Brief note on libraries and elitism

The 1980s began the “give ’em what they want” era of library collection development, when it became irredeemably elitist for librarians to think they occupy some kind of teaching role as selectors and reference librarians for their communities.

In 2010, the war of the populist cultural conservatives against the latté sipping liberal elitists is wearing itself out as Palin and the tea partiers gradually grow too ridiculous to take seriously. (Those on the left who call anyone sexist who calls Palin stupid are only making things worse.) At least that is the hope of this latté sipping librarian whose strategy is to ride it out.

The questions I have are a rhetorical one followed by a philosophical one, going to our idea of our role in society as librarians. First, if one in five Americans believes that Obama is a Muslim, are we obliged to stock one book that claims he is a Muslim for every four that say he is a Christian? Or, to bring geography into the mix, swing the proportion higher or lower according to the community in which we work? Obviously not, but then the real question: On what basis do we claim to know more than our communities? I am looking for a positive answer, along the lines that we are professionals, trained to make selection decisions about books and other resources, that we are in a position of authority regarding what public libraries should contain. If you’re not willing to stand up and make that claim for the profession (at the risk of being called elitist by a political leader and Presidential hopeful who thinks “Americans should refudiate the ground zero mosque”) then what good are we?

10 comments on “Brief note on libraries and elitism

  1. “On what basis do we claim to know more than our communities?”

    I don’t know about my colleagues, but I do know I am in the main better educated than my average fellow citizen. I have not one but two Master’s degrees; I speak a foreign language fluently (German), have lived and traveled extensively outside the USA. I speak Spanish moderately well. I spend a lot of my free time reading and am usually better read than the average joe, too. I believe in maintaining an active reading life for myself, and in keeping informed about current affairs. I am introspective, spend a lot of time thinking, etc.

    I’ve taken the LSAT and scored at right around the median score for an L1 at one of our more respected law schools here in Houston (South Texas College of Law).

    So yes, I am smarter than and do in general know more about the world than my patrons, but am willing to learn in those specialized, technical areas where my patrons may know more than me.

    I’m currently under-employed as a Library paraprofessional but because I have an MLS, I still call myself a librarian in informal conversation.

  2. My question related to this issue is, do we serve our communities by perpetuating gross ignorance?

  3. As librarians, we are certainly entitled to tell our patrons — and the rest of the community — that they “are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” [paraphrase of Daniel Moynihan]. As Theodora noted, we do not serve our communities by “perpetuating gross ignorance.” Just because a bunch of slack-jawed yokels choose to believe in falsehoods, lies, and mis-truths doesn’t make them so. If that is “elitism,” then I’m all for it. A little elitism may well be what this country needs right now.

  4. Is Barack Obama a Muslim? No, he isn’t. (Read the papers for evidence. None.) Is there debate on this? No, no debate. He’s a practicing Christian, and says so. No evidence that he is lying. So why would any library add a book to its shelves that is not true? We don’t cut the truth to fit a lie or the supposition of a lie or a “secret agenda” that has no evidence. We do, however, add material to illuminate the politics of the lie, the fear or delirium that nurtures it, and the political climate that permits people to fall into believing it. Do you add books to the biology shelves that support creationist theories of evolution? Libraries provide knowledge, not dogma. Professionals attend to the differences and make judgments.

  5. I’m with you on that, David. My question is what do we say, what is our position, when our users disagree with us about our approach as you have described it and come at us with demands that are based on ignorance?

  6. It’s not “those on the left” who are calling “sexist” those who call Palin stupid. Instead, it’s that those on the right reply with “you just hate her because she’s so good-looking”. Stupidity knows no gender.

  7. But all of that aside, would we have medical or legal books which are deliberately misleading or which are outdated or just plain factually wrong? Didn’t librarians go into a weeding frenzy when Pluto was declared a “non-planet”? I’m trying hard to figure out why this would be any different.

  8. Sarah,

    I agree with you that some people on the Right are using that strategy, but I have also talked to some feminists (who are also strong leftists in other ways) who have complained a lot about sexism in regard to people’s treatment of Palin as stupid, unqualified, etc. They have bought into her rhetoric, in my view, in the sense that her message has been to say that those elitists in Washington and New York need to make room for “real Americans like her,” meaning hockey moms who hunt, etc. I think there are a lot of feminists who feel that the way people look down on Palin is sexist, as though she is what elitists consider dumb because of being a woman. It’s a paradoxical form of sexism coming from feminists, I think (not all feminists of course), to feel that Palin represents American women. Isn’t it insulting to women to say that it is sexist to say Palin is dumb? Anyway, maybe you haven’t had the misfortune of being scolded by feminists for dismissing Sarah Palin as stupid.

  9. Sarah,

    Regarding the medical and legal books and applying our professional authority to stock only accurate information – yeah, I agree with you that it’s basically the same thing. But what interests me is how we decide to deal with it when we are pressured by that Obama-is-a-Muslim 1/5th of the population to stock books that are factually wrong (to make it a simple case). I think the profession is generally too shy about saying that we know more than our communities sometimes and really are in a position to make those judgments when the community, or parts of it, disagrees.

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