Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Libraries in the Meritocracy

It seems these days that a news story about libraries is incomplete without the phrase “budget cuts.” Sometimes one even finds “protest” in there, since from Connecticut to California people are protesting library budget cuts. Sometimes the protesters aren’t even librarians.

It’s refreshing that both librarians and normal people are starting to take libraries seriously. I haven’t seen any stories lately about how hip and tattooed librarians are these days, or how libraries aren’t just about boring old books, or how fun libraries can be when they clear out the books for more videogames.

For years, librarians have been trying to convince the public that libraries weren’t stuffy old book warehouses. They were fun places for the whole family, not essential places with serious purposes. The thinking, such as it was, seemed to be that if people know how fun the library is and how hip the librarians, they’ll use the library more.

For all I know, maybe people who otherwise wouldn’t have used the library started using it after finding out how fun it was. But even if they didn’t, the propaganda worked. People were convinced the library was for fun and games. Good job!

And it turns out that when times get tough and money is tight, fun and games are the first things to go. Librarians promoting frivolity in the library have succeeded in convincing people that the library is frivolous, and frivolous things don’t need public funding in recessions.

Librarian propaganda has shifted quite a bit in the past year, but even now it’s not necessarily about the essential educational value of libraries, and how without access to books and journals and databases and even reference librarians that the education of the people for the safeguard of order and liberty in a democracy will suffer. Education, literacy, reading, books. These aren’t things most Americans like very much, but they like to think they like them, and they like supporting them.

There’s a little of this, but too much is still focused on the library as social welfare center. That’s the impression left anytime you see statements like these:

  • 35% of people come to the library to use the Internet!
  • Job seekers come to the library…to use the Internet!
  • In recessions, people use the library instead of purchasing books or CDs or DVDs.

I’m sure you can think of others. Any statements that talk about how much the library helps people who don’t have jobs or money is casting the library as a welfare center, and that’s a big mistake.

While it’s true that libraries have become social welfare centers, and at least one in California has actually hired a social worker, it might be even more of a mistake to link the library to welfare for poor people than it was to link the library to fun and games for the middle class.

Librarians are often kind and sympathetic souls, and many of them have sacrificed pay and prestige because they believe in the public mission of the library. That’s probably why it’s hard for them to understand some common American attitudes toward the poor. Basically, Americans don’t like poor people.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this, but a big one is that most Americans think of America as a meritocracy, and in a meritocracy if you’re poor, it’s your own fault. You’re a loser, and nobody except Chicago Cubs fans like losers, and even they don’t like poor people.

This is a basic truth about Americans that librarians have apparently missed. Who knows, maybe it’s because so many librarians are losers themselves they empathize with other losers.

And even Americans who do care about poor people don’t really care if they can’t surf the Internet or watch free DVDs. Thus, the two streams of propaganda – libraries as entertainment centers and libraries as welfare centers – come together to undermine support for libraries.

The meritocratic and more or less successful American responds to this propaganda negatively. Free DVDs? If people can’t afford their own DVDs, then they should go get a job, or get a better job, or get two jobs. If they’re sitting around watching DVDs, they obviously have some time on their hands. The same response works for just about every frivolous or welfare-related justification for the library. A lot of good, decent, ordinary Americans think with some justification, “I work hard, and you can, too.”

Does this sound harsh? If it sounds harsh to you, then consider that the belief that America is a meritocracy led to the greatest expansion of public libraries this country has ever seen. Andrew Carnegie, a supreme meritocrat, was probably the greatest benefactor of public libraries ever. Why? Because he knew from experience that education was a key to his success, and he believe that people should have the opportunity to educate themselves so that they could be successful.

The American meritocratic view (poorly understood, but we are talking about Americans here) is behind such nonsense as saying libraries are “socialist.” Socialism is seen as a system where the winners are handicapped to help the losers. It’s unfair precisely because it’s not a meritocracy.

Socialism? Welfare? Hardly. Welfare implies a handout. Libraries aren’t a handout. They aren’t even a hand up. Carnegie didn’t want to give poor people or immigrants handouts. He wanted to give them and everyone else tools to help themselves if they wanted to improve themselves and succeed. And if they didn’t want to work hard to succeed, then that was just too bad for them.

What modern-day Carnegie would fund libraries to supply videogames? Or to be simply free Internet cafes? If libraries are just places to access the Internet, it’d be cheaper for communities to just set up free Internet cafes at shopping malls and get rid of the librarians and books.

Librarians will be more successful with their propaganda if they realize that most Americans consider America a meritocracy and figure out where to place public libraries in that belief. Then they should leave the frivolousness and the welfare talk behind. It might be true that people love libraries, but people won’t fund libraries if they think libraries are just there to entertain poor people.

Giving someone access to books and learning isn’t the same as giving putting them on the dole. Public libraries are there for people to improve themselves and succeed. The existence of public schools and libraries help justify the meritocracy. If people have no access to books and learning, then it’s not their fault they’re poor. The American ideology of meriticracy isn’t going away, even if libraries do. But promoting libraries as necessary components of the ideology of meritocracy will gain them more support than as welfare or entertainment centers.



  1. Lenin's Ghost says:

    Libraries are a social institution.

    There are no free books, no free dvd’s, no free wifi, no free reference help, etc. Not even a free lunch.

    Society has chose to use tax dollars to provide these services.

    They are tax supported books, tax supported dvd’s, etc.

    Yes, yes, yes — before you say it — you get grants for many things, but bottom line, it is tax money that supports the library.

    Free implies that the books magically appear, wifi runs itself, and the people who work at the library are saints who don’t need to be paid.

    Because it is supported by society, libraries have to answer to society about what they are providing.

    Have a really nice day!

  2. Fancy Nancy says:

    Brilliant analysis. Rock on, AL.

  3. TheDave says:

    Librarians whose funding is being threatened always trumpet the resume/job seeker help we offer as well as the critical information provided in our reference and non-fiction collections.

    These sorts of statements seem to run in an inverse proportion to periods of ample funding (“the good times”) when we forget about all that rubbish and go back to being fun-and-games community gathering places…we stress practical realities when the budget axe is raised.

  4. ElderLibrarian says:

    I think it was said during my very brief session in library history,that were additonal reasons as well. Correct me if I am wrong. . . that in America anyway Education and it’s supporter The Library were to serve to make American citizens educated citizens to be able to take their place in democracy.

  5. Excellent says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head as to why library “marketing” tends not to appeal to the base it’s aiming for.

    There are things that should be noted about Carnegie libraries, too–they weren’t just “job skill improvement” centers where people could pick up useful and practical tools. They were also designed to be places where people who might not have had a chance could study the humanities, languages, arts–they were designed to be beautiful and inviting places. The thought at the time was that they would call people to higher thought by treating them like members of the upper class instead of treating them like animals who needed to be trained, or at least tamed into submission. This was the root of the great spread of public libraries–that these things were no longer restricted to those in the know, but were now available to everyone, so everyone would have a shot at success, not just in money-making, but in actually creating class mobility. The patrons remember this, even if the library world often forgets. That’s why it’s always been a mistake for libraries to jump on bandwagons and try to make themselves look like nothing but stores where the merchandise happens to be free.

    Libraries need to stress what they *are*, and what the people both need and want them to be. There’s nothing wrong with a game night here and there, or silly singers coming in for the kids, but those should be opportunities for extolling the larger library, not just getting meaningless numbers to submit to state agencies.

  6. As a librarian who never counted on being a social worker, I can’t thank you enough putting this idea out there.

  7. I Like Books says:

    In the business world, revenues go up when sales go up. In the library world, during good times nobody needs it, and during bad times we can’t afford it.

  8. And then there’s the quote, “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.” – Anne Herbert

  9. Anne Herbert is paraphrasing Gilbert Shelton, who was talking about dope.

  10. Spekkio says:

    Andrew Carnegie, “supreme meritocrat” and man of the people, who funded libraries and museums in order to facilitate American meritocracy.

    Yeah, that’s one way of looking at him and his philanthropy. Another way to look at it is that he was a rather uneducated young man (not by choice, admittedly) who worked in a factory at age thirteen and built himself up mostly through innate intelligence and what we now call networking – or as my grandmother puts it, “it’s not what you know – it’s who you know.” (I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that there’s a strong connection between networking and merit.)

    And then following his spectacular career – during which he pursued education mostly as a hobby, in my view – he spent the rest of his days using his massive wealth to buy a positive legacy after years of using people (unsafe working conditions, absurdly long hours, meager pay) and stepping on them (Homestead 1892) in order to advance his own interests.

    In his defense, at least he gave most of his fortune away, unlike the robber barons of today who feel neither a need to purchase positive legacies for themselves, nor any obligation to the less fortunate.

  11. Microsquashed says:

    Bill Gates is such a miser.

  12. social democrat says:

    This is a first. I agree with about 90% of what you’ve written. But you’re wrong about the job seekers. Many companies don’t accept job application except via their website, even for the most menial jobs. Not every job seeker wants or needs a computer and Internet access from home. What do you propose they do? Come down out of your ivory tower once in a while and visit a pubic library.

  13. I thought it was “Cigarettes will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no cigarettes.” (And it’s true, too.)

  14. Mr. Kat says:

    “The thought at the time was that they would call people to higher thought by treating them like members of the upper class instead of treating them like animals who needed to be trained, or at least tamed into submission.”

    But here’s the issue, Excellent: the society of today turns it’s tumbs towards “higher” intellect and seems to put most of its energy towards being free, fun, and…DRUNK! haha! You want higher thought? Today, that is code for “DRUGS!” Otherwise you’re not doing it right…aparently! Oy Vey!

    Generally speaking, the popular culture seems to be running as fast as it can from so called “intellecutal content” and even challenging it with the question “Who are THEY to decide that THIS is high intellectual content? Now Harry Potter – Twilight – Now THERE are two examples of ‘High’ intellectual content!!!”

    I don’t know what to say, really, seeing as how the common masses are so painfully opposed to more advanced material – except, of course, when it means a higher paycheck – hence why you see so many people clogging up the university systems today!

    I don’t have a solution asside from putting people back in a system where everybody works or everybody starves…the Great Depression did wonders for a whole generation of wild young youth – perhaps that might happen again!

  15. The Obvious says:

    So what, exactly, do you propose? You never give details. Why?

  16. Unannoyed says:

    “So what, exactly, do you propose? You never give details. Why?”

    Because the Annoyed Librarian likes to be annoyed and not offer meaningful solutions. That would mean having to take a real stand on issues instead of just bashing them.

  17. It seems to me the AL’s takes one stand after another. They’re just not stands librarians want to hear. Besides, this is a blog, not a treatise on librarianship.

  18. Good post. I liked it better when it was in American Libraries in April.

    [AL: Since I don’t read American Libraries, I was unaware they published an article about how Americans don’t like poor people and libraries should position themselves as essential to the ideology of meritocracy. But that certainly sounds like the kind of thing that would appear in American Libraries.]

  19. “Andrew Carnegie, a supreme meritocrat, was probably the greatest benefactor of public libraries ever. Why?”

    Speaking as someone who has been to the site of the Homestead Steel strike and lives in Pittsburgh, where roughly 25% of things have Carnegie in their name, I’d say because he both felt guilty and was a famewhore who wanted who make sure his legacy lasted a good long time. I’d put his meritocrat tendencies pretty far down on the list for why he funded public libraries.

    As for how he made his money, the phrases “who you know,” “illegal,” and “off the blood of others” come to mind. One person’s merit is another person’s blind ambition and lack of scruples.

  20. Thank you Lenin’s Ghost! Libraries ARE social institutions. I believe that means libraries do have a part to play in the social welfare of the public. That includes education, access to electronic communication, and yes ENTERTAINMENT! This is about quality of life people and without play, fun, distraction, hobbies, etc. we would be even more stressed out than we generally are. I beg anyone to dissuade me from this idea that we have an OBLIGATION to provide for all these areas that our patrons demand of us.

  21. It’s on their Web site. The article title is “Our Conservative Ideals.”.

  22. Lenin's Ghost says:

    We do have an obligation to our patrons and to society in general.

    What librarians FAIL to do, and most fail miserably at it, it to convince the powers that be why they need money.

    I have watched first hand as librarians try to lobby my local legislature and it is a sight to see. The librarians take the approach that they are right and simply everyone should know that they need support.

    They don’t have meaningful numbers.

    They don’t have statistics to back up any thing they say.

    It is all touchy feely life long learning crap that leave people feeling like they just shook hands with the amazing Mister Limpet.

    Learn the system or you will see libraries shuttered across the land.

  23. Librarian who wished she had more time t says:

    Some of those Carnegie libraries also had gymnasiums, indoor swimming pools and theaters!
    And, who is to way what is educational or a tool to help a person help themself to improve? Those video gamers may take those skills and become a great jet pilot that saves a village! Even good social interaction, that benefits everyone, is a learned behavior and a useful tool that can be developed just by attending programs etc. Even getting kids off the street is a useful tool for some and justifies teen programming! Education comes in all forms–remember that, as a baby learns at play, so many of us losers might also. And, by the way, what do you think of fiction? What would be your rationale for keeping it–you know, they did have fiction a long time ago too. The true message we should be getting out there is that libraries are centers for life long learning–and that learning can be fun!

  24. I work in a Carnegie library, but I don’t like Andrew Carnegie…why? Because I believe he used his fortune to build libraries, and other things to soothe his guilt on how he treated his workers on the one hand as someone pointed out above. Also, he and the Mellons and others were responsible for the Johnstown Flood by considering the dammed lake their own fiefdom and not allowing repairs on the dam breast, with the result that is known to all of you.

  25. HansErich says:

    Just a few crabby thoughts about Andrew Carnegie, from an Andrew Carnegie library. Could part of his great generosity be due to guilt?? I refer to his role (and the role of other “barons” of his era, in causing the Johnstown Flood. He and the Mellons and others considered the lake caused by a dam on the river to be their private preserve and playground. They forbade the necessary repairs to the breastwork with the disastrous results that are familiar to us all.

  26. Coastside Librarian says:

    AL, you nailed it. In my town, we’re trying to consolidate two libraries into one and we are very aware that people are not going to pony up for a new library so that we can do movie nights in a roundabout theater …

    We all need to hitch our wagons to weightier concerns and emphasize our partnership with local schools, colleges, and adult learning centers – we should be all about providing the means by which people can change and/or improve their circumstances (although a good movie can be just the thing to change your outlook, I get that)…

    I hate it when librarians tout the “free” angle – I tell people none of it’s free, it all costs money and and you already paid for it with your taxes – aside from the convenience of buying it yourself, why pay for it twice?

    Great blog, glad you’re back – whoever was subbing for you didn’t have your edge or incisive style … you have a distinctive voice and we all need to hear it. Thanks.

  27. gadickson says:

    Excellent argument.

  28. During my internship in grad school I work within the wall of the Homestead Library. This library like many AG libraries displays a over sized portrait of the man for all to see. From time to time I’ve listened while the stories where being recited by senior citizens (female-genre) still living in the Homestead ares. Those intimacy familiar with AG would say, “he did a lot for my children or there was always something for the kids to do”. However, when the men of the community spoke about AG, they referred to him as the “big guy” or SOB. Their views were sharply different from the ladies. They would speak frankly about and recount details about how sick there best friend got from the soot in there lungs, how there old buddies became drunks, and even how poor he kept us”….hmm…I wonder about this little five foot tall, penniless as a child Scottish immigrant who some say was governed by his mother, I really don’t know. One thing I know for sure is that everyone has a place in the public library. One other thought money is considered the root of all thing even some of the good and bad posting I’ve just read. Just a annoyed thought

  29. Anonymous says:

    Responding to Karl: It is not the responsibility of libraries to provide entertainment, much less an obligation to do so. But how could one possibly dissuade you from this irrational belief?

    No argument exists that would change your mind; not even by pointing out that places of amusement, recreation centers, bars, cable tv… ARE there for the purposes of entertainment.

    And to all others who scoff at AL’s statments — you miss the point of the post so entirely that, for the moment, I am unable to find the words…

    That includes education, access to electronic communication, and yes ENTERTAINMENT! This is about quality of life people and without play, fun, distraction, hobbies, etc. we would be even more stressed out than we generally are. I beg anyone to dissuade me from this idea that we have an OBLIGATION to provide for all these areas that our patrons demand of us.

  30. “Librarians will be more successful with their propaganda if they realize that most Americans consider America a meritocracy and figure out where to place public libraries in that belief.”


    “What modern-day Carnegie would fund libraries to supply videogames? Or to be simply free Internet cafes?”

    Whoa there. You seem to have a consistent prejudice for books and against other media. I’ll let you in on a secret: most videogames are meaningless pap. Most of the internet is meaningless pap. Most books are too!

    Also, if you’re interested in books purely for their educational content (not that you are, of course, because that would be hopelessly narrow) then you’d do well to consider that people learn much better from interactive and communal activities than they do from reading on their own – uh oh, here comes big ol’ Mr Internet and his pretty wife, Mrs Vidja Games.

    You can’t intelligently differentiate the value, educational or artistic, based on method of presentation; give it up already. In the days of the Victorians old fogeys denounced the modern novel as empty and lowbrow entertainment; you could have said the same thing about the earliest films. I’m sure that dumb old cavepeople said the same thing about young and inventive cavepeople’s tales, dances, and cave paintings. Don’t follow their example, and don’t align yourself with the wrong side of progress! Just focus on finding the good bits of the media you hate so much and guide people towards those. For example, MIT has something like 1900 courses available online for free right now; they range from microeconomics (bootstraps, anyone?) to literature. That’s some amazing content that you can’t possibly have in a paper-driven information culture. Open your eyes and point yourself at the future already!

  31. Libraries are knowledge dens – lucky you – I’m not charging a consulting fee to share the news.

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