Last week someone commented to the effect that one of the many things I didn’t know about public libraries was that there were people there doing real research. The comment in part:
Then, there is another class of people who use the public library for research purposes, because they have no access to the ivory tower libraries with their superior clientele wiping their noses, getting tintinitis from their ipods and wearing their tattoos like honor badges.
If you notice, as I did, that the comment drips with resentment, it won’t surprise you to learn that it’s by a public librarian who couldn’t find full time work in academic libraries. Maybe the problem wasn’t the lack of available jobs, but the attitude.
But I digress.
Whether all, or even most, universities and colleges could be called “ivory towers” is seriously open to debate, but I’m certain there are people with serious research needs or reading interests trying to find intellectual sustenance at their local public libraries.
Good luck with that. Because one thing I know for a fact about public libraries is that most of them gave up on serious readers a very long time ago. The move was deliberate, and as a result serious readers often don’t find much support in public libraries.
If you disagree with me, then it will be over the definition of “serious reader,” because otherwise I am absolutely right and you are absolutely wrong. So, what is a serious reader?
Let us begin by stating what a serious reader is not. Serious reading is not defined by quantity alone. The people who read a romance novel a day or a bestselling thriller every two weeks aren’t serious readers. They read for entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with reading for entertainment. I do it myself. But by definition it’s not serious. It’s the literary equivalent of watching television, except without the ads (at least so far).
Serious readers are also not necessarily scholars. Scholars read to produce their next book or article, but there are plenty of serious readers who might read some of the same serious books, but only for the purpose of discovery or enlightenment or curiosity. These are the readers most ill served by libraries in general, because they’re not necessarily affiliated with a university, but they can’t get what they want from public libraries. And since Amazon isn’t selling scholarly Kindle books for $9.99, they can’t afford to buy all the books they want. Scholarly books are priced for libraries, not individuals.
Serious readers do not confine themselves to the contemporary best seller lists or to the latest genre fiction. If they’re reading what the book trade calls nonfiction, they usually like to read very deeply, sometimes even books written by (gasp!) people in ivory towers. If they read fiction, they’re likely to explore authors that most public libraries either never bought or weeded because they hadn’t circulated in a while. If they read poetry, then they might as well give up entirely, because most public libraries aren’t going to have much that isn’t being assigned to local high schoolers.
Twas not always thus. Public libraries often began life by stocking books for serious readers. Librarians were even a bit ashamed to buy the kind of shallow, ephemeral bestselling trash they now stock with glee. There was the “fiction problem,” in which librarians noticed that they stocked serious books for serious readers, but that most people who read at all wanted fiction, the easier and trashier the better.
Oh, what should librarians do, they wondered? If we buy serious books for serious readers, then we will serve only the small percentage of serious readers in any community. But if we stop buying serious books, and stop pretending we’re here to educate people, and buy what the “public” wants, then more people will use the library.
The choice was an agonizing one for many librarians, but they eventually caved in or died off. As a result, public libraries changed. They were no longer for serious readers, but for the masses, the bigger the mass the better. In the course of the first half of the last century, public libraries transformed into the bread-and-circuses, lowest-common-denominator, give-the-”people”-what-they-want institutions we have today. This isn’t necessarily true of large urban systems that have a research library somewhere, but it’s true for most public libraries, even in wealthy suburbs
As libraries gave up on serious readers, serious readers gave up on public libraries and public librarianship. It’s not uncommon today to hear public librarians say they hardly read books at all. And why should they? If your job is to promote videogames or develop an “online presence” then why should your reading habits be any different from a sales executive or a groundskeeper?
I think the thing public libraries do best is interest children in reading. Promoting literacy is one of the most important things public libraries do. Compared to that, promoting gaming is trivial fluff. I would like it if they bought books that would sustain a lifelong love of serious reading, but it’s never going to happen.
My commenter seems to resent the “ivory tower libraries” that wouldn’t employ him (I’m not sure why, but it sounds like a him), but I’ll present a different resentment. Let’s say I’m a serious reader. I have an avid curiosity about medieval history or physical chemistry or nineteenth century fiction that isn’t Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. Where would I turn? Your public library? How deeply could I research the Carolingian empire in your library? How many books does your library have on physical chemistry? I’m reading George Gissing’s novels and would like to read his collected letters?
Could your library get me what I want? And what if I kept coming back for more, and more, and more?
Would you try to charge me for interlibrary loans because I’m a patron with “special needs”? Would you point me to some university library that probably won’t lend me the books I want even if I go the the considerable hassle to travel there? Or would you just give up? For the most part, we know the answer, because public libraries gave up on serious readers decades ago.
I’ll admit I don’t know about a lot that goes on in public libraries from first hand experience. That’s because in my adult life, I’ve rarely encountered a public library that could supply my reading needs. Once upon a time, I’d get videos from my local library, but for the price of a latte a week, Netflix will send me all the videos I want, and with a breadth of choice no library ever gave me. Libraries even tend to fail me with music since I don’t listen to much pop music and the classical and jazz selections at most libraries are pretty slim. If I want the latest pop album, fine. If I want the latest recording of the “Jupiter” symphony, tough. One scratched CD of Mozart is pretty much like any other, right? And forget about baroque concerti or big band jazz, because you’re not going to find many of those at your public library.
And guess what. I’m part of the “public,” too. So the next time you climb atop your low horse and complain about how clueless I am, think about this. I’m not producing obscure scholarly tomes. I’m just a lifelong learner with a wide-ranging curiosity. I love books. I read a lot. I went to the public library. The public library never had the books I wanted. Or the DVDs. Or the CDs. I left, and never went back. The serious reader/viewer/listener: just the person the average public library doesn’t serve. If that doesn’t bother you, maybe it should.