Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Get Distracted and Disengaged @ Your Library!

What a wonderful weekend. Thanksgiving weekend is when Americans do what they do best: eat too much rich food and spend too much money on things they don’t really need. Americans are addicted to food and commerce. I spent my weekend much the same. It’s possible I had turkey in four different manifestations over four days. However, I avoided the malls and superstores. Why mix with the sweaty masses when I can buy almost everything I need online?

Not all of my readers are as enamored of American culture as I am, though. Reading back through the comments for last week, I noticed this one:

It’s "not philistines who orchestrated the phenomenon – that makes it seem unintentional. Why would people suddenly start considering abstract higher education to be worthless? As you inferred, it’s bad for business to have a population full of scholars. It’s also bad for politicians because the more well-educated people are, the likelier they are to be actively critical. Disdain for and devaluation of higher ed. is positively correlated with (and in my opinion orchestrated by) the rise of the corporation as policy-maker via the federal government…."

This is one librarian who definitely isn’t getting into the spirit of the thing, whatever the thing happens to be. The dumbing down of America, I guess. Or maybe the loss of civic virtue and the final apotheosis of entertainment culture.

I used to think libraries should play a role in fighting this dumbing down and destruction of civic virtue. Once upon a time, I was much swayed by the declaration on the Boston Public Library building: "The commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty."

That’s the sort of sentiment that has inspired my criticisms over the years of the public discourse of librarians. There are definitely librarians out there who take the educational role of the library seriously, but we don’t tend to hear much from them in blogs and columns and conference presentations. Maybe it’s because taking that idea seriously requires serious people thinking serious thoughts.

It doesn’t matter, anyway. I’ve been converted. As soon as someone pointed out that anyone who wanted to conserve important elements of culture was "conservative," that did it for me! I have a new motto: The commonwealth requires the entertainment of the people as the safeguard of quietude and civic disengagement. That motto is much easier to live up to.

That sort of motto can inspire and inform all sorts of librarian activity. Such as, you might ask?

It’s a great justification for seeking out every new commercial trend that comes along and trying to adapt the library to meet it. After all, there are poor people out there who can’t embrace every instance of cultural commodification unless they have the library resources to do it.

It would also justify spending a lot of time playing around with popular gadgets instead of doing any serious work. Some librarians like to claim we have to master the latest new techie gadgets to stay relevant, because "that’s what the people are using." The new motto justifies that sort of attitude completely. Yes, let’s just do whatever "the people" supposedly want, because everything is equally worthwhile anyway, and we would never want to be guilty of guiding tastes rather than pandering to them.

Or we could insist that libraries be more "transparent," as if transparency was an end in itself. Transparency would certainly expose many libraries as the hapless shallow institutions so many of them have become. Libraries are transparently kow-towing to every expressed public desire, no matter how ridiculous. It’s important the public realizes this so they don’t have to fear that they’ll find anything challenging at the library.

Libraries should also spend their time and money providing people with as many distractions as possible. Book groups and training sessions are all well and good, and some libraries do these, but it’s a lot cooler to play videogames and bring in lots more people that way. The national gaming day the ALA seemed proud of so recently is indicative of this mindset. Wow! Lots of people came to the library to play games! We’re doing our part to entertain ourselves to death! This is truly something to celebrate. Anything to keep people docile and distracted rather than critical and engaged is a good thing.

Oh, and libraries should definitely adopt the perspective and lingo of "business." We certainly wouldn’t want a public institution thinking it had any values outside of and superior to the marketplace. No, it’s better if libraries started "marketing" themselves, even if they don’t do it very well. And they should definitely talk about "customer service," because those people coming into the libraries are merely customers, not fellow citizens embracing and participating in a public institution.

Librarians who have any values outside of American commercial culture should definitely be dissuaded from entering the profession. These days there are still people who become librarians because of some misguided idealism regarding education or literacy. Then they see the reality of many librarians remaining quiet and waiting peacefully for their pensions, while others get "jazzed" about yet another entry in the endless stream of entertainment products.

Why do librarians never get "jazzed" and make up songs about any serious purposes behind libraries? The answer is obvious. It’s because they don’t think there are any serious purposes. The library stands for nothing. It’s just a reflection of a shallow, distracted culture, not a remedy for it.

Let’s not worry about it. It’s a lot more fun to play games and fiddle with shiny gadgets and hook up with our friends online and talk about how great we are and how dull and musty everyone else is. If there’s one thing the public never has enough of, it’s entertainment and distraction. So let’s do our best to provide some.

You go do it without me, though. I have a martini and some turkey canapes calling.

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annoyedlibrarian@gmail.com

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Comments

  1. safleming says:

    I think you make an egregious error, equating enthusiasm for new technologies and the adapting of new ideas in librarianship with the ‘dumbing down’ of public libraries. Problem I have found in the discipline has been the recalcitrance of the old guard to recognize that the world has changed and that library methods from the 1950s (along with collecting practices and paternalistic attitudes from that era) do nothing but alienate and disengage the public. And whilst one should reflect critically prior to adopting new techniques holus-bolus, the days of card cataloging are gone along with the dodo and the dinosaur. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

  2. Me says:

    Like the AL I have no interest in video games, and my eyes glaze over when people start talking about what an important form of discourse they are, how educational, bla bla. And comic books? For grown ups? C’mon. But I’m not supposed to like that stuff, because I’m an over the hill geezer – just like the AL. Her problem is that she keeps having to tell people about it. That’s just pointless and silly – like Coleridge comparing the reading of novels to “spitting from a bridge.” Times change

  3. de la Tour d'Auvergne fan says:

    “Why do librarians never get “jazzed” and make up songs about any serious purposes behind libraries? The answer is obvious. It’s because they don’t think there are any serious purposes.”

    They have one serious purpose. They won’t admit they have it, but they do. That purpose is self-aggrandizement. They’ll be able to aggrandize themselves only within the relatively narrow socio-political confines of library-land, but that’s fine with them. It’s something, after all, and perhaps more than they’ll get in other social and professional venues. Ever heard the term “geek queen”? You can find one holding court in most high school lunchrooms or college student unions. Perhaps the librarians who make up songs, as AL calls it, are perhaps analogous to them?

  4. tummytime says:

    In my public library we’re obsessed with the business elements of marketing and workflows because that’s how our city government sees us: as a business that needs to show results in numbers. We are slaves to circulation statistics, patron counts, programming numbers, etc. City administration is constantly demanding numbers to justify our very existence.

    I’m pretty sure most of the librarians in my library system would love to do actual library work based on the education and literacy of the public. It’s a little difficult though when the mayor and council have never been able to understand the nature of libraries and tirelessly request higher circulation numbers because they have no other way to measure our output and thereby justify us to voters & taxpayers.

    Take the summer reading program — administrators want us to crank out high numbers of participants every year by enticing kids with prizes if they read. While most of us think reading should be the only prize involved and handing out prizes for reading won’t necessarily make kids love reading, we do it anyway. In spite of our reluctance and resistance, we do it anyway so that the mayor and his crew think we are actually DOING something as librarians and it’ll be harder to lay off staff and close branches.

    “The answer is obvious. It’s because they don’t think there are any serious purposes.”

    The answer is actually more obvious than that, at least for a lot of public libraries: We get jazzed about what you consider frivolous things because we need to save our asses first before we can perform our more “serious” duties as librarians.

  5. Sarah says:

    Anything even vaguely cultural or intellectual is given the pejorative “elitist” these days. We’ve all got to reduce ourselves to the level of “America, *&$* yeah!”.

  6. Dan M says:

    Wow. Well said tummytime. I’m in my second year of public librarianship and I have been wondering if it’s just me who feels this way. It was comforting to read your response (I guess misery loves company).

    I have been feeling like playing the role of a heretic and refusing to keep track of meaningless reference statistics, but with the economy what it is, I don’t want to ruffle feathers.

    Who were the morons who negotiated these nationally-accepted rules that would allow a library’s worth to be judged on circ stats, etc.? I don’t remember anybody mentioning this negotiation in grad school, but it seems to affect every library in the country about the same. I know I am a rather naive rookie, but seriously, how does one qualify a library’s value – or justify its existence – using relatively insignificant, quantitative data? And which of said morons lacked the foresight to negotiate computer usage and database access into these bean-counting practices? If we need to do it, why not update it to the technology that’s been around since 1994?

    It’s ridiculous that we need to justify ourselves like a business, because we’re NOT businesses! When businesses provide an inelastic service they financially excel; they don’t get budget cuts.

    I’m thinking of the Digital Divide when I say ‘inelastic service’, not, say, people checking out DVDs. There are many substitutes for acquiring entertainment. Maybe right there I’m justifying all that A.L. is saying: If we lower ourselves to just entertainment, which is ubiquitous in our culture, then our value diminishes because there are many substitutes for said product/services. (See, another example of how my undergrad experience has been more valuable in librarianship than my MLS! “Thanks Econ 120!”)

  7. Spartacus says:

    I am cynical about the value of higher education because so many of the financial people who have not just degrees but graduate degrees. I also work with many people with MLIS degrees who are lazy idiots.

  8. Post postmodern Librarian says:

    This is the simple result of people not using the library being ignorant of its function. What is causing more problems with our governing board is that at an ever increasing rate these people are not using libraries. The amount of times I have heard business like people say “I made it through school without setting foot in the library” makes me sick Finally what I have said in the past and will say now is that soon LIS professors will come from the digital age. Being Jazzed about technology they will also see little value in the physical library. The only way to save libraries for the future is to convince people of their value not for today but for tomorrow. Unfortunately administrates of all types and typical jazzed people live only for the today’s problems.

  9. The Dave says:

    to the Annoyed Librarian:

    Amen, Woman. Your next round is on me.

  10. Cynlib says:

    Take a tip from East Anglia, and just make those stats up.

  11. Al says:

    Years ago, the distinguished Librarian Herbert S. White said that something to the effect that if libraries try to be all things to all people, they will end up being not of anything to anyone at all. This is exactly what I see happening. The main problem is not “recalcitrance of the old guard to recognize that the world has changed”. We all know the world has changed. But is diverting already scant resources to poorly thought out and irrelevant fads really the answer? Too many Library managers see “success” as simply drawing people in the door instead of providing meaningful and useful services to them. Librarians who try to be “cool” by mindlessly jumping from fad to fad and who apparently see libraries as nothing but a dog-and-pony show to increase the door count are doing the profession a disservice which is just as bad as those recalcitrant old guards. To me, they are worse, because those fuddy-fuddy old guards are getting fewer each year, while the Library Fashionistas are multiplying exponentially.

  12. notalibrarian says:

    Wow. I know being “annoyed” is your hook, but do you also have to stupid? Try making your case sometime. Introduce a fact maybe? I dunno. Keep trying.

  13. Bog says:

    In my opinion the problem is not necessarily with libraries, but with our culture. As an academic librarian I have the luxury of being able to interact with my patrons/students primarily from an educational basis. I can not fault public librarians from doing whatever they can to justify their existence to government bureaucrats faced with budget concerns, and a public which is increasingly uninterested in education and self improvement. If our news/entertainment media is any indication then the majority of Americans are interested only in fame, fortune, and trivialities. My opinion is that this trend is a symptom of the overall decline of western civilization. Like all civilizations of the past ours too is declining and will eventually fall under it’s own wait. All librarians can do is hope to survive as long as they can, and perhaps preserve some remnants of our culture and history so that future cultures may know something of us. So take heart librarians. For just as we in library school learned of the efforts of the librarians of Sumeria, Alexandria, and the great monastic libraries of Europe; your efforts too may someday be noted in a textbook.

  14. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    The thing is… anyone can play games in a library. Or offer graphic novels in a library. And in a way, that is well and good; learning does not just come from reading any more. I believe this is, in part, for good. Not everyone learns through the 19th century model of education which is “read-lecture” oriented. I’m a very visual learner myself–I can remember images much more clearly than I can things I’ve read in books (unless I successfully associate them with images). Some are auditory learners or need more hands-on learning. Games, comics and other mediums provide this. Also we don’t live in a world that affords us the luxury of being elitist bastards when it comes to the form that learning takes.

    But what do we *do* with those alternate forms of learning? Once we have them playing Guitar Hero, what lesson can we get them to take away from that? My programs *always* branch off into digressions and other means of encoutering knowledge. Do you *really* know how that CD you’re coloring on works? Where is the information stored on that CD? Why does it crinkle and shoot funny colors if you microwave it (and please do not attempt this at home)? What is the difference between a good guitar player, and a great guitar player, someone we want play as in guitar hero? What’s the difference in sound between an electric guitar and an accoustic guitar? How is the sound produced? What’s the history of stringed instruments?

    I never EVER let them walk out of that room without having learned something else, be it accidently or otherwise. On the flip side, I can’t “learn” them something accidently if I never get their warm bodies in the chairs come programming day.

    We ARE in competition with the 6 million other things there are for patrons to do, even in a small town. I need to make my case. I need to let them know that I am providing a safe, relaxing environment. Part of being safe and relaxing is being approachable. Standing on my soapbox of high culture is NOT going to do it–the people high-minded enough to be interested in high culture probably have the funds and means to encounter it WITHOUT the aid of a public library. There’re ideals, and then there’s reality. Not everyone cares, and I would argue, not everyone NEEDS to care. Knowing what an antecedent is can be NICE, but it’s not really going to help my mechanic fix my engine. I just want to make people excited about knowledge and learning for themselves and I want to provide the structure and confidence to find those answers on the internet or in a library. I don’t think putting on airs will help anyone achieve that end.

  15. Alberto says:

    I see the “library-as-community-center” as being a very sharp, double-edged sword. Sure, ideally the library should be a place for the community to bond, etc. Sure, maybe the days of universal “shushing” are over. But it only works if a building is designed to accommodate these different functions. There should be space for “traditional” library users who want peace and quiet with their books, as well as the new “hip” clientele. In many cases, what I see is a 1970′s era “warehouse” library, which has no such accommodations, turned into a veritable zoo. You see yelling, scuffling teens, screaming kids, people loudly babbling on their cell phones, slurping coffee and strewing wrappers leaving a mess, etc. driving out anyone who doesn’t want to be in this kind of atmosphere. (I know I don’t) Librarians justify allowing disruptive, obnoxious behavior by invoking “times have changed” mantra. It’s just an excuse to avoid telling people “no”. In one of the libraries I worked in for years, we had a running joke that is our branch head saw someone taking a dump in the stacks, she would run over and offer to bring them toilet paper, then apologize for the smell. Too many times I’ve heard supervisors excuse unacceptable behavior with “as long as no one complains, it’s not a problem”. But most people don ‘t complain: they simply don’t come back. Even when people do complain, I’ve seen Librarians reply with “Libraries aren’t quiet anymore.” The fad is to say that we must “accommodate” everyone, but what about people who do want to use a library as a library? They have the same rights, too. I don’t think Libraries will win the battle to be “relevant” by trying to compete with game rooms, video stores, malls, and cafes. We need to market ourselves as providing the resources that those entities don’t provide. Otherwise, AL is right: we are just dumbing down libraries. Getting people “excited about knowledge and learning for themselves and …provid[ing] the structure and confidence to find those answers on the internet or in a library” won’t be accomplished by letting the library descend into the kind of chaos I see in too many libraries. This may give us a temporary spike in the door count, but will spell the doom of the library as an institution.

  16. Dr. Brooks says:

    I had a medical doctor come in recently and tell me he LOVES the Library because it’s the only quiet and relaxing place in town. I was shocked as the place seems to get louder every year. I’ve had patrons ask me questions and answer their cell phones at the same time—now that’s multi-tasking! My point is simple, the best way for us to stay relevant is to do what we do best, provide a nice quiet place for the people of the world who need it. Keep your library clean and well stocked.

  17. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    @Alberto–I agree, I tend to lean more toward the “library as community center” model myself, but there should be a place for everyone. I went into a neighboring library looking for some quite space to write, and couldn’t concentrate, not even in their ‘quiet’ rooms, because the place had been designed with beautiful high cielings (about three years ago), eco-friendly insulation, and A HUGE ECHO PROBLEM. I left with a headache, and none of my writing done.

    I did my best to have teen activities in the activity room, in the basement, and to keep noise levels down to a mild roar (there’s a point in the noise level where they’re getting more and more frenzied, and you’re about to approach YApocolyps if it gets any louder, so I try to keep noise down to avoid mob insanity). And I hope I don’t ever have to deal with a library that’s not designed to handle multiple types of programming/crowds.

    Sometimes you need to study or do research (or are just looking for a quiet place), sometimes you need to socialize, sometimes, you need to cut loose. All should be learning experiences and all should be accessable at the library.