For the sake of argument, let’s all agree that the answer to this question is yes: libraries have a central mission to change the world—to make it a better, more intelligent, more tolerant, more open-minded place, one that is (thanks in part to our professional efforts) increasingly filled with well-informed critical thinkers who will, themselves, take the tools and skills with which the library has provided them and go on to make the world even better. This is what the library exists to do.
My last column addressed some of the tensions that underlie the idea of “not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good” in library leadership, and at the end I promised that my next would deal in a similar way with trying to balance the occasional tension between problems that are truly important and those that are merely “noisy.” However, an issue has come up in the meantime that is more timely and urgent, so I’m putting off the “noisy vs. important” column until next time. This month I want to address the issue of patron privacy in the context of the recent revelations about privacy incursions in the latest version of Adobe Digital Editions.
We’ve all heard—and many of us have probably invoked ourselves—the admonition “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It’s a concept that has kind of a fraught history in library discourse, because it embodies a tension that exists between two conflicting aspects of library culture: on the one hand, we place a lot of value on accuracy, completeness, and quality in the work that we do; on the other hand, we are painfully aware of the limited resources we have to work with.
In late June, a minor brouhaha erupted when the library at the University of Arkansas suspended reporters from the Washington Free Beacon, an online newspaper, from using its special collections. The reason given by library administrators was that on multiple occasions the newspaper’s reporters had published content from those collections without asking permission, as library policy requires. Much has been made in the right-wing press about the politics supposedly surrounding this conflict. I want to focus on a different issue: the practice of making patrons request library permission before republishing content drawn from documents in our special collections.
Is there any applause line in our profession more tried and true than the assertion that “libraries are essential?” The problem with such statements is not that they’re wrong. It is that they pose a danger: they all threaten to leave us complacent about our future. What will determine our future is not whether we and our services are essential in fact, but whether we are seen by our stakeholders as more essential than the other essential programs and projects that are competing for the same resources.
In my last column, I talked about some general principles that academic library administrators should bear in mind when faced with requests from other entities on campus to occupy space in the library (either temporarily or permanently). Those principles were: first, remember that the library does not belong to you; second, say “yes” or “no” based on strategy, rather than on a knee-jerk defensive reaction; third, remember that cooperation creates political capital. With this column I would like to share some of what we’ve learned in my library about building and maintaining happy and mutually beneficial relationships with those non-library entities that do find their way into the library building.
In academic libraries, there seems to be growing concern about the problem of space—not only a lack of it in our library buildings, though that is a problem for many of us, but also a concern that the spaces we do have are going to be (or already are) taken over by campus entities and programs that are related only tangentially, if at all, to library services. I’m convinced that this concern is valid, and that it should actually be more widespread than it currently is.
The becomingly modest thing to say would be “you probably don’t remember me,” but in fact I think there’s a good chance you do. In the early 1970s, when I was between the ages of seven and eleven or so, I was a regular visitor to the children’s room located in the basement of the Dallin Branch of Robbins Library in Arlington, MA, where you were the children’s librarian. I want to take this chance to thank you publicly for your kindness, your patience, and your help. You significantly shaped my idea of what a librarian should be like, and I will always remember you and be grateful.