Do Public Libraries Promote Democracy?

In his book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Dr. Wiegand challenges the traditional theory that public libraries are institutions which promote an informed democracy. He correctly points out that it’s “hard to prove that American public libraries are essential to democracy.” I’m certain it’s difficult, just as it’s difficult to prove many of the intangible benefits that libraries present their patrons.

Public libraries were conceptualized in large part to provide citizens access to information and “useful knowledge” which would help them to become more informed voters and civic actors. This theoretical framework is a political version of Ben Franklin’s ideal of the “self-made man”.

But historical data of public library usage makes it abundantly clear that very few people use their library this way. The maintenance of an informed democracy via access to “useful knowledge” isn’t something our patrons are all that interested in.

So it’s appropriate and useful to question this orthodoxy.

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Another Benefit of Ebooks for Libraries

A friend of mine was recently introduced to a certain genre fiction author who has been writing an ongoing series for the past couple of decades. My friend naturally wanted to start this series at the beginning and read it all the way through, in order. So, my friend turned to their local public library.

Ongoing series pose a difficulty for library collections. The earliest titles stop circulating after so many years, or our copies become worn out and damaged beyond repair. As a result, these items get weeded. Sometimes there’s not enough demand to justify restocking an older title. Sometimes we can’t restock them because we can’t afford the physical shelf space to hold them.

Frequently, publishers stop printing older titles from their catalogs, or distributors stop carrying them, which means libraries often can’t replace these titles in our collections even if we see a need for them. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for libraries to have more recent titles in ongoing fiction series on their shelves but not the earliest ones.

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Diverse Books for White Dudes

On the last day of the KLA/MLA joint conference last week, I attended a session titled “Why We Need Diverse Books.” I believe the #WeNeedDiverseBooks initiative is one of the most important social movements going on right now. I believe diversity is the most important frontier for collection development in libraries.

The session presenters recommended a variety of publishers who are good sources of diverse titles and gave examples of successful diversity programming they had done at their own libraries. For me, the most interesting point raised was the need for foreign language titles in a diverse collection. Language is an essential facet of cultural diversity, and yet our diversity collections are still predominantly written in English. A truly diverse collection which serves a truly diverse community should have resources in a multiplicity of languages. Too often, this gets overlooked in collection development efforts. I think this is a point well-made.

I walked out of this session asking myself another question which sometimes gets neglected in our discussions about diverse books:

How do we get white dudes to start reading diverse books?

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Proud to Be a Librarian: Thoughts on the KLA/MLA Joint Conference

Last week, I attended the three-day joint conference of the Kansas and Missouri Library Associations, “Libraries Without Borders.” I attended half a dozen sessions, learned about some useful projects and products, met lots of people – all the things you go to a conference to do. It was an enjoyable and productive few days. Every night, I went home excited to talk about all the new ideas in my head.

But the part of it that I keep going back to, the bit that sticks with me most powerfully, is the awards reception that was held at the end of the second day. Representatives of both the KLA and MLA handed out awards to various individuals for meritorious service, distinguished professionals, best library, etc. Pretty standard, as awards ceremonies go. What struck me about it is this:

Every single person who received recognition that evening made it a point to pass on credit for their work in their acceptance speech. Every one of them made it clear that they didn’t do their work alone, and that their awards belonged as much to their staff, or their director, or their board who supported them. Every one of them acknowledged that their success was the result of the efforts of many other people, working on many fronts.

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Digital Technology: It’s Just a Tool

Let’s not make more of it than it is.

 

This is the second of my point / counterpoint posts. Read the first post here.

 

When we think about digital illiteracy, we picture people who lack familiarity or skill with technology, people who lack knowledge or comfort with digital information resources. We think about luddites—some willing, some unwilling.

But there’s a kind of digital illiteracy that exists at the other end of the spectrum: technolust. People who adopt new technologies and digital resources too enthusiastically.

An uncritical acceptance of digital technology fails to understand it in a way as profound as any luddite.

Digital technology provides us with tools. A proper understanding of our tools doesn’t just mean knowing what they can do—it also means knowing what they can’t do, and what we shouldn’t try to make them do.

Understanding our tools means knowing their limitations as well as their strengths.

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Luddite Librarians

Digital technology is part of our job now, whether we like it or not.

 

This post is the first of two that I plan to present as a point / counterpoint kind of thing. Read the second post here.

 

Every library, it seems, has a handful of staff members who just won’t get onboard with new technology and new digital services. Some of them even make it a point of pride—they see themselves as stalwarts, holdouts against unnecessary change.

Some say they’re too set in their ways and technology changes too fast to keep up with it. Some flat out don’t trust new technology or digital information resources.

As a profession, we grimace and shrug and resign ourselves to the fact that some of our coworkers are going to be like that.

But consider it from a different angle:

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Libraries Are…

Semi-related follow-up to my last post.

Libraries are uniquely qualified to recognize both the value of current popular titles and also the enduring benefits modern readers can realize when they take the time to explore our ongoing literary heritage.

Libraries celebrate education and entertainment both as necessities of a life well lived.

Libraries are on the front lines of diversifying the stories available to our communities, undertaking the essential work of expanding our cultural consciousness and mutual understanding.

Libraries are where you find yourself and also discover the unknown.

Libraries are where we learn what it means to be human, in all our myriad aspects.

The Transformative Power of Reading

I have a social media friend—you know the type: you’re barely even acquaintances in real life but you have enough mutual friends to be friends online. We’ve been social media friends for some years now.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been watching her life transformed by the power of reading. That sounds cheesy and dramatic, I know, but it’s literally true.

My social media friend is currently in her early 30s. She’s Hispanic Latina, born into a fairly poor family, raised in a fairly poor neighborhood, with all the disadvantages inherent to such a background in this country. She had her first child when she was still in high school and married the father when she turned 18. They had a couple more kids over the next few years. She didn’t go to college. She went straight from high school to being a working mother, raising her children and holding down a series of part-time, low skilled, hourly wage jobs. A few years ago, she and her husband got divorced, so she took her kids and moved back in with her parents.

She decided to change the course of her life and she enrolled in a community college to get a degree in nursing. This is where her current transformation begins…

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This Is Why Books Are Dangerous

I recently finished reading The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, edited by Alice Crawford (Princeton University Press, 2015). Several passages from the concluding essay, “The Modern Library and Global Democracy” by James H. Billington, stood out:

Books are our guardians of memory, tutors in language, pathways to reason, and our golden gate to the royal road of imagination. Books take us to new places where boundaries are not set by someone else … . Books help us to pose the unimagined question and to accept the unwelcome answer. Books convince rather than coerce. They are oases of coherence where things are put together rather than just taken apart. Good books take us away from the bumper cars of emotion and polemics in the media into trains of thought that can lead us into place we might not otherwise ever discover. (p. 263)

This is why some people are afraid of books. This is why some people see certain books as a threat. Books are transformative, books empower—books encourage independence of thought. This is why some people seek to control them.

Libraries are antidotes to fanaticism. They are temples of pluralism, where books that contradict one another sit peacefully side by side on the shelves just as intellectual antagonists work peacefully next to each other … . (p. 263)

This is why some people are afraid of libraries. This is why some people see libraries as a threat. This is why some people seek to control them. Pluralism is anathema to control and dominance.

My favorite quote, though, and the best conclusion we can come to, is this:

Reading can balance our noisy, hurry-up, present-minded world with what Keats called “silence and slow time.” Whatever else you do in life, do not fail to experience the simple pleasure of being alone with a good book on a rainy day. (p. 265)

Once Again, Print Proves Its Worth

Perhaps it’s ironic, but the more time I spend as a digital librarian, learning and exploring new technology, finding new and better ways to provide technology to our patrons, the more I find myself passionately advocating for the importance of print and the necessity of its continued presence in our reading culture.

Once again, print proves its worth:

Reading Books Instead of Kindles Can Improve Your Memory, Concentration and Good Looks by Jon Levine (posted on Arts.Mic on August 20, 2015)

Nothing in this article surprises me (although I get frustrated every time someone implies that ebooks aren’t books). It all pretty well stands to reason:

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