I am honored and owe many thanks to my colleague and friend Beth Friese for agreeing to share a very special blog post in this space on “What Makes a Library a Library?”

What makes a library a library?

Here in Georgia, school librarians are called Media Specialists. Although I know many wonderful Media Specialists, I’ve never warmed to the term.  I’ve always stood by the words “library” and “librarian.”

One semester a couple of years ago, I spent a lot of time thinking about the word “library” and my attachment to it. (This is the luxury of doctoral education. I get a lot of time to wander around with thoughts like this.)  I didn’t know if my love of “library” was just nostalgia, or was there something really enduring about it that belonged to my identity, my way of seeing the world and my purpose in it?

In some ways, the word “library” works against us. “Library,” it seems, comes with the baggage of silent spaces and shushing disapproval. It comes with the inertia of old times. Recently, I’ve been writing a literature review of the way libraries are viewed in literacy research (one of the less luxurious parts of doctoral education). From what I have read, libraries are often seen as book warehouses (which speaks to the example Buffy shared) or spaces of limitation. While I’d like to think differently, I am not sure this is all that far off from the way the public views us.

So, going back to a few years ago when I was thinking about the word “library” so much, I read a piece by Gayatri Spivak that discusses words and definitions. Spivak suggests that we can create change not necessarily by changing the word itself, but instead by looking for an alternative definition, then using that alternative definition as a “positive lever” to create new possibles. Using Spivak’s suggestion, I sought that definition for “library.” Here is a quote from the paper I wrote that semester, deconstructing the word “library:”

“In looking back at the etymology of the word ‘library,’ I noticed that one of the roots ‘library’ traces back to is ‘liber,’ Latin for ‘book.’ Having been a student of Latin, I recognized that ‘liber’ also means ‘free,’ as in ‘liberty’ or ‘liberation’…based on this alternative definition, I suggest that we reinscribe ‘library’ as a site for the exploration of freedom.”

I still believe this today – we need to go back to the root of library-as-book, then take the alternative definition and, instead, conceive of the library-as-freedom.

So, if you were to ask me, what is a library? It is freedom. Maybe a space of freedom, if we allow that space can extend into the virtual as well.  But, at its essence, it’s freedom.

For me, that freedom is explicitly tied to the facilitation of critically multiliterate (or perhaps transliterate) citizens through the provision of as much and as many types of information as possible. At the same time, libraries must provide the guidance and encouragement to inquire into that information and build powerful new knowledge. Intellectual freedom is at the heart of this vision, as is education, and literacy broadly conceived.

As librarians, (who are at the heart of every library), this means we have to critically examine the assumptions and biases in our work, constantly seeking to open up and expand what can be learned and created. It means we have to be passionate about freedom and always think of new ways and spaces to create and share it. It is a vision that transcends any particular format or technology, embracing what comes next while appreciating what has been before. It can’t be replicated through a screen or a book drop or a company’s product. It is fundamentally different, and deeply worth preserving.

Beth Friese
Doctoral Student
Department of Language and Literacy Education
University of Georgia

Spivak, G. C. (1974). Translator’s preface. In Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Gayatri Spivak, Trans.) (pp. ix-xc). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.