The Library as Idea and Space

From around 300 BC until the beginning of its destruction with the Roman imperial takeover under Julius Caesar, the Library of Alexandria was the principal workplace for international scholarship. In light of this discussion of the curatorial, it is worth noting that this classical library was in fact incorporated into a larger complex known as the Mouseion, or House of the Muses, which formed a multidisciplinary study center similar to a university (etymologically, it is the source of the modern word “museum”). In his erudite meditation on libraries, Alberto Manguel makes the observation that in terms of a conception of the world, the Library of Alexandria and the Tower of Babel are direct opposites. While the tower represents the “belief in the unity of the universe,” the library instead embodies an understanding that the world is made up of innumerable different voices that, if somehow collected and read, would “address the whole of creation” through their very singularity and yet, as an ensemble, could never become static.  Expanding Manguel’s comparison, it is interesting to consider the two architectures in relation to concepts of dispersal and containment. In the moment of its destruction fragments of the Tower are violently and irretrievably flung out in all directions across the Earth, whereas the Library derives its meaning as a space of proximity for gathering together such fragments.

In the context of Occidental history, however, libraries are especially symbolic of a particular Enlightenment sensibility. Poignantly addressed by Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, libraries became the new cathedrals of cities when science and the attendant desire to disseminate knowledge replaced the religious impetus of previous generations. Stories were no longer told primarily through clerical art and architecture but were instead translated, multiplied, and circulated through printed books. In Hugo’s novel, this idea is summarized in the phrase “Ceci tuera cela” [“this will kill that”]—a provocative exaggeration, though the printing press by no means did away with architecture, just as the digital turn has not replaced printed matter. What is true, however, is that the ethos of the public library (in contrast to private, monastic, or other specialized and restricted libraries) continues to be intimately connected to democratic ideals of equality and free access to knowledge and culture. Such libraries are usually non-profit spaces, which provide citizens with material and immaterial goods and media that would otherwise have to be purchased. Therefore, one of the many ways in which the library contributes to societyis by converting marketable goods into public goods. The potential of the library for making things public is furthermore reflected in its paradoxical reality as an intellectual meeting place: based on intellectual and communal values, it also lends a public platform to otherwise fundamentally private— whether mental or cerebral—activities like reading and thinking, thus connecting it with ideals such as free speech and the freedom of expression. The library is thus both a political economy and an intellectual space.

Springer, A.-S. “Legere and βιβλιοθήκη: The Library as Idea and Space,” Fantasies of the Library, MIT Press, 2016.

The Art of Relevance: Wants and Needs

You may have noticed that I have framed relevance strictly from the perspective of what the participant/community wants. Where they want to go. What they want to do. What they think matters.

This is intentional. It’s not about you. It’s not about what you think people need or want or deserve. It’s about them — their values, their priorities.

In 2007, I sat on a panel at the National Academies of Science about the future of museums and libraries. I was the youngest person there, cowed by leaders and experts in the room. I’ll never forget a distinguished CEO, banging his fist on the table and saying, “Our job is not to give people what they want but what they need.”

I was too nervous to say anything at the time, but the phrase stuck like a thorn in my brain  stem. The thorn jammed in a little further each time I heard it, dozens of times over the years, in meetings and conferences and brainstorming sessions.

The phrase drives me nuts. It smacks of paternalism. As if it weren’t enough to be the experts on our subject matter. Now we’re the experts on what people “need” too?

I don’t think we can tell the difference between what people want and what they need…

… Does this mean we shouldn’t care about what people want and need? Of course not. We should care deeply about these things. We should do whatever we can to discover more about peoples’ desires, goals, needs, and values. But learning about someone’s needs and prescribing those needs are completely different.

In my experience, the institutionally-articulated “needs” of audiences often look suspiciously like the “wants” of the professions speaking. Professionals want silence in the auditorium, so they say “people need respite from their busy lives.” Priests want parishioners to accept the canon as presented, so they say, “people need strong spiritual guidance.” Teachers want students to listen attentively, so they say “kinds need to learn this.”

When I ask the phrase “don’t give people what they want, give them what they need” means, I am often told that we should not be pandering to people’s expressed desires but presenting them with experiences that challenge them and open up new ways of seeing the world.

I agree. It is incredibly valuable for cultural institutions to present experiences that might be surprising, unexpected, or outside participants’ comfort zones. But I don’t typically hear this phrase deployed to argue in favor of a risky program format or an unusual piece of content. I don’t hear this phrase accompanied by evidence-based articulation of “needs” of audiences. Instead, I hear this phrase used to defend traditional formats and content in the face of change. I hear “don’t give people what they want, give them what I want.”

Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Santa Cruz, Calif: Museum 2.0, 2016.