Since we’re discussing academic and public libraries this week, let’s compare them in another way. (As for you “special” librarians, I’ll ignore you like the rest of the profession does!)
It’s been the contention of many that public libraries are there to give people what they want, provided of course they want multiple copies of bestselling novels, scratched DVDs, and waiting in line to use slow computers with dated software.
Is there anything that librarians in public libraries can tell people they need? Or better, is there anything they can tell people they shouldn’t want, and thus won’t be supplied?
In academic libraries, that’s what librarians do all the time. Academic librarians buy certain kinds of books and journals because they’re better than other ones, and then they try to teach students to evaluate the information they find so that they can also pick better information.
I’m sure you noticed I said better, and not different. That’s because I mean better. A scholarly article from a leading peer reviewed journal on Topic X is better than, say, a comparable Wikipedia article or a website from some high school students. It’s better as information, and that’s what libraries are there to provide. If you want to know public opinion, a wide-ranging statistical survey adhering to the best procedures for conducting such surveys is better than you polling a few friends on Facebook.
There are areas where people seem to think distinctions of quality can’t be made. There’s no arguing about taste, as the saying goes. I don’t think there are as many of those areas as some people claim, though. Hence, the common experience of preferring one film/ tv show/ book to another, even when recognizing the other is in fact a better film/ tv show/ book. Everyone likes junk food some of the time, and some people like junk food all of the time. There are people with fat lumpy minds just as there are with fat lumpy bottoms.
But when it comes to actual information about things, the distinction is all but eliminated. There are standard sets of questions academic librarians ask and teach others to ask about any information. Who created it? What are their credentials and expertise? Who funded it? What are their biases? Who published it? What else to they publish? How timely is it? They make distinctions about quality all the time, and their expertise, such as it is, consists in the ability to make these distinctions.
The professional authority to make such distinctions disappears when libraries start talking about “customers” and giving people what they want. I just looked at the NYT best seller list for hardcover nonfiction. The top book at the moment is something called Crimes Against Liberty: an Indictment of President Barack Obama by David Limbaugh. Because it’s the top bestseller, I’m assuming a lot of libraries are also buying it. I looked at the Amazon preview of the book, and asked the standard questions about the book.
It’s written by someone who seems to write exclusively for conservative websites and presses. The Regnery press exclusively publishes conservative books. Thus, the book is almost certainly preaching to the choir, and the choir doesn’t demand argument so much as affirmation. It makes grand, provocative claims that can’t possibly be proven and are to any reasonable observer close to nonsense. For example, it claims that [Obama] “has been one of the most fundamentally dishonest chief executives in our history [and]…has proven more divisive than any president in the modern era, including George W. Bush.” The first claim cannot possibly be proven, and the second claim tells us a lot about the author, but absolutely nothing about Obama or Bush. Besides, LBJ and Nixon were more divisive than either of them.
The book is obviously a typical partisan political hack job with no concern for standards of evidence, reasoning, facts, or argument. No responsible academic librarian would recommend this book as a reliable source of information about anything except the culture of political partisanship in the United States. If money wasn’t an issue, librarians might buy it and pair it with books like Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country? as examples of how not to write reasonable, carefully argued books, but that’s about it.
An academic librarian could easily say, don’t buy this. Don’t read it. It’s not worth the money or the shelf space. The only people who would want to read the book are the people who think Obama’s a Muslim who wants to impose sharia law on the country, and most of them can’t read well anyway.
But why would any library buy a book like this? Or any book by Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, or any of the other political hacks who produce books that are supposedly nonfiction, but are quite clearly bad books with bad arguments and partisan rhetoric? Why buy any book that clearly fails the most basic tests librarians use to evaluate information?
One answer might be, because the public wants it, or at least parts of the public. But large parts of the public want complete foolishness. Is it the librarian’s role to supply that want? Or is it the librarian’s role to make distinctions? To say, this book is good, this one bad. This one has a regard for evidence, arguments, and facts, and this other one is little better than propaganda?
Another answer might be the standard librarian line that all views need to be represented. But why? What about views that are demonstrably false? Why do they merit representation? The library should supply information, not misinformation.
If librarians aren’t allowed to make those distinctions, to refrain from buying a book because its nonsense, then what are they good for? What expertise as information professionals do they really have if they can’t make professional distinctions about the relative quality of information and enforce that distinction by what they buy?
Poor readers accuse me of trashing public libraries. Instead, I merely ask questions about professionalism. Librarians are supposedly information professionals, which means that are supposed to evaluate information. Are they allowed to exercise their judgment in cases like this, or is the response usually just to buy whatever’s popular that people might want? And if they aren’t allowed to exercise that judgment, then it seems to me they lose an important component of their professionalism. If all we do is supply whatever information people want regardless of its quality, then we’re not information professionals. We’re store clerks who have to pretend the customer is always right, even when it’s obvious the “customer” is a raving imbecile.