Library Thinker Series: What is a Library?

There have been a lot of good posts and resources that I’ve been looking at recently about libraries and librarians that have got me thinking much more deeply about librarianship.

Aaron Schmidt talked about libraries without content.

Andy Woodworth explored the value of gaming in libraries and if it’s crucial to our mission.

Stephen Bell discussed how experiences give us more happiness than things.

Dave Lankes examined The Librarian Militant, The Librarian Triumphant.

Therefore I want to try something different on this blog for a little while in addition to regular posts, which I’m calling the Library Thinker Series. Each week I’m going to post a new question here. These are going to be pretty big questions (you could probably write a book on some of them). I’ll attempt a short, incomplete answer, but I’d also really like your attempt at answering it too. I know I don’t have all the answers and I would really like to see how other people approach these questions. I think it would be a fun exercise in exploring our profession where we might come to some insights together (sorry, I majored in philosophy. I have a warped sense of fun). So, the first question is:

What is a library?

This question came to me when Aaron Schmidt was talking about the day when perhaps libraries would have no content and when Andy Woodworth and commentators discussed if gaming is something libraries should be focusing on. If we can figure out what a library is, then maybe we can understand what a library is not. This would make it easier to answer questions like “should people be gaming in libraries,” or “do we need content to have a library?”

What actually is a library? So like any good researcher (or at least like most of the undergrads at my institution), I typed the full question into Google to see what the internet had to say about it. One of the first hits was of course Wikipedia. Here’s their definition:

“A library is a collection of sources, resources, and services, and the structure in which it is housed; it is organized for use and maintained by a public body, an institution, or a private individual.”

I notice three key things in this definition. First a library is a collection. This could be a collection of things or services. Second, it exists within an environment or structure. Third, it has people who organize and maintain the collection and the space.

For me this works as a definition. Collection, Environment, and People. If you do not have one of those things you do not have a library. A stack of books does not a library make. Under this definition I think Schmidt’s content-less library still holds up if there are still services that are being provided.

Is this definition too broad? What am I missing?


Library Spaces For Consumption, Creation, And Contemplation

lcd screen

I recently started reading an e-book by Leo Babauta author of the Zen Habits blog called focus: a simplicity manifesto in the age of distraction. It reads very similar to a blog and is very practical in it’s message. At it’s heart, it’s a “how to” book on separating the processes of consumption and creation. It’s about focus and not trying to multi-task or do everything at once.

I want take this idea one step further and in addition to consumption and  creation, I also want to add contemplation. Contemplation is another mind process similar to creation and consumption, but also quite distinct and important to the other two. Thinking within the framework of these different mind processes can be helpful in libraries, whether you’re thinking about serving patrons or examining your own work habits.

Babauta contends that we should be doing these things at different times, thus maintaining concentration and focus. I agree, but I also think having different environments for different processes is also very conducive to focus. I believe that libraries as spaces can facilitate these different processes by creating separate areas dedicated to each process.


This is what libraries traditionally did. They provided books and other resources and space to consume them. What would a consumption area look like? It could be a chair to read or a room for viewing movies. It could be a pod chair with headphones next to the music section. It could be a computer area where people go on Facebook, or read articles. In fact, most of the library can be used as a space for consumption. We are constantly consuming all the time. The other two are more difficult but also where libraries can perhaps add increased value.


Libraries are places where creation can happen. Traditionally people pulled together research in the library at places like tables and study carrels and produced written works of scholarship. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the basement of a UCLA library on a pay typewriter. These opportunities still exist today. We offer computers to create documents or other digital media. But increasingly libraries are offering other creation spaces. Some libraries offer digital video or sound editing rooms. We recently installed LCDs in our study rooms so students could create projects or presentations collaboratively. Libraries today can offer spaces to both text and hypertext, analog and digital.


There seems to be less attention paid to contemplation in our fast paced digital world. Normally we are only focused on input and output. What can we consume and what can we create? But contemplation gives strength to the other two. It allows people to make personal meaning of what they take in (I recommend you read Hamlet’s Blackberry) and prepare to create new original works. Libraries today are becoming fairly fast paced places and we’re trying to get over our unfortunate image of shushers. But I contend that we still need some shushing or at least create spaces for our users where they can go to contemplate and reflect in quiet. In our library we have quiet study rooms and a few fairly quiet nooks. Libraries are one of the few places that people should be able to get away from the rush of the world and find some place to think and be alone with their thoughts. I believe that is a value we should retain as we’re moving forward.

Separating these mental processes in both time and space can be helpful for concentration and focus. Thinking about these processes when designing libraries or creating spaces can be informative of their purpose and function.