Many distinctive local libraries

I’ve probably seen the announcement and comments on at least half a dozen blogs by now.

For the One Big Library Unconference, that is. To be held June 27, 2008, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto. Organized by York University Libraries.

Here’s the blurb:

“It seems like there are lot of different kinds of libraries: public libraries, school libraries, university libraries, college libraries, law libraries, medical libraries, corporate libraries, special libraries, private libraries. But really there’s just One Big Library, with branches all over the world.”

The One Big Library Unconference is a one-day gathering of librarians, technologists and other interested people, talking about the present and future of libraries. It’s organized and sponsored by York University Libraries and the YUL Emerging Technologies Interest Group.

The first paragraph is in quotes–but with no source or link.

The list of participants already includes a bunch of people I know (at least virtually) and respect: John Dupuis, David Fiander, Amanda Etches-Johnson, John Miedema, Connie Crosby, William Denton, probably others.

I’m sure it will be an excellent day. I wouldn’t be going even if money and time allowed: It’s directly opposite my travel day for ALA Annual in Anaheim. (Well, hey, it’s a Canadian conference. Why should they care about ALA’s schedule?)

And there’s something about it that bothers me. Namely, the premise as stated in that first paragraph.

Sorry, but I don’t buy it as a reality or as a desirable future. I don’t think of Harvard College Library as a branch of The ARL Library, much less Mountain View Public Library, Harvard College Library, NYPL, Hewlett-Packard Corporate Libraries and the Poy Sippi Public Library as all being branches of One Big Library.

I think of all these as distinctive and distinctly local institutions–institutions which, being libraries, are really good at sharing and should get even better at it. But sharing is quite different than being a branch of a whole.

John Miedema’s attending, so I’m assuming the “slow library” perspective–a distinctly local view, where a library is distinctly part of its community–will be represented. I hope so, at least. That’s certainly not the thrust of the unconference description.

Semantics? Maybe–but, as I discuss in an upcoming C&I perspective, semantics–the study of meaning in communication–is to a great extent what makes us human.

So, to all my friends up north, hope you have a great unconference (I’ve never been to one, and that should change), but you can put me down as disagreeing with the anonymous writer of those quoted sentences.

13 Responses to “Many distinctive local libraries”

  1. Laura says:

    Walt, that’s so interesting. I would never suggest that my library’s concerns are the same of those of Harvard’s, but in a lot of ways I feel as though I do exist and work in one big Platonic Library. I’m always a librarian, even if I’m not at my library. I always feel a part of some big sphere of librarianship (which I think is kind of what I was trying to get at in this very muddled post from last year. If I go on much further, I’m going to start blathering about the three in one and one in three and the one ring to rule them all and so on, so I’ll stop, but I’ll be thinking more about all of this.

  2. walt says:

    Which makes it doubly interesting. The “Platonic Library” angle is, I think, different from what bothers me about “One Big Library”; would we/they be having an unconference about Platonic ideals of librariiness?


    (Looking back at your previous post, as you know, I don’t necessarily buy into the “biblioblogosphere” concept either…)

  3. Walt, First I’d like to thank you for including me in the list of “knowing (virtually) and respecting.”

    The uncited quotation on the main page of the conference wiki is from Dan Chudnov, who made that statement when he kicked off his site,, but which he seems to be shutting down and where the quotation no longer seems to appear.

    You are right that individual libraries serve local communities. I don’t think that we’re talking about “platonic” library at this conference, nor about Borges’ idea of the library-as-universe. I (again, this is just my vision) think that we’re talking about the bibliographic universe that we are all floating in (OK, that does sound like Borges), which has expanded dramatically because of the Internet, but which is poorly unified. Once I have “discovered” a book, I want to be able to find out where it is available to me without having to perform the same search over and over again: my University library, the library in the small city where that university is, and the small town in which I live are three different community libraries, but for me I want to perform a single search on the collection of books available to me: my “library” is the union of those three collections.

    OK, maybe this should have been a posting on my own blog, but what the heck.

  4. walt says:

    David, Thanks for that. You’re talking about getting better at sharing (knowledge and resources) and the ways the internet can help–and something even more local: Creating your own “virtual library” from a group of libraries. Interesting topics, and I suspect I’d love the unconference.

    I suspect I’d continue to disagree with Dan, cordially and probably involving a long conversation over a couple of drinks. I suspect we’d both find the conversation worthwhile. It wouldn’t be the first time.

    So maybe the friction is that we want certain kinds of unification–but we (at least I!) really don’t want other kinds of unification. That makes things more difficult, also more interesting.

  5. Actually the quote is from Wendy Newman, currently Senior Fellow at the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto. She confirmed it and I’ve attributed it to her. I first heard the idea from her.

    Dan has a slightly different idea of what the One Big Library is, I think. I hope he’ll say something about it!

  6. I’m also thinking about libraries from two other angles:

    – from the point of view of our clients/customers/patrons – they really don’t distinguish between us. I have worked in law firm libraries for almost 20 years and in some ways for the attorneys I was an extension of every librarian (or, rather, library staff member) they had ever met since childhood

    – related to this, from an advocacy point of view we do need to start paying attention to what is happening in libraries other than just our own. What affects one of us can affect all of us. I drew a connection between what is happening in public libraries to what can be/is happening in private law firm libraries in my most recent column

    I think it is important we be engaged in what is happening in all of our industry and with all of our profession. It is easy to get caught up in the workaday life and details of our individual jobs and our corner of the library space.

    It’s time we broaden our horizons. To me, that is what the point of this particular gathering will be about.


  7. John Miedema says:

    Hi Walt,

    As I mentioned back at my blog, I’m going because this is an unconference. I recently went to an conference at IBM (and surely it is “one big … ” something or other …). It was good, but the topics were staid. Off to the side, some renegades organized an unconference, where anyone could host a session on any subject. I took the opportunity to talk about EIFL-FOSS, the group that is trying to use open source software to help libraries in developing countries ( Lots of divergent thinking was happening at those sessions. What a sizzler! I’m not saying every unconference will be like that, but it got me looking for more.

    When it comes to library technology, the conversation will eventually lean toward “one big library”. There are always efficiencies to be gained by integrating digital information systems. But library technology is only a part of the library picture; I believe it is the smaller part. The greater part of libraries is its physical space, collections, real-life patrons and communities, and that is the level on which localization occurs. I think we agree that both digital and physical libraries can and should co-exist, and will do so for the forseeable future.

    I have not signed up to do a session at the One Big Library Unconference. But I will think about it.

  8. walt says:

    Well, I can’t be at the unconference–but this conversation is interesting and enlightening on its own, so I’d like to think I and a few hundred readers are also benefiting from the conference announcement.

  9. A few quick comments – while it’s true as Connie says that we are sometimes seen as all alike, it is worth a special library’s life to differentiate from the local university library or public library. If we offer no different service or collections then we will cease to exist. (as perhaps we should if we really can’t do anything better or different).
    Second, all libraries and librarians should be the biggest supporters of all other libraries and librarians. I’m horrified that many special librarians do not use their local public library and do not advocate for other libraries. Likewise, iSchool or Library School – they should all be big advocates for libraries.
    Finally, I’ve been to a few unconferences (all outside the L world) and have enjoyed them.

  10. walt says:

    It’s not just special librarians. I’ve talked to academic librarians who dismiss public libraries as unimportant–but more who do understand the importance and current-day relevance of all sorts of libraries.

  11. bowerbird says:

    walt, i’m a big supporter of local neighborhood libraries
    — where the “neighborhood” is defined in various ways —
    physical entities serving the needs of certain communities.

    and i think that’s the focus of your point with this post…

    but i am also a big supporter of the position that people
    across the planet should be able to summon up, at will,
    on-screen copies of every book that’s ever been printed.
    (and every magazine, pamphlet, document, and so on…)

    i don’t care too much what we _name_ the capability —
    brewster kahle calls it “universal access to knowledge”,
    which seems to me to get across the essence of it, but
    “one big library” doesn’t seem to be too bad either —
    so please suggest a term for it, and then we can get on
    with the much more important task of bringing it about.

    but don’t let the semantics stand in the way, please…


    p.s. and one of the biggest benefits to “local” libraries
    from “one big library” is they don’t have to spend funds
    duplicating the services offered by the “one big library”.
    that cost savings might be the thing that rescues them.

  12. Pete Smith says:


    as you will know I am a big supporter of public libraries. And, in terms of greater co-operation, I can see the value of a ‘one big library’ concept. Where it becomes a problem to me is when it assumes that all libraries are the same and that therefore all libraries ought to do the same things. Or are able to do the same things. Neither of which is true.

    If we can balance the locality of our libraries with the diffuse nature of so much of what is available, we’ll be getting it right. Bowebird is on the way with the notion of a great deal of ‘common’ stuff being shared. so that local libraries can focus on providing the truly local stuff.

  13. Pete Smith says:

    As a ps, IFLA has its UBC project which aims at one aspect of universal access to knowledge.