Saturday, August 25, 2012

When is simple better?

            I think, in some ways, every culture has a set of values which express themselves in thousands of different ways. I saw things in Italian libraries which reminded me of Italian language, or Italian clothes, or Italian architecture. But, while in Italy, I thought about one thing more than anything else – Italian food. I think the cultural values Italians express through their cuisine are guiding forces in their libraries, as well.

            Fundamentally, Italian food is about simplicity. About perfectly fresh produce, artfully crafted cheeses and oils and vinegars and wines, lovingly raised and cured meats, cooked quickly, simply, or not at all, and combined with only a few other flavors. It is about letting the ingredients shine, and not get in the way of themselves.

            In Italian libraries, we saw this principle of simplicity everywhere. Most of the libraries purported to be “about” only one, or a very few, things. The Uffizzi library and the Casanatense library were devoted to preserving very old and rare collections which were rooted in historical donations. The national library was fundamentally concerned with one type of interaction: a user needs and requests material, the librarian finds and delivers it, the user reads and returns it. They catered to a specific type of user, with specific needs. Like Italian chefs, many Italian librarians want to do things simply, cleanly, the way they’ve been done for hundreds of years.

            While culinary simplicity leads to some of the best food in the world, a culture of simple librarianship may be harming the Italian libraries we visited. Many libraries seemed to be failing because they resisted change, were too enamored with the conservation of history, the preservation of cultural values or documents which are no longer relevant or useful.

            In America (where food is fussy, muddled, complicated and based on dozens, hundreds of different traditions) libraries very rarely feel like they can purport to do only one thing, no matter how well they do it. Librarians, like chefs, complicate things, make their libraries about ten or twenty or a hundred different goals. Sometimes, like a pub menu with too many options or a soup with too many ingredients, the library becomes stretched too thin so that no single goal, no single ingredient really shines. But sometimes by offering a wide range of services, American libraries are able to broaden their user base, and educate, inform, or delight anyone who walks through their door.

            My favorite library in Italy, the Biblioteca San Giorgio is Pistoia, was far from simple. While they were a public library (which must at least attempt to cater to many different users) they excelled at serving every member of their community. They not only had a varied collection, but displayed and curated that collection with a variety of approaches, bringing vastly different talents to each section or department. Perhaps it is not surprising that this library, with a value system more similar to many American libraries than  their Italian counterparts, will soon be home to an American Corner. Of course, while the library was neither simple like Italian food nor rooted solely in the past like many Italian chefs, it did display Italian cultural values: there was a fully stocked bar and cafĂ© on the first floor, many prominent art displays, and a beautiful terrazzo for music, parties, and relaxation.

            In Italy, simplicity is valued everywhere. Simple cooking is beautiful cooking, and I would never want it to change. But simple libraries may not be what we need is these increasingly complex times. Perhaps more libraries should look to Pistoia, look to stay firmly Italian, but learn from librarians and value systems around the world – how to be complicated, multiuse, and relevant.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

First Impressions

We all make judgements based on first impressions. Based, that is, on almost nothing. How many people do you know who decided not to attend a certain college (or, perhaps more worryingly, to attend) based on the impression they got from their tour guide? We can base the course of our education, our future, our lives on snap judgments made over thirty minutes of listening to a single person describe his dining hall’s lunch options.

But first impressions are powerful. Once formed, they are difficult to shake, maybe because they color our perception of everything we see, making it look better or worse than it really is – like how everything seems to go wrong on a day that starts off badly, or how everything is beautiful when you’re in love.

Here in Italy, I had two strong first impressions of two different libraries. The Berenson Library and the public library in Pistoia.

At the Berenson, when we first arrived, we were treated somewhat rudely. We were told we had to wait outside the library for our host, we couldn’t sit on the terrace in the shade but had to stay on the sunny benches, and we (or at least I) just felt unwelcome, alien, and intrusive. Granted, once the tour began our host was incredibly welcoming and gracious, but I still could not shake my first impression. Perhaps that is why I became so upset when I heard that the library’s unbelievable collection is designed to serve 25 patrons a year (resident scholars). Later in the tour, we were told that other scholars do in fact access the collection, but it is still quite exclusionary. It is not open to the public, and the library is not putting digitization (and thus, the expansion of access) as it’s highest priority. “Yes,” I thought “just as I suspected. Everyone who doesn’t meet Harvard Standards is left outside to sit in the sun.”

Of course, I was probably being unfair. The Berenson is not a public library, and should not be expected to serve everyone. Those it does serve, it serves with the highest levels of competency and scholarship. It’s a wonderful library. But it still bothers me. My first impression can’t be shook. Is it valid? I’m not sure.

On the other extreme, I had an amazingly positive first impression of the Pistoia public library. We walked past local artwork on our way to the entrance, the lobby was huge, open and beautiful, and we were greeted warmly, with open arms (arguably, my first impression of the library may have even been before I saw it, when it’s merits were extolled by librarians and information professionals we met at the US Embassy in Rome). It was a library open to everyone, a library for the whole community.

As we continued to spend time in the library (and with it’s wonderful director) I was continuously wowed by what I saw as the library’s values (open access, a commitment to universal service, a determination to delight, educate, and welcome all patrons) expressed in any number of ways. I expected to be blown away, and I was.

So why are first impressions so strong? Two possibilities spring to mind. The first (which makes me, and all of us, look pretty foolish) is what I mentioned above – once we get an idea in our head, it’s hard to get it out. Once I decided that Harvard libraries were exclusionary or that Pistoia was wonderful, I noticed certain details (and, perhaps, ignored others) which strengthened that narrative – which confirmed my beliefs instead of creating ambiguity (and can’t ambiguity make for a less clean, but oh-so-much-more interesting story?). Shame on me. Maybe.

The other possibility is that first impressions are, at least to some degree, accurate. Cultural values creep into every corner of an organization – whether through explicit policy, subtle conformity, hiring biases, or other means. While one the one hand it seems silly to view every single act by an individual or every minor policy as emblematic of overarching organizational values, on the other hand I could never imagine an employee at Pistoia telling a patron to get up out of the shade. Maybe first impressions are valuable because a first-time observer notices things which long-standing members of a society or organization have come to see as common place. It’s for this reason that many businesses eagerly seek out the opinions of new hires or professionals fresh out of school.

So what are the implications for global librarianship? When we visit a country, we can’t help but form initial impressions based on what we first notice. We notice the novel, the outlandish, the “exotic”. These little details build into a bigger picture, a set of descriptors: ancient, quaint, backwards, dirty, charming, scary, modern, strange, foreign, pretty, boring or fun. And these descriptors build into a set of values, a picture of the country which we can take home with us. Is this picture valuable? Is it dangerous? Is it accurate? I’m not sure. I’ll have to travel more, and I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why Travel?

For the next two weeks, I’ll be in Italy with the Syracuse Library Science program. On this blog, I’ll be writing about the course, and reflecting on international librarianship (at my food blog I’ll write about my culinary adventures).

As part of our course readings, we looked at Peter Lor’s “Critical Reflections On International Librarianship” (2008). After examining the existing literature, Lor explicates a number of possible motivations for pursuing research in international librarianship. He unequivocally (perhaps too unequivocally) assigns value to certain motivations. Among the highest valued are “advancing knowledge” (using international comparisons to broaden the travellers network of intellectual and professional information sources) and “self-understanding” (using international comparisons to answer the big questions about librarianship “who uses libraries, how and why, and what barriers inhibit their use” (Lor, 2008)). This sounds great, right? But maybe a bit intimidating. We’re in Florence for two weeks (and I’ll be in Helsinki for one week) and, so far, I feel more like a tourist than a scholar.

Lor categorises the motivations of the tourist (“curiosity about how things are done in foreign countries, a love of travel and adventure, and the prestige that comes from having been where others have not” (Lor, 2008)) as “exoticism”, which he writes off as being the motivation with the lowest value towards the advancement of librarianship.

I’m not sure how I feel about that.

On the one hand, I signed up for this program because I love travel. Already, I’ve been delighted by the strange and wonderful newness of Europe. On the AirBerlin flight, the complimentary toothpaste was clove flavored, not mint. This seemed so emblematic to me of travel, or adventure. Standing in the Dusseldorf airport bathroom, jetlagged and disgusting, I was absolutely delighted to taste cloves when the brush hit my teeth. To me, it was a clear and dramatic signal that my adventures were beginning. And once in Florence, the little details of otherness have continued to delight – the cobblestone streets, the red roof tiles, the cast iron window grates, and – oh my God – the food.

But, on the other hand, this is not a vacation. We’re in Florence to study international librarianship – for credit, with rigor, and with the tireless pursuit of knowledge and progress which all librarians should strive for. While in Europe, we should and must work to advance knowledge and gain self understanding, and not just through readings and discussions but through immersing ourselves in the Italian culture of librarianship.

It’s day two in Italy (and day one of the course), so we’re not exactly immersed yet, but I’ve been trying to reconcile my motivations for being here. Of course I want to pursue the lofty goals (that’s why I’m getting my MSLIS) but, right now (if I’m being honest), I’m more excited to be in Italy than to be visiting Italian libraries. That might change, or it might be OK. A love of travel and newness (Lor’s “exoticsism”) may have got me on the plane, I'm still a librarian, and I'm still here, so I intend to make the most of it.


Lor, P J. (2008). Critical reflections on international librarianship. Mousaion, 26(1), 1-15.