In the Library Garden, Sunday Afternoon
The Pew Research Center recently released a typological study of Americans’ engagement with libraries and, for once, it’s not a cause for great panic and gnashing of teeth. Most Americans (about 90%) surveyed had a positive view of their libraries and would see the loss of the local library as a major blow to the community. Nearly 70% of Americans use the local library somewhat regularly and only 14% don’t use it at all. Americans also still read quite a few books. Most interesting, levels of library use and book reading seem to coincide both with levels of technology use and levels of community engagement overall. As far as public services and cultural institutions go, libraries have won the popularity contest. If anything, the study suggests that the level of panic one senses from the people who run libraries is more about what is supposed to happen in these Digital Ages than what is actually happening.
Writing for the American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead susses out what is worthy of concern in the report. I have a few minor quibbles (for instance, a group that represents 10% of the US population would not be “small in number”), but Olmstead gets at the important bit
“Nonetheless, it seems that those using libraries are somewhat homogeneous: they’re mostly wealthy, well-educated, and well-informed. Yet the library ought to reach a diverse population: it ought to offer resources to those from lower incomes, without many community connections, or to those lacking technological or informational resources. Yet many such individuals are the library’s rarest frequenters—or never use it at all.”
I’ve always been impressed by the quality of American libraries, although it’s been a while since I’ve used one. Here, in Southern Ontario, where I visit the library four or five times a week, I notice a somewhat different sort of trend. In the generally lower-income working class town where I live, the libraries seem to be packed whenever I visit them, while the library patronage in the suburb where I work, one of the wealthiest in Canada, is sparser and older. The uglier, or at least more irritating, side of this coin is that the libraries in the poorer town have considerably fewer books and a lot more computer carrels and DVD shelves than those in the wealthier town where the ratio is skewed much more heavily towards books. One result of this is that it’s much easier to actually read in the wealthier local library because it is laid out in a way that is more suited to doing so and attracts fewer people who are looking to surf the net and rent some DVDs for free with their friends. The shushing librarian, incidentally, seems to have gone the way of the newspaper boy. It is worth noting, however, that I see plenty of books being returned in both areas, which means they both still serve book readers, not surprisingly.
Nevertheless, the effort on the part of certain “innovative” libraries to remake themselves as Internet cafes and Blockbuster Videos has not gone unnoticed. Some time back, I commented on a local university library that was gradually purging itself of books and made the point that cultural institutions frequently embrace the notion of “change” as a good in itself without regard to what sort of change, fearing they will become antiquated, and instead give the impression that they have no idea what it is they actually do; a point that I came back to recently when talking about museums. When reading the experts speak in the “innovate or die” vein about libraries, one senses a sort of embarrassment about the fact that libraries still contain books, and yet, people clearly still come to them to find and read books. At least, people of a certain background.
Writing in the Federalist, David Harsanyi asks:
Should a library be more concerned with offering a collection of resources for reference and educational purposes or should it be competing with
BordersBarnes and Noble? Because if a library is driven by market needs, we can do a better in the private sector (through a Netflix-type services, for instance); and if we’re aiming to make a cultural center where a diverse citizenry is excited about knowledge, we can still do a lot better. Right now libraries seem to offer a weird mix of what we don’t need and what we don’t want.
Harsanyi makes a point similar to my own about what he calls the “constant mission creep” of many libraries and asks why we should keep funding them if they fail at their stated purpose, while Olmstead asks how we go about encouraging learning and book love among all groups. I find the latter question a lot more interesting because it’s easier to address. If 90% of Americans love their local libraries, or at least think they do, defunding them is basically a non-starter. I’ve lived in struggling US cities where huge protests were sparked by closing a few of the libraries one more day a week! It does, however, seem that libraries take their cues from the public, so public demand for more educational resources would likely bear fruit and that yearning is, after all, a culturally-inculcated one. So, the people of the page must persuade and cajole and create a constituency for the things we love.
All of this, however, leads one to notice the tremendous shift that has taken place over the decades, from the library and other cultural institutions traditionally serving as somewhat rigid voices of authority, making demands to which members of the public answer; to fairly malleable service industries that answer to the demands of the public. The “mission creep” comes when cultural institutions let mercurial public wants serve as their guide instead of serving as a guide to the public.
It’s tempting to editorialize and suggest that the weird drive to remake libraries, universities, museums, and the like along a customer service model says something about “multiculturalism” or “capitalism,” the “free market” or “creative destruction”. And, admittedly, too many struggling cultural institutions do try to shore themselves up by putting MBAs in charge, regardless of their experience. However, the core of the problem really seems to have much more to do with the panicked responses these institutions have had to the digital age. And not even to the actual changes wrought by the Internet as much as the perceived changes to come. For years, we’ve been hearing overblown rhetoric, from techno triumphalism to digital apocalypticism, from people who claim that institutions from the Paleozoic era of books and physical culture will have no meaning whatsoever to the new race of digital denizens. Step with us now into the future!
And yet, people still read books. And they still want to read books. Most importantly, they still need institutions that will help them figure out what to read next, how to read it, and why they should. It’s not so much that we crave authority as we seek out assistance, advice, and guidance, or even just a place full of books we can read for free! Not to mention, many of us, and our numbers are growing, are what Ray Bradbury called “library educated” because university education has become so expensive. The irony of the Pew report is the public seems to believe in libraries more than some of the libraries do. When libraries try to become something else every few years, based on vague and fuzzy notions of “information access”, they remind one of Nietzsche’s falling thing that should also be pushed.