Libraries & Culture 37.2 (2002) 208-210
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Renewing the Social Mission of the Public Library
Civic Librarianship: Renewing the Social Mission of the Public Library.By Ronald B. McCabe. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001. xvi, 171 pp. $39.50. ISBN 0-8108-3905-9.
Twenty years ago, in what has become the locus classicus on the subject, Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory [Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, ca. 1981]) outlined in a clever fable why we moderns cannot make moral decisions. We should try to imagine that the natural sciences have suffered the effects of a catastrophe that included the burning of laboratories. Enlightened people have tried to revive the study of natural sciences, but nobody, or almost nobody, realizes they are not practicing natural science, because everything has been irretrievably lost (1). Later, MacIntyre explains his fable: "The point of constructing this imaginary world inhabited by fictitious [End Page 208] pseudo-scientists . . . is that . . . the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder [as this] imaginary world" (2).
For those who lived through the sixties, and who witnessed it, clearly this is the moral state of affairs we all inherited. MacIntyre described the flotsam and jetsam of the Kulturkampf even before many of its most fearsome battles occurred. His solution, however, proved far less credible: MacIntyre suggested a return to Aristotle! It's hard to imagine the Will & Grace crowd cozying up to the Nicomachean Ethics as "The Sermon on the Mount."
Likewise, Ronald McCabe skillfully diagnoses the malaise that grips the public library in his highly useful Civic Librarianship: Renewing the Social Mission of the Public Library. Although he proffers no clever fable like MacIntyre, his enthusiasms are no less sincere. His solution, communitarianism, for all its many enticing and brilliantine sheens, however, turns to ormolu in the end.
In a trenchant analysis, McCabe counts the eighties as the sixties counterculture. "It has become increasingly obvious . . . that the counterculture . . . has been marred not only by lifestyle excesses but also by erroneous cultural assumptions" (3). McCabe rightly argues that the eighties libertarian response only marginalized many of the more radical elements of the sixties culture, a radicalism that continues to surface, as witness President Clinton's shameful behavior and the ensuing response. The nineties communitarian response, however (as articulated by the very eloquent Amitai Etzioni, quoted approvingly throughout), will not find so willing or agreeable an audience as McCabe hopes. Christianity tried to get us to love our neighbors as ourselves, but we refused. Society tried to get us to do so because our neighbors needed their space. It is equally unlikely we will find willing accomplices to do so for the sake of the community. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000) chronicled the demise of community. Likewise, McCabe is unconvincing that communitarianism will thrust the public library to its place as democracy's school after school for all communities.
The a fortiori argument against McCabe is found in the profession's response to Internet filtering. It's hard to say whether McCabe's cursory treatment of filtering is because it offers the most compelling argument against his conclusion or because he does not see it as an ultimate threat. Either way, he misses a chance to fine-tune his case. The profession's response to filtering is at once an enigma wrapped in a plain brown wrapper, full of unsound fury.
Certainly no community will look to the public library to help rebuild its moral fiber when that library refuses to understand the concern parents have about Internet porn. The library profession cannot have it both ways. It cannot demand that communities shower it with good will and then treat those members like so many booboisies.
McCabe attempts in his chapter "The Community Movement" (an especially well-wrought one) to treat this by showing how rights must be balanced against responsibilities. In the end, however, he's too optimistic about the...