Monday, September 11, 2006


On September 10, 2001 I flew to Columbus, Ohio from Edmonton, Alberta, on an early morning flight, through beautiful cloudless skies. I think the weather was fine all over the continent that week.

If you listen to NPR, you have probably heard at least one story from the Library of Congress and NPR oral history project, StoryCorps. NPR records and LC houses at the American Folklife Center. I don't think of myself as a sentimental person but I am moved, deeply, often, by the voices telling their stories. Today, the links were to stories from family members of people who died on September 11, 2001 in the several terrorist attacks. It goes without saying that these are stories that, even if they were mundane, would gather meaning from the place in the fabric of stories from which they come.

This evening I listened to the CD that came from Amazon today. I had heard The Transmigration of Souls by John Adams on NPR, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to honor those who died on 9/11/01, some time ago, before it was available as a recording. The text mostly consists of phrases from posters and memorials posted at the remains of the World
Trade Center buildings. Ordinary phrases perhaps except for the context in which they were made. Missing, missing, son, my sister, my grandmother.

And because I am like that, I started wondering, what is the role of libraries in a community, to that community? Or even more broadly, what is a library for? Do I value that my local public library has 27 or 89 or 250 copies of a best seller? Or does that just make it a free form of a Blockbuster? Libraries have generally not assumed the role of archivist to their communties but given the ephemerality of much of our culture is it one they should? What would it mean to community building to have libraries record oral histories of people in their communities, for example? Are these less important than published best sellers, whether academic or mainstream?

It's wonderful that NPR and Library of Congress and John Adams are capturing the zeitgeist. Are libraries? Should they? Rooted as they are in their communities, whether that's an academic community or a city, town or region, libraries could be permanent story-gathering sponges, rather than the dead letters department of our culture. I think I'd like to know the stories of people in my community. Call it the broken window approach.

"we will miss you...we all miss you...we all love you."
"I'll miss you, my brother, my loving brother."
"It was a beautiful day."
"You will never be forgotton."
"She looks so full of life in that picture."
"I see water and buildings."

(text from The Transmigration of Souls, John Adams)

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