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The library and modern society in the 1980s – and beyond: Responses to mass media, mass society, and technology (Part Four)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted June 11, 2012

(Original drafts of this essay go back to November 1985 – author's note.)

Three major phases can be seen in the history of the Library. In the first phase, "the book" was extremely rare and precious, something of extraordinary value to civilized societies. In the second phase, the invention of movable type and subsequent technological innovation made "the book" more accessible, yet still of great value. In the third phase, "the book" became totally accessible to anyone in the advanced societies, yet largely without high value. (Value is, of course, not only an economic category. It is the extent of meaning which a society places on its artifacts and those of earlier societies.) The above could be seen as a summary of Ortega y Gasset's position. Now, it is argued, we may be facing the fourth phase, where "the book" will be perceived as worse than useless, as some kind of obstacle to progressive liberation. [12]

Jesse Shera and others like him could be seen as fighting a rearguard action against so-called "technological progress" in the Library. One may indeed question the idea of untrammeled "progress" (that is, change for change's sake) as the supreme and unquestionable good. Why should change be almost always seen as something both good and necessary?

Apart from the mode of resistance, the library has articulated three other major responses towards the emergence of the "hypermodern" society.

The first of these is technologization. This is marked by a desire for all the latest gadgets and high-tech devices. Of course, some technological devices are extremely useful, especially in the areas of locating material, keeping records, finding information quickly, etc. But this can quickly reach ludicrous excesses. If a library aspires to be a computer center, what differentiates a librarian from a computer or information scientist? No matter how "high-tech" you try to make a library look, all those antique books get in the way of a truly modern style.

The second of these responses is politicization. Some librarians feel that if they turn the library into a social advocacy unit promoting all the fashionable and "politically correct" causes, they will increase their "relevance" to modern society. Yet it is surely not the goal of the library to promote a highly partisan political position in the mode of social advocacy. It could be argued that the goal of the library should be to remain strictly neutral politically, unless it perceives that it is threatened as an institution by the society in which it exists. If someone asserts that, after all,
"everything is political" it must be said that perhaps the library would do well to re-examine its frequent identification  with left-of-center and Left positions. It might not be as clear a choice for the library as it is usually made out to be. (If we assume that such a choice is unavoidable.) [13]

The third form of response is popularization. Here, the great goal is to get as much of the population as possible to use the library, without consideration of how the character of the library may be changed by such attempts. The fact that, roughly speaking, only 20 percent of the population uses the library causes great pain to some librarians. Yet it is clear that some people will not use the library no matter what you do. Those persons who are motivated enough to come to the library of their own free will, with no dubious inducements, are those whom the library should be interested in. To use an extreme example – if a library offered free alcoholic drinks, rock-videos, and table-dancers it would doubtless be very popular – but it would not be a library any more. If the library fulfills a specific social function, the number of people who will have this specific need will be relatively small. On any given day, few people from the total population visit their doctors or lawyers. One might well ask how many people go to museums, art-galleries, or classical music concerts, which although they charge an admission fee, are hardly "paying their way". Indeed, some institutions are funded by the state because they are considered culturally edifying, not because they are wildly popular and successfully profit-making.

Of course, the concern over "unpopularity" arises from the fear that an institution which does not actually serve all the people is somehow illegitimate, as opposed to one which offers to serve anyone. If some librarians were not so enamoured of Left positions, the issue would probably hardly arise. To borrow a literary analogy: that which is popular is seldom aesthetically good; and that which is aesthetically good is seldom popular. For example, if a referendum were held and 60 percent of the people voted for the freezing of all library budgets for a period of twenty years, would the so-called "verdict of the people" be accepted by anyone if the Library community? But the real question remains: what effect does technologization have on society? [14]

It could be argued that technologization, politicization, or popularization, if taken to their extremes, would mean the end of the real mission of the library. Judicious use of technology and/or means of popularization should not be ruled out, however. Nevertheless, the rejection of the ultimate trajectory of these three trends would move a person towards the traditional vision of Jesse Shera.

There are other factors to be considered as well – the quest for professional status and the elucidation of a truly unified theory or philosophy of librarianship. If librarians were to gain full professional status on a level analogous to law or medicine (or at least teaching), their future (and by extension, the future of the library) would seem assured. However, concepts along the lines that "anyone can do the work of a librarian" prevail, the battle is clearly lost. However, the achievement of professional status should not be purchased at the price of a total absorption into the so-called "social services" of the modern state.

It has also been suggested that strictly scientific theory of library science, which would establish it as a so-called real science, would be the major step towards disciplinary and professional status. The prospects for the elucidation of such a theory are rather dim, however, not only because of a certain lack of interest in such approaches, but also because the library might be too humanistic in its nature to admit of such scientific rigor. However, it cannot be denied that the placing of library science on a scientific footing (or at least the strong appearance of so doing) would strengthen the hand of the library immensely in modern society. [15]

There is also the fairly naïve, optimistic position, that the impact of technology will not be as great as is commonly believed. Surely, it might be argued, the library was never stronger than it is today. It seems that every day a new library opens – therefore one should not worry about the institution of the library. This issue might be treated in various ways. For example, it might be argued that the existence of a large public library system does not depend on the existence of library science as a theoretical discipline, or on the philosophy of librarianship, or on librarianship as a profession. Certainly libraries existed long before these criteria were met.

Yet one wonders how the library would fare if it were reduced purely to the level of "social services". It would mean that popularity and frequency of use would become the almost exclusive criteria by which the success of the library is measured – as is largely the case today in public library systems. It could be argued that in the presence of undoubtedly greater "social needs" like those of unwed teenage mothers, the library would quickly find itself becoming an ever lower priority in the welfare-state regime. And there would doubtless be suggestions that one could hardly have "overly-difficult" or "anti-democratic" books in a library that claimed to serve "all the people".

If one looks unflinchingly at modern society, one may realize that many people today are just not suited by temperament to use a library, nor do they have any deep-seated need for it. How many fully modernized teen-agers would want to be in an environment where they must remain as quiet as possible, where there is no rock music, where they must read and think, where they must remain civilized and decorous? One is almost pushed to conclude that the essence of the library and the essence of the hypermodern society is a contradiction.

To be continued. ESR

Notes (rendered continuously) (refer to later bibliography for full titles):

[12] see Ortega y Gasset throughout

[13] What one would be referring to is the position of a cultural Right, not of the so-called corporate Right.

[14] The arguments against "popularization" have undoubtedly been made numerous times.

[15] Professor Lloyd Houser was the chief advocate of the scientific approach at the Faculty of Library and Information Science, University of Toronto, in the 1980s.

Mark Wegierski holds (among other academic degrees) a Master of Library Science.






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