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? □