Your Library: A Crucial Part of Society's Social Fabric


An upward view of the spiral staircase inside the library building at Aberdeen University in Scotland. (Photo: James Gordon)

A combination of shadow and light, curve and line, an ascending spiral toward the light of the sky beyond the glass roof.

This is what you see when you step inside the library building at Aberdeen University in Scotland and look up at the staircase.

It depicts the human longing to know, offers an invitation that draws the heart into the intellectual aspirations of those who have come to learn, and is a celebration of dedicated space which begins by creating an excess of space.

As concept, an invitation and a celebration it is also an affirmation of the serious joys of education, learning and knowing.

More than that, it is a geometric framework, which seems to be both playful and purposeful.

It forces us to examine our perspectives, whether we stand on the ground floor looking up or on floor seven looking down, causing us to see both the structure and the harmony of this temple of the mind where curiosity, ideas, thought, passion and study are part of the liturgy of learning.

It's been a lesson in not taking such things for granted these past couple of weeks when the library has been closed due to a serious power failure.

This building, which is a winner of global awards for its green credentials, using and recycling heat and energy in ways that are a tribute to precisely the imaginative and innovative minds the building is built to encourage, form and grow.

But it's back in circulation again, thankfully, as a university without a library is like a restaurant without a cupboard, a bank without currency, a hospital without a pharmacy.

All of this is a way of saying something I've long believed, and often said or written: Libraries are an essential and crucial part of our social fabric.

Libraries are places where we learn to be critical of the status quo, radical in the way we see and judge the world in which we live.

Critical thinking reveres questions, ethical reflection is respect for moral distinction and judgment, innovative ideas take us beyond where we are to new places round the corners of learning, imaginative and speculative experiment tests the validity and viability of our ideas - and that is all made possible by a library.

So in these days of political certainties about what we should and shouldn't spend money on, and what is value for money or a waste of money, the library also comes into the budget decisions of those who govern, locally, institutionally, nationally.

The cutbacks on the humanities in universities, the reduction of library facilities and funding in major institutions and local authorities, and even the closure of local libraries in small communities are decisions made on the grounds of money.

But the actual cost in social capital and human development appears nowhere on the balance sheet until years down the line.

At that point, we will be faced with a population less literate, less persuaded of the importance of learning, less generous in ensuring such provisions are made for those who otherwise have no access to the gifts that make possible self-education and growth in human and humane learning.

I want to push this idea as far as it will shove. The creation of a migrant crisis through the rhetoric of fear, threat, self-interest and hatred of the other is, in the precise use of the term, ignorant.

Politicians should know better, which is itself an interesting assumption. It suggests that better knowledge would create a better climate of discourse, a different ethical environment in which to consider the rights and wrongs of our national attitudes, actions and policies.

How many of the decision-makers in the United Kingdom's Parliament and the inhabitants of its labyrinthine committee and policy corridors are familiar with the history of civilizations, or conversant with the literature of the ages and of our own age, or care about the insights and cultural relevance of anthropology?

I am, therefore, led to wonder how many who shape our national responses to refugees work within the tunnel vision perspectives of political party selfishness, misconceived national self interest, fear of the other, and anxious focus on numbers, statistics and budgets.

And this instead of considering the obligations and requirements placed on us as a nation, by natural concern for and commitment to humanity.

Judging by our government's reactions and responses to the refugee crisis, we are no longer a nation that looks humanely forth on human life.

I wonder if that has any connection to the loss of the humanities as an essential and substantial pillar in the education of those who live on these islands?

James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.

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Tags: Education, Immigration, James Gordon, Libraries, Migrants, Refugees, Social Capital


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