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Libraries are Stories

May 17, 2021

I apologize in advance for any rambling, mixed metaphors, or lost trains of thought. It’s the end of the semester and the end of another long academic year. But this isn’t going to be another post about the pandemic – at least not directly.

I recently finished reading Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – with a day to spare on my library loan btw. I’m not going to write a review about the book but, it has a great premise. The Starless Sea and its Harbor is a place of stories – it is basically a cross between a library and the Hotel California Side note: I’ve recently discovered that I’ve come to an age where my cultural references often aren’t relatable anymore, so if you aren’t familiar with the song, check out the YouTube video I’ve linked to. Visitors can wander through the rooms and hallways lined with books and manuscripts, and can stay as long as they like (unlike the Hotel California you can actually leave, but why would you want to?). They can use the space to write and read and share with others. It is a magical utopia kind of place. But libraries, and bookstores, are often portrayed this way in stories. They are safe place of escape, a place to find answers and to even find yourself.

In real life what libraries do can often be seen as magic by our communities. We can get them any book from anywhere (almost) and provide access to everyone – without paying for a subscription or giving us their first born. We have the latest toys and gadgets (like virtual reality systems and makerspaces), but we also have ties to the past (genealogy resources, archives, and special collections). We exist for no other reason than to serve our communities in nearly whatever capacity they need.

In the past year or so though, COVID has changed things. We’ve lost a lot of what made us magical. Reduced hours, loss of programming and browsing. Reduced funding and loss of staff and volunteers. Because of the virus we could no longer be a safe physical safe, and while we tried to offer virtual alternatives to our services it was rarely the same. SPOILER ALERT: At the end of Starless Sea, a disaster strikes the Harbor as well. It is flooded by the Starless Sea and reached the end of its own story. But the novel ended on a note of hope, not one of despair. The Harbor was given an opportunity to rebuild itself again.

That a new Harbor was created out of its “disaster” is really where my meandering began. I started to ponder how we, as libraries, could rebuild ourselves. We will not be the same after the pandemic. Some of the lost staff and resources will not come back, and we will suffer from those losses. But we also have the opportunity to start fresh, to try new things and to cast aside bad habits. Most academic libraries, by the start of Fall 2021, will have at least half of a student body that has never known a “normal” library on their campus. We don’t have to fall back into the same routines as before the pandemic and perhaps can use this opportunity to become more than what we were.

This process can be daunting though. If we have a clean slate, then where do we start? How do we decide what we want to be? Maybe we should start with the story we want tell of ourselves and listen to the stories that our communities tell about us. Why not think big and abstract? We’ve focused on the real-world details for far too long during the pandemic. How can we get back to being that welcoming and safe space for our patrons? What can we do to become that haven for creativity and learning? Right now we may not think that we’re magic, but maybe we are… or at least can be. There has been enough pain and worry so why not take an opportunity to begin a new story where anything is possible?

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