April 2000

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Library Policy Has A Higher Purpose

by Dr. William Taber, NYSALB Trustee

April 2000 issue of Trustee

As you know, the trustees of public libraries establish and oversee the policies that determine the library's mission and the general rules by which it is run. To make the policies actually work, we frequently must work "downwards" as well, from the general to the more specific, by creating guidelines to help the director understand the policy goals and the means by which to put them into actual practice. The library staff then has the obligation to run the library in compliance with the policies and the guidelines.

However, there is another direction to which we should turn our thoughts in this process -- this is to "look upwards", to judge the policies that we create as if they were themselves the specific application of even more universal purposes and standards to which we are obligated as public library trustees. But what standards? Where are they?

This is perilous territory, full of dangers that must be skirted cautiously. One danger is that institutions which affect human thought or behavior (e.g. education, government, entertainment, police, ...and libraries!) are themselves natural targets for ideological, religious, and political agendas. Institutions which are based upon concepts of freedom such as freedom of thought, of expression, of research, of access to knowledge, of self-determination, etc. are especially likely to be targeted because, in the minds of people who are most rigidly certain of the truth of their own beliefs, the intellectual freedom of others is easily seen as a threat to themselves . Targeting can be done consciously by pressure groups or it can be done unconsciously through the medium of our own preferences and prejudices as we are affected by a society in constant turmoil and change.

Library policy must not be controlled by outside agendas or cascading fads of popular thought; for above this ebb and flow of life styles, there are basic principles that are inherent in the very nature of the public library. These principles are the stars by which we steer its course: as Captains on the ship, this is our obligation.

1- Safeguard human knowledge and the totality of human history.
Knowledge of past human experience is the primary advantage that humankind has as a species in its task of survival. Technology, skills, language, insight -- all lessons of the past -- are perishable commodities, and any course change in the direction of safeguarding them serves the whole of humankind. It fulfills part of our obligations to the past generations who have brought us to our present state of enlightenment (such as it is) and to the future generations who will shortly succeed us. Public libraries are collections of this precious memory -- they are not just entertainment centers for the literate.

2- Pass it on.
Public libraries are not static repositories of treasure. By their very nature, we make this treasure available to those who seek it out, and we encourage others to realize that they too can seek it out. Human populations are mixtures of savagery and culture, and a function of public libraries is to push that mixture toward culture. A policy course in this direction is always justifiable, but it can meet with resistance as the winds and currents of society try to force-feed the populace with currently popular ideas or absurdities.

3- Prevent the monopolization of knowledge by elites.
This is the star that is often most difficult to follow. Knowledge is power, and the elites of wealth, politics, administrative position, ideological supremacy, and education know this very well.

Knowledge is the rightful heritage of all humankind, but it can be stolen, and those who steal it damage all of us. Whenever knowledge is monopolized, the result is always some form of oppression, some structure of lasting inequality that is not the natural result of differences in individual human potential, talent, or effort. By its inclusiveness, the public library is directly set against monopolization, guild-like elitism, or censorship. The Hitlers, Stalins, Mao's, and Khomeni's of the world would destroy us for following this star since our course is incompatible with their domination. And this is a very good reason to keep the star always in mind.

Firmness of purpose and flexibility of means go side-by-side. Sometimes ships must go off course for a short while to survive a storm. Sometimes libraries must hunker down for a bit to survive a political tempest. But the stars and principles are still there, and the only true disaster is when we forget to use them.

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