Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Library as Thinking Space

It is snowing to beat the band today, with fierce winds and poor visibility. Rumor has it that a herd of Musk Ox has taken up residence downtown, but that remains unsubstantiated. The library is closed, as is most everything else hereabouts. This seemed like an opportune time to dig into the pile of library related articles I have been accumulating, and offer at least one of them for your further perusal. One that I especially enjoyed is Jessamyn West's interview with Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Library Journal, 2/1/2010). There are many good observations to read here, but my personal favorites are Lanier's comments on the role of libraries as thinking space. That is really a very old idea, and one we tend to downplay because of the connotations it evokes. The shushing librarian, the oppressive silence and implied or active censure of those who dare to speak above a whisper. Lanier rightly points out that we are in dire need of thinking space, a refuge from digital distraction, where you can focus and organize your thoughts, free from the distracting buzz and flash of everyday life. There ought to be space for reflection, one amenable to thinking, designed as an escape from the false paradigm that being "busy" is being productive.

This latter misconception recalls a comment in another article worth reading, Heather Havrilesky's "'Digital Nation": What has the Internet done to us?'(, 1/31/2010). Built around a critique of PBS's Frontline report "Digital Nation" which explores the side effects of "our digital immersion", Havrilesky quotes Sherry Turkle, director of MIT's Initiative on Technology and Self on the shortcomings of a plugged-in environment: "I've been busy all day and I haven't thought about anything hard, I mean the point of it is to be our most creative selves, not to distract ourselves to death." There should be room in our institutions to meet multiple requirements. Especially in a library like Otis, with patrons representing so many diverse needs, we will find ourselves balancing digital access with space for quiet contemplation and deliberation, and the desire for group interaction with individual pursuits. Identifying, assessing and responding to these challenges helps the library remain a dynamic and responsive institution, regularly in touch with the people it serves and changing community requirements.