One of the odder events of the past week is probably Safe Library Guy praising the acting director of the ALA-OIF. I’m not sure what this means for her future at the OIF, but Chicago could probably get a week’s worth of electricity if it could harness the wind power generated from Judith Krug spinning in her grave.
The fun library news of the week has got to be coming out of Florida (via LIS News). A county commissioner named Carlson down there in Dixie thinks libraries should be used for research rather than entertainment. He’s fighting a losing battle, though he actually has some good points to make. If library budgets are tight, and I’m assuming this one is, does it really make sense to purchase multiple copies of best-selling novels? For every extra copy of the latest bestseller purchased, that’s some other item not purchased. It’s one thing for the library to turn into an infotainment center; it’s quite another for the library to cater to the lowest common denominator and operate on the assumption that unless everybody wants it, nobody gets it.
The commissioner, for example, thinks that the library shouldn’t buy fifteen copies of the latest JohnGrisham. Fortunately for him, according the library director, only "seven are usually purchased." That’s really not much of a defense, though. Purchasing only seven copies? Why bother to respond in that way at all? Though it corrects a factual error in a rhetorical flourish, it merely confirms that the library spends money on extra copies of trashy books, most of which will sit unused on the shelves after the first year, only to be discarded after a few years of idleness. Public libraries have literally bought into the culture of planned obsolescence with a vengeance. The commissioner could point out this fact without ever addressing the question of whether computer users at the library should be allowed onFacebook.
Or consider this opposition: "Commissioner Guy Maxcy also served as the liaison to the library board, and made no bones about his opposition to Carlson’s philosophy. ‘I believe he means he would like to take the library back into the 1950s and 1960s, probably the 1950s,’Maxcy said. ‘Libraries have come 360 since then.’" My goodness, that’s one inarticulate politician. I’m not sure why, but the "probably the 1950s" tacked on to the end of the first sentence cracked me up, as if Maxcy was carefully considering the decades in his mind, and decided that yes, the 1950s were really the exact decade Carlson wanted the library to return to. Added to that verbal stumbling, the second sentence was merely icing, though the mental confusion that negates the point of the first sentence is amusing. The newswriter couldn’t help but poke fun at Maxcy with the very next sentence: "Carlson’s ideas are 180 degrees opposite from Maxcy’s."
(Though I’m no expert on the history of public libraries, I don’t think the 1950s would be the right decade anyway. The 1920s might be more appropriate, and we certainly don’t want to return to that decade. Bathtub gin in my martini would be unspeakably awful.)
The public is getting involved in the debate, though as with everything democratic the results are confused. We’re told that "after a question was posed in the newspaper about how taxpayers want their library dollars spent, library staffers copied and handed out the e-mail address and phone number, and more than two dozen calls and e-mails were received on Thursday and Friday. One agreed with Carlson, 28 were against." Let’s see, library staffers hand out the contact information to people who happen to be using the library that day. Not exactly a representative sampling, now is it.
The comments are mostly anti-Carlson, though they vary in coherence. One of my favorites is this one: "Let’s see…how many years has Mr Carlson gone to college to study library science? Mary Myers, the director of our libraries, has been to college for years to find out how to run a library and how to select library materials." This comment is obviously not meant for librarians, since we all know how ridiculous it is. Nobody goes to college for years to find out how to run a library or select library materials. This isn’t to say that the director is wrong or incompetent or anything – I don’t know anything about her – but that she has an MLS (presumably) is not much of a decisive factor in this battle. I’d be willing to bet that even Ms. Myers would admit that compared to her years of experience as an actual librarian, her library science degree means little for her ability to run a library.
Carlson claims only to want to spend the budget dollars wisely. For example, he claims that "more of the budget should be used for ‘the latest and greatest solar energy research books for the kids,’" prompting one reader to comment, "Does he also not realize that research can often times involve FICTION books? It’s not all about non-fiction in our learning process." It’s a disingenuous comment, though, because for research purposes multiple copies of bestselling novels aren’t needed.
It could be that Carlson is a nut, and it’s all happening in Florida, so who really cares anyway. But if libraries have tight budgets that are getting tighter, does it make any kind of financial sense to purchase multiple copies of anything? Did it ever make sense if the library is to serve as much of the public as possible? Those are questions we get out of this debate.
Libraries all over the country are hurting, budgets are being slashed, branches are closing. The best defense of the public library is that it’s a public good, that it serves the needs of the public in a way they can’t be served by private enterprise, that it does something to improve the lives of everyone in the community whether they use the library or not. Have libraries really been spending their money wisely for decades by buying multiple copies of the latest bestselling crap? What books or CDs or videos might have been purchased that might have benefited other members of the community? What constituency wasn’t being served by making sure everyone in the city could read The Da Vinci Code at the same time? Even if we consider the library an infotainment center, how many people aren’t being infotained because the library has spent its money this way?