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What's the Big Idea?

More with less and fewer things for fewer people. Is this how it has to be?

July 11, 2019
 
 

“We can’t be all things to all people.” – higher ed prognosticators

Ever since reading John Warner’s piece asking what the university is, then, when we remove some of the things and people, I’ve been mulling at the back of my mind about the idea of libraries as a public good. The Library Bill of Rights pretty much outlines the library as all things. “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” And they are meant to serve all people. “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community.”

Of course, there aren’t enough shelves to hold All the Things, let alone the money to buy them. And while public libraries are for all the people, the definition of “all” is closely tied to the boundaries and the funding of a specific community. The community in the case of a public library is determined by the boundaries of whatever governmental entity funds the library. For academic libraries, it’s the students currently enrolled at the institution and the faculty and staff who work there. Walk-in use and interlibrary loan can make those boundaries more porous, but essentially libraries are local, and respond to local needs and interests.

That local tie leads to inequity. Wealthy communities are be able to afford better library services than poor ones. But I suspect one of the reasons libraries are generally popular or at worst benignly neglected is that people feel as if the library is theirs. Nobody at a head office far away calls the shots; nobody is told they aren’t good enough to be allowed through the door. Nobody is told if they don’t use the library, they won’t have a future or that the ideas they are interested in and want to pursue aren’t worthy of study.

The law that established land grant universities was passed 157 years ago. The anniversary fell during the same week we learned the governor of Alaska was drastically cutting its public university budgets, along with other programs. It’s a big state with a relatively small population. Its universities have never been able to offer all things. But there was something inspiring about the idea of establishing universities in every state and, in turn, giving every state the benefits of research and education. Will we ever be able to have such big idea again? I hope so. Meanwhile, we still have a remnant of those big ideas in our local libraries, where everyone is welcome and educating yourself won’t put you in debt.

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