|Wei T'O, protector 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Now the world is changing again: in the current philosophical zeitgeist, Enlightenment values are outdated.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|
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!