- What values do you want your institution to represent?
- What role should your institution have in the marketplace for historical content?
- How do you want to help, or hinder, the progress of our culture?
I am drawn to Bourg’s notion of ecumenical space as a place for dialogue. In this age of fear and primal screams do we still possess the art of dialogue? Or is the library a place to learn, to reclaim this art? Here I’ll embrace one of Bourg’s favorite quotations from bell hooks in her book Teaching to Transgress:
Bourg concludes: “That notion of dialogue as education and the idea that authentic, messy, hard, critical conversations can break down barriers and create spaces for empathy and opportunities for us to experience our shared humanity is what has motivated most of my career in higher education and in libraries….” Can we handle authentic, messy and hard? Are we really interested in breaking down barriers and creating new spaces? Am I equally motivated? What are we doing here?
Finally, consider those spiritual longings and discomforts occasioned by Suarez in remarks offered a year ago. He led with a quotation from de Tocqueville: “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.” Suarez bids us recognize those who went before, to see their creativity, and claim our citizenship in an [historic or academic] continuum, however noble or ignoble. The library, he argued, asks us profound questions about our humanity and endeavors. I am a student of the past, yet I feel darkness closing in. Did I claim citizenship in an historical or academic continuum as Philando Castile lay dying? Did I seek answers to profound questions from library stacks while Dallas police were assassinated?
At the same time, Suarez offered hope (or at least challenge) in how we think of time, space, and station. We were asked to change how we view time; to alter our notion of time from the tick-tock consuming nature of chronos (χρόνος) to the due season or opportune moment—imbued with the eternal or holy—of kairos (καιρός). In the same way, we should consider our steps into the stacks, vaults, classrooms, or galleries as hallowed. To be where we are, to do what we do, to walk where we walk is to be on a pilgrimage—a bibliophilic Camino de Santiago—where we no longer walk in darkness. “The library is a sacred place because it is...where I go to situate my humanity.” Can we understand or comprehend the sacred in a secular world? How many of us think of our places of employment—our libraries and archives—as sacred space? Did I go to a library to situate my humanity when forty-nine people were murdered in Orlando or when Alton Sterling was shot? What am I doing here?
Lastly, we were asked to claim our high station, not only in the academy, but in the world. As an aid to this task, Suarez offered seven pieces of practical wisdom—phronesis (φρόνησις)—to help us attain this status. His first piece of advice, to publish, prompted me to write this essay. Many other pieces of his counsel are woven into thoughts and questions peppering these paragraphs. Suarez, for his last piece of prudent mindfulness, urged me to “advocate for the public importance of what we do; it is nothing less than essential for the long-term survival and flourishing of humanity. If we don’t do that we only have ourselves to blame.” In memoriam to these victims, and in the name of other unfathomable horrors past, present, and future, do I enact sacred rituals in consecrated library space, seeking to engage others in the difficult work of reconciliation and restoration? What do those rituals look like? What should I be doing here? What more will result?
My stew pot of the soul—supplied with ingredients by Light, Werner, Bourg, Suarez, and others—still simmers. Questions remain. Yet my path toward whatever banquet or sustenance such a stew might offer—still veiled in self-doubt and hesitancy—seems clearer. As a pilgrimage, it is time to take next steps, with greater intentionality and engagement: to cultivate deeper understandings, build bridges, give my stuff away, seek “extramural consecration,” attend to communities of makers, uncover human presence, find moments of “unselving” and “radical decentering,” craft “a place where transformative moments happen,” and conspire to create “the possibility for wonder.” In doing justly, in loving mercy, in walking humbly, wisdom tells me lives will be changed for the good, forever. This is what I’m doing here.
My thanks to those who read earlier drafts of this essay and offered comments, suggestions, and encouragement.