Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ignoring the Social Reality of the Library Building

Zadie Smith’s “North West London Blues” says more about the role of the library building in the social world than just about any other source I have encountered. True, she is talking about a library in the relatively remote neighborhood of London in which she was raised; but she could just as easily have been writing about the libraries I used to frequent before I want off to become an undergraduate. What is important is that she appreciates the library as a social construct rather than a book repository; and, by doing so, she blows a lot of Internet mythology out of the water.

She makes her most important point about the social world of libraries near the beginning of the final section of her piece:
Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay. 
She then follows through on this point with a nicely elaborating paragraph:
In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible. The only others that come readily to my mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership. It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep restating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three-dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.
This sets her up for the final punch line:
But they are still a significant part of our social reality, the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet.
There is something painfully ironic about a society that seems to care only about consumerism and fundamentalist faith. It is almost as if there really is a God, who finally figured out how to get even with the flowering of the Age of Reason. (I might actually believe in a God with that kind of sense of humor, dark as it may be.) Even more ironic is that, for all we hear about benefits to science, the Internet has become the tool of choice for both religious fundamentalists and those dedicated to selling anything and everything to anyone and everyone. Ray Bradbury may not have been the first to conceive of the library as a refuge from such sinister forces, but he probably was the most artful of those trying to make the point. Now we are in a world where reading Bradbury means paying for the opportunity to do so, one way or another.

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