The Books We Need

I was a philosophy major, I’ll get that admission out of the way up front. Actually, I was a double major in philosophy and literature, so the topic of libraries sparks in me something akin to religious experience.  And as Jorge Luis Borges, the patron saint of libraries, said: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” What double major in philosophy and literature wouldn’t agree?

My own office is filled with books. Some are related directly to my day to day job (“Pathways to the Common Core,” “Foucault and Education,” “School Leadership that Works”), others are tangentially connected (“How Lincoln Learned to Read,” “The Art of Condolence,” “Summerhill School”), and some are simply part of who I am (“The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson,” Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and “Walden”).  There are others too that I keep at hand in case I need them: Shakespeare, Hopkins, Arthur Conan Doyle. I can’t imagine my office without books, and I’m just a school administrator.

Bookish as I am, I find myself in the enviable position of being a leader at a school with grand plans to remodel the center of our academic universe, the literal center of our campus, the library.

I’ve sat in the planning meetings. I’ve heard the discussions of how walls will move, how furniture will look, and how power for portable devices will be increased. I’ve listened as intelligent people explained the direction libraries are going, as if a library might be a car, driving on a dark highway, headlights piercing the inky expanse of ignorance… Too poetic that line. Sorry, purple prose. But I have been told what a library will look like in the 21st century, and how students today will access information in ways undreamed of when Emily Dickinson was a girl, or Ralph Ellison studied at Tuskegee, or I was bumbling undergraduate a few decades ago.

And while I know they’re right, and while I know that in this deliciously connected world, where facts flock to the glow of a laptop, students will learn in environments where paper is the exception not the rule, while I know this, I ask myself that question Umberto Eco’s monk asks when stepping into the scriptorium in “The Name of the Rose” : “Where are all the books?”

Cut back to that fact from before: I’m not a monk; I’m part of a team at a school with an opportunity to create something wonderful. If we’re purposeful, and determined, and have a clear vision. We’ve picked the tables and couches, built capacity for technology and innovation, and outlined the expanse of space larger than our current library in both scope and possibility. And now the exciting part: we fill it.

The question, of course, is what we fill it with. Books, certainly. A library without books is a computer without a keyboard. Books need to be a part of this heart of the school. But what books?

I’ll confess that my list, the list of books that fill my office, and even my heart, isn’t the right answer to that question. My library is the library that I need. My fellow bibliophiles have libraries that are their own. And at LCC we are compelled to create the library that our students need.

Right for some students is digital content. Right for others are hardcover books of poetry. Right for many is scientific nonfiction –up to date scientific nonfiction- and for others it’s volumes of YA fiction that can be taken home and consumed in an easy chair along with a bowl of popcorn.

What isn’t as appetizing is some of the flotsam and jetsam of books damaged or so antiquated as to be factually inaccurate (Bonn is not the capital of West Germany). And just as “The Greatest American Hero” isn’t as popular a TV show with today’s 16 year olds as it was when I was 16, so too tastes in popular fiction change, a fact our library will do well to acknowledge as we fill its shelves intelligently.

I know that I don’t know exactly what our collection, print and digital, should be, but I am certain that a library is more than soft seating and wall outlets. A library is reading. A library is learning. A library is possibilities.

And a library is books. The right books, kept refreshed and relevant, and as important to our students as the books in my office are to me.

As we collaborate with students and teachers, we must educate ourselves about libraries and work together to develop our collective vision. We must then use that vision to create a meaningful space, a space that Borges –or more importantly our students– could be proud of. Our challenge is to keep the library as the academic heart of campus, and our charge is to put our students first, listen, encourage, and make LCC’s library the library that our students need.

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