My Opinion: Libraries Need to Be Zones of the Possible

Witch's Broom region of Veil Nebula

People often go to the public library to get things done. For a public library to fulfill its mission, it needs to be a "zone of the possible." What that means is that every question asked in a library must be given the best possible answer — an answer that a community member might not have been able to find without help. Libraries that are firing on all cylinders are anticipating those questions and are assembling answers before the questions show up in living, breathing form.

Expanding My Own Zone of the Possible

This past week I was reminded of the zone of the possible. I recently bought a lovely, refurbished ViewSonic LCD monitor from Amazon. I was testing this monitor with some laptops I had bought on eBay for under $99. This monitor worked great with the DisplayPort interface on those laptops. Out of curiosity, I plugged in my Dell Chromebook 11, which has a Core i3 processor. Surprise, surprise — this Chromebook comfortably drives a 2,560 x 1,440 monitor via its HDMI port. Within the first hour of my workday, I had walked into an expanded zone of the possible.

The Video Editing Question

Then a community member, Greg Maye, stopped by to use the library's computers. He owns his own laptop and is an advanced computer user. He comes to the library because he likes the sociability here. Greg works for himself as an entrepreneur and is quick to offer me computer tips on how he streamlines his computer workflow. On this day, he asked me: "I need to hire a video editor for some videos related to my business. You've got some friends who do video for a living, right?" I answered: "Yes, I can recommend my friends, who are talented and affordable. But before you hire anyone, you ought to give a shot at editing the video yourself. Here, check out the WeVideo website. It lets you edit videos online. It's affordable, easy to use, and has all the features you need to do basic video editing."

Greg was willing to give it a try. He then asked an important, probing question: "How good is the documentation for WeVideo?" My answer: "Very good. Here are the WeVideo Academy training videos — free for anyone to watch before they sign up for a WeVideo plan."

The Big Smile

Greg sat down with my Dell Chromebook 11 — hooked up to my ViewSonic 2,560 x 1,440 monitor — and told me, "I've got ten minutes to look at these videos." Within three minutes, Greg turned to me with a big smile on his face. "Goosebumps!" is all he said. This website looked as if it was going to suit all of his needs. Some 45 minutes later, he was still perusing those training videos, having fully immersed himself into the WeVideo website.

As he got up to leave, I explained to him: "You came here looking to hire a video editor, but within two weeks you might be offering your own video editing services to others." He smiled at me, knowing I was not far off the mark.

Being Relentlessly Curious

How does a public library become a zone of the possible? Library staff members need to be relentlessly curious. They need to be Olympic wonderers, wondering more hours a day than ultramarathoners train. When ordinary mortals exhaust their wondering stamina, librarians need to be able to say, "I'm not done wondering. Not by a long shot. I've got 20 more miles of wondering I want to do today."

My late mother often asked me, "Phil, how in the world do you know so much?" My answer: "Mom, I get paid to know stuff. Doctors get paid to cure the body. Architects get paid to design buildings. I get paid to know stuff." I could not help but add, "And that's the way you raised me, my dear mother."

Inquiry, curiosity, and restless wondering are how you build a wide zone of the possible. It was helpful for me that my parents made this a family value. And, I suppose, a certain fearlessness helps, too. My parents were fearless adventurers, and it looks like some of that rubbed off on me.

Daring to Wonder

Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what wonderings you can do for yourself and your country. For the time you're allotted on this planet, there is no better use of your time than wondering. Engage in aerobic, long-distance wondering — and acting in kindness to others — and you'll be all set.

Of course, you'll share this article with your favorite local librarians, right? Don't make me wonder about that.

About the Author

Phil ShapiroPhil Shapiro is a library assistant, educator, and technology access activist in the Washington, D.C., area. He has found inspiration in the learning that goes on at after-school programs, adult literacy organizations, public libraries, and organizations bringing music instruction and the arts to children. He is a true believer in public libraries as the central social, educational, and creative institutions in our communities.