Tuesday, 20 September 2011

From Gods to humans: the values of libraries

There have always been links between libraries and certain moral values particularly those embodied in religions. Throughout the centuries, libraries have survived by adapting and moulding themselves to fit the predominant values of the time: from the religious narratives of past civilisations through the growth of the Enlightenment and scientific values into whatever theological milieu we occupy now. Libraries have shifted their role, changed their values, and even taken on some of the traditional functions of religions in order to fit the society around them.

Wei T'O, protector of libraries
Religious values dominated society for centuries and arguably still do. In ancient cultures, writing was a kind of power and so libraries were important places for scholarship and theology and mysterious places to those who couldn’t decipher the written word. ‘Knowledge deities’ – gods devoted to writing, learning, letters, or calligraphy – were assigned to protect libraries. One of the only dedicated ‘gods of libraries’ is Wei T’O, the ancient Chinese god who was patron of libraries and books. According to this unusually corporate website, "Wei T'o, an ancient Chinese god, protects books against destruction from fire, worms and insects, and robbers, big or small." Laura Payne pointed me to Seshat, the ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom, knowledge, and writing: her name means ‘she who scrivens’ and she was credited with inventing writing. Later, another strand of mythology from Hermopolis developed with Thoth as the god of wisdom and scribes which led to Seshat’s priestesses being usurped and the goddess taking a subservient position as Thoth’s daughter or wife. In ancient Babylon, Nabu protected clay tablets; in Hinduism, Ganesh who has the head of an elephant has the equivalent memory of an elephant and so is associated with scholarship and knowledge; the Aztec and Mayan god, Quetzalcoatl, was the purported inventor of books and the calendar. Christianity in various areas has Saint Lawrence (Europe), Saint Jerome (US and Canada), and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Orthodox) as patron saints of libraries.

As these religions died, libraries’ moral values changed to fit the changes in society. Michael Gorman, the past president of the American Library Association, identified eight central values for librarianship in his book, Our Enduring Values. These include such familiar values as service, equality of access, and intellectual freedom (celebrated next week by the ALA’s Banned Books Week). One that embodies the values of a certain time period is ‘rationalism’: Gorman said that libraries are “children of the Enlightenment and of rationalism”. Libraries may predate the Enlightenment but they were peculiarly suited to the values and philosophy of the time: the sense that the universe can be understood through knowledge; the idea that collecting information can lead to a model of reality; that organising, classifying, and bringing order out of chaos is a good in and of itself. Jonathan I. Israel said that during the Enlightenment, a “general process and rationalization and secularization set in which rapidly overthrew theology’s age-old hegemony in the world of study”. The Enlightenment may represent the start of the decline of religion but it was a time in which libraries adapted and thrived.

The British Museum's Enlightenment room previously contained King George's Library

In fact, it can be argued that libraries took over some of the traditional functions of religion. We frequently hear libraries referred to as ‘temples’ – temples of learning or temples to the written word. In her book, Sacred Stacks, Naomi K. Maxwell gives examples of quasi-spiritual functions of libraries: some librarians may feel as their work is for a higher purpose; libraries connect us to the past and help us remember our ancestors; libraries can provide a sense of the immortal and unchanging (the perception of libraries as islands of stability and conservatism (with a small C) may explain some people’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to council’s plans to close public libraries (and of course closing libraries is a genuinely bad idea)).

Now the world is changing again: in the current philosophical zeitgeist, Enlightenment values are outdated. John Gray has written about the decline of Enlightenment values and the emergence of a world in which intellectual progress does not equal moral progress as previously assumed ie. constant improvement in intellectual and scientific knowledge will not necessarily lead to constant improvement in human wellbeing. The future is not necessarily better than the past. According to Gray, Western society has a mythology of its own – an Enlightenment narrative no more true than the mythologies and narratives of ancient civilisations. “Western societies are ruled by the myth that, as the rest of the world absorbs science and becomes modern, it is bound to become secular, enlightened, and peaceful – as, contrary to all evidence, they imagine themselves to be.”

This is not an image to accompany the text
In the 21st Century, we occupy an age of postmodernism, existentialism, and post-Enlightenment values. The creeds of religion and the Enlightenment are becoming less relevant: in the words of King Crimson, “The wall on which the prophets wrote / Is cracking at the seams.” The philosophical fashion is for subjectivity of knowledge and reality as a social construct rather than an object which can be modelled. With this line of thought, what becomes of the Enlightenment model of reality, the library? In our post-rationalist age of subjectivity, is ‘rationalism’ still a central value of librarianship and do libraries have a place as storehouses of objective knowledge? Do libraries need to adapt their values again?

It does seem that librarians share some core values à la Gorman’s eight values. Obviously library and information workers don’t all think or feel the same way. But I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts as to what shared values and ideals are shared by library people (if any).

This post was inspired by a Twitter conversation with Dave Pattern which was ostensibly about OPACs until I got sidetracked, thrust my head into the clouds, and started thinking about hokey religions and ancient mythologies. Thanks Dave!

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