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Should libraries pander to the popular?

Illinois Times

June 26, 1986

Libraries used to provide the public what they needed but couldn't afford. Now they spend precious little money they hhave buying the public what it wants and can easily afford to provide for themselves. Neither libraries nor the public is improved. 

Sometimes I have this dream: Lincoln Library's main building in downtown Springfield is burning. On the sidewalk stand one hundred people—as it happens, a perfect cross-section of the library's customers. One after another the people rush into the burning building, braving flames and smoke to rescue that part of the library's collection which they treasure most. A dozen women emerge cradling hundreds of Harlequin romances like so many infants. A man returns with every Don Ho record he could find. Two city council members are seen brushing ashes from the civil service self-examination courses for firemen.

The impromptu rescue proceeds apace. Elvis biographies are saved, followed by two men carrying the puppet theater from the children's department. Then I notice a single middle-aged man wearing glasses who has been edging toward the front of the crowd. Finally, stiffened by some unspoken resolve, he marches toward the doorway. "I'll get the Proust!" he shouts, just before a teenage boy, panting as much with exultation as effort, storms out with an armload of Martial Arts magazines and knocks down the old man. By the time he staggers back to his feet, the roof of the library has collapsed and all else is lost.

The members of the library's board of directors may have been having similar dreams lately. The library budget is tight, and cuts have had to be made, forcing the board to consider this question: what kind of library should you have when you can't afford the library you want?

The board took the politic course in trimming its budget, and made cuts in all major de-partments. I am told the cuts were roughly equivalent in size if not in impact. Status quo, in other words, only a little less so. The board might have undertaken a more rigorous examination of its spending, however, based on a re-examination of certain fundamental questions. What—or rather whom—is a public library for? What is its proper role in the community, and how has it changed in one hundred years? Is the founding concept of the free public library still sound? How much of library spending is for merely popular collections (which justify the library as a political institution) and how much for . what one might agree are essential library services (which justify it as an educational and cultural institution)? More importantly, are there opportunities for wholesale cuts in the former which might preserve the latter?

I find myself asking such questions every time I enter the library these days. Like all public libraries, Springfield's has become promiscuous in its attempt to seduce new customers. "Some people don't read books," I was once told by a librarian defending nonbook holdings. (I know that; indeed, judging from the number of people who ignore the "no parking" sign in front of the library building, a lot of customers can't even read.) The toys in the children's department always lead me to ask whether children too small to read should be in a library in the first place. And if a library must secrete certain magazines under the protection of staff to prevent their theft or dismemberment (as Lincoln Library does with Billboard, for example) then it has either the wrong kind of magazine or the wrong kind of clientele, and should dispense with one or the other.

This is a phenomenon familiar from other realms. We live in a country ruled by an egalitarian orthodoxy which seeks to devote itself to packaging meals for people who can't be bothered to cook and ideas for people who don't like to think and candidates for people who don't know how to vote. What better place for them to go to learn more about all of these things than a library for people who don't like to read?

In a library which can afford to cater to every taste, such complaints are moot. But Lincoln Library—my library—no longer has the means to match its ambitions. Let us consider then some of the ways in which catering to its new audience has added to its costs.

The library spends who knows how much money buying, cataloging, circulating, and handling popular magazines and recordings, as well as romance, Gothic, mystery, and other genre novels. Popular magazines, of course, are available at any newsstand at reasonable prices, precisely because they are popular. The timorous need not even venture onto the alien ground of a bookstore to find romance novels or the less-reputable self-help manuals, since both may be purchased at any supermarket or drugstore. Public libraries were founded to bring to the masses what they needed but could not afford; a century later they more often give the masses what they can afford but don't need.

A few years ago, during a previous belt-tightening, some seldom-read magazines were dropped from the library's subscription lists. Among them was Spectator, a British weekly of commentary which is arguably among the best-written of its type in the language. It is true that Spectator cost the library more per issue than domestic magazines, but a good dictionary costs more than a Gothic in paperback and no literate person would argue against a library having a good one on grounds of cost. (That fact also means that only the affluent citizen could afford to subscribe privately.)

More to the point, the absence of Spectator diminishes the library's periodical department (thus the library, and thus the city) since there is no other magazine quite like it. One could endure an eternity of dentist's offices and supermarket check-out lanes and never see a Spectator. The magazines which remain, however, are virtually identical with ones in the same collection—People and Us, for example, or Woman's Circle and Family Day, or Glamour and Mademoiselle. Three questions suggest themselves: Would such magazines be any less read if the library did not provide them? Would it matter if they were not? Or is the sole rationale for their purchase to get people into the library?

Such questions introduce the problem of standards. Most public officials, 1 find, would rather confess to having syphilis than to having standards of taste. Library professionals are scarcely more forthcoming. Ask a librarian why he stocks Thinner Thighs in 30 Days and he will reply, "Because the public wants it." Publics are like pools of water: as they broaden, they inevitably grow more shallow. I am as shallow as the next guy, and have nothing against popular culture per se. You can have Patsy Cline if you will let me have Brahms. But if the local library has money to buy only one record, should it choose one of Cline's because it is likely to have more listeners? Should a library run itself by the same standards as a shoe store?

The answer to that question, unfortunately, is "Yes, if you're selling something." No institution could fail to become popular (and Lincoln Library is a very popular library) by subsidizing the recreation budgets  of the lowbrow middle class. I insist instead that the test of an acquisitions policy ought to be access, not audience. With new works of history, art, or biography costing more than twenty dollars, and with classical music recordings selling for twelve dollars, access to culture is largely denied those with modest means; the rationale in favor of the library's continuing collection in these areas is unquestioned. In other collections I propose a simple rule: If a reasonably competent person with five dollars in his pocket can buy it, rent it, or hear it on a radio within twenty blocks of the main library, the library shouldn't buy it.

I offer as illustration the recurring question of whether Lincoln Library should establish a collection of popular movies on videocassettes. Video collections have proven popular with libraries that have them, for the same reasons that movie star biographies are popular. In the words of one librarian: "They make the circulation figures look so good."

By now, however, video movies are available for rental at nominal fees in dozens of video shops, drugstores, even liquor stores. The possession of the equipment needed to play them back presupposes a certain income; if one can afford a $300 machine, after all, one should be able to afford three dollars to rent a movie to play on it. Why should the taxpayer compete with the small businessman when it advantages only the cheapskate movie fan?

I am prepared to argue enthusiastically for a movie video collection at Lincoln Library, but only of a particular kind. Library boards and librarians may sometimes lose sight of it, but the goal of a public library—to make available to a citizen of modest means enriching material he could not otherwise enjoy—is still valid. Reference departments remain essential under such a standard; so do local history collections such as the Sangamon Valley Collection.

And movies? Theatrical showings of serious film are as rare in Springfield as a well-dressed tourist. Foreign films don't sell tickets (or rent cassettes), and the city has no commercial revival house. Local TV showings are scant; the best the area's public TV station could offer in its Saturday night movie slot a few months ago was a Jane Powell musical. A video collection which would make available to Lincoln Library customers (at prevailing rental rates) a sampling of the best of the art form would augment the local culture, not aimlessly duplicate it. It would make Springfield a richer place to live in, not just a cheaper one. □




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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