As the 10th anniversary of this epochal moment approaches, I find myself reflecting back on the day and its aftermath. My memory plays like a movie. It was a day just like any other canopied by an improbably blue sky.
My walk to work, a stop for carryout coffee, waves to store owners, a chat with two moms about my eldest son’s high school application process, arrival at the office around 8:30 a.m. Within minutes, a colleague stops in my doorway to announce that a plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. My first thought: a small aircraft, horribly off course. I get to the nearest television: a second plane hits the second tower. Fast forward: other planes, rumors of fires, explosions. I retraced my steps down the same street—no chats or waves to store owners, now. I retrieved my children from their Capitol Hill school. Our neighborhood eerily quiet. No planes flew overhead; my youngest son screamed as a helicopter broke the wall of silence.
The television and the Internet were vigilant companions, hypnotically replaying the crumbling towers, forming a backdrop to the family discussion. And the unforgettable images: of police and firefighters, of streets filled with fleeing office workers coated in white ash, of the rubble and the detritus of lives uprooted. My movie ends with me on the telephone with friends, some halfway around the world, reminders of the grace of humanity in the face of indiscriminate inhumanity.
The need to understand “why” attends any tragedy. How can we make sense of the incomprehensible; prevent something horrific from happening again? The Greeks created myths to embody their understanding of the world. William Shakespeare told us that past is prologue. Art and science allow us to explicate emotions, share dreams and aspirations, examine human folly, question existence, wonder. And libraries collect and make accessible the fruits of these labors.
Our nation’s founders understood how important free access to information is to a democracy. The Library of Congress received both a book collection and a collecting rationale from Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin helped establish the Library Company of Philadelphia, the nation’s first lending library. James Madison, author of the First Amendment, gave voice to one of the most important tenets of librarianship, intellectual freedom, when he wrote: “popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
While no library has been immune to the aftershocks of the global economic meltdown, the challenges we face as information professionals are not limited to economics. The ubiquity of increasingly affordable mobile technology coupled with the rise of e-media presents exciting opportunities to deliver more content to library patrons where they are. Yet how do we keep up with the demands for both print—newspapers, magazines, books—and e-content? How do we maintain the balance between high tech and high touch so that patrons can help themselves and get help when they need it? How do we ensure patron privacy—and we must—when the more we know about our library users, their tastes and interests, the more helpful we can be? How can we have it all/do it all?
As professionals and managers of an institution dedicated to serving the public good, we will continue to evaluate what we do as we harness new tools and media that paradoxically enable us to connect with others and know more about the world we live in but present unprecedented challenges. The health of our community depends on our commitment to identify, experiment with and pursue the right solutions and balance and so does the health of our democratic way of life.