Today I talked with the staff of the Kenosha (WI) Public Library about intellectual freedom issues. (Thank you, director Barb Brattin, for the opportunity!)
There is a sense - not just in Kenosha - that things (our society, our norms of political contest) are changing. There are some things we thought we knew that are suddenly not so certain.
So, the role of the library is .... ?
I said that we should do what we have always done, what is still most urgently required: gather, organize, and present to the public the intellectual content of our culture. That content comes from several sources. Mainstream publishing has been the key pipeline for at least a generation of library users.
But I also pointed out that there are now far more numerous and potentially more powerful wellsprings of content production. Small, independent, and self-publishing now completely overwhelms the 350,000 annual titles of our Big Five publishers and three or four distributors. Today, there are over 1 million new titles published each year. Yet most libraries know almost nothing about this new content.
Even that unprecedented upsurge doesn't begin to touch the dynamic content of the internet, which may well have tipped the last presidential election.
Another important point is that the intellectual content of our culture is not just "out there." It's "in here," too - it is embedded in the minds and hearts of the people of our communities. Libraries of all descriptions - academic, school, and public - could do a much better job of cataloging those resources, both formally and informally.
What does it all mean?
It means that there remains an important role for libraries. We need to continue to introduce the world to our communities. We need to help our communities create new content. We need to find the balance between social justice (providing sanctuary and welcome to all), and intellectual freedom (here defined as the right not only to speak, but also to gain access to the speech of others). We need to provide common and neutral ground for our communities to have the vital discussions they must have.
An invigorating morning.
And on the way back, under a very grey, overhanging sky (winter is coming!), I found a haiku:
on every side road
of Sheridan Avenue
thigh high piles of leaves
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