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Library as domestic metaphor

Is your library a grocery store or a kitchen?

Today, when I entered our library for the first official time following summer break, I considered how I really want my library to evolve.  What is its metaphor? 

Seeking a metaphor, my mind wandered back to a panel session presented by ALA’s Office of Information Technology Policy (OITP) on the Future of America’s Libraries. The panel featured Stephen Abram, Jose-Marie Griffith, Joan Frye Williams, and Dave Lankes.  (Because I was at NECC during Annual, I was grateful to discover the archived session a week later.)

The ideas this brilliant panel proposed continue to resonate with me and I highly recommend that many of you listen to the whole session. 

But as I considered my library metaphor, my mind wandered back to Joan Frye Williams’ brief talk
(around 10 minutes into the panel video).  Joan’s ideas that speak volumes for those of us in schools.  She presented three main points:

1. Our business is the idea business. It’s not about the books or information or databases as objects or commodities. It’s about ideas and connections.  Ideas will not be outsourced to Bangalore.

2. Our business is about relationships.  It’s about catalyzing connections.  It’s not about information containers.  Library users think of themselves as members, not users or customers.  The word member assumes library as community.   Our real work is about relationships, not transactions.

3. (Here’s where the metaphorical thinking gets ripe.) Our libraries should transition to places to do stuff, not simply places to get stuff. The library will become a laboratory in which community members tinker, build, learn, and communicate. We need to stop being the grocery store or candy store and become the kitchen.  We should emphasize hospitality, comfort, convenience and create work environments that invite exploration and creativity both virtually and physically.  We want our users (members, students, teachers) to trust us enough to allow us to participate. 

It’s this grocery store vs. kitchen metaphor that sticks with me and affirms my own beliefs.  I’ve worked with librarians that merely stocked and marketed.  School libraries don’t work as grocery stores.  Those are very small libraries.

For years, I’ve thought of my space as a libratory.  Long ago I moved beyond traditional collection building.  My collection is important, but I want my own members to explore with it, to create with it. And I want it to grow a bit unconventionally, in a just-for-me, just-in-time, kinda Amazon way. 

But, for me, library space is definitely kitchen, but not just a kitchen.  It is also dining room, family, and perhaps entertainment room. 

Kitchens are lovely.  (And I love my own kitchen so much I can’t resist sharing a picture of this seldom empty space.)  Kitchens are where everyone lives and plays and laughs and makes a mess and creates and shares delicious stuff. 

But the dining room is where the meal is staged, an area for presentation. The family room is where we experience story together.  I want our learners and faculty to feel like members of our family.  I want them to see our library functioning for them as all of these rooms. 

Our libraries should not be grocery stores.  We need to use those groceries, to open the boxes, pour the milk,  mix the batter, make a mess. We need production space. We need to serve up our creations in presentation or story space.  We need to inspire masterpieces of all sorts. And we need to guide members of our communities through new library metaphors. 

In a more exotic domestic library metaphor, I see myself as Gertrude Stein. I greet the young artists and writers (some of them disenfranchised, expats from the nation we call school) in my salon, my home.  I feed them.  (Okay, maybe not brownies.) 

Good libraries build relationships and connections. We can be catalysts for solid baking or perhaps be patrons of avant garde risk-taking.  We can encourage creation. 

How delicious to be in a space where we can help inspire, season, taste, serve, and display local masterpieces!

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Lorraine Orenchuk says:

    Great creative description of what we would love to happen in our libraries and classrooms. The metaphor works for education on a larger scale. It makes me want to stir up more of a productive mess in my room and to challenge my library to do the same. Thank you!

  2. Anne Van Meter says:

    Last year, due to construction, radon contamination, and the schedule, I ended up “stuck” teaching and working in the library. While I would have like the option to work alone occasionally, it was sometimes amazingly productive to work with colleagues and students at the drop of a hat. Here I am, here you are, let me show you what I’m working on…wow, I like what you are doing too. Can we combine that somehow? We cooked up some good stuff last year! Hopefully, we can recreate that serendipitous synchronicity this year.

  3. says:

    What a wonderful post, Joyce! I’ve always thought of literature as food, so I thank you for extending and enlarging the metaphor… Thanks for putting this great stone in the pot. We should end up with a delicious stone soup to share with others!

  4. Diane Beaman says:

    A few years ago I wrote spoke at a public hearing before the NH State Board of Education on a draft of the new state minimum standards for public schools. SLMS were alarmed at what the document said about school libraries. I used the kitchen metaphor and asked how people would feel if a cook went shopping for the Thanksgiving meal and simply brought the ingredients home and plopped them on the kitchen counter. I then went on to explain some of the things that you mention above. I was one of many who spoke but the metaphor definitely had a positive impact.


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  4. […] the milk, mix the batter, make a mess (see Joyce Valenza’s “Library as Domestic Metaphor,” NeverEndingSearch blog. We need production space. We need to serve up our creations in presentation or story space. We […]

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