The library and modern society in the 1980s – and beyond: Responses to mass media, mass society, and technology (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
Author's Foreword (2012): The author has decided to present over the next five weeks (with only very light retouching) an essay from over twenty-five years ago. The extent to which the essay still contains important insights may be quite striking. One need hardly add that the main notion voiced in the essay -- of viewing the library as a "traditional institution" – while it continues to be theoretically valid, has in practice become ever more attenuated over the decades. This central idea of the essay, which arose out of the author's own relatively happy experiences with "the-library-as-refuge" in his childhood and early adolescence – has now largely been abandoned by the public libraries themselves – across most of Canada and the U.S.
One recalls from the "truth-telling" writings of a librarian working in a public library in the U.S. that one of the biggest problems for the library were scruffy clients viewing pornography on the public library computers.
To raise a more intellectual matter -- one would especially wish to criticize the ruthless "weeding" of books which aren't borrowed "enough" from the public library system. Recently, there was a mini-scandal in a local public library branch, when Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago ended up in the discard bin! On the other hand, some years earlier, that public library system saw fit to purchase Madonna Ciccone's prurient photo-book, Sex, for which (according to media reports) a long waiting list of people wanting to borrow the book quickly formed.
A colleague of mine has made an effort to "rescue" serious books that are being discarded from the Toronto public library system – many of them being on East-Central European history and critical of Soviet Communism.
Given these kinds of acquisition and "weeding" policies one can conjecture that in a few decades, if not years, public library collections will be culturally, historically, and intellectually almost worthless. So one will be left with the academic libraries. While, at least in theory, academic libraries do acquire and keep a broad variety of serious works, they obviously do not have a mandate to be accessible to the general population.
In the future, one can also conjecture that an academic "mandarinate" will increasingly promulgate an ever-tighter "received" version of history and politics – bringing any putative academic dissenters to heel -- while the general populace will not necessarily have easy access to any serious works of history and politics which can challenge that "received" outlook.
There may be some well-founded reasons to be at least a little suspicious of the cultural Left's inordinate praise and rhetorical support for public libraries. There is also certainly something to be said for the truly liberating feeling of purchasing one's own books without having to rely on what are (all-too-frequently) today's public library commissars. To paraphrase Mark Twain's famous saying about public schooling and education – I have (in my adult life) never let the public library interfere with my selection, purchase, and enjoyment of good books!
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski holds (among other academic degrees) a Master of Library Science.