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The Changing Culture of Libraries: How We Know Ourselves through Our Libraries (review)

From: Libraries & Culture
Volume 37, Number 4, Fall 2002
pp. 406-407 | 10.1353/lac.2002.0083

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Libraries & Culture 37.4 (2002) 406-407

The Changing Culture of Libraries: How We Know Ourselves through Our Libraries. Edited by Renee Feinberg. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2001. x, 134 pp. $39.95. ISBN 0-78641-138-4.

With such an engaging title, I expected this book to captivate my interest. Editor Renee Feinberg has written a fine introduction that resonates well with my library soul. I mean, when people talk about the frailties and foibles of the Internet, the importance of print culture, or libraries as keepers or custodians of our culture, they get my attention.

What a disappointment this collection of essays is. Part of the problem is that the contributors, with the exception of Carla Stoffle (more about her below), are hardly luminaries in librarianship. Another problem is the lack of editorial control. The original call for papers anticipated essays on librarians' work "and their sense of commitment to their communities" (7), but the "call changed to allow for personal essays which have a political note" (7).

To say that the essays even had a political note would be an understatement, as most of them are whimsical, trivial, silly, flippant, and even grim. Few of the essays relate to the book's title as a topic sentence must relate to a paragraph. And thus we are presented with essays lamenting the travails of library school, "confessional" essays about librarians' careers, the construction of a library in a small town, and much worse. There is a clear lack of focus in this book.

The only person whose essay cleaves to the book's title is Carla Stoffle, who I think made an error in lending her name to this venture. Her essay is entitled "Social Equity and Empowerment in the Digital Age: A Place for Activist Librarians." She makes several points, chief of which is that libraries should "enhance social equity and empowerment" (109). Librarians seem to be besotted by this word. But what do they mean by empowerment, and do they have the right or even the ability to empower anyone? The word "empowerment" is little more than prolix, and librarians' overuse of it speaks volumes about their own powerlessness. Having no real power themselves, they crave to empower others. This discourse is really a form of cultural arrogance with a leftist-liberal agenda.

Having the "bit" of empowerment firmly in her mouth, Stoffle coolly denounces traditional library service, deprecates LC subject headings as biased toward the dominant culture, delineates "new roles" for librarians such as outreach, and touts alternative literature. But LC subject headings are not immutable: Negroes, Afro-Americans, African Americans. They do change, you know. Besides giving precision to a search, they serve to harness and bridle our worst passions and lend a degree of civility to our work. Fifty years ago, one would have found more titles under "Negro" than the "N word"; more books under "homosexuals" than the "Q word." And why shouldn't LC headings be biased toward the dominant culture-the primary creators, users, and disseminators of knowledge and information? Much of alternative literature is so bad, so marginal, that it is useless. There is no substitute for the canons of alternative literature: Claude Brown, Richard Rodriguez, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Maya Angelou. And as for "outreach" (Stoffle wants us to "reach out to the neighborhoods, clubs and streets where our non-traditional community members reside" [108]), I am reminded of the huge disaster of the outreach movement of the 1960s, the storefront libraries, the book ownership programs, and the like. Such outreach would only dissipate the energy that librarians must devote to honing their skills and being learned and knowledgeable about their craft. I am also reminded of the Russian narodniks who "went to the people," but the people did not want them. Many students cannot be saved from their own indolence and idleness. Traditional library service will prevail more than we think. With great peril we wrench ourselves from the moorings and foundation of our vocation.

In conclusion, this book is not recommended for any library. Normally, I give review copies to my library, but not this time. Somewhere, somehow, something went wrong with this book...

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