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Meditations for Librarians

By Gorman, Michael | American Libraries, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Meditations for Librarians

Gorman, Michael, American Libraries



There are possibilities in a door always, for how can you know what is on the other side?

- Anthony Hope, Tales of Two People

I open the doors of the library at 8 each weekday morning. I say "Good morning" to at least the first of those who enter and to the recognized regulars. I tell anyone who asks why I open the doors that these are the only minutes of the day in which a library director can feel truly useful. The truth is that I am reliving the time when, as a 16-year-old "junior assistant," I used to open the doors of a small public branch library in North London. It seemed to me then and it seems to me now that opening the library to its community is of great symbolic as well as obviously practical importance. What is it that releases the energy and the power we have gathered and made available? The presence of the people on whose behalf we work.

I will take pleasure in the simple tasks of my work.


Historians will have to face the fact that natural selection determined the evolution of cultures in the same manner as it did that of species.

- Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression

Michael Frayn wrote that, socially, human beings are either carnivores or herbivores. Librarians evidently belong to the herbivorous tendency. Just look at our values - service, cooperation, intellectual freedom, and the Library Bill of Rights. Business, on the other hand, with its ethic of profit, competition, and the survival of the fittest, is quintessentially carnivorous. For decades, the two worlds hardly overlapped or even knew much about each other. One way or another, our herbivorous Eden has been invaded by business values, practices, and corporate philosophies. The result is an uneasiness born of clashing values and mutually uncomprehending cultures.

It seems only yesterday that we learned "development" meant fundraising, were introduced to strategic planning and all its trendy variants, and began to be governed by the stern discipline of the "bottom line." Librarians who would have died for "free service freely available to all" now contemplate fees for service with equanimity. Library administrators are not librarians but managers (in some cases by profession) and the gulf between the managers and the managed widens daily.

It was good that we adopted realism and efficiency; but the process has gone too far, become too invasive. We should cherish our enduring herbivorous values, place them far above commercial values, and use only those carnivorous ideas that make good library service more attainable.

I will not be devoured by the carnivorous style.


If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

- George Orwell, Animal Farm (from the introduction, which did not appear in the first edition but was published in the New York Times in 1972)

There are many reasons for a librarian to be a member of ALA, but if there were no other, supporting the Office for Intellectual Freedom would be sufficient. Of all the values that define our profession, surely one of the most important is the idea that free expression of thought should be zealously protected in libraries and by librarians.

As many writers and thinkers have observed, the test is the protection of expression with which one does not agree. It is easy, after all, to defend expression of ideas consonant with your own. It is the expression of the minority, the despised, the different, that we should protect at all costs.

Our task is to preserve all the records of humanity, not to pick and choose between those that suit our world-view and those that do not. Ranganathan wrote that bad thought made freely available is rendered sterile. There is nothing wrong with librarians, particularly children's librarians, promoting the uplifting and the life-enhancing.

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Meditations for Librarians


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