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Can Dumbing Down Save Our Libraries?
August 12, 2002 10:38 AM   Subscribe

Can Dumbing Down Save Our Libraries?
An intersting story from The Sunday Herald that says libraries are facing a stark choice: modernize or die.
The author say we just can't win, if we put in a bank of computers we are accused of dumbing things down, if we demand silence in the reading rooms and purchase books that aren't "popular" we find ourselves charged with elitism.
He says the public library has an altruistic purpose of making knowledge freely available through the printed word. The trouble is that those high principles were undermined by the librarians themselves. Facing a revolution in communications, they tried to become all things to all people.
He focuses on England, but I think many of these issues are international. Are public libraries out of date?
posted by Blake (26 comments total)

 
Public libraries, and books, in my opinion, will never be out of date. I have no idea how libraries are where the author is writing, but I see no such "dumbing down," in the Midwest libraries I know and love. At my hometown library (where I've worked for several years and have a family relationship with), computers have been added, but the ones for general use are for short term internet searches. You can use other computers for games for children and for word processing and Internet, but that's about it.

While it is true that libraries are underfunded and underappreciated, it is also true that it's a delicate balance to appease the public in regards to anything. Most books, if you put a request in for, the library will order for you. Most libraries are overcrowded, though, as well, and some are most likely debating their growing romance novel and cheap sci-fi paper back collection vs. their works of literature and non-fiction. Space is limited. So what to do? I don't think there are easy answers, but I think this man is quick to say that libraries are selling out. They are simply trying to do the best they can, with the limited resources they have, in order to please a demanding public that doesn't always understand their restrictions or problems.
posted by agregoli at 10:49 AM on August 12, 2002


Are public libraries out of date?

Libraries will never be out of date. Public brick and mortar ones might, however, if they can't quickly modernize or keep up with the competition brought on by university libraries, private firms such as Lexis Nexis, and all of the information readily accessible from home on the internet. What niche market can they appeal to? They certainly are losing certain demographics, like school children, who are doing more and more research from their home PCs. Stores like Barnes and Noble are the places to get books and a coffee, there is very little the public library has to offer which is not already done by somebody else, or on the web, save the annoying Dewey decimal system (which never made any damn sense to me) and microfiche (I admit, I love microfiche, I can't explain it).

They need to make it a place to hang out... maybe sell some space to a Starbucks franchise, or something. Free internet access is a good draw, maybe, so long as the people aren't poor hobos who can't afford their own PCs to look at girl-on-horse porn action.
posted by insomnyuk at 11:16 AM on August 12, 2002


Porn isn't allowed for viewing at my library, I believe that sort of thing is blocked. Even if you wanted to, you'd have to be comfortable looking at that stuff in a public place, which I imagine most people aren't.

As for children doing all their research on the Internet - the persons to blame are A) Teachers who accept Internet sources over real concrete book sources and B) Parents who accept the same and don't instill a good love of books and looking for valid information the good old fashioned way.
posted by agregoli at 11:20 AM on August 12, 2002


If there are no public libraries, where can kids go when the gruff man in the apron leans out of his news kiosk to snarl "If you ain't buyin' those comics, put 'em back! This ain't no liberry, kid!"

Man. I read a lot of great comics at the library growing up. I wouldn't be the semi-literate I am today if not for libraries. Three cheers for 'em, I say.
posted by poseur at 11:26 AM on August 12, 2002


Libraries remain absolutely, utterly, gobsmackingly fantastic things. They allow you to borrow books! Continue to facilitate that simple transaction - the free withdrawal of fiction and non, available to the poor and rich, young and old alike, and libraries will remain invaluable. Sure, public internet is a draw, but the basic service will keep people coming back. Starbucks franchise? Please!
posted by Marquis at 11:29 AM on August 12, 2002


agregoli - you'd have to be comfortable looking at that stuff in a public place, which I imagine most people aren't.

Sadly in my library people are very comfortable with looking at porn in public.
My library is trying an 'experiment' this summer with unfettered internet access. No card needed, no blocks, no timeout software.

As usually if they asked front line staff we would have said NO!!
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 11:34 AM on August 12, 2002


Re insomnyuk's comment -- I think that (publicly funded) libraries aren't, or needn't be, primarily for "research." Lexis/Nexis aside, the book is still a very good means of disseminating ideas, information, and the stuff that makes up a culture and its history, a good bit of which is contained in "stories" that have no other instructive function; and particularly a very good means of disseminating that stuff to people who don't have a computer, aren't skilled with the use of one, and who want/need to be able to take their reading home with them. "Research" was never the original intent nor the primary social good of the public library. Getting books in the hands of many people was and is.

So, for one thing, as we become a more educationally and economically stratified society (with more wealth and technology accumulating in an increasingly small percentage of the population), one of the few ways we can actively work against the increasing distance between the knowledge and skills available to the economic haves and that of the have-nots is to ensure the health of these basic and very servicable idea-delivery systems. Imagining that our own (that is, those of us here) electronic-technology-heavy interaction with text and ideas is and must be the best way to get ideas or learn is to prematurely condemn a brilliant institution and radically effective technology of learning to obsolecence. After all, we've only been using them for a little over a hundred years.

Large bookstores are not libraries, however good the coffee is. As the market has yet to offer a replacement (the private circulating libraries of the 19th century are gone; we have the equivalent in VHS and DVD rentals, of course, so I'm not saying it couldn't happen. But Victorian private circulating libraries were an entertainment-centric business, whereas public libraries don't have to be quite so ruthlessly oriented toward the thriller-of-the-month as these were), I hope that we're able to see the value of the library beyond a bank of terminals. Mind you, I like the terminals. But the books are where the efficient, reusable, transportable, cheap, and valuable assets of the libraries are. I just think we've given up on selling the notion to ourselves, to children, to those who earmark the funds. And while perhaps the crisis in libraries has been caused partially by mistaken ideas about technology on the part of librarians, it surely has been in large part (at least in the U.S.) because of the triumph of the belief that the public sector should be kept on a starvation budget.
posted by BT at 12:06 PM on August 12, 2002


It seems that private circulating libraries aren't exactly gone. Think about half.com and amazon's used book section. You can basically "borrow" a book for the shipping charges if you buy a book, read it, and then put it back for sale in the system.
posted by reverendX at 12:16 PM on August 12, 2002


Stores like Barnes and Noble are the places to get books and a coffee, there is very little the public library has to offer which is not already done by somebody else, or on the web, save the annoying Dewey decimal system...

First, disclosure: I love the Dewey decimal system. If I could, I'd kiss it.

What do libraries offer that other places don't? If you've ever been low on money and seriously interested in research or literature, you probably know the answer to this question.

The web? It's a pain in the ass to access if you don't have a high-speed connection at home, which is expensive. Even then, it's still quite limited. I have DSL and I'm good at finding information online, but I still hit the library when I'm researching a project and want something beyond a synopsis or a dubiously-researched rant. Not to mention that it's still very difficult for most people to access information while sitting on a park bench or a train. Books rock.

Barnes and Noble is the place to get books? If you can afford them. And you don't need or want to go deeper than the mass market's taste. Seriously, if I had to buy all the books I read, scan, and take notes from, I'd need like five jobs.

On preview: amen, BT.
posted by blissbat at 12:21 PM on August 12, 2002


"What do libraries"

Don't get me wrong, I like libraries, I was mostly opining that the current 'public' versions of libraries may well become anachronisms which will get replaced by different ways of acquiring all kinds of books on the cheap.
posted by insomnyuk at 12:28 PM on August 12, 2002


I think another big advantage to libraries is access to out of print books. Access to an out of print periodicals is another important aspect of libraries. Furthermore, libraries are frequently a repository of local history, containing books that are unlikely to be available anywhere else. For example I have serious doubts that you can find a volume about the first 100 years of the first church in your community on eBay.

I have found that half.com only offers a good deal about 50 percent of the time that I'm looking for books. The ability to browse without the pressure to buy something to justify your occupation of that space is a major draw for libraries. Maybe my community is unusual, but the library is a very popular hangout for school-aged kids because it is cheap, it is possible to have a conversation, and it is a central location. Coffee shops are only welcome as long as you put out a steady stream of money, if you don't it is called loitering.


>>Free internet access is a good draw, maybe, so long as the people aren't poor hobos who can't afford their own PCs to look at girl-on-horse porn action.<<

This seems to be a fairly cynical view of the homeless. Quite a few homeless people use my local library for Internet access. However my impression is that is primarily because free e-mail is one of the few reliable methods of communication they have access to.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:58 PM on August 12, 2002


I love libraries (I practically grew up in them), but I've had a lot less sympathy for their travails since Nicholson Baker started doing his reporting on the ways they've been betraying their mandate. Librarians are defensive (and prolific: if you Google "nicholson baker, libraries" most of the results seem to be librarians' outraged responses) but they can't deny the basic truth of the charges, they simply claim Baker is biased or insist things have gotten better. When I was in New Haven in the '70s there were piles of nineteenth-century newspapers left on the sidewalk for the garbagemen; little did I know it wasn't just a local aberration but a general practice. Librarians, go and sin no more!
posted by languagehat at 1:26 PM on August 12, 2002


The local library back in OK was how I first got to use the internet. I also I always went there because they had the new issues of Newsweek and Time which our school library did not; I logged a lot of time in that building. The one here in Charleston is pretty nifty too, with access to a great deal of books that I never thought I liked and even a pretty decent selection of DVDs.

And they are absolutely free!! If they didn't exist already, there is no way that anyone would let them exist now. I think libraries should receive even more focus, helping them into expanding free media of all types for all. Fat chance of that happening though.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 1:58 PM on August 12, 2002


And they are absolutely free!!

Well, that depends. Someone is footing the bill. It may have been free for you, but it might not be for the local taxpayers. Nothing is free.
posted by insomnyuk at 2:04 PM on August 12, 2002


I'm not to sure exactly what the "mandate" of a library is. The mission statement of my local library reads: " . . . . provides materials and services to help community residents of all ages meet their educational, recreational, and professional needs. The library serves as a lifelong learning center for all members of the community." This does not seem to include a pledge to keep 19th-century newspapers that may well be available elsewhere, especially where keeping them means losing some other resource that would be used much more often by more people. Because libraries can't store everything (shockingly enough, even the Library of Congress doesn't have the 1972 Tiger Beat Magazine that has my fan letter to David Cassidy in it), they have to both make choices and work together to share resources.
posted by JanetLand at 2:11 PM on August 12, 2002


Fact: Libraries everywhere are too crowded. Fact: Old newspapers are utilized little.

I don't condone libraries throwing out historical documents, but they're often hard-pressed because of space and money.
posted by agregoli at 3:24 PM on August 12, 2002


Fact: Libraries everywhere are too crowded. Fact: Old newspapers are utilized little.

And, unfortunately, they also take up space. Not only do they take up space, they take up space while rotting--newspapers are designedly ephemeral. This has been a growing crisis for some time at the British Library, which owns a massive collection of newspapers & periodicals. And there's not necessarily a terrific solution for all of this: you can digitize, but then you have to worry about the longevity of the storage medium; or you can microfilm, which is hard on the reader's eyes, and often distorts or obscures key parts of the text. (I've been working through a microfilmed case file from the Royal Literary Fund, and the process only made the applicant's already lousy handwriting even harder to read.)

Distortions introduced by any sort of reproduction (digital, microfilm, facsimile reprint) are a real problem. Blake, for example, can be mighty difficult to read if you don't have the original illuminated text in front of you, because even a very good facsimile can sometimes obscure symbolic details. (And Blake's books are rarely standardized across printings, so you can't really say that X facsimile=The Book of Thel.) Similarly, if you pick up a Penguin edition of Tristram Shandy, you'll see what happens to the famous "marbled page."

Moreover, you miss a lot of details even with a terrific digital or facsimile reproduction--for example, the quality of the paper or the nature of the bindings--which can tell you a great deal about how the publisher went about his business. Microfilm does unspeakable things to illustrations and, of course, to anything in color. Some of these things are of concern only to scholars, but others really do get in the way of reading the book.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:07 PM on August 12, 2002


Similarly, if you pick up a Penguin edition of Tristram Shandy, you'll see what happens to the famous "marbled page."

You mean that page wasn't MEANT to be all black?
posted by rushmc at 5:05 PM on August 12, 2002


A place where you can borrow books? For Free? and they have CDs too? For free? Sounds like godless communism.
posted by elwoodwiles at 5:59 PM on August 12, 2002


Microfilm/fiche is definitely and without a doubt the spawn of the devil, and, despite aspiring to library school and working in an archival capacity, I tend to agree with Nicholson Baker. I'm trying to research the life of a certain artist at the moment; the only photographs of her first studio, which was also a big meeting place for the Minneapolis art scene at the time, which was where she did her most seminal pieces, are in the Minneapolis Journal. So far as I can tell, the Minneapolis Journal doesn't exist, anywhere, except as microfilm, and these photographs don't exist except as blurry Rorschach blotches. Bah.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 6:59 PM on August 12, 2002


Libraries are an easy target.

I'm puzzled by articles I've come across about communities wanting to slash or do away with spending on libraries because "who needs 'em anyway, we've got the Internet." I don't think libraries are out of date. I do think our relationship to information has undergone a huge transformation that not all libraries have necessarily stayed ahead of the curve on, some of them because many taxpayers think that funding libraries to keep up with the times is a waste of money. As someone said, libraries are not free, and someone is footing the bill.

I doubt that Nicholson Baker's muckraking does the documents he claims to want to preserve any favors. It gives Baker a great opportunity to grandstand and look heroic, and it enrages taxpayers, who then vote to slash library funds. How this outcome is supposed to help preserve turn-of-the-century newspapers and old card catalogs is beyond me.
posted by blucevalo at 12:05 AM on August 13, 2002


it enrages taxpayers, who then vote to slash library funds.

I don't know how you draw that conclusion from Baker's arguments, and to call them 'muckraking' and to imply that he's half-hearted about saving old printed works suggests to me that you haven't read his book. (Self-link: I wrote a fairly long review of it a while ago.)
posted by rory at 5:47 AM on August 13, 2002


suggests to me that you haven't read his book.

No, I haven't read his book, and I admit that. But I have read his articles in the New Yorker and in other library-related forums, which reach similar conclusions.

to imply that he's half-hearted about saving old printed works

That's not what I said. I realize that Baker has had a long-standing interest in "saving old printed works," especially based on his crusade against the San Francisco Public Library's efforts to discard hundreds of thousands of "obsolete" books in the mid-1990s.

What I said is that I don't believe his crusades are entirely selfless, nor do I believe that they necessarily lead purely to the results that he claims to wish them to lead to.

I believe that there are those who accept Baker's conclusions who are as a result more likely to believe that libraries are not generally acting in the public interest, and some of the posts here reflect that attitude.

I may be wrong, and I also admit that. What I've written is my conclusion based on what I have seen of Baker's arguments, and I'm open to changing my viewpoint if I see evidence refuting it.
posted by blucevalo at 8:30 AM on August 13, 2002


Well, 'the documents he claims to want to preserve' implied some doubt on your part about his motives - and it seems that you do doubt his motives; just not in the way I inferred. 'Questionable ulterior motives' instead of 'lack of commitment', it seems.

An article can't give the weight of supporting evidence that a book can; nor does it have room for every caveat and qualification. If you want the Full Baker, I'd recommend reading the book.

there are those who accept Baker's conclusions who are as a result more likely to believe that libraries are not generally acting in the public interest

With caveats and qualifications. '[Some] libraries are not generally acting in the public interest [in regards to the long-term preservation of print materials, which is only one of the roles they have been given, but an important one].'

IshmaelGraves's comment above is exactly the sort of thing Baker is getting at. If Baker has to 'grandstand' to get his point across, so be it. One person's grandstanding is another's wake-up call, I guess.
posted by rory at 9:53 AM on August 13, 2002


What I said is that I don't believe his crusades are entirely selfless, nor do I believe that they necessarily lead purely to the results that he claims to wish them to lead to.

And therefore they are misguided and a waste of time? Nothing we do is entirely selfless, and there are always unintended results from our actions. It seems to me that the question should be, are the issues he raises important ones, and if so, how can they be addressed to improve the situation?
posted by rushmc at 12:44 PM on August 13, 2002


Okay, they are, like all things, not free considering that we all pay to maintain them. However, this is something that I am glad my taxpayer money now goes to. So I really don't mind footing the bill for someone who wants to use a library.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 2:14 PM on August 13, 2002


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