Libraries for Dummies

Posted: March 2, 2011 in Consumerism, Education, Literacy, Media
Tags: , ,

An article at The Chicago Tribune about libraries moving away from the Dewey Decimal System to bookstore-style shelving and organization covers the issue with typical journalistic banality: telling both sides of a potentially contentious subject (everyone being doctrinaire about nearly everything these days) without rendering judgment. Differences between research and public libraries are mentioned briefly, as well as differences between commonly used classification systems. Library patrons are also quoted for man-in-the-street authenticity. It’s virtually assembly-line news reporting — writing to a template that can be applied universally, not unlike paint-by-the-numbers movies.

I’m not a journalist, though, so I can render judgment with the benefit of some insight. I used to work as a cataloger at an academic library and I’m an active borrower of books and other media from the Chicago Public Library (CPL). I, too, recognize the differences between research and public libraries, competing classification systems, and the call numbers these systems produce. I’m also familiar with accessioning and category grouping. Each has its own peculiar dynamics, which are often mischaracterized as strengths and weaknesses when they’re really simply different ways of locating something on a shelf.

For the skilled library user, there is simply no substitute for a precise location of items one seeks. This assumes that patrons are motivated by something more specific than chance encounters with titles that may catch their eye, the way one browses a bookstore or a website. Of course, finding one’s sought-after title and spotting something interesting nearby is a commonplace and serendipitous effect known to anyone who enters the stacks. Without the use of a call number, however, struggling to locate a title shelved or arranged without specificity, the way a bookstore shelves its wares, lies somewhere between irritating and infuriating. CPL doesn’t quite resort to large bins of titles dumped together, but loose subject and alphabetical arrangement of popular items (books, CDs, and DVDs [VHS is being phased out], respectively) with heavy circulation can make finding a specific item — if not checked out or in transit — quite daunting.

But who among us is a skilled library user anymore in the age of Google? Once keyword searching became available in online catalogs, nearly everyone abandoned author/title/subject searching. Further, public libraries in particular began collecting in earnest more purely entertainment media, no doubt in a bid to stay relevant. Those media are increasingly hybrids, crossovers, and compilations, making subject categorization impossible or irrelevant. Adding banks of Internet-enabled computers for patron use was probably inevitable and not altogether bad, but my view is that libraries are slowly transitioning away from being institutions of learning and erudition to being mere entertainment venues. Libraries are forgetting what they are, and the mission of the library is eroding shifting to serve better those with base desires rather than focused learners. (No doubt I’m being too hard on libraries, which perform many worthwhile public services beyond loaning books. As I reread and edit this post, it clearly passed into screed at some point, which I don’t usually allow myself. But I’m on edge enough to let this one through my internal censor.)

Nowhere is this attitude better expressed than in the “… for dummies” brand of books and instructional media. I find no shame in being ignorant of anything I haven’t studied. Brain surgery and rocket science are good examples of my nearly total ignorance, as well as being subjects often cited as examples of peak learning. (Heard a good mash-up recently: “It ain’t exactly rocket surgery!”) The “… for dummies” brand, however, invites people to identify with being a doofus, guilelessly laughing off their ignorance. Having been put off by that approach and never having read one of those books, I can’t say whether they offer dumbed-down content or are valuable introductions and/or surveys of various subjects. Pop one open quickly, though, and one typically finds a chatty, graphics-heavy presentation now typical of textbooks whose writers and publishers recognize only too well that readers don’t actually read anymore but skim and surf as though using a web browser. Pages are broken up by myriad headings, subheadings, pull-outs, marginalia, and illustrations to avoid the dreaded wall of text, which any careful reader can attest is where useful content is found.

Libraries (the public ones, anyway) may well be aiding and abetting a slide past mediocrity straight toward the lowest common denominator: mouth-breathing semi-literates. Imitating shelving practices of bookstores is an obvious appeasement to patrons trained who think of themselves as consumers rather than learners (lifelong learning being rather passé and undesirable in an era of expanded entertainment options). After a fashion, we’re still in a profit-taking phase, enjoying the overabundance granted us by decades of innovation and productivity. Abundance is also making us vacuous fools, more interested in gratifying ourselves than understanding much about the ways the world truly works. When scarcity reasserts itself (as it must), I fear we’ll have nowhere to turn and no one to consult for an explanation. Our institutions and minds will have been left to rot and will no longer be of much use.


It gets worse. A new library opening in Bolingbrook, Illinois, reimagines itself as something like ESPN Zone, filled with electronics to draw in teens and professionals (who won’t be going there to find or read books). This also caught my attention:

The Fountaindale Public Library, with its state-of-the-art, Wi-Fi equipped space, is starkly different from the previous antiquated library, a nearby one-story brick structure built in 1975 that awaits the wrecking ball.

A 35-year-old building is antiquated? It was built before the computer/digital age, sure, but that hardly makes it obsolete.

Another update:

HarperCollins is placing a limit of 26 times its eBooks can be loaned from libraries before the license expires. Why are libraries collecting electronic books? Why do publishers care how many times they’re circulated?

Yet another update:

I knew it was coming: there is now a bookless library coming to San Antonio, TX, part of an intended bookless library system serving all of Bexar County. Everything will be computer screens and e-readers. Sorta makes me wonder why anyone with a functioning Internet connection at home would bother going there? Those without home service will certainly appreciate the connectivity. But what happens when the power goes off or the cost of electricity shoots through the roof?

  1. Finally got here, Brutus! Your page looks great and I can see I need several hours to catch up.
    Always be wary of newspaper reports with “man or woman on the street” comments bolstering the story. It’s easy to find someone to say almost anything you want, especially if you tell the person he or she very well may be quoted in the newspaper.

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