Preserving the Integrity of Civilization

I emerged from a long period of intense work to find the Darien Statements popping up all over my Google Reader. They seem like worthwhile enough statements, if  grandly stated. Readers of this blog know that I’m not averse to grandiloquent overstatement in the search for purpose. They didn’t evoke in me the visceral reaction they seem to in others, and I think I occupy the middle ground somewhere between the acid cynicism of the some bloggers and the sunny optimism of others. Mostly, I wonder about the meaning of the first statement that is supposed to support the others. "The purpose of the Library is to preserve the integrity of civilization." When I first read it, that sentence really grabbed me. Yes, I thought, that sounds good. However, as I thought about it more and unpacked the sentence, the meaning seemed to dissolve before me, and I’ve been trying to make sense of it.

The first problem for me was the Library. Maybe it’s something about the singular and the capitalization that bothers me, the assumption that there’s some essence common to all libraries, the librariness of the library existing in the mind of God or something. One of the reasons I focus on academic libraries is that I don’t think there is a Library; there are libraries of all sorts and all types, and there doesn’t seem to be much that they have in common. We might say they all provide access to information of some kind to some set of users as a common denominator. That seems to be about it, and that doesn’t seem enough to warrant the singular, capitalized noun. In my mind I always contrast the tiny public library that serves my grandmother and the largish academic library I work in. They are vastly different libraries with very different goals. If we add in school and special libraries, the variety becomes even greater. Though public and academic libraries have a lot in common, it seems to me that these days public libraries consider their missions to be broader than the educational mission usually assumed of most academic libraries.

If there is no one Library, then there can be no one purpose. But even if there were one Library and one purpose, would it be to preserve the integrity of civilization? In addition to implying that there’s a Library, this statement also implies there’s a civilization, and that this civilization has integrity. In one common sense of the term, there are many civilizations, and ours (if we share one) is but one of them. If we are talking about our civilization, which one is that? Let’s assume for the sake of argument we’re talking about Western civilization. This makes sense. The statements are written in English and are undoubtedly written from the perspective of librarians who are the products of Western civilization. This is a troublesome phrase to some. What might I mean by Western civilization? I’m not quite sure, other than the current state of the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman-Germanic mishmash that has defined so much about Europeans and the places they have colonized.

Which leads to my next question. How much integrity does this civilization have? What do we mean by integrity? Etymologically it means something whole, undivided, complete, possibly pure. I’ll ignore the moral protests against Western civilization, because they tend to ignore comparisons with other civilizations. Just trying to look objectively, dispassionately at Western civilization, in modern times it seems to be the most porous, divided, unintegrated civilization in existence. This civilization, born amongst the commingling cultures in the ancient Mediterranean, has always been impure and open and unintegrated and grows more so every year. Rarely in the West has there been an active decision – as there once was in Japan, for example – to retreat from contact with other civilizations. There was some isolation during the early Middle Ages as the structure of the Roman empire collapsed, but otherwise the West has been porous.

Even what is sometimes popularly considered the most integral period of Western history, the apex of Christendom during the high middle ages, was much more internally divided than most people realize and was also deliberately and aggressively open to Islamic civilization through the Crusades. Since the Reformation, Western civilization has begun an endless process of splintering and dividing while growing ever more open to outside influences while also overwhelming other civilizations with Westernization.

But maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Could it be civilization in some moral sense that is meant, as we might use it when we say people are civilized, which in some senses we would say only of a subset of a civilization in the first sense. ? Or in a related sense, using civilization as Matthew Arnold used "culture"? Culture for Arnold was the best that has been thought and said, and the human mission to perfect ourselves through an immersion in this culture. In this way of thinking, the mission of The Library would be a cultural mission, a civilizing mission. The Library preserves the integrity of civilization by civilizing us, by preserving culture in the high Arnoldian sense and allowing us access to it in a way we wouldn’t have if The Library didn’t exist.

This understanding makes sense of many of the statements,for example the phrases about "personal enlightenment" and "love of learning" and "creative expression," as well as the liberal content of some of the exhortations to promote openness, kindness, or trust. This Arnoldian interpretation is high-minded, and to some can be inspiring. It is what I myself think of my own library and its educational and research mission in my prouder moments. However, if something like this is meant, especially for all libraries, it seems to go against the grain of some popular thinking on libraries and librarians, especially the idea that librarians can or should be "neutral," or the relativistic "every book his reader" of Ranganathan. If The Library has a civilizing mission, then librarians must act accordingly, and become the guardians and promoters of this civilization. Civilization loses any neutral sense it might have. Such a civilization has a content, a philosophy, an ethic, a framework to choose what is worthwhile to be preserved or promoted and what isn’t.

This doesn’t bother me at all. Something like this was implied in my arguments for the librarian as filter. In those posts, I argued that it was the librarian’s job to select and thus to choose what to preserve, and that librarians can not and should not be neutral, but I was talking about academic libraries. I wonder if librarians in the mass are ready for such a charge when they’ve been taught for a long time to be neutral providers devoted to "access" in the abstract, but not access to particular items of value. If my Arnoldian interpretation is right, then this statement means that all librarians and all libraries have a positive, substantial educational and civilizing mission. This means that public libraries and librarians would need to move away from the usual policy of giving the public what it wants to giving the public what the librarians think they need. This already happens in academic libraries, but it seems foreign to what I know of public libraries.

I can’t say for sure if this is what the authors of the Darien Statements meant by "preserving the integrity of civilization." This is the interpretation that seems to me to make the most sense of the document. If it is what they meant, it’s a powerful statement that cuts d
eeper through the thinking of a lot of librarians than perhaps they meant to. If this interpretation veers too far from the authorial intentions, perhaps more clarification would help me understand the statements better.

2 thoughts on “Preserving the Integrity of Civilization

  1. I really enjoyed your analysis here and I will say that you’re much closer to describing our intent with your latter assessment of the civilization statement. I think the reason that a lot of people are having trouble with that particular line is that it can very easily be read as the literal preservation of (as you point out) Western civilization. I’ve actually got a follow-up post on just this very point because I think it needs to be clarified. Also, the more I think about that particular line, the more I wondered why we wrote it that way, why it seemed right and natural, and why I still agree with it despite some very bitter reactions.

  2. John, thanks for commenting. I’ll look forward to the next post.
    Personally, I had a varied reaction to the individual statements, from “that’s good, why didn’t I think of that” to “that’s good, I already think that” to “maybe that one’s a bit off,” but it was definitely the purpose statement that grabbed me. And obviously I had a slight problem with the singular “Library.” For something meant to inspire some discussion (or so I assume), that statement seemed the most far reaching and open to interpretation. Of the two possible interpretations I offered, both are going to irritate some librarians.
    Preserving Western civilization is obviously a goal of libraries in general, especially research libraries, but so is preserving other civilizations. No, perhaps I should say preserving the artifacts of as many civilizations as possible is a goal. But with certain types of people, the phrase “Western civilization” is off-putting, even if they’re completely products of that civilization.
    Then again, the civilizing mission in the Arnoldian sense would seem to some “elitist.” I think it depends on how one means it. Recently I’ve been reading a bit about the French in Algeria, and took the phrase “civilizing mission” from that reading to be provocative. But in the sense of preserving, cultivating, and promoting the best that has been thought and said it is part of the mission of many academic libraries because it is part of the mission of a liberal education. There might be controversy over what the “best” really is, but in most disciplines there’s some loose agreement that there are better and worse objects of study and methods of studying them.
    This seems to me a possible worthwhile mission for public libraries as well though with a lot of complications, but it seems contrary to what many librarians profess to believe even if they contradict those beliefs in their practice. For the most part, my issue with the singular Library was whether public librarians would agree with the latter interpretation, because I think in a mild version a lot of academic and school librarians might already.

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