The Library Ceremony: Oracles, Accidents, and Information Discovery
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What is the place of non-linear discovery and synchronicity in physical libraries? Accidents, missed appointments, and misshelved books crack open time and transform users' experiences of usually linear and efficient tools into opportunities for oblique and oracular play. Discovery has never been an a priori or linear process. Good arrangements of things cannot do the work of informational apophenia.
Yet librarians are all about order, and it would be irresponsible to let mere miscellany serve as a rule for our holdings. Ranganathan (1931) enjoined us to save the time of the reader, and to do so the reader must find the thing to be read with minimal calamity or accident. Our business is to arrange information so it is accessible, findable, and useful. It is within this general rule that small instances of disorder can become constructive.
It is worth acknowledging that this is a zero-sum game. If User 1 seeks Item A, and it is out of place—temporarily not to be found, this may harm User 1. Even if User 2 benefits from the accidental discovery of content in Item A while they search for Item B, the boon to User 2 comes at a cost to User 1. The suggestion that disorder may be useful, therefore, is not a suggestion that disorder should be an ethical aim. Can disorder be good? It was good for User 2.
Nevertheless, rather than shelving things randomly or by the color of their spines and letting the auto-magical ambient findability powered by RFIDs (or whatever comes next) sort it all out, we librarians aim to create order for the good of our users. We see order as better than chaos, though we daily face the fact, from shelf-reading to book repair to link-checking, that entropy affects our orderly systems. Accepting this reality, consider what good (or at least what interesting strangeness) may come from entropic inconvenience.
Psychogeography, that “study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals” as Debord (1955) so well put it, is a useful way to think about user experience, because it acknowledges the importance of meaning in the lives of our users. Meaning is what is made when we form patterns with information and knowledge. Meaning is not the same as truth—something can be true, but meaningless. (A mint is melting in my mouth.) It is possible to plan for the discovery of information that will lead to meaning, but that is not the library’s role. We plan for the discovery of information for its own sake, not for meaning.
Meaning is built in complex and nonlinear ways. A broken heel delays the commute; is that his pickup truck in her driveway? In this sense, we cannot anticipate, design, or plan for the discovery of meaningful information. Meaning happens with an information seeker, not to one. It is co-created through accident, in an accident-prone universe. Within, and partially because of all this chaos, meaning nevertheless arises, and sometimes this looks like magic. (The face of Jesus in my soup).
We might say that magic has happened when we experience some seemingly unlikely events in close temporal proximity to some action meant to cause a change in ourselves or the world. Magic requires intention and coincidence. Coincidence without intention and with action or ritual is just coincidence—maybe even luck. Action or ritual without coincidence is just an empty ceremony. But when we do intentional action, and then we embrace some experience of coincidence or synchronicity, we may say we have experienced magic.
Libraries, balanced as they are between information and entropy, are perfect sites for rituals of meaning-making.
Denouement: A Ghost Tour
Before ze got the gig, Dub met the Library Alien in the stairwell. It was a dream: the princely tech guy toured zir around, making lite introductions, and there, suddenly, was the Alien. Thousands of years old, crinkle-skinned, bloat-brained, and lingering by the brassy rails near the landing. The Alien looked at zir (mostly psychically), gave a very slight signal of ascent, and disappeared behind a painting of a parking lot. Dub was in.
The staff was chill, even cold. This is the printing policy, and, here!, look at this guest-user policy. But soon the seams began to bleed, and by the time the first sleet sheeted the front steps, Dub had a view on where a couple of the bodies were buried.
The Goddesses in the stained-glass windows didn’t demand offerings, but did accept them. A coffee bean for Hecate. Salt for Hygeia.
The ghosts in the basement lingered too long as they looked over the shoulders of grad students. See students scanning pages from a 1940s occupational therapy journal. The ghosts see, and they flex their wrists, mocking mortals and knitting ectoplasm into lacework to catch fleeting feelings of presque vu. Dub feels a chill as two shy ghosts touch zir shoulders.
Wherefore this clot of wasps in the northwest corner, and what poison honey have they made?
This library is the only structure built on a diagonal in an east-west campus, in an east-west town, in an east-west county, in an east-west state of an east-west country. Fifty years after Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated the chapel to the library’s left, this building, this library, winks and blinks like she just got here, spinning widdershins in tornado winds, moshing among words enough to make her reel real well. And she is dazzling, real or not, and she is dazzled. She and her ghosts, aliens, harpies, sirens, muses, and goddesses, all rise in time as the city sinks from new fracking wounds, her spire visible now from two, now from three, now from four miles away. Owls roost there high in noonlight, Dub sees all, and bookworms work with witches to become these sacred texts.
This is zir library. These are zir new ceremonies. Your turn, now.
Thanks to Elizabeth Headrick for the great conversations that inspired this essay.
- Debord, G. (1955). Introduction to a critique of urban geography. In The situationist international text library. http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2
- Ranganathan, S. R. (1931). The five laws of library science. Madras Library Association.