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.