Do Libraries Change the World? Should They? Short Answer: Yes | Peer to Peer Review


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For the sake of argument, let’s all agree that the answer to this question is yes: libraries have a central mission to change the world—to make it a better, more intelligent, more tolerant, more open-minded place, one that is (thanks in part to our professional efforts) increasingly filled with well-informed critical thinkers who will, themselves, take the tools and skills with which the library has provided them and go on to make the world even better. This is what the library exists to do.

Man, it really feels good to agree on that point, doesn’t it? I think if we were to gather a group of 100 librarians into a meeting room at the next American Library Association conference, we would have little or no problem achieving consensus on the proposition that libraries exist to change the world and make it a better place.

Here’s a problem, though: our agreement on that question leaves a bunch of much more difficult ones unanswered. Questions like “To what degree should the library shape the ways in which its users go out to change the world?” and “Should we encourage critical thinking generally, or should we encourage thinking that regards critically those philosophies we don’t agree with and encourage less-critical acceptance of those we do?” The problem, ultimately, is that there’s no such thing as generic change—there are only concrete changes, and whether they make the world a better or worse place depends not on whether they change the world, but on how they do so.

Libraries change the world in two ways

Academic libraries are, it seems to me, in a good position to change the world in two general ways: first, indirectly—by playing an important role in educating students and in producing new scholarship. This role is mostly supportive: while we participate in it actively (and sometimes in very directly instructional ways), we are serving in this capacity as part of the support structure on our campuses. Students and faculty rely on us for the tools they need in order to do their scholarly work. In this capacity we both curate old information and facilitate the creation, dissemination, and preservation of new information.

The second way that libraries can change the world is directly: by using library resources (budget, space, staff time) to take direct action in favor of initiatives and projects that we believe will make the world a better place. These may have more direct and obvious relevance to academics and research (open access initiatives, community literacy programs) or less (food drives, environmental sustainability programs).

One problem with the latter approach is that what we think of as “library resources” are actually university resources. This means that before we use them to, for example, fight against an evil publisher rather than purchase documents from that publisher (or vice versa), it might be politically wise (not to mention ethical) to make sure that this is what the university had in mind when it entrusted us with those resources. A library that exists independent of a university or municipality or other sponsoring institution doesn’t need to worry itself about that kind of thing, of course—but hardly any of us work in such a library.

Another problem with it is that the further we get from initiatives and programs that bear directly on our fundamental institutional goals, the more likely it will be that there is disagreement about whether the initiatives and programs in question are the right thing for the library to do, or even whether they actually make the world a better place. In most libraries, it’s not hard to get consensus on whether or not the world becomes a better place when students learn how to make effective and critical use of scholarly literature. It’s a bit harder to get consensus on the proper place of publishers in the scholarly communication ecology.

Educator vs. supporter

But this begs an important question: should the library’s vision be bounded by the goals of its host institution? What if my institution’s faculty and leadership don’t care about open access, for example? Does that mean that I shouldn’t be working for it in my library?

This brings up the tension between the library’s mission as an educator and as a supporter of scholarship. On the one hand, we need to let our faculty and students and campus leaders know what’s going on in the world of scholarly communication, and we arguably need to help them see the impact of their own actions and practices in that world. On the other hand, we need to give them access to the tools they need in order to do the work that they want to do (as distinct, perhaps, from the work we think they ought to want to do).

Every so often one of my kids will ask me a question about a political issue, and when they do, I try hard to explain the various sides of the issue as dispassionately as I can—regardless of my own view. I don’t claim to do so perfectly, but it seems important to me that they hear a reasonably accurate account of the issue itself and of how people of different perspectives see it. If they want to know my own view, I give it to them—but I also try to point out the reasons why people might disagree with me. This isn’t to say that I believe in “value-free” parenting—like all parents, I try very hard to teach my kids moral principles and also the rudiments of critical thinking. But there are lots and lots of issues on which the “moral” position is not perfectly clear, or on which different positions can be defended morally from different frames and perspectives. These are the ones on which I try to stand back and let my kids come to their own conclusions. As librarians, I think we have a similar obligation to our students. That’s one important way in which we change the world: by helping to fill it with strong, independent thinkers who are well informed and have learned how to come to their own conclusions.

Personally, I think we should change the world, first and foremost, by giving our scholars everything they need in order to do their scholarly work, and by giving our students the tools to evaluate the world around them and access to the content that needs to be evaluated. This does not imply “value-free” librarianship. On the contrary: it proposes the values of intellectual freedom, independence of thought, critical thinking, and tolerance for disagreement and dissent as central to what the library does—as well as the central importance of supporting the mission of the library’s host institution. Nor does it imply a lack of active educational effort on our part. But it does speak to the question of prioritization.