I spent last Friday in Augusta at the Maine Humanities Summit sponsored by the University of Maine Humanities Initiative. I also participated on a panel of academic and public librarians to explain the role of libraries in the “public” humanities. The attending group was made up of the converted, those of us who see in others and experience in ourselves every day the “Power & Pleasure of Ideas” – to borrow a phrase from the Maine Humanities Council. We spoke of public libraries being a provider, presenter, collector, promoter and organizer of the humanities. So it was on fertile ground (and with gratitude) that our individual presentations were received. There was little if any surprise just appreciation.
I am always fascinated by the surprise that folks have upon rediscovery of the public library or coming up against the popular notion that the public library is not long for the world. Paul Krugman’s recent New York Times blog post “In Praise of Public Libraries (Personal and Trivial)” speaks to the simple delight in finding a space in the community that has some infrastructure, a culture of sharing and no expectation of you except civil behavior. Meanwhile, beyond offering a sweet spot in the daily grind, public libraries everywhere are gearing up their summer reading programs and reaching out to kids and families to do what we can to bring the beauty of the arts and the humanities (literature, history, art, music and much more) to the neighborhoods and towns across the country. Quiet magic – day in and day out. No chest pounding, no vapid self-promotion, just quiet and sustained effort to experience the “Power and Pleasure of Ideas”.
The variety and range of libraries and the issues that are part of their daily and strategic concerns are not always obvious to the general public. There is not a shortage of coverage of specific issues facing libraries such as e-books, funding, etc. and occasionally there is a more general survey about the future of libraries or how they are evolving. For national audiences, the May 14th Wall Street Journal article,“The Library’s Future Is Not an Open Book” does a fine job giving a sense of the challenges and rationale that urban libraries face nationwide and how it is being addressed through planning and architecture. One will see echoes and demonstrations of PPL in that piece.
For Mainers seeking to understand our statewide library landscape the newest issue of the Maine Policy Review offers a wonderful blend of comment on the history, philosophy, service and strategic challenges associated with Maine’s libraries.
Derivative tends not be a compliment as it implies lack of creativity or more recently a bad financial instrument. But let’s be honest, many great ideas in all areas aren’t new (like bookmobiles) and libraries mostly work with the basics of those ideas and spin them to serve some niche. PPL like other libraries lends a variety of unexpected materials including telescopes (brought to us through our partnership with Cornerstones of Science), Kill a Watt energy detectors (given to us by a private donor),and most recently ukuleles modeled on the idea first demonstrated by the Newport (Maine) Cultural Center and neighboring Falmouth (Maine) Memorial Library.
Even Isaac Newton acknowledged the contributions to his work of those before him. It is a pleasure (and an ethical obligation) for us to acknowledge this tradition of public libraries.