Speaking of Libraries…

I overheard a conversation yesterday in the Lounge about book stores and libraries, just before reading this heresy in the Tribune:

A handful of pioneering suburban libraries are transitioning from the librarian-loved but misunderstood Dewey to the type of organization system used by booksellers. The new layout groups books by subject rather than number, uses signs to highlight contemporary, popular categories, and displays books by their covers.

Critics say the new system is a nightmare for anyone trying to find a specific book that doesn’t fit into an obvious category. Supporters counter that the system does what libraries should be doing: encourage people to read more books.

Lots there to work with. Is it really the libraries mission to encourage people to read more books? Does the bookstore system really do that? And what gets lost?

I can’t hear “Dewey Decimal” without thinking about Tony Kushner’s play, homebody/Kabul, where it is a theme of sorts, along with language in general, as an ideal (as universal language). And I think I will always think of Phillip Pullman’s speech (if you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and check it out NOW) about the power of the public libraries and the library as a civic value and good that sits outside of the calculations of profitability in the merely financial sense, whenever I see or sit in or hear about these spaces. This particular article reminds me of Matt Shevitz sending his class over to Borders to see how they have the music arranged–what’s there and what is omitted, what is ghettoized and what is fore-staged, and considering the difference between being encouraged to find something and being encouraged to BUY something.

And just yesterday, I came across a passage in a book I’m reading about reading that said, paraphrasing, think of the educations of Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln,  Frederick Douglass, and Jane Austen–they were all educated the same way, self-taught through reading, suggesting the amazing educational power of the ability to read the written word. Not to suggest that their form of education would be a viable form for everyone, but rather to suggest that “mere” self-directed reading was, in these cases at least, capable of realizing the potential of rare genius.

I don’t know how to think about all of it, but I think I’d rather we try to teach people how to use libraries better than adapt them to the preferences (and ignorances) of people trained to consider the world solely in terms of their own narcissistic desires. There’s a record shop down the street from where I live and the owner is a bit of a grump, which is to say that he’s a purist. His records (and books and cds and everything) are divided up by “type of object” and that’s pretty much it. There might be an organizational system because when asked for a particular item, he can put you in the general vicinity, but that might be recall memory of where he put the thing originally. The system, such as it is, forces the patrons to see what’s there–to explore rather than seek. I’m sure it annoys some people; probably enough to ensure they don’t come back, and yet, for the music lovers it is an opportunity to discover.

I hate it when I’m standing in a line and see something displayed for me to consider as an impulse buy while I’m waiting. Even if I’m tempted, I won’t buy it because I feel manipulated. The record shop feels less like manipulation and more like an invitation.

That’s how libraries have always felt to me, too. C’mon in–wander the stacks. If you really need to find something in a hurry, we can do that for you, but if you have the time…come and discover. I would hate for that kind of experience, less and less available it seems in our culture measured by the metric of transactional cost efficiency (on both sides of the equation), to disappear entirely. What a shame that would be. Maybe it’s because of my philosophical bias–my tendency to derive pleasures from “taking my time” rather than maximizing it, I don’t know.

I think I’m with the purists on this one, though.

One thought on “Speaking of Libraries…

  1. The Library of Congress Classification system already organizes books by subject matter. This increases the likelihood of discovering a new source serendipitously. There is a lot we can learn from bookstores, including using better signage, but this idea is not exactly new.

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