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 café 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.

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