3d printing, library missions, and things beside the point

I’d thought my next blog post would be part of yesterday’s thread about organizational change, but it turns out this morning my coffee and I can’t stop rereading Hugh Rundle’s Mission creep – a 3d printer will not save your library, and David Lankes’ passionate response about how he believes Rundle is missing the point, and then Lankes and Lane Wilkinson having a knock-down philosopher brawl in the comments. (Smart people arguing? And tossing about words like “propositional” like it ain’t no thang? Ooooh! Way to this girl’s heart.)

The coffee and I have been wrestling to situate myself in this dialogue. I believe in letting my philosophy of librarianship emerge from practice and observation, and thus far it’s got two planks: libraries are safe spaces for the sphere of deviance and libraries are liminal spaces. I think there’s a third emerging that has to do with dialogue — about being in dialogue with texts, with ideas, with people, about how that dialogue opens and changes us and our worlds — but I haven’t got that one figured out quite yet.

So what does this imply, vis-a-vis 3d printing and, more so, the ideas at play in these threads? I am broadly with Lankes’ perspective that views of the library are often too collection-centric; that the collection is a tool — one tool among potentially many — for accomplishing the real, transformative work of libraries. I notice, in fact, that there’s nothing in my philosophy thus far that requires a traditional collection; book collections are spectacularly useful tools for those ends, but it may be an accident of history that they have seemed to be the sine-qua-non tool.

But I also disagree with Lankes’ statement, “The point is not for folks to come in and print out existing things, but to create their own things.” I’ve seen 3d printers and held 3d printed objects, but I’ve never printed one myself and I’ve never designed one. There’s a lot of learning curves I’d have to climb before I could do either. I might never climb them. But holding those objects has been little moments of transformation.

They’re boundary objects between here and there. They force awareness of the liminality of the space I’m in, the everyday reality I’m in. Force me out of the calm slipstream behind inertia and into the dislocating eddies where I can see things, feel things, in new ways.

And books do that too. Immersions in fantasy worlds, dialogue with Cicero or Socrates, ideas that feel half-right half-wrong and all not-fitting-in that I have to wrestle and argue with — books are also about cracking open the familiar and letting new light in, about getting us out of that slipstream. And books are like that even if you’ve never written one. Even if you never will.

Community publishing is a great thing some libraries are cultivating, but you need not create books in order to be deeply, transformatively engaged by them. Same thing with 3d printers. Or whatever other tools you’ve got for letting the light in, provoking exploratory dialogue inside people between now and elsewhen, literal and possible, self and other, here and there.

It turns out, somewhat to my surprise, that there’s an idea that isn’t here, in my line of reasoning, though it is there, in the brawl in the comments I’ll be reading at least one more time: the definition of information, the delineations among information and data and knowledge and wisdom. That was a running thread throughout library school for me and it seems that libraries and information ought to be somehow crucially interlinked, and yet taking sides on how that definition shakes out seems not relevant to how I’m constructing these ideas.

Information is the raw material of dialogue, it’s the provocation for new realities, it’s the whisper in the dark inside the sphere of deviance that pushes history forward, but it somehow seems to be not what this is about.

When I think libraries, I think the lost-duckling kids, the ones who’ve never quite fit in anywhere yet, tumbling in bedraggled to the library and finding a port in a storm. I think the quiet in a giant high-ceilinged reading room with sunlight slanting in between talismanic books, the moment of looking up from the page when your breath catches on something giant and resounding in the silence and you have to find out the new shape that everything takes to accommodates this.

Information is a tool. Libraries are experiences.

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=”https://unglue.it/api/widget/9780521295246/” 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 clich├ęd 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.

the first plank in my philosophy of librarianship

‘Tis the season to write what-I-learned-in-2011 posts, and I’ve been turning that over in my head but making no progress, because I’m fundamentally more interested in how to change the world in 2012. But there is one thought that keeps bubbling to the surface, the first plank in my philosophy of librarianship. (Which I haven’t written yet. I always found it ludicrous when new librarians, or teachers, had to write those statements of philosophy — how can you have one before you have experienced practice? So here it is after time in the field: a first plank, emerging. Bear with me; it hasn’t yet had time to become concise.)

In 2010 we saw Wikileaks pose a fundamental challenge to government. In everyday life, here in the US, we live with the poles of government defined by two parties and pretend they etch the entire space. They, of course, do not. There are vast possibilities of government not encompassed there — not just other parties, the Greens or Libertarians or what-have-you, but fundamentally different ways to do government — parliamentary systems, dictatorships, anarchism, seasteading, et cetera — so far outside the everyday scope we treat them as if they do not exist. (Though they do.)

Wikileaks wasn’t just cowboy journalism and bomb-throwing, though it can be appreciated on that level. Assange has a philosophy (long; worth reading) here: a mental model of government as information flow. He theorizes that secrecy and authoritarianism are intertwined, and governments enable their authoritarian elements by metering information flow. Therefore, government’s authoritarian tendencies can be undermined by altering the network structure of government itself through forcing change in information flows. Prevent secrecy, and you prevent the structure which allows authoritarianism to emerge.

What got Assange pursued by international law enforcement, what got Wikileaks’ DNS and funding service cut off without due process or any particular outcry about due process, wasn’t bomb-throwing, or even the genuine charges outstanding against him for other reasons. It was the fact that he challenged something fundamental about how government worked.

We’re seeing this again in 2011 with the Occupy movement. I’ve never been clear on what they’re for but I’m clear on this: they too are posing, through action, questions about the nature of government. Both their use of public space and their consensus structure model alternatives to the status quo. And they, too, have been opposed by a government that’s gotten tired of countenancing that, and hasn’t reliably felt the need to engage in due process about that.

I found the unifying principle for these in Brooke Gladstone’s wonderful graphic novel on the nature of media, The Influencing Machine. In this she introduced me to the concept of Hallin’s Spheres. There are three: the spheres of consensus, legitimate contention, and deviance.

We don’t talk about things in the sphere of consensus because everyone is publicly presumed to agree. (If you don’t, you both know this acutely, and know that you can’t talk about it without facing social backlash.) Things in the sphere of legitimate contention are things that get discussed in the news and in the Senate. You may have strong feelings on abortion or health care or religion — you may think people with different views than your own are profoundly wrong — but you almost certainly recognize that these are topics where dissent exists and can be aired in public without violating social norms.

And then there is the sphere of deviance. Everyone is also presumed to agree on all of these topics, or perhaps presumed not to think about them at all. They’re settled. They’re not up for debate. And if you hold one of these views, you are, well, deviant. Again, you know that your view is in this sphere because you feel gnawing fear or anger whenever you contemplate discussing it in public, and the near-certainty that no one in your immediate environment will agree with you. You may have chosen where you live and who you term family today because they agree with you on crucial boundaries of this sphere, and the place you grew up did not.

Here’s a key thing about the spheres: they change. At various times in history, the sphere of consensus has contained “slavery is OK” and “women shouldn’t vote or sign contracts” (in fact, there are places in the world where these views still hold). The sphere of deviance has contained their negations and plenty of other things that are now consensus or at least legitimate controversy. A huge amount of the power of the It Gets Better project is its implicit statement that, if you’re a kid who lives in a place where being who you are puts you in the sphere of deviance, there’s a world waiting for you where you’re not.

The government quashes Wikileaks and Occupy, and debates SOPA with a straight face, because threats to its fundamental structure are — at least as far as the government’s concerned — within the sphere of deviance. Rights to due process and free speech can be suspended for actions within the sphere of deviance with little to none of the objection you would expect to find accompanying such suspensions. (At least, little to no objection on the part of the government, whose assessment of the sphere of deviance is not necessarily the same as the broader society’s; government has its own set of incentives to take into account.)

But I promised you a plank in the philosophy of librarianship. To wit:

Society needs safe spaces for views in the sphere of deviance to be floated, or the boundaries of those spheres can never change. We need to be able to raise questions like “is government an authoritarian conspiracy?” and “can we do things better by radical consensus?” We needed, in American history, to be able to raise questions like “is it really okay to own people as slaves and profit from their labor?” and “can women go to university without their migratory uteri unhinging them?” We need to be able to tell kids whose communities tell them they’re unholy that, yes, it gets better.

Libraries are one of the great safe spaces of history.

Libraries. Paper books, public domain and open-licensed electronic content (that is, free of both locking and tracking), and an open internet. Access to ideas beyond your doorstep, in a place where no one looks (even virtually) over your shoulder.

Many of the views within the sphere of deviance are there for good reason but here’s the nature of the thing: we, from our limited cultural perspective, can’t reliably tell which. Only by having unfettered access to information and safe, however quiet, spaces to pose provocative questions can we discover where, in a great and historic way, we have been wrong.

“Libraries: they facilitate deviance!” isn’t going to be on an ALA poster any time soon. But please believe me when I say there’s nothing flippant here: the right to interrogate that sphere is something I believe in fiercely, with a passion that lives in quiet spaces but is connected to all the warmth and hope I feel for humanity.