Civics · Libraries · Reflections

Does a Library Need Books, and Other Silly Questions

I get up, get dressed, eat breakfast before heading out into my shop. As I stretch and look around, I wonder, do I need a table saw?

I visit a friend and take a seat in their gourmet kitchen. As we chat over a fine wine, we ask, do they need a meat clever?

I head out to the farm and lean up against the railing of the wrap around porch overlooking ripening crops, and speculate, do we need a shovel?

Silly questions can be a fine way to pass the time, but they’re not the basis of real work. But are the above questions really silly? It all depends on whether they are THE question.

Back to the saw for a moment. Doing a quick mental inventory, I have the following saws:

Table saw, sliding compound miter saw, bandsaw, hole saws, back saws, cross cut saws (both for shop, and 5′, two handled tree cutting versions), ice saw, bow saw, folding tree saw, reciprocating saw, circular saw, jig saw, scroll saw (table and hand), drywall saw, keyhole saw, hacksaw, and flat saw

As I sit typing this blog post, those saws are doing exactly nothing. Zip. Zero. They are not sharpening themselves, they are recharging themselves, they are certainly not cutting material. The chickens are just waking up mere feet from where my saws are stored. They are grooming themselves and each other, feeding themselves, protecting themselves. So too the rabbits in the same run. But the saws, nothing. Saws are inanimate, chickens and rabbits animate. Duh!

I have each of those saws because I have had projects requiring at least one of those saws. I expect sometime down the line I will take on a project for which I will struggle because I do not have the right saw, and at that time I will ask whether I need a new saw. And there are times when I take stock of my tools as I reorganize the shop, and I will ask whether I still need one of my saws or whether the storage space that saw takes up might be better used for something else. Waking up, heading out to the shop, and asking whether I need a table saw only makes sense in light of the upcoming projects. The answer may be informed by my past projects — 50% of my projects have greatly benefited from a table saw, 100% of my fine cabinetry projects have needed a table saw to do well. But history is not an absolute for determining the answer for a future project, because the context will have changed. For instance, what if I’m doing a fine cabinetry project, but I’m also taking a class with Roy Underhill at the Woodright Shop on traditional hand tool woodworking.

The beautiful Champaign Public Library

Does a library need books given the Internet? Does a library need the Internet given it has books? Silly questions! Silly questions?

Information is as inanimate as my saws. Books are information. The part of the Internet posited as a replacement for books is an alternate storage medium for information. We might say a reference book is like my table saw — a little bit movable but not too much. A circulating book, one that can be checked out and taken home, is more like my circular saw. A random bit of information from the Internet is probably more like my reciprocating saw — portable and can be used to hack on about anything, but not all too neatly.

Some have suggested information is power. But that’s no more true than to say my saws are power. Turning information into knowledge, the contextualized processing of information to make it actionable, is first required, and that’s done by animate beings. Some have suggested knowledge is power. But knowledge, too, is inanimate. It needs to be put into action by animate beings. And while action is a certain type of power in motion, real power comes from reflection and discussion in community in ways that help us to ask better questions, to do better investigations, to inform better actions, to guide better reflection and discussion. This is the building of community power. When the capacity of every member of society allows for their full participation, it is democracy. When axes of exclusion precluding full participation of all in the process are destroyed, it is justice. Supporting people engaged in community power, democracy, and justice is the past, present, and future of libraries.

Does the library need books? Silly question! Will we need books to support our current community inquiry project? I’m not sure, maybe. They sure have been extremely helpful in the past.

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