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.