MLA Forum
Vol. V, Issue 1, April 27, 2006

The Ideal Academic Library as Envisioned through Nietzsche’s Vision of the Eternal Return

Michael Lorenzen


There are many ways to look at the formal organization of academic libraries.  This paper will view this process using the framework of Fredrich Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return.  While not a perfect conceptual model, it can be used to understand how events occur in libraries and how library leaders can best interact with the organizations that they lead.  This paper will look at the different functional areas of the library and examine how these areas relate to each other and to library management.  As a result, this also provides a glimpse of the author’s ideas about library leadership and the ideal library organization.

The Academic Library as Envisioned through Nietzsche’s Vision of the Eternal Return

The academic library can be a difficult organization to lead.   It has a central role on campus but is considered in a peripheral manner by many university leaders, faculty, and students.  It has a large budget invested in acquisitions that is easily cut when money is tight.  Further, librarians have an unusual status on campus which makes them more than support staff but not quite faculty.  Regardless of the rank or titles bestowed on librarians, they are always different from their colleagues on campus and this creates tension.  Finally, massive changes in the manner in which information is delivered from print to electronic format has everyone (including librarians) questioning the role that the academic library plays in acquiring, organizing, and delivering information.
Beyond all of this, the academic library has the same problems that any other large organization will have.  Some staff will be perpetually unhappy about a variety of issues.  Turnover in staff will occur on a regular basis requiring continued efforts at recruitment and training.  Finding ways to connect with the larger campus community will prove challenging.  Meeting the needs of patrons will be a constantly changing endeavor requiring efforts in public service, teaching, and web page design.   And above all else will be questions of strategic and long term planning.  Where do we go from here?
Perhaps the most important component in leading an academic library is for a leader to have a good attitude that he is willing to help instill in the library staff.   This can be done in many ways.  One novel way is to consider the ideas of the 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  His concept of the eternal return is apt for academic libraries because it presents a powerful way of thinking about daily events and also provides a conceptual model for the formal organization of an academic library.

The eternal return is the idea that everything that occurs in life will happen again and again endlessly.  Life is one big circle and eternity is the process of the same events repeating over and over again.   There is no way out of this cycle and it can only be accepted or denied.

Wrote Nietzsche of the eternal return (2001):

This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!  (p. 194)

Far from being pessimistic, Nietzsche saw this as an empowering view that would allow the individual to optimistically embrace the events of life.   As we are predestined to repeat life endlessly always the same way, an individual can ensure eternal happiness by always being happy.  If one is positive and happy on any day, that day will always be a positive and happy one in the future as it is endlessly repeated.  A happy person will eternally be happy.

Wrote Nietzsche of having such knowledge of the eternal return spoken of by a demon (2001):

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who so spoke thus?  Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more, and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight.  Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life crave nothing more fervently that this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal.  (p. 194)

While it is not a perfect fit, the metaphor or model that can be derived from Nietzsche has some power.   There are several ways that this can be applied.  In essence, everything that happens in a library impacts everything else in the library.  Events do not happen in a vacuum and every event (no matter how small) triggers positive, neutral, and negative consequences for everyone else in the organization.
In the broader view, the eternal return is a good way to view the broader environment in higher education that academic libraries operate in.  As it says in the Bible in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  The cycle of funding repeats endlessly and lean times are followed by times of plenty.  Librarians will always have an unusual role on campus and the people will never know quite what to expect from the library.  Just as everything done in a library ultimately impacts everyone else, that which is done on campus and in the broader academic environment comes back to impact the library.

Envisioning the library and academic environment as an eternal return allows library leaders to follow Nietzsche’s advice.  As a manager, the library leader must be positive and optimistic.  Every scenario in a library has been faced before and it will be repeated in some form again.  An upbeat approach will help make everyone happier as situations are dealt with.  The leader is happier by being positive and so are those who interact with him.   Positive actions sown in a library tend to have positive returns.

Functional Areas of the Academic Library

This model is envisioning a circle where all eight functional areas of the library connect.  It can be seen as a river that flows in a circular motion from one area to the next.  Located in the center is the library leader.  Events also flow through the leader.  As such, all the functional areas of the library impact the other areas either by interacting directly or by flowing through the library administration.  The library leader is in the center because his actions have the most direct impact on the entire organization.  As such he is both in the main flow of events of the library but he is also apart at other times and directing events from the center.
This model stays true to the idea of the eternal return as well.  It is endless in scope.  It never ends as long as the organization continues.  All events flow endlessly around the organization directly impacting all other events.  As time goes by, small events become larger as they gain momentum and merge with other events.  Nothing ever truly goes away.   Even though the library leader is in the center, he can not escape the flow of the eternal return either.  He can impact the course of events by his actions but he is still very much impacted by the whole picture.
There are eight functional areas in this academic library organizational model.  These include instruction and outreach, public service, collection management, systems, technical services, facilities, finance, and staff personnel.  There is a ninth area as well and this is the library leader.  As it is in the center of model, it will be treated outside the other eight functional areas.
The first area is instruction and outreach.  Most academic libraries have active instructional programs.   This includes the more visible areas such as teaching library skills courses and teaching one-shot instruction sessions for other courses on campus.   It also includes such diverse areas as attending resource fairs, meeting with new faculty, and putting how-to instruction on web pages.  This function is how many patrons first learn about the library and how to use it.  This then filters to the other areas of the library as it impacts how patrons interact with public services, if they can find and use materials from the collection, etc.  It also can help to create positive PR for the library as a whole by creating a favorable impression in students, faculty, administrators, and the local community.
The next functional area is public service.  This is the visible face of the library that most patrons see.  It includes the staff who work at service areas such as the reference desk and the circulation desk.   Every place that a patron can receive assistance is included in public service.  This area flows into all the areas of the library as well.  If patrons can’t find material, the collection is underused.  It also impacts on personnel decisions, building use by patrons, the use of public computers, budgeting choices for hours of operation, etc.  It is important to note that this area is also the biggest area that employs student workers who will be the only library staff patrons interact with, so it is important that they are properly trained as well.
Collection management is the functional area that most patrons think about.  Although all may think about the librarians who help them and the nice look of a library, it is the material that is available in a library that draws most patrons to the library.  Traditionally, this has meant the quality and quantity of the printed books and periodicals (journals, magazines, and newspapers) in a library collection.  This has changed dramatically in the last decade.    The majority of patrons now want or expect the majority of material to be made available to them online as part of the library collection.  As these are more expensive than print, (and more likely to change as vendors change their collections and pricing structures!), this causes serious problems with balancing a collection between print and electronic resources.  (See Lorenzen (2002) and (2003) for examples of the consequences and possibilities of this new world.)  Decisions on this matter will reverberate throughout the whole academic library including how staff interact and instruct patrons, how materials are acquired, and how patrons view and appreciate the services of the library.
While the collection may be the most visible aspect of an academic library, a library systems department is its backbone.  This functional area supplies the computers that staff and patrons use to access electronic resources and the Web.   Further, systems also maintain the library web site and makes sure that all databases that a library subscribes to are up and available to local and remote users.  Failure in this functional area will swiftly bring all operations in a library to a halt.   Faulty computers can halt an instruction session, result in lost data for patrons and staff, and prevent patrons from accessing electronic resources.
The most hidden functional area to patrons is technical services.  This area is responsible for many things including ordering materials, maintaining and tracking periodical subscriptions, cataloging books, and processing new materials so that they can be placed on shelves.  This area allows for books and journals to appear in the collection for patron use.  It also assures that books are cataloged and described properly so that they can be located in the library catalog.  Further, proper processing of items allows for them to be shelved properly and then found by staff and patrons.

While a library may ultimately be its collection, it is also housed in one or more buildings.  Operating the library building is a large task that the facilities functional area is responsible for each day.  This includes opening and closing the library, providing security for the collection and patrons, and making sure that cleaning and repairs are done on a regular basis.  This area is also is responsible for the scheduling of rooms for both staff and patron use and ordering supplies like pencils and toilet paper.  A poorly run facilities area will have many problems including weak security and poor building maintenance.   This can ultimately lead to a facility that has staff who do not want to work in it and patrons who do not want to visit it.
Finance is the functional area that funds everything else.  Every academic library has multiple funds to juggle and manipulate into financing all aspects of the library.  This means making sure that adequate funds are allocated to the library as well as making sure that this money is all encumbered properly each year.  Failure in either area can cripple a library with cuts in supplies, staffing, and collection acquisitions.  Further, loss of funds may require that a library be open fewer hours a week, impeding patron access.

The final functional area is staff personnel.  A library needs people to operate.  While many on campus think that a library doesn’t need much staffing, in reality it does.  From staffing service desks, to buying and processing books, to teaching classes and creating web pages, a library is a labor-intensive endeavor.  While student staffing can help, it is necessary for a library to have a large complement of professional librarians and support staff to help them.  Staff personnel make sure that staff are hired, trained, retained, and treated according to university regulations.  It makes sure that staff members have opportunities for professional development.  Failures in the staff personnel area have serious consequences for a library which can impact every area of the library.

Beliefs about Leadership

Separate from all the other functional areas at the center of the idea is the library leader.  Yet, despite this apparent separation, the leader is closely connected to the rest of the model.  Everything connects to everything else in an academic library and as such all actions flow to and then through the leader.  In addition, the leader often is the catalyst for what occurs in the library.  As such, his actions often set off new actions that flow through out the entire library organization.
It is important to remember that all actions initiated or responded to by a leader will take on a life of their own.  While they will not be repeated verbatim eternally as predicted by Nietzsche, they will still appear seemingly eternally in a library.  These actions will also outlive the tenure of any library leader’s term of service.  Future administrators will have to live with the actions of their predecessors.   This is why even the simplest decision can be seen in a different light by staff.  For example, a library leader makes a decision on staffing based on budget concerns.  He sees this as a rational move based on an unfortunate budget situation.  In contrast, the staff sees this same move as an attempt to undermine the faculty association based on a similar move made back in 1985!  All the previous actions in a library come full circle to impact new decisions being made.
This “eternal return” of library actions can be negative, indifferent, or positive.  As a library leader is haunted by some previous decisions made by him or others, he also will gain benefits from other decisions that are perceived as positive by the staff.     As such, it is in the best interest of a library leader to take Nietzsche’s advice and treat every moment as one that will be repeatedly endlessly in his tenure.  If one is positive and optimistic this time, it will be easier to be positive and optimistic when the event occurs again in the future.  Further, this attempt at being positive will flow into the actions themselves as library staff perceive this positive demeanor of the library leader and respond accordingly.
This fits with many of the theories that have influenced the understanding of educational administration.   This can be examined by looking quickly at each of the eras of educational administration theory.   Classical theory holds to the idea of scientific management.  Viewing the academic library as part of an eternal return would work fine.  As long as the library leader is working for standardization and is in control of the planning, viewing a library from the perspective of Nietzsche could work.  In contrast, transitional theory could accommodate this model as well for the opposite reason.  It recognizes that the academic library is heavily influenced by the informal organization.  As the informal organization would be a large component of the endless cycle of the eternal return, it would be important for the library leader to treat the informal organization with respect and optimism.  Ironically, systems theory is an excellent fit as well.  Looking at an academic library like it is a living cell easily allows for a library leader to accept the idea of an eternal return of cellular life.  However, the idea of entropy in systems theory does not work with the eternal return as the organization is not believed to be moving towards death but instead is moving towards repetition.

However, the eternal return model of academic library leadership is the best fit for the middle range theory.   Looking at a library organization requires a leader to be flexible.  Every event in a library has echoes of past happenings and for a leader to approach them in a positive manner will require constant environmental scanning.  Every action, no matter how ancient its origin in the organization, must be dealt with on a situational basis.  This frees the leader to use his experiences and knowledge of different theories as the flow of events in the library occurs.  When necessary, he can bureaucratic (in a positive way) and act like a Theory X boss.   He can also act like a Theory Y leader and trust the staff when it is appropriate too.  Whatever method works the best in allowing the leader to positively embrace and deal with each issue will be the one that should be used.

Looking at the idea of the psychic prison reveals what is believed about leadership from this model.  In Plato’s classic work The Republic, his allegory of the cave examined the idea of people being trapped by their current circumstances and being unable to see the larger picture.  This translates into a modern organization as being trapped in a psychic prison and being unable to change to see the bigger world around it.   I would argue that the model of the eternal return would allow the leader to view the academic library as a psychic fortress that is a bastion of defense of traditional library ideals.  All that has happened in the library will happen again.  The leader needs to positively grab this idea and hold it up as a way to guide the flow of events into the future.  Far from being negative, Nietzsche’s outlook can put a positive spin on one of Plato’s allegories.
The author also believes that looking at the academic library as a political organization is beneficial using the eternal return.  People are what create politics.  Yet, people have not changed much in thousands of years.  We are all still driven by the same wants and needs that our ancestors were driven by.  Societies, cultures, and organizations change through time but the basic person in them does not.  Generation after generation, the basics of human behavior remain the same.  This flows well into the idea of an eternal return as the political forces created by humans are one of the main drives of the eternal return.  I believe that following the eternal return model of library administration would allow for the leader to treat each person as a human being by recognizing that underlying understanding that all people have needs and wants and that this has implications in management.  As long as the leader is following Nietzsche’s advice and trying to deal with people positively, this will usually lead to good results.


While Nietzsche’s ideal of the eternal return can not be perfectly applied to academic library management, it does fit well.  The functional areas in a library organization have the look and feel of a big circle that endlessly flows from one area into the next.  Events can and do repeat.  Very little that is truly new appears.  As such, looking at events as being reoccurrences, and planning accordingly for the future, from this perspective is helpful.  This is particularly true if the leader takes Nietzsche’s advice and approaches all situations in a positive manner.  This has many benefits for leadership that match many of the ideas in educational administration theory as well.  Finally, it in many ways reflects what this author thinks is important for good library leadership.


Hatab, L. J. (1978).  Nietzsche and eternal recurrence: The redemption of time and  becoming.  Washington, D. C.: University Press of America.

Lorenzen, M.  (2002). The Land of confusion? High school students and their use of the  web for research.  Research strategies, 18(2), 151-163.

Lorenzen, M.  (2003). Teaching and learning on the web.  Academic exchange quarterly,  7(1), 3.

Nietzsche, F. (2001).  The Gay science.  Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Plato. (1941). The Republic.  Oxford: Clarendon.