Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Let Me Get This Straight

The Wall Street Journal published a piece about libraries the other day. I would like to take this opportunity to respond. I wish I could reproduce the whole article here for you, but that would violate copyright, and we all know how I feel about that. So I shall quote a lot of it. My citation is incomplete (read "nonexistent" at the moment, but I will edit it later). It appeared in the 1/3 paper I believe, and was written by Mr. John J. Miller. His words are in italics...

Full Citation: In the Fray: Should Libraries' Target Audience Be Cheapskates With Mass-Market Tastes? John J. Miller. Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Jan 3, 2007. p. D.9

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" may be one of Ernest Hemingway's best- known books, but it isn't exactly flying off the shelves in northern Virginia these days. Precisely nobody has checked out a copy from the Fairfax County Public Library system in the past two years.

I say, does this surprise you? Who reads Hemingway anymore?

And now the bell may toll for Hemingway. ... If titles remain untouched for two years, they may be discarded -- permanently.

Well, yes. No one has read it, so why exactly should one keep it?

Library officials explain, not unreasonably, that their shelf space is limited and that they want to satisfy the demands of the public. Every unpopular book that's removed from circulation, after all, creates room for a new page-turner by John Grisham, David Baldacci, or James Patterson -- the authors of the three most checked-out books in Fairfax County last month.

But this raises a fundamental question: What are libraries for? Are they cultural storehouses that contain the best that has been thought and said? Or are they more like actual stores, responding to whatever fickle taste or Mitch Albom tearjerker is all the rage at this very moment?

If the answer is the latter, then why must we have government-run libraries at all? There's a fine line between an institution that aims to edify the public and one that merely uses tax dollars to subsidize the recreational habits of bookworms.

Okay, wait just a second. So... if people are reading books from the library, but they aren't Hemingway (or Proust, or Hardy) and they LIKE those books, then why do it? Are you saying that government entities should not exist for recreation? Hmmmm... I imagine there is a whole Parks service that may see that a bit differently.

Perhaps [Fairfax County is] inadvertently highlighting the fact that libraries themselves are becoming outmoded.

Uh, what?

There was a time when virtually every library was a cultural repository holding priceless volumes. Imagine how much richer our historical and literary record would be if a single library full of unique volumes -- the fabled Royal Library of Alexandria, in Egypt -- had survived to the present day.

Okay, first... there is this place called the Library of Congress. It has a lot of stuff in it. You should check it out (if I may use the phrase).

And second, this is REALLY hypothetical, dude. Are you trying to put forth that if the Library in Alexandria had survived, we would be better off? That if we had held on to a whole lot of papers that no one was reading anymore until they disintegrated... we would be living in some sort of Utopia now? And that all those papers were worth reading? Okay... I think that's a stretch, but I'll bite, as I'm just curious where this is going.

Carnegie always credited his success in business to the fact that he could borrow books from private libraries while he was growing up. His philanthropy meant to provide similar opportunities to later generations. ...

It has never been easier or cheaper to read a book, and the costs of reading probably will do nothing but drop further...

YAY! Books are cheap! This is good, right?!

If public libraries attempt to compete in this environment, they will increasingly be seen for what Fairfax County apparently envisions them to be: welfare programs for middle-class readers who would rather borrow Nelson DeMille's newest potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at their local Wal-Mart.

My head... it's hurting... Please... don't go where I think you are going, man.

Instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have, using a good dictionary as the model. Such a dictionary doesn't merely describe the words of a language -- it provides proper spelling, pronunciation and usage. New words come in and old ones go out, but a reliable lexicon becomes a foundation of linguistic stability and coherence. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends.

AAAUUUUUUUUUUUUUGH! You totally went there! You WENT there. May I remind you that Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Poe... they were all writing serial novels? They were POPULAR READING! Some were even, dare I say, considered substandard for a while. There was little that marked them as much more than... well... TRENDS!

The particulars of this task will fall upon the shoulders of individual librarians, who should welcome the opportunity to discriminate between the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral, as librarians traditionally have done...

You mean, "censor?" And exactly what tradition is this? Librarians have been pushing the right to read and Freedom of Information for decades now. How old are you, man?

They ought to regard themselves as not just experts in the arcane ways of the Dewey Decimal System, but as teachers, advisers and guardians of an intellectual inheritance.

Well, at least you support my desire to be an expert in the Dewey Decimal System. After all, that's why I went to library school, right?

The alternative is for them to morph into clerks who fill their shelves with whatever their "customers" want, much as stock boys at grocery stores do. Both libraries and the public, however, would be ill-served by such a Faustian bargain.

So, by "Faustian bargain," do you mean "spending your tax dollars on things you want to read rather than on things that I think you should read?" Because personally, I'm usually looking for my government, whether it be local, state, or federal, to actually do something that I WANT them to do with my tax money, and give me something that I will actually use. But maybe that's just me.

That's a reference, by the way, to one of literature's great antiheroes. Good luck finding Christopher Marlowe's play about him in a Fairfax County library: "Doctor Faustus" has survived for more than four centuries, but it apparently hasn't been checked out in the past 24 months.

Dare I suggest that you consider going to Fairfax Library and CHECKING THE FREAKING BOOKS OUT IF YOU CARE SO MUCH?! Or would that be too arcane for you? Or wait... it's not your job, right? It's mine! Might I remind you that you are the patron and if you wish for the library to keep a book for the betterment of your community, you can let them know that by READING THE DAMN THING!



Jason said...

Wow. Dude's a snob. Nothing written in the past 75 years is "culturally significant" to this guy. I'm sure he'd be offended to hear that in 100 years, people are going to be talking about Stephen King and John Grisham in the same breath as Poe and Joyce. If they mention Poe and Joyce at all, that is.

Jessey said...

Holy Hannah.

Talk about a cultural elitist!

BTW, I HATE it when people use the word CULTURE when they mean snooty high falutin' activities. Opera, *literature*, classical music, ballet, PBS, the theatre are "culture" right alongside rap, Stephen King, Dora the Explorer, CSI, and hyphee.

I just freaking LOVE it when people suggest that what THEY like is "good" art and *culture* and what other people like is trash, trendy, lit-lite.

Screw that! That fool should be glad that people are even READING at all!

AND if he wants to talk about the purging of the outmoded and archaic he should start with the accelerating demise of the printed newspaper, but that probably cuts too close to the bone.

eaf said...

Considering what just happened to the WSJ, he should know something about how arcane the printed newspaper is. I'm still fuming.

Jessey said...

I'm not even a librarian, and I am fuming too!

eaf said...

I'm pleased to say that two well-written letters to the editor were published in the Jan. 5 edition of the paper. They expressed similar sentiments to those expressed here. Huzzah!

One elequent writer even pointed out that Fairfax County still has ten copies of Dr. Faustus available for Mr. Miller and all of his friends to put on a little play. Niiiiiiiiiice.