Null and Void
Libraries for people who don’t use libraries
March 13, 1981
An unapologetically elitist whine. Changes to my public library in Springfield reflect changes in libraries across Illinois and the rest of the U.S. The fact that other libraries were being deformed by the same market pressures did not make me feel better about mine.
We may safely add public libraries to the list of things that aren't what they used to be. In the case of libraries, unlike those of baseball or restaurant coffee, this is not necessarily bad. Springfield's Lincoln Library is typical. It opened a spacious new main building in 1977 which boasts not a single Greek column and in which drunks no longer sleep it off in the Renaissance history section because there is now too much bustle. It offers not just books and magazines but concerts, film festivals, instruction, lectures—all this on top of computerized check-out and underground parking. Nearly 34,000 attended library programs last fiscal year, and more than 810,000 items were circulated. Oh, it is wonderful.
The chief aim of this furious programming is to broaden the library's constituency by enticing into it people of the sort who never used to go to libraries. It is working. It might be a good idea to pause between acts, however, to consider the ways in which changing a library's constituency changes a library.
As the Republicans have been reminding us, upping the level of public services ups expectations as well. Cutbacks become politically risky, since the more people you serve the more people you can make mad, with the result that libraries have become captives of their own ambitions. Lincoln Library's four branches are cases in point. They serve different roles and different clientele; the West has meeting rooms and a parking lot, which makes it a community center for paranoid suburbanites, while the East is essentially a missionary outpost. However, each retains the appeal of the old corner grocery for people who find the main library too distant, too intimidating, or too inconvenient or who can never find a place to park.
These branches cost $285,000 a year to run. When the library's director appeared before the city council the other day to warn that cutting the library's budget might mean closing the branches, the mayor reproved him sternly about using the branches as hostages. A citizen wrote the State Journal-Register to urge that instead of closing the branches, the library cut programs, complaining, "Just because some universities have library i schools that espouse 'community service programs' as being the way to increase library patronage doesn't mean that this is [better]." On the other hand, keeping the branches open means that other users must subsidize through reduced programming west siders' failure to learn how to parallel park.
It is a pretty problem, you will agree.
But the popularization of libraries entails more than political risks. Giving the public what it wants can turn libraries into cultural shopping malls. The marketing imperatives are much the same. At Lincoln Library, for example, the decision to dismember the Dewey shelving system by placing arts and recreation titles in a separate department with recordings, films, and prints was essentially a marketing decision, consistent with the priorities of a public that regards being amused^ as a higher good than being informed.
This is benign change, and I cite it only as proof of priorities in the New Library. As it turns out, it is easier to change the shelf on which one puts a book than it is to keep it on that shelf once it's there. Since the New Patron is by and large unfamiliar with card catalogs, and since closed collections would in any event darken the "friendly" atmosphere library administrators work so hard to maintain, most libraries' collections are arranged on open shelves, like a supermarket, where patrons can sniff and pinch as they shop. This accessibility is presumed to help semi-literates feel right at home, since it poses no bureaucratic barriers for them to hurdle.
Unfortunately, while such arrangements are laudable from the point of view of liberal social philosophy, they also encourage shoplifting. Public libraries are being stolen blind and (although generalizations are risky) they are being stolen blind by the New Patron who, being only semiliterate, does not yet understand what the term "free library" really means. It is instructive to note which magazines Lincoln Library must store behind staff desks because they are so frequently stolen from open shelves. They include Consumer Reports, Brigitte mit Constanze (a West German fashion magazine), Gentleman's Quarterly, Mother Earth News, Billboard, Hit Parader, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, Variety, and TV Guide. The same theme echoes through other departments. Opera records are rarely stolen, for instance, but rock albums almost always are. Readers may draw whatever sociological conclusions they wish from these facts; you may write angry letters to yourselves for a change.
Ultimately I am more concerned about the effect the New Patron will have on what is bought than on what is stolen. The public's taste for trash is an affordable indulgence when budgets are booming. But (to take an admittedly extreme example) what will a library do that faces a choice between buying a new translation of Thucydides and a new set of Harlequin romances when it has money for only one?
Computers can now keep track of which books get checked out of a library and how often (a job Lincoln Library used to do by hand). There are sound management reasons for doing this. But some libraries use frequency of circulation to decide whether a book remains on the shelves. (At one out-of-state library any book not checked out at least once a year was put on a hit list, regardless of its literary merit; book-loving guerillas took to rescuing seldom-read titles by checking them out and then dropping them off in return bins on their way out the door.) It doesn't take a Robert Mandeville to see what kind of collection mere popularity would devise. A library that tosses out Thucydides because he is seldom read may be said to be serving its public. It is less clear whether it can be said to be a library.
Perhaps I worry too much. But libraries are valuable precisely to the extent that they do not think like mass-market publishers, TV programmers, public school administrators, or convenience food manufacturers. Elitist, I know. But trash has plenty of advocates; unlike other forms of art it needs no protector, not as long as the spirit of Freddie Silverman is alive. Gene Jankowski, the president of CBS, told the American Library Association last summer, "The world of broadcasting and the world of books have very much in common." Maybe too much, when libraries begin judging books by their ratings. Jankowski meant that both books and TV "communicate," but then a Titian and black velvet tigers both cover walls too.
Masscult and libraries are natural enemies, and libraries would do well to be cautious about white men bearing treaties. Jankowski, for example, tried to defend TV against the charge that it has eroded mass literacy, and proceeded to cite statistics which proved himself wrong. From 1950 to 1980, there was a Five-fold increase in the number of books published, he said, and newspaper circulation went up 15 percent. But the number of commercial TV stations jumped eightfold during that period. And since population grew by 47 percent, newspaper readers grew only a third as fast as the population generally.
Jankowski to the contrary, books are not television, and TV watchers are still different from book readers, and so long as libraries devote themselves to the printed word they will remain elitist institutions. A librarian's rule of thumb holds that 70 percent of the adults in an average city do not—I repeat, do not—use their public libraries even once a year. In Springfield, the figure is higher. There are 39,233 adult and child card holders out of a population of some 100,000. There are another several hundred-odd out-of-town card holders, plus many more Springfieldians who use the library but who do not have cards. Even so, it is useful to remember that for every two Springfieldians who have a library card there are three who do not.
The American Library Association recently announced a bill introduced in the Illinois General Assembly which would have made librarians criminally responsible for distributing "obscene" books to minors. The bill was spawned by a complaint about a sex education book from an ex-teacher in Oak Lawn, who said, "What the library associations are trying to do is to make the voice of the people null and void." But that is precisely what libraries ought to do, when the public speaks in accents of censorship and stupidity. Or, of the tube. What voices will be rendered null and void if libraries cease to stand for things beyond pleasing their publics? □
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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.
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."
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 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” 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."
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.
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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
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.
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.
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
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.
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.