Barbarians at the library

Here we go again, this time arm-in-arm with Marxists


Welcome to the 105th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:


It’s not easy being a crank, isolated from one’s fellow man by unpopular convictions, burdened by the certain knowledge of truths society can’t bring itself to admit.

The loneliness of crankdom can be insupportable. So I was overjoyed this month to run across an excellent book by Ed D’Angelo: Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library: How Postmodern Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education, and the Public Good.

D’Angelo, a Ph.D. in philosophy with a master’s of library and information sciences, was supervising librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library for more than twenty years. His politics are not altogether mine (he leans Marxist), and his prose is not what you’d call smooth, but we are in total agreement that public libraries went off the rails sometime in the 1960s and now menace much that is good in life.

If you’re new to this space, you might have missed me mentioning here and there that increasingly aggressive lending practices by public libraries are undermining the entire bookselling ecosystem; that three times as many books are borrowed as bought in the US on an annual basis (four times as many in Canada); that libraries are putting booksellers out of business by advertising how much people can save by borrowing rather than buying books; that most library borrowing is done by people who can afford to pay for books, and who are reading for entertainment, not edification; and that all of this free-and-for-pleasure borrowing is a major reason author incomes are at record lows.

You might also have missed that I love libraries (like Calgary’s beautiful new building, below). They do much fine work and are crucial civic institutions, running many outstanding programs and providing many necessary services, including the lending of books to children and people who genuinely can’t afford them. I am always in libraries for research and to read hard-to-find books. I don’t want them to go away. I don’t want them harmed. I want their lending practices adjusted before Big Library swallows what’s left of commercial publishing and, along with it, what’s left of author incomes.

Ed D’Angelo comes at things from a purer angle. He holds that the most important function of the public library “is to promote and sustain the knowledge and values necessary for a democratic civilization,” and that the condition of our libraries, at any time, is a litmus test for the state of our 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.”

Ed believes that through the late nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, public libraries did an admirable job. Librarians saw themselves as “defenders of such public goods as democracy, education, and morality.” They were gatekeepers of the culture, high priests of learning, taking responsibility for the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic growth of their patrons. They embraced the encouragement of enlightened citizenship as the library’s core mission.

An honest scholar, Ed notes that there were cracks in this foundation before the 1960s. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, none other than Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System and founding member of the American Library Association, dissented from the notion that librarians should instill their values in patrons by directing their reading. He wanted a more mechanical, frictionless distribution of books, and encouraged the hiring of women as librarians on the assumption that they would be less inclined to impose their standards on others.

(Melvil, above, was a devil, according to his biographer Wayne Wiegand. He subjected female subordinates to unwanted touching and kissing, and was rumored to have asked them to put their bust sizes on application forms. Forced out of the ALA for sexual harassment, Dewey further distinguished himself as racist and anti-semite. Yet his name was attached to the ALA’s highest honor until 2019.)

Ed also notes that there were stocks of popular (i.e., unedifying) literature in most public libraries even in the early years, but these were intended as the first rung on a ladder of development that “ascended toward the classics of western civilization.”

Starting in the 1960s, writes Ed, that the distribution of popular literature became an end in itself for the public library. Librarians lost confidence or interest in their mission of encouraging enlightened citizenship. They abandoned their role as gatekeepers. It was suddenly square to impose standards or tastes on patrons.

Libraries began hustling down the path of serving readers whatever dreck they wanted, in higher and higher volumes. Ed blames this primarily on the bureaucratic adoption of the values of consumer capitalism. He quotes the cultural critic William A. Henry III, one of the last defenders of elitism in American life, on the nature of those values: “This is what most people say they want, and the market lets them have it without anyone in a position of intellectual or social leadership telling them that they should ask more of themselves.”

Thus bureaucrats, of whom librarians are a species, gave up on leading and educating the public and instead began pandering to it. They became obsessed with improving their circulation numbers. Circulation mirrored sales in the commercial economy and gave librarians a quantitative measure of success to put in their PowerPoint decks when they asked their political masters for more funding. Never mind the quality or diversity of material in circulation, the sheer number of objects passing through the library’s scanners was what mattered.

Inevitably, the public library learned that entertaining patrons boosted foot traffic more than edifying them. Pimping Sidney Sheldon and Dan Brown and E. L. James became the librarian’s chief mission. They still conceived of themselves as guardians of democracy but, as Ed notes, if you are genuinely concerned about the state of democracy, you are genuinely concerned about the quality of what people read, and that was no longer the case in public libraries.

In 1998, a man named Steve Coffman wrote an influential essay for the American Library Association proposing that public libraries further their degradation by running themselves like book chains. This involved putting more of their acquisition budgets toward popular fare and placing in-demand titles in the library’s windows where patrons couldn’t miss them. The idea was to bring more people into the “store,” and send them away happy, standards be damned. The customer was always right. Coffman’s ideas became articles of faith in the library community.

As this was happening, a few critics grumbled that the library was losing its “mission, morality, vision,” its stake in the welfare of the community, and that librarians were being reduced from educators to store clerks. Ed was among the critics, holding that libraries should be about education, and “education is not a business at all, but a public service whose aim is to improve society, not merely in appearance, but in reality.”

Ed goes further, arguing that the abandonment of critical standards in the acquisition and lending of library books “attests to the nihilism at the heart of postmodern consumer culture.”

But his complaints, like those of others, have been drowned out by all that foot traffic.

The librarian as cultural gatekeeper is dead, says Ed, replaced by a barbarian.

Ed does not appear to share my concerns that treating library patrons as consumers rather than as citizens has had the unintended consequence of undermining the publishing industry, but he’s a librarian, not a publisher.

Our common ground is the fundamental problem of twenty-first-century public libraries subsuming their missions of education and edification to entertainment. I admit his critique is more profound. He sees libraries as canaries in democracy’s coal mine. That they are no longer prepared to promote and sustain the knowledge and values necessary for a democratic civilization suggests that society as a whole is giving up on democratic civilization.

Even to this crank’s mind, that is a deeper problem than publishing revenues and author incomes.


Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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