What is the point of the public library?

Submitted by effinglibrarian on Wed, 09/01/2010 - 17:44
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Blake Carver (not verified)

Fri, 09/03/2010 - 22:20

Blake Carver (not verified)

Fri, 09/03/2010 - 22:57

I'm listening to a BBC Radio broadcast on the history and purpose of the public libraries of Britain. These are some of my thoughts:

So taxes where once levied with a dual purpose: one to pay for the establishment of a public library; and two, to encourage people to use what they have already paid for to better themselves through this communal opportunity for self-education.

Part of this history was that lost requirement of the individual to prove his worthiness to join the community of the library. Now, we just ask for some identification, but originally, there were many more hurdles to overcome before one could qualify for membership in a public library. Residents used to beg to be let in, but now it's the libraries that seem to be begging people to join: what happened?

Modern libraries seem to be in constant motion chasing relevance. "Stay relevant!" is the current mantra. But what is relevant? Is literacy relevant? Are job skills relevant? Are DVDs and streaming video relevant?

Libraries never used to compete with the local book, music and video stores. We bought classics and educational materials. We bought new books, but only after they had been on the bestseller list for a few weeks.

And then we decided to provide popular books and music and movies, but maybe a couple of months after release. But now we have the movies and albums the week of release. And what has happened to the local book and music and movie stores? They are gone. Have libraries contributed to that demise, or can we safely blame Walmart and Amazon?

The public library used to define community behavior by requiring members to have sponsors, etc, but is now, has become the servant of that behavior. Should the public library set a standard that is above societal expectations? Should the library have the role of requiring people to become better versions of themselves? How can we reconcile that traditional role of self-education and social betterment with wanting to be popular? Clearly, telling the public that they should work to better their education or social skills is not going to make libraries popular. Is it more important to be popular today?

But libraries are still playing those ancient games whereby some people qualify for library services and some don't. We have computer labs and teen areas and downloadable stuff and game nights. And if you don't fit in by being the right age or having the right equipment or skills, then you're not really welcome.

So far, I've been listening to the recorded broadcast and using it for inspiration while I'm typing. But at the 17:20 mark, I feel like I have to comment directly on what I'm hearing. The librarian is talking about Silence. I don't know about you, but it takes some effort for me to remain silent. It's not too difficult to be somewhat quiet, but it's really hard for me to be silent. But when it was an exercise in self-discipline for me to attempt to be quiet when I was a kid, it now seems like, according to this librarian, that we are actually torturing young people if we ask them to be quiet. Actual torture. So how can libraries attempt to appear welcoming to young people if we expect them to be quiet while they are here? If we are torturing them with silence?

Libraries have traditionally been a symbol of permanence. A town with its own library could feel confident that its citizens had a reason to stick around and help the town grow, that a source of knowledge was there, that the library added value to the town.

But with all knowledge now online, where is that community sentiment, that feeling of permanence? Do libraries represent anything these days other than free videos? Is anyone proud of their library and boast about it to their friends?

One of my favorite movie (play) quotes is this, from Becket:

King: You never loved me, did you Becket?
Becket: In so far as I was capable of love, yes, my prince, I did.
King: Did you start to love God?
...
Becket: I started to love the honor of God.

I feel this way about the honor of libraries. That, either by design or by nature, they require us to better ourselves. When a library is stocked with classic works, we want to act as if we are worthy of their contents. But when your library is stocked with Rob Schneider movies, well...

I always felt that libraries represented some symbol or goal that we could aspire toward. The public library wasn't a mirror reflecting back on society where people would look to see themselves, but maybe it was a window where they could look through to see... something? If eyes are the windows to the soul, then windows are the windows to the.... And it was definitely not a fun house mirror, where all becomes a freakish mockery of society.

You can say that I have a right-wing view of libraries that believes people can and should better themselves, but that would mean that your left-wing view says that they can't and shouldn't.

There will always be someone who says that there is nothing in the library for them. But maybe those are just horrible people. I mean, nothing? Dante, the history of Hip Hop, the Gossip Girl series, James Patterson, DH Lawrence, Poppy Z. Brite,... nothing???

The only good thing that may come from all the modernization and all the attention to electronics and "giving the people what they want" is that one day, the library will have moved so far away from its original mission that the idea of giving people a quiet place to explore ideas might be viewed as something new. One day. But I'll probably be dead by then.

So I guess my message is that libraries have a purpose and a point. But I, for damn sure, could not begin to tell you what that should be. I just work here.