Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Libraries and Class

Though news on the Library Journal yacht has been spotty, a copy of the current Atlantic Monthly washed into my hands, and underneath my enormous sunhat with martini in hand I read through the cover story: Can the Middle Class Be Saved?

Once again, Betteridge’s Law of Headlines tells us that no, the middle class can’t be saved. And more’s the pity, because I was always rather fond of the middle class, even though the article isn’t really talking about them.

The article suffers from a number of flaws, especially in its definition of “middle class,” which seems to shift depending on the point the author wants to make. Thus, we get a “professional middle class” and a “nonprofessional middle class,” to distinguish what has traditionally been thought of as the middle class and as nonprofessionals who earn middle class wages, so not really middle class at all.

It turns out that the “professional middle class” is surviving. It’s the “nonprofessional middle class,” i.e., the working class and below, that’s doing badly.

Or we hear that “the rich” are doing just fine, and those in the top 1% of wealthy Americans are doing better than ever, but then we also hear that “the affluent” are driving consumer spending because “daily consumer spending rose by 16 percent among Americans earning more than $90,000 a year,” implying that anyone earning over $90,000 a year was “affluent” and not “middle class.”

As I’m sure the writer knows, an income of $90,000 a year in New York, Washington, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and numerous other places where huge percentages of the population actually live hardly makes one rich, and if that’s the only household income even “middle class” might be difficult to achieve.

The definition also shifts from being based on income to being based on wealth, as if those two were at all the same thing. It also shifts from being defined by financial considerations such as income or wealth to cultural considerations such as marriage and education whenever suitable.

When discussing the increase of the “middle class” in the middle of the twentieth century – in this case people making middle class wages – the role of labor unions in the manufacturing sector is mysteriously absent. Given the impact of unions on working class wages for several decades, this is a puzzling omission.

The article should have been entitled, “Can the Uneducated Working Class Ever Make Stable Living Wages Again?” The author either has no idea what he’s talking about regarding class, or else he wants to play a rhetorical trick on the middle class readers of the Atlantic by making them feel bad that some of their own are in decline. Or else he foolishly buys into the American delusion that we don’t have classes in our society.

And finally, there is the remedy offered: tax the wealthy more, and also the “professional middle class,” to subsidize people in tedious minimum wage jobs so they . Oh, and we should make the schools better, and poor families should be more stable so they offer better role models.

So other than playing fast and loose with the definition of “middle class” and offering remedies for helping the poor that either won’t or can’t be implemented, the article is great.

In addition to “union,” the word “library” is absent as well, but it would seem like a great theme to tie a national discussion about libraries to. Librarians could even use the same duplicitous definition of “middle class” to make their case.

A lot has been written by librarians and by reporters prompted by librarians about how libraries help the poor, especially by providing them with access to computers and teaching the poor how to use them.

It might be nice if libraries could promote their educational function outside of computer use, but to be honest libraries haven’t done a great job of educating people, especially the poor. The educated middle class knows how to squeeze more education out of public libraries, but they know how to squeeze more education out of everything, from preschool to soccer tournaments.

Nevertheless, libraries provide all sorts of benefits to the poor, but touting them isn’t going to do much good, as I’ve argued before. The reason library propaganda about the “digital divide” doesn’t sway sources of funding is probably the same reason the Atlantic writer kept using “middle class” when he was in fact talking about the working or lower class: because the only people who care about the poor are the poor.

In the glorious meritocracy that successful and self-congratulatory Americans believe they live in, there’s nothing that can be done for the poor and unsuccessful. They’re poor either because they’re lazy or stupid or both. If they weren’t lazy or stupid, they would have done well in school, gone to Harvard, and then gotten great jobs and made a lot of money. After all, in America, anyone can succeed!

So blathering on about the digital divide and about how poor people need access to computers so they can apply for jobs at McDonalds influences nobody with any political clout.

This would be another opportunity to push libraries as tools of the meritocracy. That promotion would be as cynical as the Atlantic article about class, and would drop all talk about helping the poor, except to help the poor succeed in the meritocracy.

Teaching computer classes to immigrants is all well and good, but better still, for propagandistic purposes, would be showing poor kids how to be rich and successful.

Teach classes on how to enter the real middle class, and then flatter the middle class by telling them about these classes designed to make the poor, or at least those among the poor who deserve to succeed through their “merit,” just like them.

I realize there are some problems with this. Librarians aren’t really the best role models of success, and indeed many of them could be categorized as the “professional working class.” Nevertheless, in a lot of communities librarians could provide quasi-middle class role models, I suppose.

I also don’t know what these classes would be, but they could mirror all the things middle class parents do for their children.

Family stability is a leading indicator of relative wealth, and there might not be anything libraries can do about that. Maybe they could offer couples counseling, or promote books and movies that condemn having a lot of children and then abandoning them.

Really, librarians wouldn’t have to do anything. They would just have to present some statistics showing that they were. They could just make up the statistics if they wanted.

It might even be possible to implement this strategy for real, to actually promote middle class values through library materials and activities, values like working hard in school, avoiding criminals, waiting to have children until you can afford them, the benefits of reading, stuff like that.

Alas, many librarians would probably consider that “elitist,” so it’s probably best to just flatter the middle class to get the funding to help the poor in the few ways that libraries can. Who knows, that might actually work.



  1. “[L]ibrary propaganda about the ‘digital divide.'” AL, are you purposefully trying to give the ALA’s OIF a heart attack? “So blathering on about the digital divide … influences nobody with any political clout.” I guess so.

  2. Josie Parker says:

    Ok. I’ve read the rant. What’s your point? Other than convincing me that you really might need the time on the yacht and the martini, I couldn’t argue for or against anything you’ve written because you haven’t really written anything to argue about in this article.

  3. Did we even read the same Atlantic article? You go on and on about how the author doesn’t understand class definitions, but you fail yourself to show what you mean by it. You claim his not mentioning the role of labor unions in the formation of the mid-20th century middle class is “a puzzling omission” but hardly show why such a mention is germane to his larger point. What should he have said? Then you make this stunning point:
    “And finally, there is the remedy offered: tax the wealthy more, and also the “professional middle class,” to subsidize people in tedious minimum wage jobs so they .” So they what? Huh? No editors out on the yacht this week?

    The rest of your analysis is about as tortured and irrelevant as Tim McCarver’s baseball color comentary. Makes me think you’ve unwittingly revealed your true identity. You’re Megan McArdle!

  4. Well, I understood AL…and I DIDN’T read the Atlantic Monthly article!

    Top UAW worker wages and benefits for 2011: $83,886.40.

    And explain again why this is not “germane” to the larger point?

    Hey, I’m a librarian and can google the UAW website as well as anyone!


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