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Library Decay

The website TV Tropes analyzes something they call “network decay.” This happens when a television network changes over time to the point where it differs significantly or even totally from its initial incarnation.

This is the sort of change that has often happened with the niche cable TV channels that popped up in the 1980s. MTV is a prime example, changing from a network showing videos of pop music to whatever it does today that’s nothing like that.

The transformation of networks with a pretense of educational programming has been more dramatic. It’s hard to remember a time when there was such a thing as The Learning Channel, and it sort of wanted you to learn something.

Sometimes that change has been what TV Tropes classifies as “slipped.” In this category we find The Discovery Channel, which was a network mostly showing documentaries.

By the mid-1990s, they showed an obscene amount of home improvement shows and cooking shows aimed at stay-at-home moms…. Now, they’re being swamped with ‘guys building and/or blowing things up’ shows in the vein of MythBusters and Monster Garage. And about four different shows about ghost hunters.

Americans don’t like science or history, but they do like ghosts and blowing stuff up.

In the worst category, “total abandonment,” we find the History Channel. Not content with the audience of middle aged men, which I assume is the demographic for endless streams of documentaries about WWII, the History Channel branched out into bizarre territory. Here’s TV Tropes’ assessment:

Much of The History Channel’s (now called “History”) programming now consists of docu-soaps (Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men) and semi-documentaries with some (rather lowbrow) historical content (Pawn Stars and its spinoffs, as well American Pickers) focused on roughnecks or conspiracy theory “documentaries” about aliens, the Bible Code, ghosts, Atlantis, Nostradamus, and the end of the world, earning the network the derisive nickname “The Hysterical Channel”.

I’m not a big TV watcher, but I have seen episodes of their show Ancient Aliens. With its orange-faced host spouting a steady stream of non sequiturs, I at first took it for a comedy show sending up UFOlogists and the like. Alas, I think it was meant to be taken seriously by the gullible folks who must constitute a desirable TV demographic.

Why all this on network decay? Because I ran across an instance of what could be called Library Decay, on par with the History Channel’s descent into the bizarre.

No, I’m not talking about the way public libraries have been straying from their core mission of providing books to people. Libraries have long been a mishmash of infotainment.

Lending cooking pans and hosting video game parties might seems strange to the library purist, but at least the educational part of libraries was still there. Libraries are still places to go to get reliable information, and that’s one of the ways they’ve pitched themselves in the Age of Google.

And then there’s this, sent in by a Kind Reader:

UFO and Bigfoot researcher and author, Stan Gordon, will present “Strange Encounters of Pennsylvania,” during a program at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Carnegie Free Library in Connellsville.

Gordon said he will discuss the history of UFOs, Bigfoot, and other strange incidents and phenomena that have occurred in and around this area, as well as statewide. He will also give an update on recent strange encounters that he has been investigating.

When I read that, my heart sunk as much as finding out something called the History Channel was hosting Ancient Aliens.

The area with the “strange incidents” includes Kecksburg, PA, where something occurred in 1965  that has been the object of investigation by all the dubious UFO shows on TV that imply aliens are amongst us.

As Ancient Aliens might put it, there’s no evidence of an alien aircraft landing in Kecksburg, but there could have been one, and if there isn’t one, why is the government trying to cover it up by denying there was one? And how were the Nazis involved?

It’s just the sort of incident that appeals to people who prefer sensational speculation to mundane knowledge. Throw in unconfirmed Bigfoot sightings and you have a perfect blend of dubious “mysteries” to entertain the gullible.

If there was enough available evidence to decide either way, there wouldn’t be any “mysteries.” Then all the conspiracy mongers couldn’t believe that it’s more likely that an alien spaceship crashed and the government has covered it up for decades than in something more plausible.

Where’s the fun in that? Instead, they can tell us that there’s no proof alien spacecraft haven’t landed here, so there.

And this sort of thing is at a library why? It seems to me that when a library is hosting a speaker who wrote Silent Invasion: The Pennsylvania UFO-Bigfoot Casebook, there’s a serious disconnect from the mission of providing reliable information.

That’s the sort of source librarians should be questioning, not promoting. When it comes to information, shouldn’t libraries be a refuge against the sensationalist nonsense that passes for educational TV?

From what I can gather online about the book, it links a rash of UFO sightings with no evidence of aliens with a rash of Bigfoot sightings with no evidence of Bigfoots. I guess the Bigfoots are really space aliens, at least in Pennsylvania.

And before you say, “wait, AL, shouldn’t you read the book before judging it,” I’ll say no. Again, if there was real evidence, endless books and TV shows wouldn’t have to speculate so much.

As further research, I watched UFOs: the Best Evidence on Netflix. The evidence is clear. People have spotted objects that were flying and which they were unable to identify. To go any further, show me an alien ship.

The sort of thing that TV networks start showing when they have abandoned educational TV and want to lure the gullible masses shouldn’t be the sort of thing libraries host to get people through the doors, unless the purpose is to show how gullible people use hearsay and a the absence of proof to support their conspiracy theories.

But hey, I’ll change my mind if any actual evidence of alien spacecraft or Bigfoots actually turns up. Present the public with an actual alien spacecraft or the body of a bigfoot and the matter will be settled.

Until then, I’ll just try to avoid the cult of UFOlogists and Bigfootologists as much as possible. Despite this one talk, libraries are generally a good place to do that.

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Comments

  1. feldspar says:

    The library is offering Mr. Gordon a venue to publicize his books and in addition hosting an entertaining event for residents. This seems fair. It doesn’t mean the library endorses his ideas. Lots of authors present programs at public libraries to flog their books.

  2. Andrew says:

    I hosted a teen program in this vein at my old library job. We showed Ghostbusters and had a presentation about ghost hunting and cryptids afterwards. Originally I looked up a couple of local “ghost hunting” groups knowing full well that they were full of it, but after looking at their websites and seeing the same old bunk being credulously tossed up on the web as evidence of ghosts they’d found I changed the program.

    Instead I did an hour presentation about the ghost hunting phenomenon, what they typically cite as evidence of paranormal activity, and the perfectly rational and mundane explanations for all of those phenomena. The program still turned out to be decently popular without sensationalizing or breathlessly legitimizing pseudoscience in the name of attendance numbers.

  3. me says:

    I am guilty of this to an extent. I’ve never hosted a program like this per say. But, I am in charge of the adult non-fiction purchasing and I make sure we keep a healthy stock of big foot, UFO, witchcraft, ghosts/haunting, conspiracy theories, etc.

    Aside from true crime it moves more than almost anything else in non-fiction. I just can’t resist those sweet, sweet high circulation numbers.

  4. “That’s the sort of source librarians should be questioning, not promoting.” What? AL, has Chip been feeding you too many drinks again? This might be one of the few things you write with which I disagree.

  5. Former teen volunteer, now a full-fledged Librarian says:

    I ran into this when I first started volunteering for libraries, long long ago. Adult patrons would ask me about paranormal books all the time. If it was a real reference question I’d take them to the desk but I’d otherwise take them to the area.

    I still remember an interaction from back then. The patron was an adult male who was pushing a stroller. We were one of those branches that specialized in children’s books, so when a man who appears to be a dad asks about fairy books and I’m just a new teen volunteer, so of course I took him to the fairy books made for young children. He stared at me for a second and said something along the lines of “Oh no, I’m not looking for books for my child. I’m looking for books about real fairies.” Again, being a teenager and not a ref librarian, I was confused (real fairies? Was he talking about the LGBT community? Paranormal books?) so I just led him to the ref desk.

    I still cringe thinking about that interaction.

  6. The Librarian With No Name says:

    I’m fine with this sort of thing for three reasons.

    First, books about bigfoot are not pushing out quality nonfiction in any meaningful way. Unlike the late lamented History Channel, a library collection can absorb a few shelves of ghosts and astrology without affecting the signal-to-noise ratio appreciably.

    Second, I accept that some of the books on my shelves are going to strike me as just woefully stupid and misguided, and I’m going to have to do my best to help the people who want to read stupid and misguided things. I do this to uphold a philosophy of nonjudgmental service that is designed to rein in librarians who think that vaccination or the theory of evolution is stupid and misguided. A few dumb books cannot do as much damage as a librarian with a grudge.

    Third, as a fan of science I hope that people never stop trying to study nonexistent crap like bigfoot and space lizards. Not because I think they’re likely to exist, but because a society that tolerates fringe lunacy like that is displaying a healthy amount of mental flexibility that’s good for innovation. UFOlogists are not contributing anything meaningful to the discourse, but they’re a positive symptom of larger cultural structures.

    All that being said, if I was the programmer I’d probably schedule it around Halloween and mix in some books of skepticism and rational inquiry for the program display.

    • c says:

      I agree completely with you. I am hosting a teen program this summer and part of it will be discussing “zombies” in animals. I think the teens will get a kick out of it, and they may actually learn a little bit of science… Plus, it’s none of my business what they believe, it is my job to try to provide the items they want/need. Keyword is that it is not my place to judge

  7. word says:

    One could use aliens, bigfoot, etc. as an opportunity to teach about folklore and its role in human history. There is literature on the subject of alien stories and folklore, Indiana University for example, and it is a great library learning opportunity. It’s the kind of topic that a research library is still much better at answering than good ol google. Information literacy at its finest.

  8. Larry Forrester says:

    The community I live in has Santa come to the library every December. Isn’t that continual library decay? It is starting with children, why not continue with big foot and the boys.

    • Raynor says:

      Completely different.

      In one case, they had a guy come to the library and talk about UFOs and Bigfoot, which are not real.

      In the other, you have Santa come to the library, and it is therefore self-evident that Santa is real.

      Let me know when they have Bigfoot come to the library.

  9. Bookworm says:

    Lighten up, AL. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and it brings adults into the library. We read fairy tales to children in story time – let’s give grown-ups a chance to suspend disbelief once in a while, too. Know of any haunted libraries, anyone?

  10. benny the jet says:

    Makes more sense than cake pans, fishing rods and lures, etc.

  11. Connie says:

    My library brings in the pet psychic regularly, she draws huge crowds to her programs. Isn’t it kind of like the collection, you don’t have to necessarily approve of everything in it.

  12. Bonegirl06 says:

    Wow, someone has their panties in a wad over nothing. Lighten up. Stuff like this is fun, interesting and draws people to the library, way more than someone giving a presentation on, say, battle plans in WWII. That’s why the History Channel changed so much. No one was watching it anymore. It was known as the Hitler Channel. Now it has Vikings. I much prefer Vikings. If you want to give a balanced presentation, have someone come in promoting an book that debunks UFOs and Bigfoot. Libraries might be places to go to get reliable information, but they are also places to go to retreat into a fantasy world. On a side note: I hope we never become disinterested in the unexplained. A lot of people don’t have hubris enough to think that we know about or can understand everything in this world, especially if they’ve had an experience of their own. Just try explaining away ghosts to someone who says they’ve experienced one.

    • Andrew says:

      The cold spot was a malfunctioning HVAC vent. The electromagnetic signature they detected came from the power lines outside because those voltmeters are hella sensitive. The ghostly moans they recorded was actually the tape recorder picking up the sound of its mechanical parts running in a silent room. The feeling of dread they experience in their basement or attic is because it’s a dark scary looking place.

      Did I miss any of the usual suspects?

    • Bonegirl06 says:

      I’m not saying these things don’t have an explanation. I’m just saying try explaining them to someone who is 100% sure they’ve had a paranormal experience. You won’t get anywhere.

  13. Dreamweaver says:

    The History Channel? I give them the benefit of the doubt on Pawn Stars. It’s as much history and culture as Antiques Roadshow on PBS… And their Modern Marvels series is a great place to start on many esoteric history and science subjects no one else touches: the historical development of basements, the origin of truck stops, the history of Mr. Coffee. Hey, if you want TV decay, try A&E. I remember being turned off as a kid because they showed plays—honest to goodness highbrow theatrical plays–British movies and such. Now it’s the art of homicide investigation.

    And yes, I too savor the circulation numbers of paranormality. I, at least, count on the brains of kids growing up on this stuff to reach critical mass as an adult to realize most of it is drivel.

  14. Paige says:

    Speaking of A&E, anyone remember when Bravo used to show 5-star films and Inside the Actor’s Studio, not Real Housewives of NobodyCares?

    That said, I think AL needs to lighten up on this issue, too.

  15. dan cawley says:

    Our library hosted a program on the “Skunk Ape,” complete with blurry photographic evidence.

    The Skunk Ape is Florida’s version of Bigfoot.

    The Smithsonian even did an article on old Skunky. That could be perceived as a slip.

  16. Dean says:

    Only slightly ontopic, my favourite quote about conspiracies:
    “Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself, and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening.” – William Gibson

  17. Beth says:

    As part of summer reading, the teens are having a Spark a Debate and discussing UFOs, Bigfoot, fairies, etc. The plan is discussion, citing scientific evidence and what makes facts vs fiction. Also, of course, glow in the dark slime and bigfoot cookies! ;)

  18. Peter Ward says:

    AL is spot on. More evidence of how we’ve thrown in the towel and stepped on to Stupid Street.

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