In Parks Canada, The Commemoration of Canada, and Northern Aboriginal Oral History, Neufeld (2008) illustrates the challenges of developing a national narrative and identity in a society with diverse cultural communities. Parks Canada is a national agency responsible for maintaining socially and culturally significant sites that are symbolic of Canadian national history and identity. First Nations is a community of indigenous peoples located in Canada that possess their own cultural identity and history that contributes to the national identity and seeks to share a space in the national narrative. Neufeld (2008) poses the question, “How can a national agency contributing to an existing unified national identity effectively serve the interests of disparate cultural communities included in our national community?” (p. 10).
In Libraries Build Autonomy: A Philosophical Perspective on the Social Role of Libraries and Librarians, Barbakoff (2010) discusses how libraries can be used to reject or reinforce specific social values and ideals. Barbakoff suggests that the social role of libraries and librarians serves to reinforce the moral value of autonomy and articulates specific ways the services offered by libraries and librarians contribute to autonomy building.
Applying Neufeld’s discussion of cultural communities to Barbakoff’s portrayal of libraries as social tools, how can the library as a national institution that contributes to a unified national identity effectively serve the interests of different cultural communities within the national community?
In order to answer this question it must first be established that the library as an institution contributes to a unified national identity and that it should be concerned with serving the interests of different cultural communities within the national community. As a symbol of democracy, freedom, and equality, the library undoubtedly conveys a national narrative and communicates a unified national identity. Another aspect of that national identity however, is cultural diversity. As a nation, we tend to pride ourselves on and define ourselves by our cultural diversity. As Neufeld (2008) suggests, “It’s important to recognize that other cultures have parallel ways of ascribing meaning and that a refusal or determined inability to acknowledge this fact weakens the social fabric that defines our country” (p. 25). Neufeld suggests the need for “a middle ground where these multiple meanings can be acknowledged and accommodated” (p. 23).
This suggestion is reminiscent of cultural border theory and articulates a need for libraries and similar institutions to be “the middle ground” in order to serve different cultural communities and maximize the benefit, impact, and ongoing necessity of their services. Cultural border theory examines how individuals, particularly marginalized individuals, who occupy multiple social or cultural spheres, are often discriminated against and denied full acceptance by either group because of their duality or multiplicity. They are “pushed to the margins” by members of the group and exist on the border between the conflicting parts of their identity. As part of multiple communities yet fully accepted by neither, these individuals are often denied a complete identity, voice, or place within society. In the context of the First Nations community as described by Neufeld for example, the First Nations individuals exist as part of an indigenous social and cultural community, as well as the Canadian social and cultural community. In attempting to claim both parts of their identity they are initially marginalized by the dominant social and cultural narrative and denied a full voice and place in society.
A similar example can be found in the New York Times article, For Many Latinos, Race is More Culture Than Color by Mireya Navarro (2012). In this article, Navarro discusses the United States census and the categories that are provided for race and ethnicity. Navarro observes that for the 2010 United States census, more than 18 million Latinos selected the “other” category (compared to 14.9 million in 2000) for the question concerning racial identity. Navarro asserts that for many Latinos, “the country’s race categories – indeed, the government’s very conception of identity – do not fit them.” Because the dominant society fails to acknowledge or accommodate the different ways various cultural groups construct identity, these individuals are forced to become “others” and denied the opportunity to assert their identity and place in society.
Many border theorists however, propose this borderland as a “space of change”. This indefinable middle ground, as part of both yet belonging to neither, presents an opportunity for marginalized groups or individuals to construct and claim an identity, voice, and place in society. It is within this middle ground, where different socially and culturally derived groups and perspectives converge, that social shaping can occur and result in a more dynamic and influential understanding of society, culture, and the individual.
In order to serve different cultural communities the library should function as this borderland or middle ground. As Barbakoff illustrates, libraries already somewhat function as a middle ground through the provision of opportunities for autonomy building. Barbakoff (2010) defines autonomy as “the moral capacity to make one’s own choices” and identifies it as “a primary moral value, essential to living a flourishing life.” Barbakoff illustrates the importance of autonomy in reference to individuals with disabilities and discusses how these minorities have been historically oppressed by socialization, which turns their differences into sources of discrimination and shame. Barbakoff suggests that systems that are biased towards the majority may reduce their autonomy “as they internalize the dominant message that they are less valuable.” Barbakoff asserts prioritization of autonomy as a means of consciously and publicly rejecting oppressive social norms. By emphasizing and valuing autonomy, libraries acknowledge and accommodate alternative perspectives and ways of ascribing meaning and thereby support the interests of different cultural communities within the national community.
In addition to functioning as the middle ground, librarians and the library itself should attempt to be “creatures of the middle ground” (Neufeld, 2008, p. 25). As a creature of the middle ground, libraries and librarians should consciously and emphatically acknowledge and accept their multiple roles and places within different social and cultural spheres. As Neufeld suggests, a creature of the middle ground, “must not only continuously reevaluate its objectives but craft new analytical tools in an ongoing way to meet the evolving understanding of what is taking place on the middle ground” (p. 25). As a creature of the middle ground the library should become an active part of the social shaping process it facilitates and change as the needs and perspectives of the society it serves changes.
Libraries must be wary of defining purposes and methods too rigidly to avoid limiting their ability to function as the middle ground or as part of the middle ground. In discussing autonomy, Barbakoff (2010) outlines “five competencies employed in the exercise of autonomy: access to information about many life possibilities, self-reflection, critical thinking, self-worth, and willingness/ability to act” and describes the different activities libraries engage in that support these skills. While these competencies and the activities that support them may be valid components of autonomy, libraries and national institutions that aim at supporting diverse cultural communities within a national community should be cautious in attempting to articulate or define how social values are specifically enacted. Barbakoff’s “willingness/ability to act” for example, would not only be difficult for a library to measure and evaluate for efficacy, but also inadvertently suggests a distinct way of enacting autonomy and negates alternative culturally based interpretations of this value.
The library as an institution undoubtedly conveys a distinct national narrative and contributes to a unified national identity. In order to support and strengthen our social fabric and effectively serve the different cultural communities that make up our national community, libraries and librarians should become “creatures of the middle ground” to help acknowledge and accommodate alternative perspectives and ways of ascribing meaning. By creating a space that acknowledges and accommodates multiple cultural perspectives, and constantly reevaluating its purposes and methods, libraries function as both a “middle ground” and “creatures of the middle ground” and are therefore effectively able to accommodate different cultural communities within the national community.
Barbakoff, Audrey. (2010). Libraries build autonomy: A philosophical perspective on the social role of libraries and librarians. Library Philosophy and Practice.
Navarro, Mireya. (2012). For many Latinos, racial identity is more culture than color. The New York Times. Retrieved March 25, 2012 from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/14/us/for-many-latinos-race-is-more-culture-than-color.html
Neufeld, David. (2008). Parks Canada, The Commemoration of Canada, and Northern Aboriginal Oral History. In P. Hamilton and L. Shopes (Eds.), Oral History and Public Memories (pp. 7-30). Temple University Press.