They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

We do not have to give time the opportunity to pass in vain

We do not have to give time the opportunity to pass in vain

By Edgardo Civallero & Sara Plaza

What León Gieco's song "Aquí, allá, hoy o mañana" ("Here, there, today or tomorrow"), one of our favorite Argentinean singers (author of the well-known hit "Solo le iPod a Dios"), exactly says is something like "You should not give time the opportunity to pass in vain". The sentence, beyond its poetry, draws in the horizon a line to be followed, a goal to be attained, not only in a personal, but also in a professional way...

Time that passes in vain... How many days, how many months have gone gliding past, smoothly and quietly through our hands, not knowing how to catch and use them, how to turn them into an excellent harvest of fruits and results? The question, a bit abstract without a context, becomes more real when we think in all those libraries that die in silence, with the shelves full of books that won't be touched by readers. Libraries that do not invite their users to come in because they suffer from a regretful shortage of services, of ideas... Don't you know any? We do. We have seen them and have been sitting in them. The weeks pass, the years pass, and those units –that should be changing something of the context where they are immersed, however small the difference would be– continue to be there, standstill, frozen, while their managers and staff allow time to pass in vain.

It happened during the last few days: we were speaking and remembered together our learning at university. It came to our minds the explanation of libraries as systems, a group of elements intimately related that work for the achievement of an aim, producing "outcomes" (products, services) and catching "incomes" (information, opinions, needs).

After leaving university, we learnt many more things, and we understood that any library is (or should be, if it wants to successfully serve its community) an entity quite similar to a living organism: it responds to the changes of its environment, adapts itself for surviving, is flexible, evolves, grows, even reproduces and replicates itself. And, sometimes, stays there, paralyses with inactivity, falls ill and dies.

The life cycle of any system follows a series of steps and closes, sometimes in order to start again, others forever. And all the living systems avoid dying by instinct and try to survive despite the worst imaginable adversities. This basic as well as vital rule can be also applied in our libraries: they have to struggle and do whatever is needed and possible to be alive. To turn them into a simple store is to kill them in advance, to assassinate their spirit without delaying, to doom to failure a project that might have been wonderful and useful for a small or a big group of people.

The library becomes a mere warehouse of stored goods and useless materials when it does not have users. At that moment, it loses its reason for existing. A library is neither a building, nor a collection or a group of people who works in it: it is a service, simply that. And a service, as the word says it, should serve somebody. When it does not serve, when the final user considers that in that institution there is nothing for him/her, the time has come to ask why it is that libraries and their managers failed.

Time follows its way, insensitive to human circumstances. And each minute lost never comes back.

When can it be said that a library walks towards its failure and its death as a system? In general terms, it happens when it offers to the user something that him/her does not need, and also when, on the other hand, does not provide him/her with what they urgently need. And this, shamefully, is something that occurs in every corner of our professional universe. Even though this last statement seems senseless or foolish in a moment of "evaluations", "users' survey" and "LIS management", still there are libraries that insist in implanting into their reality a particular model, not being aware of the risk involved. As the living system that the library has to be, it is the unit itself that, first of all, should consider very carefully the requirements, circumstances and possibilities of its environment, changing whatever was necessary to make it suitable for their users.

To replicate pre-established models can be useful in some cases, especially because it means to walk an already trodden path and it might seem more secure and avoid unexpected and undesirable surprises. But let not mislead ourselves: what is good for someone, or what successfully worked in a place, does not have to work, obligatorily, in another. In general, existing models –not adapted previously to new conditions– use to be considered as artificial implantations and are usually rejected and, consequently, fail deafeningly. Therefore, it is important to listen to the needs and the voices in need, to know the human and spatial context, to look for the most suitable solution and implement it with the existing resources, at the side of the people involved.

The library works in, because of, for and with the community. This sentence should never be forgotten. There are many information units that put themselves in the middle of inhabited places and continue to be there, useless, empty. In their pride, they think of themselves as saviors, heroines that are able to shape people into their particular liking and give them what the dominant society thinks that is convenient for them. Very few times the users want that. The process should be the other way round: the library is like clay, a type of earth that people are going to mould into the desired form. Only then, they will drink from the pot all the knowledge that it keeps inside. It won't be the other way. Never will it be the other way.

We should not permit time to pass in vain. On the contrary, we should use our initiative, listen to our community, give the voice back to the users and allow them to actively participate in their libraries. We should turn the libraries into the cultural and information spaces they are meant to be, responding to the inquiries that are really made instead of giving answers to what never was and never will be asked. Only in this way, those systems will keep on living, reproducing, regenerating... Only in this way we will continue to learn a bit more day after day... Only following this path we won't see so many dead libraries, though they insist in making us think how alive they are...

Only by using our imagination and allowing users to make use of theirs we will stop time from escaping from our hands as sand among the fingers...