Should libraries pander to the popular?
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. □