Anywhere in the universe: a mission for libraries

Imagine a place on your average street corner: ordinary on the outside but bigger within, and ready to take you anywhere you could imagine – or a few places beyond even that. Sounds like science fiction? Well yes, and no…. I’ve spent the last few months talking with librarians finding new ways to frame the mission of the library in the 21st century. This video, and the text below, is the result.

When I was a kid, I was a massive fan of this British TV show called Doctor Who.

It featured a mysterious figure, the Doctor, who could travel anywhere in time and space.

The Doctor would take ordinary people on adventures beyond their wildest imagining in a machine called the TARDIS.

On the outside, the TARDIS looked just like a blue telephone box – but inside it was impossibly huge, perhaps even infinite. It could take you anywhere you wanted to go, and even places you didn’t intend. The past. The future. Distant worlds and parallel dimensions. Even the Land of Fiction.

I especially remember the last Doctor Who show of my childhood – it came out in 1989. The Doctor and his companion battled creatures who were marauding the streets of Perivale in suburban London. It was amazing and intense, because it wasn’t set on a far-off world. The adventure took place on an ordinary street with people washing their cars and going to the grocery store and living their everyday lives.

The show made you feel like the TARDIS might be on your streetcorner: ordinary on the outside but bigger within, and ready to take you anywhere you could imagine – or a few places beyond even that.

Best feeling ever.

That’s what libraries are to me. They are the TARDIS on your streetcorner: a magical place, maybe a little ordinary on the outside, which can take you anywhere in the universe of information, knowledge, and culture. Facts and fiction, maps and make-believe, movies and comics and even information about what day the city collects your bins, all jostling alongside one another, tended by the librarian.

You don’t have to have watched British children’s TV to get it: a library can take you anywhere you want to go in the universe of information, knowledge, and culture.

If you were going to write out a library’s mission, you might put it like this:

A library empowers communities to explore information, knowledge, and culture on their own terms.

And if I were trying to say the same thing to a 9-year-old? I’d put it like this:

A library lets people find stuff out for themselves.

Once you start looking at libraries that way, a lot of things about them become very simple.

Walls, books, and physical things

The library might be a physical building with walls and a roof, or it might not. A librarian could carry out that mission of empowerment in the streets, or another building, or on the back of a bus. A librarian could be embedded in a team, group, or organisation to support their goals. A great librarian could be parachuted into a community they didn’t even know, with nothing more than the clothes on their back, and they’d find ways to address that mission of empowerment and exploration.

The library might have books, it might not; it might offer experiences or workshops or digital services, it might not. Exploration of information, knowledge, and culture doesn’t just mean reading, viewing, or learning; it can mean making, experimenting, performing.

Finding stuff out for yourself isn’t always like checking the weather forecast or looking up the capital of Peru. Sometimes discovery is an act of creation. Think of a sculptor, pondering the stone before them, trying to find the sculpture within: “I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set them free.”

Your community might want or need maker technology, Internet access, loanable tools and hardware, art supplies, an in-library recording studio. There are many ways to fulfil libraries’ mission and the medium is not specified.

A great librarian could address their mission and serve their community whether they had a library with vast collections, or nothing more than a smartphone in their hand.

That’s not an excuse to leave the librarian standing on a streetcorner with nothing but a smartphone — the institution will always need funding and resources sufficient to meet the community’s information needs — but rather to say that no one medium, no one gadget, no one physical object is necessary for a library to be great. People are libraries’ greatest resource.

Who is this library for anyway?

The library might serve a specific community such as students and staff at a college, or medics and health workers at a hospital. It might only serve registered users with library cards, or it might serve anyone who visits it. The mission can encompass tiny specialist libraries or wide-open public institutions.

Whatever kind of library it is, there’ll almost certainly be debate about the definition of its community, and what service is owed. Should non-students be able to use the college library? Does the hospital library need to serve patients too? In the public library, what welcome and support should be given to homeless people? To drug users? To new migrants, or people who don’t speak the majority language?

Questions of inclusion and exclusion will challenge any library, and must be wrestled with by staff, stakeholders, and the wider community. The voices of public librarians, who serve the broadest communities with the most diverse information needs, should be at the forefront of this debate across the profession.

“Exploring all information, knowledge, and culture on the community’s own terms” is a pretty lofty goal. Libraries must recognise that their services are inevitably built on imperfect systems and policies, riven with histories of power and prejudice which must also be addressed.

“On the community’s own terms” means also recognising libraries as institutions in need of decolonisation, institutions which may have histories of complicity in abuse and exclusion.

It means respecting Indigenous traditions of knowledge management, and understanding that some forms of cultural knowledge are not to be shared by all.

Great librarians recognise that for the community to have equity in exploring knowledge, information and culture, they will have to make extra effort to help some groups and curb the acts of some users if they impede the goal of access for all. They recognise that the negotiation of inclusion, exclusion, equity, and justice is dynamic, local, and held in dialogue with peers, stakeholders, and the community they serve.

What’s more, great libraries recognise that they require a diverse workforce. Information, knowledge, and culture are things which are lived, felt, and experienced by all of humanity. The wider the range of experiences and identities represented by the library staff, the better understanding they will have of the diversity of human information, knowledge, and culture, and the more ways they will have of relating to the communities they serve.

Not teachers, not preachers

Empowering communities to explore on their own terms means getting out of the way of those communities’ explorations whenever possible.

Libraries are places for surprise and discovery, not predetermined outcomes. Even when engaged in an unserendipitous act like seeking an item from a college reading list, or revisiting a book read once before, a reader has the capacity to surprise themselves and others: they are seeking something which they do not know or fully recall.

Serendipity is less magical than it sounds – it occurs within systems built on the largely unseen labour and tacit values of people who acquire, catalogue, and maintain the collections. Yet there is still wonder to be found in browsing. You can always stumble on something new in a library, or come up with a new idea based on what you discovered there.

Great librarians are not teachers or preachers, inflicting lesson plans, assessments, doctrines, and dogmas on those they serve – they avoid the instructional paradigm wherever possible, surrendering command and control to the user if they can.

The exception to this is when an aspiring explorer of information, knowledge, and culture requires instruction in exploration techniques. That might mean kids learning how to use an animation app, a lawyer learning how to search a new legal resource, or a senior citizen getting help with their new iPad. Sometimes, before you dive into an ocean of knowledge, someone needs to teach you how the scuba gear works and check you out on it before you depart.

Librarians may devise learning opportunities to help the explorers they serve – approaching the territory of the teacher via the middle ground of educational design – but they are distinct from teachers, and that distinction lies in the power dynamic between the librarian and the learner.

Librarians are proactive

None of the above means that library workers are passive. Great librarians venture out into their community and collect new material to reflect the changing times. They are as interested in popular culture and marginal forms of knowledge as they are official or esteemed items. They stay abreast of how society is interacting with information, and reflect on what that means for their own work.

Great libraries devise new opportunities to celebrate, provoke, challenge, and pique the curiosity of their community. They acquire, preserve, and develop collections to serve their communities’ needs; they negotiate with peer institutions and publishers for access to more information; they devise systems and procedures to share their collections and borrow from others as needed.

And great librarians are not separate from the communities they serve: they, too, are library users who freely explore the oceans of information, knowledge, and culture as they work

The one big question

Everything a library does should be assessed against the question:

How does this empower the communities we serve to explore information, knowledge, and culture on their own terms?

This question should inform every act, large and small. It should be the command intent of your library’s every single action, project, programme and policy.

It should be the question burning in the hearts of the security guard, janitor, board members, and volunteers too.

Try putting it in the language of a 9-year-old:

How is this helping people to find stuff out for themselves?

If what you are doing is not serving that wider intent, it’s time to stop and change.

It’s time to become that magic place, ordinary on the outside, which can take your community anywhere in the universe of information, knowledge, and culture.

Thanks to everyone who discussed “Anywhere in the universe” with me in its earlier drafts. Their inspiration, criticism, and feedback – including some lively disagreement – was vital. Of course, responsibility for anything you don’t like in the final text rests with me, not them!

Thanks to:

  • Warren Cheetham
  • Linda Hazzan
  • Rebecca Jones
  • Rachael Rivera
  • Erin Dummeyer
  • Jane Cowell
  • David Robertson
  • Donna Robertson
  • Rob Thomson
  • Justin Hoenke
  • Kat Moody
  • Sally Turbitt
  • Amy Walduck
  • Ludi Price
  • Jacinta Sutton
  • Donna Lanclos
  • Chris DeCristofaro
  • Ian Anstice
  • Ray Pun
  • Ellen Forsyth
  • Mylee Joseph


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