Monday, February 11, 2008

The purpose of the American library

Michael H. Harris’s basic contention in his article is that the public library as the “people’s university” is a myth that librarians have perpetuated to make the institution seem more lofty. Quite to the contrary, he saw the library as “cold, rigidly inflexible, and elitist institutions,” which became that way largely from the influence of people like George Ticknor. While he has been portrayed as being “liberal and a democrat who welcomed change,” Harris seemed to think that his enthusiasm for libraries was not so much about the betterment of the masses for their own sakes, and more about assimilating the masses to bring them “in willing subjection to our own institutions.”
This idea is somewhat questionable to me, as there was no way he could force people to go to the library, and even if they did go, there is no guarantee that they would read the “right” material that would force them around to his way of thinking.
Although Ticknor did believe in “healthy general reading,” on the whole his aristocratic beliefs were reflected in the people that ran the libraries, which not only offended many patrons, but their belief that they knew best left them “totally unfamiliar with the needs, capabilities, and aspirations of the common man.”
This effort to educate the uniformed and unwashed continued to prove unsuccessful mostly due to continuing holier than thou attitudes, until finally librarians began to question just what their mission was supposed to be. Some seemed to feel providing people with the popular literature that they seemed to want was enough, others felt it was time to admit that the library’s real audience were middle class people- but Harris says that continuing endowment of libraries by millionaires like Andrew Carnegie let the idea of library as social improver of the masses continue for a long time despite evidence to the contrary.
This idea was generally let go in favor of the idea of the library as upholder of democracy and “people’s right to know,” but in general this went hand in hand with the final acceptance that the library’s real audience were people of a position similar to the librarians running the institutions. Overall, Harris took a very cynical outlook, going so far as to say that libraries are no longer considered important, and may be facing extinction if a better expression of purpose is not devised.

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