- A Place Not a Place: Reflections and Possibility in Museums and Libraries
The central metaphor of David Carr's collection of essays is that a cultural institution such as a museum or a library is a "place not a place." When we enter museums and libraries, he contends, "we enter a place that is not a place, but a field of possibility. We are given an opportunity to explore and hypothesize, to [End Page 114] imagine and to illuminate, and to trust ourselves as learners" (xiii). Carr notes in the book's introduction that "the world I describe in this collection is purposeful but difficult to envision or achieve" (xvi). Indeed, the ideas set out in this collection may be difficult to achieve, but it is important that we envision them and reflect upon them as possibilities. Despite some limitations in scope, this study's strength is in its hope, optimism, and vision.
Carr is primarily concerned with the roles museums and libraries might play within individuals' lives and within communities. Museums and libraries are, for Carr, "public places intended for learners, and for lives of self-invention and pursuit. At their best, they are forums for communication, independent learning, and self-preservation" (6–7). Essays in this collection range from the very personal ("Wanting, at Ten") to the very pragmatic ("Five Thoughtful Exercises"), but the common thread is an emphasis on how cultural institutions might best serve users: "Our reminder to ourselves must be steady: think always with the user; know where the user is" (39). To this end, Carr frequently offers heuristics to help museums and libraries live up to their educative potentials. For example, in chapter 9 ("What Do We Want to Happen") he offers an extensive list of questions developed to help cultural institutions think reflectively about their users and critically about themselves. These questions, he writes, are "ways for institutions to pause, to begin thinking of themselves as having made decisions, and to understand their decisions as communications of their values and definitions" (92–93). Throughout this book the emphasis is not on answers but on the reflective possibilities within the process of asking questions. The strength of this book is its open-endedness and invitations for self- and institutional reflection.
Carr's emphasis on users and his insistence upon critical reflection are qualities that recommend this collection. The study has, however, a few limitations. The first is the occasionally hyperbolic description of the importance of cultural institutions. This is not to say that I disagree with Carr's valuation of cultural institutions: what I take issue with is Carr's insistent valuation of particular cultural institutions over other sites where people gather to think critically about themselves and their worlds. For a sizeable population of North America, libraries and museums are spaces that are or appear economically, geographically, physically, and/or socially inaccessible. In this context, a statement such as "There is no other place in our world where a thinking public can address its differences in experience and reach to meet its needs for critical thinking" (102) is highly problematic. For significant segments of the North American population, the kind of critical thinking, reflection, and dialogue Carr describes occurs not in museums or libraries but in church basements, union halls, book clubs, or sports stadiums.
Another limitation of this study manifests itself in Carr's repeated use of the pronoun "we" to refer to museum and library users. While some might argue that this critique is merely stylistic, the use of "we" in sentences such as "we would not live without a library" (29) often elides the significant social, geographic, economic, ethnic, and cultural differences within North American society and within any cultural institution's user group. Acknowledging the diversity within our communities and cultural institutions would not only have made Carr's compelling arguments more salient and nuanced, it would also have addressed a vital concern within cultural institutions about how to achieve a more inclusive...