- Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library: How Postmodern Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education, and the Public Good
Many readers of Ed D’Angelo’s thought-provoking and very readable book, Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library, will come away with a newfound commitment to saving the ailing American public library. Some will disagree with the book’s critiques of popular culture. And most will wish for more information from this book, which asserts the public library’s fundamental importance to democracy but discusses the institution surprisingly little, albeit while discussing many other important and related issues: education, information technology, globalization, free-market economics, and the division between high and low culture.
As his subtitle indicates, D’Angelo’s target is postmodern consumer capitalism together with the philosophy that Thomas Frank sees as its public-relations arm: “market populism” (75). This philosophy proposes consumer choice as the new agent of worldwide democracy, replacing the traditional governmental form that is withering under the decentralizing forces of technological development and globalization. Consumers can “vote” instantly with their wallets. D’Angelo laments that libraries have become influenced by this philosophy, catering to popular demands for entertainment and abandoning their role in promoting and facilitating the rational debates necessary for a vital democracy.
This role is particularly important today, D’Angelo writes. As we have entered an information economy, the new citizen-consumers have been trapped in a downward spiral: they opt for the instant gratification of mindless entertainment or watch news programs produced by the entertainment conglomerates, both of which reinforce consumerism’s primacy. Given this vicious cycle, American society needs an institution independent of this cycle that represents the public good.
America needs strong public libraries and, more specifically, qualified librarians. D’Angelo argues that librarians’ appropriate function is as cultural “gatekeepers” (5), trained to guide people to more edifying and enlightening sources of information and to distinguish between “’good’ literature and ‘bad’ [End Page 232]literature” (2). Briefly sketching the history of public libraries, D’Angelo recounts the democratic impetus behind the earliest ones, driven by Enlightenment ideals about each citizen’s fitness for democratic participation, given a proper education. The force of capitalism, hostile to democracy in its postmodern phase, was not always opposed to government-based democracy, D’Angelo writes. Despite some arguably antidemocratic attitudes among major nineteenth-century library giants like Melvil Dewey (5–6) and Andrew Carnegie (6–7), the general philosophy in the age of the robber barons supported the public good. In this context D’Angelo cites British philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose utilitarian thinking helped justify public library funding through the idea that economic liberalism would succeed only if citizens were educated to make rational choices that served their best interests—and, by extension, the interests of society as a whole. D’Angelo writes that the capitalism of Mill’s time “both presupposed certain moral values and produced a public good which transcended private economic interests. Educational institutions such as libraries were expected to instill these moral values in the public and thereby promote liberal capitalist democracy” (16). Around World War II American libraries moved closer to an active promotion of democracy with two national reports from the American Library Association emphasizing the importance of “democracy and enlightened citizenship” (8) in the public library’s mission. The latter half of the twentieth century, however, saw a movement away from these national standards and toward a localization of practices that have left libraries without a coherent mission to adhere to in resisting market populism.
As one may notice from his admiration of Mill’s ethical liberalism, D’Angelo is not the stereotypical leftist that a first glance at his book might suggest. Indeed, instead of citing an antiglobalization activist like Naomi Klein or a theorist like Saskia Sassen, D’Angelo bases much of his argument on classical philosophers. D’Angelo received a doctorate in philosophy, and he...