Sunday, February 6, 2011

A City on a Hill, Writ Small

On several occasions during the past months I have spoken of the library’s engagement with strategic planning. Most recently, my comments include references to our planning and its end results as "a city on a hill." The original quote is attributed to John Winthrop, leader of the Puritans-not the Pilgrims, big difference-part of an oration delivered while standing on the deck of the ship Arabella in 1630, off the Massachusetts coast. I don't much care for Winthrop's politics. Winthrop did not represent a tradition of either democracy or religious tolerance, despite the accretions of myth that have settled over his biography and obscured the motives behind the Puritan’s removal to Massachusetts Bay. I do have an affinity for the quote in the context used in the following excerpt. This is part of a speech delivered on 9 January 1961 by President-Elect John F. Kennedy during an address delivered to the General Court of Massachusetts:
"I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. We must always consider he said, that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arabella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required."

What does this have to do with our homely labor in strategic planning? In our small way we are grappling with unknowns and perils; not as rigorous as building a new government on a perilous frontier, but nonetheless fraught with hazards and challenges: designing a new and possibly seminal model of library operation. The journey has not been a linear process; we have spent time contemplating where to begin, determining priorities, and changing direction before acknowledging that our principal challenge was creating a new structure that might withstand further convulsions in funding and the dynamic, fluid environment public libraries are coping with.

So, as embodied in JFK’s speech, we at Otis Library have an opportunity to construct and inhabit something new and dynamic, a new “city on a hill.” It is a daunting task, it takes an emotional and physical toll, but it offers us a singular opportunity to effect great changes in the way libraries operate, relate to their communities and provide their customers with the intellectual sustenance essential for a healthy society. I am very grateful for the help and support of a committed planning team. I look forward to a successful endeavor and providing you with periodic updates.

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