Tuesday, 20 September 2011

From Gods to humans: the values of libraries

There have always been links between libraries and certain moral values particularly those embodied in religions. Throughout the centuries, libraries have survived by adapting and moulding themselves to fit the predominant values of the time: from the religious narratives of past civilisations through the growth of the Enlightenment and scientific values into whatever theological milieu we occupy now. Libraries have shifted their role, changed their values, and even taken on some of the traditional functions of religions in order to fit the society around them.

Wei T'O, protector of libraries
Religious values dominated society for centuries and arguably still do. In ancient cultures, writing was a kind of power and so libraries were important places for scholarship and theology and mysterious places to those who couldn’t decipher the written word. ‘Knowledge deities’ – gods devoted to writing, learning, letters, or calligraphy – were assigned to protect libraries. One of the only dedicated ‘gods of libraries’ is Wei T’O, the ancient Chinese god who was patron of libraries and books. According to this unusually corporate website, "Wei T'o, an ancient Chinese god, protects books against destruction from fire, worms and insects, and robbers, big or small." Laura Payne pointed me to Seshat, the ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom, knowledge, and writing: her name means ‘she who scrivens’ and she was credited with inventing writing. Later, another strand of mythology from Hermopolis developed with Thoth as the god of wisdom and scribes which led to Seshat’s priestesses being usurped and the goddess taking a subservient position as Thoth’s daughter or wife. In ancient Babylon, Nabu protected clay tablets; in Hinduism, Ganesh who has the head of an elephant has the equivalent memory of an elephant and so is associated with scholarship and knowledge; the Aztec and Mayan god, Quetzalcoatl, was the purported inventor of books and the calendar. Christianity in various areas has Saint Lawrence (Europe), Saint Jerome (US and Canada), and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Orthodox) as patron saints of libraries.

As these religions died, libraries’ moral values changed to fit the changes in society. Michael Gorman, the past president of the American Library Association, identified eight central values for librarianship in his book, Our Enduring Values. These include such familiar values as service, equality of access, and intellectual freedom (celebrated next week by the ALA’s Banned Books Week). One that embodies the values of a certain time period is ‘rationalism’: Gorman said that libraries are “children of the Enlightenment and of rationalism”. Libraries may predate the Enlightenment but they were peculiarly suited to the values and philosophy of the time: the sense that the universe can be understood through knowledge; the idea that collecting information can lead to a model of reality; that organising, classifying, and bringing order out of chaos is a good in and of itself. Jonathan I. Israel said that during the Enlightenment, a “general process and rationalization and secularization set in which rapidly overthrew theology’s age-old hegemony in the world of study”. The Enlightenment may represent the start of the decline of religion but it was a time in which libraries adapted and thrived.

The British Museum's Enlightenment room previously contained King George's Library

In fact, it can be argued that libraries took over some of the traditional functions of religion. We frequently hear libraries referred to as ‘temples’ – temples of learning or temples to the written word. In her book, Sacred Stacks, Naomi K. Maxwell gives examples of quasi-spiritual functions of libraries: some librarians may feel as their work is for a higher purpose; libraries connect us to the past and help us remember our ancestors; libraries can provide a sense of the immortal and unchanging (the perception of libraries as islands of stability and conservatism (with a small C) may explain some people’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to council’s plans to close public libraries (and of course closing libraries is a genuinely bad idea)).

Now the world is changing again: in the current philosophical zeitgeist, Enlightenment values are outdated. John Gray has written about the decline of Enlightenment values and the emergence of a world in which intellectual progress does not equal moral progress as previously assumed ie. constant improvement in intellectual and scientific knowledge will not necessarily lead to constant improvement in human wellbeing. The future is not necessarily better than the past. According to Gray, Western society has a mythology of its own – an Enlightenment narrative no more true than the mythologies and narratives of ancient civilisations. “Western societies are ruled by the myth that, as the rest of the world absorbs science and becomes modern, it is bound to become secular, enlightened, and peaceful – as, contrary to all evidence, they imagine themselves to be.”

This is not an image to accompany the text
In the 21st Century, we occupy an age of postmodernism, existentialism, and post-Enlightenment values. The creeds of religion and the Enlightenment are becoming less relevant: in the words of King Crimson, “The wall on which the prophets wrote / Is cracking at the seams.” The philosophical fashion is for subjectivity of knowledge and reality as a social construct rather than an object which can be modelled. With this line of thought, what becomes of the Enlightenment model of reality, the library? In our post-rationalist age of subjectivity, is ‘rationalism’ still a central value of librarianship and do libraries have a place as storehouses of objective knowledge? Do libraries need to adapt their values again?

It does seem that librarians share some core values à la Gorman’s eight values. Obviously library and information workers don’t all think or feel the same way. But I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts as to what shared values and ideals are shared by library people (if any).



This post was inspired by a Twitter conversation with Dave Pattern which was ostensibly about OPACs until I got sidetracked, thrust my head into the clouds, and started thinking about hokey religions and ancient mythologies. Thanks Dave!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

UK Government rejects idea of National Digital Library

This afternoon, Ian Clark pointed out this TheyWorkForYou answer from the UK Minister in charge of libraries, Ed Vaizey. Asked “whether he has considered the merits of establishing a national digital library service”, Mr. Vaizey replied: 

We have no plans at present to establish a national digital library service. However, local authorities continue to provide remote access for their users to catalogues, e-books and online reference resources and the UK remains a partner in Europeana—the European Digital Library network which provides access, through its website, to objects from cultural institutions within the European Union. 

(Note that, in true politician style, this doesn’t answer the question posed.)

In a previous article about developing a UK National Digital Library, I named the British Library and/or the BBC as potential institutions which could undertake the project. I deliberately did not mention the UK Government and I did this for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t think the Government should develop an NDL. It would be a concern for any state to have such control over such a large body of information and the country’s cultural heritage. Though a National Digital Library would need to be publicly funded (a. in order to be ‘national’ and b. to avoid the pitfalls of private-sector ownership of shared cultural resources), it would not be beneficial for it to be under the direct control of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The DCMS is a Government department and is under the whims of whichever political party is in power: the reason to worry about this is not because the current Government cannot be trusted but because such power has the potential to be abused by successive governments. A National Digital Library could however be government-led under the control of a quango with a suitably high degree of autonomy (the Arts Council England, for example). But this leads to the second reason I didn’t mention the government: I don’t think the current Coalition Government would develop an NDL. Thus far the Coalition hasn’t shown education to be one of its core values and Ed Vaizey has shown no inclination to expand the UK’s library service (demonstrably the opposite, in fact). The Government’s public spending cuts leave no room for bold expansive projects for the future of education and culture. 

That said, it’s disappointing that Vaizey so casually dismisses the notion of a UK National Digital Library. His answer doesn’t show any sign that it’s an idea they are considering or that could be effected if more money were available. There are simply “no plans at present”. It’s most unfortunate because this is an opportune time to make a National Digital Library and the UK should do so before it’s too late. Other governments are investing in the idea for their own countries: notably France (Gallica as part of the Bibliothèque nationale), Norway (NBdigital) and the United States (the Digital Public Library of America and other projects). It seems naïve and foolish to have no plans and no plans to develop plans. 

Vaizey’s answer confirms that the Coalition Government will not provide a National Digital Library. We need to look elsewhere for an organisation willing enough, bold enough, and with enough foresight to work on such an important project.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Things 15 and 16 - Events, Advocacy, and Writing

In an effort to catch up on 23 Things for Professional Development (or CPD23: my other posts are here), here are a couple of Things.

Thing 15 - Conferences and events

Thing 15 is about conferences, seminars, and events. This year I’ve been lucky enough to attend several library-type events (partly thanks to the generosity and support of my current employers Nord Anglia Education (by the way, you can now apply for my job which is a great opportunity for people new to the profession who want to learn the ropes of librarianship)).

From Sarah Ison's New Professionals Conference photos.
There are loads of benefits to attending events and these are just some of the most important ones to me. The first is the opportunity to break out of my environment. I (currently) work in a fairly restrictive, isolated, and cloistered environment: when I first started working at the Army College, I felt cut off from the world of librarianship in which I was immersed during my Masters. Events and conferences have allowed me to reconnect with the wider librarian community, look past my own four walls, and feel that I’m not alone – that other people share my interests, my concerns, and my ambitions. Particularly for young librarians, events enable a wider point of view and confer a knowledge of one’s place in The Profession. This leads to the second benefit which is meeting new people and old friends. We librarians are spread across the country, across sectors, across the world. Sure, we can connect through Twitter or email but nothing beats face-to-face communication for sparking a connection with other people and having real discussions about the topics we’re interested in. And then there are the benefits that Katie mentions in the blog post: “feeling more inspired, motivated, or capable”. Getting out of work is exciting but a key benefit of attending events is the impact they can have when you get back to work. Perhaps you’ll have a new idea about doing things in a different way; perhaps you can work on a project with someone you met; or perhaps you just feel reinvigorated with a renewed appreciation of librarianship. 

This year I was also lucky to be asked to present at a couple of events: I presented a paper at the CILIP Library and Information History Group Conference and I co-presented a workshop at the CILIP New Professionals Conference. Doing my first presentation was scary – being fairly young and by no means an expert on library and information history, I was terrified of reading my paper in front of so many people more intelligent than me – but good things are often scary. Both presentations turned out to massively rewarding experiences: as well as developing my presentation skills for future jobs (and job interviews), I discovered that I enjoyed the immediacy of the presentation format. I enjoy writing: that’s a whole other blog post suffice to say that there’s something about constructing a well-formed argument or a beautiful turn of phrase that appeals to me. I discovered that by presenting something that I’ve written, I get to see the immediate impact of my words and my argument and I get to discuss criticisms or ramifications with the people who’ve engaged with the piece. So presenting at conferences is something that I enjoy doing, that develops my career, and that, as mentioned above, helps me to connect with other people in The Profession. It’s scary but good things often are. 

Thing 16 - Advocacy

Thing 16 is about advocacy, activism, and publication on behalf of libraries (ably written by my Voices for the Library buddy, Lauren). I believe that, as professionals, advocating for our libraries is not only our duty but it’s something that we should be doing naturally. 

Premise 1: I enjoy librarianship and I love libraries. 
Premise 2: If I enjoy and love something, then I will enjoy talking about it. 
Conclusion: I enjoy talking about librarianship and libraries. 

An advocacy poster from Ned 'thewikiman' Potter

Aside from this kind of day-to-day advocacy with family, friends, and colleagues, I advocate for my library at work (which – for those applying for the job – can be a challenge with the military staff), I try to advocate for a UK National Digital Library (an idea I feel passionate about), and I do a little for public libraries as part of the Voices for the Library campaign group (radio stuff, writing, marching, keeping an eye on the news, etc.). 

Advocacy comes down to doing what you can do and taking what action you can take on behalf of the things that you love. As mentioned above, one of the things that I can do is write so I try to advocate through that. Whether it’s deliberately writing for a publication after having an idea (as happened with my Guardian article on ebooks) or writing something for my blog and then deciding it’s good enough to publish (as happened with my Guardian article on Google Books and my CILIP Update article on National Digital Libraries). When I write something, I want it be read and so I try to get it spread as far as possible: this can spread the word about libraries or about an issue I’m passionate about. That’s just how I feel I can best advocate: other people may vary. 

As Lauren mentioned, library advocacy has taken a step-up recently. Advocacy is becoming an increasingly important skill to learn for young librarians since more and more libraries and library staff have to justify their existence. Every librarian should be advocating what they do and, particularly in the UK, public libraries need our support and need voices shouting for the people who can’t.