A couple of questions have been rattling around my mind over the last week or so. It’s the kind of stuff that lurks in the background and creeps into your mind in the moments between things like commuting to and from work and trying to go to sleep. As you might tell from the time when this is posted, it has been keeping me up to the point where the bed becomes the sum of all irritations: too warm to lay on, the pillows aren’t right, and the sheets won’t settle just right. But enough about that.
A few days ago, I sent out a tweet asking if libraries are moving towards building moments or monuments. (For clarification, I meant moments as experience based services and programming and monuments as enduring collections of, well, whatever.) The quick and easy answer is “it depends” because contextually it really does matter based on the community needs as influenced by culture, history, demographics, income, and a myriad of other population statistics.
I keep coming back to the phrase “one size fits one”; that there are enough unique factors that make it unwise to generalize aspects of the library when it comes to how it interacts with its service population. The judgment of whether a service, program, or concept is good should not be limited to whether it can be duplicated, but whether it works for the library’s community.
However, the kind of thing that really keeps me up at night is thinking whether I’m working on projects for my library that will be one when it should be the other. To torture the terminology some more, it’s the thought that I am making a monument when it should really be a moment. That’s the kind of healthy self-doubt I have, although whether it is healthy for my sleeping habits is another story.
Also, another question recurs in my thoughts: if we were building libraries today from scratch, would the final product match what we currently have? Granted, it’s invariably a ‘no’ given the hindsight that exists between when the doors are first opened to the present day. But the service models, the collections, hell, even the buildings: would they be the same?
In my mind, it’s still a “no”; but a healthy kind of no since the present form of the library relies so much on history. A history of a government service, the constant struggle for the relatively unregulated expression of ideas, and the establishment of the institution in the culture and community. Yes, there are things we can do better but we aren’t dealing with some of the pressures of the modern information brokers. Personally, I think the library remains a greater cultural touchstone; the people of the future will still be talking about Alexandria hundreds of years from now when campuses of Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Cupertino are long gone. (The nice thing about this prediction is that if I’m proven wrong I’ll be long dead and won’t have to hear about it.)
If “no” is the most sensible answer, it does beg the question as to what we can do to change some of our practices to meet that hypothetical “built from scratch” library. Sometimes I pause at work and think, “if this building was opening today, would I still want this (X)?” It really gives me pause at times to look at things for what they are: are we doing it because it’s ideal or because it’s what we’ve always done? Are we doing it because it’s right or because it’s easy? Are we doing it because it’s what the community wants or what we think they want?
I’m starting to finally fade so this means a few things: first, I’m not going to be able to edit this so I fully anticipate some missing or misspelled words that will drive me nuts later. Second, even in writing to get these things out, it is starting to bring up more questions. Being a librarian who is an agnostic with anxiety is the trifecta of question generation. “What if” and “what about” are inquiry staples around here. Last, I wonder what other people think about these things. Am I onto something? Or am I just a tired person trying to make sense of his professional life while his mind and bedding rebels against him?
Questions, questions, questions.