I believe I’ve found a marginally useful purpose for spam comments. While removing ads for various pharmaceuticals or warnings about the dangers of live blogging (no, really), I occasionally glance back over an old post or two. While this is often a little painful, I’ve found myself returning to this post about cultural self-awareness regularly (spammers love it). It’s an issue I think we still struggle with – the cultural niche of libraries.
Happily, I think we’ve moved past the “slap a wiki on it and call me in the morning” phase of our relationship with online tools. I think our collective adoption of Twitter went a lot more smoothly and has turned out better than our tumultuous affair with MySpace, though the same could be said for almost everyone who uses the internet.
We’ve even improved our ability to adapt organizationally (and professionally) to the cultures of online communities. But I think we’re still wrestling with our cultural significance. We’re still stamping our feet and shouting that we’re so much more than warehouses filled with books and wondering if anyone’s listening.
We may never completely shed the image of the hallowed hall of books. We may not want to. As anyone who has ever worked in a public library knows, any new service, program, furniture covering, any change at all, really, brings out the museum of library folks. People (and age is not a factor here – there are teenagers with false nostalgia for the library of yore and Sarah already grappled with some of the ramifications of attempting to be cool) who tell the staff that they remember when libraries were quiet, serious places where you were surrounded by books and there weren’t all of these whatever-it-is-they-don’t-like.
We can’t afford to be the museum of the library, in a lovely Carnegie building that smells of wood polish and books. No one will fund that (if you’ll fund that, please call me). However, there’s a powerful cultural pull that even the most technologically savvy of us feel. I feel it every time I’m in a library that smells like my childhood library or one that has nice woodwork.
There’s been a fair amount of discussion online about both the echo chamber within the biblioblogosphere (and its twitter counterpart) and the stereotype of the librarian in broader culture lately, which seem to be perennial topics among bibliobloggers. We all know we’re doing great things, we’re so much more than a book warehouse, etc etc, but how do we get the message out when we’re talking to each other? Fortunately, we have allies like Marilyn Johnson advocating for libraries and the “more than just books” services and experiences we provide. But we seem hard pressed to maintain the outside of our circle publicity ourselves (with the occasional exception).
So much of what the public library does is local. Pick up any newspaper and you’ll see library announcements. Around here, sites like Patch offer excellent library coverage. But our larger cultural image hasn’t shifted too much.
Does it matter, though? As each library responds and adapts to its community’s needs, the embedded in the American psyche image of the library doesn’t stop that response. It can make the argument to fund innovation more difficult, but getting anything funded is hard.
Should we be trying to topple that nearly sacred image of the library? One tremendously important thing we’ve inherited from that sacred image is a certain level of trustworthiness, cultural authority and honesty. We might be better served building on and around it. We can’t control the archetype of Library and we’ll only look foolish by whining about it.
I’m sure no one’s missed the irony of all of us talking about the echo chamber to each other. The echo chamber isn’t a problem (in fact, I believe it’s often known as “professional dialogue”) as long as we continue to make an effort to reach out to our communities. We’re also fortunate to have ambassadors like Michael Stephens, who is connecting not just with librarians on the other side of the world, but also with other professions. He’s not just bringing back good ideas for us to crib from EDUCAUSE (like providing video of everything) but he’s also enhancing and supplementing the image of librarians in the minds of a roomful of educators (not to mention everyone who watches the video).
The sooner we make peace with the fact that for the foreseeable future, every article about video games, augmented reality, time travel, hot new tech at the library is going to start with “you thought that libraries were about buns and books! But look, you can learn how to harness the power of wormholes at the library!” the happier we’ll be. Yes, our marketing skills need work, but marketing is inherently about promoting something positive, not insisting that people drop their beloved images of libraries. Someday, librarians will be complaining to each other about patrons who miss ye olde library where you could come for quiet contemplation and the chance to crush your friends in a Mario Kart tournament.