Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Books, No Books

[News flash: some people were VERY offended this week about how insensitive the AL is. I should put a banner on the blog that says, Sensitive Souls Stay Away.]

Libraries are getting some good press these days. Unfortunately, it’s contradictory.

Take a look at this opinion column about libraries, Free entertainment, for life, by Bob Greene When I saw the headline, I groaned, thinking it was going to be another bad way to defend libraries.

Though librarians sometimes act as if Americans have a Constitutional right to free entertainment for life, it’s never a good way to promote libraries to the people who fund them. The municipal government slashing public library budgets could not care less if people are entertained.

Instead, it’s a stirring tribute to something librarians should be promoting all the time – reading, especially reading more widely than the current bestseller list.

The cult and culture of newness in our society has made us too willing to believe that “new” automatically equates to “good.” A book that was stirring and lovely when it was written — whether 15 years ago or 60 years ago or 150 years ago — does not lose its power just because it sits on a library shelf for decades at a time with no one pulling it out. The great majority of books in any city or small-town public library are not currently being discussed on television or radio talk shows; the authors are not on tour. But, years ago, someone decided for a reason that those books were meant to be bound between hard covers. The reason was that the writing inside was intended to last….

No one can predict with certainty what is going to become of the book business in the century ahead of us. But there is something about life that all of us, in the back of our minds, know is true: The best and most unforgettable moments have a way of blindsiding us, of appearing as if by magic when we aren’t even looking for them. So it is with books. They’re out there, on library shelves in the town where you are reading these words. Some haven’t had their covers opened in years, or been carried out the front door of the library. Maybe you and one of them were meant for each other. It’s summer. What have you got to lose?

When was the last time you heard a librarian promote libraries like that? I have to give kudos to the current ALA President for being the first librarian I’ve seen in a long while defend reading like that. She’s quoted in the column as a supportive voice.

Normally, all we hear is that the library isn’t a stuffy, dowdy “warehouse for books” anymore, as if libraries were ever merely warehouses for books. I’ve been to an actual book warehouse, and trust me, it looks nothing like a library.

For a good example, see this article, The library is not just a book warehouse anymore. Okay, the article is from Canada, but it sounds like every other article about libraries that tries to dispel stereotypes.

Even the headline is stupid, since the use of “anymore” assumes that libraries were indeed book warehouses. We hear about how a new library is going to be a community center with more computers and a place for people to hang out, so pretty much what’s been going on at numerous libraries for a generation or so.

Like many news / propaganda articles about libraries, including the opinion column quoted above, it’s intended for people who haven’t visited a library for decades. But what a difference between the two.

The Canadian article and the librarians quoted in it have nothing good to say about books or reading. A head librarian is quoted as saying: “Libraries are not book warehouses anymore, they are active places to find inspiration or knowledge.”

Yet she must know that libraries were never book warehouses, and that they have been active places for people to find inspiration and knowledge for centuries. What, people never found knowledge and inspiration in books?

It’s bad enough when people who never read or use libraries talk such rot, but it’s much worse when librarians start talking this way.

Think about the effect of this sort of propaganda on people who read a lot. I’m one of those people, and when I read articles like this, I start to think that libraries really aren’t the place for me.

Libraries can re-envision themselves any way they please, but if libraries abandon people who want to read broadly and deeply, then the praise of libraries by people like Bob Greene will be nothing but lies, and serious readers will have nowhere to go.

Imagine what a lovely world it would be where more librarians talked up the library as a place to get great books, instead of a place that is hip now that it has nothing to do with reading.



  1. Midge Farquar says:

    You know what is offensive about you AL? You’re just a bad writer. It’s amateurish. Had you turned any of your “essays” into a rhetoric & composition instructor, s/he would have returned them post haste along with a healthy dose of information about logical fallacies. You often address very important issues (such as the one here, and the one about tenure vs. non-tenure librarians), but they are buried in specious argumentation and unnecessary and lazy cultural references that would make a true satirist blush. Now this comment, dear soul, along with your other one about tenure vs. non-tenure, is indeed ad hominem. I’ve shared your column about tenure vs. non-tenure, including all the comments, with my colleagues in several English Departments around the country who will be using it as an example for the their students to dissect. So kudos to you, AL! And to LJ as well. Your essay will be helping untold students across the U.S. of A. learn how NOT to write.

  2. The problem is that you start seeing this language of the hip library-as-Starbucks-replacement language worming its way into the curriculum at library school. Sure you’ll have a few courses about collection development, but you also get a healthy dose of “library marketing” in there as well. Library marketing, of course, meaning that you serve bad coffee and overpriced sandwiches in a desperate bid for relevancy.

    And it doesn’t stop there. If you’re looking for a job then you’d better have the platitudes about the library being a hip center of the community ready. Nevermind that libraries became a pillar of the community by providing an avenue for continuing adult education in communities where those resources are lacking. What you really mean is that you totally have a plan for drawing people in with a video game night program that you put together in one of your classes.

    I’m all for making the library a fun place. Hell, enjoying my time in the library is one of the things that made me get into the profession. That fun needs to be in the service of getting people to read and learn though, and I think that’s something that a lot of librarians have lost sight of.

  3. A library guy says:

    OK, MF. I do not necessarily agree with some of AL’s arguments, but, please, when you make a reference to her “specious argumentation,” do come with some specific examples, so I can follow your line of logic.

  4. Annoyed Librarian says:

    Midge is obviously still upset over the Alabama hurricane issue, which makes it hard for her to see things clearly.

    Oh, and to the commenter who keeps trying to comment using MY email address, please use another email address. That’s why your comments were deleted.

    • Midge Farquar says:

      Tsk. Tsk. It was a tornado, and a devastating one at that. You are quite the crackerjack with your fact-checking skills!

  5. Midge Farquar says:

    Update! Very exciting news … I’ve submitted your essay to one of the standard texts used in philosophy as well as English comp classes. They are always looking for examples beyond Fox News. Soon, the AL and LJ may be reaching users far beyond their wildest dreams! Now that calls for a mint julep, no?

  6. Annoyed Librarian says:

    Yes, yes, I mistakenly wrote hurricane instead of tornado. Goodness me, what an awful mistake. It’s okay, Midge, I understand you’re upset. I’ve seen it many times before. Someone gets upset by something on the AL, and then they grow obsessed for a while. They start leaving snide, irrelevant comments and generally engaging in the sort of troll-like behavior they would pretend to condemn elsewhere. They stay for a few days, then either get bored or realize how insane they’re starting to look.

  7. Perhaps you have never had any hardship in your life, so you do not understand that when you kick a community that’s down, some people will be offended (even those who do not live in that community). Personally, I have never been one for sentimentality, so I can understand someone easily dismissing a truly unfortunate occurrence with little regard for those affected…but I have never waived that flaw like a banner to a national readership. Yes, a lack of empathy is a flaw that I wish to keep between me, and those friends who hear my often insensitive comments about sensitive issues.

    From pictures, I know that Tuscaloosa had a 1.5 mile swath of complete, leveling destruction cut through its community. I believe that F4/5 tornado stayed on the ground for over 100 miles or so, and displaced hundreds of families. I think it even hit a Chuck-e-Cheeses in Tuscaloosa, where there was a birthday party in progress.

    I read an article where an ER doctor spoke of the emotional devastation of seeing those first, very young, victims rolling into the ER minutes after the storm. While to some the caricaturization of a bunch of overall-wearing, toothless-parent-having, redneck children– swirling in a Wizard-of-Oz-type twister, Chuck-E-Cheese himself still forming balloon animals in mid spin–is humorous at first, when one considers that in reality people in Alabama are not much different than those anywhere else…the whole scene should give way to the sad reality of a dead child. I remember having a birthday party a putt putt when I was a child–wearing my ringer knee-socks, wildcats, and a Thriller jacket. As tragic as my outfit might have been, it is sad to think of the life I would have been deprived, had I been struck dead that day. It’s sad to think of any child killed during their birthday party.

    I tend to agree with some of the comments yesterday and today, in that you might have made your point without singling out a community dealing with a tragedy. You might as well have made fun of Colorado for having school shootings, DC for having snipers, or NYC for having falling skyscrapers. To do so is just in bad taste.

    Personally, I have always been a believer in the words of Gandhi, who said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Now, you may quickly dismiss this entire comment as cheesy, sentimental drivel. However, I have been around for a while, and I can say that I have never been impressed by this profession of which I am a member…we have a lot of brilliant people, but also many seemingly insurmountable defects (as organizations and as a profession). We need answers more than criticisms. It is easy to point out how someone is doing something wrong, but much more difficult, and helpful, to give a solution.

    I respect your contribution to the profession as much as a sometimes controversial, yet thought-provoking, blog should be respected. However, I think you could do better, and it will not hurt your street cred, so to speak. There is no reason to point out specific people or articles. However, if you are going to point fingers, allow others to do the same right back, by posting your name proudly next to these opinions.

    • Hi Bob,
      Just letting you know that thankfully the Chuckie Cheese store had been evacuated before the storm so no children were hurt in the store. I think it was just an urban rumor.

  8. Midge Farquar says:

    Snide, irrelevant comments, such as those you left in your tenure vs. non-tenure column, which is precisely why you are poised to enjoy some real fame! I envy you, I really do. To have such conviction! To be impermeable to valid criticism! I’m so delighted, nay honored, that it will be you representing the library community during logical fallacy week (not to be confused with Shark Week) in English and philosophy classes everywhere. I’m sure Library Journal will be delighted to have their publication so represented as well.

  9. Midge Farquar says:

    But … you are right. This is addictive! I really appreciate you pointing out that is indeed time for me to step away. To enjoy quietly your success beyond the walls of LJ, to have used my contacts in English Departments and via my book editor to such a good end. With that, I bid farewell.

  10. Annoyed Librarian says:

    Yep, you sure showed me, Midge! Thanks for reading.

  11. Ah….I would like to make a comment not “Alabama” related…actually about the article written by AL if that’s OK??

    My feeling is having worked in various public/academic libraries over time that we are indeed in the “sunset” of the profession. The debate over books vs video games, etc. in the libraries is irrelevant, at least in the public library side. The debate at the city/local level is all about usage, how many tax payers are using the service and can it be justified. The answer across the board appears to be NO, boomers are getting older and using the libraries less, the younger generation isn’t checking out books or darkening the doors of libraries. If the trend continues, public libraries will begin to disappear regardless of what material they contain!

    • Way Barra says:

      According to the most recent data from the IMLS, American public library visits and circulations per capita both increased over 19% from 1999 to 2008.

      Budgets are being slashed, yes, but I believe the nationwide economic meltdown has a bit more to do with that than your assumptions about declining usage.

  12. I too was quite irked by that Globe and Mail headline so thanks for bringing it up!

  13. Hi – I actually clicked to read that nauseating article “The library is not just a book warehouse anymore.” Did you look at the comments? Very interesting – and far more insightful than the fluffy article.

  14. Anonypotamus says:

    I agree with Mr. West, but with a slight twist.

    I think you’ll find large urban public library systems (e.g., the New York Public Library) for some time to come. They’re simply large enough to have momentum.

    For smaller systems, and especially single-branch suburban libraries, forget it. They’ve been irrelevant for a while.

    Librarians used to ameliorate their fear of services like Google by saying to each other, “Well, people depend on quality information.” They don’t. If information is barely good enough but easier to get, that’s what they’ll go for.

    On top of that, public libraries don’t have comprehensive collections. People come in all the time looking for information about things such as property. They have to go to the city clerk’s office for that. That’s a loss for public libraries. Those people aren’t coming back.

    And the people that do use libraries are, unfortunately, useless. If there were more of them, it might be a different story. But there aren’t. Public institutions require a critical mass of public support. In a lot of places, libraries are on the edge of that cliff.

  15. Midge, assuming this guff about the blog post being used by composition classes all over the country is true, which seems highly unlikely, I suspect all the adjunct, contingent faculty teaching the comp courses are going to be very sympathetic to the argument that contingent faculty are treated worse than tenure-track faculty.

    What a crackpot.

  16. A few years ago in library school I made the argument that books were always our main line of business, and while we did have other things to promote, we shouldn’t get away from our “core” and that it was a good thing and nothing to be ashamed of. I equated it with Coca-Cola promoting Dasani water over, well, Coke. Oh man was I jumped on by my fellow classmates who were indeed very offended at the thought that libraries’ main concern should be books! I learned to keep my mouth shut after that, but it still bugs me that so many librarians seem to hate being thought of in the same terms as books. I really don’t get it.

  17. And as for the profession sunsetting or being in decline: keep in mind that the primary service a librarian provides, in academia at least, is information literacy training and consultation. Most of my day is spent teaching people how to find information, not on video game programs and other similar fluff.

  18. I especially like the first quoted paragraph from the article. I used to encounter “East of Eden” and the Faulkner books on our weeding lists all the time, due to non-circulation. That is, until Oprah started telling people to read them, and then all of a sudden, they began appearing on hold lists, and multiple replacements were ordered to meet demand! Alas now the buzz has worn off. Would that patrons just ask the librarians, and believe what the librarians advise them about those “Old” books that are back in the stacks over there…

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