A spatulate depression, part II: The mission of the librarian

This is a standalone blog post, but also the second part of some larger thoughts around archives, libraries, and how words shape who we are. Click to read the first part.

When I first started working with libraries, I downloaded and read a copy of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s ‘The Mission of the Librarian’ (PDF download). It was written in 1934, but I hoped there would be some lingering insights about libraries or – let’s be frank – cool, glib quotes that I could share in speeches or workshops to make myself look smart and erudite.

Well, I didn’t get much that was useful for library work but Ortega y Gasset did have a thing or two to say about vocation, or a sense of mission in one’s life. I’ve broken a few quotations up to make it more digestible online:

Mission means, first of all, that which a man has to do with his life […] But the necessity expressed by the words “have to do” is a very strange condition and does not at all resemble the compulsion by which the stone gravitates towards the center of the earth. The stone cannot refuse to fall, but a man might very well not do that which he “has to do.” Is this not curious? Here “necessity” is a thing most opposed to constraint-it is rather an invitation. Could anything be more gallant? Man finds himself invited to lend his consent to necessity.

A stone, were it half-intelligent, might say upon observing this, “What good fortune to be a man! I have no choice but to fulfill my inexorable law: I must always fall. But what a man has to do or has to be is not imposed upon him, but proposed to him.”

But this imaginary stone would think thus because it was only half-intelligent. If it were completely so, it would see that this privilege of man’s is a terrifying one. For it implies that at every moment of his life a man finds himself facing the various possibilities of acting and being, and that it is he alone who, consulting his unique responsibility, must decide in favor of one of them; that in order to decide to do this and not that, he must, whether he wishes to or not, justify the choice in his own eyes. That is, he must discover among the actions possible at that moment the one that possesses the most meaning, the one that is most his own.

If he does not choose that one, he knows that he has deceived himself, falsified his own reality, and annihilated a moment of his vital time. There is no mysticism in what I say: it is evident that one cannot take a single step without justifying it before his own intimate tribunal. And so each of our acts must be drawn from the total anticipation of our destiny, the general program of our existence.

For Ortega y Gasset, librarianship and other vocations become useful vehicles for individual human beings to realise their existence. Seeing others, in the past and present, whose lives have travelled similar lines to our own, we recognise fellow members of the professions – teachers, labourers, philosophers, physicists, lawyers, librarians.

The lives differ one from the other by the predominance of a type of work-for example, what the soldier does and what the scholar does. These schematic trajectories of life are the professions, careers, or beaten tracks of existence that we find already established, defined, and regulated in our society.

To me, this challenge to our destiny is exciting, as exciting as childhood dreams of being Indiana Jones, as exciting as using archival research to discover the thoughts and feelings of someone who put pen to a piece of paper eighty years ago. But it’s also scary – it’s life throwing down the gauntlet to us as individuals – and especially for librarians, right now, it’s terrifying.

For so long the ‘type of work’ which librarians do has been essentially shelfy – about managing collections of books and other hard-copy documents. Now technological change and cuts to public budgets are forcing libraries to evolve at breakneck speed, and people are reaching out for new ‘types of work’ to define librarianship. Is it something akin to being a teacher-entertainer for children and young people? Is it about ‘maker spaces’, 3D printers, and knowledge creation? Or should the library become ever more like an archive or museum?

Stockholm Library Reading Room - (Éole Wind; Flickr.com/CC)
Stockholm Library Reading Room – (Éole Wind; Flickr.com/CC)

I left academia, and then schoolteaching, because I didn’t like schematic trajectories and beaten tracks. The path I’ve chosen has been incredibly scary, as well as elating, with moments of euphoria, despair, boredom, overwhelming excitement, loneliness, confusion, duty, regret, recklessness – the whole shebang. But then, that’s life. Those pre-marked trails called vocations or professions are there for a reason – they give us a route to follow so that not every day of our lives has to feature some overblown existential freakout.

Yet right now, librarians the world over are being called to make decisions about the future trajectory of their work. Future directions are being charted through policy plans and consultations, Twitter discussions, and debates in the media. It’s vital that librarians at every level – all people who have chosen to live the mission of librarianship – step up and speak out.

Like José says:

In vocation, what is necessary for a man to do is not imposed upon him, but proposed to him. That is why life takes on the character of the realization of an imperative.

If you work in a library, what you do on a day-to-day basis is going to define the future of librarianship for the human race. You’re making legacies for your profession in a time of crisis, when people keep telling you you’re not needed anymore.

The gauntlet has been thrown.

What will you choose to do?

5 thoughts on “A spatulate depression, part II: The mission of the librarian

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