Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Libraries were full of ideas - perhaps the most dangerous and powerful of all weapons." - Sarah J. Maas

I worry about libraries. I know, you're thinking: really?

There's a movement to take library spaces and turn them into proactive, creation-facilitating, "maker spaces." I like proactivity, I like creation, and I like the maker movement. But I worry about our inability to articulate the value of libraries and librarians as sacred protectors of thinking, and in particular, of independent thinking.

The library as thinker-space has been a great protector of ideas, and of the ability to form ideas inside of sacred intellectual privacy. Traditionally, libraries have gone to great lengths to protect the privacy of what books you check out. They don't (traditionally) track your reading and progress, or report that to someone else for approval or review.

Why is privacy important?

In part, it's hard to think about ideas, to form new ones, or to challenge the status quo when you are not in charge of when and with whom you share your thinking. Thinking is not linear, it's complicated, and the social pressures associated with it being public at every stage make it hard for us to be independent. For important thinking, we need privacy as individuals.

I'm all for collaboration, but I'm not a good collaborator if I can't bring my own and developed individual capacity and independent thinking to the collaboration.

Privacy is also important because there are tangible dangers to group-think. This is why we protect the rights of individuals and groups to think differently than we do, even when we do not agree with them, and as long as they are not creating a tangible immediate threat. "Mob rule" is much harder when there are those capable of challenging it. A healthy society needs the vibrant give and take of civil dialog, of thoughtful people who think differently and are willing to engage in debate.

As the American Library Association's Privacy page states: "Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association." The full statement is a must read. So how is it we hear so little defense of privacy, and even hear thought-leading librarians, policy-makers, and industry executives tell us that privacy is dead, or that in the new world of invasive surveillance, "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear."

I support the idea of being creative with library spaces and of "reinventing libraries." But if we forget, leave behind, or just don't understand the tangible value of libraries as places of intellectual inquiry and for the protecting the privacy of such inquiry, we will have made a grave mistake.

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