It’s so nice to get comments from admiring fans, like the admiring fan last week who wrote, “Your elitist attitude betrays you.”
No, I might say in response, the fact that you use “elitist” as a term of abuse betrays you. So there! It’s a meaningless term of abuse that merely indicates that the person using it doesn’t have the same standards about the same things as the person it is being used about.
Then again, the world is run by elites, so maybe it’s time to just get used to it.
My elitist attitude was betraying me when I questioned whether libraries should become food kitchens, which apparently meant that I hadn’t “much experience working in either major urban areas or in rural ones.” Because, um, that’s just what libraries do in urban and rural areas, as opposed to the posh suburbs where I also don’t work in public libraries.
My argument was twofold, both that it was bad for libraries to foist yet another nonlibrary task on them, and bad for people who really need libraries to have the library mission and effort eroded by taking on too many nonlibrary services. If that’s elitist, then I’m elitist. I have nothing against food kitchens, but I think libraries are important, too.
Despite claiming to be speechless at my arrogance, the commenter went on to claim the following: “In major urban areas, where grinding poverty exists on a large scale, anything the library can do to help the individuals in the community, makes the community a better place. Maybe not on a grand scale, but if we can save one kid, so much the better.”
One would think I had argued that starving children should be left in the streets, which of course I didn’t do. [I’m tempted to make a joke here about where starving children should instead be left, but clearly some people don’t have a sense of humor.]
The claim that “anything the library can do to help the individuals” in poor communities makes the community a better place is a pretty extreme response to my alleged elitism.
First of all, that kind of thinking opens the library to becoming everything but a library. Why not get rid of all the books and convert libraries into food kitchens and homeless shelters? Why not take the money spent on books or databases and just give it to the poor? Why not start formal day care services so poor mothers can be sure the kids are safe while they’re working jobs with such low wages that they can’t afford day care? Why don’t librarians start tutoring poor children in the summers to give them the support they need to do well in school? Why not have librarians visit the poor at home and give them helpful tips about budgeting and childcare?
All of these would arguably help the poor more directly than anything libraries actually do. And if anything the library can do would help, then that’s what they should be doing, at least according to my outraged commenter. Forget books. Forget reading. Just turn libraries into expansive social service agencies. That would be fine for everyone except the people needing libraries. Oh, and the librarians, but who cares about them and their elitist desire to be librarians and not social workers.
The only reason that libraries are tasked with any of this stuff is that other social agencies have broken down or been defunded, including post offices. At some point enough Americans decided that we don’t need robust social services anymore and they started to go away. Helping the poor is just so darned expensive, and if I had to pay more in taxes to fund such things I might have to wait a few days longer to buy that 60” TV. Libraries have been mostly saved from this because people like libraries even if they don’t use libraries.
To insist that libraries should be doing any of this stuff is absurd, because libraries already exist to help the poor, even if the poor don’t take advantage of them.
You know what’s a good way out of poverty? Education. Handing out lunch is an act of temporary importance. Educating yourself is a permanent good, and that’s where libraries come in. Libraries help the poor and everyone else by doing library things, not by morphing into catch all social agencies.
If you believe that libraries should take on limited roles like providing lunches to poor children because the reality is that either libraries do it or it doesn’t get done, I don’t really have much of an argument against that. People need to eat before they can have the energy to read. Education is a luxury among the starving but a necessity to keep yourself from starving.
But if you really think anything that a library can do to help the poor trumps what libraries actually should be doing, then maybe you shouldn’t be a librarian. Become a social worker. Volunteer at a food kitchen. Start a crusade to boost social services in your area.
Libraries have a mission to support reading and education. It’s an important mission, and everything they do that takes time away from that mission slowly and subtly undermines what’s important about libraries. Feeding the poor is important, but you know what? Libraries are important, too.