Negative Capability

I came across the term “negative capability” not that long ago. It intrigued me, and so I looked into it a bit. The Romantic poet John Keats was the first to use it as he described the capability of humans to think about the world without focusing on the contradictions or trying to make those things fit into a system. Keats’ model is Shakespeare, whom he described in a letter to his brothers:

“…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…” (taken from CUNY Brooklyn’s Excerpts from Keat’s Letters).

For a long time, I have loved the idea of embracing and being comfortable with paradox. That’s part of what negative capability seems to embody. But it also embodies a point very relevant to libraries, if I’m not mistaken. The contradictions that exist in our world often are a matter of context. Our perspective is always limited (something I will explore more in the future). We don’t know everything, and when we encounter something that exists beyond the framework in which we operate, it often causes us problems. Keats would say such encounters shouldn’t cause us those problems. Instead we should embrace that collision, that bit of weirdness.

Libraries are good places to encounter the unfamiliar. The Library Bill of Rights clearly lays out some of the reasons this is true. Foremost among them is the fact that in the library, we should encounter many other viewpoints, and we are free to easily meet very different people. Sometimes, we might be that “different” person, or the source of those other viewpoints. That’s one of the reasons I’m open to the idea of the library community being an integral part of the library’s resources.

However, there are plenty of people who lack negative capability (I’d venture to say we all lack it some of the time). Entering a library that works to dramatically expand contexts then can be alarming. What does one do when two books side by side on the same subject don’t have the same conclusion? Where does the library’s responsibility lie at the edges of negative capability? Keats was right about the importance of possessing this quality, but it can’t be the only quality we possess. Some of the biggest universal questions demand an acceptance of paradox, but most other questions have definite answers. And the library has a role there too, and should be a space for all approaches to knowledge.

If I start to think about all the library functions, it’s hard not to find one where this demand is applicable. Going through each one wouldn’t work here. But I’m going to go back to my main theme on this blog and say that in everything, a focus on dialogue is helpful. Placing people and their ideas in a conversation is the next step past negative capability. To some extent this means that some element of dialogue should be present in how we develop our collections (have authors that comment on each other, for instance), in how we catalog (making sure that subject headings demonstrate the right relationship between titles, for example), how we help people with research (sometimes leading them to a source that provides another perspective), and so on.

Negative capability and the pursuit of the right answer, the correct ironing out of contextual boundaries, should both be active, and celebrated, in libraries.


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