Thursday, January 14

From Public to Personal: The Importance of an Excellent Library

Jane Austen, the author of Pride and Prejudice, said, "When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library."

Public librarians understand one thing above all else - the unexaggerated importance of an excellent library. During these technologically-advanced times of electronic books and audiobooks, virtual programs and databases, and digital media, an entire generation has moved towards the ephemeral and away from the enduring. And yet, without an excellent library, Jane Austen herself would have been miserable. 

So how does one create or curate an excellent library? If you want to build an excellent home, you seek out excellent contractors. If you want to serve excellent food at a party, you secure excellent caterers. And if you want to create an excellent library, you start with the advice of excellent librarians. Thus, the purpose of this blog is to help the reader create an excellent personal library by following the guidelines that librarians use on a daily basis to create excellent public libraries. 

The first consideration is the ability to view the library as a reflection of the community of readers. Library patrons possess different interests, passions, hobbies, and concerns, so the excellent librarian must know and understand the public he or she serves. The same application is true when creating a personal library. One must know and understand their own unique likes and dislikes. Whether the library is two small shelves at a reading nook or a room of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the collection of books should reflect the personality of the individual. Dr. Neil Aitken, author and poet, stated the following: "A personal library not only reveals what types of narratives, knowledge, and beauty we think are worth investing in and holding onto, it also serves as a way in which we build a model of the universe as we understand it. A library's very arrangement can be used to affirm certain hierarchies and relationships to privilege some texts over others and to position ourselves in relation to all these different voices. Our personal library is a type of argument - a case we're making about ourselves in our own eyes and in the eyes of those we expect will encounter it. With every purchase and acquisition, we are saying to others (and to ourselves), 'I am the type of person who owns this type of book.'"

Just recently, a long-time CMRLS librarian began the process of creating a personal home library. She recognized the similarities between her work as a public librarian and her efforts to stock her home bookshelves. "I began to learn things about myself as I organized my personal collection of books. I knew that I was a devoted reader of romance, but I was surprised by how interested I was in history, travel, folklore, and personal memoirs. My collection of books helped me to understand more about my preferences, just as I have done for library patrons over the years."

As with the public library, the personal library uncovers what's missing or the gaps in our collections. According to Aitken's article, "the gaps in a collection also reveal what we do not know or have not made a priority in our lives." His father, who was a professional librarian, admonished that when visiting someone at their home, you should "always check out their bookcases" - not only for what's represented but also for what's missing.

The second consideration is the budget size when it comes to developing a collection. Public librarians face this dilemma on a monthly basis as they select books for their patronage. English author Neil Gaiman stated, "Don't ever apologize to an author for buying something in paperback, or taking it out from a library (that's what they're there for. Use your library.) Don't apologize to this author for buying books second hand, or getting them from bookcrossing or borrowing a friend's copy. What's important to me is that people read the books and enjoy them, and that, at some point in there, the book was bought by someone."

Some private libraries consist of signed first editions, while others are made up of books from library book sales, second-hand thrift stores, and discounted displays at independent bookstores or big-box retailers. Personal library collections range from rare to bestseller, hardcover to paperback, oversized to miniatures, and baby board books to scholarly tomes. As compared to the public library, the personal collection also requires occasional weeding (or removing) a book to make room for a new addition.

A final consideration is the atmosphere of the personal library. Excellent public librarians understand the significance of creating a place for patrons that feels welcoming, safe, and connected. The same is true when creating a private home library. Aitken calls it a "chosen literary refuge" and within it, we can "find the tools we need to survive and thrive in a sometimes hostile world." Excellent public libraries provide us with curated collections that educate, inspire, entertain, and inform, but more importantly, they provide the sanctuary to immerse ourselves in what is most important  - our sanity. No matter our struggles, we can find solace within the walls of an excellent library - public or private.

Author James Baldwin said, "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." Aphra Behn called it, "that perfect tranquility of life, which is nowhere to be found but in retreat, a faithful friend, and a good library." And Susan Sontag described her library as an "archive of longings."

One final quote from Dr. Aitken (and maybe the most important consideration) emphasizes the transforming power of the library, both public and private. "But each vital in the same way that it asserts the importance of what we choose to keep, of what endures move after move, of what we hold sacred. Our libraries sustain us - and in time, we hope, will sustain those who come after us."

To read the article, A Library of One's Own by Dr. Neil Aitken, please follow this link:

Also, check out the CMRLS libraries for the following list of books about creating an excellent library:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love this, Dianne! - Morgan RC