Thursday, November 5, 2009

Private Libraries?

I once visited the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, California. It is a beautiful setting featuring not only the gardens, but also art collections and a library. But could I visit the library? No. I was not a faculty member or a doctoral student or a scholar. I simply wanted to look.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I did not actually try to make my way into the library. I had checked the requirements on the website and discovered that I did not meet the criteria. (I wonder if they would now make an exception for a LIS student.)

So why this odd mix of emotions in my head? I didn’t have any desire to see anything in particular, I didn’t have research to do – I was just a curious man with a desire to see a beautiful building and its collection. As a private library, The Huntington is free to create its own rules for admittance. It just seems odd that it should be titled a library. Libraries now have the connotation that they are institutions which are free and accessible to all. Would a name change to “The Huntington Collection” make it less appealing to me?

The name Huntington Library was most likely applied to the collection when it was still the private library of Henry Huntington; however, the semantic value of the word library makes me believe that I should have the right to visit. Change it to The Huntington Collection, and I am more willing to accept that access may be restricted. Change the name to The Huntington Archives and I then see accessibility as open, but I would also accept that parts of the collection may be restricted. I find it fascinating the amount of power that simple words can have!

So, should private libraries like The Huntington be called libraries? I don’t know that it is a very sensitive topic or even something that anyone would devote a great deal of time arguing. As a linguist, I find issues of meaning to be very interesting and I often wonder if I am alone in my curiosity.

I’ll get into that library some day.

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