Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library

By Ed D'Angelo


Chapter 1: The Crisis of Democracy and the Public Library

Chapter 2: Democracy and Professional Librarianship


Chapter 1: The Crisis of Democracy and the Public Library

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 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 its public libraries; and, any threat to public libraries will weaken 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 public sphere of rational discourse and that the healthy functioning of this sphere is essential to democracy. Postmodern consumer capitalism transforms discourse into a private consumer product and as such reduces knowledge to mere information or entertainment. But since public libraries play such an important role in maintaining the public sphere of rational discourse 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.

In March of 1998 the American Library Association (ALA) published an article by Steve Coffman in which he proposed that public libraries be run like corporate chain bookstores. The following issue of the ALA’s magazine American Libraries hosted a large number of letters from librarians who objected to Coffman’s proposal that libraries be run like bookstores. The author of one letter explained that a library is “a democratic, egalitarian center” that “provides a wide spectrum of information to anyone who wants it, regardless of their background.” A bookstore, on the other hand, “has no mission, morality, vision, or even stake in the community; its only purpose is to get middle-class people to spend money.”

Several years later Coffman’s article looks more like a forecast or description of trends affecting public libraries than a radical proposal for change. Some libraries are already moving in the direction of imitating the organizational and procedural structure of corporate chain bookstores. The chain bookstores don’t hire librarians. They hire low-paid clerks to help patrons fetch books. There is no reference service. Book ordering is centralized and automated. There is no discrimination between “good” literature and “bad” literature; there is no mission to serve the public good; there is no mission to promote democracy or education; the sole criterion for selecting books is sales/circulation. The most extreme example of this trend may be the branch libraries of east London which have been renamed “Idea Stores” (Lane, 2003; Ezard, 2003). The Idea Stores employ supervisors and customer service representatives, but no librarians. There are cafes near the entrance to each Idea Store but no reference service is available. Corporate designers and advertising agencies seek to draw “customers” into the Idea Stores by creating an appealing brand image. “The project -- described as retail-inspired -- is based on the conviction that ‘in our increasingly retail-focused and lifestyle-conscious world’ commerce is now the ruling influence on the lives of younger people. This group, it is felt, is far more likely to borrow books or use educational services if the ambience reminds them of a superstore or, as with the colours and signs at Bow, the departure lounge at Gatwick airport.” (Ezard, 2003). In the United States, the public library system of Riverside County, serving a million people in California, was turned over to a private contractor in 1997 (Hanley, 1998: B6). The mayor of Jersey City’s attempt to privatize his city’s public library was beaten back by librarians and public spirited citizens in 1998, as was the Hawaii State Library’s attempt to outsource book selection to Baker & Taylor in 1997 (Hanley, 1998). But GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) and the WTO could some day require all of the world’s public libraries to privatize in the interest of neoliberal market reforms (Rikowski, 2003).

How did we get to the point of having libraries without librarians? How did we lose the ‘public’ in ‘public library’? And why should we care? To answer these questions we will have to delve into the history of libraries and librarianship as well as explore larger trends in politics and the economy. We will need to think about the mission of a public library and what distinguishes it in a fundamental and essential way from a private market business. We will need to think about the difference between entertainment and education, pandering and edification, a market economy and democracy. What we will find is that democracy, civil education and the public good are the three pillars supporting the public library. Postmodern consumer capitalism threatens all three and with them the institution of the public library.

Chapter 2: Democracy and Professional Librarianship

In a recently published history of libraries, Battles (2003) explains that prior to the nineteenth century libraries were by necessity limited to a small collection of classics because, in spite of the invention of the printing press, books remained difficult and expensive to produce. Book selection was therefore a simple process, since there was little to choose from, and it constituted a small part of librarianship. With the development of the mechanical mass production of books in the nineteenth century librarians were for the first time faced with the task of deciding which books from among the thousands produced they should add to their collections. Most of the first generation of public librarians were concerned about the flood of trashy popular literature made possible by mechanical mass production in the nineteenth century. They conceived their role to be “gatekeepers” of the culture and defenders of such public goods as democracy, education, and morality. Some wanted to separate the wheat from the chaff and maintain a collection of great works. Others were willing to allow works of lesser value into their collections in the interest of providing their patrons with the first rung on a ladder of development that ascended toward the classics of western civilization. In either case, librarians maintained a collection of great works and understood their role to be that of educators who serve the public good.

Although Melvil Dewey accepted the same Victorian values as his colleagues, he did not believe that librarians should have the authority to instill those values in their patrons by directing their reading. Dewey’s primary contribution to librarianship was to improve the efficiency of libraries by adopting the techniques and strategies of mass production in factories. One such technique was standardization. Another was to dumb down skilled workers. Just as scientific management in factories dumbed down skilled craftsmen by putting all intelligent decision making into the hands of managers and turning workers into virtual automatons (such as Charlie Chaplin parodied in the classic film Modern Times), Dewey dumbed down professional librarians.

Dewey was no pioneer in women’s rights, in spite of admitting women to the school of library science at Columbia. On the contrary, according to Battles (2003: 144), Dewey used the hiring of women in libraries to define the profession down. Since women in Victorian society were generally subordinate to men and lacked professional autonomy, by installing women in libraries Dewey hoped not to raise the status of women but to lower the status of librarians. By installing women in libraries Dewey wished to insure that librarians would defer to male professionals such as himself. For Dewey the role of librarians was akin to that of factory workers. Their role was to execute a mechanical work process in the most efficient manner possible, as determined by their managers and other experts, not to design or direct that process. The role of librarians was to get books into the hands of their patrons as efficiently as possible by following Dewey’s scientifically designed work procedures. As mere technical functionaries Dewey did not believe that librarians should have the authority to direct the reading of their patrons by selecting books they deemed best.

The Carnegie Corporation, which funded so many of America’s first public libraries, had a similar view of the role of librarians. Andrew Carnegie himself shared the prevailing moral views of his age. In his 1889 essay “Wealth” Carnegie “stated why he believed he became rich: his mental and moral capabilities would enable him to use money to serve the public good.” (Jones, 1997: 12). In a 1920 biography Carnegie was quoted as saying “I think I’m doing a whole lot for the morality of the country through my libraries.” (Johnson, 1996: B8). But he repeatedly stated that his public library buildings weren’t philanthropy because they “only help those who help themselves.” (Jones, 1997: 11). On November 18, 1916 a Mr. Johnson submitted a report to the trustees of the Carnegie Corporation stating that “it was the librarian’s training and aptitude that defined the impact of each library” and recommending, among other things, that the Carnegie Corporation should “spend money to support the academic training of librarians.” (Jones, 1997: 101). But the trustees, led by Mr. Bertram, rejected Johnson’s proposals. According to Johnson’s autobiography, Bertram said that with regard to “librarian training, Mr. Carnegie . . . believed in having books where anyone could get ahold of them . . . a librarian’s business is to hand out books, and that doesn’t require a long expensive training.” (quoted in Jones, 1997: 102).

However, in spite of these challenges to the professionalism of librarianship, librarians did receive academic training throughout the twentieth century, and for most of the twentieth century they conceived the primary mission of the public library to be the promotion of democracy through education. In her review of the history of the way in which librarians in the United States have understood their role in supporting democracy, Kathleen de la Pena McCook (2001) identifies four major publishing events: the histories of the public library by Jesse H. Shera and Sidney Ditzion, the reports of the American Library Association’s Committee on Post-War Planning, and the set of volumes issued by the ALA’s Public Library Inquiry. The histories by Shera (1949) and Ditzion (1947) were the first major histories of public library development. As McCook (2001) emphasizes, both Shera and Ditzion recognized education and democracy as central to the mission of the modern public library throughout its history. According to Shera (1949: vi): “The modern public library in large measure represents the need of democracy for an enlightened electorate, and its history records its adaptation to changing social requirements.” Ditzion (1947:74) states that during the latter half of the nineteenth century public libraries in the United States continued “the educational process where the schools left off, and by conducting a people’s university, a wholesome capable citizenry would be fully schooled in the conduct of a democratic life.” The National Plan for Public Library Service (1948) was the final part of the work of the American Library Association’s Committee on Post-War Planning. The Public Library Inquiry was carried out and published between 1947-1952. Both of these reports of the American Library Association emphasized that democracy and enlightened citizenship would be just as important to the mission of the public library in the years going forward as they had been in the century prior to World War II.

Over the course of the 1960s and the 1970s, however, the Public Library Association moved away from prescribing national standards toward introducing a planning process by which each local library could develop its own mission. As McCook (2001) explains: “Once the Public Library Association developed the planning process, each public library had a methodology to use at the local level to develop its own mission, goals and objectives in collaboration with community and staff. The 1980 manual, Planning for Results, and the 1982 Output Measures for Public Libraries provided the tools for planning and measurement. The role of the public library in serving democracy was no longer a value imbedded in a formal public library standards document, for no such document existed at the national level.”

As we will see later, this shift from national standards to locally defined objectives corresponds to a shift in consumer capitalism from the homogeneous mass markets of the 1950s to the segmented markets and marketing strategies of the 1960s and the 1970s. Although the American Library Association continues to make statements in support of democracy up to the present day, and although the local determination of a library’s mission could contribute to greater democracy rather than less, it should be noted that the quantitative nature of the Output Measures for Public Libraries (Zweizig, 1982) creates a bias toward measures of success in the public library which mirror measures of success in the capitalist economy. For example, circulation mirrors sales. Both circulation and sales can be easily measured in quantitative terms. But if democracy and an enlightened citizenry were the goals of the public library, then we would measure success not merely by how many items we circulate, but by how many readers we have helped to become better citizens. That in turn depends on the quality and diversity of material we circulate as well as their number and highlights the need for professional judgement in collection development. In fact, the decline of qualitative measures of success at the national level reflects the rise of consumer capitalism during the postwar years and the decline of the ideal of the democratic nation state. As we will see later this decline culminates in the 1990s with the rise of neoliberalism (Barber, 1995) and the notion of a market democracy (Frank, 2000) in which the consumer replaces the citizen as the primary agent of “democracy” or of what is being called democracy.