Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Libraries and a Literary Education

[Before I begin the blog post proper, I want to say farewell to Francine Fialkoff, who is leaving LJ after 35 years (her final editorial is here). Francine recruited the AL to LJ. I don’t think she knew how controversial a move that was, but she defended free speech, alternative views, and critical perspectives all along the way. Anyway, thanks, Francine. I wish you well. It’s been a pleasure.]

I ran across this old interview with Ray Bradbury from the Paris Review. My experience with Bradbury’s works is reading Fahrenheit 451, beloved of anti-censors everywhere. It’s amazing how many people want to burn books, from Nazis to redneck ministers to charities against domestic violence. (I don’t know if Fahrenheit 451 is really the temperature books burn at, but since Fifty Shades of Grey is supposedly so hot to begin with, it might burn at a lesser temperature.)

When the interviewer asks Bradbury if he’s self-educated, in this case meaning he didn’t go to college, Bradbury replies, “I’m completely library educated.”

He also says:

I am a librarian….When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.

Okay, I know there are those MLS boosters who would claim that Bradbury misspoke, and that if he’d been to college he might have known that NO ONE is a librarian without an MLS. You know, like the Librarian of Congress. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

So roughly from 1937-47 Bradbury spent countless hours in the library reading and continuing his education. This benefit wasn’t universal among Americans at the time since 43.5% of them were still living in rural areas in 1940, and rural Americans have never had access to the kind of cultural amenities as their urban peers.

However, the LAPL was established in 1872 and the Central Library in Los Angeles was built in 1926, and while I assume its funding was hit during the Great Depression, it still must have been an educational treasure trove compared to most places outside Philadelphia, NYC, Boston, and Chicago at the time. [Library historians feel free to amend or correct that assertion.] If that’s where Bradbury was going, no wonder it took him ten years to read everything he thought he needed to read.

If I had one quibble about his reasoning, it would be this statement: “When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?” One might say that the point of education isn’t to give kids only what they like, but what is good for them, just like we do with food. But in context it’s clearer that Bradbury is talking about the education of a writer, and writers are often better off reading everything they can get their hands on than following a specified curriculum.

It reminds me of the line from the movie version of Biloxi Blues, when Eugene asks his writer friend Arnold what he should read to become a writer, and Arnold responds, “the entire third floor of the New York Public Library.”

I ran across the interview in this book review column at American Libraries, which quotes from it regarding lifelong learning, but the connection seems questionable. Bradbury’s reminiscences are linked to a new book called Lifelong Learning in Public Libraries: Principles, Programs, and People.

It looks like it could be an interesting book for public librarians who want to develop educational programming, but based on the title and table of contents, that seems to be its limitations. It’s about information literacy, learning styles, library programming, and that sort of thing. I’m definitely up with that sort of thing, but it’s not the sort of thing Bradbury was talking about, or Arnold for that matter.

Lifelong education in the sense of classes or programming are useful and important, but can they really be a substitute for the “university of the people” kind of approach that Bradbury benefitted from? It’s one thing having access to earnest instruction librarians, but quite another having access to the entire third floor of the NYPL, or even the third floor of the LAPL Central Library.

Even now, 75 years after Bradbury began his self-education, that sort of opportunity is limited to Americans living in certain cities and counties. According to this list of the 100 largest libraries in the U.S. by volume, about a quarter are public libraries.

The comparisons between the academic and public libraries don’t fare well for the users of the public libraries. For example, the Houston Public Library, serving a city population of over 2,000,000 people, has about the same number of books as the Brown University Library, serving a population of (I’m assuming) far less than 2,000,000. In addition, public library systems usually have multiple copies of numerous popular books, which drum up the total volume but reduce the total number of titles.

These larger public library systems have some depth to them, but I did some random searches on a few historical popular authors that are out of print but not out of copyright and found the collections spotty at best. For example, I searched a favorite old mystery author of mine in a public library system of millions of books and found none of his dozen novels available. I didn’t search for contemporary but more esoteric authors, but I probably would have found the same results.

The library might reply that they don’t have them because nobody wants to read them. I would reply that no one will ever be able to read them if they can’t discover them. Even in the larger library systems you can’t necessarily follow your whim the way Bradbury did.

He said, “the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read.” There’s still a lot to read, as long as you want to read contemporary popular fiction or the relative handful of authors who have achieved enough critical and popular acclaim that they’re still relatively popular despite being old, like Bradbury himself.

Could potential writers who wanted to educate themselves the Bradburyan way do so at most public libraries? Could the public library really substitute for college in most places? I have my doubts.

Some librarians might say it’s not important, but think about how excited librarians get when a famous writer praises libraries. You might have felt that way yourself when seeing how formative libraries were in Ray Bradbury’s education.

What about the famous writers of the future, at least outside the few cities with access to broad and deep library collections? Will they remember libraries past their childhoods? Will they have reason to?



  1. The reality is that we have more data than anyone could possibly ask for about what circulates and what doesn’t. One large public I worked for essentially stopped buying all biography, poetry, short story collections, and anything that had even a whiff of the academic about its treatment style. However, this was not because of zealous Philistinism. Those decisions were made after thorough, close examination of circulation statistics. If you can get thirty or fifty circs a year out of some genre fiction or pop science, you cannot tolerate a book that might circ once in five years. Especially while you are laying people off. As a nerd, I find this frustrating in my personal life. It can for example, be extremely difficult to find much of William Vollman’s catalog in libraries, but I understand this is because it has very limited appeal, even if I and the bulk of the critical establishment would unhesitatingly defend the superiority of his material.

  2. The Librarian With No Name says:

    I grew up with a small town library with a total collection of 15,000 books. An even larger proportion of the collection consisted of popular (or, to be honest, once-popular) fiction, and the vast majority of the books would have been considered badly outdated in any metropolitan library system.

    I’d have been completely out of luck if I’d had to rely on my library for my continuing education. As it was, I was braced for the upcoming nuclear war with the Soviet Union well into 1996.

  3. not a hipster librarian says:

    “Could potential writers who wanted to educate themselves the Bradburyan way do so at most public libraries?” I don’t see why they couldn’t. Just because the libraries you checked don’t have a particular author that you were searching for doesn’t mean that there isn’t great depth to those libraries’ collections. If a potential writer needed the exact author you couldn’t find, they could most likely get through interlibrary loan.

    “Could the public library really substitute for college in most places?” Depends on the degree. For example, it would be hard to get a good education in medicine back in Ray’s day or today by only reading textbooks. Want to start a small business? The library could help you quite a bit and you wouldn’t have to pay for a business degree.

  4. Ideal Reading says:

    My experience also agrees that a college library will have much more depth than a typical public library (especially if it’s a university focused on research). However, even if you never attend a class, for the most part you should be able to walk into the college library, sit down with any of the books and read/take notes from as much as you want.

  5. Michelle S. says:

    “Could the public library really substitute for college in most places?” I’d have to say no. When I was a kid I loved browsing the public library for books I never would have found otherwise, but now about half of what I get from the library is through ILL (which where I am costs money, and doesn’t seem to be very well advertised). I’m thinking of paying to join the local college’s library, though I don’t think that comes with database access. I understand the need to have bestsellers, but I do wish more public libraries had a better balance. This is making me miss my epic browsing sessions at my old university’s library.

  6. Hhhmmm. I always thought “Fahrenheit 451″ was more of an argument against television than about book burning. In any case, it might be nice to point out that the stereotypical book censor is no longer limited to ‘Nazis and red-necks.’ The left/liberals are turning out to be even greater (better?) censors than the right. Besides, red-necks don’t care enough to want to burn or censor books!


  7. If you are good student, then you can self-educate well at a large public library. Charles Bukowski is another writer who learned his craft by checking out books at LAPL. But it would be hard for any but the most driven.

  8. Cut Both Ways says:

    This is as good a time as any to remind people that WE are the book gestapo in Fahrenheit 451. The government follows the people’s mandate.

  9. I will always remember being at ALA when fresh out of library school and sitting at lunch with another librarian my age. She said libraries should follow the book store model and have 15+ copies of whatever is hot. My response was that that was very short-sighted. Also, I serve 11,000 patrons. Typically 40 of them want the new Patterson/Evanovich/etc. Spending a large chunk of my budget on so many copies of something for 40 people really screws the 10,960 people who want something else.
    My library is in the very fourtunate position of having ample funding even though our service population is only 11,000. We are able to collect a lot of midlist fiction that other libraries don’t. We also have a fantatic ILL program in Illinois that serves our patrons well. I hope that my patrons can find something fun each time they’re in the stacks.

  10. Charming Billy says:

    Even a good size, high quality public library system like mine has very little depth to it. In Bradbury’s day librarians were much more comfortable making readers eat their vegetables, so to speak, than they are now. Libraries were supposed to be edifying, high minded places. In practice they were sometimes stuffy and pompous but often refreshingly quirky. Now they’re neither, sadly. The high minded, edifying library ethic was transferred from collection development to political posturing, but it’s still still stuffy and pompous.

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