Notes, thoughts, divergences | Ian Hodder, “The entanglements of humans and things: A long-term view”


Ian Hodder. “The Entanglements of Humans and Things: A Long-Term View.” New Literary History 45, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 19-36.


Archaeologist Hodder examines the material co-dependence of humans and things, including a caution against the notion that digitally-enabled things are somehow exempt from the constraints and affordances of the physical world. He distinguishes between the historically contingent, dialectically evolving “entanglement” that he posits and more stable alternatives such as Tim Ingold’s “meshworks” of rhizomatic flows or Bruno Latour’s “Actor-Network-Theory (ANT).” Over the long term, entanglement between humans and things has increased in scale and complexity. The result of this path-dependent, ineluctable expansion is that “all aspects of the environment have become human artifacts… The whole environment (in the Anthropocene) is itself an artifact needing care, fixing, and manipulation.” (33)


I have found this article useful in developing the notion of “contexture.” I use the term contexture to refer to an element in the Many Collections model: an approach I’m working on that offers a unified view of the environment of meanings and artifacts from which library collections are designed. In the sense I intend, a contexture is the contingent, unique, embodied, always evolving assembly of linguistic and physical artifacts which a creator personally perceives, and with which she transacts as she creates an artifact. The Many Collections of artifacts with which a curator transacts as he designs a collection also form a contexture, and the collection itself is part of the contexture of a reader who transacts with it.

The notion of a “contexture” is not simply a nod to the vague, generally shared “context” in which a transaction occurs. A contexture is a material assembly of artifacts that presents a field of affordances: that is, possibilities for action. It partakes of what literary critics call the “intertext,” but is not bounded by linguistic artifacts or concerns. Although a contexture is alive with connections, it is not primarily a stable “network” of nodes and links. Notions that are helpful in getting at the nature of a contexture are Gibson’s “affordances,” Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizomes,” Tim Ingold’s “meshwork,” and from the Ian Hodder article at hand, “entanglements.”

My notion of contexture encompasses more than what Hodder discusses here: he emphasizes human entanglement with “things,” not artifacts particularly, although he concludes that the direction of human/thing entanglement is toward an increasing volume of increasingly complex transactions, until “the whole environment… is itself an artifact needing care, fixing, and manipulation.” Hodder does not touch at all on the relationship between things and human cognition, a primary concern of the Many Collections model. But his insistence on the physicality of our entanglement with things is a useful counter to notions of what Margaret Wertheim calls The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: an electronic device is a physical thing, not a transcendent escape from embodied reality. A contexture is embodied, not ethereal.

Hodder cites a study concluding that an iPhone with its infrastructure uses 361 KW hours of power annually, compared to the 322 KW hours of a “medium-sized Energy Star refrigerator.” He calls attention to an aptly entitled study: “The Cloud Begins with Coal.” He traces the life cycle of a strand of Christmas tree lights to a factory in China that processes 2.2 million pounds of discarded strands annually (via Adam Minter, Junkyard Planet); “Christmas tree lights are part of a heterogeneous network of religion, commerce, trade, and production (as well as [recycled plastic] slippers and [copper] plumbing) that has a global reach.” (26) He notes how our language helps us hide our physical entanglements from ourselves: “air” book, “cloud,” the World Wide “Web.”

Hodder does not portray our entanglement with things as a benign, mutually beneficial exchange. He describes it as “a dialectical tension of dependence and dependency that is historically contingent. We seem caught: humans and things are stuck to each other. Rather than focusing on the web as a network, we can see it as a sticky entrapment.” (25) He is referring to the web of entanglements here, not the World Wide Web, but I think the extended analogy holds.

Turning to archaeology, Hodder locates a significant acceleration of “new stuff” in people’s lives between 12,000 and 7,000 BCE: permanent housing; agriculture; the storage of food; tools; cooking vessels and other containers; clothing – all these technologies significantly increased human entanglement with things. Things became more involved to create and less simple to replace. We began to create things whose purpose was to build and maintain other things, in a “gradual, relentless inflation, a drive towards more and more stuff and more and more entanglement in stuff.” (30) Since the Industrial Revolution the rate of entanglement has exploded, until we are now faced with world-spanning entanglements such as global warning that may have gone beyond our power to manage. Hodder concludes that it is in our short-term nature to “fiddle and fix.” He is pessimistic about our entangled future: fiddling and fixing only entangles us more completely with things. (34)

Coming back to the nature of a contexture, here are some of the notions that Hodder’s article clarifies and affirms (keeping in mind that “contexture” is my term, not Hodder’s):

  • A contexture is physical and personal. It is not an abstract genealogy outlining how I got here, or a passive selection of resources to help me generate ideas. It is the living field that initiates my actions, the range of embodied choices out of which I build my life. I am inextricably, physically entangled with my contextures.
  • The physical things in a contexture, most of which are artifacts these days, are entangled with each other and with me, but they are not arranged in some evolutionarily-ordained order. They are a heterogeneous assembly, some elements of which have some degree of connection; but the assembly as a whole is historically contingent on Lamarckian human action in time and place. The artifacts do not form an ecology in a strict biological sense, although they are entangled in natural ecologies (hence global warming).
  • All cognitive artifacts, not just dead-tree books, are entangled with the physical world. In an entangled sense, an iPhone is as big as a refrigerator, and cyberspace is an imaginative conceit, not a reality.
  • As humans we are stewards of the entangled contextures with which we transact. As librarians we are also stewards of entangled contextures: the Many Collections with which readers transact.

Many thanks to Gary Frost , who directed me to the work of Ian Hodder on entanglement.

Here are some citations that I will be exploring in relation to the concepts of entanglement and contexture; Hodder cites all but seven (Atkinson, Brown 2001, Gibson, Deleuze and Guattari, Wertheim, de Landa, and Ingold 2007).

Atkinson, Ross W. “The Citation As Intertext: Toward a Theory of the Selection Process.” Library Resources and Technical Services 28, no. 2 (April-June 1984): 109-19.
In this classic from the library literature, Atkinson situates the book selection process in an environment of representations connected with the extended object (“the citation as intertext”); explanatory representations of the object (“contexts of supplementation”); and the selector’s “elusive” understanding of the collection in itself (“contexts of resolution”: archival, research, and subject functions). Notable for its perception of the object to be selected (or more exactly, representations of the object) in an extended network of other representations, rather than as an independent entity. Atkinson’s paper received the 1985 ALCTS Outstanding Publication award. Full text.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010.
Cited in Hodder 2014 as one of the authors that “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other.” (19) Publisher description.

Brown, Bill. A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Hodder 2014 cites Brown as calling for a “thing theory.” (19) Publisher description.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (Autumn 2001): 1-22.
Hodder 2014 cites Brown as calling for a “thing theory.” (19) Preview.

Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost. “Introducing the New Materialisms.” In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, 1-43. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010.
Cited by Hodder 2014 on the instability of things in the perspective of modern physics, leading into a discussion of material things as “becoming,” rather than simply existing. (21-22) Publisher description.

de Landa, Manuel. “Meshworks, hierarchies and interfaces.” n.d.; accessed April 10, 2014.  Web page
Available at
Explores the heterogeneous nature of “meshworks”.

Deleuze, Gilles, and  Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated and with a forward by Brian Massumi. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 2. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Seminal text that introduces the concept of “rhizomatic” in contrast to “arboreal” structures. Publisher description.

Domanska, Ewa. “The Return to Things.” Archaeologia Polona 44 (2006): 171-85.
Cited by Hodder 2014 as an example of the “return to things” in the social sciences and humanities, which he contrasts with an earlier emphasis on representation, separation of subject from object, and mind from matter. (19) Abstract.

Gell, Alfred. “Vogel’s Net: Traps As Artworks and Artworks As Traps.” Journal of Material Culture 1, no. 1 (1996): 15-38.
Cited in Hodder 2014 as one of the authors that “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other.” (19) Abstract.

Gibson, James J. “The Theory of Affordances.” In Perceiving, Acting and Knowing: Toward an Ecological Psychology, edited by Robert Shaw and John Bransford, 67-82. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1977.
Gibson’s original introduction of the concept of “affordances,” an early version of a chapter in An Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979).

Hodder, Ian. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
More complete presentation of the themes in Hodder 2014. Publisher description.

Ihde, Don. Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1998.
Cited in Hodder 2014 for Ihde’s “material hermeneutics” that “explores ways in which technologies and machines shape the way we do science and see the world.” (19) Publisher description.

Ingold, Tim. Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials. NCRM Working Papers, 15. Manchester, UK: ESRC National Centre for Research Methods, 2010; available at
Hodder 2014 cites Ingold as one of the scholars who “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other,” citing Ingold’s concept of “meshwork.” (19,24).

Ingold, Tim. Lines: A Brief History. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Hodder 2014 cites Ingold as one of the scholars who “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other,” citing Ingold’s concept of “meshwork.” (19,24)  Publisher description.

Ingold, Tim. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. Oxford: Routledge, 2013.
Hodder 2014 cites Ingold as one of the scholars who “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other,” citing Ingold’s concept of “meshwork.” (19,24) Publisher description.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Cited in Hodder 2014 as one of the authors that “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other.” (19) Hodder goes to some length to distinguish his approach from Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT), with which he is in basic sympathy, arguing that ANT does not have the focus on the “object nature of things” that Hodder’s theory of entanglement does. (22-25) Publisher description.

Miller, Daniel. Stuff. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.
Cited in Hodder 2014 as one of the authors that “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other.” (19) Publisher description.

Mills, Mark P. “The Cloud Begins With Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, and Big Power: An Overview of the Electricity Used by the Global Digital Ecosystem.” National Mining Association and American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, 2013. Available at
Cited in Hodder 2014 as a resource that explores the material entanglement of digital devices. (27)

Minter, Adam. Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Cited in Hodder 2014; the source for the odyssey of recycled Christmas tree lights which Hodder uses as an example of the entanglement of humans and things. (25-26) Publisher description.

The Object Reader,  ed. Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins. London: Routledge, 2009.
Cited by Hodder 2014 as an example of the “return to things” in the social sciences and humanities, which he contrasts with an earlier emphasis on representation, separation of subject from object, and mind from matter. (19) Publisher description. Table of Contents (PDF).

Preda, Alex. “The Turn to Things: Arguments for a Sociological Theory of Things.” The Sociological Quarterly 40, no. 2 (1999): 347-66.
Cited by Hodder 2014 as an example of the “return to things” in the social sciences and humanities, which he contrasts with an earlier emphasis on representation, separation of subject from object, and mind from matter. (19) Abstract.

Renfrew, Colin. “Symbol Before Concept: Material Engagement and the Early Development of Society.” In Archaeological Theory Today, ed. Ian Hodder, 122-40. 1st ed. London: Polity Press, 2001.
Archaeologist cited by Hodder 2014 on the “increased material engagement between humans and things” in the Middle East ten thousand years ago. (28). There is a 2012 edition of this compilation with a variant title for Renfrew’s contribution; I have not seen either text.

Ryan, John C., and Alan Thein Durning. “Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things.” The Futurist 32, no. 2 (March 1998): 26-29.
Cited in Hodder 2014 as one of the authors that “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other.” (19).

Wertheim, Margaret. The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet. Norton: New York, 1999.
Puts the concept of cyberspace into historical, philosophical, and religious perspective. Publisher description.


July 24, 2014. Added Ross Atkinson, “The Citation as Intertext,” to the list of citations.

July 25, 2014. Changed “Many Collections Theory” to “the Many Collections frame” in the Discussion (2 instances). Changed “the primary concern” to “a primary concern” in the Discussion.

July 27, 2014. Changed “Notes, thoughts, and divergences” to “Notes, thoughts, divergences” in the Title.

August 22, 2014. Changed two more instances of “frame” to “model” in the discussion.

Objectives: Handouts and Slide Set

Talents Objectives: Handouts and Slide Set

“Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” — Matthew 25:29

Here are the slides and handouts for the seventh entry in the Designing Collection Experiences workshop series: Objectives.

We looked at the implications of three inseparably related objectives for collection planning: size, age, and annual additions. These targets are implicit in all collection practice, even if a library does not choose to consciously address them. We completed an exercise using the Expectation of Life formula to generate targets for multiple rhizomes.

In the last workshop on Tuesday, November 19 — Plan Do Check Act — we will introduce an Excel linear programming model for setting effective objectives for age, size, and annual additions; discuss PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) as a basis for collection planning; and close with a review of the central themes of the Designing Collection Experiences series.

Some of the points we covered in the Objectives workshop:

  • The Expectation of Life formula can be used to explain the relationship between collection size, discard age, and annual additions: Age = Size ÷ Additions.
  • Set objectives in the context of a long-range plan for attaining a stable collection size.
  • Review and adjust targets for size, age, and additions annually.
  • Set targets among multiple rhizomes with a fundamental presumption of supply/demand equality.



Demand Tables (Also posted at the Availability workshop)

Rhizome Objectives


Workshop: The Best Service Is No Service

iceberg Workshop: The Best Service Is No Service

The hidden 90% of public library readers.

Most of the people who visit a public library do not ask for help: somewhere upwards of 90%. How can we design the library environment so that these readers receive a transformative library experience?

We explored this question recently in a workshop at the Council Bluffs Public Library: “The Best Service Is No Service.” I’ve posted the slides and handout for the workshop, and I welcome your questions and comments.



Perhaps after all, the best service is no service. In the words of Lao Tzu:

“When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy. The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 17, trans. Stephen Mitchell


Selection: Handouts and Slide Set

Selection Target Selection: Handouts and Slide Set

The Selection Target

Here are the handouts and slides from my October 29 workshop at the Waterloo Public Library: Designing Collection Experiences: Selection. We discussed a cost-effective, strategic approach to selection, apportioning funds and selector time into distinct evaluation of grouped alternatives rather than organizing activities around serial decisions about single titles.

On Tuesday, November 12, we will take up the topic of allocating the collections budget among different audiences and community needs. We will consider an allocation method that provides a measurable means of dealing with competing issues of demand, coverage, community needs, and underlying library policy.

Some of the points we brought up in the session on Selection:

  • Traditional selection practices are unduly labor-intensive.
  • Narrative is the most salient rhetorical mode in public library materials, and understanding its rhetorical and personal functions gives perspective to many selection decisions.
  • The demand for a library text probably has a half-life of between 12 to 18 months, counted from the release date.
  • A critical goal of a selection system is to make texts available as early as possible in their half-life, through pre-order, pre-duplication, and expedited internal routines.
  • A decision to buy a particular title is analogous to placing a bet (with the public’s money) on the use and quality of the title.
  • The “Selection Target” illustrates how our ability to predict the use of a title decays across title characteristics, in an ordered progression from having the title in hand to having only the format as a known characteristic. We can make some distinction between the relative popularity of formats, but not with the precision that we can make distinctions among titles, series, or authors that we have on hand.
  • We can place the surest bets on titles for which we already have a track record – those already in the collection.
  • Divide selector time and materials funding into three activities: renewal, streaming, and concentration.
  • Renewal: replace and duplicate titles already in the collection which have a known return on investment.
  • Streaming: acquire mainstream titles with a minimum of fuss, preferably through approval or other algorithmic plans.
  • Concentration: reserve primary selector input for more difficult decisions about the detailed direction and focus of the collection.


Selection Workform | A workform for a selector to use in organizing the data and activities pertinent to selecting in a specific rhizome.

Narrative Transformation Matrix | A 2×2 matrix for use in exploring the relationship between the elements of Exposition / Narrative and Theory / Praxis in a title or rhizome.


Concentration: Handouts and Slide Set

TreeofKnowledge e1382531645819 Concentration: Handouts and Slide Set

Here are the handouts and slides from my October 22 workshop at the Waterloo Public Library. The topic was concentration: the strategic practice of aligning a library collection with the interests and needs of readers and the community, so that the collection is strongest in those areas that are of most value to its stakeholders.

On October 29, we will finish the Concentration unit, and then move on to Selection. We will talk about ways to streamline and focus selection practices, so that selectors have time and resources to maintain and concentrate the collection.

Some of the topics we covered in the Concentration session:

  • Concentration leverages the strategic power of availability.
  • Organize concentration activities around flexible, responsive “rhizome” networks, not fixed, “arboreal” Tree of Knowledge subjects.
  • Librarians need to find methods to solve the “apples and orange juice” problem: evaluating and comparing the value and use of physical and electronic media.
  • Transactional budgeting compares cost per use of a range of media, although it still lacks direct comparability.
  • Use a 2×2 decision matrix to clarify your analysis of media that are not directly comparable with standard use measures.
  • SOAR is a planning exercise based on the principles of appreciative inquiry that helps participants uncover strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results in relation to an organization’s purpose.
  • Once a year, conduct a SOAR exercise with all staff who work with the public to select rhizomes and collection practices that are candidates for concentration.


Transactional Budgeting | Worksheet for calculating the cost per transaction of a rhizome.

Format Matrix Workform | A workform that facilitates the comparison of “apples and orange juice” rhizomes: those with characteristics that are not easy to measure or compare directly.


Discovery: Handouts and Slide Set

great good place e1381373832363 Discovery: Handouts and Slide Set

Ray Oldenburg. The Great Good Place. 2nd ed. New York: Marlowe, 1997.

Here are the handouts and slides from my October 8 workshop at the Waterloo Public Library on the topic of discovery in public libraries. We discussed the collection as an artifact designed for text retrieval; Conversation Theory as a model for library/reader interaction; the importance of reader browsing; the value and practice of weeding and other maintenance activities in enhancing reader experience at the shelf; and how classification, merchandising, and the library as a third place support discovery.

The next session (Concentration, October 22) will focus on practices that help align the format and title profile of the collection with the interests and needs of readers.

A summary of the Discovery session:

  • The collection is a human-sized, walk-in index of itself.
  • Gordon Pask’s Conversation Theory offers a frame for thinking about interaction between the reader and the collection.
  • Most public library visitors do not ask for assistance during their visit.
  • Browsing is a natural activity that humans and their hunter-gatherer forebearers have perfected over millions of years.
  • Browsing is the primary search and retrieval method practiced by public library readers.
  • Not many readers use the online catalog, and those that do are only familiar with basic features.
  • Interaction between the collection and the reader form a system that we can design to work effectively without the need of heroic staff.
  • Weeding improves shelf availability by improving browsability.
  • We can establish effective, objective weeding indicators for demand, currency, and condition for the rhizomes in a collection.
  • Libraries should set a goal of weeding the entire collection annually.
  • ‘Team weeding’ is an effective system for weeding quickly.
  • Regular weeding forms the basis for a comprehensive collection maintenance program.
  • Classification and merchandising improve availability by improving browsability.


Team Weeding | Step-by-step introduction to the practice of team weeding.

Conducting a Shelf Time Study | Instructions and forms for conducting a shelf time study to identify the demand cutoff standard for weeding a rhizome. Although a manual process is described, the same principles can be used to construct an ILS report.

Weeding Review Slip | Sample form to indicate what to do with a specific weeded item.

Missing Items Inventory | Describes how to create an ongoing list of texts missing from a collection.



Availability: Handouts and Slide Set

Reader Library Texts 1024x988 Availability: Handouts and Slide Set

Here are the handouts and slides from my two-session workshop on availability as a measure of public library collection performance, September 17 and October 1 at the Waterloo Public Library. We discussed availability as the measure that best takes into account the reader’s experience of the collection and explored techniques for determining detailed availability ratios.

The next session (Discovery, October 8) will focus on the collection as a discovery tool. We will explore browsing as a primary human search practice and review collection maintenance and merchandising techniques that improve the reader’s experience while in the library and at the shelf.

Summary of the topics presented in the availability sessions:

  • Working definition of availability: Are the texts that the reader would prefer to select presented when the reader would prefer to select them?
  • Holdings availability measures the library’s acquisition practices: what is the ratio of titles acquired to those the reader would select if acquired?
  • Shelf availability measures the library’s logistic practices: what is the ratio of titles available when readers want to select them to all the titles held by the library that readers would select?
  • Holdings availability can be measured at a detailed level using Howard White’s Brief Tests of Collection Strength method.
  • Shelf availability can be measured at a detailed level by using a sample from the collection in use, or by using queueing theory to estimate underlying demand.
  • The number of duplicates to buy to meet varying ratios of shelf availability for individual titles can be determined using queuing theory.

Handout  (The availability workshop was originally intended as a single session and the handout outline has not been updated to show the change to two sessions.)

Availability Formulas

Duplication Tables

Duplication Formula

Demand Tables


The Experience Library: Handout and slide set

Wittgenstein quote 1024x764 The Experience Library: Handout and slide set

Wikimedia Commons

Here are the handout and slides from my September 10 collections workshop at the Waterloo Public Library: The Experience Library. Next up (September 17), we’ll talk about the concepts and mathematics underlying the primary measure of collection performance: Availability. Bring a calculator!

The handout includes a bibliography and definitions of key terms.

To summarize the experience library workshop:

  • The mission of librarians is to help create transformative meaning in the lives of readers and the conversations of communities. (Riffing on David Lankes)
  • Public library collections work is about designing transformative experiences,
  • Readers experience collections as unitary artifacts that afford practice, play, and praxis.
  • Public library collections are overwhelmingly about narrative, not information.
  • Creating meaning is hard work, and our readers deserve our respect.


Slide set

A library is to knowledge as a ukulele is to music

 Portland, Maine – Library Ukulele Jamboree

Ukuleles at the Portland Public Library

For a few weeks now I’ve been visited by a mild but annoying aberration: intermittent cerebral background music to divert my daily routine. Tiny Tim performing “Tiptoe through the Tulips” to be exact.  Also an occasional faded, flickering flashback of Tim serenading Miss Vicki on Carson. (As I don’t recall viewing such a performance, broadcast or video, I assume the flashbacks originate in the severely neglected nostalgia lobe of my imagination, and not in original memory traces.)

I can date exactly  the onset of these phenomena. On April 18, I read a blog post from Justin the Librarian: Community, Libraries, Ukuleles, and Love.  The post describes the donation of four ukuleles to the Portland, Maine Public Library young adult collection, kicked off with a ukulele jamboree in front of the library. “Patrons can check out a bag containing a ukulele, an instructional DVD, a uke chord book, and the novel or non-fiction book the ukulele was named after.” In the words of teen specialist Justin the Librarian, aka Justin Hoenke, “This is crazy awesome…”

Teen librarians do stuff like this. It’s fun, gets teens and the community involved, and bags publicity for the library. I smiled, filed, and went on. But then Tiny Tim’s insistent falsetto kept leading me back to the four teen-novel-inspired ukuleles (Reunited, So Punk Rock, Seraphina, and So You Wanna Be a Superstar).

First one’s free

The question I kept returning to: why ukuleles? Why not saxophones, or snare drums, or keyboards, or even guitars? One answer, of course, is that the Portland ukuleles are not the insidious first step in positioning the library as a serious resource for musical instruments—they are a one-off lark. Also: ukuleles are comparatively cheap; they don’t have much of a learning curve; they come in bright colors; and though jaunty, they aren’t particularly loud, a plus for both library and home.

But I was left with a more subtle question about my immediate reaction to the post. Ukuleles seemed like a natural library fit, but I would have been taken aback to learn of a collection of four library saxophones. Why do ukuleles make library sense to me, and not saxophones? Do I really want to privilege budding Tiny Tims over budding John Coltranes?

When I went back to the post, the answer leapt out:

“Ukuleles are the entry drug to music and performance,” said Portland Public Library staffer Michael Whittaker, ”this program will allow patrons to experiment free of charge.”

The metaphor of a library as a gateway has a long and honorable history, and adding the qualification that it is a gateway (or entry) “drug” makes the analogy even more clear – especially the “experiment free of charge” part. As librarians we tend to forget that visiting a public library is just the beginning of knowledge: the hard stuff is beyond, and requires a more intense personal investment. A library is not knowledge incarnate, poised to enlighten us the moment we step into its sacred precincts. Libraries don’t contain knowledge; they contain artifacts that people use to create knowledge.

More exactly, knowledge is in people’s minds, not in artifacts like books or databases. And the transformative, seriously addictive high from knowledge comes when we creatively engage our minds with the world at large, not just with libraries, books, databases, or even librarians.

If you’re uncomfortable around gateway drugs, here’s another metaphor with roughly the same significance: libraries as a keystone species in a community’s knowledge ecology. Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day devote a chapter to the notion of special librarians as a keystone species in Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart (1999).  Their insights are just as relevant for the embedded, interactive pathways of all types of library.

abeille miel honey 44419 m e1371052430450 A library is to knowledge as a ukulele is to music

This tiny honeybee (Apis mellifera) is a member of a keystone species whose (gateway) function as a pollinator creates  $15 billion in U.S. agricultural value annually. Operating revenue  of U.S. public libraries in 2010: $11.3 billion. Photo credit: Bob MacInnes via Flickr.

The phrase “keystone species” is derived from the keystone of an arch, which bears little weight but is crucial to the (gateway) function of the structure. Nardi and O’Day elaborate on three practices which explain special librarians as a keystone species. Although Nardi and O’Day limit their chapter to librarians, these practices are also characteristic of the overall function of  libraries as a pivotal but often overlooked species in any knowledge ecosystem. “Information therapy”: helping the reader uncover and understand his or her own needs. “Strategic expertise”: helping the reader organize and focus his or her travels beyond the gateway. “Building relationships”: serving as an ongoing, familiar base for knowledge exploration. These functions do not explicitly require a library, let alone a librarian, but the organized portal that is a library can certainly speed you on your way.

So you wanna be a plumber/physician?

Here’s a homely public library illustration to make all this more concrete.

Phyllis the physician relaxes by cooking gourmet meals. One afternoon while preparing Carbonnade (beef and onions braised in beer), she inadvertently sends a pound of onion skins down the disposal.  The drain clogs. Phyllis calls her neighbor, Plácido the plumber, who comes right over and crawls under the sink. A few minutes later he emerges with a puzzled frown. “I’m not sure what to do,” he says. “I’ll have to go down to the public library and research this.”


Plácido spends a lot of time fooling around under sinks, is a tad overweight, and jogs for half an hour every day. He develops a recurring pain in his left knee. He mentions this to Phyllis in the course of his annual physical. She takes a look, asks a couple of questions, and frowns. “I’m not sure what to do,” she says. “I’ll have to go down to the public library and research this.”

Neither scenario seems likely.

On the other hand, let’s say Phyllis doesn’t find Plácido at home when she calls about the clogged drain. We wouldn’t find it unlikely for Phyllis the physician to do a little plumbing research at the public library. Or Plácido the plumber to do a little medical research at the library before his visit to Phyllis. Plácido and Phyllis seek help from the public library at the margins of their knowledge, not the core. Consequently, and sensibly, they think of the library as a marginal knowledge resource: good to have, but not essential. A fine place to dabble, but not the destination to earn and/or polish your reputation as a physician or a plumber. An introductory gateway to unfamiliar knowledge and experience.

Of course it would be unusual for Phyllis or Plácido to bother with a trip to the library these days, at least to increase their knowledge of plumbing or medicine respectively. They would simply find something to meet their immediate marginal needs online. In the age of the Internet, what hope does the story of Phyllis and Plácido offer for the future of the public library as a gateway (drug) to knowledge?

The puzzling persistence of cookbooks

As it happens, Phyllis and Plácido share a secret passion. And another passion, the obsession that brought them together: food.  Cordial neighbors, but no more, they chanced upon each other browsing the 610s at the public library, and soon found themselves on Plácido’s kitchen floor, his rugged but gentle hands…

cooking up trouble A library is to knowledge as a ukulele is to music

Phyllis and Plácido posed for this cover, at least in my imagination. Note that Plácido’s midriff has been retouched.

But I digress. Let’s focus on a less personal example of the library as gateway: the continued dominance of cookbooks in public library nonfiction circulation. As a novice selector, the first truism of nonfiction I learned was that cooking is the most popular nonfiction topic. When I began running the numbers, I routinely verified that truism. Cooking (followed by health) was usually at the top of the nonfiction demand list.

Oddly enough in the age of the Internet, cooking still heads the list. I say oddly, because you might expect that competition from the huge Web cooking sector, to say nothing of the Food Network, would have reduced cooking’s print dominance at the library. But Library Journal’s February 2013 report on public library collection trends shows that cooking still leads the top-circulating nonfiction subjects (81%), followed as usual by medicine/health (58%) – the latter also subject to Internet competition, come to think of it.

What explains this persistent dominance? I hypothesize that readers use a library cookbook collection primarily as an imaginative gateway, not as an instrumental technical resource. I also hypothesize that this phenomenon is emblematic of much, if not most, adult nonfiction collection use. My evidence is subjective, derived from decades of talking with and assisting readers in public libraries. I’ll let you judge its plausibility.

The joy of cooking

In my experience, most home cooks own at least one well-worn, carefully annotated basic cookbook; have assembled or inherited a recipe box; have responded with delight to the Internet; and most importantly, have created a wealth of personal if tacit cooking knowledge through hands-on experience. These resources are the ongoing basis for home cooking decisions. I doubt if there are any cooks whose daily méthodes de travail à la cuisine include consulting a copy of The Joy of Cooking housed at the local public library. Well, maybe an occasional cheapskate librarian.

So much for Circulation, but what about Reference? Back in the day, I would answer an occasional one-off cooking question from the reference or reader’s assistance desk, but I’m reasonably certain the Web has captured the market for cooking ready reference. Need a recipe for Carbonnade? There’s an app for that, and for your menu too. Not sure how to chop an onion? Type “video chop onion” into a Google search box and get “about 6,790,000 results (0.35 seconds)”: the first five of which are, in fact, instructional videos on how to chop an onion. Forgotten how many tablespoons in a cup? Enter “tablespoons in cup” in the anonymity of your own home, without embarrassing yourself by placing a call to that nice young man at the reference desk: 16.

So what drives continued high demand for public library cookbooks? Not routine cooking practice, nor an occasional factual itch. For an explanation of cookbook demand, take a field trip to browse the new cookbooks at your public library (or better yet, at a bookstore, which will have a wider selection at hand). You will find pictures and narrative, with recipes almost an afterthought to stories of a dish and its culture, the people of that culture, and/or the author’s vicissitudes in collecting the recipe. I use culture in the strictest sense: The Deen Bros. Get Fired Up: Grilling, Tailgating, Picnicking, and More resonates with as much cultural authority as Paula Wolfert’s masterful  The Cooking of Southwest France: Recipes from France’s Magnificent Rustic Cuisine.

People continue to welcome library cookbooks into their homes because they are an excellent medium for two kinds of stories:

  • Imaginatively, a cookbook collection is a narrative gateway through which a reader explores cuisines, cooking styles, cultures, and the way other people live. A cookbook tells a (usually) unselfconscious story of everyday rituals and foodways, from the imagined consumer perfection of Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook to the imagined Parisian grace of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Many of the readers who imaginatively explore a cookbook collection actually cook, but some do not. I have spoken with readers who crave cookbooks like other readers crave novels, and avoid kitchens at every opportunity.
  • Instrumentally, a cookbook collection is a resource through which practicing cooks experience and extend the narrative of their own lives, weaving foodways and rituals into the stories they tell of themselves: the accomplished gourmet researching her next knock-your-socks-off dinner party; the home cook systematically exploring/expanding his repertoire; the novice trying out how different styles and cuisines relate to her life. These cooks aren’t searching for recipes or instruction per se, they are searching for ways to creatively express themselves through one of the fundamental shared practices of world culture.

For most readers, cooks or not, library cookbook collections are a browsable treasure of fascinating, creative stories; they are not easily substituted tiers of “content” divisible into specific facts or recipes. Library cookbook collections are freely available, expansive gateways to the joy of cooking.

Sometimes, truisms are true

A public library can reasonably be described as a gateway to imaginative knowledge, not just if it offers ukuleles or cookbooks, but through all that it offers. For most people, most of the time, the “imaginative gateway” analogy captures the essence of how a public library works in people’s lives.

Taking the gateway metaphor seriously helps explain some of the unsettling phenomena librarians often blame themselves for, and/or carefully ignore:

  • People do not routinely depend upon the public library for “essential” knowledge. If you do not find this intuitively obvious, I hope the story of Phyllis and Plácido helps make it clear.
  • The public library is a “marginal” institution in most people’s lives. That doesn’t mean it’s unimportant or underappreciated. Gaining knowledge at the margins is critical to learning, and people gravitate to it as they sense the need. But it is still knowledge at the margins: exploratory, apt to wander, and valuable precisely because little is at risk.
  • The underlying transformative power of a library lies in encouraging imaginative play, not providing commoditized units of “information.”
  • Concomitantly, public library use is overwhelmingly focused on works of narrative, not exposition, because that’s how imagination functions. This focus is apparent over the entire collection, including adult nonfiction, and extends to programming and other services as well.
triparoundtheworld 207x300 A library is to knowledge as a ukulele is to music

Public Domain: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs, WPA Poster Collection, LC-USZC2-5229.

Librarians want nothing more than to be taken seriously. We despair that we are branded as the place for “books,” forgetful of the power and affordances of “books” in people’s lives. We focus our attention and our public rhetoric on the public library as a critical “information” resource, while all those  imaginative cookbooks, novels, DVDs, picture books, et. al. are passed over as entertaining but embarrassing extras. But in practice the reverse is at least as true. The imaginative stuff is at the core of how most people, most of the time, view public libraries and use their services. The instrumental stuff, while necessary to the library’s mission, for the most part goes begging. The library as imaginative gateway is not an empty slogan.

My advice is to pick up your old ukulele and strum, strum, strum.

Links, citations and asides

The Library is dead, long live our library

Maugham Quote The Library is dead, long live our library

Credit: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Oh what a difference an article makes

Today’s topic is the proposition that the library is dead, or as good as dead.

Today’s text is from S. R. Ranganathan, The Five Laws of Library Science (1931), p. 382:


Now for what the late Dr. Stewart would refer to as “a nibble at close reading.” Your assignment: Point out how today’s text is typically misquoted.

I’ve misquoted it myself repeatedly, spreading defective Five Laws posters all over Iowa library-land. It took me 37 years to notice.

What Ranganathan says: “A library is a growing organism.” What we hear: “The library is a growing organism.”

Here’s why I think this is a distinction worth talking about.

The English article “a” is indefinite, used to show uniform membership in a group: “I am a retired librarian.” The article “the,” on the other hand, is definite, calling out a particular member of a group: “I am the retired librarian.”

If an appropriate group is specified, the definite article is unexceptional: “Among the volunteers at the Botanical Center, I am the retired librarian.” But if a group is not specified, the definite article may betray a nibble of hubris. Floating free, “I am the retired librarian” carries an overtone that among all librarian retirees, “I am The Retired Librarian” (not to be confused with The Annoyed Librarian).

We are grammatically motivated to place “THE LIBRARY,” without further qualification, in a familiar but vague class of semi-eternal cultural institutions. THE LIBRARY hovers with THE CHURCH, THE MILITARY, THE ARTS, THE ACADEMY, THE MEDIA, THE BOOK, THE GUVMINT and other baggy mental constructions in the sociological middle distance, objects of dismay or veneration, righteous concern, and fluffy New York Times op-eds.

On the other hand, “A LIBRARY” asserts a more down-to-earth class of stubbornly real objects, entities that we can physically walk into and examine up close, testing whether they are in fact dead, or as good as dead, or not dead yet.

Ranganathan is nothing if not down to earth

One of the delights of reading Ranganathan is his eternal return to the practical. The Five Laws is the Moby Dick of professional library classics, veering into eddies of minutia at the slightest excuse. For example: the sole appendix is a 3-page SPECIFICATION FOR A TEAKWOOD BOOK-RACK, which Ranganathan takes care to mention will weigh one ton if fully loaded.

Given his fondness for the concrete, I’m comfortable that Ranganthan’s use of “A” rather than “THE” in his statement of the fifth law, if not necessarily conscious, does reflect his characteristic engagement with the fortunes of real libraries. That being said, I don’t want to make too much of his wordsmithing. In the same paragraph he refers to “the fact that the library, as an institution, has all the attributes of a growing organism” (italics mine), and as the chapter progresses he uses both the definite and the indefinite article in referring to libraries.

Still, all but one called-out restatement of the fifth law uses the phrase “A LIBRARY” (capitalization Ranganathan’s) – and in that exception, he doesn’t capitalize the “the” (p. 407). Throughout the chapter Ranganathan gives us first-hand stories and hard data about the growth of libraries, followed by applied analysis of the implications for “books, readers, and staff.” He does not indulge in Platonic speculations about the growth of The Library until his concluding remarks. There he takes an abstract turn, affirming that in the future, the “vital principle of the library” will survive the evolutionary diversification of libraries into distinct “species.” Always heading toward the specific, as one would expect from a pioneer of faceted classification.

Talkin ’bout our library

The bad news: only librarians, op-ed writers, and occasional library fan-persons care much about the fate of The Library. (Whatever The Library might be—its amorphous ontological status is a compelling reason not to care.)

The good news: pretty much every one of us cares, many of us earnestly, about the fate of Our Library.

Over the decades I’ve spoken at length with hundreds of readers from all sizes and sorts of libraries. Early on I noticed what I thought was an endearing but throwaway whimsy in the relationship between readers and their libraries. No matter what my own, exquisitely professional sense of a library’s quality, the mere readers I talked to typically judged their home library as distinctly above average. Libraries are without question in the same revered class as the children of Lake Wobegon; even the most miserable, begrimed, and wayward specimen is a beloved beneficiary of familial and community pride.

As my respect for puzzling evidence and mere readers has matured, I no longer bracket this recurring anomaly as a throwaway. I have attained rock solid faith in the proposition that, as Tip O’Neill no doubt quipped in his standard library christening remarks, “All libraries are local.” THE LIBRARY may be under siege, but OUR LIBRARY remains at the heart of our community. Yes, libraries are under-funded, under-built and under-staffed, but they are not on the verge of mass extinction from under-love.

I understand that you may be reluctant to accept my heartfelt, but entirely anecdotal evidence of community support for the survival of libraries. Aren’t libraries closing all around us? The always-plainspoken Walt Crawford has looked at the numbers, and found that the death spiral of US libraries is decidedly over-hyped. Crawford’s article is essential reading not only for the reassuring numbers, but also for his method: a meticulous review and evaluation of the evidence. Here’s what he calls “the tip of the pyramid”:

As far as I can tell, at most seventeen public libraries within the United States closed in 2008 or 2009 and have apparently not reopened as of March 2012. That’s 17 out of 9,299 (in 2009) or 9,284 (in 2008) or 0.2%.

With the exception of one bookmobile (operating as a reporting library, not a mobile branch of another library) potentially serving 15,656 people, the closed libraries were very small. Fourteen of them served fewer than 1,000 people (that’s the Legal Service Area, the potential number of patrons); the other two served 1,000 to 2,499 people. Of the fourteen, for that matter, nine served fewer than 350 people—and five served 200 or fewer. The closed libraries accounted for 0.002% of 2007 library circulation—less than one of every 49,000 circulations. In other words, nearly all of the libraries closing in 2008 and 2009 (and all of the brick-and-mortar libraries) were very small libraries serving very few people. (Note the difference: 0.2% of libraries—with 0.002% of circulation, two orders of magnitude smaller.)

Other insights from Crawford:

  • It’s important to distinguish between library agencies (stand-alone libraries/systems) and library branches (outlets within systems). “Why? Because branches come and go as part of how cities change.”
  • There was a net gain of roughly 200 library agencies between 1999 and 2009 (emphasis mine).
  • “…given the depth of loss of public funds during the recession, one really needs to ask whether public libraries are faring worse than other public agencies, not just whether they’re suffering.”
  • A study of public library closings from 1998-2008 by Will Kurt, linked by Crawford, indicates that the annual rate of closings actually declined over that period.

Perhaps most valuable is Crawford’s explanation of why investigating the real situation is important:

My question still stands: How many public libraries (not branches) have actually closed for extended periods, let’s say two years or more? How many of these are in towns and cities that have not become ghost towns?

Yes, there are budgetary problems. (When aren’t there?) Yes, public libraries need more funding.

But to me the primary effect of the “public libraries are closing all over the place!” meme is self-fulfilling prophecy and grist for the mill of libertarians and those who dislike public libraries: Oh well, they’re already shutting down like crazy, that’s just the way it is.

Which, as I suspected, is simply not true.

The Library Armageddon

In my high school days, one of our English teachers was fond of an assignment in which his students sent letters to famous authors asking their opinions on the value of writing well for success in adult life. A surprising number of authors wrote back. The response that has stuck in my mind these fifty years was from Somerset Maugham.

He would have been in his late 80s, about the same age as the decaying red brick edifice that was our high school. I can still picture the shaky, hand-written note, framed and hung on the English room wall. “I am so exceedingly old that this question is of no interest to me, if indeed it ever was. W. Somerset Maugham”

Although I have a few years to go before I am as exceedingly old as W. Somerset Maugham, I find myself increasingly sympathetic to his response. I encounter warning after warning of the impending doom of public libraries, and I can no longer gather the sincerity to take them seriously. If I ever did.

The miasma of library doom can be tracked to three primary sources: libertarians; singularitarians; and proselytizing librarians. All of these earnest folk betray a common condition: they are disposed to what Michael Sacasas terms the Borg Complex.

In the event that you are not a Star Trek devotee, the Borg are an alien collective who roam the universe assimilating innocent species into their cybernetic hive mind. They do not negotiate. They arrive, proclaim their axiomatic war cry – “Resistance is futile” – and get on with the assimilation.

As described by Sacasas, the Borg Complex is epitomized by that axiom: “Resistance is futile.” Futile not so much because the Borg have overwhelming power, but because in their view they exist at the end of history, in that state of perfection toward which the universe strives. The practical manifestation of the Borg Complex is rhetorical: “Resistance is futile,” end of conversation. But to the Borg themselves, their ultimate ascendance is the self-evident truth of their existing at all.

Let’s take a look at how the Borg Complex informs threats of a Library Armageddon.

Libertarians. Public libraries are anathema to libertarians because libraries can be construed to represent creeping socialism, the heresy that sharing resources might be a legitimate practice in any but the most dire circumstances, such as the arrival of the Borg in U.S. airspace.

To suggest that libertarians are afflicted with the Borg Complex may seem a bit cheeky: the Borg are the ultimate collective and libertarians are resolutely committed to the triumph of the individual. But the Borg Complex is about self-evident totalizing as a rhetorical move, not socio-economic theory. Ayn Rand is arguably the most dedicated real-life exemplar of the Borg Complex on record, condemning billions of merely sociable human beings to a meaningless hive existence so that the self-created John Galts of her perfect future may triumph. Resistance is futile to the self-evident virtue of selfishness.

Singularitarians. The singularity is a futurist conceit in which machine intelligence reaches a tipping point that transforms human life into what Monty Python would term “something completely different.” Here’s a quote from SingularityHUB, a service of Singularity University:

The singularity is the point in mankind’s future when we will transcend current intellectual and biological limitations and initiate an intelligence and information explosion beyond imagining.

The most renowned prophet of the singularity is inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, well-known in library circles for designing the Kurzweil Reading Machine. In his book The Singularity Is Near, he predicts that “near” is in fact 2045 (more wise than Harold Camping, he doesn’t specify month and day).

Though by definition the state of the universe after the singularity can’t be predicted, Kurzweil is convinced that one outcome will be humankind’s triumph over death. A post-singularity human will be able to upload his or her individual consciousness into a machine and live on forever, free at last from meatspace. (Rather a Borg-like fate, to my way of feeling.)

Although the number of confessing singularitarians is not large, there are many folks who assume that the functional body of the public library has been, or soon will be, uploaded into the machine, and confidently encourage the death of the meatspace library. We may be taken aback at the ignorance of a local politician who votes to cut public library funding because “everything is on the Internet for free,” but he or she is simply picking up on one of the more enticing (and theoretically money-saving) promises of the singularitarian creed. Kurzweil cites the inexorable progression of Moore’s Law as technological proof that his predictions will soon come to pass: resistance is futile to the inevitable eruption of the singularity.

Proselytizing librarians. From the time I started public library work in the late ’70s, there have been small but influential cadres of early adopters warning of the impending obsolescence and probable death of traditional libraries, and preaching a new path forward through the faithful practice of assorted innovations. (Generally, one innovation per proselytizer, though the theoretically inclined are liable to punt, and just come out for Change as a Way of Life.)

These innovations have been generally useful and I’ve consistently welcomed them, despite the clouds of negativity that poisoned their arrival. I soon learned to bracket the death threats as an age-old rhetorical ploy that reminded me rather pleasantly of my Southern Baptist childhood, raptly listening every Sunday to the Rev. Amos Rice’s thunderous sermons on the eternal damnation of unbelievers.

As I have gradually assumed the mantle of curmudgeonly old guy, my tolerance for being harangued has worn thin. I was pleased to encounter Walt Crawford’s thoughts on the negative effects of negativity, quoted above, and I’ve come across similar caveats from other library folks I respect:

From David Lankes:

The minute that we talk about libraries in the context of threats we reinforce the premise that libraries are in crisis and heading into the sepia color of memory:

We must take on Google (or be like Google, or build our own Google) to save libraries!

We must be on Facebook (Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, MySpace, Geocities) to save libraries!

Screw that!

To be sure libraries need more funding, they need modernization, they need a shifted identity in the minds of our communities. To be sure there are some libraries that need to be saved in the most literal sense from closure, but the whole profession? By taking on the mantra of saving libraries, we are assuming that we [are] weak. Worse, it plays into the whole idea that we are wounded or broken.

From Barbara Fister:

Why is it that we don’t want to present a happier view of books and reading, of libraries, or of what higher education today actually does accomplish? In part, it’s the old newsroom slogan – “if it bleeds, it leads.” Bad news is more likely to get attention, and librarians are more prone than anyone to spread it – either as an emotional appeal to recruit support for libraries or to sway other librarians to a position (“if we don’t do as I say, we are dooooooomed!”)

I also suspect there’s an element of elitism involved in all of this talk of decline. We prefer to think we are among the elect who enjoy reading. We are among the rare, the special people who care about libraries or education. We are the chosen, and when the Rapture comes, we won’t be left behind.

Despite some signs of resistance, the ranks of proselytizing librarians seem only to grow. The first change-or-die innovation I personally encountered was the Great Baltimore County Duplicate Copy Imbroglio, which was concerned with what is now an old-hat wheeze: collection policy and practice. Since those innocent times almost all the crucial innovations have involved technology: integrated library systems; assorted format births and deaths; public access computers; online services; online delivery of content; and I’m sure others I’ve forgotten. The constant, explicit refrain has been that libraries must adopt cutting edge technologies or wither away. Technological determinism, to mix my science fictional universes, is the Death Star of the Borg Complex. Resistance to Moore’s Law is futile.

But e-books are different!

Librarians have been seized with a special existential horror over e-books. They foresee that their centuries-old mainstay, the paper book, will soon lose its position as the primary reading technology. Public librarians in particular fear that they will be entirely passed by if they do not have a viable system of e-book delivery to replace their dead tree collections, and soon. Here is a quote from an otherwise admirable UK governmental commission report, which recommends a national policy supporting public library e-books:

It is plain that an inability to offer digital lending will make libraries increasingly irrelevant in a relatively short time. Library services therefore do not have the luxury of waiting any longer to expand, or in many cases start, their provision of digital lending.

And how about the title of a recent symposium from the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA, the primary international library agency): “E-books in libraries: A global question of survival?” No less than the global survival of libraries is at stake. This time it’s for real!

Yet I counsel equanimity in the face of the e-book Moloch, even if we suppose that it demands the sacrifice of our print collections.

A library is a growing organism

According to Ranganathan, a library that is not growing must be dying.

It is an accepted biological fact that a growing organism alone will survive. An organism which ceases to grow will petrify and perish. The Fifth Law invites our attention to the fact that the library, as an institution, has all the attributes of a growing organism. A growing organism takes in new matter, casts off old matter, changes in size and takes new shapes and forms.

Are proselytizing librarians simply echoing Ranganathan? After all, Ranganathan’s work is filled with amusing and instructive examples of libraries and librarians whom he calls out for practices not in accord with the Five Laws. But he differs from the proselytizers in both substance and tone. Ranganathan is cheerful, optimistic, and future-oriented, never negative or bullying; he is immune to the Borg Complex

In Five Laws Ranganathan talks about growth in two senses: expansion in size, which takes up most of the chapter; and evolutionary differentiation, an increase in variety. In a later book, Library Book Selection (1952, 2nd edition 1966), he introduces the concepts of “child” growth as opposed to “adult” growth. A child grows by continuously becoming larger, which is the sense that he dwells on in the earlier book:

On the other hand, adult growth is characterized by absence of overall growth; it consists of addition and weeding out, more or less balancing each other.

Combining Ranganathan’s notion of adult growth with his appreciation of the mechanisms of evolutionary change leads to a more nuanced and relaxed view of how technologies affect libraries. In business terms, those suffering from the Borg Complex routinely characterize technologies/innovations as critically disruptive when they are almost always sustaining. The core technology of library service is not books, whether codex or electronic; it is writing and reading, or more broadly, recorded communication. That people may cease to value reading at all is the disruptive threat facing public libraries, not whether they read from a codex or a screen.

What are the advantages if we look at e-books as a sustaining rather than a disruptive technology?

  • We are less likely to commit to a poor system simply because it’s first on the scene. In the words of Carrie Ramp, describing the current state of e-book borrowing from public libraries: “the complexity is beyond mind-boggling. Teaching grandma UNIX seems easier.”
  • We are more likely to wait for the market to sort itself out, and not waste scarce funds on alternatives that soon disappear.
  • We are more likely to pursue long-term policy solutions to licensing and ownership issues, rather than relying on short-term technological work-arounds.
  • We are more likely to develop coordinated and even cooperative systems, rather than each library fending for itself.
  • We are more likely to take into account the affordances of e-books and how they mesh with specific reader audiences, rather than simply installing the technology without thought as to how it fits with our readers and the existing environment. (We are more likely to market, rather than just announce.)

There is one big disadvantage. It takes patience, money, and lots of hard work to plan and deploy a new service that is sustainable, responsive, and meets the specific needs of actual readers. It is much more exciting to move on to the next big thing.

The vital principle

Ranganathan embraced growth wholeheartedly because he saw it as sustaining the life of extraordinarily varied individual libraries within the context of a single more fundamental “vital principle.” For him, that vital principle was education.

For me, the vital principle motivating library service is reading in the broadest sense, as the practice of making meaning, akin to education but at a deeper level. I think this identification with reading goes far to explain why communities reverence their local libraries: a person’s relationship to reading, both personal and social, is uniquely constructed from the specific places of his or her reading experience. Not The Library, but my library. Not momentary technologies of books and information, but the most productive human practice of modern civilization: reading.

Ranganathan closes his chapter on library growth, and the Five Laws book, with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita that illustrates his understanding of the spiritual workings of the vital principle (II, 22-24). You may want to commit it to memory, and recite it the next time you are visited with an invocation of The Death of The Library.

As a person casts off worn-out garments and puts on others that are new, so does the embodied soul cast off worn-out forms and enter into others that are new.

Weapons do not cleave him; fire does not burn him; water does not make him wet; nor does the wind make him dry.

He cannot be cloven; he cannot be burnt; he cannot be wetted; he cannot be dried; he is eternal, all-pervading, steadfast and immovable; he is the same for ever.

Links, citations and asides