Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Librarian and Citizen

The relationship between librarianship and citizenship is a shifting one, and it's not always clear how they're related. The SRRT types want the distinction erased entirely, since the only thing that matters for them is politics. There's no such thing as professional autonomy for people who collapse the personal and the political.

The AL moves back and forth from one to the other, I think. I've been considering which domain the AL belongs in because of one of the commenters to the Porn Challenge post who said that academic librarians, including me, just don't "get" public libraries. To a certain extent, that's probably true.

While I have in the past from childhood on been a regular user of public libraries, I've hardly set foot in one in years. As my reading tastes broadened beyond the popular taste that drives so much public library collection development, I found that usually only academic libraries, and even then only larger ones, could possibly satisfy many of my tastes. If your library has fewer than a million books in it, I probably wouldn't want to use it. This story about the Kansas City library struck home with me. Public libraries, at least smaller ones, are next to useless for people who read scholarly or esoteric or just non-popular books for enjoyment. Part of the reason I became a librarian was to keep access to good libraries and not have to depend upon public libraries with their implicit assumption that unless everybody wants it, nobody gets it.

And before you protest that I could just interlibrary loan everything I wanted, let's just say I don't want to do that all the time. I like browsing the stacks and the serendipity of discovering a book I don't know in a subject I like. In public libraries outside of large cities, the chances of doing that are a lot slimmer unless you like 3-year-old bestsellers.

So I'll accept the charge that I don't "get" public libraries. I don't think it's completely true, but for the sake of argument I'll agree. I think it's more likely that I don't "get" many public librarians, but that's neither here nor there. Thus, when I comment about public libraries, which I sometimes do, I'm not necessarily speaking as a librarian. Just as I'm sure there are plenty of public librarians who don't know much about building a research collection or working with graduate students or the joys of dealing with Elsevier, I don't know much about buying multiple copies of the latest bestseller or working with children or the joys of dealing with rowdy teenagers.

When I speak about public libraries, I speak as a citizen. All libraries serve a public, but the public of academic libraries is scholars and students (with some exceptions). If you're not a scholar or student, then you're not part of my public and I'm not in the least accountable to you. But the public of public libraries is the general public, and it turns out that, in my capacity of concerned citizen, I am in fact a member of the general public. So regardless of whether I "get" public libraries as an academic librarian, I have an interest in public libraries as a concerned taxpaying citizen who is capable of political and moral reasoning and has an interest in the public sphere and the educational opportunities of my fellow citizens in a liberal democracy.

Therefore, I don't have to share the ideology of the ALA and many public librarians to make valid comments about public libraries. I am a citizen, and my taxes help support public libraries. As public institutions supported in part by my tax dollars, public libraries are accountable to me as much as to any other public institution. My library porn challenge is the challenge of a concerned citizen who thinks the ALA position on public pornography is both intellectually confused and morally harmful. To imply that someone who doesn't "get" public libraries has nothing valid to say about them, as my critic implied, is to say that only people who already completely agree with the ALA's ideological positions can have anything valid to say about them. But there's a name for that sort of fallacious argument. It's called Begging the Question.


Anonymous said...

Well said AL. IMHO a public library should first promote education (via books, not the Internet), secondarily provide a way to share popular books (and not DVDs). They should be, in fact, smaller and not cater to the lowest common denominators of taste and trend. They should however, be well run, open early and late, clean, well lit, etc.

“This library afforded me the means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day, and thus repair'd in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me. Reading was the only amusement I allow'd myself. I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolicks of any kind; and my industry in my business continu'd as indefatigable as it was necessary.” (Benjamin Franklin)

In colonial Pennsylvania at the time there were not many books. Books from London booksellers were expensive to purchase and slow to arrive. Franklin and his friends were mostly mechanics of moderate means. None alone could have afforded a representative library such as a gentleman of leisure might expect to assemble. By pooling their resources in pragmatic Franklinian fashion, as the Library Company's historian remarks “the contribution of each created the book capital of all.” (Wikipedia)

The system of public libraries in the US (and elsewhere) owes much to the largess of “robber baron” Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie's personal experience as an immigrant who, with help from others, worked his way into a position of wealth reinforced his belief in a society based on merit where anyone who worked hard could become successful. This conviction was a major element of his philosophy of giving in general, and of his libraries as its best known expression. (Wikipedia)

I wonder what Franklin and Carnegie would think of their creations today? Franklin would likely be more tolerant of Intetnet porn, but I sense Mr. Carnegie would beat someone about the head and shoulders with a crudgel, or simply use one of the three hardback copies of the latest Stephen King novel.

Contrawise, the prto-socialists that run the SRRT would likely be horrified at the idea that hard work and avoidance of "frolick" would be a key to success, when we all know the "system" holds down those that are not of the manner born--like Franklin and Carnegie, who both started as what today are called "blue collar guys."


Greg said...

I wonder if this makes you a "chicken-patron"? "Chicken-Librarian"?

Anyways... I'm a firm beliver in patron power and the right of a community to influence its own library. As for a public library's purpose, what makes it tough is that there are just so many types of users and the concept of 'education' is equally broad. You can be a scholar, philospher, mechanic, chef, plumber, artist, politician, and on and on and on. Cover that all by age groups and you've got yourself a public library.

Dances With Books said...

Hmm, I do agree Franklin would probably be tolerant of porn, but I get the feeling even he might not appreciate if children got to it in a library. (I like porn fine, but I sure as heck don't want children getting it, and I sure as heck don't think some pervert off the street should be seeing it in a public space, but there's my full disclosure).

But AL, very well said. I always hated that dichotomy of "those academic librarians don't get us." What the public librarians don't get, and you point out well, is we academic librarians live in communities and pay our taxes like everyone else (unless there is some tax evading librarian out there?). As citizens then, we have a right to demand our public libraries, which serve all citizens, be accountable. Public librarians may be forgetting we don't stop being citizens just because we are librarians.

I find Greg's words worthy of some thought:

"You can be a scholar, philospher, mechanic, chef, plumber, artist, politician, and on and on and on. Cover that all by age groups and you've got yourself a public library."

I notice that it stays within the educational mission. But I also notice what it does not say: you are (not) a pervert, a loafer, a bum, a barely literate user of MySpace/Runescape/insert your Internet social timewaster here, an unsupervised child, a misbehaved teen (who probably should have been spanked as a child but was not), etc. In other words, the library was not made to be a porn haven, a place to "frolick," or a daycare. I like leisure reading as much as the next guy, and I am sure so did Franklin and Carnegie to use the references given, but I seriously doubt they envisioned the mess today.

Anonymous said...

Public libraries also preserve a record of the typical human experience in a particular location, be it through old newspapers, locally-themed books, even (gasp) films. These are all formats in which we tell out story across time and distance. The public library is the place where the human experience of a city/town is preserved and made available.

I'm sorry that all you seem to see are the old best-sellers. I never read them either, but my local public library keeps my mind fed by providing local access to ILL-able titles from many universities around the world.

shade said...

This is slightly off topic, but it appears that the big box book stores are having their own troubles with competition from the mega-huge stores.
Maybe we shouldn't be so hasty to see them as a model. Besides it isn't really part of the mission, is it?

Woeful said...

I hardly consider the public library system to be a mess (colorful perhaps). Public libraries are brilliant equalizers affording a large segment of the population access to information, and training that they otherwise couldn’t afford. The public library is only a microcosm of the community it serves. The “mess” to which you refer isn’t the library system, it’s society. It isn’t easy affecting change when you’re teaching people who were recently laid-off how to compose resumes on computers running Win95, or when you look out the Library’s window and see police officers with heir weapons drawn.

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Crook Librarian said...

Just discovered your blog by accident. While reflecting on my soon-to-end career, I keyed "Library La La" in google search box. Up popped the monkey at the reference desk.

Appreciate and agree with your thoughts on public libraries. As the retiring Crook Librarian, I will be reading your blog attentively. And I'll have time to drive to the regional college to browse.

Your "library course" decriptions like Dress and Deception could have been developed in our library. As a public library director for 33 years, I've done a lot of pandering, but that is part of the public's taste, too. Thanks to the lesser gods, I'll no longer be buying multiple copies of James Patterson.