Reaching out to the Library Community

By Gregory, Gwen M. | Information Today, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Reaching out to the Library Community


Gregory, Gwen M., Information Today


Reaching Out to the Library Community Sacred Stacks: The Higher Purpose of Libraries and Librarianship by Nancy Kalikow Maxwell Chicago: American Library Association, 2006 ISBN13: 9780838909171 168 pages $32 softcover

For this book review column, I'm used to reading case studies of library technology projects, learning ways to apply the latest technology to information services, and evaluating Web search engines. With all these details, it's easy for me to forget why I became a librarian in the first place. My goal was to work with people and to provide services as a librarian to individuals and society; I wanted to make a difference. Nancy Kalikow Maxwell reminded me about my original goals in Sacred Stacks: The Higher Purpose of Libraries and Librarianship.

Maxwell, who has more than 30 years of experience as an academic and public librarian, has studied theology and library science. She has also written on religious and library topics, delving into the concepts of the library as an institution and a place, along with the role and mission of the librarian.

Her work as a librarian and her education in theology made her realize that "many religion-like features are present in the secular setting of the library." She sees a new mix of sacred and secular worlds in modern U.S. society; for example, we substitute Memorial Day for ancestor worship. She sees the library as a sacred yet secular venue where religious themes are played out in a nonreligious atmosphere.

She also sees the library as a cathedral without the overt religious trappings; visitors are often awe-struck when they enter a library. Librarians also frequently serve in ministerial or self-sacrificing roles, although Maxwell acknowledges that most librarians are "uncomfortable seeing their work as a divine calling." She compares the surprisingly similar job descriptions and skills for both clergy and librarians: Both professions require a strong desire to help others, patience, open-mindedness, and sympathy.

The Key to Organizing Chaos

I especially enjoyed Maxwell's discussion of how librarians organize chaos. Librarians may remember that Melvil Dewey's inspiration for creating his decimal system of classification happened while he was in church.

This organization of information had religious overtones in the past; the clergy ordered the world for their followers. Librarians do this in a secular way, even though "Few realize the power librarians wield when they categorize and classify information." By providing structure, whether a standardized organization such as the Library of Congress classification, or an individual one such as the arrangement of a particular library's collection, we have an important influence on how our users see the world. …

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