Radical Conversations: Defining a Library

Defining a Library

Dates: December 8-12, 2014
Question: the Atlas was all about defining a librarian, not libraries. While there are certainly a lot of definitive statements on what a library is, do these hold up when you change the definition of a librarian? Also, many of these focus on collections, not communities. How do you define a library in a truly participatory way.
Why It Matters: Understanding the underlying definition of library builds communities and can guide librarians and their communities in developing services, policies, and support models. There are a near infinite set of services a library could offer, but which ones make sense and how do we chose? Are there tools and similarities across library types that still make sense.


DefLib from R. David Lankes on Vimeo.

Conversation Starter

David Lankes sits down with Lane Wilkinson, Kim Silk, Wendy Newman, and Lauren Britton to talk through the topic (44 minutes):


Join the Conversation

There are two ways to share your thoughts and join the conversation. Either use the comments at the bottom of this page (including links to video or blogged thoughts), or use the hash tag #NewLibLibrary to comment via twitter.

12 Replies to “Radical Conversations: Defining a Library”

  1. So my first reaction to this intro and conversation is that I am reminded of just how difficult it is to define library and librarianship in some meaningful way. Usually I don’t take time to think very deeply about it. I am going to suggest that maybe the “radical” thing to do here is to stick to the “The library becomes what the community needs” definition. Let me try to explain why that works for me.

    It is simple and understandable by the community (-ies) we serve. That understanding promotes use and acceptance, and the investment on the part of the community that we need to continue providing value in return. It covers both the physical and abstract notions that Lane described (and it is that abstract concept of libraries and librarianship that people don’t understand, or don’t understand well.) Understanding promotes persistence. I know Dave doesn’t like mission statements that say we need to promote and sustain ourselves as libraries (as part of our mission). But we do need to persist – most professions would argue they need to persist in order to keep doing good. That persistence should result from the value we provide to our communities rather than be explicitly stated as a mission or goal is another matter. People avoid/criticize/don’t use/don’t support what they don’t understand well. We have struggled the past decade or so to explain to our communities just who we are and what we do. We don’t need to make that job harder by creating a core definition that isn’t understandable to ourselves and our communities.

    It avoids grandiosity and self-importance. Although generally the Darien Statement is somewhat well thought out, it seems a bit too “ennobling.” The “infinite guardian of civilization” thing doesn’t really describe what most of us do. Neither does bullet point four in that statement, which attempts to elevate our purpose above those we claim to serve.

    It reflects the way we have evolved as libraries and librarians, and the way I at least, think about the best way to contribute to the larger community/institution on a day-to-day basis. It is the only simple definition that encompasses all of the ideas discussed in the conversation. At the same time it is broad enough (without being completely meaningless) to escape the boxes placed around us by dictionary type definitions.

    It avoids defining us in terms of specific services/spaces/stuff – which change and evolve over time. (Isn’t that how we go to the library defined as a “building full of books” and the inadequacy of that definition now?)

    What it DOESN’T do, as I heard in the conversation, is differentiate us much from “Community Centers.” Adding “mediated spaces” to the definition doesn’t really differentiate either. Community Centers are mediated spaces as well. You could replace “community” with “society” or some other synonym if that differentiation matters. Does it matter? Perhaps we are merging/evolving into a synthesis of what libraries are AS community centers. Community Centers provide crafting space and we have maker spaces. Other commonalities are reading rooms, meeting spaces, gathering spaces, games, activities, occasional lectures (so the provision of expertise is not necessarily unique), community information… The only (?) thing lacking is the collection and the expertise on how to use it. Many Community Centers have collections of fiction, old magazines to browse, so that isn’t even quite unique. Maybe there no longer is a need for that differentiation. From that viewpoint, our library (often described as the “campus livingroom”) looks a heck of a lot like a community center, but one where research is possible, and some other institution-specific (i.e., academic specific in our case) services are offered.I usually think that’s a good thing.

  2. Before we get too caught up in a definition of library, I point you to the 25+ pages of definitions for the word “set” in the OED. I would argue that the definition of library depends on the context. A room of stuff, a room with a professional in it, an ideal … While it would be useful to have a single definition to meet all our needs I do not think that will happen.
    A person dedicated to collecting, organizing and disseminating is integral to any definition of library that I would professionally endorse. On the other hand I am delighted to call the room given to Belle by the Beast a library person in charge or not.

    1. Great point, and I don’t think the idea is to change or supplant all meanings of the word. Rather my concern is with the meaning ascribed to the institution of “library.” While folks think of a room set aside in the mansion as a library, that’s fine. It is even unambiguous. However, when we talk about “the library,” meaning that civic, academic, or school institution that reference is getting pretty fuzzy from a conceptual point of view. So much so that a colleague really saw major divergences between academic and public libraries. Soon, he posited, they would have virtually nothing in common. This is a very different approach than the one put forth in the New Librarianship’s take on librarianship.

      Why this matters…take the justifications of libraries, A few being:
      * Promotors of the democratic process
      * Collective buying agent
      * Third space

      Do these hold true for all libraries (not necessarily equally, but still relevant). I wouldn’t apply these justifications to the room in the mansion, or the collection of code to programmers. I think they do apply to institutions set aside with some form of community mandate and recognition be they in academic settings or public or even business settings.

  3. Here in Maine we regularly attack the Academic vs Public library divide through communication, resource sharing and other collaborative activities. The main point that separates us is the needs of our participants, (Although I am still not convinced that faculty really need automatic semester long check outs for every item they request)
    I have in fact worked in business, school, academic and now a public research hybrid. In each case the library physically and conceptually was driven by the things my patrons needed. My best customer service first training came when I was at Wells Fargo in the corporate library from 1985-1993. Helping to design and build a new library at a community college helped me to see how tailoring the space to the particular patrons made the library more useful. A recent complete redesign of the public spaces at this library has really been an experience in wrapping customer service and physical plant.
    Here is another trial balloon for a definition: A library is the intersection of the needs of the community to acquire and share information and knowledge as curated by a librarian.

    1. I like this. Here are the factors that I’m juggling right now:

      A space: can be physical or virtual, but it is a place that allows collaboration and conversations (internal and external).

      Mediated: either directly (reference, programming, tutoring) or indirectly (space planning, policy creation, collection development)

      Owned by the Community: both in oversight, but also in the nature of the services, schools, colleges, localities are the ones creating the library through continuous investment (of authority, or funding) and providing a mandate

      Mandate: some form of social compacts like a charter, legislation, or place in an organizational chart

      Librarians serve as delegates of the community to steward the place.

  4. The word “access” keeps coming up for me. Access to knowledge, education, community connection, space, creativity, personal enrichment, democratic engagement. The type of access the community desires is going to vary.

  5. I’m sensing a control issue in this quest to define. But the library world does not seem willing to be kept in this way anymore. Perhaps, instead of trying to define “library” or “librarian” we will have to open ourselves to a new approach to these terms. In the same way we refer to farms and farmers, the terms are vague and require a follow-up question. “I’m a farmer” requires, “Oh, what kind of farming do you do?” And each farm is different according to the needs of the farmers, the community and the crops or animals. Our library practice is so catered to our community and changes dramatically when our staff changes. We currently care for a collection but only because it is the tool with which we do our job. In the same way farmers work in the realm of food or fiber we work in the realm of information. It’s a much more expansive way to use the words but it’s also much more fitting to what modern “libraries” and “librarians” are.

  6. Listening to the introduction and reading comments already posted helps demonstrate the almost impossible challenge created in attempting to provide definitive descriptions of what libraries are within the New Librarianship/Radical Conversation sandbox–there’s always going to be a “yes, but” response, and I believe that’s part of what makes libraries and those who sustain them so dynamic. Within the participatory context, we might begin with the idea that libraries are essential meeting places for members of a community (onsite, online, or blended) who want to be able to use historic and contemporary resources (regardless of format) to explore a variety of information, learning, and entertainment, needs, from a variety of perspectives, with the guidance, assistance, and participation of creative curators (A.K.A. librarians) willing and able continually learn while supporting other community members’ library-based explorations. Maine State Library’s “A library is the intersection of the needs of the community to acquire and share information and knowledge as curated by a librarian” (posted earlier in this conversation) is a great starting point for those of us inclined to explore the direction I’m suggesting, and accepting the necessity for flexibility, an ever-evolving definition that develops from our long-standing foundations, and the ambiguity mentioned in those last two posts on December 9, 2014 might provide us with a foundation as radical as this entire challenge appears to be.

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