ASSOCIATES (2008, March, v. 14, no. 3)


Bear Thoughts #8: Libraries: Culture’s Central Institution

exner.gifFrank Exner, Little Bear
North Carolina Central University



The basic position of this column is that libraries are culture’s central institution, and we, who are library staff, are responsible for that center.

There are several ways to define centrality. (v1.1) offers two definitions: “a central position or state (e.g., the centrality of the sun)” and “a vital, critical, or important position (e.g., the centrality of education to modern civilization).”

The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, (2006) also gives two definitions: “The state or quality of being central” and “[a] tendency to be or remain at the center”.

The first definitions are nearly identical and, while they seem to me to fit our needs, are hard to argue for because they refer to a physical space. Cultural space is more analogous to cyberspace because its primary dimensions are conceptual.

The second definitions, however, describe different (and complimentary) aspects of centrality. They define centrality as “a central position or state” ( v1.1) and as “[a] tendency to be or remain at the center” (The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, [2006]).’s definition is analogous to saying that libraries are at the heart of culture and surely we think of a heart as a central organ. And, just as your heart has “[a] tendency to be or remain at the center” of your being, I suggest that libraries have a tendency to remain in their place (by a cultural inertia, if you will).

Finally, a culture’s center can be determined in relationship to its commons. Again, from (v1.1), commons is defined as “belonging equally to, or shared alike by, two or more or all in question (e.g., common property; common interests)” and “pertaining or belonging equally to an entire community, nation, or culture (e.g., a common language or history; a common water-supply system)”.

I am particularly interested in the second definition. Our various libraries pertain equally to whole communities. A college or university, a city or county, a company or hospital, a group of doctors or lawyers, all of these are communities and all depend on libraries. Though one person may play different roles during the day, there will always be a library serving each role.


Social Commons

The most fundamental social commons is the community in which we live. And a public library is at its heart. Every community has a unique mix of people and information needs, and our public libraries can meet them, no matter how unusual. I always think about cataloging a gift book about 1950’s tractor maintenance and three different communities. I would catalog it with current or recent Motor’s manuals in a county whose farmers used old tractors. I would catalog it with antiques in a city or suburb whose residents collect farm tractors. And I would catalog it with mechanical engineering in a college community where the school has a strong technical curriculum.

A college or university is a community and the library (even if it is distributed among many department libraries) is the place where everyone is welcome and all are helped. I have heard of one professor who looked at the license plate on the next car when he parked at his school’s library and started browsing at that place in the collection. I (and I am sure you) have had questions which do not fit neatly into a university departmental structure, but the library and its staff are happy to help me.

Professional Commons

Professional commons are those communities defined by the professions their members practice (e.g., doctors and lawyers). Medical practitioners have access to AHECs (a national group of medical libraries) allowing your doctor to find the newest information and keep you healthy. (I’ve been told of a North Carolina AHEC which has a doctor-patron who always asks about 18th century German articles. I believe I’ve been to that doctor and benefited from those articles.)

Lawyers have law libraries (e.g., many large law firms and most courts at all levels have them). Many of the staff at a law library are supposed to have legal training as well as library experience. In other words the Law is a special community whose every organ requires specialized training. But the people at its heart must have additional knowledge and that knowledge is ours. Certainly this makes sense. After all lawyers and judges depend on legal precedents, and those are hidden in thousands of documents. These documents are written and organized for ease of access, but only people with library training can optimize information retrieval. And, when lives or property or justice is at stake, optimal information retrieval should be required.

Information Commons

These examples demonstrate an important characteristic of the modern commons: it, like all of modern society, is based in information. An agricultural society has an agricultural commons (the Boston commons was originally a place where anyone could allow their animals to graze). An industrial society has an industrial commons (the Boston Public Library was started to allow patrons to learn new trades and hone their skills). And an information society must have an information commons. Libraries, whether based in geographic regions (public libraries) or in educational settings or in professional settings, are that commons.


The negative test of cultural centrality is what would happen if the institution were to disappear. Obviously there would no longer be centralized collections of information (or data or knowledge or wisdom, whichever you wish). In addition, the experts who improve access to the collections (you are one of these) and resolve information conflicts would disappear. In other words, lots of user groups (including students at all levels, the general public, workers in all kinds of industries, and workers in governments everywhere) lose their entry into the world of ideas.

The common wisdom has it that the Internet will take over and we will not feel any loss. That is nonsense. At its best the Internet is a barely organized pile of documents (taking document at its broadest meaning).

We know (don’t we!?!) that a library is an organized accessible document collection. So replacing libraries with the Internet leaves us unable to access what amounts to a mostly invisible pile of documents.

In other words, the potential of no libraries is a culture with an inaccessible heart that does not support anyone. And that would be a very bad thing.


So hurrah for us! We are the people who make culture work. Information is power! Et cetera.

But, you say (I know I do), why are we paid so badly? Because the people who operate the commons are always paid badly. The salaries of the agriculturists who operated the commons for their communities were very low. Apparently things haven’t changed.

In fact, I would suggest that there is an inverse relationship between cultural centrality and salary. Within every profession, those dealing with the most important resources (especially children) are paid the least. So maybe we should be proud of that too.

* * * * AND NOW I CLIMB OFF MY SOAPBOX * * * * *

Frank, Little Bear is a Squamish Indian originally from British Columbia, Canada. Currently he lives in Durham, North Carolina and is at North Carolina Central University’s School of Library and Information Sciences. His new book, “Creating Identity: North American Indian Names and Naming,” has been published by VDM Verlag and available through