December 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Søren Kierkegaard, Det Kongelige Biblioteks Have, København (Royal Library Garden, Copenhagen)

Recently, there has been a lot of exciting activity regarding libraries in the United States and Britain (and beyond). No coincidence that these are also the countries where libraries have been most threatened by the current economic and political crises. It is somewhat surreal to follow this movement, especially the one in New York, from far away in Paris, where I happen to be writing a dissertation on a library movement at a different time and place. One thing I ask in my research is, why was building and expanding and supporting libraries seen as so critical in the immediate post-World War II years, and why are libraries such an easy target for cutting and closing and dismissing today. Of course I know all of the easy quick answers about changes in technology and all the new ways to receive and “read” information, etc. But I think the answer is far more complex than that and all this current activity certainly contributes to that belief. It is not just librarians and not just people over a certain age (wherever that line would be) who can be found today defending, building, supporting and loving libraries.

As a librarian I am constantly asked, do you think libraries are endangered? Do you think books will soon disappear? Do you think your future job will be anything like the job you started in? All legitimate questions I suppose (but barely), but I think that they are also very short-sighted. My frustration is the all-or-nothing hysteria with which such issues are approached, which is perhaps a particularly American trait. Either we will have libraries or we won’t have libraries! Either we will read paper books or they will no longer exist! Either we need librarians or we only need technology! Either the world is ending or it is perfect! Augh!!

I am thankful that answers in life are almost never that clear cut. I think that if more of us could become more comfortable with the in-between and the ambiguity, life might even become a bit easier.

This is why some of the above- and under-ground activism that seems to be picking up, or at least being increasingly picked up in the media, in support of books and libraries is truly inspiring and exciting. Those involved are generally not luddites and are not otherwise refusing technological innovation. Most probably have a blog or twitter account or Facebook page or are otherwise active in social media. They are not all or nothing but they do understand how and why people might still be looking for the right book at the right moment.

Having recently left New York, I can’t help but wonder if I might have gotten involved in the Occupy Wall Street Library. Or if anyone I know is spending time there. Many people ask, what is the point of such protests? They won’t change anything in the long run. Maybe that’s true. But I think that any small steps taken toward encouraging questioning, pushing, debating, arguing, creating, expanding, what people are thinking and doing a bit further and a bit wider, are unquestionably worthwhile.

The problem arises when people think of libraries as ONLY places where you can borrow books. Very few libraries are only that any more, if they ever even were in the first place. And when people think of librarians as ONLY people who check out the books to you and tell you where the bathroom is. Librarians have ALWAYS been much more than that.

Lending Library, Paris, 75003 

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