Let me start out by apologizing for being a day late. Hopefully that won’t happen again. 🙂

I was walking through Zellers the other day, and I couldn’t help but notice that there are already stacks of Halloween material sitting out, just waiting for a sugar-hungry child or adult to pick up and purchase.

Smart consumerism no doubt, who doesn’t love a nice little piece of candy now and then.

What struck me though was when later that day I stopped in at my local library and saw that they also had Halloween books and displays already being put up. After the initial rejection of the display as being over 6 weeks too early, I started to wonder about things on a deeper level though.

Why do our libraries put up Halloween, Easter, Christmas displays?

This isn’t an anti-religious holiday’s discussion, so please don’t think I am going that way. It may appear that way to begin with, but I promise, I hope to frame a little bit different of a question. So please bear with me.

What about those who don’t adhere to the same traditions that we do? What about those people who may not feel at home in a culture that celebrates certain events and holidays? Do I think that those who DO follow a certain belief system should have to keep quiet for the sake of equality – no. Do I think that putting up displays equals oppression, or conversely, equality – no.

What I do wonder though, is what drives us to make the decisions on what gets put on display, and what doesn’t?

Now I am very aware that there is a discussion on the aforementioned equality, assimilation, and cultural domination, and I promise to return to that conversation in a later post. However, I have started several classes this semester, and one in particular has been talking about the concept of community.

Community has been a term that gets bandied about quite a lot. Local communities. The breakdown of communities. Online Communities. Creating communities.

The list really does go on.

One of the crucial components of community (and there are several) is the sense of shared identity and values, which helps to create a sense of belonging. When I think about that library and it’s Halloween display, I see a reflection of that neighborhoods, and probably the cities overarching, value and beliefs.

But haven’t we heard for a long time that local communities are breaking down? Aren’t online communities the wave of the future?

Everyone who is reading this is undoubtedly part of at least one, mostly likely several, online communities.

Whether it be the loose and ethereal bonds of Facebook, a more structured learning community, a chat board, web-group, etc. everyone is part of some community that exists online.

And if sociologists are right, and I think they might be, these online communities are eroding face-to-face communities and dwindling the physical ties that we have to our surroundings. Simply view how many people are absorbed in their cell phones and tablets while walking down the street, and you can see that the online world is far more enthralling currently than day to day life.

That may be a bad thing, and it may be a good thing. I’ll leave the ethics of that for a later date.

The crux of what I wanted to get at though, was the seemingly hopeless challenge that is facing libraries right now. We’ve established that they are places where community and gathering happens, yet at the same time they are supposed to provide access and connections to larger ‘virtual’ communities, which are shaped by decidedly different values and beliefs.

Is it possible for one place to provide an anchor to a physical community, while at the same time be a port to digital, global communities? And even if it is possible, how does a library ever truly stay modern, while still trying to remain grounded against a tide that is becoming increasingly less interested with the immediate physical neighborhood around itself?

The ability to not have to temper any of your personality and beliefs because you can find an online community to belong to can be a wonderful thing. But what about our libraries that can’t be everything to everyone? What values can they represent that isn’t immediately driving people away from them because it isn’t THEIR values? What happens when the physical community is  longer coherent enough as a unit to even have values to represent? Then what?

In essence, what can they put up as a display that won’t seem hopelessly anachronistic in the face of a digital wave? Will libraries eventually become the physical meeting place of those who don’t want to find community online but prefer it face to face? Will they become the domains on those who can’t afford that way of life? Or perhaps of the educated and elite who can afford the luxury of seeking out like minded individuals to interact with face to face?

The weight of trying to serve the needs of a physical community that is becoming more and more detached, while also keeping abreast of the tide of digital communities seems like a Herculean task for libraries in the 21st Century.  Is it a fair one?

And this doesn’t even touch on the conundrum of trying to deal with the reality that many times it is minority ethnic groups who most use the physical space of the library, and their values may differ greatly from where the library funding comes from. Another sticky issue for another day.

So what do you think? Is this an impossible task? Or is there a way be an anchor to an increasingly eroding physical community, while still providing entry to digital communities? Should libraries be asked to do this? And if so, what should they put up for a display as you enter the building? Or perhaps more poignantly, should it be the same as what they display on websites/computer backgrounds?


2 thoughts on “”

  1. I’m not sure whether libraries have a responsibility to represent cultures, dominant or not, in any particular way, but I do think they should present themselves as welcoming places. I’m not sure that depicting one cultural event or another excludes or intrudes on the use of the library by groups that don’t celebrate those events. I’m really not sure, but I think there’s a good research study in this, if it hasn’t already been done.

    Library displays have always seemed pretty secular to me, despite the religious attachments that lie below the surface. Harmless? I never thought deeply about it. But I do know that when I am in another culture, either visiting or living, it is exactly those kinds of events that I love to witness and even participate in. Ramadan is a cool thing. Italians love religious icons and festivals. Kiwis celebrate the Maori culture in a bunch of ways. The point I’m trying to make is that perhaps rather than excluding others by celebrating our traditions openly, we may also be inviting others to enjoy the trappings of our traditions with us.

    1. I hear what you are saying, and I agree that culture can be something that can be inclusive. What I was trying to poke at though, was if Libraries are supposed to be communal and community places, that by definition seems to imply that they have to carry some attributes of the community at large around them (which they are there to serve/attract). If our physical communities are beginning to fall apart in favor of virtual ones, than what attributes are there left for the physical library space to present as a way of attracting patrons?

      Before, to belong in a community, there were certain assumptions about morals, activities, etc. that were required, and that to a certain extent forced people to hide/push down part of themselves that didn’t ‘fit’ in. Online communities have taken away those limitations and stigma’s, but that very freedom has made people less likely to remain connected to physical communities that still require some level of ‘fitting in’.

      So what can libraries do? They can’t be everything to everyone, that is to ask the impossible. They have to stand for something, but the very fact that today’s individual is far less likely to put up with something they disagree with when they have a easy alternative means that libraries are doomed from the star on this one. And if they don’t even try to fit the fabric (or what is left of it) of their neighborhoods and communities, then the question can rightly be asked, why are they there? This very motive I would say is at the heart of why the U of S put a student lounge and coffee shop on the ground floor of a library – meeting the communal needs and identity of the community in order to to attract people and grow relevancy.

      But how do you do that in a smaller neighborhood library, or a school library? When the bonds of physical identity and community start to break down, what do you do? And how can a library provide a meaningful entry point for users to online communities, when as soon as those users find digital communities that fit better and require less conformity than physical communities, they begin to check out of those face to face communities – which is where the library is located?

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