I’m spending the weekend at a gathering of my co-religionists, talking about fascinating things.
(Actually, I’m one of the people running the event, which after two years of planning is actually a real thing, and so wonderful: all our glitches have been small and fixable so far, but enough to convince me I am not in fact dreaming). But I’m also an attendee. We’ll come back to this.)
One of today’s talks centered around a couple of things that immediately made me go “Must blog about that on ModernHypatia!”
Stories we tell ourselves:
Cultures tell stories. More than that, we tell stories about how the world works, and those stories then shape how the world actually is. Because people listen to the stories.
I’ve been applying to a lot of jobs this year, and one of the things that has fascinated me about the process (and kept me going through the harder bits) has been looking at the stories places that are hiring tell about themselves. It’s particularly true in the independent school community (where the major part of my experience is), but it’s also true in the public libraries and the colleges and the other positions I’m looking at.
Some people call that a mission statement, or a vision statement. But those things are simply reflections of the story, reflections of the narrative, condensed down. Every time we say “This place welcomes diversity” and then act on that, we’re adding to the story. Every time we select books for a display or to add to the collection, we’re adding to the story. One of my library science professors talked about collection development – the art of deciding what to buy (and what not to buy) – as the relationships between an item, other items in the collection, and the people who use them. I definitely agree with that, but I think it goes further: it’s about the stories that become more obvious, when we put them in the same space.
Anyway, part of the talk tonight focused on the narrative of our culture, which is in large part the narrative of progress. That civilisation begins at some distant, dark, and probably unpleasant beginning, goes on through a bunch of stages, and then ends up with us, moving forward through us into some better, brighter, future.
It’s a story where each day must somehow be better than the last, or we’ve failed. It’s a story more and more people I know are less and less satisfied with. It’s lacking. Some see various points that cannot be sustained.
It’s also not actually how the world works. Yes, things progress, but they also decline. We have lived in a world that has seen entire classes of beings rise and fall (dinosaurs, for example, or North American and South American megafauna.) And we’ve lived in a world that has seen empires rise – and fall again. A few of those falls have been rapid and catastrophic, but many many more of them have taken place over months, years, decades, centuries – even millenia.
And the world goes on.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last few days, because of some other reading. You see, I’m currently reading a mystery series by Frank Tallis, set in Vienna in the very early 1900s. It’s a time when my grandfather and his brother were infants in that same city, and when their father and mother were running a thriving business. It was also a time when the Austro-Hungarian empire covered a substantial portion of the map.
Times change, and that empire – and the glittering, rich, highly musical and artistic and creative and scientific life of the city has changed. But Mom and I travelled to Vienna and Budapest a few years ago: they are still lovely cities, rich in history and culture and feeling and wonderful things going on. They have not gone away, they have not failed, they have not ceased to exist. They have simply moved into another portion of their lives, as summer moves into fall. Fall will move into winter, which, yes, has some downsides (as anyone living in a city like Minneapolis that has had a high snowfall this year can attest). But winter moves on to spring, as well.
In other words, a circle. Not a line. A different way of being, not a failure.
One question that’s come up in almost every job interview is how I feel about ebooks, and their role in the modern library. My answer is simple: right now, the rights and the practical issues are still complicated. I expect that will get sorted out sooner than later: my bet is that the landscape 18 months from now will be substantially easier, from a user point of view, and from a library point of view. I think there’s wonderful things in these tools, including opening up a wider range of what it means to read, and how we read.
But that doesn’t mean the books are going away, any more than Vienna or Budapest somehow faded from the map when there was no more empire. The books we have will still be on the shelves. Some kinds of books work better than current technology allows, for at least some uses. (And I don’t know about you, but as a committed reader-in-bathtubs, I’d much rather drop even a $30 hardcover in the tub than a device costing many times that much.) Some people prefer them, for all sorts of reasons. I welcome the new tools and options, but I think there’s still a place in the world for the older ones.
Circles. Cycles. Keeping the best of the old, but being open to what new stories, what new narratives, may come along. And asking questions about our old stories, and how well they’re actually serving us.
The question of schools
One thing I got asked this week was “Why schools”. I’ve been thinking about my answer quite a bit, in part because it comes back to this in a weird way: I love the opportunity to watch students grow up, grow into the selves that are most magnificent and glorious and amazing in offering their particular insights to the world.
But at the same time, while that’s a progression, at least in terms of age, I also see it as a circle: it is a chance every year to begin at a (fairly arbitrary, honestly) point, and to try some new things, and to do some old thing that are loved and tried and tested and helpful, and to see what happens this time. I love the sense of self-reflection that can bring.
And yet, having known many bright and wonderful people for whom ‘the best college’ was not the best goal, I desperately want a narrative that encourages these people to find the things they’re brilliant and magnificent at and share it with the world – something I think our society at large desperately needs. If we move from a model of the straight line of progress, to the curves of a cycle, more people can be more brilliant at more things – and maybe the things we don’t know we need yet, as a culture, a community, and a world.
The last thing:
The last thing from this particular round of conversation is that so much of this begins with the individual.
My goal, not just as a librarian, as an educator, as a sharer of nifty things, but as a human, is to help people find information that makes their lives better, that helps connect them to options and possibilities in a way that’s meaningful to them. Sometimes it’s just standing there waiting to be helpful if I’m needed. Sometimes it’s problem solving and answering questions.
But I think a lot of it is really about my willingness and interest in improving the world, one question at a time. I’m not perfect at this: like everyone, I mess up, or get sidetracked, or have a bad day. But I try always to move along a circle that’s about more choice, more information, more options, in a way people can manage to deal with.
Two years ago, I started going “Hey. We could do this thing. I think it’d be cool and useful and meaningful.” to the board of the organisation running this conference. After about six months of that, they finally said “Well, I think we can do it.” Eighteen months later, we’re here, with amazing people, having great conversations. And it’s only Friday night.
This is not all about me: this event would not exist without the work of dozens of people (just the same way that a school, or a workplace, or anywhere else, should never be about just one person.) But right now, I’m really pleased that I started out, those months ago, saying “Hey, could we, I think it’d be awesome if…”
We all have the chance to nudge the stuff along that we care about – whether it’s by taking on a big project, or whether it’s by chiming in, sharing a quick thought, showing up for something, passing along a resource. That’s what I do my best to work towards at work, and in my personal life, and all the times that are neither and both.
What I want, the next place I work, and the places I live, and the places I share my friendships and thoughts, is a chance to be part of a circle, part of a cycle that honors the rise and the fall, that can explore new things without rejecting the older truths that still work, that takes time for reflection and conversation, and choice. And one that offers people different ways of being within the community, of offering the things only they can offer, as well as those things many people can do. That’s hard (there is nothing quite like running a volunteer-run event to remind you of that!). But it’s worthwhile. And I know those places are out there.
Where do you find them?