I officially began my Master of Library and Information Science program at San Jose State University on Friday. My hunger for gathering graduate degrees seems to be insatiable. I was never much for alphabet soup, but at this rate, with all the “M”s, “P”s and other letters I’ve collected, I have quite a bowl of diplomas. There is space in the saucer for one more, right?
As many of my friends already know, for the past decade, the knot between libraries and my vocational life has been nearly impossible to untangle. When I was a kid, my second home was the local public library. My first real job was in a library. I learned how to do puppet story times and still have a small collection of puppets sitting upon my bookshelves. I met my future spouse in a library. And even though I’ve constantly aspired to be a teacher since I was a little child, I never could leave libraries behind. Working in a library will never be able to exhaust my vocational desires, but neither will my vocational desires be fulfilled completely outside a library. It has taken years to loosen this knot and sort through my mixed feelings about libraries and my vocation. When I told my family I was starting library school, they couldn’t stop laughing. They knew: it was somehow inevitable. I fought it. But that cursed library exclamation mark (immortalized on the sign of my first library as seen above) kept coming back.
What only a few of my friends know, however, is that my ambivalence extends to the seeming lifeblood of libraries: books. I am sure that sounds odd. Who hates books, right? Certainly not the guy with a large personal library crammed into a small apartment where space is at a premium. Certainly not the guy who has already read enough trash genre novels to make any average individual’s eyes bleed pixie dust. Certainly not the guy who is nearly finished with writing a book of his own. Most certainly not the guy who reads arcane philosophers like Jacques Derrida for fun.
And yet, there is no question I have mixed feelings about many of the roles texts play in several sub-cultures in the United States. As one example, I have seen—through my personal life and my research for my dissertation—many American convert Buddhists create an unofficial official canon of books—from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind—effectively defining “true” Buddhist practice over against less textual forms of Buddhism and reinforcing the cultural power of these converts. Seemingly innocuous questions like “Have you read The Three Pillars of Zen?” are typically framed in a context of assumed superiority. The interrogator assumes he knows the essence of Buddhism and that it is found within books. The responder must choose whether to conform to this norm or not. Rejecting textual Buddhism and this unofficial official canon guarantees marginalization and invisibility. The troubling truth is: books—these seemingly dusty tomes—often become weapons as sharp as any blade.
As any scholar of religion knows, much of religious history is littered with tales of group exclusion over texts and canons. This general truth is not a stranger to librarians either. No doubt libraries are built on the principles of free speech and combatting censorship. But the practical reality, I have gradually learned during my time as an acquisitions librarian, is collection development always involves difficult choices and many commonly accepted gaps. Finite resources force these realities. The idea of a library—even in the so-called digital age—with every text ever written is itself a fiction (and a disturbing one at that). But librarians are people too, situated in contexts with blinders like everyone else. Why would we expect otherwise? There are reasons that in a predominantly Christian country, most libraries—public, undergraduate, and even religion-specialist—have a disproportionate amount of books on Christian topics compared to other religious traditions (often surpassing the books on all other religious traditions combined!). Libraries play a role in shaping the canons of our culture. As the anthropologist Brian Street has persuasively argued, even literacy itself is inseparable from the dynamics of power.
My point is not to belabor an already overwrought point about the omnipresence of power. Certainly enough folks have made Foucault’s insight about knowledge and power its own canon. Nor is my point that texts or libraries are somehow inherently corrupt. I may be a masochist, but I assure you all that I am not enough of one to willingly begin several more years of graduate school for a degree I do not believe in. Willingly writing a dissertation has been enough torture, let me tell you.
Instead, my point is that we should not leave our ambivalent feelings behind when we embark on a new project. Taking that lesson to heart here has taught me an important lesson: although every moment in my life that I have thought I escaped libraries, I suddenly found myself in one again, this does not mean libraries and books are always prisons. Paradoxically, they can also be the tools of liberation. That is the value and power of ambivalence. It serves as a constant reminder to reach outside ourselves and do better. To never be fully satisfied. To fully pursue the principle of fighting censorship even while recognizing we will never quite get there. This is why I began library school. How can I better achieve this end? How can I be a better librarian? I am ever a student at heart; even when I am not at school any longer, I will still always be a student. Through my MLIS and beyond, I hope to learn how to be a part of making libraries spaces of empowerment rather than the foundations of reified power. I have much to learn. Perhaps that is ultimately why I never seemed to be able to leave these library walls.