Libraries and structural change 7

In my last post I discussed the ‘promise’ of libraries remarking that it appears to float remarkably freely from anything in particular that libraries do. Because it is amorphous and strange, yet also powerful and therefore not easily ignored, the promise of libraries, may come to be distrusted as a form of irrational sentimentality; dismissed in favour of something more solidly utilitarian – improved educational outcomes for instance, or social cohesion or even economic growth. But you can be useful without being loved and you can be loved without being useful. Usually the reasons for love aren’t clear. Love is a mystery; it floats notoriously freely from rational argument or explanation. Everyone knows that.

Libraries are much loved institutions. This isn’t incidental to what they are or to their continued existence. In fact it can only be central; love being up there in the field of human concerns. We want libraries to continue to be much loved institutions. It would be a terrible loss if they ceased to be that. Thus understanding the predicament of libraries, what to do about them, or with them, at this critical juncture in their history, must entail at least brief consideration of love.

Love is inertial; it may endure without any basis in reality; by the warm glow of a promise alone; or it may be rooted in some combination of promise and reality. Certainly it is rarely rooted solely in reality and is not sustainably rooted in promise alone. Sooner or later the original impetus exhausts itself; sunlight turns to starlight, emitting only theoretical warmth.

It’s always a relief to be loved. Bathed in love’s euphoric glow, whether the love springs from promise or its fulfilment may seem immaterial. But the trouble with being loved for a promise is that at some point the promise has to be fulfilled.

The gap between promise and fulfilment is a sea gap, bridged by what we do; what libraries do - the practice of libraries. Sometimes, suddenly, cataclysmically, sea gaps widen, or reefs and shoals appear where there had been none, rendering the old maps useless, or worse. In the event of such upheaval, plying the once familiar gap between promise and its fulfilment ceases to be a matter of doing what you’d always done, no matter how conscientiously.

It’s not difficult to arouse people’s feelings about libraries. Perhaps uniquely, libraries lend themselves to rhetoric normally reserved for national constitutions: The object of this Act is to contribute to the social cultural and intellectual development of all Queenslanders, heralds State Library’s enabling legislation. Existing to support the free flow of information and ideas, libraries have a special responsibility to oppose the infringement of intellectual freedom, including infringement by omission – neglect of the needs of individuals and communities – and by commission – exclusion, the violation of privacy and censorship, proclaims State Library’s Intellectual Freedom Policy

Rhetoric has its place; it kindles the promise’s fire. It’s always reassuring to feel the promise’s vitality and warmth. You can be far from home, lost on an unfamiliar road, and there the promise appears, through an open door before you, burning brightly; a vision of things, as vital and relevant as ever.

On the other hand, huddling at the promise’s hearth can too easily become a substitute for continuing the journey: refusing the snug torpor of dream but every day pushing further along the road, pushing the road further along; feeling the exhilaration and dread of unfamiliarity, having good days and bad, but always honouring a promise.

It’s pleasing when the stories we need to be true actually turn out to be true and troubling and sometimes a lot worse when they don’t. Aversion to thinking that the ending won’t be happy may induce blindness to evidence pointing to this outcome. In this situation the implicit and dreaded expectation – that the story is turning out to be, well, just a story, its foothold in reality crumbling away – becomes self-fulfilling, for without the drift towards a feared predicament being unflinchingly observed and acknowledged nothing at all can possibly done to arrest and reverse it. It’s important to see clearly, to use the promise responsibly, to illuminate how it might be honoured; as compass more than justification; not just as a way of keeping warm.

Beyond about twenty years ago it was possible for libraries and librarians to be good simply by conscientiously doing what they’d always done, conscientiously following a certain fairly stable, time honoured set of practices. Sea crossings were routine and ship wrecks and other accidents at sea rare; roads passed through familiar, secure territory; being a library wasn’t a voyage of discovery.

About twenty years ago all of this began not to be true. Sea gaps began to widen, reefs and shoals began to appear where there had been none; the old roads began to fall short of the promise. What it meant to be a good library, a good librarian, fundamentally unchanging for generations, began to change. And yet, even as the terms of its fulfilment continue to dramatically shift the promise continues to burn as brightly as ever before.

When structural change undermines the efficacy of inherited, time honoured practices inevitably it’s not clear what to do. The natural initial response to the beleaguerment of a deeply felt promise is consternation and confusion. Naturally, the prospect of the sundering of practice and promise becoming permanent, the idea that for entirely mysterious reasons something wonderful is irrevocably doomed, causes degrees of sadness.

Not knowing what to do can be unnerving. Discovering new routes to the fulfilment of a persistent promise takes time, patience and goodwill; even a little compassion and forgiveness. It requires grasping the promise directly; being alive to its fulfilment, knowing and valuing deep down what it means for someone, anyone, to see, feel, understand something new, something transformative, for the first time. Counterintuitively – and counter to most ways of thinking the future of libraries – it requires looking backwards – back to the time when practice cleaved closely to promise. We need to remember what we’re trying to be, as a condition of formulating new ways of doing that in radically transformed conditions.


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Thank you for your comment. Waiting is part of the life of every human being. To be more precise, and though I don’t like to relate every thing to the political situation, I would say waiting has been intensified by the siege. Waiting is never judged by its conclusion; we never know how much we’d love to be waiting if we could know what is waiting us on the other side.