Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The significance of the edge

Kurt Vonnegut said: "I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center." Now, people who know me pretty well will know that I've been listening for awhile to a show called The Bhangra Mixtape put together by a DJ named Sonnyji. Why do I enjoy this show so much? In a nutshell, for two hours each week through a live set, Sonnyji starts from the eponymous Punjabi Bhangra music of the show's title and sallies forth into Hip Hop, House, Techno, Drum and Base and musical styles the world over. At first the experience can be a little jarring, but you come to relish the twists and turns which can be both humourous and, mostly, illuminating. And this is why I find the Mixtape so interesting - it's a truly experimental space that has changed the way I listen to music, by forcibly removing me from my comfort zone as each transition pulls away the proverbial rug. There's a musical dialogue going on here, obviously appealing to a wide demographic; you get the sensation of having experienced something new and therefore of having learned something new.

If this example seems out of context for a thesis on the future of libraries, that's really the point. When tackling questions surrounding the future of organisations and the roles within them, it seems unlikely that you'll make much progress by only asking those who already occupy positions within that organisation. There is always a comfort zone, and it may not be helping; better then to step outside of it in order to appreciate its true function and the actual relationships that can make or break said organisation. It would seem that these relationships are best explored by actually engaging external stakeholders in a dialogue.

I mentioned before the 'larger picture' of political, economic, social and technological interdependency and this method of interrogation is already quite common, known as PEST analysis (or PESTLE, if you wish to add legal and environmental considerations) which identifies the above macroenvironmental factors for strategic management purposes. In examining relationships, you find a mutual exchange, with the greatest benefit from the point of view of a cultural heritage instution being that the acknowledgement of their actual role in national and international society can reveal what works, what doesn't and where an institution is heading in its development. An obvious question then is: can a library that doesn't engage in digital iniatives honestly claim that it is still fulfilling its mission statement?

A few days ago, during the public sector strike in the UK, I was walking past the British Library where PCS union members were manning the picket line. On the leaflet that one of them gave me was plug for a petition to 'save our cultural assets', launched through the PCS at the end of September last year. Once I had added my signature I was taken aback to learn that I was only the 543rd person to sign since the petition was launched 9 months ago. I wondered why an apparently high-profile campaign would fall so flat? This is pure speculation, but the cultural heritage sector feels isolated. It's incredibly hazardous to venture a definition of culture, but the days of powerful yet discrete cultural insitutions existing for a common good seem long gone. Continuing to subscribe to such notions only make the sector an easy target, lacking as it often is in a cohesive or informed voice for its true relevance.

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