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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sacred Stacks by Nancy Kalikow Maxwell

Sacred Stacks: The Higher Purpose of Libraries and Librarianship by Nancy Kalikow Maxwell. Chicago: American Library Association, 2006. ISBN: 0-8389-0917-5

For many librarians, myself included, our motivation for joining this profession went well beyond a mere desire for a job or a career. No one (to my knowledge) ever got rich working as a librarian. Most of us chose this career because of a combination of factors including a love of books and reading, and a desire to be part of a helping profession, one where service is almost a kind of higher calling.

That is the point made explicit in this book. In the modern secular age in which we find ourselves, many look for the sacred in places other than churches or synagogues, and libraries are often one of those places, and justifiably so, as Maxwell points out. In great and lengthy, and often overly great detail, unfortunately. It's a valid, even valuable insight if only it were made more carefully.

Maxwell wrote a short article-length version of the book for American Libraries, the journal of the American Library Association, and frankly, that was probably enough. To spin this one small (albeit useful) idea into a book-length manuscript, even as short a book as this—140 pages—well, the idea just doesn't justify the treatment, in my view. Or maybe it would, if the treatment weren't so heavily flawed.

Take the author's penchant for making carelessly unjustified categorical assertions, PLEASE! Example: “Christians must put ashes on their foreheads once a year to remind them that they are but dust” (p. 48). Only some Christians do this, primarily those with “high” liturgical traditions, like Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans. Many other denominations and most modern nondenominational churches do not utilize this practice.

Here's another: “Regardless of the form or format, all library help is free (p. 67). This one is patently untrue. Many libraries charge for certain forms service. If she had just said “most help is free,” she'd have been fine. This type of overstated generalization is unfortunately all too common throughout the book.

And then there are the just plain errors of fact. On p. 31 she attributes the idea behind the common expression “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish ; and you have fed him for a lifetime” to one of Jesus' parables, which it most certainly is not.

On p. 17 she states “If prayer is connection to the past, that form of sacred communication is exactly what one does in a library.” Well, whoever said that prayer is a connection to the past? Where did that definition come from? I guess from her own previous statement that “When God is imagined as a connection to history, every person perusing the . . . 910 section of their public library could be seen as praying.” Other than the author, I'm not sure who imagines God as a connection to history. Plus, isn't 910 in the Dewey Decimal System “Geography and Travel?” How does that fit? 900 in general is “Geography and History,” not 910.

Finally, I have to doubt the basic literacy of someone who can make the unforgivable grammatical error (and how it got past ALA's editors is more than I can imagine) of using the word “loose” in place of “lose.” And this egregious solecism occurs not once, but TWICE in the book, on page 15, and again on page 129, where she not only makes the mistake, but attributes it to Nancy Pearl, which I find totally unbelievable.

This book makes a valid and even valuable point, but does so in such an overblown, excessively drawn out, error prone manner, that it seriously weakens the effect. Only marginally recommended for librarians and those who love libraries.

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