Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Darien Statement on the library

There is an old "shaggy dog" story about the Ambassadors in a particular country being phoned up and asked what they wanted for Christmas. The results were published in the newspapers the next day, with the US ambassador saying he wanted freedom and democracy for all mankind, the Russian ambassador saying he wanted peace and equality for all people and the British ambassador saying he wanted a pair of slippers and some sherry. The point of the joke is that while the other nations interpreted the question in terms of high ideals and principles the British response was in personal and practical terms.

I suspect the same is true for British librarians. If you were to ask a typical librarian (and in another context this has been summarised as "predominantly female, White-British, middle-aged and what we can describe as middle class") what libraries were all about, you would get a practical description of what libraries do. I don't think that most of us would start with "The purpose of the Library is to preserve the integrity of civilization".

This phrase appears at the start of the Darien Statement on the Library and Librarians, written and endorsed by John Blyberg, Kathryn Greenhill, and Cindi Trainor - three US librarians. It continues "The Library has a moral obligation to adhere to its purpose despite social, economic, environmental, or political influences. The purpose of the Library will never change".

Many of us will find this phraseology awkward and pretentious but the message is important. In Chris Batt's talk at the Library of the Future Debate he said that librarians need to build a common narrative and find new friends. We do need to be able to express ourselves with passion and vision if we are to convince others. CILIP has put together a statement about the role of libraries which uses more pragmatic phrases such as "Enable access to services and opportunities which enrich the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds". (See the Campaigning toolkit). We need to steer a course between the Scylla of "preserving the integrity of civilisation" and the Charybdis of "enriching the lives of people" which will reach out to our audience and show them that we believe passionately in what we are doing.

And at the next party when someone asks you what you do, lower your voice and say "I can't divulge any details but I help preserve the integrity of civilisation".


Kathryn Greenhill said...

:) :) I like your take, Carl.

Just a small correction, I'm an Australian librarian travelling in the US. We have a tradition of inherited British reticence plus a good dose of Australian "get bloody real, mate".

David Sharpe said...

Looking at the Darien Statements about The Role of the Library, I was intrigued that top of the list was that the Library ‘provides the opportunity for personal enlightenment’. I have thought for some time that the Library's 'role' (big ‘L’) was rather more that it stood outside of the individual ‘library’ (small ‘l’) – that is, an individual human mind – as a locus of developing memory, both immediately useful (or practical – to help find jobs, to inform where to get transparent recycling bags for your paper and cardboard, what the council’s up to, etc etc) and the deferred but vital repository of defining thought that might exist under the headings of ‘literature’, ‘entertainment’, ‘philosophical’ objects and so on. Surely, then, personal enlightenment isn’t really the issue. Our brains (or minds, more properly) are our own personal libraries, hopefully endlessly ‘updated’ as we trundle through the everyday; and that personal library is both informed by and contributes to a greater Library (here we go again) which, ‘bounded’, has ultimately the aim of ‘preservation’ (short-term for that which is necessarily immediately accessible, and long-term for those things that it is not really necessary for anyone to access for it to serve its purpose). An individual library(-building, let’s say) therefore does indeed have to conform to a broad ideal, and to have unobstructed dialogue with that ideal (as far as humanly practicable), but it is the Library that matters in the end. Alternatively, I may be ranting about something in awkward and pretentious phraseology…

David Sharpe, Production/Design Editor, Library & Information Update http://communities.cilip.org.uk/blogs/update/default.aspx