Thursday, January 20, 2011

What is Community?

One of the blogs I follow is written by a current library school student at Simmons. It is called Opinions of a Wolf. A majority of the posts are reviews of books, movies, and television shows. Fridays is usually a personal update, and there is enough there to keep me reading.

A recent post was subtitled Thoughts on Community and Environment. It made me think about the meaning of community, what exactly a community is, and where we build our own communities.

"Wolfie" started her discussion by noting that one of her friends "is currently on a kibbutz in Israel, and she emailed me asking me what I think makes a community."

If you go to the dictionary, you get a definition like this:

  1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
  2. a locality inhabited by such a group.
  3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually prec. by the ): the business community; the community of scholars.
  4. a group of associated nations sharing common interests or a common heritage: the community of Western Europe.
  5. Ecclesiastical . a group of men or women leading a common life according to a rule.
  6. Ecology . an assemblage of interacting populations occupying a given area.
  7. joint possession, enjoyment, liability, etc.: community of property.
  8. similar character; agreement; identity: community of interests. the community, the public; society: the needs of the community.*
Notice that the first six definitions all refer to a similar geographic location. Even the seventh definition has some relationship to close geographic proximity. I could even argue that the eighth includes a great deal about physical proximity.

I think that maybe because I did not attend the ALA Midwinter Meeting, that I have subconsciously thought more and more about some of my "chosen" communities. It may also be reflective of my holiday season gatherings. Let's go in reverse order.

My family continues to have an annual gathering of the eight of us siblings, with our spouses/others and as many of our offspring and their spouses/others as can make it. It is the one time each year when we all gather together. Given that there are eight of us siblings, and a growing number of the offspring who are married/have significant others, the size of the gathering can be overwhelming for a newcomer. (I certainly noticed this the last two years.) Are we a community? I like to think so. Physically we are stretched mostly on the East Coast from Northern Virginia to Southern Maine, with me as the outlier in New Orleans. Yet we frequently communicate with each other, and certainly keep in touch. Various groupings come together throughout the year for holidays and other events. (This year there were two weddings.) It is a special kind of community, possible most likely because of the size of our family. I guess it raises the question: Is family a community? I vote yes.

We, my wife and I, left the family gathering to spend a week in Jamaica at a resort where we knew there would be a number of friends. Each year many of us spend some time at this resort, and there are a lot of "repeaters." It makes for a kind of community for the week, with the folks who participate coming literally from all across North America (and beyond). I'll note here that social software has certainly made keeping in touch in between times very, very easy.

ALA Midwinter followed. I was able to follow what was happening (as much as I chose to) via postings to blogs, photo-sharing sites, and Twitter. Those folks are a different community. There are some who I normally only see twice a year, and not all of us attend each of the ALA gatherings. For me there are sometimes overlapping groups: from PUBLIB, current and former ALA Council and Board members, public librarians, colleagues from former workplaces and current and former states. Some folks are in more than one group. Every time I make new friends, and build my "virtual" community to be somewhat larger.

Wolfie talks about community as a group which "support[s] each other unconditionally." While she also talks about love, I am not sure I agree totally. There are some in my communities who are folks that I respect. I respect their personal values and intellect, but some are folks who challenge me to think more clearly, to reconsider positions, in general to be better. (And for my money, that is part of what "love" is about, too.)

So, I missed seeing some of my "communities" in January. The good news, is that they will be coming to see me in June at the ALA Annual Conference.


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