A commenter last week argued that libraries should stop considering providing Internet access as part of their core mission, since the primary mission of libraries is “promoting reading and literacy.” Lordy, that one gave me a smile. As if anyone knows what the mission of public libraries is these days.
It’s so quaint. Theoretically, reading has always been something libraries like to think they promote. We even have those cute READ posters from the ALA. And libraries do provide books, at least for the time being.
The ALA is a good bellweather for this sort of thing, being an organization that is almost exclusively concerned with public libraries. According to their mission page, the ALA motto is, “The best reading, for the largest number, at the least cost.” Does this describe the mission of public libraries at all?
Even when we’re talking about reading, it’s pretty clear that the motto wouldn’t apply to most libraries. Maybe it could be, “the most popular reading, for the largest number, for whatever cost we can afford.” That’s not very catchy, though.
What else could we think when we see libraries spending money on multiple copies of bestselling books, or multiple ebook formats of the same book? Of course that’s regardless of the quality of the books, because when it comes to purchasing books librarians have show the discerning taste of people drinking Budweiser while watching Jersey Shore. If it’s popular, get it!
Librarians also like to say that the primary mission of the library is to provide information. Information is such a great term to mask a multitude of sins. It’s like calling something interesting.
When you say something like, “the citizens of a democratic society need access to information,” it sounds glorious, patriotic, almost inspiring!
When you find out that for librarians information is anything from government documents to hard core porn videos, the term loses its shine.
We don’t even have to play the porn card to make this point. There was some brouhaha last week over this piece in the National Review Online, Public Libraries: No Longer for the Literate. It’s not to difficult to poke holes in some of the arguments, or to protest that there’s as much artistic quality in some movies, tv shows, and CDs as there is in many supposedly classic books.
However, those are the DVDs and CDs least likely to be checked out, possibly because they’re not even purchased in the first place. Regardless, none of the DVDs or CDs will promote literacy and reading.
Also, the writer is confused on the traditional rationale of public libraries. “As American citizens, we approve of a portion of our tax dollars going to help the truly needy,” she claims, implying that’s why we fund libraries.
A mission like promoting reading and literacy isn’t about helping just the needy, and public libraries have never been used primarily by the poor, just as public schools, at least in many places, aren’t exclusively for the use of the poor.
As citizens, we we tax ourselves to promote public goods. One of those public goods is helping the needy, but the truly needy need many things before they get to books. Reading, literacy, and education are public goods that are often used to justify libraries.
What the article didn’t get wrong was that libraries have turned into mostly entertainment centers, which then try to justify themselves as a public good worth funding.
We can categorize beliefs about libraries:
Librarians: who know that libraries are mostly entertainment centers or community centers, or places for the poor to access the Internet.
Library Patrons: who actually use libraries, and know they are mostly entertainment centers, etc.
Everyone else: who are led to believe that public libraries have a grand mission to promote reading and literacy and provide information to everyone, rather than just entertainment to the middle class and YouTube to the poor.
Articles like that, which represent more Americans than librarians would like to believe, are the result of a culture clash, when people who think they’re funding essential services and public goods find out they’re funding Internet porn and teen comedies. Librarians making laughable statements about a Constitutional right to view Internet porn in a public library don’t help things.
We haven’t even started on the supposed missions unrelated to reading or “information.” Libraries as community centers, as tech training facilities for the elderly, as videogaming centers. It’s just too much going on to say libraries have a mission.
If they do have a mission, it’s something like this. The mission of the public library is to provide entertainment, some actual information good for the public, a lot of junk and porn and other “information” that’s not worth publicly funding, a place for people to gather, a place for poor people to access the Internet and the homeless to hang out and bathe, and whatever services loosely connected to the rest of these that no other public agency provides that some librarians happen to know how to do.
That’s quite a mission, but not an easy one to sell to the skeptical. The primary mission of libraries could be to promote reading and literacy, but in practice that’s only a small portion ow what they do.