I am honored and owe many thanks to my colleague and friend Beth Friese for agreeing to share a very special blog post in this space on “What Makes a Library a Library?”

What makes a library a library?

Here in Georgia, school librarians are called Media Specialists. Although I know many wonderful Media Specialists, I’ve never warmed to the term.  I’ve always stood by the words “library” and “librarian.”

One semester a couple of years ago, I spent a lot of time thinking about the word “library” and my attachment to it. (This is the luxury of doctoral education. I get a lot of time to wander around with thoughts like this.)  I didn’t know if my love of “library” was just nostalgia, or was there something really enduring about it that belonged to my identity, my way of seeing the world and my purpose in it?

In some ways, the word “library” works against us. “Library,” it seems, comes with the baggage of silent spaces and shushing disapproval. It comes with the inertia of old times. Recently, I’ve been writing a literature review of the way libraries are viewed in literacy research (one of the less luxurious parts of doctoral education). From what I have read, libraries are often seen as book warehouses (which speaks to the example Buffy shared) or spaces of limitation. While I’d like to think differently, I am not sure this is all that far off from the way the public views us.

So, going back to a few years ago when I was thinking about the word “library” so much, I read a piece by Gayatri Spivak that discusses words and definitions. Spivak suggests that we can create change not necessarily by changing the word itself, but instead by looking for an alternative definition, then using that alternative definition as a “positive lever” to create new possibles. Using Spivak’s suggestion, I sought that definition for “library.” Here is a quote from the paper I wrote that semester, deconstructing the word “library:”

“In looking back at the etymology of the word ‘library,’ I noticed that one of the roots ‘library’ traces back to is ‘liber,’ Latin for ‘book.’ Having been a student of Latin, I recognized that ‘liber’ also means ‘free,’ as in ‘liberty’ or ‘liberation’…based on this alternative definition, I suggest that we reinscribe ‘library’ as a site for the exploration of freedom.”

I still believe this today – we need to go back to the root of library-as-book, then take the alternative definition and, instead, conceive of the library-as-freedom.

So, if you were to ask me, what is a library? It is freedom. Maybe a space of freedom, if we allow that space can extend into the virtual as well.  But, at its essence, it’s freedom.

For me, that freedom is explicitly tied to the facilitation of critically multiliterate (or perhaps transliterate) citizens through the provision of as much and as many types of information as possible. At the same time, libraries must provide the guidance and encouragement to inquire into that information and build powerful new knowledge. Intellectual freedom is at the heart of this vision, as is education, and literacy broadly conceived.

As librarians, (who are at the heart of every library), this means we have to critically examine the assumptions and biases in our work, constantly seeking to open up and expand what can be learned and created. It means we have to be passionate about freedom and always think of new ways and spaces to create and share it. It is a vision that transcends any particular format or technology, embracing what comes next while appreciating what has been before. It can’t be replicated through a screen or a book drop or a company’s product. It is fundamentally different, and deeply worth preserving.

Beth Friese
Doctoral Student
Department of Language and Literacy Education
University of Georgia

Spivak, G. C. (1974). Translator’s preface. In Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Gayatri Spivak, Trans.) (pp. ix-xc). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.


10 thoughts on “Special Guest Blog Post by Beth Friese: “What Makes a Library a Library?”

  1. I have never liked “Media Center” or “Media Specialist” — the terms sound like parts of a Television studio to me. Fortunately in a private school we can be “librarians” in a “Library,” which still sounds to me like a place where boundless information is can be found, assisted by curious, clever people who work there. Long Live the Library!


    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Anna. I like your comparison to a TV studio – you know, I’ve never really been able to put my finger on why I don’t like “Media Specialist” but I think you are on to something. Long Live the Library, indeed!


    2. I appreciate your comparison of the terms, “Media Center” and “Media Specialist” to something related to a studio for television. I too, have pondered the use of the term “Media Center” and thought how I prefer the term, ‘Library’. Am I not being progressive to accept that libraries now carry more than just books and therefore should be renamed for what they house? I have an old fashioned preference about keeping the terms ‘Library’ and ‘Librarian’. One concrete reason is that these terms are less ambiguous. “Media Center” could also apply to production facilities of newspapers or magazines. When we talk about the media releasing a story about an alien spaceship, we are talking about broadcast media or print media, not a school library. The term, ‘Human Resources’ is an odd newer term for employees. There are mineral resources and energy resources, but human resources? It sounds so clinical and utilitarian. Why not the old term ‘Personnel’? I would like to see the term ‘library’ apply to places that appear to be libraries. On the other hand, my thoughts on this topic are mostly intuitive, and perhaps there are valid reasons for certain newer terms. Terms evolve with the winds of change. Let’s hope good sense will guide the winds.

      Wayne A.


  2. Beth,

    I love the idea of the “positive lever” and using a definition to define yourself differently.

    I too think of libraries as more places of free exchange of ideas rather than as a collection of things.

    Because what is in all those “things” is ideas–ideas to be read, shared, talked about.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!


    1. Thanks, Carolyn. I hadn’t taken it to the level of ideas – which really makes the whole issue of format seem unimportant. I like that. The more and different kinds of ideas, the better.


  3. Wow. Great words. It’s so weird that you, Kristin Fonticharo and Jon Scieszka all have “manifestos” in my feed reader this morning. And Buffy has her collection of “What makes a library” tweets. Definitely the time of year for reflection, I guess. Thanks.


    1. Thanks, Jim. Who knows what is in the air these days? It must be that time of the year, as you say. Maybe we will all be recharged as we head into 2010. Beth
      PS, I really enjoy reading teacherninja!


  4. I’ve never been fond of the term librarian – for me. I think of the sterotypical lady with the flowered dress and the horn-rimmed glasses walking around shushing people. That’s not me. I want to think of myself in a different light. In fact, one of my teacher friends in my building likes to call me a librarian because she knows I don’t like it. With that being said, when talking to people outside of school about my job, the easiest thing for me to say is that I’m an elementary school librarian. I try to follow that up by saying I run the library and teach the computer classes to the students. In our district the school libraries are referred to as IMC’s – Instructional Media Centers. If you asked the students what IMC meant, they’d have no idea. They refer to my “classroom” as the library, which I’m okay with. I do not have a problem with the term library – it’s an easy to understand term for the students. When I left the classroom and moved into the library, I didn’t make the move because of the books, I did it because of the amount of technology instruction involved. I saw the position in my school district as an opportunity to work with more students and more teachers integrating technology into the curriculum. Perhaps that is why my thoughts on the term librarian exist.


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