One of my long term projects is to explore the purpose of a research library. In library school I wrote, and recently revised for publication, an essay where I speculated about the end of the library, arguing that librarians should examine potential changes in libraries from a teleological perspective, that is, determine what to do now based on the end, or telos, toward which the library is heading. We’ll know what we need to do when we know what end we aim at.
Sometimes I think the discussion on the end of the library is pointless, though, because of the conceptual incommensurabilities involved. I’m not sure there can ever be any consensus on what a particular kind of library or even a specific library should be. We have conceptual incommensurability when those involved in the discussion cannot even agree on the terms of the debate. The result is that libraries move forward by responding to crises, adapting to change through ad hoc solutions that rarely serve a coherent purpose.
I just read a post by Brian Matthews about gaming in academic libraries that reminded me of one incommensurability in some discussions of service in libraries. Brian writes about a librarian who wants to purchase gaming consoles for the library, but concludes that gaming may ultimately be at odds with the purpose of academic libraries. Dorms and frat houses provide places to game, but “a stronger position for the academic library is to aspire to offer the premiere productivity and study space on campus. We should provide something that isn’t offered elsewhere and that fills a stated need.“
This seems to me like a more appropriate purpose for the academic library as place, and as a concept the purpose should also be to preserve the historical and scholarly record and make it accessible. I know there’s an effort to push video-gaming in public libraries, and a good argument out there for purchasing gaming machines and games to preserve them for future historical research. I don’t have an opinion about public library video-gaming, but I could support purchasing gaming consoles and games for preservation purposes, though I wonder if a museum rather than an library would be the appropriate place to preserve this part of popular culture.
I speak of a conceptual incommensurability because it may be difficult for two sides in a debate like this to agree on anything. I can’t understand why anyone would want to make an academic library a location for non-academic play, especially when there are so many other places on most campuses to play. Academic libraries don’t always have to be serious places, but they should be scholarly. Public libraries have some incentive to act as community centers, and that makes sense for their mission.
But college campuses are different. On my campus, there are many locations for students to gather for all sorts of purposes. The library should be the place they gather for study and scholarship. I think sometimes that librarians are guilty of thinking the library as a place is as important to the students and faculty as it obviously is to the librarians. But the students don’t consider the library as central to their being as librarians do. They know what other opportunities are available. To serve students well, the library should provide them a place to discover the joys of study and scholarship, and let the campus centers, the greek houses, the dorms, or the eating clubs provide places for socializing and gaming.
If we really wanted to attract students and make the library fun, perhaps we should use library space for pubs. To me, it seems as appropriate to open a pub in an academic library as it does to create space for video-gaming. I fear that an effort to make the library “fun” distracts from that purpose. The message it could send to students is, even the librarians think study and scholarship are dull.