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Who Watches the Watchmen

with 10 comments

So the comments yesterday brought up some interesting points, the most interesting of which was Jem’s mention of  a basic list of books that all libraries had to have, a list that no longer binds libraries on any level.

I’d never heard of such a list, but it doesn’t surprise me that there was one.  When I was growing up, we spend half the year in Connecticut and the other half in Florida–my father pioneered homeschooling before it was even legal–and one of the things that drove me crazy about the Florida portion of our year was that the public library in the town where we lived had, as somebody else said (Lee?), absolutely nothing that I wanted to read.

This was a big, enormous deal in the late fifties and early sixties.  There were no superstores with ten thousand volumes covering every conceivable area of interest in reading.  Little local bookstores, both in the Florida town where we stayed and in the small town in which I grew up in Connecticut, tended to sell as many little knitted fluffy things as books, and certainly nothing of Aristotle, say, or Stendhal.

My father would patiently explain to me, every year–okay, I was a nudge (noodge?)–that the Florida town where we had our house was mostly inhabited by seasonal people who only came for vacations, and that the local library catered to the tastes of people who were on vacation and din’t want to work too hard. 

I persisted in declaring that the place ought to have a “real library,” which that one wasn’t.

Here’s my question–why isn’t there any longer a list of books that every library “has to” have?  When did libraries stop being custodians of the culture, and start being just one more stop on the popularity train?

I don’t mean to beat up on libraries here, and I really don’t mean to beat up on librarians.  It’s just that it seems to me that one of the most significant changes that has come over this culture since my childhood has been just this–a headlong stampede into democratic reductionism, where popularity is the only legitimate standard by which to judge anything.

And I do mean anything.  We go back and forth sometimes over what some of you like to call “Bush derangement syndrome,” but it’s not a quality restricted to the left or to people who couldn’t stand W.  Before Bush derangement syndrome, there was Clinton derangement syndrome, and since then there has arisen Obama derangement syndrome. 

And before a dozen of you start pelting me with protestations that it’s all about policy, let me remind you of then-Congressman Bob Bar shooting bullets into pillows at backyard parties to “prove” that the Clintons must have had Vince Foster murdered, and the endless attempts of idiots who can’t read the Constitution to “prove” that Obama isn’t really an American citizen.

(An aside–will SOMEBODY please explain to the “birthers” that any child of an American citizen born anywhere in the world is himself an American citizen, and if they want to prove that Obama is not one, then they have to prove not that he was born in Kenya, but that he didn’t come out of his mother’s womb?)

The derangement syndromes, however, make perfect sense if you look at them as panic attacks coming from people who assume that the only possible foundation for a moral code or a sense of identity is its democratic ratification.

That may sound a little confusing, but it’s simple.  Traditionally, the foundation for Christian morals, for instance, has been the word of God, whether that was identified with the Bible or with “scripture, authority and tradition” as in the Roman and Eastern Churches. 

But these days, I think even American Christians feel largely illegitimate if their point of view does not have majority support–that they feel, possibly unconsciously, that lack of such support radically undermines the truth of what they believe.

For the non-religious participants in this debate, there’s virtually nothing else for them to use as a foundation–or at least, nothing else they’re willing to accept, since the possible options (like the reality, inateness, and immutability of human nature), have consequences that make them distinctly uncomfortable.

This development is paralleled by the other one, the one that says that making money is the only criteria of success–“gangstas” with cash and lots of bling are celebrated almost culture-wide, while working at something important but not remunerative (teaching literacy skills to prisoners, running a soup kitchen, doing medical research instead of a highly paid-speciality) is either denigrated or ignored.

Books are “good” if millions of people buy them.  Religions are “deserving of our respect” if millions of people believe them.  Bernie Madoff is “important” right up until the day he enters the federal pen, and maybe after.  Making a billion dollars selling pet rocks makes you “successful.”  Tending to the lepers on a remote Hawaiian island–well, not so much.  And who ever heard of Father Damian, anyway?

I don’t think I’m being silly here to note that there used to be more than one system of value on which we judged success and failure, that this reduction of all values to the “democratic” is not only new, but maybe not such a good idea.

And–just to show you how disorganized I am this morning–I have a feeling that this particular fixation is related to the one that says we must always gratify our wishes and desires right now, without delay, and without interference.

A list of books every library must have is the act of a culture that assumes that it is more important for a library to be a custodian of culture than it is for the local populace to get its bestsellers right this second because that’s what they want.  

Sometimes some of you get crazy about the tendency of this society to take the political pronouncements of actors and rock stars seriously–but why shouldn’t such pronouncements be taken seriously?

After all, if the only criteria for seriousness is the numbers, the actors and the rock stars have the numbers, far and away over anybody who is just, you know.

Dedicated to silly stuff nobody pays attention to, like political philosophy and political principal.

Just ask a random sample of the American people, and I’ll guarantee they’ll tell you how boring all that is.

Okay, I’m blithering.

Written by janeh

October 13th, 2009 at 9:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'Who Watches the Watchmen'

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  1. Just as all libraries do not provide real literature (whether classic or contemporary), neither do all schools. It has been a blessing of home education (were you exclusively home educated? wow!) to offer choices in literature, etc. to my children that are outside the school’s “standard” curriculum. The question, then, that I often hear from other home educating families is how do children raised to learn to think and reason fit into a society that doesn’t necessarily value such skills? Or at least, values other behaviors much more. Any thoughts?


    13 Oct 09 at 11:51 am

  2. Since my comments were mentioned specifically. The “list” –the Public Library Catalog –I referred to still exists under a different title. However, as I stated yesterday, most smaller libraries have an even stronger role to satisfy the municipality they serve. If the library director or collection development librarian chooses not to do so, he or she will generally be replaced by someone who will. Larger libraries, as I also mention yesterday, can acquire classics as well as best seller and all materials between. Library cooperatives and consortiums exist to allow interlibrary borrowing to satisfy borrowers who cannot locate materials at one particular library. Yes, economics effects libraries just as it does all segments of government. I am including a link below that speaks specifically to the quality vs. demand debate that has existed in library education and professional literature for many decades. Also, generally when a particular book or item is not available in one library, the patron has the following options: to ask for a loan from another library or request that the item be purchased. Libraries are not museums. Their holdings have to be used and desired by the municipalities that economically support them.



    13 Oct 09 at 12:34 pm

  3. You can lead a horse to the classics, but you can’t make him read them.

    Even if libraries stocked “the list” that’s no guarantee that they will be read. Sure the occasional read-everything fool will come along and do a clean sweep of the stack, but just having a book doesn’t make it circulate. In fact, I’m pretty sure that in this chicken & egg matter, the classics were in the libraries and were neglected by the reading public long before they were purged from the shelves.

    In large library systems, I’m pretty sure you could find the entire canon, somewhere in the system and available for reserve and delivery to your local branch. Having it stocked in each branch is counterproductive, because shelf space with popular works gets readers into the library in the first place. If you fill it up with unread books, you’ve got poor traffic. Poor traffic equals poor funding equals library closings.

    Here in Long Beach, we’ve got a dozen branches, plus a huge main library downtown, plus storage stacks I’ve been told have several hundred thousand books that are never on display but are available for requests. Plus there is a large LA county library system with several branches in our city, that is more or less parallel with the city system.

    For smaller cities, don’t most of them now belong to larger regional systems to give patrons the best access to a wide selection? This is a major change from the old small-town syndrome where you had only a few thousand books available at any one library.


    13 Oct 09 at 1:22 pm

  4. From the middle ’80s through the early ’90s I worked in a large urban library in Birmingham, AL (yes, that’s Alabama. Culture is alive and well in the strangest places.) There was a central library and 20 branches in the city of Birmingham and twenty additional libraries in Jefferson county. I did collection development in fiction for the central library. At that time and in those circumstances, I purchased classics, what is referred to as literature, rather than popular fiction, and popular fiction as well. The money was there and choices weren’t so limited. In my small library now, there are a few works by Conrad, Joyce, Woolf, Hardy, Lawrence, Austen, Twain, Crane, Faulkner, Hemingway and on and on. We also own copies of Dante’s Inferno, works by Tolstoy, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Beowulf and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We have very little of CLASSIC literature (3000 BC to 500 AD) from ancient Greece or Rome. Nor do we have the Harvard Classics. But many of these works can be borrowed from any of the other 25 libraries in our county.


    13 Oct 09 at 2:20 pm

  5. What you’re seeing is just another part of the cultural changes that swept the western world in the last half of the twentieth century. If you want a society to be open and inclusive and egalitarian and all those other good things, you can’t really have someone making lists of what people should read or know. The very process excludes some works (and by association, the groups the authors came from) and requires someone to make the decision as to what is in and what is out. It fits right in there with all those conspiracy theories (since to admit that someone’s reasoning might be more logical and productive than ones own is to exclude oneself from the group of People Who Really Understand Things), and a good bit of the insistance that you can’t (or shouldn’t) have, say, common testing on common curriculum which might show that things aren’t as egalitarian as we want to believe. It means that everyone must get a high school diploma – the same kind of diploma, not, for example, two representing different skills attainment.

    I don’t quite know what kind of society will eventually gel around all these contradictory ideas, or even if it’s possible for one to do so. Maybe I should read that book I saw recently on the formation of identity after the nation-state, because it strikes me that it will be very difficult for people raised in a culture that emphasises an extreme individualism and self-centredness doesn’t seem all that likely to be all that unified and able to have the level of group identity needed to negotiate and interact with other groups.

    It does tend to produce lots of very exhibitionist behaviour, though, since it seems that, in a very typical example of the illogic of our current culture, ‘self-expression and individual fulfilment’ only applies to certain kinds of behaviour; long, quiet and disciplined study of the classics doesn’t count.


    13 Oct 09 at 4:16 pm

  6. I think it was a serious mistake when tax-supported libraries effectively went into competition with subscription libraries and paperback bookshops. I am not saying they should restrict themselves to the fiction of the high culture, but we’re getting what I think of as the “Blockbuster Effect”–many copies of a current best-seller, which no one will want to read in six months. (And which, of course, the library will then “de-accession” (i.e. sell) for less then it cost to enter a new book into the system.
    The library, in effect, doesn’t want one copy of the McManus translation of Beowulf in good library buckram: it wants two copies of SUN SIGNS, UNFIT FOR COMMAND or THE AUDACITY OF HOPE. But it only wants them for a year or less.
    If I remember correctly, a good signature-bound hardcover is regarded as good for 50 to 100 readings. If library purchasers would ask themselves “will anyone ever want to read this book fifty times? or “will anyone want to read this book a year from now?” they might not need to have spring and fall library book sales.
    The book everyone wants to read this year, but no one will want to read next should be a mass market paperback, not a library book.
    But how we get back to that, I do not know.


    13 Oct 09 at 4:54 pm

  7. Excuse me, Robert, I have to make a comment. And pardon me, everyone, for posting so often on this topic but after all I am a librarian. Public libraries ARE NOT in direct competition with subscription libraries (where are these libraries supposedly located, by the way) or paperback bookstores. Yes, libraries have adopted certain bookstore practices but that’s to encourage circulation. And yes, sometimes in large libraries, multiple copies of bestsellers are purchased to fulfill demand. But it is not true that no one will want to read them in 6 months. A large number of bestsellers tend to be written by a group of 25-30 (or so) authors. Readers of these authors’ works often want to read everything that author has written. Most of the books sold in my library booksales are donated books we don’t put into the collection. Once a year I weed (deaccess) some fiction but I do not delete recently purchased books. These weeded books are sold as well. Librarians are not idiots. We do not buy books on the 15-minutes of fame principle. You may not read popular fiction but many library users do. There are library patrons who actually read the entire works of Danielle Steel. I don’t but I can’t make my collection development decisions based on my own reading taste. And yes, I have read many classics, James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, the whole crew. Perhaps if you could view individual circulation figures on these “popular fiction” books you claim no one will read next year, you would see that they do have an afterlife.


    13 Oct 09 at 7:44 pm

  8. All I can say is that I agree with jem. Those multiple copies of bestsellers are usually weeded by attrition–they fall apart from so many readings. And have to be replaced, as often as not, because there are still people who want to read them (although by then the paperback is probably out.) My library will buy both Beowulf and the new Danielle Steel (in multiple copies). Beowulf will circulate maybe 3-5 times in a year (one of them me). Steel will circulate maybe 60-100 times, or more. And they will keep circulating–we have to keep her complete works available, all the way back to the very first one, and boy do they go out. The same goes for all the best-selling authors. I can’t see Steel’s appeal, either, but a lot of people apparently do, and they pay a large percentage of the taxes which support the library. And make it possible for those of us who want Beowulf to get it.

    Lee B

    13 Oct 09 at 9:10 pm

  9. Since we’re mostly talking about libraries, I’d like to add that I’ve been exceptionally fortunate in that respect. I grew up in a company town in which the Company subsidized the local public library, and I adored the librarian, who was also a family friend, and who was very enthusiastic about reading. She never let little rules like how much empty space you were supposed to allow on the shelves or bans on children’s comics and series detectives (like Nancy Drew) slow her down, and although the room was partitioned into Children/Grade 8/Adult sections, she was perfectly happy to let people read outside their category. I was shocked when I visited another small community and discovered the number of books provided by government funding alone! We had reading tables, not books, in primary and elementary classes, and although there was a small library for the high school classes, it was usually kept locked because there was no one (no teacher) free to be in there.

    Now I two libraries within easy walking distance – a large public one (by our standards; I’m sure it’s dwarfed by a major city public library) where I get most of my light reading and DVDs and some non-fiction, and the local university library, which I also have access too, and where I usually get the sort of thing the public library might not carry. Both have interlibrary loan, but I’ve mostly used that in the public library. I can get anything in the provincial libraries pretty quickly; if they have to look outside there, it can take some time.

    The public library does have a regular sale counter and an annual sale – they sell both discards and donation they don’t need.


    14 Oct 09 at 12:16 pm

  10. I have been wrong before, and no doubt will be again, but
    (1) if a public library sees its primary objective as circulation regardless of what it circulates, then of course it is in competition with booksellers and book renters. How can it not be? (Subscription libraries are likely before your time, Jem. Once libraries started stocking recent popular fiction in multiple copies, they went under pretty quickly.)
    (2) I would have said that as a rule, library booksales were about 50-50 donations and discards. Yours may well be different–and my notion of a “recent” library purchase might go back further than yours.
    (3) I do indeed read popular fiction, and often checked it out of the local library when I wasn’t living in the “greater DC region.” It’s buy or do without here. And Danielle Steel would pass my specified test–that is, people will want to read it for some years, and you’ll wear out the book. Did anyone pay attention to my criteria? You’ll notice the examples I gave were extremely topical political tracts and a spectacular example of pseudo-science sold mistakenly as non-fiction. These are the sort of books of which 20 or fifty copies would not satisfy demand in the first few weeks, and two copies would be excess next year.
    (4) If no librarians are idiots, you have a remarkable and unique sorting system, and one we should apply to politicians, military officers–and analysts. Most professions are even capable of systemic error. It’s good to know that’s not true of library science.


    14 Oct 09 at 4:08 pm

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