On the Vision Thing

Somehow today I stumbled upon this commentary by Carl Grant, the president of Ex Libris North America. In it, Grant expresses his disappointment over a lack of leadership or vision for librarianship. "As a librarian in the United States, I’m growing more and more upset and outraged about the lack of a national vision for librarianship. Where is our professional leadership in this time of economic crisis? Who is describing a vision that inspires us and that we can support?" Given the recent "Darien Statements" and my own occasional ruminations on the subject, there is evidence that some librarians desire a large and meaningful discussion about vision and purpose, and I can certainly understand the frustration Grant feels.

What I’m not so sure about, which I also discussed concerning the "Darien Statements," is whether there can be such a "national vision for librarianship," because it’s not clear that librarianship is itself a unified field. Grant discusses a Chronicle article calling for a national educational agenda that considers higher education a public good again rather than as a place for states to save money by cutting it to the bone. Grant comments: "There are some wonderful messages and ideas in that article that can be applied directly to libraries (frequently, with little more than a word swap)." I tend to agree, but it’s not clear that "librarianship" as a field is even as coherent as "higher education," and "higher education" itself verges on incoherence these days if we included Harvard, the University of Phoenix, community college systems, and your local Bible college.

For there to be such a vision, there would have to be some agreement on what it is libraries in theory should do, but what libraries do in practice varies considerably. It’s relatively easier to discuss academic libraries, but even within academia libraries play greater or lesser roles, and the importance of the library is very different for an historian and an astrophysicist, or to an on-campus liberal arts student and a part-time distance ed student.

One thing that seems clear when such discussions about meaning or purpose come up is that they can’t be divorced from the educational and political mission of libraries. Grant at one point says "our fellow educators" and considers the profession of librarianship part of the "core infrastructure of America, of its society"; the "Darien Statements" state that the Library "Encourages the love of learning" and "Empowers people to fulfill their civic duty; even the Annoyed Librarian likes to quote the motto of the Boston Public Library on educating citizens, or at least she used to. To the extent this is true, then perhaps academic libraries are not so divorced from public librarians after all.

The goal of the Library or the vision of Librarianship cannot be separated from larger goals of society, and the larger goals that seem to stir people the most are related to education, politics, and economics. Educational institutions are here to teach people and allow them to fulfill their potential as well as shape them into good citizens and productive workers. If there is to be a grand vision, it seems it would have to have this as the goal.

But would a vision like that guide every library and every librarian? Where I work, such a vision seems natural enough. The students we serve are bright and movitivated and are likely to fulfil their potential while being good citizens and productive workers. That, after all, is the natural goal of a liberal education, and some purpose like that is part of why I do what I do where I do it.

Are public libraries necessarily different? Public libraries have different relationships to their communities, and serve many functions that academic libraries often don’t. I’m thinking about hosting book clubs or acting as community centers, things that might be rough parallels to seminars or student center events on a college campus. Still, it’s obvious that with the traditional and current emphasis on providing information and guiding people to it that an educational function is built into public libraries. School libraries as well. Special libraries have some claim to making people into more productive workers, though I’m not sure how well they fare on making people better citizens or fuller human being, but everybody can’t do everything.

Is something like this the de facto vision of librarianship that we’re just not talking about much? Near the end of his essay, Grant opines that "an effort to find [a strategic plan] for libraries in general, National Libraries and/or Public Libraries can leave one exhausted and unsatisfied." I agree completely. I’m just not sure the problem is a lack of vision. I think if there can be a vision it will be something like I’ve described, and that any of us who think on the matter and want to find a larger purpose to our profession eventually work our way to something like this: libraries and librarians create more complete human beings, better citizens, and more productive workers. If that’s the case – and keep in mind I’m merely speculating – then we have the vision in the sense of purpose and goal. Do we have the will to implement that vision, or can we come up with a specific plan? On that I have as many doubts as Grant.