It's been an exciting and action-packed week. Not here on the AL, of course, but just in general, so I haven't been as responsive as I'd hoped to my faithful commenters. I guess I was just so excited to find that the ALA Council passed a resolution calling for an end to violence in Kenya that I couldn't focus much after that. Now that the ALA has spoken, those Kenyans must be relieved to know that peace and freedom are just around the corner.
So now I'll be responsive. As you might guess, I'm all for debate and dissent in the comments section of this blog, as long as no one starts using foul language like two commenters whose comments I had to delete this week. (That's typically the case when it says a comment has been removed by a blog administrator.) This is a family blog, after all. I like to respond to the comments, but sometimes they come faster than I can handle, which explains this post.
In the comments of this week's twopointopian post, a brief debate broke out only tangentially related to the cult of twopointopia, namely, whether public libraries support lifelong learning. Here are the relevant comments that appeared one after another near the witching hour Monday.
Anonymous @ 11:15pm wrote:
"The issue is that public libraries do not support lifelong learners. Many public libraries are now buying items that will get them high circulation such as bestsellers, romances, etc. They are not buying circulating works that cost more than $30 or so dollars. They are buying DVD's and may eventually move almost wholly to video downloads to keep theft down.
Many people who need to fulfill a research need therefore have to do it by using electronic resources since there are no books on their topic. In the future, they will be able to access cheap portable ebooks (as in Kindle) or electronic databases.
I personally have found that if I need a book to fulfill a need,especially an academic or career need, I have to buy it since my public library system either doesn't carry it or has outdated copies.
I think Anonymous 1:02 is correct in that cheap books will continue to be sold, but they will be old books - the new ones will all be electronic."
"Public Libraries DO support lifelong learners. They provide a human starting point for ANY question. Also, lifelong learning is not limited to reading books, if it were we’d live in a terribly boring society. Fools would just sit around and read all day. What a drag, learning is about a lot more than just reading. Lifelong learning is about EXPERIENCE, and if libraries can provide media or inspiration in ANY manner to enrich experiences then they are doing their job. I feel pretty good about where we are at with that; I think public libraries have a bright future.
I’ll add that I use bookstores regularly too, and I’m a public librarian. It is foolish to think that your public library is going to be a one-stop media shop. I have Netflix too. Or actually I did, I canceled it a while ago cause their delivery system slowed down. I pick and choose where I get books and videos just like I pick and choose where I buy meat, light bulbs, and loose leaf paper.
I’ll tell you what though, I had the flip side of this last anonymous (hey why is EVERYONE on this blog anonymous?) persons experience recently. I was after this obscure book and looked it up on Amazon, Half, AddAll… it was crazy expensive. I talked to my buddy in the interlibrary loan department and whaddya know- I’m reading the book right now. Well not right now, I’m typing right now, but… you know…."
It's no secret that I support the educational mission of public libraries rather than the rec center mission of public libraries. "The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty." It does not require the entertainment of the people, and I see no reason I should pay any taxes so that people who can't afford Dance Dance Revolution can dance their lives away at the public library. As far as I'm concerned, if the kids can't afford their own video games, what they need is great education and training so that they can improve their lot in life. This is a right and proper mission of the public library. But I'll also have to note that most public libraries are incapable of sustaining lifelong education at a very high level. I suppose there is always ILL, as Nate suggests, but that's not the same as having the books or articles on the shelves or easily accessible. Even small college libraries are superior to most public libraries in this way, unless those libraries are in big cities.
But let us consider Nate, the educational radical, for whom reading isn't absolutely necessary to education, and in fact can be rather boring. What a dull world it would be if "fools would just sit around and read all day." Lifelong learning is about experience, he tells us, and that's certainly a plausible claim. I would stretch it further than he does in his comment to say that experience might be gained through some media retrieved from the library, or from travel or conversation, and I'm sure he would agree with me. I do cavil at the claim that "if libraries can provide media or inspiration in ANY manner to enrich experiences then they are doing their job [of providing lifelong learning]." This is the intellectual relativism typical of the librarian tendency to reduce everything to "information," and thus argue that access to any information is just as good as access to any other information. Any experience certainly can be educational, and thus within the scope of lifelong learning, but can we make any distinctions at all?
Educated people certainly do make distinctions. The more you know about a subject, the more you realize both how much there is to know, and how little most people know. And the more you know about a lot of subjects, the more you realize how empty of intellectual content most people's learning is. If we're talking about the good of the commonwealth, we're talking about forming educated and critical citizens. Video games don't form educated and critical citizens, at least no more educated and critical than one would be from watching old episodes of School House Rock. To have "any experience at all" is not the same as being educated except in the most banal way. So for me the critical question is whether public libraries can support the lifelong education of the critical and engaged citizens a liberal democracy needs to thrive. Except for web resources, which are hardly localized to the library, how often is this done? How often do public libraries have collections in history, politics, economics, or sociology to sustain study beyond about a 10th grade level?
To say that these can all be obtained through ILL is to say that they're not important enough to provide for public library patrons. After all, the public library patrons just want bestsellers and videos. To buy books on history or economics that none of these people would read anyway is to be judgmental about their taste, and we wouldn't want that, now would we? To provide these books would be a waste of money and shelf space, and it certainly wouldn't be worth that to provide ready access for the handful of eggheads or politics junkies that might stagger through the stacks.
Ultimately, if we say many or perhaps most public libraries support lifelong learning, we have to be clear what lifelong learning is, and what lifelong learning is relevant. It seems the easy way out just to say that any experience the library can "enrich" counts as the relevant lifelong learning. Is all lifelong "learning" equally good? More specifically, is all lifelong "learning" equally good for the commonwealth? Is it justified to spend public money on private goods, assuming of course that playing more video games even counts as a private good? The tougher way is to actually have some standards for what education is good for the people either in their capacity as citizens or in their desire to improve themselves. Then, it seems to me, for many if not most public libraries, the case for lifelong learning is much harder to prove, and that's a shame.