Library is a social organism

This is a post about an idea of a library being a social organism. In it I will try to find what does it mean to be considered as a social organism and if it is useful to think of libraries in this way. It is clearly just a metaphor, but it may introduce a mode of thinking that will lead to some interesting insights.

The 5th law of library science by Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan stands that

The library is a growing organism.

If library is an organism then it obviously can't be treated and managed like a machine. Whereas machines are made, organisms are born; and whereas machines are modified, organisms evolve.

Now, the question then is what does it mean for a library to be a social organism? If libraries are not machines then they cannot be simply build, updated, or repaired, but rather they grow just as other organisms do. Currently the change management in libraries consists of applying patches and updates when adopting new technologies or services which seems to be, in fact, based on the assumption of library as a machine. This approach can work but it does not look as a sustainable one.

The reason why I have used to label library as a social organism is because library is made of people. People are the constituent elements, or organs, of the body of a library. It is also the social aspect that makes for library's cohesivenes.

If we decide to adopt the view of library as an organism, then we can ask about the necessary preconditions for its evolution to happen. Among these, variability can be mentioned, the ability to produce mutations. I think that we have library mutants — digital libraries, mobile libraries, and the like, or their various combinations. The other thing that is mentioned in the minimal requirements to run the evolution is the selective pressure. Now it seems that libraries feel some kind of pressure that is coming either from their funders or patrons. Because we have these basic mechanisms in place, the question is if we can optimize the library evolution to run faster and be more efficient. However, as we've discovered in the past, eugenics does not work that well. The reason why can stem from treating organisms as machines.

There is also a number of concepts associated with the notion of an organism. One of them may be the concept of health. If seems that every organism has health, so can we think of the health of a library? Can we determine library's health or evaluate on its basis? This may have come too far in extending the metaphor of a library as an organism or it may still stimulate some useful thinking. It highlights the fact that metaphors are tools for thinking, and every tool can be used the right or wrong way.

It will be interesting witness the evolution of this library organism in the coming years. Or, if not, just to observe how libraries struggle to keep the status quo and preserve their homeostasis.

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