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.