A story about the spirituality of libraries


At the AMICAL 2016 conference, I heard an inspiring story about the cyclical destruction and revival of libraries. Dr. Richard Hodges, President of the AU of Rome, began his welcome message as follows: “Unlike what many of you may believe, you don’t come from Silicon Valley, you come from the monks”. He went on to explain that libraries were created at the end of the 8th century by monasteries. It was then that monks started to make books, besides growing food and brewing beer. They crafted the leather skin covers, the straps, the folded leaves of vellum, and all the instrumentation necessary to write books. They created the blue print of the library. In subsequent years, full blown libraries developed, like the ones in Saint Denis and Montecassino. Like with all things successful, once they grow, you need to sustain them. The monks thus devised a model to attract donors with the lure of a counter gift: a hand-crafted book. When, in the mid-9th century, the Vikings and Saracens destroyed many monasteries and their libraries, the books survived in the hands of those who had been donors. And so, the spirituality of what libraries stood for, as preservers of intellectual heritage, survived the destruction and was the seed for the new learning of the Renaissance. The storyteller hinted at globalization as a similar wave of destruction, which might leave us without libraries but with the promise that the spirituality of what libraries stand for, will resurface in a new guise.

According to keynote speaker Jim Groom this new guise is the Archiving Movement. He painted the Web landscape as a wonderful space of many small initiatives with do-it-yourself blogs and a Wiki-infra on which one can build an entire curriculum for free, with fascinating open technology and with exciting new learning experiences. In his view, it is all about our individual content, building domains of our own and leaving our personal digital footprints. He advocated the need for individuals to become archivists, reclaiming ownership and control over their data from the “big companies”. In this world of the small against the giants, “rogue Internet archivists” (or morphing librarians, as you wish) are excavating and rescuing the remains of parts of the web, that are dying and being destroyed.

In my presentation on “Adapting to the new scholarly record” I talked about shifting trends in the research ecosystem and disturbances which are disrupting the tasks and responsibilities of librarians, as stewards of the record of science. I conveyed the concerns of experts and practitioners in the field, who met during a series of OCLC Research workshops on this matter. They talked about the short-term need for a demonstrable pay-off by universities and funding agencies; the diverse concerns on campus around image, IPR and compliance; the emergence of new digital platforms like ResearchGate and others, that lure researchers into providing data to them and bypassing their institutional repositories; etc. All these forces at play are distracting libraries from safeguarding the record for future scholarship. These observations beg the question, which came from the audience: “what can we do about it?” and in particular “What can we do, as AMICAL libraries”?

I had been impressed by the information literacy (IL) session the day before. AMICAL libraries from Paris to Sharjah presented their efforts to engage faculty and to broaden the understanding of IL within the university. Many of the libraries face challenges with their student population, such as reluctance and resistance to reading, deficiencies in academic writing skills, inexperienced information retrieval expectations and ineffective search practices. The session concluded with the desirability to integrate IL in the curriculum.

So, I answered my audience without hesitation: Please continue the good work you are doing in IL! Why do we hear so little about IL at other library conferences in Europe? Isn’t IL a core part of that spirituality Richard Hodges talked about – a core part of what libraries stand for? The next generation needs to be prepared for the new learning in the digital information age. This requires education and training. People are not born being-digital!