Alberto Mingardi  

Day dreaming for libraries

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Neil Gaiman has written a formidable plea for public libraries. Here you can find the text of a lecture that he delivered in London on October 14, subsequently published on The Guardian.

His arguments are instinctively appealing to all of us "bookies". I particularly liked the following one:

The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.
I often sense that "creativity" is a word which is undergoing an inflation process. Nowadays it is fashionable word, but I feel it is getting more and more vague. Paradoxically, Gaiman makes it more concrete by talking of day-dreaming. Not that you can't dream about basically everything, but "day-dreaming" is a recognizable attitude, it entails both a sense of lack of satisfaction with the present and the ability (sometimes, the courage) to look beyond the boundaries of what appears immediately feasible. In this sense, I find the correlation between reading and day-dreaming, and thus creativity, an interesting point.

Gaiman quotes--approvingly--J.R.R. Tolkien on "escapist" literature: "I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories", wrote the author of The Lord of the Rings, "and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?".

Later on, Gaiman speaks of "obligations", broadly understood, for both the present generations and writers in particular, as far as future generations are concerned. He does make a powerful case for libraries, arguing that "if you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future".

And yet, libraries nowadays seem out of fashion, though Books may be like sharks: "Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is". And yet libraries look like dinosaurs.

In the city where I live, Milan, public libraries seem to be far too many, if measured against popular demand. Constraints on public spending make, in perspective, their survival more difficult. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine the sort of investment that you would need to make libraries an attractive and lively space not just for books but also for real human beings. The massive process of digitization undertaken by Google suggests they may become thoroughly obsolete. Libraries, Gaiman argues, fit with our concept of what an "educated society" should be. But, at the end of the day, libraries like anything else in this world can hardly survive, if people do not find them useful any longer.

Suppose we agree with Gaiman, that the library as a social space needs to be preserved. What shall we do, then? His response is that "we need to support libraries", which I suppose translates in people need to be taxed by their municipalities in order to pay for them. Is this approach going to succeed in the long run? Perhaps we can picture a different scenario. One in which libraries that are supported by specific institutions continue to survive (like university libraries), but public libraries may be put in a way "on the market": which means, they should find supporting associations, individuals, or businesses that agree to steward their future. The publishing market is undergoing a serious transformation, by and large because of new technologies. Publishers are struggling to evolve their business models, as the traditional ones are no longer economically feasible. We do not know where we are going, but clearly there never were rosier times for the hope of a "democratization" of knowledge. Should libraries be preserved from this creative destruction, don't they risk to miss the creative side, together with the destructive one?

Perhaps we need a bit more "day dreaming" for libraries too.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
MingoV writes:

This scenario is a slippery slope argument. One can always find a good cause or function that some believe should be run by a government. A library. A museum. An opera house. An arena. A convention hall. A sports stadium. A bullet train. Etc.

If a library cannot be maintained from donations and user fees, then there is no valid reason to steal taxpayer money to support it.

Zubon writes:

Digitization is increasing the demand for libraries, not decreasing it. Few sit and read books at libraries, but libraries are the source of internet access for everyone who does not have it at home.

If libraries were founded when books were the greatest source of knowledge but not everyone could afford them, they are gaining when computers are the greatest source of knowledge but not everyone can afford them.

Pajser writes:

I think humanity doesn't really need more wealth. However, we desperately need more morality, knowledge, empathy, consciousness ... and libraries can help with that. So, these should be maintained in foreseeable future.

sam writes:

This is a case of Tabarrok's March of Dimes problem. Just as March of Dimes continued after polio was cured and fire departments continue to be lavishly staffed long after building codes made fires rare, we still have "public libraries".

In the days of the Carnegie library, the public library was the only place where people could find a wide variety of books, let alone a wide variety of books cheaply.

Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the internet have made books so cheap and convenient that I never go the public library.

Go to a public library nowadays, especially an urban one, and you will find very few children reading.

The buildings that were once "public libraries" are now government-run facilities for providing climate control and internet pornography to the homeless. The books are merely for decoration, often obsolete, and rarely checked out.

They call them "public libraries" merely to cash in on our nostalgia.

James writes:

Gaiman has failed to make the case he seems to think he is making. If he is calling for state run libraries then he is, in effect, calling for violence against those who do not provide the funds for the same. But in order to reach a conclusion that some act violence is justified, his argument needs (at least) a premise about what circumstances might justify violence. Until he provides that, his argument is a non sequitur.

It amazes me that people who would see right through "X is good in many ways. Therefore Aunt Maggie should use violence or the threat of violence to compel others to fund X," fail to notice that the argument is just as incoherent when we replace Aunt Maggie with some government.

Pajser writes:
It amazes me that people who would see right through "X is good in many ways. Therefore Aunt Maggie should use violence or the threat of violence to compel others to fund X," fail to notice that the argument is just as incoherent when we replace Aunt Maggie with some government.

Aunt Maggie has the right to demand funding of X from people who live in her house. On the same way the state has the right to do that on its territory. That claim can be rejected or relativized from some political positions, but it cannot be consistently done from libertarian position - because it seems that every arguments against state ownership of territory can be used against private ownership of land.

blgriffin writes:

To say that public libraries are obsolete is nonsense if you look at circulation and other stats: They are as busy as ever in the US.*

*See http://www.imls.gov/research/public_libraries_in_the_us_fy_2010_report.aspx

They are important as community centers, as public gathering spaces as well as as virtual presences with ebook, database and online training materials that are vetted for quality as opposed to merely typing something into Google and assuming you've got the best and most complete results. Sadly many think this and assume, "Oh, I don't actually need a library or librarian, I've got Google." Sad for the increasingly ignorant-seeming world.

Much valuable information is not free via Google and if those that have less to pay for information do not have access to publicly funded library materials to enrich and educate, how then do we have an informed democracy? Is the answer: "Too bad for you if you can't afford to buy everything on Amazon (or Dow Jones or LEXIS or some other expensive database)." I hope not but there does seem to be great indifference and ignorance on this front.

How does putting libraries on the market help with democracy if only those with money can have access? The free market does not equal a democratically free and informed public from what I can see. It concentrates knowledge, money, information in the hands of a few.

Ellen T Klock writes:

A public library is the great equalizer. People who think a library is just about books are not regular library patrons. I have visited most of the public libraries throughout Western New York and in the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls and they are busy places with all age groups. The available computers are always in use, especially by children after school. And I see lots of people reading, not just books, but newspapers and magazines.

We need more, not less libraries - public libraries were developed to allow everyone access to information. Don't begrudge your pennies - especially those of you who have the funds to purchase what you desire. Allow us ALL to enjoy the services which on libraries can provide. (It's one of the few tangible resources we receive from our tax dollar).

James writes:

Pajser,

If you think "every arguments against state ownership of territory can be used against private ownership of land," you must not be aware of many of the arguments against state ownership of territory.

Here's a start: Property rights are only valid if the property was initially not owned or if the buyers bought the property with money or other assets that were theirs to start with in consensual transactions with willing sellers and they verified to the best of their ability that there were no competing claims to the titles they were purchasing. Therefore most private land titles are valid and most government claims to own territory are not.

Also, government ownership of land has been the norm in most times and places but with very mixed results. Private ownership of land has only been around for a short while, comparatively, but has been instrumental in a huge improvement in living standards everywhere it has been tried. Based on this track record, all land should be privatized.

Recall: You made a claim about "Every..." and now I have provided you with two counterexamples. You should be changing your mind now.

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