Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Review, Not of Review of A Place, Not a Place

A Place, Not a Place: Reflection and Possibility in Museums and Libraries by David Carr.

In my effort to develop a more complete understanding of what library preservation is all about, I’ve felt a need to develop a better understanding of what libraries are all about - particularly as they fit into the larger context of cultural institutions. David Carr addresses that very question. Carr is or used to be on faculty at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Carr’s book is a welcome read, but not a light read. The book is unlike nearly anything else I’ve read from the library world. It brought me back to my seminary days, reading the works of theologians and philosophers. There is nothing remotely technique, or technical related in this book; it won’t provide information on how to run a program, organize a collection, or secure funding. It is a book that ponders the essential character of museums and libraries and their relationship with their users.

“Museums and libraries are institutions for the mindful life.” (p. 7)

According to Carr, libraries and museums are places of questions and connections. The task of cultural institutions is to assist in the management of human questions. Libraries and museums should foster questions and facilitate seeking answers - many answers, which should lead to many more questions.

“We know the best questions are not to be answered, but to be worked out empirically, performed in practice, and once performed in practice, they are to be addressed again, revised, and then made cyclical in the culture and discourse of the institution.” (p. 91)

“Therefore, the task in museums and libraries, if they wish to be regarded with authentic trust by diverse citizens, is to construct situations for authentic risking and questioning.” (p. 37)

“When we think about libraries, we have to understand that there are few other places to turn for fair, uncompromised information; to practice risking, acting, and thinking among unknowns; to learn in a nonjudgmental setting; and to move ourselves toward the personally crafted truths we require in order to live on life with integrity, purpose, and success.” (p. 102)

To preserve artifacts and texts from the past does not allow us to forget history, plus it allows us to be questioned or challenged by history. Our purpose is to evoke experiences and thoughts that create new experiences and thoughts.

“Adaptive, expansive, and comprehensive, organized for systematic use, cultural institutions stand against fragmentation.” (p. 11) The technique/technology-focused life can tend toward fragmentation. Libraries and museums are about collecting and connecting.

Fully interacting with museums and libraries involves overcoming our fears and being open to being changed - for our previous understandings to be challenged. “I am here to become. I am ready to work and risk, ready to read and think.” (p. 40)

Carr thinks first of the user. As a conservator, my inclination is to think first of the book. It becomes a bit of a chicken and egg question. Which came first, the book or the reader?

“I think that this is the heroic work of museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions: helping ordinary people to transform their lives into stories, ideas, lessons, principles, all involving an identity, a time past, a time present, and timeless human relationships. Using the contexts of a rich museum or library, a person can come to think of himself or herself first as a learner within a single life-context, then as a reader among great texts, then as a participant in an engaging culture, then as a learner among unfinished narratives, a weaver among the loose threads at the edge of our rough fabric.” (p. 105)

Carr portrays libraries and museums, and their users, in the very best of light. It is too harsh to say his language is detached from reality. Libraries are the things he says they are, but they are also places that deal with budget cuts, with visits from people brandishing firearms as a statement of their 2nd amendment rights, and serve the second home some smelly, snoring gentlemen, among other less than noble activities. Not every user is a mindful user, not every library program or policy is born of our best and most noble self. Lofty language of possibility is good - but it is not everything.

Carr’s book is not overtly about preservation in cultural heritage institutions, but I think it speaks to need for the inherent preservative function of libraries and archives. The user comes to the library and museum to face questions, and pursue answers We can better assist the user in making connections and developing new answers by not just providing access to the texts and artifacts of today, but also the texts and artifacts of yesterday.

Carr’s book is a fascinating read that deserves more time and thought. My few quotes and notes don’t do it justice.

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