- Sacred Stacks: The Higher Purpose of Libraries and Librarianship
More than a decade ago, library educator Sydney Pierce (Catholic University of America) wrote a short but revealing essay entitled, "Dead Germans and the Theory of Librarianship" (American Libraries, September 1992: 641–3). In it, she expressed regret that librarianship did not have enough "dead Germans" to draw upon for its philosophy and intellectual history. Librarianship is, in many respects, a practice-based rather than theoretical profession. How often has a librarian been asked by a stranger, upon learning of his or her occupation, "So what did you learn in library school beyond the Dewey Decimal System?" More seriously, one may argue that with the closure of library schools at the University of Chicago and Columbia as well as curriculum shifts at others such as Berkeley, librarianship has lost interest in purely academic or philosophical discourse. [End Page 478] Thus, to put it bluntly, librarians are forced to rely upon theories from other disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, linguistics, and even theology.
To that end, Nancy Kalikow Maxwell (assistant director, Miami Dade College, North Campus Library), with dual degrees in library science and Catholic theology, has produced a concise but immensely rich volume. She brings to this work a Jewish perspective, which she discusses throughout the text, but there is an ecumenical tone to each chapter. While being "called" to any profession may be easy for a religious person to acknowledge, Maxwell fondly remembers the statement of an agnostic colleague, "In the library I feel I am serving some greater purpose." (p. viii) Consequently, her thesis seeks to fill this philosophical gap, namely, "[to address] the hidden religious aspects of the nonreligious use of secular libraries," or, more simply, "[to discuss] not users' needs but users' souls" (p. 2–3).
Indeed, if service to others is one of the hallmarks of librarianship, it is entirely appropriate (and surely provocative) to, as Maxwell continues, compare libraries to houses of worship and librarians to priests and ministers. Not only does she include multiple references to ethereal experiences of contemporary users in libraries, whether browsing through the stacks or seeking answers in a peaceful environment, she also records evidence of religious comparisons throughout the history of libraries. The first librarians were priests, be they in Roman temples or Christian churches, making it not surprising to read that even today librarians and clergy share the same top two personality types on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (INFJ and INTJ). (p. 31) Both professions seek order out of chaos, and Maxwell devotes full chapters to analyzing all aspects of librarianship (including cataloging, reference, and preservation) from a theological perspective.
At a time when librarianship is, in many ways, in a sort of "identity crisis" (my phrase, not hers), it is critical that librarians and others in the profession regain a theoretical understanding of why they do what they do. Reflecting again on library education, it is interesting to note the titles of graduate degrees, which over the past century have evolved from "library service" to "library science" to "library and information science," to the currently fashionable "information science" or just "information." If serving a "higher purpose" seems too sectarian or indefinable in this postmodern world, how else does one engage a postmodern corporation, such as Google, whose stated philosophy includes "mak[ing] money without doing evil"? (my emphasis; available at http://www.google.com/intl/en/corporate/tenthings.html).
In her concluding chapter, Maxwell encourages librarians to nurture the religious image that is conferred upon them from a secular, nonreligious world. Be it concerns over finances, materials, technology, physical space, or hiring the right staff, Maxwell is clear: "[T]he central mission of librarians is to help people. …'Service' is the operative word." (p. 139) Her thesis rings true with a recently released study on positive (even forgiving!) attitudes from the general public about libraries in the 21st century (available at http://www.publicagenda.org/research/research_reports_details.cfm?list=99). The fact that Maxwell is a library...