The Library of Alexandria and The Feral

The promise of digital libraries speaks to one key part of the Alexandrian ideal: to provide access to a “universal collection.” Another facet of the ideal is the creation of special places in which collaborative learning and research, and creative work generally, take place.

-Sam Demas, From the Ashes of Alexandria: What’s Happening in the College Library?

If libraries are to remain dynamic, the spaces that define them and the services they offer must continually stimulate users to create new ways of searching and synthesizing materials. There is no question that almost all the library functions being planned for today will need to be reconfigured in the not-too-distant future.

-Geoffery T. Freeman, Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space

And from among the chorus of rational behaviors arose the word sanctuary. Not sanctuary as in a place that was always and for every use absolutely quiet (although the need for quiet space, group and solitary, came up repeatedly). But the idea of a place steeped in the symbolic behaviors associated with libraries, from quiet contemplation to cultural enrichment, resonated through our entire meeting.

-K.G. Schneider, Celebrating Sanctuary

Demas calls for the creation of a place where collaborative learning and research take place, alongside creative work. Freeman wants the design of the place to stimulate new ways of working in libraries. Schnieder proposes a sanctuary. In a word, these ideas have risen from the very ashes of Alexandria:

The Great Library of Alexandria has assumed legendary qualities in the centuries since its creation and demise. The concept of a universal library, an institution containing all the intellectual works of the world, is one that has enchanted scholars for centuries. But where did such a concept originate? While there are indications of earlier attempts,[6] the first lasting attempt, and the one that has become fixed in the cultural consciousness of western civilization is that of Alexander the Great.[7] Old Persian and Armenian traditions indicate that Alexander the Great, upon seeing the great library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh,[8] was inspired to combine all the works of the various nations he conquered, translate them into Greek, and collect them all under one roof.[9] While this inspiration was certainly prompted at least in part by a desire to consolidate information, and thereby power, under Greek authority, it is also an indication of Alexander’s desire for his empire to be a multicultural empire[10] — albeit one unified under the influence of Hellenism.

-Heather Phillips, The Great Library of Alexandria?

The caveat is generous. Alexander was consolidating power and information, and wanted to unify his empire (his power). Demas wants a “universal collection.” Freeman wants to provide external stimuli. Schnieder’s sanctuary contains the rational behaviors which embody themselves in symbolic actions. While it is not counterpoised directly against these ideas, I want to give voice to another force that librarians need to understand and accept: the Feral.

Having photographed in inner city environments for over 15 years it dawned on me recently that — despite all the destitution and abandonment — there was liveliness there that’s missing in the more regimented suburban environments we encounter every day. In fact it is was a landscape filled with political and vernacular artistic expression.

-Jeff Brouws, “It Doesn’t Exist”: The Impact of Sprawl and Suburban Build-out on Inner City America

But look again, and some other, emerging, trends come into focus. Rising oil prices and greater work flexibility increase the value of the local; the rise of digital rights management fuels campaigns around openness; the number of books published every year continues to rise; issues of access and equity – and affordability – come into sharper focus as one austere year rolls into another; the relationship between the tangible and the digital object becomes increasingly complex; new attitudes to ownership (using, not having) make the library appear as a pioneer.

-Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, “if libraries did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them”

In the face of organization, the universal, the rational, the church-like sanctuary, the feral can seize more opportunities than it is given. It is localized, it is vernacular, it only responds to stimuli if it needs to, and its voice makes a mess of expectations hoisted upon it. There is no “pioneering spirit” in the library of Alexandria; it is one of consolidation of power, not redistribution through a community. The pioneering spirit provides a home for the feral. It is where creativity lies, in not participating fully in environments created through enlightened planning, but taking what it needs when it needs it. We don’t need to pick one or the other, but understanding and planning for the pioneering and the feral will help us meet many of our patrons on their own terms. On the frontiers, and not in the seat of power.

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3 thoughts on “The Library of Alexandria and The Feral

  1. Awesome post. I’ve been using the word “feral” to describe the kinds of information that people tend to encounter in their daily lives outside any formal research/information context, and I always like seeing other people using the word as well. I don’t even know if it’s a “thing” in LIS circles (I’d feel a little silly if it was), but it seems like such a perfect descriptor, I hope it catches on.

    • I hope it’s too feral to be “a thing,” both the feral information and the feral information seeker/creator/distributor. I still feel goofy talking about it because I’m sure I’ve missed it.

  2. Wonderful post, Joe.

    Might I suggest the need and a method for achieving “all of the above”? For a few years I’ve been pitching the idea of a National Public Library Corporation, similar to PBS and NPR which could help deliver everything described in your post.

    Alexandria: the NPL could specify and build utilities for core services that would be available to member libraries across the country. So many players are dabbling with this now (OCLC’s WSSL, Haithi Trust, Harvard’s DPLA are but a few). Problem is that they’re all disconnected. A well-managed NPL could help leverage these initiatives and consolidate/standardize for the benefit of all libraries.
    The Dynamic Library: libraries today are too insulated and overwhelmed to be dynamic. If properly managed, the NPL could provide the focus, expertise and nimbleness needed to create a dynamic environment for libraries to work within. As a leading library organization, it could also meaningfully participate in dialogue with publishers, vendors, institutions of higher learning, device makers. The fragmentation of the existing ecosystem mitigates this today.
    Sanctuary: Absent strong leadership and resources, I believe libraries in their understandable quest for self-preservation have abandoned what has helped them endure for centuries. Like so much else in our culture, they’ve been influenced by commercial interests to foreground “doing” over “being” … consuming material goods and information. Libraries today mostly elide the role of being a place to “be” and “become”. They foreground activities and production; gaming, crafts, exercise, video production, website creation, etc. I believe this is a strategic mistake, and a great cultural loss. Operating with the support of a strong NPL (which would provide expert marketing and fundraising support, BTW) would free them up to nurture the feral and once again become rich sanctuaries for us all.
    Feral: Libraries have recognized the need to share resources and have tried to leverage digital technologies for that purpose. Without leadership & expertise, the efforts have seemed to homogenize them without necessarily increasing quality or efficiency. We see libraries across the country adopting tools/offerings because other libraries have, whether or not their constituents need them. (I’m thinking of things like Facebook, Twitter, FreeGal, Mango, the Big Deal, for example.) We also see libraries dismantling existing physical structures that often reflected local tastes and traditions in favor of building “discovery zones” and “collaboration spaces” that all pretty much look and feel the same. Again, bolstered by a strong NPL promoting their value and providing core service support, individual libraries could be freed up and confident to nurture local creativity. And, just as individual member stations contribute programming enjoyed globally via public TV and Radio – individual libraries could also offer the best of their creativity and spirit for the enlightenment and enjoyment of people across America and throughout the world.

    Whaddya think?

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