How do you measure the rate of mind expansion?

1 November 2011

Gardening and the library

No, I’m not talking about weeding.

Anyone can plant some seeds and grow something - but the appetite for gardening advice in the form of books, TV shows, magazines, websites, clubs and nursery staff continues to grow just as surely as backyards shrink.  Imagine telling Peter Cundall or Monty Don that they should stop writing books, making TV shows and offering gardening advice, because anyone can grow plants and, you know, we’ve got mail-order seed companies and planting calendars.  The idea is absurd, yet this is precisely what happens when people say that we don’t need librarians because we have Google and ebooks.

The question and answer machine

Most people can read a book (or write one), or search a keyword or phrase on Google or Bing - but that doesn’t mean they’ll find what they really want - whether that’s the satisfaction of reading a book they really connect with or understanding the origins of Buddhism.  Librarians are connectors - helping our patrons to work out what it is that they actually want, and then assisting them to find it.  Those who see libraries as a pre-Google question and answer machine fail to grasp what it is that we do as librarians.  At their most basic, libraries can be this - someone comes in wanting to know the capital of Belize and leaves knowing that it is Belmopan and not Belize City.  But what if they wanted to understand Belize’s place in the relationship between Enclosure in England, the French Revolution and the United Fruit Company?  Or what if they don’t know they want to know about Belize?  What if the question is whether any countries other than the UK have God save the Queen as their national anthem?  Or they’re an orchid obsessive?  Or they just want to find some South American novels originally written in English?

A lifetime of Warhammer books

You could find an answer of sorts to all of these questions fairly quickly using a search engine.  A really good librarian however, can introduce you to things you (and indeed, they) never would have thought to connect to what you thought you were asking about.  When you think about it like this, libraries aren’t really about answering questions - they’re about expanding minds.

This is why the long, slow decline of Teacher Librarianship is so worrying.  (There may be some hope that this is finally being recognised - the winner of the inaugural Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership award for Primary Teacher of the Year was won by Jo Sherrin, a teacher-librarian). I’ve written about school libraries in the past, but even more important than the library is the librarian.  The high school librarian who introduced me to George Orwell’s 1984 did so because she recognised that it was the right book for me to read at the time.  It opened up a whole new world of literature to me, leading now just to Orwell’s other works (Animal Farm and more profoundly for me, Down and out in Paris and London) but thence on to Camus and others.  I was saved from a lifetime of Warhammer books by that one conversation.

Getting kids to read more interesting and challenging books is valuable in itself, but the effect is far more profound than that.  A variety of reading material, and a nudge towards quality writing, leads to broader thinking and exposure to new ideas.  It makes people more creative, and more empathetic.  There’s evidence that it also makes people healthier.  None of these are direct results - in fact, the benefits are very unlikely to come if they are the reason for reading.  If someone reads a novel because she thinks it will make her a better person, the effect will probably be lost.  Think about the difference between a kid reading a school reader because that’s the number they are up to, and the look on their face then they are deep in Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharaoh, or Specky Magee and the boots of glory.


This is what John Kay refers to as obliquity, in the book of the same name.  Some goals can only be achieve indirectly - the generic gains from reading for pleasure are exactly this type of goal.  So libraries are about expanding minds, but they only work if this is done indirectly.  We don’t hold talks called ‘how to stop being a racist bigot’ - instead, we hold book talks where we introduce readers to novels based on characters they might not normally empathise with if they met them in the flesh.  We don’t hold lectures on the dangers of Facism or Communism, but we do stock Schindlers ark and The gulag archipelago.

This sort of role requires nuance, tact and above all, continuous professional development.  It’s not good enough to be an expert on crime novels or Scandinavian history.  Librarians need to be able to do more than just find the right subject heading or know their Dewey numbers.  This is why programs like ALIA’s ‘Certified Practitioner’ accreditation are so important.  I am hopeful that this will soon become a requirement for librarians to gain and keep employment, rather than simply an interesting addition.

Measuring the rate of mind expansion

The other challenge we face, more than just the need for continuous development of skills and ideas, is the need to measure what we do.  This applies equally to special, academic, school and public libraries, but may end up being hardest for public libraries, as they are expected to do such a wide range of things.  If the effect libraries have is oblique, how on earth are we to measure how effective we are?  If our job is defined as lending books, then the measure of success is easy - how many items did you loan, and how many times?  But when more books and other services are delivered electronically and our role becomes more that of a ‘culture broker’, how do we measure it?  How do you justify your job to a skeptical finance committee when you can’t directly measure the effect?  You can’t very well present a chart with the rate of mind expansion in the suburb and how much is due to the library.  How do you measure rates of empathy and intellectual ferment?  And if you can’t, what measures can be used to determine how effectively libraries are doing their job?

I don’t really have any answers in this post, just questions.  I welcome any ideas in the comments - this is something we’ll all be grappling with soon enough.