Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Librarians at the Gates

I'm not sure what pointed me in the first place to Ed D'Angelo's Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library: How Postmodern Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education and the Public Good (Duluth MN: Library Juice Press, 2006). An "recommendation", or one of their "Readers Who Liked This Item Also Liked"? A Powell's Review-a-Day? I don't remember now; no matter. It may not matter at all: who else is going to read this turkey, anyway? Well, someone did -- it was checked out the first time I went looking for it at the library.

The key word in the title, I think, is "postmodern" (though as you'll see, "gates" is important too, as D'Angelo's chief proposed defense against the barbarians). D'Angelo uses the word "postmodern" a lot, referring to the growth of corporate power and what he calls "market populism" -- by which he seems to mean that if something sells well, it is the Will of the People:
Nobody forces me to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster. And nobody forces the Hollywood movie producers to sell their product to me. We each get what we want. The Hollywood movie producers get what they want. The Hollywood movie producers get my money and in exchange I get a pleasurable experience [48].
"A pleasurable experience" is an excessively mild way of putting it, but then D'Angelo seems to disapprove of pleasure, so maybe not. Corporate entertainment walks a difficult line, between pandering to potential customers and offending too many of them. It's not as easy as it looks, especially in what I suppose D'Angelo would call a "postmodern" age where the potential audience is worldwide. For example, Michael Bay's 2001 blockbuster Pearl Harbor offended many Americans by being insufficiently anti-Japanese, but even if Bay didn't care, a blockbuster costs a lot of money to make, and investors and marketing people have their eye on foreign as well as domestic sales. But if you get rid of everything that might conceivably offend someone, the result will be a bland product that won't sell tickets. And despite the best efforts of the marketing people, despite all the test marketing and focus groups and so on, a lot of corporate product loses money; the big moneymakers subsidize the losers. Media companies have always defended themselves against critics of various stripes by claiming that they were simply giving the Public what it wants, but they don't really know what the Public wants. All they can do is keep throwing product at the Public and see what sticks, then imitate what sells well in hopes of duplicating the previous success.

Current example: the success of James Cameron's Avatar in 3-D spawned not just new 3-D product but the conversion of old product to the new technology. Audiences flocked to see the first few big 3-D releases, and 3-D was touted as a revolutionary technology that would take over movies and TV -- but the numbers dropped off quickly. If the corporate media know how to to give us what we want, why did 3-D flounder? It's part of the marketing process to claim that they knew what they were doing, that they're in control, but it's worth remembering that much of Hollywood was rooting for Cameron's latest blockbuster to fail -- until it succeeded, and then they tried to jump on its bandwagon. D'Angelo gives the corporate media way too much credence, but then it's in his interest to do so: he needs villains.

Now, I'm as hostile as D'Angelo to corporate influence on the Commons -- the public institutions that enhance the quality of life for everyone, rich and non-rich alike, but especially benefit those who can't afford season tickets to the Met, elite private schools, and other private goods. (Which are nonetheless often publicly subsidized in one way or another.) I just don't think it has anything to do with postmodernism or populism, and it's not relevant to the other part of D'Angelo's argument, which is that librarians are supposed to be Gatekeepers of our culture, "to establish the canon, the original works of ideal beauty, and to divide them from what is vulgar" (54). His thesis seems to be that Postmodern Corporatism and the Mob (short for mobile vulgus) have united in an unholy alliance, and only embattled Librarians stand between Truth and Beauty (huddled in library stacks) and Armageddon.

Once Upon a Time, D'Angelo claims, the publication of books was a holy vocation: "Publishers served as gatekeepers, deciding what entered the culture and what did not" (56). But nowadays "Books are no longer published because they enlighten but because they sell" (57). Really? I know enough about the history of publication to know that this is at best an oversimplification.
Not surprisingly, given who owns them, the chain bookstores operate like a retail business. Books are arranged according to their potential to generate sales revenues and are attractively displayed to catch shoppers’ attention. Muzak plays in the background. Sales people are trained in customer service but know nothing about books. Book purchasing is handled in the same way a retail business manages its inventory. There’s no need for a critical gatekeeper who selects books on the basis of qualitative judgments [58].
This is just plain weird. Independent bookstores also "operate like a retail business", perhaps because that is what they are. It's true that corporate reorganization and the growth of the chains have had a deleterious effect on publishing, but people like Alfred A. Knopf stood out in the business because they were different from other publishers, not because they were typical.
Stores (that is, retailers) like Brentano's were in big cities, not in small towns. I first bought books from small-town drugstores in the 1960s, from small displays with little variety; from a local newsstand, which did somewhat better; and from an office supply store that also sold books, mostly aging copies of Modern Library classics. In none of those stores did I find staff who were knowledgeable about books. But the last thing I wanted was a "gatekeeper" who would tell me what I should or shouldn't read.

"To cross the line separating the aesthetic from the vulgar was to challenge the authority of the gatekeeper," D'Angelo says (54). Fine with me; I'm not big on authority to begin with, and a healthy disrespect for self-appointed authority is (I thought) a pillar of the "democracy" D'Angelo claims to want to save. He often cites Plato, but Plato was hostile to democracy, and I think that's an indication of D'Angelo's true agenda. Like the corporate managers and marketers who claim that they're on the Public's side, giving us what we want, D'Angelo claims to be on our side too, for our own good, bringing us enlightenment on his terms, not ours.

For the question always arises, Who guards the gatekeeper? Who watches the watchers? D'Angelo cites Library: An Unquiet History (W. W. Norton, 2003) by Matthew Battles, a librarian at Harvard's Houghton Library, which gives a compact history of the development of libraries and the conflicts over their mission. There have always been different ideas of how inclusive a library should be in the materials it houses, from the purely canonical (however conceived) to a more universal vision of containing everything, or as near to everything as it's possible to do. The more selective vision held by Ed D'Angelo is much more manageable, with gatekeepers, philosopher-librarians so to speak, making sure that the vulgar aren't exposed to anything that might stress our tiny brains too much and lead us to rebel against true authority.

The public library as we know it in the US, with open stacks in which patrons may browse, is a recent development, and librarians have been ambivalent about it. In the 19th century, for example,
The reform-minded librarians wished to interpose themselves between the masses and the books, to provide guidance in appropriate kinds of reading. [Melville] Dewey [the inventor of the Dewey Decimal classification system for libraries, and an advocate of 'efficiency' in library organization generally] agreed with this motive. But he felt that to achieve it, libraries needed to focus more on the titles of the books they chose and more on the ways in which they organized those books and made them available. To a very great extent, this was a matter of the standardization of everything: not only the cataloging schemes but the size of cards and cabinets should be the same in all libraries. ... A visitor to a library organized along Dewey's lines finds her way around without difficulty. To Dewey, local interests and special needs were less important than the efficient movement of books into the hands of readers. And while his undying and eccentric reliance on the bromide of efficiency undeniably led libraries to greater economies -- adopting not only his furniture and his system of classification but the newly invented card catalog as well -- such reform came at the cost of the sort of local diversity that makes individual libraries worth visiting and reading in [141].
So, the tendencies D'Angelo deplores are not "postmodern" but nineteenth-century (if not earlier) in their origins. Battles also quotes librarians who were annoyed at being interrupted in their scholarly work of cataloging by importunate patrons who wanted help in using the library, accessing information, and indeed asking them to exercise what D'Angelo calls their "gatekeeper" function by recommending books to them.

D'Angelo seems to share this annoyance:
Whereas before, clients were expected to adhere to the bureaucratic rules and procedures of the library, today they are increasingly viewed as customers in a marketplace. Features of a bureaucracy include impartiality, comprehensive written rules, and impersonality. [He actually thinks those are unambiguously good things!] Rules are objectively defined and applied impartially to all members and clients of the organization. But in a market all terms of service are negotiable at the point of transaction. Thus, under a market model, if a customer owes the library a fine, he can negotiate with the library to reduce or eliminate his fine. In the interest of “good customer service” and preserving its relationship with the customer the library may agree to reduce the fines owed by some customers who aggressively negotiate lower fines, while others pay the standard fine. The library might even choose to overlook stolen material if on balance it gains by doing so. Indeed since public libraries receive funding from third parties there is little incentive to do otherwise. This same laissez-faire attitude applies to all the rules of the market-oriented public library.

The basic principle of New Economy management theory is to replace bureaucratic structures with market mechanisms, or as Tom Peters put it in his 1992 book Liberation Management: “blasting the violent winds of the marketplace into every nook and cranny in the firm.” ... The market-oriented library prefers that its employees relate to one another as they would in the marketplace. Full time permanent employees are encouraged to view one another as “customers.” But the market-oriented library hires relatively few permanent full time employees with benefits. It prefers to draw labor from the marketplace as needed on a temporary contractual basis. It does not value loyalty and discourages long term employment. It offers early retirement incentives to long term employees and then hires them back as temporary workers. It hires part time paraprofessionals or even opens its doors to poorly qualified volunteers [113-4].
D'Angelo is so overheated here that he seems to trip over his own argument. Are "full time permanent employees" really "encouraged to view one another as 'customers'"? Or are they supposed to view patrons as customers? The context suggests the latter. I also object to libraries' going along with the downsizing trends D'Angelo deplores here, but why shouldn't a public library "open its doors to ... volunteers"? How advanced a degree is really needed to shelve and reshelve books that have already been catalogued? Why shouldn't a democratic community support its public institutions with its labor? Indeed, why shouldn't such mechanical work be delegated to volunteers or "part time paraprofessionals", so that professional librarians can do whatever it is that D'Angelo thinks they should be doing? Presumably guarding the gates to keep non-librarians out.