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LIS 950: Libraries and community

The purpose of this seminar is to explore an important topic in library and information studies in depth — in all its intertwined historical, cultural, philosophical, and political aspects — through a graduate reading/discussion seminar. The topic varies each time the course is taught; this time around, we will focus on "libraries and community"

Friday, October 28, 2005

Utne Reader article and Brooklyn librarian manifesto on our themes for this week

This summer the Utne Reader web site published a short article entitled Knowledge for Sale by Chris Dodge, which echoes many of Buschman's themes in a briefer more accessible style (ie. perhaps suitable for posting to SLIS-DISCUSS and getting reaction). Here's a slice:

Can libraries muster the political support they need to be funded adequately? Ralph Nader has called for federal library help, noting 'an aircraft carrier currently costs about $4 billion, while libraries currently receive about $110 million yearly.' One obstacle, writes library advocate Ed D'Angelo (www.blackcrow.us), is that policy makers increasingly view public libraries as 'an inessential social service for the unemployed, or even as frivolous entertainment.'

Local citizens, meanwhile, have voted to build new urban showcase libraries, structures that local leaders hope will revitalize downtown areas. The spectacular new Seattle Public Library designed by, among others, the firm of renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is one example. Despite critical raves, the building seems made to awe and befuddle rather than function smoothly as a house of knowledge. Escalators go to the top floor but don't return from there, stairs are for emergency use only, and just three elevators serve 11 stories and a basement parking garage (costing as much as four dollars an hour). A bright and glassy new library in Salt Lake City has a mall-like foyer lined with shops selling coffee, sandwiches, and gifts. In Minneapolis a new central library with a 'green roof' is scheduled to open next year, following recent layoffs and reduced service at the branches. A number of other cities have new trophy libraries of their own.

One concern is that, in the name of giving people what they want, the new libraries of the future will be closer in spirit to amusement complexes -- centers offering corporate-sponsored 'edutainment' spectacles and tiered services to a paying clientele. In fact, some administrators have already embraced library partnerships with Starbucks, McDonald's, and other companies as 'creative' ways to make up public funding shortfalls. This trend should surprise no one. Libraries are increasingly modeled on big business and directed not by librarians but by executives who are apt to have read more management books than literature.

The reference to Brooklyn Public librarian Ed D'Angelo is from his manifesto where he also echoes Buschman (but does not cite him) in a lengthy piece entitled "Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library: How Postmodern Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education and the Public Good" (find it at http://www.blackcrow.us/index.htm):

Public libraries account for a miniscule portion of government expenditures and are the first to be cut when budgets fall short. Government policymakers view public libraries as a dispensable supplement to the public school system, an inessential social service for the unemployed, or even as frivolous entertainment at public expense. So why should we care if the barbarians crash the gates of the public library? Of what great significance to the state and its public would that be?

The answer is that government policymakers have missed the most important function of a public library, which is to promote and sustain the knowledge and values necessary for a democratic civilization. Conversely, the condition of public libraries may be taken as a litmus test for the state of democratic civilization. Any threat to the core values of a democratic civilization will be reflected in the state of our public libraries; and, any threat to our public libraries will weaken our democracy.

The main body of this work is occupied with an analysis of postmodern consumer capitalism and its effects on democratic civilization. We will find that postmodern consumer capitalism threatens the rational public sphere of discourse which is essential to a functional democracy. Postmodern consumer capitalism transforms discourse into a private consumer product and as such reduces knowledge to mere information or entertainment. But for the reasons given above I have framed my analysis of postmodern consumer capitalism with a discussion about the public library. The public library may be like the proverbial canary in the mine -- the first to go when the air is poisoned. It is uniquely positioned to feel the effects of a declining democratic civilization; and it is the first to go when knowledge gets reduced to information and entertainment.

Might be interesting to try to figure out where in the profession and in the press these sentiments are being expressed -- certainly Buschman is not the only one wrestling with these ideas. Is the common thread "neoliberalism," or consumerism, or shrinking funding for all aspects of local government? How should library professionals and advocates be framing these issues on a practical basis? Do all of these different views agree on the place and purpose of "the library" in modern global society?

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