some of us are brave

On Loving Libraries

I love libraries. I love librarians.

A post from my friend at the Intellectual History blog brought to mind how my personal love of all things library-ish relates to some larger concerns about structure, intellectual capital, and public sphere.

I have resisted considering my  fetish for physical books as an object of serious inquiry. It struck me as navel-gazing and, worse by our current cultural standard, technophobic. I am not a Luddite, as should be evident in how I use digital tools in my scholarship, career, and personal life. I think I’m even something of an early adopter within a narrow purview of utilitarian digital products. As I already complicate technical solutionism in education I did not want to also be one of the town criers shaking a leather-bound book at the sky bemoaning the death of literacy as our culture moves towards e-books and e-readers. Plus, I just hadn’t thought deeply about the subject.

L.D. changed that for me tonight. My thoughts here are nascent and wholly incomplete. I primarily want to encourage you to read L.D.’s posts on the subject.

My first reaction to the post was personal. Libraries served many critical purposes in my development. When my mother was a single parent we were likely poor. It is hard to remember. I was happy and I had a window seat in my bedroom and I did not do our taxes. But, sometimes there were space heaters. I think we were poor. I remember walking miles with my mother several times a week to the local library. You could do anything there. Perhaps, more importantly, librarians treated me like an autonomous person. They talked to me directly and asked me what I wanted to read. Owning a library card necessitated owning a wallet which justified owning a purse. For a kid, that’s a major departure from the parallel but often distinct spheres of kid v. adults.

Later, in school, my respectful but stubborn insistence on skipping ahead in class made me difficult to teach sometimes. By the fourth grade I had a standing library hall pass. When I wanted to move ahead or go left entirely from the day’s curriculum Mrs. Sims would just sigh deeply and tell me to go the library until she sent for me. You may not remember but in elementary school you do a lot in groups and pairs. You have buddies when you go to the bathroom. You eat lunch in groups A and B and so on. You hold hands in a line as you move from one room to another. Roaming the halls alone gave me a sense of pride. In retrospect, my coveted library pass probably wasn’t all that coveted. It also probably did not make me nearly as cool as I thought it did. But, the time spent in the library was important. I fiddled on the donated MacIntosh computer, figuring out that open-apple and closed-apple did different stuff on the monitor. That is still, as it happens, the backbone of the knowledge I scaffold to understand technology infrastructure. I devised games to dictate what I would check out. Sometimes I checked out all red books. Other times I browsed along and tried to find the fattest spines so I could read the world’s biggest books. That is, coincidentally, how I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. It had a thick spine. That book changed my life. In the Heroes and Holiday tradition of multiculturism education I had little formal exposure to Malcolm. It was all Martin. I learned black people were not a monolith quite by accident.

Again, all navel-gazing. But, as L.D. points out the unmediated relationship I had with books occurred because the expense of owning and maintaining physical material was subsidized by the public sector. Possession of a book was not just 9/10ths of the law, it was a commandment. I owned the book in my bag until I returned it (confession: I never returned the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I now owe Forest Park Elementary probably a zillion dollars). My reading happened mostly absent of structural constraints on how I might engage the material.

L.D.’s post reminded me of a news story I read some time ago about who owns an e-book. It is, I think, still somewhat of a gray legal area* but as it stands the material loaded on your corporately produced reader can be wiped clean at any time by the manufacturer. Granted, I don’t think that can happen without consequence but consequence is a social construct. Consequences can change. The technological superiority to recall content is an engineering construct and is more resistant to social intervention.

I remember reading that story and not thinking of it in any context larger than my personal love of libraries and books. It was a scary thought but I did not follow it beyond that feeling. But L.D.’s essays got me thinking about my own work documenting the landscape of for-profit colleges. When possible in my field research, I take pictures of the resources and geographies of for-profit colleges. It is common in the sector to eschew physical libraries with many volumes for electronic libraries or resource rooms. They are not unlike the story about a new bookless library in Texas, also read tonight.

They look something like this:

resource room

resource room


The idea is rational. It is, as L.D. points out, expensive to own and maintain a large amount of books. Managing real estate costs is a specialty of the for-profit sector. Reducing the college’s square footage reflects the organizational imperative to maximize profit from tuition income. Getting rid of expensive libraries is a no-brainer. While there is some variation, for-profit colleges were early institutional adopters of electronic text books and materials. They are marketed as cost-effective for students who are practically-oriented. I don’t doubt there is some truth to that. But it would be naive for someone who has read the financial disclosures of for-profit colleges to not note that electronic texts are also cost-effective for the owners.

These resource rooms-slash-libraries are interesting spaces. They become more interesting when juxtaposed with the characteristics of for-profit students and L.D.’s compelling argument about book ownership as a transference of wealth from the public domain to the private sector. Do for-profit students own the electronic textbooks they are provided? Even if that ownership isn’t of individual value to students, could it be an institutional value? Do these spaces offer the same kind of opportunities for exploring information beyond the authority of a technology platform, an institution, or an instructor? Does it matter that content access and ownership operates differently by institutions and higher education sectors?

I don’t know. Again, these are very early, likely wholly useless ideas in response to L.D.’s intriguing argument. But, something about the idea of owning books as wealth transfer challenged me to reconsider my love of libraries as too nostalgic, too trite, too inward facing to be worth considering in any larger context. This isn’t my area. If you know of any good reads or sources along these lines, I’d appreciate them. I imagine coming back to this one day, if only for personal development.

Read Intellectual History!! It’s a good time. I mean, if you’re the kind of person who covets library hall passes.

* Correct me if I’m wrong. Again, not my area at all.


5 comments on “On Loving Libraries

  1. Patricia
    October 12, 2013

    Your comments about how you came to read Malcolm X Autobiography illustrate the value of physical libraries. Those wonderful chance discoveries don’t happen in the same way with an ereader. I have a kindle which I like but I prefer to own the physical copy as well. I’ve been slowly renovating a house, the most exciting renovation was when I was able to take space from a large bedroom and turn a corridor into my library. Although by the time we got to that I realised I need to find space for another library the same capacity.

    Btw hope you went back as an adult and donated a new copy so another child can discover Malcolm X story in his words. We should all do that with inspirational books

  2. Karen F. Davis
    September 16, 2013

    I, too, have had an almost lifelong love affair with libraries and librarians. Our Marygrove College librarians here in Detroit, though, are the best librarians I have ever worked with, in my 60+ years of libraries! I walked to the one-room library in our southern Ohio village as a girl, and, as you note, was treated as an adult–the librarian did not blink whether I charged out fairy tales or Faulkner (which I did not understand at age 12!) The sisters at our small school entrusted me to help with their even-smaller library, the size of a small bedroom. I felt truly grown and part of a mystical cult. I remember being in total awe of my first college library (U of D) and realizing I could never aspire to read all the books there–which I thought a worthy goal and imagined possible in my high school library. I even married a university librarian (my first husband), who helped me become something of a bibliophile in my own field (cultural anthropology). Now, owning thousands of books that I sadly realize no one wants, even for free, I have returned to relying almost totally on libraries, as family eats up my income. I think e-books are a great invention, but I cannot scrawl all over them in my own handwriting and drawings, and can’t safely cart them into the bathtub at night. Real books and real librarians will stay dear to my heart until I die–and perhaps after!

  3. tonya j
    September 16, 2013

    You must be younger. I don’t remember using a MacIntosh computer, but I do remember using a card catalog. lol. Good piece 🙂

    • A.E. Harrison
      September 16, 2013

      HA! I remember the card catalog…We had that Oregon Trail game and floppy disk that were actually floppy!

  4. A.E. Harrison
    September 15, 2013

    You are completely right about the grey area. I’m a university librarian and the matter is still complicated. Unlike print books, electronic books are not necessarily owned by the library as print books are. We buy access. You get into issue of copyright, intellectual property, checking items out, and them disappearing. Not only that, you get into the class issue of who owns an e-reader. I personally cannot use them for medical reasons. I also don’t believe in owning books, but that is an entirely different subject. Faculty and librarians do have a concern about how electronic materials can limit browsing and serendipitous discovery, but some new technologies are trying to reconfigure that feeling.

    I love your story. I began working in libraries when I was 8. I had a 2nd grade reading level in before I started school, and I would get to go to the library when Reading Circle took place. I volunteered in our school library and the public library. When I got to college and was doing my first masters, I would go to the rare book library to relax. I finally entered library school because my love of research and collection development was a natural fit.

    I did not own books until I had to buy them for college. I had never heard of people having books except on televisions. No book stores existed in my home town growing up.

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