Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Notes And Comments

No Ordinary Place

Clare Coffey

The circulation desk at your local public library.

Rumors of the death of libraries are greatly exaggerated.

Public libraries have defied many dire prognoses in recent times. As early as 2005, MIT Technology Review warned that the introduction of Google Books might augur its demise: “If Google and others can arrange with publishers and authors to allow low-cost downloads of whole books…then libraries will inevitably recede in importance.” After the recession and the resulting budget cuts, concerns about the library’s future became less abstract and more immediate. In 2011, for instance, the Huffington Post ran a series decrying reduced appropriations and curtailed hours.

But the question of whether libraries are worth saving at all has never gone away. Indeed, according to some, the traditional stacks ought to be abolished altogether. With e-books growing in popularity and accessibility, one Forbes contributor has argued, why maintain unwieldy bound copies of printed text and an arcane decimal-based cataloging system?

For some friends of the library, no defense of the stacks is necessary. While they may concede that dusty piles of unread books are a poor use of taxpayer dollars, these advocates argue that libraries offer much more than books and other printed resources for loan or perusal. Providing access to videos, DVDs, and computers, public libraries are, in a sense, horizontally integrated competitors to Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. They give the public what it wants.

There is nothing inherently wrong—and much that is right—with libraries stocking books, music, and movies that people enjoy. But once you define a library by its market value, you subject it to market tyrannies. Although cranks, scholars, and self-styled upholders of literary standards have noted that the quality of library offerings declines to the extent they are subjected to the same consumer demands that shape the offerings of the commercial culture, something more fundamental is at stake in the conflation of librarians with retail employees.

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