When is a library not a library?

A few months ago Mick Jones (of the Clash) opened up the ‘Rock and Roll Public Library.’ (It has since moved from the gallery space in Chelsea to a new space.)  I heard about this from a friend’s (also a librarian) facebook feed. Several of the comments from other librarians were along the lines of ‘that’s not a library, that’s a museum’ … which got me thinking. When is a library not a library? Does it calling something a library make it so?

The initial commenter said that it wasn’t a library because the you couldn’t borrow the materials in it, but you can’t check out books from the Bodleian and I don’t think anyone would claim that its not a library.

The whole thing does take place in a gallery space, which I suspect makes it feel a bit like an ephemera show, and as Jones himself admits “It’s still by no means properly sorted.” No self-respecting librarian can call an un-sorted collection of rock memorabilia a library, would they?

Well, I am going to go out on a limb and say not only is this a library, this sort of thing is the future of libraries. Here’s why.

Jones says:

“It does raise questions about categorisation. Is it art? I look at it as one artwork, the whole collection – one piece of art, which I’m continually working on and updating.”

But unlike art in your typical gallery show, it’s isn’t for sale. And Jones encourages people to “engage with” the exhibits, take videos down from the shelves, leaf through books, etc. He even allows users to scan things.

This is precisely what libraries should be doing–getting people to think about categorisation (yes, like a museum), but allowing them to engage with the collections (unlike a museum) in all sorts of ways. This, I think, is library (and librarian) at its best. I hope this sort of thing catches on and we can start having more libraries that push the boundaries and get us to think (and argue) about libraries. I don’t think we librarians are doing are jobs properly unless we spark a couple of good fistfights every now and then.  This could be my favourite library since I heard about Berkeley’s Tool Lending Library.

If you have any other examples of great or unusual libraries, please send them my way.

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