Friday, December 13, 2013

Le Guin Imagines Library of the Future

In one of my library courses this past semester, the professor assigned us to read an excerpt from Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin. The excerpt touches on some chief aspects of librarianship, such as deciding what to keep and what to get rid of from a collection and the democratization of information.
Ursula K. Le Guin, the author of Always Coming Home.
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Yes, it's science fiction, but Le Guin's book explores some very real issues, and it's done in a way that captivates the imagination. The action takes place in the far distant future, at the library of the Madrone Lodge at Wakwaha, in what is now California. Here is an excerpt from the excerpt (Pandora, a stand-in for the author, is conversing with the archivist of the library):

PAN: How do you decide what to keep and what to throw away? The library really isn't very large, when you consider how much writing goes on here in the Valley--
ARC: Oh, there's no end to the making of books.
PAN: And people give writings to their heyimas as offerings--
ARC: All gifts are sacred.
PAN: So the libraries would all get to be enormous, if you didn't throw most of the books and things out. But how do you decide what to keep and what to destroy?
ARC: It's difficult. It's arbitrary, unjust, and exciting. We clear out the heyimas library every few years. Here in the Madrone of Wakwaha the lodge has destruction ceremonies yearly, between the Grass and the Sun dances. They're secret. Members only. A kind of orgy. A fit of housecleaning--the nesting instinct, the collecting drive, turned inside out, reversed. Unhoarding.

I love how Le Guin gives the mundane process of weeding a library's collection an air of mysticism and paganism. If I find myself working full-time at a library one day, I think I'll suggest having "destruction ceremonies yearly, between the Grass and the Sun dances." It sounds much more exciting than a book sale.

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In another section from what we were assigned to read for class, the archivist asks Pandora: "In a State, even a democracy, where power is hierarchic, how can you prevent the storage of information from becoming yet another source of power to the powerful--another piston in the great machine?"  Even though Always Coming Home was published in 1985, the issue of the democratization of information is still very much relevant today, especially considering the closing of public libraries; the cutting of libraries' hours in a way that's inconvenient for working people; and the growing digital divide, where people of lower economic classes are less likely to have computers and/or Internet access at home and are less likely to be skilled in matters of information technology. The democratization of information is discussed in the following excerpt:
ARC: Well, you know, people who live in cultures that have an oral literature as well as a written literature get a good deal of practice in rhetoric. But my question wasn't just a trick. How do you keep information yet keep it from being the property of the powerful?
PAN: Through not having censorship. Having free public libraries. Teaching people to read. And to use computers, to plug into the sources. Press, radio, television not fundamentally dependent on government or advertisers. I don't know. It keeps getting harder.

Indeed it does keep getting harder, with city and state "budgetary restraints"; the monopolization of mainstream media outlets; the rise of corporatization (and the money and influence that come with it); the growth of the "nanny state"; and the embrace of anti-intellectualism. All of these forces make the democratization of information a continuing challenge, especially when it comes to the current situation of public libraries. Ursula K. Le Guin was amazingly prescient in her description of these issues in Always Coming Home, and reading these excerpt from class makes me want to read the entire book. I'm sure it will be worthwhile.

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