Column Description: From thinking about the library as space to who the library is historically for, this column takes a (somewhat) philosophical approach to defining what a library is. In fact, it goes one step further to consider what a library should be.


What is a library? 

Ask anyone who’s visited their local public library from a young age that question, and you’re likely to hear some very personal and borderline poetic answers about what the library means to them, not what the library is. 

When it comes to defining the substance of the library, why do we try to ascribe meaning to it instead? 

These meanings usually take the form of metaphors. We look to the library to “feed our civic minds.” We hold the library close to our hearts as a “portal” to another world. We believe the library presents what writer Zadie Smith calls a “different kind of social reality” and what academic librarian Barbara Fister refers to as “a space of exception” (i.e., free from Capitalism, which is not just a metaphor but a utopia). But, as Susan Sontag has written, the problem with metaphors is that they keep us from dealing with what something is. 

Sontag was concerned with metaphors and illness, with the metaphor’s function of mythicizing illnesses like cancer to the point where a patient is no longer dealing with what cancer is but locked in a battle with an alien force that’s invading their body. 

I wonder if we don’t do the same with libraries: mythicize them with metaphors. Do we concern ourselves more with what libraries mean than what they are, and does this matter? Is a library just a building? Is it a space? What makes a space a library? Its collection of books? The access it gives people to knowledge? But what is knowledge if not a metaphor? Is the library, itself, a metaphor? 

We don’t talk enough about the scaffolding, the structure, the infrastructure of the library. In her article for Places Journal, Shannon Mattern, a professor of anthropology at The New School in New York City, considers the library’s infrastructure in her attempt to answer the question, “how far can we stretch the public library?” Her argument isn’t so much that we need to define the library as we need to “[think] about the library as a network of integrated, mutually reinforcing, evolving infrastructures — in particular, architectural, technological, social, epistemological, and ethical infrastructure.” Starting with the infrastructure, Mattern believes, “can help us better identify what roles we want our libraries to serve.” In other words, we need to start with what’s material about a library to know what it is. 

As a graduate student in Rutgers University’s Library and Information Science program, I have time to think about these philosophical and epistemological questions. My coursework pushes me to grapple with theories and models for seeking information and acquiring knowledge — Dervin’s sense-making, Bates’s berry picking, Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome — metaphors all. But I wonder if the question “what is a library?” should be fundamental for every librarian. And how can it help us shape both the library’s and librarian’s role? 

In this column, I'll try to understand what a library is materially and infrastructurally by exploring how the term is used/misused/overused. I’ll dismantle some of the library’s metaphors to take a closer look at what’s underneath. I suspect the question doesn’t have an answer, but that won’t stop me from tackling it from different angles. 

So, I’d love to hear from all of you: What is a library?  

Maggie Blaha is a placeless writer who is wandering around Europe in search of a home—a place where she can live simply, write often, and read always. She’s currently living in Spain. She is a future librarian & Master of Information Science Student at Rutgers University.