouldn’t we avail ourselves of our collective experience? After all, that’s the basis of education: sharing what we and others before us have learned. It’s why I come into work everyday.

  3. Another great post Andy. Your ideas, and those of your commenters are the essence of my proposal for a “National Library Corporation” modeled after our public broadcasting system. Essentially, it would be a new structure that asks a fundamental question you raise in this post: what do we carry forward and what do we retire? It would incorporate the opportunities Tim notes to standardize for efficiency & quality and also free up local “affiliates” to do more of the creative work Cecily referred to.

    My vision is of a system that provides a rich substrate of core services borne of strong library values including appreciation for human potential & equal access to resources as well as the best librarianship has to offer – discernment of authoritative sources, expert reference, etc. This central foundation (the NPL) would nurture & support a rich network of local libraries that exude, preserve and strengthen what makes their communities special and distinct.

    Then, the best stuff coming out of the local affiliates (Cecily’s point about marvelous exploration and experimentation) would be incorporated into the NPL and become a resource for all participating libraries (Tim’s point about education and collective experience.)

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