A quick question about the history of libraries

I’ve done a fair bit of work with libraries over the last few years. Most of it has involved encouraging play of all kinds. I had previously worked with schools and other organisations, but I became convinced of public libraries’ importance after visiting Christchurch in the wake of the 2010 earthquakes. Carolyn Robertson and her team showed, through their actions in that period, that libraries were never more important than in times of grave crisis. When I think about librarianship as a heroic vocation, I think of people like Carolyn, and Penny Carnaby of the National Library of New Zealand, who did their profession proud in a difficult moment.

Carolyn Robertson of Christchurch City Libraries, New Zealand
“We understand the word “library” in the widest possible sense.” – Carolyn Robertson, Christchurch City Libraries

When I was at Auckland Libraries last year, I discovered the Public Library Missions agreed by UNESCO and the international library association IFLA back in 1994:

The following key missions which relate to information, literacy, education and culture should be at the core of public library services:

  • creating and strengthening reading habits in children at an early age;
  • supporting both individual and self conducted education as well as formal education at all levels;
  • providing opportunities for personal creative development;
  • stimulating the imagination and creativity of children and young people;
  • promoting awareness of cultural heritage, appreciation of the arts,
  • scientific achievements and innovations;
  • providing access to cultural expressions of all performing arts;
  • fostering inter-cultural dialogue and favouring cultural diversity;
  • supporting the oral tradition;
  • ensuring access for citizens to all sorts of community information;
  • providing adequate information services to local enterprises, associations and interest groups;
  • facilitating the development of information and computer literacy skills;
  • supporting and participating in literacy activities and programmes for all age groups, and initiating such activities if necessary.

I think this is an incredibly strong mandate which gives librarians clear freedom to engage in all kinds of play, performance, technological and cultural activity. The missions have been around for twenty years, and yet so many library conferences and professional discussions still revolve around debating what libraries should or should not be doing in the 21st century; so many public discussions about libraries reveal that people still think of them largely as “shelfy”, book-storing institutions.

Part of my eclectic scholarly career was spent as an intellectual historian, so these are the questions that occur to me:

What happened in librarianship in the 1980s/1990s to lay the ground for such a radical, positive, and future-proofed global mission statement?

Why didn’t the missions gain more traction?

What lessons could we learn for today from the history of these missions, and the process that led to their writing?

If you have any answers to my questions, contact me via the comments on this site, or at my Twitter account @drmattfinch.

I’ve written about applying the Public Library Missions to play activities in the library here, and also overthought the nature of librarianship here.

Two of my favourite discussions of librarianship – from actual librarians! – come from Adrienne Hannan on “Strategic Librarianship” and Tracie Mauro on “Wonder-based library programmes”.

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