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Not Reinventing the Library

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.

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Comments

  1. noutopianlibrarian says:

    I’m inspired too! I’m going to ask my local gas station to forget about the slurpees and just focus on gas.

    And astonished as well…that AL doesn’t differentiate between core collections, which most decent public libraries do preserve (or at least, replace as needed) and provide access to, and the role of research collections, public or otherwise. If a patron can’t go to a reasonably sized central branch of their public library and find works of J. Austen, H. James, and W. Faulkner, as well as Nietzsche, Adam Smith, and Basho (I didn’t actually check to see if these are in core collection) among all of the shuffled-in and out resources, then perhaps public libraries aren’t upholding Manguel’s ideals, but pssst…we really are, even amidst makerspaces, technology centers and DVD collections.

    • anonymous coward says:

      I’m going to assume that the examples given were somewhat random and not an endorsement of haiku over other forms of Japanese written expression.

      Seriously, are we to create a master list of items that are acceptable by someone’s standards? If so, who speaks for the minority who think of a different greatness when talking about authors? Are you the arbiter of taste? For shame.

    • been doing this a while says:

      I was thinking more along the lines of Seuss. C’mon man, don’t twist my mind with your ability to come up with obscure Japanese authors who ARE NOT part of most public library core collections. You must be big city folk.

  2. noutopianlibrarian says:

    @AC. Illustrative, not random, though I understand you look askance and even shame me. That’s a common enough rhetorical device, to be sure. Fortunately, the good folks at H.W. Wilson have taken the time (for some decades) to compile a set of core collection resources for public libraries. These have been quite useful to many libraries I’ve worked with both as a staff member and as a consultant. It is with some pleasure that I confirmed that works of Austen, James, Faulkner, Nietzsche, and Smith are included as part of these recommended collections, though you really got me on Basho. There are some recommended collections of haiku, however, so this somewhat ameliorates my deep sense of shame engendered by my off-the-cuff inclusion of him and being called to account for it in these comments..

    The point, dear CW, is that public libraries continue to maintain a role in preserving access to the human record, as open to criticism as the Public Library core collections or any other attempt less than a full repository of the written word, but exemplary both in mission and in nuanced practice. And if you wish to contest that point, or to further discuss my poorly chosen illustrations of our efforts to include core works in countless (figuratively) collections across the U.S. and I trust, in varying forms, across libraries both public and private across the globe, please do so, whither shame be part of your argument or nay.

    • anonymous coward says:

      My point was, playfully, that any such attempt at core collection is inherently flawed. It is skewed to the taste of a majority and it assumes a homogeneous society. The concept of a core collection for Pacific Northwest vs Florida would, without a doubt, find different levels of success. Why should anyone, really, be advised to have the complete Rumpole series taking up valuable shelf space collecting dust- or leasing the rights in digital format? Is that really the best service to the public? The best value? Could that money NOT have been used more wisely?
      My point is that it’s silly to assume that libraries always carry certain “approved” texts. we must be objective in our selection- and there’s no objectivity when setting some authors’ works above others based on “quality”, right? Also, lighten up.

  3. noutopianlibrarian says:

    And for what it’s worth, I absolutely adored the gorgeous language and imagery Alberto Manguel employed in his Reinventing the library article. It is a thoughtful article that is deserving of the attention it has gotten. I myself shared it with fellow colleagues last week as soon as I read it, and have enjoyed some conversations about Manguel’s accomplished writing and about the ideas/principles behind the erudite language. I’ve also placed the one work of his we have in our collection in my to-read list, thought the fate of this is uncertain given the scope of my desires contrasted with the time I daily devote to reading off-line (about 45 minutes, give or take most days). All this to say that it was a tremendous piece and I’m glad AS is part of the awareness around it, no matter how my response challenges some of her observations.

  4. noutopianlibrarian says:

    @been doing this a while says Big city folk, yep. I think there’s about 30 people in the hamlet where we live. Oh, and there was something like 20 people in my graduating class. I’m not big city folk, I’m from dirt poor Ozarks people who never went to college, but I do have an opinion or two for what libraries can provide those who have minds that are open and exploring, Seuss included. Thanks for some quality personal observations. Beats shaming, I suppose.

  5. noutopianlibrarian says:

    @Anonymous Coward. “My point is that it’s silly to assume that libraries always carry certain “approved” texts. we must be objective in our selection- and there’s no objectivity when setting some authors’ works above others based on “quality”, right?” If core collections were the only, or even an evident portion, of a library’s focus, I’d be surprised. Access is already well-accentuated by access to digital texts and I would suppose that even in libraries that take a pretty comprehensive approach, the budget amounts and percentage of dusty shelf space devoted to Rumpole is pretty small. There is plenty more in most sizeable libraries that reflect selectors, review publications, community recommendations, and corporate programs like standing orders and automatic ordering. We have the tastes of many individuals and groups reflected, just as we have different media, much of it purely entertainment, access to the Internet for those who need it at the library, and all manner of other resources. If I’m to take your counterargument to the devotion of Mr. Manguel’s to the legacy of the written word and the library role in preserving and access to The Book, frankly I would be unconvinced, dear AC. Core collections are merely one set of tools, one that has had a useful role. The minds of librarians and their communities, along with the evolving nature of the tools they use for selection, is very mindful of minorities, no matter whether by virtue of physical traits, cultural expression, or ideas. No more perfectly than how Core collections and tools like them in the canons of libraries in other lands in whatever form they take, but central to the ethos and practices of our profession. And it you look around, it’s working. Oh, and I’m not especially a “light” person. But I’m engaged in the discussion, and try to be fair-minded, so I accept that as an acceptable personal difference, even if these traits don’t make me the life of cocktail parties.

  6. floorlibrarian says:

    A core collection in the Beijing Main Public Library will not have Tiananmen square books, while a library in Japan would. Tool sets only work if the conditions empower their use, not hinder it.

  7. AcaPubCybrarian says:

    Most of this is typical cranky, well-worn tread, but, as I know from experience, this bit is a solid nugget of truth:

    “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.”

  8. dan cawley says:

    I wish Manguel would have expanded upon the paragraph that begins: “Librarians today are forced to take on a variety of functions that their society is too miserly or contemptuous to fulfill.” That concept deserves further exploration, especially in the public library setting.

    • anonymous coward says:

      I think it is telling that he didn’t. Such statements, without explanation, sound great but have no meaning and are often indefensible.

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