Friday, September 23, 2011

The Library Square

By David Carr 

We have to be grateful for the serendipitous motions and useful juxtapositions of our sphere. For example, while waiting to receive the first copies of my new book, Open Conversations: Public Learning in Libraries and Museums (Libraries Unlimited, September 2011), a fresh e-mail contained a reference to this essay, “Public Libraries: A New Type of Town Square.”

It was one of the notices I receive from dozens of organizations seeking to restore our nation’s public civility and discourse. The article is based on a new report from the International City/County Management Association, aimed at seeing libraries as community agencies and problem-solvers. The summary is simultaneously valuable and incomplete.

Valuable, because the public library is an instrumental agency in every community. It provides information that causes lives to be changed, risks to be taken, and futures to be imagined. When communities and citizens struggle with economic, educational, and civic challenges, they often look across the nation and world for ideas, or simply for words and names. They seek experts and stories for possible insights and resolutions. And they need a skilled, undaunted professional navigator at the edge of the information. Every wired library is capable of reaching as broadly and intensely as the user requires, with no real limits and with limitless lessons. Libraries not only provide ways toward responses to problems, they also teach users that good problems are always open to fresh approaches. It’s possible to live in a never-ending inquiry, if you are a steady user working together in a rich collection with a librarian you trust. For a learner, it’s idyllic.

But in my view, the ICMA’s summary also misses the point, because its examples of partnerships and service programs tend to address strategies for making local governments and institutions work better. Of course this is a good thing, but it misses something larger. In Open Conversations, I list some other matters that affect our culture, beyond fiscal discouragements, collapsing institutions, and the educational disappointments. For example, we are as a people silent among each other, without secular places to speak together about our lives and hopes. Our public discourse is badly compromised and politicized. Literacy is in the throes of change; and the values of reading and knowing are unclear to our youth–or their parents. Knowledge is obscured by twittering artifice and competitive dance programs. (Facebook? It’s nothing like a book at all!) Confidence erodes in more than corporations, banks, and schools. Our collective trust in the lasting goodness of government, religion, social security, news media, politics, and health care is unsteady. Our population is perpetually changing toward complexity, worldliness, and youth, inspiring both aspirations and fears at once. And we did not learn well after September 11, 2001; we may be now as vulnerable as then.

It seems to me that adults have plenty to learn about themselves, their nation, their neighbors, their institutions, their communities, and the possibilities of energy and change that may be obscured until they begin to speak to each other. Open Conversations is a work of advocacy toward a culture where libraries and museums (and other cultural institutions like botanical gardens, historical settings, and zoos) invite communities to think and speak together, creating an informed civility that engenders articulation, confidence, and courage. Unlike the strategic programs that tend to please foundations and governments, the conversations I advocate raise questions, assemble readings, look at evidence, and think about the critical, invisible parts of living: ethics, actions, generosity, intelligence, reflection, respect for self, respect for others, justice, innovation and the mindful life of a community.

We live within the tension between optimism and despair. If we do see these conversations happen, museums and libraries will not offer us a respite. Nor should we expect answers or solutions to emerge from them, although they might. Instead, we should hope to see great (and perhaps greatly unanswerable) questions arise, questions so powerful and inviting that we will want to address them steadily, wherever we can become something together, in order to name and explore what we need most to understand.

David Carr is the author of Open Conversations: Public Learning in Libraries and Museums

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