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.