Tradition and the Rhetoric of the Modern Library

“Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay.” - Jiddu Krishnamurti

“…Tradition results from a conscious and deliberate acceptance.” – Igor Stravinsky

While at ACRL, I attended  “From the Periphery into the Mainstream: Library DIY Culture(s) and the Academy,” a panel session led by the librarians from In the Library with the Lead Pipe. I attended the session not only because I’m very interested in the topic, but I also wanted to see how/if they successfully flipped the standard panel session format. 

As the dust settled from the conference, a few commentaries about the session have emerged. In particular, I found the posts by Meredith Farkas and Brian Mathews both interesting and thought-provoking. They both left the session with quite different opinions on the DIY concept and the librarians who spoke at the session. I do not intend this post to be a response to either of those posts because I find facets of their arguments with which I  both agree and disagree, and I can’t seem to find a way to describe this dichotomy with any clarity. However, they both call attention to comments made during the session about the “traditional library.” As an audience member who made one such comment, I’d like to attempt to articulate in greater depth what I envisioned expressing.

Maybe it’s because I am a liaison for the Communication Studies department or maybe it’s because many of the issues my library faces can be attributed to ineffective communication of value, but in recent months I’ve found myself paying an increasing amount of attention to rhetoric. In particular, I have come to believe that librarians need to stop using the word “traditional” to describe what we do or what we are.

I want to be clear that I believe tradition exists and will forever remain an element of librarianship. Any profession that has survived as long as librarianship will maintain some sort of tradition. I’m not implying that we need to throw away the foundations of librarianship or what has brought us to our current state. What I wish to see happen is a transformation in the rhetoric.

My comment at the DIY panel session was along the lines of this: “We need to stop using the word ‘traditional.’ People often use that word and it generally implies something as static, but libraries have always been the opposite. We’re dynamic institutions, always changing.” In many ways, our tradition has been change – adapting to the needs of our users in an ever-evolving world, which is now highly defined by technology. As a profession, we understand this, but if an outsider was looking in, it’s my opinion that they’d hear the word “traditional” and apply the age-old stereotype of The Music Man‘s Marian the Librarian. These are the same people who expound about libraries not existing in the near future because of the internet. They hear the word “traditional” and think static. Unfortunately, these people seem to outnumber those who know what the true tradition of librarianship is, and these are the people who are more often than not making the administrative and policy decisions that affect how our libraries operate.

If we change the rhetoric, can we more effectively impact the administrative decisions being made regarding libraries? Communicating the value of libraries within our institutions has become increasingly important in an atmosphere of escalating costs among flat-lined or decreasing budgets, and initiatives like ACRL’s Value of Academic Libraries and ACRL’s Standards for Libraries in Higher Education perpetuate its importance. By changing the rhetoric of how we communicate our value, librarians can better position ourselves to create the change envisioned by those at the DIY panel session.

In many ways, this call for transformation in the rhetoric fits the attitudes of most of the librarians who commented at the ACRL panel session and what I believe is the essence of the DIY concept – the desire to transform our libraries outside of the traditional hierarchies, norms, and constraints, to meet the evolving demands of our users. What exactly this new rhetoric should sound and look like, I’m unsure. I do know that it needs to start within the profession and it needs to begin today. Until the profession as a whole decides to change the rhetoric, we cannot expect our surrounding external forces to buy into the vision of DIY culture.

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2 thoughts on “Tradition and the Rhetoric of the Modern Library

  1. Pingback: So You Think You Want to Be a Librarian? | Stephanie L. Gross, MSLIS

  2. Pingback: Do We Need to Teach This? | You're Not Listening, Marian

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