Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Alane's Back....

So, I leave for a little break and what do I see on my return? No posts since December 21....an eon in blogtime. Since I have not seen (in person) or "seen" (on email) any of my blogging colleagues, I will assume they were all doing real world things over the holiday period and, in keeping with the season, chastise them not. Besides, it's Alice's birthday today and that means she can do as she pleases.

Actually she just emailed me, confessing she was the secret Santa who sent me The Romance of Libraries, the brainchild of my friend Madeleine Lefebvre, who heads up the library at St Mary's U in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Madeleine edited this compilation of accounts of love in and of libraries, and I read it on the Chicago-Vancouver leg of my outbound holiday flight. And I left that copy with a retired librarian friend on New Year's Eve, after swanky drinks and snacks in the Fairmont Hotel at the Vancouver airport. So, I was thrilled to get another copy and I mean to get it autographed by Madeleine at ALA Midwinter.

One of the books I read in the early part of December is called The Library's Public. It was published in 1949, and is one of several volumes written about the results of The Public Library Inquiry, a national (US) survey conducted by the Social Science Research Council of the University of Michigan, at the request of ALA. This particular volume includes not only the results of the national survey mentioned above, but also the results of an analysis of all the studies of library use and users published since 1930.

And I'll not leave you in suspense. Nothing, but nothing has changed. Oh, technology has changed. The media collected by libraries and used by people has changed. But, the attitudes? The use of collections? The place--or not--of libraries in peoples' lives? Hardly a wiggle in the health-o-meter. What this means in a big sense I have yet to wrap my head around...it does suggest that We (that's the collective "we") have been barking up the same trees, tilting at the same windmills, denouncing the same media and communication innovations for decades. And that We know as little about our publics as We did 50+ years ago, and that presented with data that tells us about the people We apparently serve, many chose and choose to disbelieve. The author, Dr. Bernard Berelson (the then-Dean of the Library School at the U of Chicago) comments:

In addition, there is one general deficiency in the literature which this review has made strikingly apparent; that is, the concentration of the studies upon which certain kinds of problems, but not others, and mainly upon those dealing with the characteristics of the library's clientele. This has given rise in library circles to some deprecation of what are called quantitative results. Many conscientious and responsible librarians have disparaged research of the kind reported here because of its "quantitative" nature, asserting that book reading and library service are too subtle and too "subjective" to warrant such treatment. [p113 in the Columbia U Press edition]

So, if you've dipped into the OCLC Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources report and been surprised by the data, then I suggest you read Berelson's report. You'll be even more surprised. A few quotes--remember this research was done before 1949:

- "Of the five major public media of communication, [books, magazines, newspapers, movies, radio] book reading is the most limited in terms of total population...book reading is not an activity of the majority of Americans today."

- "Yet, not all people turn to formal media when they need information on various topics. In fact, the majority of a national sample of the population indicated that they would try other sources of information--usually friends or experts--rather than any of the mass media if they needed to know something about four selected subjects. The public library was specifically mentioned as a source by only a small minority of those questioned, and the following conclusion was drawn: The library appears to be lacking in salience to many people--it wouldn't occur to them to go there."

- "The young use the library more than the old, the better educated more than the lesser eductaed, and women a little more than, and differently from, men. The public library serves the middle class, defined either by occupation or by economic status, more than either the upper or the lower classes."

- "Only a relatively few people use the card catalogue with any regularity or rely on the librarian for reading guidance."

- "To a greater extent than ever before, people read newspapers and magazines, see films, and listen to the radio. These media provide recreation, information, and education to a greater or lesser degree; and they thus represent, in a special sense, competitors of the public library. "

- "There is no single public of library users; there are several publics. This is not simply a nice semantic distinction. It is central to the problem of the values and the objectives of public library service; it is the key to the 'philosophy of public librarianship'...Librarians have the problem of designating the library's publics to whom more or less consideration will be given. It is a matter of ranking the library's actual and potential publics in a value hierarchy."

And it was this last quote that made the reins from several hobby horses come together for me, because is it not this professional devotion to the philosophy of all publics are served that makes it impossible for any public library to serve adequately any public? The idea of ranking services and publics in a "value hierarchy" will be as repugnant to many librarians now as it likely was in 1950. But there it is...in the words of David Byrne of Talking Heads: Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was... "These studies [writes Dr Berelson] also indicate that the general public has little knowledge about the public library and its services and seems to regard the public library as a fine thing for a community to have--for other people to use."


Librarian said...

Thanks for your essay on the important Inquiry project.For more on the PLI see this book,Douglas Raber, Librarianship and Legitimacy: The Ideology of the Public Library Inquiry (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997), p.43; and this essay:
Rocks in the Whirlpool

Anonymous said...

Fascinating and yet not too surprising. What amazes me is that there have been numerous books on the history of librarianship and yet so many people seem to want to reinvent the wheel, even though the wheel's been warped the same way for decades.

I always believed that there should be more required reading of these historical pieces when one is in library school. Then many people could see they weren'tthe first to decide something needed addressing.

Jack Stephens said...

Librarian 2 wrote: "For more on the PLI see this book"

Well, for more on the PLI, how about read the PLI?

It is very disturbing that a librarian should refer readers to an ideologically slanted secondary work such as the Raber, rather than to the original studies themselves.

Unfortunately, reliably left-wing ideological slant is what passes for library scholarship and instruction these days.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reminder about the PLI, Alane! It's a bit disspiriting to see how the profession has managed not to address these issues over the years.

One wonders if this is a case of blindness... or of convenience. After all, selling the Library as a place for educated people to read bestsellers or get DVDs for free is likely going to be a lot tougher than presenting the Library as a place of learning....