Here’s another interesting thing about the origins of American public libraries. We have women to thank for most of them.
Oh, sure, Andrew Carnegie had something to do with it. Unlike his fellow mega-rich philanthropists who built libraries, he didn’t want to build palaces. He wanted to produce relatively humble public libraries on an industrial scale, promoting the establishment of libraries in neighborhoods and small town throughout the country using a common set of standards, processes, and even architectural plans. He thought access to libraries could improve those among the working classes who wanted to improve themselves. They could be better workers, and some of them might even rise above their circumstances and become rich.
Of all of our cultural institutions, the public library is remarkable. There are few tax-supported services that are used by people of all ages, classes, races, and religions. I can’t think of any public institutions (except perhaps parks) that are as well-loved and widely used as libraries. Nobody has suggested that tax dollars be used for vouchers to support the development of private libraries or that we shouldn’t trust those “government” libraries. Even though the recession following the 2008 crash has led to reduced staff and hours in American libraries, threats of closure are generally met with vigorous community resistance. Visits and check-outs are up significantly over the past ten years, though it has decreased a bit in recent years. Reduced funding seems to be a factor, though the high point was 2009; library use parallels unemployment figures – low unemployment often means fewer people use public libraries. A for-profit company that claims to run libraries more cheaply than local governments currently has contracts to manage only sixteen of over 9,000 public library systems in the U.S. Few public institutions have been so impervious to privatization.
I find it intriguing that the American public library grew out of an era that has many similarities to this one – the last quarter of the 19th century,when large corporations owned by the super-rich had gained the power to shape society and fundamentally change the lives of ordinary people. Continue reading “how libraries became public”
I like to point out, whenever possible, how library systems encode bias just as newer algorithmic search systems literally encode it while seeming blissfully, mechanically, inhumanly incapable of being anything but neutral. I’m reminded of something one of our faculty members said when discussing what critical concepts about information our students should grasp.
Information has to be organized and how it is organized matters.
That’s profoundly true, and so easy to forget when helping students find information in systems that are complicated enough without explaining how they got that way. The exoskeleton of the library stacks is hidden from view unless you step back and wonder about why this subject is next to that, or why there’s loads of room for one subject but not for another.
Abstract: Why do we encourage students to read widely, think critically, and conduct their own research? We are preparing them for lives in a world filled with ambiguity and complexity, where we don’t actually know the answers to what’s on the test. The surprising outcome of the recent election has prompted us to examine our assumptions about how knowledge is arrived at and shared – and why it matters. Librarians and faculty in the disciplines have long helped students learn how to find and assess scholarly information, but we haven’t always been explicit about why it matters. What we’ve come to call “information literacy” must be more than learning how to evaluate websites and recognize “fake news” as an information consumer. It’s gaining an understanding of the ways information systems shape our world while gaining the confidence and conviction that we ourselves can shape the world for the better. Paulo Freire urged us to think of education as the practice of freedom. We will explore ways to prepare students to enter a world saturated with personalized propaganda and “alternative facts” as free human beings and motivated citizens.
Remember “truthiness”? Stephen Cobert, in his parodic role of a brash conservative talk show personality, coined it in 2005 and it seemed to nail a fact of political life: politicians often said things that seemed true, that felt true, that appealed to an audience as true while sliding off to one side of demonstrable facts. He was giving a name to the political polarization that made Americans line up behind different sets of known “facts” along with a tendency to prefer assertions that carried an emotional charge.
“Truthiness,” named the 2005 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society, has given way to the Oxford Dictionaries 2016 Word of the Year, “Post-Truth,” which was a bit depressing until it was eclipsed by the furor over “fake news.” That last shape-shifting phrase means all kinds of things, including any news you don’t like. Entire news organizations have been labeled “fake news” by our president. Continue reading “matter of facts”
A lot of people were disgusted when they heard Simon & Schuster will publish a book by Milo Yiannopoulos, a notorious right-wing troll who makes a career of offending people and hounding his chosen enemies through mass intimidation. He has even been banned from Twitter, which is incredibly difficult to do. He tried to offend his publishers with grotesque jokes as well, to no avail. They really wanted to publish his book.
There’s something pretty amazing about the idea of a public library. It’s the one place where everyone in the community is welcomed – all ages, all races, all religions, all political persuasions. It’s a place where you can borrow things for free and nobody sneers at your taste or uses marketing techniques to persuade you to choose differently. It’s a place where you can hang out for hours without having to buy coffee to justify the space you’re taking up. It doesn’t invade your privacy in order to “improve the user experience.” It’s a place that, according to Pew Research, has amazingly high approval ratings, rare among social institutions these days.