Libraries and the Cartography of Knowledge
question I want to ponder this morning is this: what do libraries have
to do with learning? And what sort of learning goes on in libraries?
Big questions, ones we’ll have several days to explore. But I want to
think about these questions from a particular angle: the perspective of
spatial experience. How do we experience the library as a place, and
what does that contribute to our understanding of the wider world? To
turn it around, what can librarians learn from their users’
experiences, and how can we use that insight to make our libraries
better learning spaces?
at different ages have various relationships to libraries. Public
libraries play a major role in childhood literacy by providing books
and programs for children and teens. In K-12 schools and colleges, the
library is a laboratory for extending learning beyond the classroom,
providing an opportunity for students to learn how to enter into the
ongoing conversation about ideas that is at the heart of making
knowledge. After college – well, there things get a bit fuzzy. Though
information literacy programs in higher education claim to prepare
their students for lifelong learning, we tend to focus on helping
students learn how to use their college libraries to be better
students. What we don’t know is whether those research skills are used
after college, though it is promising to learn from a recent OCLC study
that college students use libraries heavily and that 40% of them visit
a public library at least once a month. Still, we haven’t done a
particularly good job of consciously bridging the college students’
experience of libraries to their adult lives. But one thing we can say
with confidence is that libraries provide millions of Americans of all
ages with reading material of all types, access to information through
both the physical library and its virtual incarnation, and a social,
civic space that nurtures engagement and curiosity.
decade ago there was much talk about the virtual library. The capacity
for libraries to provide digitized information anywhere, anytime seemed
to hold enormous promise – and a certain amount of underlying anxiety,
because libraries weren’t the only ones staking a claim to this brave
new world. Not only would the library spill beyond its walls to reach
users wherever they happened to be – the metaphorical “place” of
libraries in society was challenged as others claimed to provide
similar routes to ubiquitous information, sometimes confusing the
pipeline with the knowledge it supposedly contained. In 1995, for
example, there was a television advertisement for MCI in which a
precocious Anna Paquin intoned “It will connect all points. Its speed
will be the speed of light. It will not go from here to there. There
will be no there. We will all only be here.” This notion of a
ubiquitous, global network unifying everyone and everything – and
incidentally accessed through a single telecommunications provider - is
a far cry from the local public library. It is neither local nor
public, but it claims to be able to provide all information to
everyone, effortlessly, transforming society in the process.
of course, “the library as place” has overtaken interest in the virtual
library in library literature and at conferences like this. Again, the
impetus for this conversation is driven both by the positive potential
of enhancing the physical library, but also by some anxiety that if we
don’t make those places attractive and inviting our patrons will go
elsewhere. Though we aren’t threatened by MCI anymore, Barnes and
Nobles made off with our traditional furnishings to make their
bookstores more like libraries than most libraries are and, worse yet,
Google seems to have appropriated the library’s mission – “to organize
the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
Libraries, in fact, aren’t competing with bookstores or Internet search
engines – Internet users are also library users, and bookstore junkies
usually carry library cards to sustain their addiction – but we have
been forced to reevaluate our place in society.
is nothing new. Libraries have always been a place where cultural
meaning is contested, and we can chart that contest in their
architecture because buildings use design elements to communicate
“communal values and beliefs” (Roth 5). Early public library designs in
the United States tended to be monumental symbols of civic pride,
harkening to European roots while sending the message that there was a
particularly American culture just as good as the old world’s. The
Boston Public Library sends a mixed message – it says over its door
that it is a democratic institution – by the people and for the people
- yet the Ecole des Beaux-Arts design intentionally dwarfs the
individual and carries the perhaps unintended message that culture is
for the elite, or at least those who aspire to join the elite.
According to architectural historian Abigail Van Slyck, “The large
urban library buildings erected in this era reflected the tension that
trustees felt between the urge to protect culture from the
contamination of the working class and the desire to use culture to
redeem the ‘general public’” (67). Interestingly, this language remains
potent: the Chicago Public Library, build in 1991, carries some of the
same messages – because when the board charged with choosing the
winning design looked at their options, they found this was the only
one that, to them, “looked like a library.” This impressive book
gallery at public library of Woburn, Massachusetts, is reminiscent of
monastic libraries of the past, and like those libraries the books were
off-limits to the public. These stacks were visible, but inaccessible
to all but the staff, and were criticized by librarians of the day for
being hard to heat and inefficient for book retrieval. There were also
separate reading rooms for men and women, and no provision for children
who, as in most public libraries of the time, were banned from the
progressives among librarians believed that libraries could promote the
acculturation of new immigrants and lessen social tensions while
“fostering a common culture based on middle-class values” (Van Slyck
76). In the 1890s stacks were opened and children’s rooms were added,
but the didactic element remained. John Cotton Dana argued libraries
should abandon “the palace, the temple, the cathedral, the memorial
hall, the mortuary pile” as the appropriate image for libraries and
instead look toward “the workshop, the factory, the office building”
for what he called “the book laboratory” (Van Slyck 205). Efficiency
was preferred over grandeur and in the process, according to Van Slyck,
“the library lost its potential to serve as a site – literally and
figuratively – for public discussion and debate” (219).
dichotomy of values raises exactly the question libraries are asking
today. We’ve found the palace to be an inhospitable place for learning,
especially when the external grandeur of a library is a shell for a
dingy, maze-like collection of stacks not designed for public access.
And Dana’s efficiency is not the ultimate goal; we are so efficient you
don’t even need to be in the library to use it, but we’ve realized that
mere efficiency defeats the social impulses that learners have.
Architect Geoffrey Freeman says “the library is the only centralized
location where new and emerging information technologies can be
combined with traditional knowledge resources in a user-focused,
service-rich environment that supports today’s social and educational
patterns of learning, teaching, and research” (3). Speaking of academic
libraries in particular, he goes on to say “by cutting across all
disciplines and functions, the library also serves a significant social
role . . . Upon entering the library, the student becomes part of a
larger community – a community that endows one with a greater sense of
self and higher purpose” (6).
Eco raised this issue back in 1981 on the opening of the Communal
Library of Milan. “What ends, certain and uncertain, does a library
serve?” he asked. In exploring that question, he described two
libraries. One is a nightmare with a great many rules. The information
desk for readers must be inaccessible. Borrowing should be discouraged.
Request slips should have insufficient room for call numbers, thus
allowing the employee at the desk to return the slip to be properly
filled out. Interlibrary loans should be impossible, or take months.
Hours of opening should coincide with working hours, as determined by
labor unions. Refreshments of all kinds will be forbidden. To the
extent possible there will be no toilets. Ideally, no reader should be
allowed inside the library. Then he describes library utopia. Apart
from providing good espresso and comfortable chairs, these libraries
encourage exploration. He says, “The whole idea of a library is based
on a misunderstanding: that the reader goes into the library to find a
book whose title he knows. . . . The essential function of a library .
. . is to discover books of whose existence the reader has no idea.”
This discovery is a collaboration between the seeker and the shelves, a
mix of deliberation and serendipity. “This sort of library is made for
me. I can pass a whole joyful day there. I read the papers, I take some
books to the bar, I fetch others, I make discoveries. I entered to
work, in true empirical English fashion; instead I find myself among
commentators on Aristotle, I wind up on the wrong floor, I go into a
section, say Medicine, in which I never thought to stray, and suddenly
I stumble upon works about Galen, full of philosophical references.
This way, a library is an adventure” (59).
kind of information seeking is hardly efficient, yet it is this
inefficient venturing from the known to the unknown that underpins
exploration and discovery. And it is, like any exploration, a spatial
experience. A library is very much like a map, one that can help us
figure out where we are now and what we have yet to experience; it lets
us venture beyond our experience by combining our senses with the
experiences of others, and it gives us an idea of the distances
involved. According to cartographer Denis Wood, “the map presents us
with the reality we know is differentiated from the reality we see and
hear and feel. The map doesn't let us see anything, but it does let us
know what others have seen or found out or discovered, others often
living but more often dead, the things they learned piled up in layer
on top of layer so that to study even the simplest-looking image is to
peer back through ages of cultural acquisition. . . . The world we take
for granted - the real world - is made like this, out of the
accumulated thought and labor of the past" (6-7).
which have been around as long as if not longer than writing, represent
our relationship to space, both known and unknown. In the words of
Miles Harvey, “A map provides no answers. It only suggests where to
look: discover this, reexamine that, put one thing in relation to
another, orient yourself, begin here . . .” (38). The medieval map of
the world was a way of situating oneself in the cosmic order, a mix of
history, myth, and scripture. A 13th century map puts Jerusalem in the
center, the known worlds of Europe, Africa and Asia around it. It’s
also a map of past and present: the last judgment is at the top, with
Adam and Eve just below God – sort of the Alpha and the Omega. At the
margins, there are various monstrosities – marvelous wonders who had to
keep retreating to the margins throughout the Age of Exploration. What
is my place, and what lies beyond? Is the question maps address. There
are other ways of perceiving these relationships – the heavens as
depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle, with God, again, presiding
at the top – or the order of the civil world as depicted by Elizabeth
I, who naturally puts herself in charge. Consider an Australian
Aboriginal map that provides in the shape of a crocodile references to
places and traditional knowledge, a network of meaning that relates the
people to the natural world. Or a map of the cosmos in the shape of a
human being from the Jain tradition in India, which shows the path of
individuals as they ascend toward perfect knowledge. Or we can map out
order and relatedness by other means – such as the Library of Congress
humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan described the importance of experience
in constructing our understanding of reality. Through sensory
experience, we reach out beyond ourselves and know what is beyond us.
We use our experience of place to imagine how things might be in places
we’ve never been. Because we are rooted in personal, sensory
experience, that sense of place belongs to us in a way that imparted
knowledge doesn’t. As Tuan points out, “learning is rarely at the level
of explicit and formal knowledge.” It’s not just about information,
it’s about how our experience helps us connect ideas.
is security, space is freedom,” Tuan says. “We are attached to the one
and long for the other.” In order to conceptualize space - that is, to
understand what we don’t yet know - we must be able to locate ourselves
in relation to the world first by being rooted in personal experience.
Knowing our place gives us a reference point for experiencing space.
The library, as a physical place, provides the coordinates by sorting
out knowledge in a grid that can be perceived as having meaning, if not
all meanings. Without a sense of belonging in a centered and known (if
necessarily limited) world of knowledge, the vast space of the unknown
is harder to explore because we feel inevitably disoriented and lost.
Birkerts uses a cartographic metaphor when he argues that the printed
book can provide a better sense of connectedness than its digital
counterpart. “Reading from a screen,” he says, “is like traveling from
coast to coast with only adjoining local maps as guides.” Because
everything in cyberspace is potentially adjacent to everything else, it
exists with no context, no depth of field, no perspective. Without the
physical experience of place in relation to space, it’s hard to know
where we stand. There’s also a communal experience in libraries that
emboldens us to explore the unknown; as Ken Bruffee has said, “reading
is one way to join new communities, the ones represented by the authors
of the texts we read. By reading, we acquire fluency in the language of
the text and make it our own. Library stacks, from this perspective,
are not a repository; they are a crowd” (qtd. In Bennet, 19).
was the first person to measure the earth at around 200 b.c., and it
was remarkably close to our present measurements. He also was one of
the first to create a map of the world, even though he was not himself
an explorer. He was, instead, the head of the Great Library of
Alexandria, where he attempted to encompass the world on paper by
gathering together all of human knowledge. Both maps and libraries set
themselves a paradoxical task: to encompass all knowledge, knowing that
it will be by definition incomplete. “We organize information on maps
in order to see our knowledge in a new way,” according to Miles Harvey.
“As a result, maps suggest explanations; and while explanations
reassure us, they also inspire us to ask more questions, consider other
possibilities. To ask for a map is to say, ‘Tell me a story’” (11).
isn’t to say there’s a single, true story. Maps can present order in
different ways, such as representing populations, and they can turn our
expectations on its head as in the "Upside Down" map published New
Zealand. And while a map may seem to nail down the shape of a coast,
the distance from one point to another, that all depends. Mathematician
Benoit Mandelbrot noticed that encyclopedias gave figures for the
length of the coastline of Britain that varied by as much as twenty
percent. He came to an interesting conclusion: the length of the
coastline of Britain is infinite. It all depends on how you measure it.
The smaller the ruler, the more intricacies you can measure, and so the
greater the sum of those measurements.
a similar way, a library’s means of ordering knowledge are open-ended
and provisional. They map knowledge in a way that seems to offer order,
but actually invites dissent by bringing together texts that tell each
story differently. As Alberto Manguel puts it in his history of
reading, “The categories that a reader brings to a reading, and the
categories in which that reading itself is placed—the learned social
and political categories, and the physical categories into which a
library is divided—constantly modify one another in ways that appear,
over the years, more or less arbitrary or more or less imaginative . .
. Whatever categories have been chosen, every library tyrannizes the
act of reading and forces the reader—the curious reader, the alert
reader—to rescue the book from the category to which it has been
condemned.” This is a subversive rescue mission to which the library is
party, I hasten to add. After all, if the library truly wanted order it
would have one ultimate book on each topic. There it is—your answer.
But that is precisely what libraries don’t do. Instead, they celebrate
the multiplicities of meaning by seeking out dissention and putting it
together, inviting the explorer to make their own meaning of it.
how do we go from the temple of books, through the efficient
information factory, and into a new sort of library? Scott Bennett,
librarian emeritus of Yale University, calls for a rather startling
paradigm shift. He urges us to stop thinking in terms of service, and
focus instead on learning. “Our purpose,” he says, “is not to circulate
books, but to ensure that the circulation of knowledge produces
learning. Reconceiving our purposes involves a fundamental shift for
librarians trained in a service culture – one that is comparable to the
shift that faculty are making from a teaching to a learning culture”
(11). He urges us to engage in library planning that is not focused on
provision of services at all, but rather on how people learn.
how does this apply to public libraries and to adult learners? As I
said earlier, the claims that academic librarians make that information
literacy serves as the groundwork for lifelong learning have not been
well substantiated. But that, I believe, is partly due to narrowness of
vision. We focus too much on the ability to find and use information,
not on the other kinds of learning that happens in libraries. Catherine
Sheldrick Ross has made the case that much information is not sought at
all, but rather is encountered, and that the experiences that readers
have that appear not to be “educational” in nature can profoundly
affect their knowledge base. She interviewed over 200 avid readers to
learn how they read and what it means to them. Her results demonstrate
that learning happens in a variety of ways as readers connect books to
their life experiences. “Over and over, in these studies based on
self-reports, readers say: ‘Books give me comfort; make me feel better
about myself; reassure me that I am normal and not a freak because
characters in books have feelings like mine … Books help me clarify my
feelings; change my way of thinking about things … They broaden my
horizons; provide a window onto other lives and other societies; and
they put me in touch with a larger, more spacious world” (163)
I’ll illustrate this with a couple of quotations. First, from the conclusion of The Child that Books Built,
Francis Spufford’s memoir of paradoxically finding himself as a child
while lost in a book. His escape into books was partly a response to
his sister’s chronic illness, and the book ends when his sister’s life
is over – and the rest of the story, he tells us, is none of our
business. Except, he recounts how one scene repeats itself, again and
again, no matter how much self-knowledge he gains: “My heart is broken.
I have lost my life’s jewel. I go into a bookshop. And as I walk down
the aisles, I remember that in every novel there are reverses, that all
plots twist and turn, that sadness and happiness are just the materials
that authors use, in arrangements I know very well; and at that thought
the books seem to kindle into a kind of dim life all around me, each
one unfolding its particular nature into my awareness without urgency,
without haste, as if a column of gray, insubstantial smoke were rising
from it, softening the air, filling it with words and actions which are
all provisional, which could be changed for others, according to taste.
Among those drifting pillars, the true story of my life looks no
different; it is just a story among stories, and after I have been
reading a while, I can hardly tell anymore which is my own” (210).
Or take this reading experience, from Gregg Bottoms’s harrowing memoir of his brother's schizophrenia, Angelhead:
"At some point - I can't pinpoint exactly when - I realized that books
made sense of the worst things, even if they seemed stunted and dark,
offering nothing but a crippled epiphany . . . I began reading all the
time, endlessly, book after book, always looking to find the grand
tragedy rendered with meaning - the more transgressive, the more
violent, the better because by the middle of the book I wanted to see
how this mess would be fixed, how a life, even a sad, broken, imaginary
life, could be saved. I started to believe - and I still believe - that
I could somehow save myself with a story, and even though I couldn't
save anyone else, I could try to understand them, attempt to grant them
at least that, and perhaps it is in this, this attempt to understand,
that a person is truly saved . . . I am not exaggerating when I say
books saved my life; or put another way, books saved my mind and helped
me to understand my life” (104, 106).
there is a lot of learning here that has little to do with information,
and less to do with the methods we teach for seeking it. In describing
the joint-use library that functions as both the main library of San
Jose’s Public Library system and the library of San Jose State
University, Christina Peterson identifies five activities that its
shared space supports: information-seeking, recreation, teaching and
learning, connection, and contemplation. I would argue that exploration
of the world, whether through formal information-seeking or through
reading for pleasure, connection, and contemplation are all aspects of
learning that libraries support.
end with a map of my personal virtual library, the one I carry in my
memory. It is not a clean or well-lighted place. Its ceilings are low,
the stacks a maze. The sputtering florescent lights shed stingy light
through the mysterious tunnels of books. There’s an odd corner tucked
beside a stairwell where a tall, arched window has panes of glass so
old the bubbles trapped in it hold hundred-year-old air. The wavy
striations in the glass warp the campus outside where the trees forever
wear autumn colors. In front of the window there is a long wooden
table. I have claimed it like a settler, marking my possession with a
pile of books and papers and, having claimed it as my own, can make
forays into the stacks between bouts of reading, daydreaming, doodling.
overcrowded university library where I spent countless undergraduate
hours is only a memory now, replaced several years ago by one that is
airy and bright and full of computers. But it’s where I found a sense a
sense of place, a confidence in the possibility of order so that I
could grapple with disorder and the unknown. Because I have wandered
through physical stacks, seen connections, observed how books on the
“same” subject can approach it so differently, I have the rough
outlines of a map of what I know and what I have yet to discover. And
where the map fades out into areas that are truly terra incognita, I
have developed through familiarity with a physical library a sense of
direction, a feel for the cardinal points, that I can use as I explore
the wavy window glass is gone, students attending my alma mater still
can claim some personal corner near a window where they can assemble
books and printouts, set up their laptop and ipod and cup of coffee,
forbidden in my day, and daydream while watching the leaves turn color
outside. It will leave its imprint in their memory and become their
virtual library. At least I hope so.
libraries are places that learners lay claim to as a base camp,
cartographers beginning an adventure into the unknown. We only need to
welcome them inside so they can find a table and a window and made it
Bennett, Scott. "Righting the Balance." Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space.Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2005. 10-24.
Birkerts, Sven. "Sense and Semblance: The Implications of Virtuality." Readings. St. Paul: Graywolf, 1999. 42-54.
Bottoms, Greg. Angelhead: My Brother's Descent into Madness. New York: Crown, 2000.
Bruffee, Kenneth A. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.
Christopher R. Martin and Bettina Fabos, “Wiring the Kids: The TV Ad Blitz to Get the Internet into Home and School.” Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture 7, September 1998.
Eco, Umberto. "De Bibliotheca." Bostonia Spring 1993: 57-60.
Freeman, Geoffrey T. "The Library as Place: Changes in Learning Patterns, Collections, Technology, and use." Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2005. 1-9.
Garrison, Dee. Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2003 [c. 1979].
Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Viking, 1987.
Harvey, Miles. The Island of Lost Maps. New York: Random, 2000.
Manuel, Alberto. A History of Reading. New York: Viking, 1996.
OCLC. Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC, 2005.
Roth, Leland M. Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning. Boulder: Westview, 1993.
Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, Lynne McKechnie, and Paulette Rothbauer. Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Community. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2006.
Spufford, Francis. The Child that Books Built: A Life in Reading. New York: Metropolitan, 2002.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Place and Space: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1977.
Van Slyck, Abigail A. Free to all: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1890-1920. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1995.
Wood, Denis. The Power of Maps. New York: Guilford, 1992.