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.