Libraries and the Disposable Culture

So I’ve been thinking … *waits for the snarky comments* …

As I was saying, I’ve been thinking about things a lot in the wake of a recent change in locations. Lately, the push with big municipal libraries has seemed to be fewer and fewer books on the shelves and more and more “open community space.” Weasel words at their finest.

I cannot help but notice that this push to wreck the print collections of large municipal libraries is coming at a time when their budgets are at the mercy of supremely rich “titans of business.” For example, you need look no further than the dire straits of libraries in cities like New York or Boston.

When I first started this gig, everyone I knew encouraged me to do it. Librarians were the hot commodity of the future, especially public librarians. People were on the radio praising their neighborhood librarians for helping them do this or get that crucial bit of info. How times have changed.

When I was in library school I had a professor who was tasked with teaching us the arcane science of records keeping. Somewhere in the course of this discussion, we turned to the durability of the sundry storage means out there. We all agreed that magnetic tape was the best for longevity, durability, and ease of preservation. However, the professor was waxing eloquent on how everything decays, even the prized new movie technology of DVDs. Fine. Yeah. It happens. Then came the clincher: “Of course it’s done that way. I mean, where would the economy be if you never had to buy another copy of that DVD again?”

I’m pretty sure I lost half my tongue from biting it so damn hard. WHERE would we be? Well let’s see … for starters we’d all have a hell of a lot more cash to purchase the big ticket items so crucial to our lives without having to strain our credit to the breaking point. Cars, refrigerators, washing machines, etc. Have you noticed that lately the marketing push is to things that don’t last very long but are really cheap?

Buy a smartphone! Sure you’ll be lucky if it lasts the two years of your contract but hey they’re cheap with that contract! Buy jeans at Wal-Mart! Sure, they’ll fall apart about a year or two after buying them, but hey, it’s 10 bucks for a pair! Who cares? Buy this DVD! Well, it’ll be no good in 10 years or so because of whatever the hell it is that’s supposed to happen to those shiny coatings and the data coded in the plastic. It’s like everyone took a page from the book of American car companies of the 80’s and 90’s. Hell, even as late as 2001 General Motors sold a car that stopped working the month after I made the final payment on the five-year loan.

So now, people are spending loads and loads of cash on crap that’s cheap, glitzy, and distracts them from the important things like the hardware of living. Or the gutting of our shared history and knowledge. Just look at the travails of the systems in New York. Queens Public, once the number one library in circulation, is now ceasing the purchase of books. All three systems in that city are constant targets of huge budget cuts by one of the richest dirtbags ever to take political office, and those cuts are only partially ameliorated by the city council in an annual battle as these systems beg for their fiscal lives.

Then you look at the trend of designing big public libraries to be “open community spaces.” Invariably, being open means reducing the number of shelves in favor of a sterile, glass and steel, post-modern box of crap that looks like something out of a glitzier version of Blade Runner.

We’ve been egged into a cycle of disposability that’s inimical to the well-being of the average person. Sure, save the financial tricksters that melted our collective economic face, but God forbid someone in charge exercise some of their vaunted “management” skills and actually look at what needs cutting and what doesn’t, rather than demanding huge cuts from everyone in the name of preserving a low-tax dogma.

The reason I bring this up is because my recent change in location drove home just how stark the difference is between a library all about “open community space” and a library that actually IS a community space. I have a reference collection now that makes me weep for joy, dear readers. A real, honest-to-God treasure of a reference collection, encyclopedias and all. No one driving me crazy to throw away things like the Chilton’s auto repair manuals and so on. And you know what?

Ten times more people come into this place than my old location and actually USE these books. They actually stay and read, and converse with us. And I’m not talking about the same old regulars that come in all the time. We have those, but we also have many different people coming in all the time. Why? Books. We haven’t thrown them all out. We are a community space because we have not thrown away something that belongs to the community.

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2 responses to “Libraries and the Disposable Culture

  • acaseforbooks

    When I was young, my mother explained to me that nylon stockings could be made in such a way that they would not run or otherwise fall apart, but they were designed to wear out on purpose, so that we would have to keep buying more. Perhaps this is not as traumatic as your DVD parallel, but then again stockings have been around a lot longer.

    My first library job was at a library / cultural center. That meant that there was loads of space for programs, a lovely but highly impractical atrium, and more public restrooms than you could shake a stick at. It also meant that many of the books (including the specially-purchased “cultural” ones) gathered dust on the shelves, and our circulation statistics were abysmal.

    I do wonder how much the love and appreciation of books varies by neighborhood. To be fair, even when our reference collection was twice its current size, most of our patrons had to be strongarmed into using it. Telling them that they’ll need to use the book in the library and make copies from it is like pulling teeth sometimes.

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