The American Public Library in Today’s World—an inside take
By Ken St. Andre
The modern public library is a Strange Beast. And it is getting stranger as time goes on. Is it evolving? Or devolving? Let me tell you some things and then you decide.
Let’s get some vocabulary established. From here on, when I say libraries or library, I mean the modern public library in America. I don’t mean school libraries, university libraries, law libraries, corporate special libraries, or an individual’s personal library—I mean public libraries organized by city and county governments for the use of all citizens who will take the trouble to get a library card.
If libraries ever aspired to be Guardians of Culture, and Preservers of the Past, and Holders of All Knowledge, they have given those roles away. The sheer volume of cultural material produced today makes it impossible to save it all. Hell! It’s impossible to save a 1% fraction of it. As for preserving the past, any stroll through the so-called history sections of the library now show less and less emphasis on what happened when, but more and more about journalist Joan’s impressions of some narrow event. If you want a history of England these days, your best bet is the encyclopedia. Heaven help you if you want a history of Peru. As for the Holder of Knowledge role, don’t make me laugh. Today’s library has an order of magnitude less knowledge on the shelves than it had 5 years ago. My branch has one almanac instead of three, one encyclopedia (and that one is the lowest common denominator) instead of three, no career section, no geography section (travel guides are all that remain), and no depth in any field of knowledge you’d care to name.
And how do we justify this ever decreasing collection of knowledge in the library. We claim to make up for it by getting it from different sources. Today, the whole internet is available to our public (actually those parts of it that we haven’t censored because we don’t like the content). Surely the internet contains a thousand times the knowledge that we threw away to make room for all those computers.
Does it really? Something is gained, but so much is lost by going to the internet. Let’s take newspapers, for example. A decade ago I had the entire collection of the New York Times available on microfilm. That collection went back to 1860. I had an index that allowed me to find things in it. The amount of American historical knowledge contained in those hundreds of reels of microfilm was incalculable. Do I have that knowledge at my fingertips any more? No. The Central library may still have it, but it’s gone from the branches. Can I get it on the internet? No. To get anything from the New York Times, one must subscribe and pay a fee. Am I going to do that? No. Likewise, I used to have the entire run of the Arizona Republic on microfilm. It’s gone. Central library has it—nobody else. And you know what? Nobody really misses it.
How about another example? Ten years ago every branch had bound copies of important periodicals such as Time Magazine or National Geographic. In the “good old days” those bound volumes might cover twenty or thirty years of stuff. What do we have now? Ebsco—a computerized service that allows us to find articles online. Does it contain a complete run of Time Magazine? Oh, no, you’re lucky if you can find anything earlier than 1995.
The truth is that vast quantities of knowledge that used to be available at every branch are simply gone. Who needs it? The internet will provide. Yeah, right. The internet is a wonderful thing and does provide lots and lots of information for those with the determination to seek it out, but it does not adequately replace the tools and resources that we used to have when the world was simpler. I could give dozens of examples of services that the library used to provide routinely that we can’t provide at all now.
And what happens if the internet goes away? We dare not think about that. It could be the end of civilization, if not the world.
Today’s library has become a social club. We’re here so pampered mothers can have a story time for their kids. We’re here so teenagers can chat with each other in chatrooms, and flaunt their perversities on FaceBoook. We’re here so the homeless can have a place to hang out and watch videos all day on our public computers. We’re here for people to get their best sellers for free instead of buying them in a book store. We’re here for groups to use our meeting rooms. We’re here so that the easily entertained can check out movies and music.
We are here to be the city’s social club. Part bookstore, part kindergarten, part cyber-café, part video-store, part teen center, part this, part that. Something for everyone, depth for no one. Librarians used to be Information Providers. Now we are Computer Shepherds.
But the library looks the same. It still has the same divisions—Children’s, Fiction, Non-fiction, Teen, Magazines and Newspapers, a Catalogue (though it is computerized), a Circulation Desk, a Reference Desk, Displays, etc. And people expect the same services we provided in the past—tax forms, car repair manuals, classic literature, information. If some of those things aren’t available any more, oh well, there is always a computer terminal to divert that user.
In some ways it is easier for me. I worked much harder for the public twenty years ago when the library was more primitive and actually stronger in its sense of providing knowledge and answering questions. It isn’t too hard to help someone print an airline ticket, or get an email account. And if I can’t find a biography of Woodrow Wilson, oh well, we can get one in a week or so, and he’s in Wikipedia.
I just want to change the name from Public Library to Social Center. Hmm, instead of being a Librarian, would that turn me into a Socialist instead?