Burning Down the House

I’m still pondering Seth Godin’s prescription for libraries. I’m not sure I totally buy all of the post but I really like the way he is trying to provoke a much more active approach and I think his idea of the role of the librarian as thought leader rather than guardian is bang on. Money quotes:

‘Librarians that are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point. They are defending library as warehouse as opposed to fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.’

‘There are one thousand things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value.’

Libraries are in danger of being suddenly and dramatically wrong-footed by a seismic shift in technology and the correllating changes in usage. Now, of course librarians can mourn that change or adapt to it, explore it and exploit it. But only if they realise that their role has always been as guide rather than gatekeeper.

If we think of the digital space as usurping the hallowed place of the book then we will fail to champion and extend the possibilities for opening up the knowledge contained therein. Knowledge ossified and unused is hardly being defended.

The digital space allows us to not just store information but to be simultaneously entertained and inspired by it, to publicly and actively recombine it and rework it creatively and critically. To take our heritage and reboot it into new experiences. This is not a usurpation but a liberation.

Godin’s historical riff reminds me of the the great Carl Sagan’s discussion of the Great Library of Alexandria. Now of course, the contemporary public library is a fairly distant cousin to Hypatia’s halls but this quote outlines the perils of guarding our inheritance too closely and not projecting knowledge outward inclusively:

‘Science and learning in general were the preserve of a privileged few. The vast population of the city had not the vaguest notion of the great discoveries taking place within the Library. New findings were not explained or popularized. The research benefited them little. Discoveries in mechanics and steam technology were applied mainly to the perfection of weapons, the encouragement of superstition, the amusement of kings. The scientists never grasped the potential of machines to free people. The great intellectual achievements of antiquity had few immediate practical applications. Science never captured the imagination of the multitude. There was no counterbalance to stagnation, to pessimism, to the most abject surrenders to mysticism. When, at long last, the mob came to burn the Library down, there was nobody to stop them.’

Carl Sagan-Cosmos

Now no-one is likely to go around burning down our libraries. But something almost as bad may happen if we do not constantly challenge and engage with them; they might be ignored. For Hypatia’s heirs, it is time to open the gates wide.

(I loved Cosmos as a kid and the book of the series was one of the first books I remember owning. I’m sure I understood very little of it, and would still struggle with a lot of the science, but it was an object lesson in how to create wonder.)


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