The Problem with What a Library is?

The National Archives building (via Wikipedia)

Throughout my life, I’ve had a bizarre relationship with libraries. Bizarre because, as a child, I didn’t particularly like to read, though, for some reason, I still liked going to the library. I’m sure I didn’t intellectualize it back then, or even examine my reasons for enjoying a space designed and functioning as the dispensary of a product (books) that I didn’t much care for. Then it also dawned on me that the pleasant feeling I got from being in proximity to books, with the disdain I felt toward reading them, isn’t all that unusual. Libraries are not just a place where one might go to indulge in a particular recreation. There is, at once, both a simplistic and really complicated and convoluted metaphysics to Libraries, the idea of a library: what a library is. And it’s bigger than the books they carry.

On its face it’s a deceitfully simple question: what is a library? I assume that when most people think the word “library,” their thoughts make a B-line to an image of a quaint, local, public library, one probably built in a style similar to a small Roman temple or a rural Baptist church (though, with a shorter steeple); that library where you sat as a child on the brightly colored circular rug and listened to the grey-permed librarian read in a soft, maternal voice and display in a slow, rotating semi-circle the brightly colored illustrations of Clifford being a Big Red Dog in front of things that aren’t quite as big as he. So because the public library is, pretty much by default, every citizen-of-a-modern-western-culture’s first experience with any kind of library, it’s image sticks. And because one’s first experience (as with pretty much everything) defines and colors all later experience with that thing, the concept of a public library defines the greater categorization of library writ large, of all libraries.

But the term ‘library’ encompasses more than public library systems. You could pretty much throw a stone and hit a library of some other stripe: university libraries, museum libraries, corporate libraries, digital libraries (though you couldn’t hit it with a stone), music libraries, architecture libraries, on and on. All of which have different lending privileges, collection policies, missions, and many of which have some sort of archive, which is an even more difficult concept to define or separate from an “ordinary library” (whatever that means).

Let’s try it anyway: how might one distinguish a library from an archive? The easy answer would be that a library allows patrons to leave the building with the material they (the library) owns, an archive does not. Except that statement is true about as often as it’s not. There are whole collections in most libraries that cannot leave the building, and frequent exceptions made to the ban on taking archival material out of the archives. So then maybe the distinction lies in what they collect, libraries collect books, and archives collect pretty much everything else: letters, paintings, photographs, manuscripts, 1st drafts of novels complete with coffee stains and editor’s marginalia, newspapers, propaganda posters, maps, flags, Betsy Ross’s sowing needle, General Lee’s belt buckle, the napkin on which Michael Collins furiously scribbled to vent his frustrations about Neil Armstrong hogging all the glory of the first moon landing, etc. etc. But libraries hold miscellanea such as this too, and archives certainly hold books, so that distinction breaks down pretty quickly.

We also might distinguish between the two by pointing out that an archive keeps everything it collects and a library does not, necessarily. Though a library does tend to weed it’s shelves of old, unused books to allow room for newer materials more frequently than an archive would, an archive is not the eternal resting place for all important communications (see blog post above). So again, we don’t have much to stand on. A vague idea maybe, but one that seems able to take on any shape, which is to say, has no shape at all.

And this is to say nothing about the other “archives” one can’t go but ten seconds without running into: phones archiving texts and photos, your computer archiving emails and browser histories, iPad archiving movies and music. Even outside the digital world the murkiness doesn’t end. Say we compare the kind of archival collections that an institution might acquire with the collections of, say, a twelve year old girl who compulsively saves every sticker and photograph and movie-ticket stub, diligently gluing them into her scrapbook. The distinction here (I can already hear the rebuffs) is in matters of public importance. The archive collects materials of local, national, and historical importance. But says who? And to whom is it important? That little girl’s scrap book is probably going to be pretty important to her parents, and maybe her grandparents, too. And what if she wins her school’s student-government election and becomes school president, then we might imagine the possibility that her bejeweled scrapbook would be deemed of critical importance to the middle-school librarian who has as one of her performance-management goals, “to compile and collect an oral and material history of all student government organizations, to reflect in kind (if not in scope) the collections of a presidential library.” But so then let’s say this little girl goes on, graduates, graduates from high school, does brilliantly in college and becomes the brightest literary figure of her generation. Then, surely, her glittery scrapbook would be of some interest to some library somewhere, and when procured would then sit in an archival-grade acid-free cardboard box, an archive in an archive, designated with esoteric numbers and letters for posterity. But is it an archive in an archive? Was it ever an archive? Surely it was, to that little girl. But, then, hold on: how can we define that little girl’s scrap book using the same word as defines the archive it sits in, or as describes the biggest collection of organized stuff in this hemisphere, the National Archive? How can they both be called by the same name?

Maybe we should stop the linguistic and ontological hairsplitting here by saying that these deviations and possible contradictions, or generally, the continuity of concepts as concepts, is a problem that exposes some shortfall of human consciousness, and we’ll leave it at that—even though that’s not very satisfying.

But so why, though our idea of “a library” is nebulous and amorphous, why do we feel they are so important? Why did I, as a child, as a non-reader (which, in subsequent years, has tipped to the extreme opposite side of the pendulum), why did I feel such a comfort in being surrounded by books?

There are probably a lot of reasons for this. One having something to do with mortality and remembrance and the hope of immortality, if not for our physical selves, then at least for our ideas. I’ll leave that one alone for the time being and go on to a more pressing and probably more pertinent reason, a reason that I may have felt even if I couldn’t articulate, which is actually quite simple: that standing in a library, one is surrounded by tens of thousands of years of conversations, millions of pages of people talking, telling stories; what it was like back then; what foods they ate; how they met; how they loved; how great beasts crawled from the forests and greater men slew them and saved villages; how the stars were created; how gods loved and lost; how men became gods; how they built railroads and computers and the pyramids; how they want to tell you about it; how these great men and illustrious women lived and will tell you the particulars, they will, there they stand on the shelves, the tales of their lives, all talking.

In Amadeus, Mozart explains to the Austrian king the authority and beauty of opera: how, even as multiple characters speak at once, voicing their feelings and desires, that because it is set to music, the cacophony is never overwhelming, it is in fact, harmonious and pulses with human energies.

The same power is in a library (whatever that is). Somehow we have controlled the histories and stories of men, brought them all together, under one roof, kept them to a harmonious whisper that could and can effect a young boy, even one who couldn’t be bothered to open a book. Then maybe that’s what a library is: a room full of old whispers. Either that, or the province of a group of diligent and tidy hoarders.

One Reply to “The Problem with What a Library is?”

  1. It's really interesting because I was the exact opposite as a child. I loved to read but I hated being in the library – because the windows didn't open. Later I realized that looking inside books opened windows on the world (but I still need at least an hour of outside time every day or I get Cabin Fever – or Library Malaise? Maybe Library Malaise is what I get if I don't get INSIDE a library every day – I do seem to show up at Langsdale on the weekends, too)I also need to read every day – if I'm not in the middle of a book my brain is at loose ends. I see a scrapbook as a type of archive – maybe there are subcategories of archives just as there are subcategories of books – and I bet the scrapbook is interesting not just to the child's parents and grandparents but to her children and grandchildren, too. And yeah, if she's famous, then everybody else. Or at least her fans. Libraries can also be places for groups of people to work together, socialize (quietly) and study, too. Sometimes their mobile – I've seen libraries in buses, wagons, on burros and even camels. I've seen little tiny libraries and and a library built out of beer cartons. I could go on, but maybe that would be a whole other blog post. Or come to think of it I think it already was.

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