Thursday, July 11, 2013

Epimetheus at the Library

I don't frequent libraries for a number of reasons, chief among them that environments in which people are trying to keep quiet perturb me even more than noisy ones. Think of all that whispering, those clopping shoes, shuffling papers, the clearing of throats–ack! Recent trips to my local branch, however, gave me pause to think.

First off, it was tidy, relatively quiet, and opened promptly, though 11PM is pushing respectability. It was even, dare I say, cheerily operated. It was also cold, and as such operating as a sort of kook-refrigerator for the morning. Kooks? Yes, kooks, and I didn't draw the conclusion lightly, say, after the wheezy octogenarian read his papers or the couple quarreled over which happy partner bore the burden of filing their taxes. Neither did I chuff at the lady reading the Pathmark flyer aloud or my table neighbor who went into some considerable detail about his, how did he put it, motherfuckin' problem. Folks watching sports highlights on YouTube? de rigueur. I was positively thrilled by the strophic cachinnations of the children following all 1,600 verses of The Wheels on the Bus.

No, I came to my conclusion about the kooky nature of my fellow bibliophiles when, as I read a little passage of Latin, I overheard that distinct clatter of pills clanking into their plastic container. The contrast of experiences juxtaposed so much that I sat astonished for a moment. How could those two experiences, reading Latin and pouring pills, occur in the same place? Nothing I'd ever experienced let me bridge the gap. I wonder whether the woman was as shocked as I, perplexed why this fellow was reading Latin where she measures out her medication.

Truly did I wonder that, because those folks were all pretty comfortable there, whereas I wasn't. They were at home in this place, probably because their homes are not particularly luxurious. This library, on those days I visited, seemed to exist less for scholarship than as a refuge. In a way that's appropriate because the selection is pretty mediocre unless you're looking for the soundtrack to Hot Tub Time Machine, film classics like Au Pair 3, and the latest issue of Seventeen.

Would that the classics section redeemed the place but alas it did not. In one way I'm not concerned, though, because the classics are freely available online, more easily and cheaply by the day. On the other hand I wonder whether the absence of serious, weighty tomes has itself shorn the library of its grave appearance and thus its serious, academic purpose. It is no library, however many computers there are, if you can't feel the presence of Athena hovering behind the shelves. Libraries need books.

Now I can see the liberal kerfuffle bouncing its way toward me like some vast tumbleweed: the budget! Ah, the budget. If the first chopped dollar snatches the celery from grandma's Meals-on-Wheels, the second saved buck is sending Moby Dick gleefully into the incinerator. It's not a question of cost, however, so much of purpose. If the goal is to educate people, then the public should know how many classics and scholarly works are checked out and we need to consider whether the present lending models are achieving as much as, say, those of Amazon and Google.

Unfortunately, the name of any company sends shivers down the spines of liberals who fear imminent privatization like a libertarian comet steered by Mr. Monopoly. If the goal is education, though, we are fools if we opt for no more empirical standards than the much touted access and exposure, and frauds if we only adopt means of education which satisfy ulterior motives.

If libraries are about something outside education, like being havens for the poor, then that's a reality we should admit. Likewise if they're about catering to popular tastes. If they're about something else, though, if they're about being places of social quiet, about research and discovery, about interior liveliness and timeless excellence, then we ought to strive for that, and not tout as success what is in fact an afterthought.

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