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What Kind of “World” is a Library? part one: New Year’s Resolution

January 11, 2018

“A beginning, by contrast, always contains the undisclosed fullness of the extraordinary, and that means the strife with the ordinary.” M. Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art, in Off the Beaten Track (Cambridge, 2002) 48.

It is the beginning of a new year. A turning point such as this often makes one restive; both restless and straining to move forward, while at the same time uneasy and resistant. Like Janus, the ancient Roman god for whom the month of January is named, there is a simultaneous facing backwards and forwards, i.e., gazing back into the near past and looking forward at the near future and what we believe lays ahead. This perspective includes our library. “Our library” not because it belongs to us, but because, whether a professional, a staff member, an employee, a retiree, a volunteer, a patron or simply a human being, all have a role in its existence. A library is a gathering place for the society of humanity. Twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger thought something which makes human beings unique is that we are world-forming. At this juncture, it is important to consider: “What kind of “world” is a library?”

“‘World’ serves, here, as a name for beings, in their entirety.” M. Heidegger, The Age of the World Picture, in Off the Beaten Track (Cambridge, 2002) 67.

It would be reasonable to wonder, why ask what it “is” rather than what it was, or better still what it will be. The simple answer, because the past and the future are both elusive. Too often one gets lost in either nostalgia or anticipation, infused with either optimism or pessimism depending on mood or disposition. It is better to take stock, rather than wallow in regret or triumph about what the library has been, or lose ourselves in wishful thinking or despair based on an “if only” frame of mind. Yes, it is important to respect roots for they nurture, and to develop a motivating vision because it can engender healthy growth, but at this inflection point between gazing back and looking forward we need to pause for a reality check. Because no matter the budget, building, staffing or collections, the standard against which to judge if “our library” is living up to its potential is to measure whether right now we are doing the best we can with what we have. Not to make objectives for maximizing outcomes or mulling over returns on investment. Today is the foundation for tomorrow as well as the product of yesterday. Librarians currently need to foster a conversation about: “What kind of “world” is a library?”

“And if we raise the question of the ‘world’, what world do we have in view?” M. Heidegger, Being and Time (Harper, 1962) 92.

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