Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Libraries as Liberal Institutions

There's an interesting post I'd like to draw attention to at Through the Prism. "Degolar"asks a pertinent question about what public libraries are really used for and asserts the top three popular categories of books used in his library are Health/medicine, Cooking, and Crafts.

"I'm not sure what this says about us as a community, but I think it does say something about the library. As much as we like to tout ourselves as an educational institution and a key component of a democratic society, it looks like people basically perceive us as recreational. We meet leisure needs much more often than essential ones."

This reminded me of my own speculation months ago about the purpose of public libraries. I still wonder if public libraries have any coherent purpose, and I do wonder how they can justify funding based on providing cookbooks and videogames. I realize that's what a lot of people want, but how well do such themes resonate with the general public, most of whom don't use public libraries. "Free cookbooks and videogames" is certainly a step down from "The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty."

There's an interesting article in the City Journal on the Queen's Library and the way it helps those who help themselves. I found this an inspirational piece that showed what libraries can do for their communities. This is a library that actually does uphold its social responsibilities, but the analysis of the writer would probably be anathema to the SRRT, since it quotes so liberally from Andrew Carnegie, an evil capitalist robber baron who never did anything to help anybody, just like all capitalists. Oh, except for all those jobs he created and all that money he gave to libraries. The problem for the left is that he gave the money so that those who had the initiative would have the means to improve and educate themselves as Carnegie did with the help of a small private library when he was starting out as a poor immigrant.

From the City Journal article: "The steel magnate endowed eight Queens branches not only with capital but also with a lasting philosophy, reflecting his own working-class experience and decades of thinking about how best to uplift the poor. In divesting his vast fortune at the end of the nineteenth century, Carnegie believed it wisest to help 'those, who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by . . . the extension of their opportunities by the aid of the philanthropic rich,' rather than (as he saw it) wasting his money on the 'irreclaimably destitute [and] shiftless.''

This is the sort of thing that would be celebrated by the Individual Responsibilities Round Table if such a thing existed in the ALA. To argue that libraries and schools should provide opportunities for education and improvement and that then individuals should take some responsibility for their actions goes against the radical doctrine that people are just helpless victims with no individual agency.

I've been thinking a bit about the political labels thrown around by my critics, and some of my supporters for that matter. Liberal this, and conservative that. I should point out that there's nothing particularly "liberal" about the radical left. But libraries are liberal institutions when they provide the means for education and self-improvement and then let people take advantage of them, or not. That's standard liberalism, even in its modern variety. The state helps give opportunities, and then lets people make their own choices. Making the choice for them isn't liberal, or conservative for that matter. It's often totalitarian. Seeing people as helpless victims isn't liberal, because it doesn't respect their right to and capacity for individual choice and their duty of personal responsibility.

This is a problem with the SRRT, though. It's certainly not liberal, and the folks inside it know this, even if they use the language of liberalism to get their way. A library association that promoted liberalism would promote intellectual freedom and access to information. Okay so far with the ALA, except for the bizarre belief they have that some pervert massaging his membrum virile while viewing Internet porn in the library is doing something "intellectual." Outside of a commitment to liberal democracy in general--which, by the way, is the only regime that supports the intellectual freedom of writers, artists, historians, philosophers, etc.-- liberal institutions should take no substantive political position. A liberal library association would support intellectual freedom, access to information, and liberal democratic political institutions, but wouldn't go on to make political statements irrelevant to libraries. Passing a resolution on Bush or the Iraq War isn't liberal. It doesn't provide information for people to make choices. It tries to make a choice for them. That's typical of the radical left among others, but it's not very liberal.

The SRRT has always been illiberal. They've always taken a stance against one of the central tenets of liberalism: political neutrality. The SRRT was born so that a lot of illiberals could get the ALA to take political stands on issues rather than a neutral stance. Illiberals don't like political neutrality, because they believe not only that they are absolutely right but that they're entitled to foist their political opinions on everyone else in the form of laws and resolutions. Illiberals don't like liberal neutrality because they're more interested in political victory than in providing neutral procedures for all people to make their own decisions. It's this liberal neutrality and the liberal desire to provide means for people to choose their own ends and not choose the ends that critics of liberalism always attack, whether they are radicals, conservatives, communitarians, civic republicans, socialists, communists, fascists, whatever.

A fellow librarian is helping me with a big writing project related to these issues, and I've been arguing with him on this for a while. He leans toward a civic republican critique off liberalism, and is critical of liberalism precisely because it doesn't choose among ends and doesn't affirm a vision of the good life, and I suppose he has a point that liberalism has a hard time sustaining itself because of the tendency of people to choose illiberal ends. But it's still precisely because of the myriad irreconcilable ends that people need to choose among that makes liberalism so practical in a pluralistic society. But the radical left has always opposed this doctrine of liberalism because it gives equal time to doctrines and speech that they despise. They also don't like it because despite all their blather about multiculturalism and diversity, they don't have any tolerance for people who choose differently from them. They want to impose ends on people and they are frustrated by pluralism.

Libraries should be liberal institutions. They should provide information and allow people to exercise their intellectual freedom. This is all enshrined in various ALA documents, but some people want to go further. They don't want intellectual freedom and choice. They want silent assent and obedience. They're not interested in information or intellectual freedom. They're interested in imposing their illiberal views on the rest of us.

I wonder, though, how far this illiberal view is helping public libraries. How much does the irrelevant and illiberal propaganda of the SRRT and others undermine the foundation of public libraries? I'll tell the truth, I rarely use public libraries anymore, though I have in various places in the past. I work at a big library, so there's no reason for me to use public libraries. Also, most public libraries don't have any books I want to read, since I read mostly scholarly books and never bestselling fiction. I used to use them for videos, but Netflix is much superior, since it actually has the videos I want to watch and they aren't nearly as gunky as those I used to get at the library. I have a feeling I'm not that unusual in one respect. Most people don't use public libraries.

But I'm a supporter of public libraries as long as they are indeed liberal institutions. This means that as the ALA and the SRRT continues their illiberal political propaganda, I'm less likely to support public libraries. This is the danger of taking political sides at a visible national level--it alienates potential library supporters as it erodes the liberal neutrality the ALA supposedly supports.

But I also want a purpose to public libraries besides providing entertainment. I'm all for helping the poor and providing useful services, as the Queens Library and other libraries do. But I really don't care if the poor have access to pop music CDs and video games and the latest bestselling garbage. I don't consider this helping people at all, and it certainly does nothing to contribute to an educated democratic citizenry, which is the only end a liberal institution should foster. The library as entertainment center has already chosen among ends as well, though just in a more fatuous way than the library as indoctrination center favored by the far left. If the purpose is to do whatever it takes to get people through the door, then I don't want to support such a library because they never do anything to get me through the door. I read as much as anyone I know, but the public library doesn't help me at all. Libraries will never serve everybody, and without a reasoned purpose for their existence then they will also have no good rationale for funding. Entertainment doesn't impress me as a purpose, because I don't want to spend my tax dollars making sure other people are entertained.

Regardless of the good public libraries provide--and I think they provide a lot--there are thus two reasons why I as a citizen would hesitate to support any increase in funding for my public library if I weren't a librarian. First, the political propaganda of the ALA would make me think libraries are just havens for biased illiberal leftists who won't really provide me with impartial information. How can they want me to make up my own mind on important political issues when they seem to have their minds made up already? How can I trust them to provide neutral information when they violate liberal neutrality with every Council meeting? And the emphasis on providing entertainment rather than information and education wouldn't inspire me, either. I don't care if people are entertained, whereas I do care that every citizen be informed, and that those who can't afford the resources to improve themselves have access to those resources at the public library.

The Commonwealth requires the indoctrination and the entertainment of the people as the safeguard of library funding. That's the message I get from ALA and others these days. I'm not impressed.


public reference librarian said...

"First, the political propaganda of the ALA would make me think libraries are just havens for biased illiberal leftists who won't really provide me with impartial information."

I would argue that the ALA doesn't have much clout when it comes to influencing the average voter on local library funding issues. I doubt most people know what "ALA" stands for, much less what propaganda it's been spewing lately.

The recreation vs. education factor is more important, and I don't think stressing video games and such is the answer to getting better funding and making people think we're worth it to their communities. I recently had a patron tell me that the computer classes I taught helped her get and succeed in her new job. That's the sort of thing we should be focusing on for justification of our budgets.

rbe said...

I more or less agree with the AL here, except, again, she onesidedly hammers liberals for having ideologicall biases that inhibit a fair examination of facts - this is a trait equally common on both sides of the political spectrum. Don't you think neutrality when it isn't warranted can sometimes have the effect of taking a side by lending creedance to nonsense? Note how every news story about evolution must include the creationist view, as if they are equally competing viewpoints. The AL again shows her non-southernness because she isn't aware that in the south, bending over backward to accomodate every evangelical religious view (young-earth creationism, fundmantalist religious evanglism, etc.) is seen as liberal favoritism. Must we present both sides of every issue to be balanced? My local public library (in a mid-sized southern city) has as many books on creationism as it does evolution and the religion section is heavy on apologetics and evangelism and very light on criticical scholarly work. I see nothing wrong with bias if that bias is driven by engagement with the facts and not vice versa. I don't know where you live, but in the south, the PC crowd are the religious conservatives - always playing the victims when their views aren't given pride of place. Anything Christians believe must be given equal time with evidentiary beliefs or they cry victim. Around here, the folks who complain about liberals are the ones who want to institute a conservative political correctness.

My state has abstinance-only sex education and my school has bilogy teachers who are young earth creationists who only teach evolution with a wink and a nod. Isn't this a sort of conservative political correctness?

anon7 said...

Just as a point of order, "health and medicine" is hardly "entertainment." I don't know if we have statistics like this for my library, but just based on what I overhear at the Reference Desk, I'd be willing to say it's the number one topic at my public library, too.

I have to agree with you about the relative value of the entertainment sections relative to the overall mission of promoting an informed citizenry. But if that's what it takes to maintain public support for the important things--like the computer classes--then so be it.

rbe said...

Oops, I meant to say:

"NOT bending over backward to accomodate every evangelical religious view (young-earth creationism, fundmantalist religious evanglism, etc.) is seen as liberal favoritism."

AL said...

Interesting criticisms, and you all might be right. I don't think I'm "hammering liberals," though. However, it might depend on your definition of liberals. I don't consider the SRRT folks to be liberals. To use some of their own inappropriate nomenclature, let's call them "progressives."

And, as you have surmised, RBE, I don't live in the South, and if I did I wouldn't bend over backwards or forwards to accommodate every evangelical religious view, at least when it comes to education. I don't share the frequent evangelical Christian view that there is an incompatibility between faith and reason, and I think fundamentalist Christians base their faith on an incredibly simplistic Biblical hermeneutics--i.e., fundamentalist literalism. However, that doesn't mean that public libraries shouldn't provide fundamentalist materials as well as other materials. It also doesn't mean that evangelical Christians are evil or stupid, as so many seem to claim. A LIBERAL regime tries to remain neutral regarding claims about the proper ends of life, and it's this liberalism that allows fundamentalist Christians and atheistic socialists to live together without killing each other.

I'm sure your religious section is "heavy on apologetics and evangelism and very light on critical scholarly work." Public libraries are usually light on critical scholarly work. But even here I don't think all apologetics and evangelism are equal.

I may just be misguided about the library as entertainment center. Perhaps that is what it takes to get libraries funded. But I think a deeper argument about the value of libraries as liberal democratic institutions would do better.

Dances With Books said...

I have some mixed feelings about this because I don't see why some people should have access to entertainment like CD's and others don't simply because they can't afford them, if we go by your idea of taking out entertainment from public libraries. Do I think libraries these days lean too much to video games and so on? Yes. Do I think we should just take it all out for the notion of educating the masses? Not so fast. I would rather have some kind of balance, which seems to be what is missing.

AL said...

I'm not so much opposed to the entertainment as to basing the justification for libraries on the provision of that entertainment.

Degolar said...

Just for the record, AL, I'm the current head of our library system's gaming taskforce. ;-)

AL said...

I think I read that on your blog. I considered not mentioning your piece, actually, because I wasn't sure you'd want to be brought up in this particular argument.

walt crawford said...

You say twice that most of the public doesn't use public libraries. Since that's the opposite of every study or survey I've ever heard of, most of which say that at least two-thirds of adults (and a higher percentage of youth) do use public libraries, I think you need to back that up with citations.

AL said...

Walt, backing up anything with citations would require me to do actual research and not give me the freedom to spout whatever nonsense I feel like spouting at the time.

Greg said...

I don't know how religion came into it but I am of the belief that faith and reason are polar opposites. You can be faithful and reasonable but not usually about the same thing.

As for public libraries, it is very much a highwire act of supplying people what they want to help get the stats to get the budget to supply what people need. But many times needs and wants can be the same thing and not all intellectual needs are esoteric journeys of the mind. A cookbook is as much an intellectual need as a biography of Abe Lincoln, more so because its used repeatedly, not just read once and put aside. Plus, as a certain wide-bottomed individual knows ;), eating is a daily occurence and to give more value and meaning to something that is already a part of our lives is far beyond entertainment.

AL said...

OK, Walt, since you're such a stickler for actual facts, some stats are here. It does look like roughly 2/3 of survey respondents had used the library at least once in the last year. According to a 1997 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, "61% of households with children under the age of 18 reported using the public library in the past month. Only 35% of households without children under the age of 18 reported using the public library in the past month." If I amended the claim to "most people without children," it would almost hold water!

walt said...

I'd question that interpretation, unless you want to add "frequent" to "use." There are lots of institutions I use less than once a month, but would still consider myself a user and supporter of. That currently includes our public library because of other time pressures. It certainly includes the city parks department.

Actually, other than our favorite grocery store, a couple of restaurants, and our bank, I can think of precious few institutions that I use every month...

I was similarly bemused by Will Manley's column where he talks about the deserted stacks (which he likes): He clearly uses different public libraries than I do, since the stacks in our library always have a fair number of people choosing books.

AL said...

It may be entirely possible that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about and that I'm just rambling to say something provocative. It's also very possible that three completely different posts ended up being smashed together in this piece.

Degolar said...

Oh, I don’t mind that you linked me into this argument. I may not agree with everything you say, but I can appreciate your viewpoint. It’s a discussion I’ve had with my friends, in fact, specifically about the idea of video games in libraries (which is kind of funny since the two most opposed to the idea are gamers and I’m not). In my mind it goes back to the old argument of whether the library should have fiction or not. Do we have purely educational content, or is our mission a bit broader than that? Because recreational reading—while it serves many other purposes including escapism—is also educational; the very act of reading improves reading ability, regardless of content. If you decide to have books that are both educational and recreational, then it only makes sense to be consistent in your other formats: literary journals and popular magazines; documentaries and popular films; Internet access for research and for email, etc. It’s important to maintain a balance, but there is room for both. Many of the arguments for video games fall into the same realm. I won’t go into all of it here, but, just like recreational reading, there is a mounting pool of evidence that the process of gaming has educational value on top of its enjoyment.

More important than that argument, though, is the role of the public library as a community gathering space. We provide public meeting rooms for free, open forums. Storytimes are important early literacy programs, but they also provide socialization for the little ones and social contact for stay-at-home parents and caregivers. We have large print collections that seniors need for poor eyesight, but many of them come for the company as much as the reading. There are few public institutions that serve this role of connection place for the community. Gaming is one relevant way for teens to connect at the library. Yes, we do hope it brings more of them through the door, but we are also hoping to meet their legitimate needs and the rationale is broader than that simple fact. My particular system’s vision words are: “Learn, Explore, Enjoy, Create, Connect.” Perhaps we’re guilty of trying to be all things to all people, but our mission is broader than simply being an educational institution and we try to find a balance of all aspects of that vision. If that’s something you don’t support, then you don’t.

But we do seem to be a reflection of the community’s general desires. In reference to the statement that no one uses public libraries: about 80% of the residents in our community have cards; circulation is already massive for our population size and increasing every year; we just scored the highest satisfaction rate (91%) among all government services in the community; and we generally get a lot of usage and community support. That’s why I made the observation. Our people seem to like us and what we do for them, so what does that say about them and what they want us to be?

Anonymous said...

What if Andrew Carnegie endowed a permanent civil service position in every town (or subsection fo a big city) and these civil servants were first broadly and thoroughly eductated. They would have served as a sort of 19th Century Oracles at Delphi. A citizen walks up, asks a question and gets an answer, or some information pertinent to an answer. Like, say, Google does.

He could have done that, but he did not. So why in the world is a bank of PCs part of the mission? A box that spits out an answer is not uplifting in any sense of the word.

The "public" in public library is not without meaning. Libraries were often private societies, funded by subscription and only accessible to the elite.

The problem is that like all government beuracracies, the library mission grew. Would it be so terrible if cash strapped districts merely provided a clean, safe place to read books in the collection?

shade said...

Interesting post, AL. It reminded me of a days long discussion in class over the "give 'em what they want" v. "give 'em what they don't yet know they need" argument - or something like that. I tend to lean toward the argument you make, although you've stated it much more coherently than I did. The problem is not so much libraries, it's society. When fewer people were able to get an education, it was seen as something desirable to have. People were proud of graduating high school. And, because it was desirable, people were willing to work for it, in school or on their own. There are very few people who have the will or the interest to continue learning after completing however much school they deem appropriate. And if there are so few people who voluntarily continue to study/learn when not pressed to do so - can we still say that the library is to educate? The argument came up that if the mission of the library is to serve the community - and the community wants gaming rooms - isn't the library somewhat obligated to give them gaming rooms? Or is serving the community one of those tricky "serves" meaning that the greater benefit to the community is to be a bastion of democracy (a term I first heard in library school btw). I get confused because I want to see my society as a place where people want to learn because intellectual exercise is stimulating and entertaining. But the truth is gaming rooms and cat mysteries.

So what is the function of the public library?

AL said...

That is an interesting question of whether we should give people what they want or what we think they should have, and it's all tied into the purpose of the public library. If the library's mission is educational, then it doesn't necessarily matter what people want. If I was teaching a class, and a student said, "I'm paying for this class, now give me what I want," I would reply that what the student was paying for is the expertise to decide on appropriate education. It comes back to another question of whether library users are clients who come to the library for identifiable library purposes, or whether they are customers that libraries should adapt to no matter what. There's no clear answer, but to say there must be balance seems to lean toward the customer model, in which case libraries have no purpose other than trying to please everyone, even if it means just entertaining them. Is there anything a library theoretically wouldn't do to get people through the door? Perhaps it's better to approach this question from the other side.

Anonymous said...

Another point I think is pertinent to this discussion is exactly what do you mean when you say “public library?” In my experience, every public library is different, with different collections, patrons, & cultures. So to ask what good do public libraries provide is too vague. For instance, the public library I work for is located in a large urban setting and acts as both a public and State library. Our patrons vary wildly, everything from kids doing homework assignments, professionals studying to advance his or her career, new entrepreneurs writing business plans, people studying for the GED, computer/technology classes, history researchers needing access to regional archives, government officials doing policy research, investors needing the latest information from Value Line or D&B, and the list goes on. Sure there are the video gamers, but to say that all public libraries only attract bored people looking to kill time is not fair to the reality of the public library.


L'Vaeryn said...

Ah, this is an argument in which I engage nearly once a week. Not the gaming bit, yet, because we are just getting into it, but the idea of the library as a center for entertainment. When we first began our Teen Advisory Council, one of the young ladies in the group told me that none of her friends would come into the library because "they are afraid of all the books." Afraid!

At that time, I had to get recommendations from the school librarians for members because we had so few teens visit us, and three or four nominees turned down the "honor." Now, I have kids begging to be allowed on the Council. What happened? We began to offer things (J-Pop, anime, movie parties, things you and my Board would consider "entertainment") that they wanted. Some of it improves their minds, I am sure -- J-pop gives them a window on a foreign culture, for example.

That, however, is not the point. In less than 4 years, I have made the library, that place with all those scary books, a place where at least some of the kids come to hang out. They check out books, they play chess, they ask me questions about their homework, they discover that not every dictionary is a pocket Webster's, and that Wikipedia does not hold the sum total of human knowledge. We are at the point where we can offer writer's workshops, story competitions, and family literacy classes with teen volunteers. Our teen council members also routinely help their peers and those older and younger with computer issues -- freeing staff time for reference questions, reader's advisory, ILL requests, and other such duties.

Granted, our library is far smaller than that of most of your readers, I am sure. It’s a rural/exurb population, and most of our users are not looking for great enlightenment... just something to read for a half hour before bed or to keep their minds occupied on the road so that they don't have to listen to trash radio. Does that mean, by your viewpoint, that we don't have a valid, acceptable purpose, or that we shouldn't receive government funding?

I do enjoy your blog, and find many of your views interesting and thought-provoking. I have until this point lurked quietly in my corner of the shadows. However, this time, I really do feel the need to speak out, probably because, as I said at the outset, this is something about which I am questioned nearly every week -- usually by a much older patron who believes that the library should be an utterly silent place with nothing but books and reserved for people who know their place in society. The people in the under-40 bracket are almost always more appreciative. I think that as people’s needs change, so will what they expect out of their libraries.

Still, when our annual library “traffic” count is five times the size of our population, I’d say our patrons think we contribute to their individual well-being and to the common good. Please forgive the length of this post. I think you touched a nerve. :-)

Oh, and our mission: It is the mission of the library to provide and encourage the use of resources and services that support the evolving educational, recreational, and informational needs of our citizens.

Dances With Books said...

Now, do we really want to be asking how far/low would libraries go to get people in their doors? Somehow given the current climate of using entertainment and other forms of amusement as justification, I may not want to hear the answer to that. As for the commenter about Oracles of Delphi, could we be seers if we are allowed to be high? I know very often oracles were set on places that had volcanic fumes or such, which I am sure "helped" the answers along, or they smoked stuff. Now, that would be a mellow job. Heck, it might actually help me get through my job these days. ;)

AL said...

I do seem to have touched a nerve with this one, as "L'Vaeryn" says in the excellent comment above (excellent, that is, except for that nonsense about the Wikipedia not containing the sum of human knowledge). It's possible I'm just too stodgy about public libraries. It's also possible I'm hyperbolic to generate a debate. Regardless, I think there have been some great responses. I still wonder about the "give 'em whatever they want" philosophy of public libraries.

Erika said...

Let's not forget that computer games may be the hands-on learning platform of the future. Those print how-to car manuals might be library full-sensory downloads for next-year's Wii.

Excerpt from an article in the Business section of The Boston Globe: “New take on the game of life: Computer simulations put players in charge of realistic situations” (by Hiawatha Bray, The Boston Globe, 12/9/03, C1 & C5):
“Breakaway Games Ltd. of Hunt Valley, Maryland … best known for commercial computer simulation games like “Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom,” hopes to turn a nice profit on “Incident Commander”, a new urban disaster simulator set for release this summer. Breakaway already makes a variety of games for the military. But the US Dept. of Justice wanted something for the thousands of smaller cities and towns that can’t afford to hold large-scale disaster relief drills. Instead, city officials will be able to play “Incident Commander” to “game out” the right response to a hazardous waste spills, a warehouse fire, or even a biological warfare attack. The Justice Department provided $200,000 in developmental funding; the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided lots of know-how. When the basic game is completed this summer, 30,000 copies will be mailed out to cities and towns at no charge. But cities that want customized versions, with accurate maps of the local geography, will have to pay several thousands of dollars extra. And at some point – possibly in time for Christmas 2004 – Breakaway plans to offer a retail version of “Incident Commander” to the public.”

Dances With Books said...

By the way, speaking of entertainment, is this what we need to be worrying about in our public libraries? Over at Library Garden, they are making decisions on what game console to buy for their library. See http://tinyurl.com/y2f6zq. Would love to see your take on this.

AL said...

I saw that post at Library Garden. The obvious response is, "Buy them all!" Otherwise the library is doing their patrons a supreme disservice, and engaging in discriminatory practices against gameboxes that don't fit their narrow stereotype of what a gamebox should be. By purchasing the Nintendo, the library is denying the right of Xbox users to play the games of their choice in the library and failing in its apparent mission to be all things to all people, unless those people happen to want reading material more substantial than the latest bestseller.

Contrarian Librarian said...

Brilliant and thought-provoking. Thanks for your voice.