All along I’ve noticed that a lot of librarians resent my criticism of the lowest-common-denominator, give-‘em-what-they-want, bread-and-circuses approach to public librarianship that so many librarians seem to desire. Sometimes it seems that I’m the only librarian who believes public libraries should have some sort of purpose larger and more important that subsidizing the puerile entertainment desires of the mass of people who can’t afford Netfllx or videogames. Some naive people think that the masses should provide their own puerile entertainment and public institutions should contribute to the public good.
Before you start complaining, I’ll come out and admit I’m old fashioned and a bit idealistic. When I think of public libraries, I think of institutions that exist to serve the public good. I really want them to have a worthwhile purpose. If I were a librarian, I’d want to be inspired. I read this line from the Boston Public Library and actually am inspired: "The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty." For some strange reason, I think libraries could make a case for themselves by emphasizing their educational and political mission and persuading the public that libraries provide a worthwhile public service that no other institution provides. I now realize that making a compelling case for libraries is just too difficult for librarians, so to survive they need to be all things to all people and think like businesses and that sort of stuff. If that’s their purpose, I’m not sure why libraries should survive, but I’d probably think differently if my next paycheck was coming from the municipality (though the way budgets are these days, maybe university libraries should start pandering as well if they want to survive). The great thing about fulfilling the lowest and simplest desires of the masses is that it lowers their critical capacity even more, making it even less likely they’ll want anything other than to be entertained. Yay!
Thinking about this reminds me of Neil Postman. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman discusses two possible future dystopias – either 1984 or Brave New World – and argues that rather than the oppressive totalitarian future of 1984 we were instead moving toward the brave new world, where we never think or learn or question but only entertain ourselves endlessly. We amuse ourselves to death. We all behave like children, demanding instant gratification and constant stimulation. What could oppose this future? Well, if anyone cared to oppose it, public libraries could certainly be one bastion of civilization amidst the intellectual ruins of the brave new world. However, for that to happen, librarians would have to dread this future and believe that the public good requires institutions that oppose the culture of amusing ourselves to death. If the culture is one of degradation, anti-intellectualism, ignorance, and immaturity, then public libraries might be countercultural institutions that serve to counteract all this. That would require a principled stand, though.
I realize now that I’m just a silly dreamer who is completely out of touch with the vagaries of modern librarianship. Librarians don’t want to have a grand purpose or an important cultural mission. If they did, the cognitive dissonance involved in their daily work might be too much for them. Perhaps I’ll just give up, then. If you can’t beat them, join them. From now on, I’ll do my best to parrot the new party line.
We’ll all be happier after we come to believe that libraries have absolutely no purpose other than to provide entertainment for those who can’t otherwise afford it. Entertainment is important! If we’re not all entertained, we might start to think about important political and economic issues or question the world around us. Libraries must prevent this from happening if at all possible.
How do we prevent this? By providing top-notch entertainment! We need more trashy fiction, more DVDs, more videogames, more Internet porn viewing booths, more foot massages! We need more librarians whose concern for the common good ends where Youtube and Dance Dance Revolution begin! We need more librarians who never give a thought to anything other than what new fad or trend might be exploited to bring as many people through the door as possible. Some librarians don’t want to contribute to the public good. They just want to act like hucksters and sales people. Instead of criticizing them, I should celebrate them. They want to make people happy! They want to give the people what they want! Anything else would just be "elitist," as one of my critics called me last week. And we all know that it’s bad to be part of the elite. Elitism bad! Mediocrity good! What a brave new world that has such librarians in it!