Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Public Libraries - Mass Market Taste?

John J. Miller who writes for the National Review and is author of "A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America" writes "Every unpopular book that is removed from active library shelves such as Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner and Alexander Solzhenitsyn from the shelves of public libraries make room for a new page turner like James Patterson, John Grisham or David Baldacci, the three authors most checked out at the Fairfax County Public Library in heavily populated northern Virginia.

Mr. Miller raises a fundamental question: What are libraries for? Are they cultural warehouses that contain the best that has been thought or said? There's a fine line between an institution that aims to edify the public and one that merely uses tax dollars to subsidize the the recreational habits of bookworms.

Fairfax County may think that condemning a few dusty old tomes allows it to keep up with the times. But perhaps it it's inadvertently highlighting the fact that libraries themselves are becoming outmoded.

There was a time when virtually every library was a cultural repository holding priceless volumes. Imagine how much richer our historical and and literary record would be if a single library full of unique volumes had survived to our present day."

Mr. Miller says that the bottom line is that it has never been easier or cheaper to read a book and the cost of reading will get cheaper. If public libraries attempt to compete in this environment they will be increasingly be sen as welfare programs for the middle-class readers who would rather borrow Nelson DeMille's newest potboiler than spend a few dollars at their local Walmart or used book store.

The reality is that readers have never enjoyed a bigger market for books. They can download audiobooks to their MP3 players and listen to them anytime. Companies such as Google, Amazon (Kindle) and Microsoft are making material available to anyone with a computer and browser.

A used computer can be bought at the recycling center at 401 Rock Island for a little as $25 and free training. Check it out. I understand that's where many residents of PHA get their computers and training.

Miller continues "that instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have, using a good dictionary as a model. Such a dictionary doesn't merely describe the words of a language-it provides proper spelling, pronunciation and usage. New words come in and old ones go out, but a foundation of linguistic and coherence has been laid. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends.

This particular task will fall upon the shoulders of individual librarians who should welcome the opportunity to discriminate between the good and the bad, the timeless and ephemeral, as librarians have traditionally done They ought to regard themselves a teachers, adviser's and guardians of an intellectual inheritance.

the alternate is to morph into clerks who fill their shelves with whatever their customer wants, much as stock boys and girls at grocery stores do.

Good luck in finding Chrisopher Marlowes "Doctor Faustus" that has survived for more than four centuries but apparently hasn't been checked out at Fairfax library in two years.

After listening, reading, evaluating and seeing, I still contend the $35 million library request is mainly about computers, bricks and mortar and ego's. Meeting rooms abound throughout the community especially in our public schools. If the boys and Girls Club can use Trewyn School(they do now that the Grinnell location has been closed over a year) for free after hours, so can any other public body.

Sorry, I say they could use more money with better management and oversight of all financial transactions by an oversight committee of two or three councilpeople with a eye especially on the use of library credit cards.


dd said...

"What are libraries for? Are they cultural warehouses that contain the best that has been thought or said? There's a fine line between an institution that aims to edify the public and one that merely uses tax dollars to subsidize the the recreational habits of bookworms."

That's easy. There both. I can go to the library and check out Hemingway and Grisham. True, I can go to Barnes and Noble and buy both. But its more likely that BN would not have something that I want on the shelf than the library. BN and Borders have to respond to the immediate mass market, not so with libraries. You use the term "active library shelf" but I'm not sure what that means. If the library doesn't have a book that I want, they can get it from another library for me, usually the next day. The point is, with libraries, I can decide what I want to read. I don't have to rely on Barnes and Noble to tell me what to read. Also at a library I can have access to books that I cannot afford to pay for, so from that perspective libraries are institutions that edify the public, which I think is a legitimate use of tax money.
But, do libraries subsidize the recreational reading habits of bookworms? Sure they do, but what of it. All tax expenditures subsidize somebody. Mass transit expeditures subsidize mass transit riders, airport taxes subsidize airport uses, taxes to support parks subsidize park uses, etc. etc. etc. To say that a tax is bad because it subsidizes those who use the tax supported service at the expense of those who pay but don't use the service is not a valid argument. All taxes would be invalid under this analysis. (Don't say it, I know what your thinking!) Taxes reflect what the majority thinks is a good use of tax dollars. You may not agree with spending money on a library and I may not agree with spending money on an airport. The bottom line is, we have both a library and an airport. We both have to live with the decisions on how our tax money is spent.

Merle Widmer said...

Who said taxes are bad? I certainly didn't. But I have a right to give a studied opinoion to the peorle who vote for taxes and sense enough to see and hear that this community is overtaxeed.
More people are voting with their feet and using moving companies. I and others want to try to stop the exodous from the City of Peoria.

I commented on your other comment on another of my blog sites.

The entites you say are all subsidized all charge the user something. Public libraries do not. If you want to watch porn and surf the internet do it on your own nickle, not mine.

Angela Anderson said...

Peoria simply isn't in a position to pass such an expensive referendum at this time. Nonetheless, a modern library can do a lot for a community. Checkout Evanston's library near Chicago. Heck, checkout Chicago's Public library on Washington. They are vibrant community centers. When my husband and I were considering moving to Peoria we didn't care about a baseball stadium, a museum, or a four star hotel. We were looking for a safety, good schools, and amenities for our kids - specifically lots of Park District activities and a good library. We were disappointed with the libraries. You're right, in part it is a matter of bricks and mortar - the Downtown and Lakeview facilities are dingy and uninviting. Thus they lack the wealth of programs for young AND old that modern facilities enjoy. Another thing, Merle, read Grisham's "A Painted House" before you look down your nose at his writing. Talk about a salute to a strong work ethic. You would adore the book and perhaps come to see that modern popular fiction can be a positive force for change. In fact, I wager that you would call for this particular Grisham work to be required reading for all school children and baby boomers. Sadly, we can't afford a new library right now, it doesn't mean that Peoria wouldn't hugely benefit from one.

Angela Anderson said...


Please checkout (no pun intended) This is Evanston's public library website. Yes, there are plenty of mass market delights, but even more intellectual and helpful programs. Imagine a senior citizen getting assistance preparing his taxes or learning internet basics while his grandchild was safely enjoying story time or a movie in the room next door. Wouldn't you rather have teens learning how to knit on a sweltering summer's day than sitting home, unsupervised, playing violent video games? How about meeting with your State Rep while Junior gets homework help down the hall? Afraid that writers like Nabokov and Faulkner are being replaced by romance novelists? Wrong! Look at the visiting authors and book meetings section. Yes, here in Peoria there are meeting rooms available across the City, but do you not see the value in a library serving as a Community CENTER? Please take some time and explore this site well. This library serves approximately 75,000 Evanston residents with a broad range of ages, education and incomes very well. Peoria is bigger and its citzens would benefit even more from such a facility. Pity Peoria can't afford it. Maybe when the economy improves. (By the way, I have had difficulty finding parking at the Lakeview Branch, and always have to pay the meters downtown, if I can find one.) Sorry for the long comments. Best wishes- Angie

Merle Widmer said...

Hi Angie,

Good to hear from you again. Send me your email address.

Libraries as part of a community Center? I love it. I have yet to see Five Points in Washington. High price of gas, you know.

Bill Spears introduced the idea of using Expo Gardens as an all purpose activity center such as Washington has built and proposed locating the Branch Library as part of a community center. I first heard about his idea at a City/County Cooperation meeting a few months ago.

As to reading good fiction, look up my blogs of 9/4/7; 6/5/7; 8/18/6; 6/2/05; 4/13/5 (2),some of the many books I read and recommended on this site.

Part of Peoria's problem has been, in recent years, trying to model ourselves after wealthier communities. Hasn't worked to well here as many property tax and other tax paying projects didn't pan out or are failing to get off the ground.

The $35 million library project is "flawed" in more ways than one.

I'll read "A Painted House" by Grisham. He is one of the best current fiction writers and I have at least two of his books.

In all my blogs about education, I write about developing a rounded person. Many fiction books help because most times the books are tied in to real life.

As to a short walk from a parking space to a library? This community loves to walk witness the number of trails available.

And more pending.

The sheriff says he has 100 prisoners sleeping on the floor, the Police Chief says he could use 25 more officers on the street, we need more money and talent to conduct preventative projects, our administrator at the county says we need $23-$34 million at County owned Bellwood, the park is in financial trouble and will need to raise taxes, sell more bonds or both, the Civic Center investment depends on the economy and salesmanship, TRANSPORT is struggling to get off the ground, the Innovation Center is promising? and our less affluent neighborhoods need help, our streets are not in very good shape, and frankly, the city is on pension overload.

I knew I overlooked a major tax drain; Peoria Public School District #150 who I'm told by two reliable sources, may have more financial problems than they admit oor will admit. Up to $130 million for new schools and upgrades is on the horizaon for #150.

The good news is that you must be back in town.

Angela Anderson said...

Back in town? I wish! No, I'm still in Miami, but I still keep tabs on Peoria.

Evanston is not wealthier than Peoria. The household median income levels of the two cities are $40K and $36k respectively, and Peoria has more residents. Evanston simply made a community center/library a priority.

Peoria a town of walkers? I didn't see it. Many neighborhoods lack sidewalks. More trails on the way? THERE is an example of tax supported recreation for you. I don't want to whine, goes against the Midwestern grain, but the parking lot at Lakeview was a pain, especially when it was cold and icy and I had two little kids in tow. Peoria should be aiming to attract more residents to use the library. From what I witnessed in Evanston, a library as a community center makes a huge positive impact on its residents. Evanston's Library provides vital intellectual stimulation and support to those who need it most. Not just poor, but young children, teens and the elderly.