This piece was originally written for a well-known library supplier’s newsletter in February 2021.
In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel,” Borge describes a library that extends into infinity in all directions. Every shelf is filled with books and each book contains assortments of characters. The theory goes that every book ever conceived must exist somewhere within this library, as must every possible combination of letters. Entire cults spring up within the library, dedicated to purging the meaningless books and retaining only the meaningful: a subjective definition which leads to bickering, debate, madness and even despair.
Similarly, despite being located within the Unseen University building, the library in Terry Pratchet’s Discworld series has seemingly infinite or ever-shifting dimensions. The presence of so much occult knowledge in one place has warped the building’s geometry and those who dare traverse it without the help of its keeper, The Librarian (who also happens to be an orangutan but that’s neither here nor there), are doomed to become lost forever.
These fictional libraries represent a very much non-fictional phenomenon: namely, without a knowledgeable guide, unchecked data becomes a dangerous thing. Data can only be interpreted into information by those who have learned how to avoid the pitfalls of mistranslation. Misread or misunderstood data becomes something else. It becomes “fake news.”
With internet access not just becoming easier but essential in a time of lockdowns and home-schooling, the “library” of data that any individual person has access to might as well be infinite.
As the frequent news stories and articles about the rise of anti-vaccination and anti-scientific sentiment have shown us, having access to a larger “library” does not necessarily equate to better access to proper information.
The primary role of a librarian is not only to navigate the stacks, digital or literal, but to pass on the skills and understanding required to correctly find and interpret the information within the library. We are the equalisers, bringing knowledge and learning to anyone, even those who perhaps missed out on a formal education or who learn better in other ways.
Libraries may have come a long way from card catalogues and hand-written ledgers but the skills in which the staff are trained – in the management of information, in the finding of books and other media on any specific topic and on the weeding and filtering of out-of-date and misleading data – are just as, if not more important than ever.
How handy it is, then, that we library staff can be found in the one place on the high street that any person can visit and spend time without the expectation of spending money! How useful it is, that public libraries come from the tax budget, are already paid for and are by their very nature open to everyone?
As I discuss in my memoir, “The Librarian,” libraries (big and small) are the heart of the local community. Covid may have changed the way they look and operate but the core principles remain the same and in a time where false news and misinformation spreads like a virus, public libraries are the vaccine. Librarians are the cure.
If you enjoyed this, feel free to buy me a coffee or check out my book, The Librarian – A Memoir published by Ebury/Penguin books and available from all good book-sellers and libraries now.