Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Tragedy of the Modern Library

I try to listen to A Prairie Home Companion each Saturday evening, in large part because, despite being politically and socially liberal, I am personally quite conservative and prone to nostalgia and wistfulness for a purer experience of things that it seems I was denied by the unrelenting progress of history. This week’s broadcast featured an episode in the adventures of Ruth Harrison, reference librarian, a character who is rather similar in that regard. She is educated, non-combative, socially permissive, but often silently critical of people’s tastes and a widespread loss of noble ideals.

In this latest episode she editorialized for a moment in conversation with her twenty-eight year-old intern, Trent (not the other one, Brent, who is thirty-seven) after he had helped a patron find a thriller that showcased truly heinous crimes. Miss Harrison, voiced by the highly talented Sue Scott, commented: “In library school we were taught that the role of the library is to educate, to uplift, not to cater to every whim.” I didn’t even go to library school, but I have always had the same image of libraries.

On hearing that line of dialogue, I thought of the last couple of trips I have taken to the Central Library in the City of Buffalo. It has come a long way from the libraries that were so domestically familiar to me throughout elementary and high school. These days, when you walk around a library, you find that the stacks are deserted but that a sea of people stretches throughout the computer banks. On an occasion when I lost my internet connection, I had to carry my laptop to the library in order to borrow its wireless connection for a day. Doing so made me feel sort of cheap and disloyal, and it also gave me an opportunity to occasionally observe the behavior of the other patrons, which in turn made me feel worse.

I noticed a middle aged couple sharing a long game of solitaire on one computer. Elsewhere, a man about my age was watching Youtube. My eyes have passed over various computer screens each time I’ve been back there, and I find that these are extremely commonplace activities. Many different kinds of games are played in the Buffalo library – first-person shooters, adventure games, bejeweled and similar puzzles. A significant portion of the library patronage these days, perhaps the majority, is evidently poor people who have no access to such entertainment at home and utilize the library for the idle passage of time instead.

Oh, to be poor but also have such free time or the means of transportation to frequent the region’s most expansive library! I understand not reading because you simply don’t have the time amidst your exhausting and low-paying work, and I understand having little access to either books or technology, particularly in a town where everything is so spread-out. But here the people I’ve seen at the library have the opportunity to beautifully enrich their lives with the information and artistry that surrounds them in a variety of media, and they choose to play dull games. It is a tragedy that libraries are used this way, that they are little more than the low-rent internet cafes and LAN parties of the twenty-first century.

Even if people ventured away from the computers, I find that the most prominently featured books aren’t all that much better. I want to believe that there are a few librarians who work in that building and react to the public much as does Ruth Harrison, diligently pointing them towards the popular fiction with easily digestible plots and few themes, then lamenting that she could have recommended Hemmingway or Faulkner. I’ve found that those sorts of lamentations often meet with comments along the lines of, “Hey, anything that gets kids reading.” That’s not the least bit persuasive to me. The mere act of allowing one’s brain to process typewritten words doesn’t in and of itself make for a richer intellectual experience than other alternatives. Is a child really better off reading Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown than watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on DVD or listening closely to a Brahms symphony?

The sentiment of “as long as they’re reading” speaks to what I think is the underlying misconception that drives the degradation of libraries and of collective appreciation of art and literature. It also speaks to the difficulty that we face in reversing the trend. I resent what libraries have become, but I see no way of changing them back into grand temples of information and culture. In order to draw in the public and avoid closure, they have to provide the type of access that people want. And as a matter of principle, anything that qualifies as information or culture should have a place there, regardless of its intrinsic quality. So it’s not as if there is any cause for libraries to restrict people from being able to use them in such frivolous ways. But so long as easy escapism can be found there, the public will surely continue to gravitate toward it.

We need a collective breaking point to overturn the misconception, which drives both trends, that a greater quantity of information is effectively the same as a greater quality. I’m inclined to think that libraries think they are providing an adequate public service and that the public thinks it is adequately utilizing that service simply because, between the books and the high-speed internet, there’s a lot of information that’s directly accessible to the entire public. It doesn’t seem to matter how it’s utilized. But the danger to libraries is the danger to all of society – that as everything comes to be more and more at our fingertips, we will grow increasingly complacent about it and let the petty distractions dominate our attention. Since everything else is still there, such allowances seem to come at the expense of nothing, but in fact they come at the expense of our very minds.

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