The library in an ecosophical perspective

Ecosophy is about how everything is integrated in an ecological and living balance. These are ideas that may be applied in various everyday contexts and prepare us for making choices based on a holistic perspective, for example when making decisions about the future of a rural library.Photo: Amanda Tipton/ Flickr CC BY-NC ND

I grew up in the library. It was one of the few options available to those of us who had little interest in soccer and biathlon. Moreover, my mother was the local librarian.

I can recall sauntering along the bookshelves, letting my fingers glide over the spines of books. Such an infinite number of thoughts were sort of attached to thin sheets and hung up between covers that vied for attention.

I can remember where Cosmos by Carl Sagan stood and where the Dewey decimal classification was located. The former showed how the universe was arranged, the latter the library. In Dewey, the number series 100 was reserved for philosophy, and I felt an attraction to this subject. Perhaps it was due to the titles on the spines, promising a Critique of Pure Reason or Selected Topics of Elementary Logic. Although I found it to be neither elementary, nor logical, it nevertheless spoke to me.

Me and the library

Something started to sprout within me there, in the library, between the shelves and in the wide spectrum of thoughts and knowledge that were openly available there. The library encompassed the entire world; the totality of things.

My fumbling led me precisely to ideas of this totality, only pertaining to the whole in a harmonious and integrated manner, more like holism. In the library I found books by Arne Næss, and I was fascinated by his magical world. Besides being a philosopher of world repute, he was also a mountaineer and a practical joker.

The anecdotes about Arne Næss are numerous and well-known. Næss spoke about ecosophy and Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy of the creative force of nature, ‘natura naturans’. This became the start of a long and dedicated study of how the universe is interconnected in an ecological and living balance, and these were ideas that resonated and seemed so infinitely true and universally valid.

Not least, this was a body of thought that never stopped maturing and soon could be applied to everyday life in many ways.

Ideas of holism

I am now of the opinion that such holistic ideas can be linked to virtually everything we do, if only we are aware of them. They prepare us to make choices based on the wisdom of nature, by taking sufficient account of ripple effects, and by attempting to see some of the added value of each part of a greater whole.

Holism says quite simply that the sum of the whole is larger than the sum of the parts. In terms of biology it means, for example, that all life has a value beyond its intrinsic value, which is not realised until life functions in its ecological context. There is something infinitely beautiful about this, but it also testifies to the vulnerability of ecological systems.

Ecosophy in a nutchell

To remain in balance, an ecological system depends on all its constituent parts, and this balance gives rise to the longterm creative force, or added value if you like. For the same reason, we cannot remove a bothersome part or add amounts of another and still expect the system to function. This is ecosophy in a nutshell. It is the wisdom of nature itself.

Humans have become capable of influencing life forms and the basis of life everywhere in nature, and we are seeing an increasing number of examples of destructive incursions that cause imbalance and irreversible damage to flora, fauna and climate.

We fail to take account of the whole when we exceed the quotas for fishing, use more energy than we are able to generate, and when the production of things exceeds consumption by orders of magnitude. Then we have ignored the real importance of universal balance for our lives and our planet.

However, a holistic mindset does not necessarily address large, global issues. It can act as a guide in the smaller decisions that we make in life and elsewhere in culture and society.

The history of a local library 

For a long time, municipalities have saved money by closing local libraries, and each municipality has its own reasons, but the argument is generally that this service can be centralised and municipal funds economised upon.

This is a tempting option in a budget proposal, but what happens in practice? To highlight the short-sightedness inherent in this, there is no need to argue in favour of the obvious value represented by the libraries being a low-threshold option open to all, or to point out that the libraries are seedbanks for the cultivation of society. It suffices to point out the effects that the closure of the branch had on the local community and municipality I come from.

Here, the local library was open two evenings per week, in addition to functioning as the school library. However, it was not only a library in the narrow sense of the word. The library was also a meetingplace for young and old. The young connected with each other there and had access to books costing no more than a ride on a bicycle.

Doors were closed

For those who no longer had colleagues to converse with during the day, the library was exactly what they needed to stay in touch with others. The library was also an instrument of practical integration for migrant Kurds and Turks who came to our community at that time. They could find newspapers in their own language, while also being exposed to spoken and written Norwegian.

In sum, this was a simple yet versatile service that encompassed far more than any budget item could reflect. However, these benefits were not visible there, and the costs had to be justified with reference to the library services alone, so finally the doors were closed.

Municipal responsibility

Sometime later, however, the need arose to provide services for the older people of the community, and this was immediately regarded as a municipal responsibility pursuant to the regulations, and an activity that could be fitted into the budget. Again, the municipality looked at its options in isolation and established activities specifically for the elderly.

This, however, was not adapted to the young people who also needed something to occupy them, and a new set of activities had to be established for this group as well. The cost of these services, in addition to operating the library branch for the local school, exceeded the operating cost of the original local library. Moreover, the added value that the local library had represented for the local community is harder to quantify.

To see the value of a library

In such cases, we need to take the trouble to actually think broadly and deeply, lest we end up by making society a poorer place. In all constituent parts of society there are mechanisms and features that merit better attention, but this presupposes that we keep the principle of the holism of things in mind and let it mature.

We need to make a habit of thinking in holistic terms, and demonstrate our willingness to investigate ripple effects. At the same time, we need to take into account that our actions may produce consequences that we cannot predict.

Local libraries help keep communities active and of sound mind. As for me, the library gave me an opportunity to discover an interest that lay dormant within me. The library opened my eyes to holistic thinking, which in turn highlighted the value of libraries in a wide sense. This is a finite circle.

The library is social sustainability in practice, breaking down barriers between different cultural and demographic groups. Walking between the shelves at a local library encompasses an infinite potential for each and every mind. It is a spiritual soup kitchen and an ingredient in a strong and healthy society.

Chief Executive Officer Ecoverk