Unlocking the Experience of the Past

by Paul Gatz

Earlier this year, one of the student journals at the law school where I work hosted a symposium on The Future of Libraries in the Digital Age. I attended many of the panels and talks, including the keynote, given by Jeffrey T. Schnapp, a professor of romance languages and literature at Harvard University, and co-author, with Matthew Battles, of The Library Beyond the Book. Intrigued by Schnapp’s talk and, like many of you no doubt, always eager to read more about what libraries are and where they are headed, I put his book on my “to-read” list.

It’s an interesting book, and I would encourage you to read it, if you are so inclined. However, I am not going to use this space to review it in any detail. Rather, I wanted to focus on one aspect of the book that I found helpful for my own thinking on, and practice of, librarianship. In discussing the titular library beyond the book, Schnapp and Battles consider the different institutional roles that libraries have played throughout history. The book proceeds to examine each in detail as it projects these roles into the future to speculate on what the library could become:

  • Mausoleum: a resting place for the collection, preservation, storage, and retrieval of the written record.
  • Cloister: a quiet space of shared solitude for reading, research, and reflection.
  • Database: a knowledge management tool built on classification and documentation.
  • Warehouse: a randomized chaos of information, made accessible by machines and algorithms.
  • Material Epistemology: a comprehensive representation and interpretation of knowledge made corporeal through collocation and categorization.
  • Mobile Vector: a perambulating collection that brings its services and information to its community.
  • Civic Space: a community’s opportunity to raise awareness and create itself.
  • Instant Reading Room: an ephemeral structure arising alongside events and emergent cultures.
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East entrance of the University Library, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Inscription reads: “The whole world here unlocks the experience of the past to the builders of the future.”

These categories do not pretend to be exhaustive: few libraries embody all of them and many libraries play roles that extend beyond this list. Nevertheless this sort of list can serve as a useful reminder of the fact that the library is not one thing that can be easily summed up in one word, phrase, or brand. And it is not hard to see, as you go through your own day-to-day library duties, how the contemporary law library at different times embodies these different roles, now taking on one, then another.

To the extent the law library maintains a print collection or operates an institutional repository, it is fulfilling the role of the Mausoleum, ensuring the availability of the written record for use by future generations. The Cloister can be found, not surprisingly, in the space of the academic law library, where students can immerse themselves in casebooks, outlines, and online databases. The arrangement of the physical collection and even the design of the library’s web presence represent a particular Material Epistemology, communicating an implicit interpretation of what counts as knowledge and law.

This realization that the law library can simultaneously play multiple roles rooted in the history of the library as social and cultural institution has consequences at the level of the individual (librarian), the organization (library), and the profession (librarianship). Understanding these different historical roles – their purpose and their continued relevance – can aid the individual librarian in developing his or her professional judgment. The library itself, through its leadership and its relation to the community it serves, must determine which of these roles it wishes to play – and to what extent.

Finally, this idea of a multiplicity of historical roles (but not necessarily Schnapp and Battle’s exact list) should be incorporated into the profession’s understanding of itself and how it represents itself to the wider world. A consideration of these different historical roles would disabuse anyone who is still operating under the mistaken notion that the library was ever merely a storage space for books. However, we risk welcoming similar misunderstandings in the future if we limit ourselves to a conception of librarianship that concentrates on only one aspect of what libraries are and have been. Likewise, an openness to taking on any role that our user community requires risks diluting our professional identity – obsolescence by other means. Rather, it is of the utmost importance that, as we continue to think actively about the library’s future, we do not forget to cast an eye back towards history and tradition. Like any other institution, the library is a product its own contingent history, but is not limited by it. As a profession, it is our duty to maintain and build upon this history to create our future.

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About Paul Gatz

Paul Gatz is a reference librarian and adjunct professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.
This entry was posted in Issues in Law Librarianship, Issues in Librarianship (generally) and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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