the second plank in my philosophy of librarianship

One of the great gifts of my first master’s degree was the chance to have conversations with Cicero.

[iframe src=”” width=”152″ height=”325″ frameborder=”0″ align=”right”]Unlike most students, I read his letters first. Not the speeches, rich and looping clauses by a man always insecure that people wouldn’t think as highly of him as he craved, a man from the country and no particular family who fell in love, even more than the city’s bluest-blood, with the dignity and the grandeur of Rome. I read the letters. The uncertainties of a man grappling with cultural change, both on the personal level – never fully accepted by the old families, desperate not to be an outsider – and the epic – the collapse of a way of government, a system of society, a national self-image. He loved the Republic more deeply than anyone around him, believed in it utterly, and couldn’t see how it had already fallen apart. He died, in the end, for an illusion he loved and believed in more than the people at its core did. Naive and beautiful and tragic.

He was proud of his son Marcus the younger, who did well, with the advantages of his father’s career. But he adored his daughter Tullia, clearly the one who’d inherited his genius, the one who in a more equal society would have dazzled like starlight, and not died young. He fell apart in clichéd extremes of midlife crisis when she died. He was a derivative philosopher, an awful poet, and one of the finest orators in all of history. He collected art because it was what was done. He was fragile, flawed, human, incandescent.

I had conversations with him, across the tissue of space and time that separated us. With books and – however little on my part – a common tongue, our minds could touch, across all that. Logically the conversation was not reciprocal, but subjectively, it always was.

magic filigree skull from the futureI felt that tissue again last year – the one that separates us from somewhere Other even as it grows thin enough to let the light shine through – when I got my little printed filigree skull from a Kickstarter project. It is barely a wisp of a thing, near-weightless, small enough to be cradled in the hand, knowing and intricate. It’s a thing that can only be held gently; it’s just like holding a whisper of the future. I blogged about it when I saw why it makes sense for libraries to support makerspaces.

Because what it’s about – what I didn’t realize when I wrote that post – is the tissue.

I believe that professional philosophies aren’t things you should write as school capstones, as a student theorizing ideas of how your practice will someday be. Professional philosophies should emerge from experience, from data and reflection and discovery. So here is the second plank in my philosophy of librarianship: libraries are liminal spaces.

It isn’t just that libraries enrich lives and expand horizons by enabling connections between people and information, or between people around information. They do, and it’s central, but it’s not just that. If it were just that we wouldn’t have grand high-ceilinged reading rooms, wall-to-wall with books as talismans. We wouldn’t feel something catch in our throats at the romance of two-story ladders sliding on tracks around a room of shelves. No one would be passionately upset about these spaces being removed to make way for something more modern, more interactive, louder.

Because these rooms paved in shelving and reverence? They, too, are a form of liminal space. A space where the walls separating us from some other world grow thin as tissue and invite us to see.

Connections between people and information aren’t just about the information. They’re about the way new ideas attenuate walls to tissue, give us the chance to step sideways into other worlds.

There are universes upon universes upon universes out there, a step away from our hearts and minds. There’s an orator in Formiae dying for his articles of faith, a future we can make tangible from polymer and dreams. There’s children’s story time and Scan Jose, just waiting for the walls to be made tissue, for us to look beyond.

Maybe it’s monks guarding tomes, maybe it’s makers in a van. Either way, the common thread: libraries are liminal spaces.

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