Why the Value of Self-Reliance is at the Heart of Libraries

Why the Value of Self-Reliance is at the Heart of Libraries

I recently returned to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s timeless essay “Self-Reliance”, and found it different from how I remembered it. Emerson’s self-reliance is rigidly individualistic, non-conformist, and solitary; a person must invent their own ideas, everyone else be damned. This differs slightly from our colloquial ideas of self-reliance as either self-made in a materialistic sense or the quality of a person who has achieved a lot through hard work (aka, “…blood, sweat, and tears.”). When we think of a self-reliant individual, many of us picture a pioneer-type in the Wild West, venturing out to explore the untamed wilderness and surviving to tell the tale. While not untrue in its essence, one may simply point out that though this person existed in the past, the West has been won. To that end, it must be asked: What is self-reliance in contemporary life?

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I would say that today’s vision of self-reliance is just as much a single mother working three jobs to support her family, or a student staying up nights studying to be the first in their family to graduate with a university degree, or a small business owner stretching themselves thin to keep a company going as any wild west rancher. The self-reliance these everyday heroes demonstrate is in their iron resolve, an internal flame that keeps them working hard despite the odds. Does self-reliance mean that outside forces can’t make their endeavors easier? I don’t think so. Indeed, the library can aid all three without tarnishing their self-reliant credibility.

Our self-reliant single mother could, for example, bring her kids to the library when she has a moment. There, they will have access to high-quality reading material and educational programming (that’s also fun). And if the kids are old enough to go to the library on their own after school, chances are they will be able to spend time with peers and do their homework until until their mother finishes work for the evening.

If she can find the energy and motivation between child-rearing and work, there are library resources readily available to help her develop useful job skills. She could start with books and audiobooks related to general office or whatever field she’s in, but she needn’t stop there. Many libraries now offer free access to top-notch online training courses including, but not limited to, Gale Courses and Lynda.com for those who want to improve on their own schedule.

Our starving student is no less lucky to have the library at his side while he sits and studies. Most students seek a solitary study spot away from the potential distractions of home or friends. Many soak in knowledge at their university libraries, but public libraries serve this purpose as well. Most have special study rooms available to reserve, free internet access, login info for research databases, and erudite librarians ready to assist. Does asking for a librarian’s aid hinder self-reliance? Not at all! A student can ask a single question and be shown skills that will make future information-seeking quick and efficient.

Of course, there’s nothing that says a bona fide lone wolf can’t also use the library on their own. In the modern library, most gates are open — people are welcome to come in, look around, get what you need. Yet, a time-pressed student is best to weigh the potential time spent on an initial independent search, with the time that can be saved by asking a librarian now and gaining a well-deserved independence in the future.

And the small business owner? I didn’t forget her. Over there creating marketing materials, making sales calls, keeping the books, and (if there’s time) thinking about strategic planning, to name a few tasks she does in a single afternoon. Can the library help this self-starting entrepreneur win the business game? For sure!

I’ve written in the past how small business owners can freely access market research data at the library, and others have highlighted many a winning partnership between the library and business communities (see: “Libraries and the Business Community: A Success Story,” “A Day in the Life of a Small Business Specialist,” and “As a Business Librarian, I Help People Find Their Passion” for a few examples), so I won’t rehash all that.

Instead I’m going to take you back to the beginning of my library career. At the time, my life was hectic: I was in graduate school full-time, working 20-hours a week shelving books at one library, freelancing as an archivist and web projects coordinator at a radio archive, and running a small side business as a computer consultant. Oh, and I was also interning at another library. It was at this internship where I had the chance to run a 30-minute brown-bag lunchtime seminar on “Blogging for Business.”

It wasn’t a big deal, I prepared a presentation on the basics of blogging platforms, how to develop an audience, and ways a blog could help a business. We went well over the designated thirty minutes in what turned out to be a incisive and personal discussion. The audience (a few local business owners) and I were able to mull over options that were individual to them. I enjoyed sharing my experience, and they got a free, no-string-attached, consultation.

This is what a library offers to small business owners, beyond the plethora of resources in book stacks and on servers. Whereas everyone else wants a piece, the library exists to add a piece. Often with a smile and the personal touch.

Does the self-reliant individual shy away from such a place? Never that. True self-reliants use whatever resources they can to become even more self-reliant. It’s no wonder so many of history’s greatest auto-didacts made the library their second home.

Emerson wrote, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

With that in mind, count on the fact that no ludicrous remarks diminishing libraries will affect my goodwill towards them. But don’t take my word for it, stick to the Emersonian approach to self-reliance and discover a love of libraries for yourself!