“Mission” a.k.a. the practice of beleiving in six impossible things before breakfast
In the Atlas of New Librarianship author David Lankes argues that libraries and librarians have to have a mission – some vision of libraries and their purpose that goes beyond a description of libraries and librarians in terms of mere function. All I can say is… SOLD. I am not entering the field of information science so I can sit behind a desk all day and perform mindless tasks – quite the opposite in fact. I am pursuing a degree in information science precisely because I believe in the potential of the field of librarianship and what it has to offer society. What I find most interesting about Lankes’ argument therefore is, not the idea that libraries are more than just book warehouses rather, what I find most interesting is the idea that the mission of libraries and librarians must also entail a social compact between librarians and the communities they serve. Interesting from my perspective because as a political science junkie, I am interested in how diverse community members come together to agree to the terms of social compacts.
In other words if a library’s mission, as Lankes argues, must be supported by the larger community (2012, p. 28), then how does the fact that communities almost always entail divergent viewpoints and perspectives affect a library’s mission as it constitutes an integral part of a librarian’s social compact with the community. One subset of the community for example, might believe that the terms of a library’s social compact with the community entails an agreement that the library censor any and all materials that somehow promote a ‘gay agenda,’ while another subset of the community is equally ardent in the belief that such censorship is not only abhorrent, but also an egregious breach of the terms of the social compact.
In analyzing this situation it is first important to note that this problem can not be solved by simply reiterating that a library’s mission is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. One cannot simply state that censorship is an anti-agent of knowledge facilitation and therefore can not be a term of the social compact that exists between libraries and communities. The very nature of the social compact entails a negotiation of terms – librarians can not simply one-sidededly state what is and what is not an acceptable term of the social compact.
Subsequently even if librarians strive to negotiate the terms of the social compact, there is no guarantee that there will be a resolution of terms. Say for example, in this situation a librarian did work to ‘facilitate knowledge creation’ by engaging the community in a conversation about censorship. Practically speaking at the end of the day, it is unlikely that the contenders on either side of the issue would change their mind to the extent that the community comes together in agreement on this specific term of the library’s social compact with the community. It is also unlikely that either side will see the actual process, the actual effort of the librarian to facilitate a dialogue as sufficient to fulfill the terms of the social contract. Meaning, in this situation, it is nearly impossible for the librarian to prevent a loss of faith in one or the other (and maybe even both) subsets of the community in the social compact.
Here I think it is important to note that even though the act of forging a social compact with the community is a hard, and often times impossible endeavor, it does not make that act or endeavor any less important. My intent in this discussion therefore, is not to necessarily dismantle Lankes’ social compact argument, but rather to merely point out that forging a social compact with a community is made increasingly difficult as the make-up of communities increasingly include radically divergent viewpoints and beliefs to the point where a mutually agreed upon mission between a library and all of its many sub-communities is virtually impossible. As however, I do no wish to end on such a sour note, I must also add to this the observation that it is not necessarily a negative when it is impossible for a community to reach a consensus when negotiating the terms of a social contract. Movement in society, whether it be backwards or forwards, can only occur if there is a class of individuals who refuse to follow the herd – who are willing to crash violently against social barriers and operate outside the bounds of a social contract. Libraries and librarians therefore must be aware that in their negotiation with the community over the terms of the social compact, they themselves, as a part of the community, may at some point be called upon to engage in the community activity of working outside the bounds of a social compact.
Lankes, R. David (2011). The Atlas of New Librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.