Let Autonomy Ring

I hope everyone had a good 4th of July (for those in the States at least. ‘Murica!). I’m still decompressing from ALA and travel for the 4th. ALA was overwhelming at times (though part of that was just Vegas itself), but one thing that really struck me about the conference was how many different conversations were happening about libraries – you get public, school, academic, and other types of librarians in one place and you’ll get a lot of chatter about what libraries are and what their value is.

This notion of purpose and value got me thinking of an article I read, skimmed really, back in my library school days, about autonomy and libraries. ALA prompted me to come back around to something I’ve been thinking a lot about –  how libraries convey value and what the values of libraries are.

Here’s the article: Audrey Barbakoff, Libraries Build Autonomy: A Philosophical
Perspective on the Social Role of Libraries and Librarians

Barbakoff argues that autonomy is one of the best things a library has offer. A library can give people the skills and tools and support they need to think critically, and think for themselves. Autonomy is about freedom (rather appropriate, given the recent holiday) – of choice, of information, of thought. This article was about public libraries and library advocacy, but it inspired me to think on a slightly different track – what is the value of teaching people to do things for themselves and are libraries actually cool with doing that?

The most American of Americans, who most likely appreciates autonomy and freedom

There is definitely tension in the term autonomy – there are implications of independence and going solo. So to what degree are libraries set up to support that, and to what degree do we want users to become completely independent – able to do research without consulting us at all?  Relinquishing our role as gatekeeper and expert can be daunting. The increasingly pronounced role of librarians as educators (something longstanding but not nearly as prevalent many years ago) and the role of librarians as gatekeepers, arbiters, protector of books and artifacts, shushers, and experts is not always a comfortable fit. Then again, librarians have never been entirely comfortable – we lend things out, but we want them back; we show people how to do things and send them on their way, but we want them to come back for more. Maybe the autonomy we really want to instill in users is the choice to use us and keep coming back.