I love books, and learning new things through reading. So you would think it would be a natural fit. A large building with tables, books, artwork, comfy chairs, etc I wouldn’t consider myself a Library hater but a Library is not for me anymore. I have thought about this for a while now and I’ve come up with three simple reasons why. I actually have more but three works for this article. 1) Decentralization 2) Conversation & 3) Coffee. There are many Libraries out there that are doing new and exciting things with their mission and successfully reinventing themselves as purveyors of knowledge. But for the most part I have found many of the Libraries I have frequented to be slowly dying and struggling to find relevance in today’s culture.
Decentralization: The first problem I think any library needs to overcome in order to be relevant within a community has to do with a major shift in how we obtain knowledge today. Decentralization is “the delegation of power from a central authority to regional and local authorities”. What does this have to do with knowledge? Well thanks to the internet, Google, PCs, Laptops, Tablets, e-readers and smartphones knowledge has been decentralized. People don’t walk around anymore wondering who wrote the song “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”. Now that everyone has answers we are trying to figure out the purpose of the question. Knowledge is cheap but wisdom is still a commodity. People are looking for places that have questions for all their answers. The resources that made our libraries exclusive places of knowledge and study for us to go to have long been in our pockets and purses, the resources have come to us. Today knowledge is cheap like a penny on the sidewalk when you already have 1000 in your pocket. When you have access to exponentially more knowledge on the smart phone in your pocket the library loses its appeal as a resource for knowledge.
Conversation: Libraries for adults are generally places for quiet reflection and study. Unless you love whispering they are not for you. In our culture today we seek the wisdom that can come from knowledge though conversation. We like to talk or triangulate with one another about what we have read and how we have interpreted it so that we might obtain a bit more understanding.
Coffee: The last time i was in a library i remember sitting down to do some reading on my kindle in a private corner of the library when a Librarian came and asked me to dispose of my coffee. I did. I went to my car turned on the heater, finished my coffee, and reading in the library parking-lot.
My point however in writing this article is not to independently audit the modern library system with my opinion. I am not qualified to do so. I am simply a pastor and I have said everything above to say this… I see many similarities between a community Library and a local church in their struggle to be relevant. Having long been displaced by technological and cultural advancements many libraries are functional only as a type of hands on museum for books. Look around your community and you might find that many churches are similar to your local library. Many small town church buildings in fact are like hands on museums of antiquated ways to worship. For that reason maybe many folks have given up on church for the same reason I have given up on Libraries. When a church gathers to worship and their identity/purpose becomes a zip code, a building or a way of worshipping they become what they are… the past preserved for the future. So their beautiful buildings become something like memorials to traditionalism on the roadside of change. C.S Lewis said “The highest does not stand without the lowest. A plant must have roots below as well as sunlight above and roots must be grubby. Much of the grubbiness is clean dirt if only you will leave it in the garden and not keep on sprinkling it over the library table.” I love this quote I come back to it all the time. The plight of many churches in small towns around the world probably swing on the same three hinges your library does. 1) Thriving churches have adapted to the reality that they are not the keepers of knowledge that they once were. 2) Thriving churches have come to grips with the fact that they are no longer simply places of quiet reflection, organs, pianos, solemn observance or pastoral monologue. 3) Sanctuarianism (idolatry of a building) has been done away with in Spirt empowered fellowships while things like coffee, common clothes and stinky loud babies are welcome.
No doubt many Librarians could say that libraries need to leave the church model behind but from my perspective many local Churches need to leave what I call the “library model” behind in order to survive as Spirit empowered communities of discipleship. In a garden growth is wanted, change is welcomed and dirt is beautiful. In a library the past is preserved, change is slow, and dirt is unwelcome. I think both struggling Churches and struggling Libraries could learn about relevance, growth and adaptation from the ever changing environment found in a garden.