It was hard for me to read the NYT article Reinventing the Library without being simultaneously inspired and astonished.
First, the inspiration. The author, Alberto Manguel, who once wrote a delightful book on the history of reading, really loves books, reading, and libraries, as do some of us who became librarians.
He believes libraries are in danger of losing “their defining triple role: as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity.”
That’s a significant mission, and much more impressive than typical statements that libraries organize and disseminate information or some other such bland pronouncement, or worse that libraries are “relevant community centers” or whatever non-library functions people want libraries to fill.
Of course like any person who thinks of libraries in magnificent and mythic ways, he discusses the Library at Alexandria, in which “the kings ordered that every book in the known world be collected and placed.”
He even admits that libraries have always had more than just books, but still “the library remained principally a place where books, in all their various forms, were stored for consultation and preservation of ‘ancient traditions or notions “gray with time”’.”
The article implores libraries to stop becoming providers of fun fairs or social support, and for them to become an “intellectually strong institution that recognizes its exemplary role, and teaches us what books can do: show us our responsibilities toward one another, help us question our values and undermine our prejudices, lend us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together, and give us illuminating words that might allow us to imagine better times.”
He then discusses library closings in Great Britain and Canada, and says that “in the United States, while the number of libraries that have disappeared is not remarkably high, public libraries have seen their budgets cut, their stocks culled, their staffs reduced and their opening hours shortened.”
Things are tough all around, and cuts to the budgets of cultural institutions mean libraries become all things to all people and lose the focus on books.
So much for the inspiration. Now for the astonishment. What public library is Manguel talking about?
Public libraries as preservers of ancient traditions or social memory? Where stocks aren’t continuously culled? Not to mention showing us our responsibilities to each other and lending us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together.
This glorious image seems to have nothing to do with the vast majority of public libraries, or how the majority of public librarians have ever seen themselves.
Outside of the large public research libraries in large American cities, probably no public libraries were ever designed to preserve cultural or social memory.
Even when they focus on distinctly library-related activities such as the promotion of literacy and the provision of books to read, the goal has never been so grandiose.
And sure, libraries, or rather the books in them, can “help us question our values and undermine our prejudices,” but the significant pronoun is “us.” Who is “us”? The biggest havens of intolerance and bigotry in America probably have access to public libraries. They’re not helping.
Reading might increase the capacity for human empathy, but not if you’re reading The Turner Diaries or The Protocols of Zion.
Possibly that’s because public libraries don’t preserve cultural and social memory or undermine our prejudices so much as reflect the interests of the community.
Somebody else can do actual research, but my hypothesis is that small town libraries in Texas would be less likely to have books promoting socialism or atheism than small town libraries in Massachusetts, and the reverse for books on the glories of stockpiling firearms to defend ourselves against attempted coups like the Jade Helm exercise.
There are libraries that perhaps try to live up to the Manguel’s ideal, but they’re rare. Of public libraries, perhaps the New York Public Library tries the hardest.
Looking at this list of the top 25 public libraries by size, the NYPL spends vastly more money in total than any other American public library and more per capita than any public library outside of the King County Library System in Washington state.
The King County system spends $9.06 per capita, which is impressive. Less impressive are the Riverside County Library System in CA ($0.87), Miami-Dade in FL ($0.69), and San Bernadino county in CA (a measly $0.22).
In terms of sheer number of volumes, some public libraries fare well: Boston Public and New York Public leading the way. But of the top 20 libraries by collection size, only three are public, with Boston and New York being joined by Cincinnati. That’s now about the only thing I know about Cincinnati, but I just want to say, bravo.
More show up further down the list, with 23 in the top 100, but the trend is clear. Big city public libraries preserve a lot of cultural and social memory, but generally that task is left to academic libraries and the gigantic Library of Congress.
The LoC is considered a public library in that list, but I don’t count it as such. It’s not like you’re going to walk in off the street, browse for a good book to check out, or take your kids to storytime there.
All of this makes sense because most public librarians don’t think of public libraries the way Manguel does, and neither do most of the public.
These are the places that people with no interest in cultural memory or history – i.e., most people – call warehouses for dead trees. People more attracted to stories and ideas than 3-D printing know how foolish that statement is, but it’s not an uncommon belief, including among librarians.
The Library of Alexandria is often evoked as the library that had every book available at the time, and for people who love books and reading that’s an inspiring notion.
But most people aren’t excited by the idea of being able to access every book ever written. Think about how many people believe that “everything’s on the Internet.”
Clearly those people haven’t tried to read many books published in the last 100 years or they’d know that everything isn’t on the Internet, at least not for free. They can only believe such nonsense because what’s on the Internet far exceeds their interest in reading.
I’m still inspired by Manguel’s vision, and still astonished he could have developed it as a vision for public libraries given the actual functions most of them have filled.
Libraries aren’t being reinvented. They’re plodding along like they have for decades. It’s hard enough to promote literacy in children and teens and provide some entertaining reading for adults in the community without having to worry about preserving the cultural memory or teaching everyone to be more tolerant.