Philosophy and Democracy in the Public Library

Something that never fails to charm me is discovering the ways that acquaintances use the library, especially when it comes up before they find out that I work there. That’s what happened one day in our main library when I bumped into someone I know from the salsa socials, and it turned out that he’s a regular at one of our philosophy discussion groups. My library system has two long-standing philosophy discussion groups, and their existence also makes me happy. It’s not an activity that will ever make it onto a bus ad or be the object of a grant proposal. They wouldn’t work in every branch. And when we have “vision”-type conversations about the library, we rarely if ever mention this sort of program – you won’t hear, say, “How will e-books change the library, and how can we strengthen our philosophy discussion groups?”

A PhD candidate I know told me she sees a push among new LIS students towards thinking of the library as place. People in the field are also considering the future of library buildings as print (and DVD!) collections surely dwindle. Can public libraries thrive as sites of creation, learning, and connection?

We’re all familiar with the long-held idea of libraries as “fostering democracy,” which has for a while struck me as being part of the overpromising that we librarians do. (Library historian Wayne Wiegand recently argued against the “conventional thinking and professional rhetoric grounded in a user-in-the-life-of-the-library perspective [that] identif[ies] the public library as a neutral agency essential to democracy because, we’ve convinced ourselves, it guards against censorship and makes vital information accessible to all.”) But I think that these philosophy discussion groups and similar programs that encourage reflection and peer education may be as close as we can come to this ideal.

I asked my two colleagues who run these programs to elaborate on them. Ed D’Angelo – also the author of the Library Juice Press-published Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library: How Postmodern Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education and the Public Good – has been leading a philosophy discussion group twice a month at a south Brooklyn branch for just shy of nine years. And Nomi Naeem, in the social sciences division at our main library, has been running a monthly program for the last seven years. An average of 16 people attend each of Ed’s discussion groups, with a core of about half a dozen who make it to nearly every meeting. Nomi sees 15-20 people at his programs, with 10-15 regulars.

Ed chooses readings from the Web and databases and makes copies of selected articles, representing a range of views on the topic, for meeting attendees in preparation for the following discussion. His group is a topical discussion group and as such might read excerpts or summaries but never entire books. Similarly, Nomi’s group rarely reads full books and usually discusses, in his words, “topics of current and educational relevance which are explored from multiple perspectives: natural science, social science, arts, humanities, East, West, premodern, modern, postmodern.” Topics are selected in consultation with the participants.

(Ed) The context of our discussions partly determines the content of our discussions. Since we are a group of strangers meeting in a free public space to discuss whatever we agree to discuss, we discuss topics of common public interest. And since it is a philosophical discussion, we attempt to subject our discussion to logical analysis and to search for the fundamental or root principles behind the topics we discuss. In practice that means that most of the topics revolve around some social issue or other, and since most social, political, cultural or economic issues are ultimately rooted in moral problems, many of our discussions concern moral issues.

What does everyone talk about? Ed’s past topics include the following:

  • Is there a right to health care?
  • What is democracy?
  • The general assembly model of democratic decision making at Occupy Wall Street
  • Is ignorance bliss?
  • Does philosophy make you happy?
  • Extra-terrestrial intelligence (the Fermi Paradox, etc.)
  • Why be good?
  • Greed
  • Forgiveness and revenge
  • Manners and etiquette
  • Pride and arrogance
  • Moral egoism
  • Islam and democracy
  • Capital punishment
  • Romantic love
  • Should prostitution be legalized?
  • Economic inequality

And here are some of Nomi’s past topics:

  • The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Boton
  • The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless, and Endless by John D. Barrow
  • Philosophy and cultural identity
  • Philosophy, gender and culture
  • Philosophy and banned books across cultures
  • Philosophy and personal relationships
  • Philosophy and ethics – East and West
  • Why read Spinoza now?
  • Philosophy and the modern media
  • Philosophy and everyday dilemmas
  • Philosophy and Machiavelli
  • Philosophy and Buddhism
  • Philosophy and violence
  • Why read Plato now?
  • Philosophy and consciousness
  • Philosophy and death
  • Philosophy and American history
  • Philosophy and world history
  • Philosophy and human rights

I asked about group dynamics and memorable moments.

(Nomi) One time a devout Christian approached to hug a Muslim after a heated debate on religion. After the regular discussion, the patrons get together again for coffee. Some of them have formed strong friendships (inter-racial, cross-cultural, etc.) because of attending the philosophy discussions together. The discussions are not without laughter and forgetting despite [the] gravity of some sensitive topics such as religion, race, class, sexuality, gender, identity, politics, war, unconscious (biological, cultural, political, personal). Philosophy indeed is everybody’s business.

(Ed) The philosophy discussion group is not a democratic polity, but a democratic society requires public discussions on topics of common interest such as the ones we have in our group. Unfortunately, very few people in our society, including those who are college educated, are prepared to have these types of discussions, or have any experience with discussions of this kind. […] One of the obstacles, besides lack of education in relevant subject areas, is an inability or unwillingness to listen to others and to different points of view, and a lack of etiquette or respect towards other participants. Many people come to the group only to have a platform to broadcast their own ideas, but are not willing to listen to anyone else or to engage others in conversation. There is also a tendency to reduce all arguments to ad hominems and to personalize beliefs. When we are discussing a philosopher, for example, members of the group will immediately ask about the philosopher’s life and draw conclusions about the philosopher’s ideas based on their biography. Disagreements in the group have too often been taken as personal insults and devolved into fights.

I take these as challenges, not as irremediable problems. One of the chief successes of the group has been that members who stick it out long enough do eventually overcome these challenges and learn how to carry on a rational discussion with strangers in a public space on topics about which they disagree. This is not something that happens suddenly in a dramatic moment – the dramatic moments are marked by hostility and madness – but something that happens slowly over a long period of time.

One regular member of Ed’s discussion group who now lives out of state sent me some feedback of his own. After noting that the library branch is only blocks from his alma mater of New Utrecht High School – an institution associated with two of the Three Stooges and “Welcome Back, Kotter” – and referencing “12 Angry Men,” Mike went on: “THIS is the Philosophy Group. An exploration of subject to be sure, but at least as interestingly, an exploration of people, their experiences, likes and dislikes and, yes, biases. […] I could describe the personalities in brief form, but I won’t. I leave that to your most vivid imagination. What I will say is that no subject is ever discussed in a sterile vacuum. The insights are wide, deep, sad, humorous, often ‘off-the-wall’ but always entertaining, stimulating and enlightening. This is where Ed has learned, quite imaginatively, to ‘herd cats.’ Of course, there is also the group dynamic where over time, people get to know about one another: their problems, families and joys.”

Jing, who attended the same discussion group in high school and part of college, wrote: “I give the Group a lot of credit because it is my observation that there is a ‘market’ for philosophy among the young and the very old. This may be due to the former’s adolescence and creativity, and the latter’s earned right to contemplate. In either case, I think the library’s programming would benefit a lot from giving this area more development.”

I’ll end with some of my colleagues’ thoughts on the role of these sorts of programs in the public library.

(Ed) If the purpose of the public library is to provide information to the public in order to facilitate public discussions that sustain the democratic process, then the philosophy discussion group offers in microcosm a perfect model of the ideal public library. […] I hope, too, that some [attendees] will learn an even more important lesson, which is that learning is an ongoing process and one that can be largely self-directed as your research on one topic leads you to another. The philosophy discussion is not a passive process of learning, but one which requires active participation.

(Nomi) Development of an informed and educated population who can distinguish between truth and propaganda is one of the foremost values of public librarianship. Besides, what brought me to librarianship was not just the love of books but a hope that I perhaps can rise above my own natural narcissism, and the powerful forces of cultural conditioning, tribal propaganda and parochial identity (religious, political, national, ethnic, etc.) which human children are subjected to from the moment they start breathing. […] Being a work is progress is the only identity I want to subscribe to and [I] always hope to be mindful of what Spinoza said: ‘I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.’