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"The Library" and Other Grand Unifications

A few weeks ago, while attending ACRL, I heard a question that nagged at my imagination: “If we define a doctor as ‘one who practices the art of healing,’ what is the analogous one-sentence definition of a librarian?”

Yes, I know that boiling everything down we do into one sentence is a little bit absurd, and that the given definition for a doctor is similarly circumscribed. But to the extent that we use such questions to focus and motivate our thinking, I think they can help us to step out of our own day-to-day existences (full of tasks and politics and committees and budgets and “where is the bathroom”) and gaze out at the broad, breathtaking, and inspiring vista of our profession as a whole.

This is exactly what Kathryn Greenhill, John Blyberg, and Cindi Trainor have done in their Darien Statements on the Library and Librarians.

So what happens when you make “grand, optimistic, obvious, and thankful” statements about The Library-with-a-capital-L? So far, it seems that people take a deep breath, let the statements sink in, feel them, taste them, and then start comparing them to everything we do and have done and hope to do in this profession, trying to see how the statements stack up against reality. This strikes me as a beautiful response. Even most of the responses that contend that “Your Library-with-a-capital-L doesn’t pertain to my library” or that “saying that ‘The purpose of the Library is to preserve the integrity of civilization’ is far too ambiguous” are evidence of this kind of productive, stimulative thinking.

Today I’ve been thinking about the relationship of The Library to individual libraries, asking myself “What is the one-sentence definition of a library?” and wondering if it’s similar to asking “what is poetry?” Is it like porn, where you’ll “know it if you see it?” And what do we learn by theorizing a Platonic Library? In what ways does this focus our thoughts and motivate our futures regardless of our individual circumstances?

T. S. Eliot theorized about the art of great poets in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” A great piece of criticism in itself, I have always particularly appreciated the way he positions the best poets as those who display their individual talent through grounding in the poetic tradition rather than in opposition to it. He explicitly does not say that the best poetry is “traditional” or copy-cat-ish or anything like that. Quite the opposite. He writes that “tradition is a matter of much wider significance [than “blind adherence” to past forms]. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour” (Eliot, paragraph 3). In his view, writing from a sense of tradition requires that poets step outside of their own location in time and space, “write not merely with his own generation in his bones” (Eliot, paragraph 3), and become the catalyst that will make the particular and the general spark into art. In the same way, being a librarian in a particular library is rendered meaningful and significant not solely based on our own individual missions and actions. We have the fundamentals of The Library that bolster our efforts and define our innovations.

The beautiful part of Eliot’s essay, though, comes in the 4th paragraph in which he explains the ramifications of having all of poetry tied together by Tradition. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” he writes. Everything written must be valued and appreciated in relationship to everything else that has been written, but this influence is not unidirectional. “The existing order is complete before the new work arrives,” he says, “For order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered” (Eliot, paragraph 4). If we accept the theory of the Platonic Library, the Tradition that allows for poetic creativity, then we are also accepting that as each of us effects change, we fundamentally affect The Library as a whole. This strikes me as a daunting, inspiring, thought provoking, somewhat terrifying, but empowering outcome of theorizing a Platonic Library even for the many individual libraries that may not feel included in the Darien Statements.

This post has gone on over-long and is really just a sketch, just my first attempt to figure out what about the idea of a Library-with-a-capital-L resonates with me so strongly. I hope some of you will speak up and help me figure out what I’m saying, where I’ve gone wrong, and what makes sense to you. I don’t fully understand my own stance at the moment, but like Steve, I know which conversation I want to be having.

Published inLibraries and Librarians


  1. John John

    This is a beautiful post, Iris. Incidentally, there are two poets who have shaped my notions of creativity and the sublime more than any other–one is Wallace Stevens and the other is T.S. Eliot.

    I’m going to read through your post again and let it sink in. The timelessness of a Platonic Library appeals to me on a number of levels, not the least of which is that it does connect us. The desire to serve the Library is a responsibility that anyone who enters the profession should feel, I think.

  2. Iris Iris

    I’m so glad you liked it, John.

    I think the tension that most interests me is that age-old particular/general relationship. Why is it that I find grounding in the General to be empowering and motivating while others find it didactic and constraining? What about the General augments the Particular, and how can the Particular be so much more interesting (to me) when it is related to the General…

    Yeah, I’ll stop there. The modernist in me needs corralling. :-)

    Anyway, thanks for the Statements and the way they’re forcing me to actually think about this stuff. Sometime I might stop thinking High Theory stuff and actually get to the bullet points you listed. ;-)

  3. Kathryn Greenhill Kathryn Greenhill

    Hi Iris. Beautiful! Thank you. I think you understand what we were getting at better than I do :)

    I like your description of current actions being influenced by previous actions …but then also enriching previous actions.

    I think this kind of very grand, general idea *can* have a simple expression in our day to day, particular, tasks. Seems to me that when we are weeding and look at whether there are other copies of an item in other universities, we are keeping in mind that there is a Library beyond our user population…and that we have an obligation to keep this copy because we are a repository for human knowledge – not just in case Prof X wants it in a couple of years.

    I wonder whether the explosion of library blogs is partly to do with many librarians realising that if we share our knowledge and start communicating outside our libraries, not only can we serve our own individual populations better, but enriching the skills of other librarians enriches the Library…. which in turn makes the individual library better too. could get very circular. Like you I don’t 100% understand my stance, but am enjoying the conversation.

  4. The Sheck The Sheck

    This is a glorious post, asking the kinds of questions and making the kinds of connections that we rarely make time to consider. The idea that meaning is contextual is an important one, I think, in terms of understanding the context of the web as a source of information. And to think about how Libraries are not so very different. Thank you for this. It’s a great thing to think on.

  5. John John

    Ah ha! It’s not often I run into someone who shares a passion for the Modernists… I don’t suppose you like the Romantics too?

  6. Iris Iris

    Oh, John… my previous masters thesis was on a theory for reading the modernist short story, and on one Irish author’s stories in particular. The Romantics didn’t grab me quite as much, but high modernism… MMmmm…. I could go on for a long while. :-)

    For a more Romantic take on things, go read Laura’s eloquent take on things. She says much of what I wanted to say, only better.

    And thank you, Kathryn and Sheck. Thank you very much.

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