Tuesday, August 14, 2012


I struggled for a while with the topic for this post. While in Florence, my personal attention was on all the myriad implications of space and place—while there was no way to do more than just scratch the surface in a place as storied as Florence, it was useful as a guiding lens to help me focus. The experience of place in Italy was overwhelming, and I’m still processing, connecting new dots and reaching new conclusions.

One of the things I believe to be true (and I thought this long before my current trip) is that librarians need to be laser-focused on outreach. No matter how fantastic the collection, if no one is aware of it, or willing to come to the library and engage with it, the collection will languish. In Florence, the libraries are clearly centers of culture, learning, and history—one can feel the weight of the centuries simply by walking into any of the historic libraries we visited. I realized, though, that in the bulk of cases I hadn’t seen or been presented with any efforts that showed the librarians leaving their libraries. Certainly, we saw libraries that made a great effort to welcome the world into their spaces, and we saw libraries that were truly leading the way in terms of digital access, making their collections available to anyone with an internet connection be they scholar or curious schoolchild. I’m also very aware that we spent relatively little time in all of the libraries we saw—while the librarians were very generous with their time throughout the city, it’s difficult to make any sort of blanket statement about library services after just one day’s tour and experience of a library.

Still, with all of that said, I think I’ve finally hit upon the reason I was always a bit unsettled in Florence. In the last year, I and my classmates have spent a great deal of time considering exactly what it means to be a librarian, and for me, the answer almost never had anything to do with the physical space of the library. Even in those possible futures in which I’m working for a traditional library, I’m outside of the building, working with project teams and holding steady as a mobile librarian, accessing library and internet resources from my station in the local cafĂ© or community center. I’ve said that I’m not a rare-books librarian or an archivist, and I think what I may have meant is that I’m not a collections-focused librarian at all; rather, I’ll forge ahead with my communities and the people within them even if we don’t have a well-stocked research collection backing us.

In direct opposition to those ideals stand the great Florentine libraries, which have for centuries served as havens for learning, and as the repositories for the information in physical form. When faced with buildings that housed—or STILL house—some of the finest collections in Europe, what am I to do with this notion that ‘the books don’t matter’? For most of the libraries we saw, clearly the books not only matter, but are paramount. The librarians, then, are servants to the collections, carefully, skillfully adding to and conserving them regardless of the world outside. If people want to come to the library and use the collections, so much the better, but outreach was never high on the list of priorities for the libraries we saw. 

The oddest piece of it all for me is the realization that there’s something to be said for their approach. I still can’t see myself in that role, not really, but on some visceral level I think I “get” some of the notions that motivate the archivists I know. Bringing it full circle, I think, now, that I understand the unadulterated joy of creating the physical place of a library, and filling it with materials that will help distinguish the space. While I will likely focus my efforts on outreach, I now see the value of the other side of the coin.

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