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Dark Ages, Indeed

The news about public libraries just seems to get worse every day. Closings, budget cuts, reduced hours. It’s so bad we have silly signs like this one posted on Flickr: The Dark Ages began with Closing a Library.

Reading around today I noticed lots of darkness and light metaphors about libraries. Every time a library closes a candle out, etc. As always, my mission is to find the silver lining in any cloud, and I’m here to tell you: we won’t be entering any dark age, and if we do, it won’t be because of public library closures, which seems to be the implication of the sign.

All hyperbole aside, the “dark ages” didn’t begin with closing a library. (I notice that picture has no citation backing up the claim.) The “dark ages” were dark because a gigantic meteor struck the earth and the dust cloud was so thick that it blotted out the sun. No, wait, that’s how the dinosaurs went extinct.

The “dark ages” were dark because of the breakdown of government and communication and trade networks. The mass illiteracy didn’t help any, either.

Even in the ridiculous statement that the “dark ages began with closing a library” was true, it turns out the world has changed a lot since 500 A.D. Every public library in the country could shut down and we still wouldn’t enter any “dark age.”

I assume we’re talking about America here, since there are a billion people in the world who don’t get enough to eat every day, and another billion who barely do, and none of them have public libraries. But let’s not think about them while we complain that our local library might not be open on Sundays.

So, in America, even if every public library closed, no dark age would be upon us. Most Americans have Internet access at home or work, and the public library as Internet cafe seems to be a persistent selling point these days.

Also, most Americans can satisfy their actual information needs on their own, mostly because most people don’t really need that much information.

Whoa, you say! Then what are all those people who use libraries getting? Though the ALA likes to call everything “information” and every desire for “information” a “need,” the sensible among us know the truth. Most people use libraries to get free entertainment. (And yes, we all know it isn’t really “free,” so spare us your ranting comment.)

They go their to get DVDs and CDs and genre fiction and to surf for porn and sports scores on the Internet. The desires of “heavy readers” of romance novels or science fiction do not constitute “information needs,” and certainly not ones that call for public funding from broke governments.

Most people can satisfy their information needs and their entertainment desires on their own. Corporations and universities and governments and organizations of all sorts would still have robust communications networks.  Academic libraries still have more resources than most public libraries anyway, and they’re not going away.

If all this is the case, then where is the “darkness”? It would be, maybe, in the individual lives of isolated people around the country, especially in rural areas with low populations, but that’s hardly the same as a “dark age,” especially since many of them aren’t using libraries anyway.

For the handful of people who have genuine information needs and no access other than their public library, things would be darker. Not being able to check out enough graphic novels does not a dark age make.

I know I’m making too much of a silly sign on Flickr (which the Webtamer liked, btw), but it’s a good example of a trend among librarians these days. They’re making sweeping, gloomy generalizations that can’t possibly be true in order to defend public libraries.

As a librarian, I’m just exercising my information evaluation skills and pointing out that such claims are not true, and in this case have no relation whatsoever to truth, either historical or contemporary.

To promote and defend libraries, librarians should at least tell the truth, which will help keep us in the light and out of the darkness. Besides, based on what I see, most Americans would prefer to be dark and misinformed. Libraries might not be the problem, but I’m not sure they’re the solution.

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Comments

  1. Real Librarian says:

    You don’t know you are in the dark ages at the time.

    A couple of hundred years is what it takes to get some historical perspective on ideas like dark ages and the like.

    Some historian may look back at us from then and shake his head in disbelief about how we approached things.

  2. Bill says:

    “Not being able to check out enough graphic novels does not a dark age make.”

    Aw, why you gotta hate? You can’t pick on an entire medium.

    To take the obvious example, WATCHMEN is at least as dense and serious as any of the literary classics. Good, intelligent comic books might be few and far between, but surely you don’t want to discount them out of misplaced snootiness. As an information need, I’d say it ranks pretty highly, as it investigates themes of political responsibility, authoritarianism, and those ruthless powerful types for whom the ends justify the means. What could be more important for the average domesticated American to read?

    (Not that a single work could ever hope to undo the damage caused by your hideous and impoverished education system, of course.)

    Agree with all your other points, though.

  3. MissingPoint says:

    AL – you missed a bit point. “The next Abraham Lincoln could be sitting in their library, teaching himself all he needs to know to save the country.”

    So says Marilyn Johnson, in the LA Times
    latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-johnson-libraries-20100706,0,5371729.story

  4. Real Librarian says:

    If Abraham Lincoln walked into a public library today as a teen, the librarians would steer him away from books and enter him into the DDR competition. A tall guy like that would really rock!

  5. I Like Books says:

    Historians don’t like the term Dark Ages much any more, anyway. The Dark Ages were a time of philosophical and technological innovation. Aristotle wasn’t much of a loss.

  6. Mrs. L says:

    “The mass illiteracy didn’t help any, either.”

    If that is the criteria for the dark ages, we are already there. Our public schools are dismal and the main function of any public library is to provide the public with their latest James Patterson.

  7. Spekkio says:

    Respectfully, AL – if you’re going to demand a citation for that “dark ages” sign, then I’m going to demand a citation for the following assertion: “Most Americans have Internet access at home or work.”

    Also, editing oopsy:
    “They go their to get DVDs and CDs and genre fiction and to surf for porn and sports scores on the Internet.”