Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

On Noble Purposes

It would seem that the Annoyed Librarian isn’t the only librarian criticizing libraries for trying to be everything to everyone and eroding any core mission they might have had, unless this guy is in fact the Annoyed Librarian, instead of just an annoyed librarian. William Wisner’s "Restore the Noble Purpose of Libraries" seems an odd essay to be published in a news source now almost entire online, given the skepticismWisner has for the devouring Internet, but there it is.

Wisner is the author of Whither the Postmodern Library? – a pessimistic critique of bad technology and a paean to liberal education – and was no doubt disheartened to find snippets of his book available on Google Books. I should confess that I have not read Whither the Postmodern Library?, despite its excellent title; however, I did go back and read the reviews in portal and the Library Journal and it sounds like a depressing read. Here’s an excerpt from Jeff Steely’s review in portal:

The text sharply indicts librarianship. Librarians, by blindly accepting technology and promoting information at the expense of knowledge, have lost track of core values. Rather than fulfill their duty to "humanize" the library, librarians have instead become "blandutopianistic lemmings hurtling off cliffs," (p. 18) in the "shameless pursuit of technology" (p.19). The result, according to Wisner, is that librarians and libraries have been marginalized and may disappear….

Most discouraging is Wisner’s decision to mourn, rather than offer solutions. He in fact criticizes Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman’s book, Future Libraries …, precisely because it does offer potential solutions. Wisner believes that "the library is finished . . .Any ‘solution’ offered would be merely the evidence of a repression in knowing" (p. 123).

I like a good depressing read as much as the next bipolar librarian, but the Wisner of yore sounds like the AL on barbituates. Nevertheless, I do wonder how liberally educated most library school graduates are these days. Though still making the same basic claims,Wisner’s tone seems slightly more hopeful these days.

Modern librarians who prioritize information over knowledge perpetuate a distraction from the real purpose of a library. A library facilitates the patient gathering of knowledge – whose acquisition is superior to almost every other endeavor. Religions have adapted to technology for the most part without being destroyed by it, so why can’t libraries? It might not be too late.

Might not be too late? Is this attitude evidence of a repression in knowing? Do librarians have something better to do than change printer paper? Are there now solutions to the crisis of purposeless libraries?

Before librarians put themselves out of business one printout at a time, libraries must explore similar creative ways to engage the community without dumbing down their mission.

There is a way for libraries to uphold their noble purpose. They must carefully balance wants and needs of the community – they must stop being one-stop shopping centers.

I’m not sure about carefully balancing the wants and needs of the community; that seems too vague to comment upon. I’m intrigued by creatively engaging the community without dumbing down the mission of the library.Wisner opines libraries must stop being one-stop shopping centers, and it’s exactly this everything-to-everyone approach that dumbs down libraries and makes them harder to defend to the general public. Obviously some librarians disagree with me, and claim that only by giving the public what the librarians think the public wants regardless of what it is can libraries survive. That’s backwards thinking, though, and will only dissipate the need for libraries.

A better strategy is to know what libraries should be for and persuading the public of their value, especially their educational and political value. In tough times libraries need a more effective justification than being entertainment centers. Instead of the numerous ALA-inspired articles about how libraries have all sorts of crazy things like videogames these days you’d never expect and you should check them out (!), the national voices of librarianship need to show the necessity of libraries for a thriving, educated, liberal democracy. That probably won’t happen, though, because for too many librarians the library has no higher purpose than to entertain the masses and survive.

Entertainment centers serve no worthwhile purpose in a liberal democracy. Instead, they provide the bread and circuses that distract us from the serious problems we face. Librarians were once concerned with improving the public, but now their spineless relativism disdains such goals as elitist. If the public would prefer to be entertained than educated – and this has almost always been the case – then let us entertain them! It’s just easier that way.

Despite Wisner’s apparent change of heart, the pessimism might still be justified, because discussion of noble purposes is very rarely part of librarian discourse. Unless increasing access to videogames andYoutube videos is a noble purpose.

Contact the AL:


  1. SpongeBob Librarypants says:

    After clicking on the link and reading the article, I’m left wondering what Wisner wants. On the one hand he appears to be rallying against the efforts of libraries and librarians to offer customers what they want, such as video games and technology. Then he turns around and mentions the free coffee program he started at his own library. The library of my childhood would have never offered such a program, as food and drinks were just not allowed in the library.

    I have not read his book, but based on the article I think he is simply a technophobe who is struggling with the loss of humanity and human interaction that increased technology naturally brings to any setting, including the library.

    I do agree with one line from his article. Wisner wrote “Libraries are currently popular only because everything’s free,” and I think there is a lot of truth in that statement. Many libraries are realizing huge increases in circulation, visitors, and computer use during these hard economic times, but once this recession ends (and it will) most of this people will not come back for a long time, if ever. Public libraries, rather than being the “people’s university” are becoming the information and entertainment social safety net for society, offering free internet access, free movies, free programs, to those who cannot otherwise afford such items. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, just that it is the role that most public libraries fill.

  2. Libraries are not free, just as public schools are not free.

    They are a societal cost born by taxpayers. If society decided to not fund libraries, most would dry up and blow away.

    And not a moment too soon.

  3. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    Over 25+ years I’ve worked with a lot of people in public, corporate, and academic libraries. If libraries are supposed to function as the “people’s university,” the people are in deep trouble. My library mentors were deep readers, curious about many things, knowledgeable about their subject matter – in short amazing people. There aren’t many like that in libraries today. We cannot be anyone’s university with the dismal “education” being proffered by more and more library schools. When a student asked me recently about pursuing an MLS, I asked them what program they were considering – the online degree at UNT (of course). I advised the student to save their money and apply to a decent in-residence program. And even then, Kiddo, good luck finding a job.

  4. There will be a flood of great library jobs when the boomer librarians start dying off. Lord knows we are going to have to wait for that because the “me” generation still thinks that they are the only ones who can do anything right and cannot leave.

    Once they start dropping off, things will be changing for the better.

  5. another f-ing librarian says:

    part of the problem, is that our politicians benefit from the stupidity of the people, and therefore have a stake in keeping ‘the people’ stupid. so if we were to make a serious attempt to make ‘the people’ smarter, we’d never get another referendum passed.

    and — unlike our so-called ‘system’ of compulsory education — library systems come with no visitation requirement. so we really may need to bait & switch our patrons into accidentally learning something here & there.

    “…a *person* is smart. *people* are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.” – k to j in “men in black”

  6. 7b75n: Judging from your comments baby boomers are not alone in thinking their particular generation is the only one that can do anything right.

  7. Literarylady says:

    To 7b75n:We boomer librarians who work in public libraries cannot afford to retire, unlike those in special and academic libraries. We are not hanging in just to thwart you but to pay our bills and save what money we can!

  8. “Religions have adapted to technology for the most part without being destroyed by it, so why can’t libraries? It might not be too late.”

    Can anyone give me an example of what Wisner might mean by this, the religion part?

    Anyway, I can really only extrapolate to academic libraries, and I felt this article hitting a similar vein to the some of the same situations in academic libraries, particularly with studying and scholarship. Aren’t we trying to establish learning/information commons? And what Wisner sounds like he’s done with the Coffee Hour is return to the salon-style of information/knowledge sharing that learning commons ideally emulate/reconstruct. But now they incorporate ready access to the technology on which we depend. I don’t really see anything wrong with that. He’s not taking into account so much the major paradigm shift of knowledge/information creation, dissemination, management, acquisition, etc., in scholarship and education at all levels.

  9. Techserving You says:

    7b75n – you seem to be smoking what the ALA is trying to deal. Except you’re more harsh in your claim that there will be a huge librarian shortage with all these retirements. First of all, I have worked with librarians who are up to 89 years old. I am N O T joking. They never retire, they just die in their jobs. And then when they do, they are often not replaced. So don’t hold your breath…. Anyway, it’s only the oldest baby boomers (and particularly, those who have worked in the same institution for 30 or more years) who really need to go. I am sure there are some exceptions… just as there are some lazy/stupid younger librarians. But in my library there is a group of people, just as I have just described, beyond retirement age, who make things difficult for everyone. Unlike some other experienced librarians with whom I have worked, their many years on the job do not seem to have built up a body of knowledge. They seem never to have cared about doing things well and have totally checked out at this point. But I’m off-topic… I work at an academic library and this is one of our biggest problems. We don’t have the same problems the public libraries have.

  10. Anonypotamus says:

    I don’t think the issue is technology in general, but the way technology is being used in libraries. Those who get upset about the “declining state of libraries” seem mostly to be concerned with the pursuit of knowledge taking a back seat to the pursuit of entertainment, but mostly in how librarians advertise their services. In a sense, relatively few people care if a library lends video games. But more people care that libraries use the “video games are media and therefor contain valuable cultural information” argument to have programming based on Wii when they should be having programming based on “intellectual” things (whatever they might be). Likewise, people prefer computer literacy classes to a librarian tweeting away about the (inconsequential) happenings at the library. Both utilize the same technology, so it’s not technology itself. People want us to do some heavy lifting and try to change the world.

    Of course, no one knows exactly how to do that.

    Also, I don’t think the generational divide is too large a problem.

  11. Mr. Kat says:

    “…engage the community without dumbing down their mission.”

    But you see, the community has been dumbing down, so if the library serves the community, thent he library must dumb down its misison or otherwise become irrelevant to that community.

    Libraries are the people’s universities, and right now our libraries are a PERFECT reflection of our people. We want everything for FREE. We want everythign NOW. We want it to be EASY, SHORT, and ILLUSTRATED. We want GAMES and FUN. Everything else needs to be taken out and replaced with 2 more pallets of the latest popular novel series, of which the library has already picked up one pallet.

    I have given up on our People. They do not wish to be embettered – just entertained and entitled.

  12. @ Mr. Kat says:

    You forgot to mention a pallet of DVDs. Actually, let’s become mini-marts (that sell beer of course) with gas pumps. We would rock! And we would always be needed. The usage stats would hit the roof.

  13. Don’t forget about lotto tickets.

  14. Gosh, it is fun to poke at the old geezers with a stick.

    I never said I had all the answers, but I am looking other places in addition to the 3X5 card catalog and typewriter for solutions.

  15. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    I have to say to those people who want the Baby Boomers to retire dont hold your breather, they are waiting on the 80 year olds to retire. Thats Library World and when you turn 63 and if your lucky/silly enough to still be in it your not going to move either. Also even though your probably right the old ones who need to go are probably not reading this blog!
    As for games, last time I said we play video games to entertain ourselves. Another reason is because they are easy programing. They require no thinking beyond what gaming libraries do everyday and they will bring in the crowd of screaming children and a few adults. So it works. What I would love to see more of from gaming librarians is the switch part. We got the bait part down tell us about a mass switch?

  16. Dear 7B75N

    I believe a man named Adolf said the same thing about the Jews, the insane and the gypsys. “Things will get better once they are gone.” Bite me sonny boy.

  17. me too — President Barry is saying the same thing about the rich — does that equate him with Nazi Germany?

  18. 75N That just shows B’s socialist nature. Funny coming from a guy whose wife owns $6,000 purses. The price of fame and power. Oh it must be such a burden… Pretending to care.

  19. Social Librarian says:

    Goodness, not another irrelevant political discussion. Don’t you Republicans have some poor people to exploit, or some gays to bash, or an unnecessary war to start somewhere?

  20. nerdgonewild says:

    Amen, AL!!! Libraries have resulted to appealing to the lowest common denominator and have consequently stripped any claim to educate the populace. If you want to compete with private purveyors of entertainment/information, (i.e. Blockbuster, Kinko’s, the arcade), you will certainly fail. When the economy improves and cheaper maket alternative appears (think Red Box instead of library DVD’s and exorbitant late fees), public libraries will quickly realize, “Hey, we shouldn’t have abandoned our purpose of being the people’s unversity for the sake of entertaining the masses”! And for God’s sake, let’s get some library administrators who don’t hate libraries! What’s so shameful about circulating books and making patrons adhere to a code of conduct. Just in case you’re wondering, I’m a twenty-something librarian who doesn’t mind if he sounds like a prude with a bun and a cardigan! There are some aspects to the business worth retaining, even if they seem antiquated by the “movers and shakers” infiltrating our libraries.

  21. Fancy Nancy says:

    “There are some aspects to the business worth retaining, even if they seem antiquated by the ‘movers and shakers’ infiltrating our libraries.”

    That’s it in a nutshell.

  22. I Like Books says:

    Responding to Spongebog Librarypant’s message way up there at the top… well, not much to add. Except that libraries struggle in hard financial times despite high circulation because there just isn’t the tax revenues that there used to be, and they struggle in good financial times because circulation drops. Feh.

  23. *libraries…offer free internet access, free movies, free programs, to those who cannot otherwise afford such items.*

    Yes, and in the “good ol’ days” they offered print media to those who could not afford it, because there none of these other things to offer at the time.

    *I have given up on our People. They do not wish to be embettered – just entertained and entitled.*

    Mr. kat, they also want to Godwin every thread they come across–oh, and then whine about political remarks by making more political remarks…and who quite incorrecly points out: one can’t be anti-socialist without also being anti-gay.

  24. Mr. Kat says:

    I’m Anti-Stupid. I don’t care if you’re gay, I dont care if your a socialaist, I don’t even care if you’re Old. What I object to most is anyone holding to ignorance as if by that one virtue they are spared from having to ever work hard a day in their life.

    I Especailly object to those who want to to the humanitarian thing, by their definition, and further aid, abet and enable people into an ignorant lifestyle.

    BUT Education Must Be Free. Education actually requires hard work to gain benefit, and further trains the individual how to gain new knowledge. that knowledge translates into a human being who is useul and not merely filling up space on a welfare roster. So I have NO PROBLEM if that one segment is free. Everything else – you gotta work, baby!!

  25. NotMariantheLibrarian says:

    7b75n – this middle-aged baby boomer finds it quite amusing to stay at her job when so many youngsters are clamoring for librarian positions. ALA sold you a load of horse poop. Get over it. The only librarians I know who took early retirement married well – their spouse made/saved enough $$$ to make it possible. I have every intention of working to 65 (another 15+ years) and may work beyond since there is no mandatory retirement age here. Working is fun, a rocking chair isn’t. So people drank ALA’s Koolaid, can’t find jobs, can’t pay off their student loans – maybe they should have done some research beforehand. I’ve written it before and will do it again: it’s always been a tough job market.

  26. July 20, 2009
    In response to: 7b75n commented:

    There will be a flood of great library jobs when the boomer librarians start dying off. Lord knows we are going to have to wait for that because the “me” generation still thinks that they are the only ones who can do anything right and cannot leave.

    Once they start dropping off, things will be changing for the better.<<<<< It won’t happen. I’m an ‘in betweener’ [not officially classed Gen X, and not a boomer either] and they said that about 15 yrs ago about teaching AND library jobs. I myself am still waiting fo the ‘early’ Boomers to retire, and we are first in line(!) fot those jobs when they appear. And we are in our 40s. Generally, though, these mysterious waves of retirement do not happen, generally. They just eliminate the jobs as people retire.

  27. Spartacus says:

    Wisner’s book “Whither the Postmodern Library” is inspired and impassioned. Though of few pages (less than 150), it’s not always easy–especially if you too are passionate about American libraries and education. Nonetheless, it’s well worth the time and thought needed to understand his thoughtful observations and insights. His prose is wonderful, and his story-telling talents are strong too. Read it.

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