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The treason of the clerks, continued

Some years ago, Jerry Pournelle teed off on the teachers in American schools and universities for failing to transmit our national culture to the young skulls full of mush. The result of this failure has been a staple of Jay Leno bits for decades, and an endless stream of surveys that show most high school graduates (and college graduates, for that matter) don't know shit about American history.

From what John Barnes has to say here, apparently the college librarians are doing their part to contribute to the ignorance of America. RTWT, and once you've stopped gnashing your teeth,we'll get back to the main thrust of my post.

It used to be standard procedure for school kids to be taken down to the school library once a year and familiarized with what it had to offer in the way of fiction and -more importantly- non-fiction. Librarians gave short briefings on the Dewey Decimal System and how to use it, and in later grades, how to deal with the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. I don't think my kids got this from the MPS, but it would have been redundant anyway since both Lois and I were avid users of the public libraries. Now, I understand that there are such things as budgets, and that school libraries and public libraries don't have quite the same mission as the libraries to be found in universities. School libraries are launch pads, starting points, training wheels for the real thing. Public libraries are more in the edutainment business: they're a resource for school children and students of all ages, of course, but they also serve to keep the public in best-sellers. They don't really need to keep every single edition of every reference book ever held in the system; one at the central library should be quite sufficient.

University libraries are another matter. Universities are supposed to be where serious research gets done, which is why a lot of authors and other artists, to say nothing of public figures in business and politics, donate their papers to such places when they die and sometimes before then. For university librarians to fuck around with the history of American culture by throwing out 78s and wax cylinders in the naive belief (or, as Barnes suggests, cynical knowledge to the contrary) that the old music will be re-released in new formats is goddamn criminal. For them to sacrifice the products of their donors' lives in such a manner is unspeakable, barbaric, and against the principles of everything librarians used to be about.

Libraries in general are not someplace you go to lounge about, listen to your iPods, and pick up chicks. They are supposed to be a part of the temple of knowledge that is a university, the catacombs where knowledge is stored so that other people can make use of it. The idea that old movies and other materials are being thrown out instead of painstakingly converted into digital formats is obscene, and the people responsible should be shot in the goddamn kneecaps. With the first volley, so they have time to suffer before the second round puts them down like the worthless cull-dogs they are.

I realize that universities have mutated into hideously expensive research institutes with remedial high schools attached, and that my view of them is a lot closer to the Idea than the Reality. Shouldn't we be making at least a minimal effort to move through the shadows toward the Idea, though?


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 24th, 2008 11:29 pm (UTC)
Please do not conflate the missions of public libraries, academic libraries and the, alas rapidly disappearing, school media centers.

Academic libraries are primarily for research and for studying. Given the vast amount of information that is best available via electronic databases, this also means that a fair amount of academic library space is given to computers.

Public libraries have to serve an entire public from pre-k picture books to large print editions for older patrons, the middle-aged job seeker, the immigrant learning English, the unemployed librarian like me who has a book addiction that needs constant feeding, and every single person in between.

All on a diminishing budget.

Libraries are not personal off-site storage units. They are not infinitely expandable. Libraries have to pay just as much as you or I for their space.

Having worked in almost every sort of library except the school media center, for which I lack the accreditation, I can tell you that librarians struggle to provide the very best possible experience for their specific audience.
Mar. 25th, 2008 01:54 am (UTC)
I understand the differences pretty well, and I'm sorry I didn't do a better job of drawing the lines between the different types of libraries and their missions. My beef is with the university libraries, who as Barnes points out have thrown away literally irreplacable items for trivial reasons. Barnes doesn't think they ought to be in the business of providing computer lounges for the students, and neither do I. It's our tax dollars being misspent, and worse yet our cultural heritage being pissed away.

With particular respect to the audiovisual collections - the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum, which operates very much like a public college, has many of the same issues with asset preservation, but you don't see them throwing out old aircraft or even movies about old aircraft because the curator thinks there need to be more comfortable couches around the place.
Mar. 25th, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
if what they are building are just computer lounges, I'd have an objection also. But as more and more information becomes available only in electronic format, an equivalent amount of room should be given for access to the information.

Of course, none of us would ever use our computers except for work purposes.


A Library is not an archive. They have very different missions. An archive is not a museum, but closer in spirit than to a library.
Mar. 25th, 2008 08:12 pm (UTC)
Of course, none of us would ever use our computers except for work purposes.

I see what you did there. ;)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )



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