This isn’t a book review, but it is a post spun off of a book. It’s also a post about libraries, which is one of those things I keep meaning to write about more, so there.
A few weeks ago I read The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser, a book about the dangers of the personalized web that we’ve all been opted in to without our consent. Pariser lays out the economic models of the free services we all use online every day – primarily Google and Facebook – and describes the ways that these companies’ efforts to put click-worthy links in front of us turn our lives into smaller, less diverse places. This is a huge, fascinating subject, but one example in particular caught my eye.
At one point, Pariser compares the modus operandi of two editorial boards: that of the New York Times, the venerable institution of newsworthiness, and that of Gawker, the online media network that brings you Lifehacker, Gizmodo, and Jezebel. At the New York Times, they don’t track statistics on individual articles, because the assumption is that the editor assigned that article for a reason and if the editor thinks people ought to read about it, the paper’s staff will write about it. At Gawker, they track the popularity of current articles on a big flat-screen TV in the office and if you don’t write enough articles that make it onto the Big Board, you’ll be looking for work elsewhere. The “give ‘em what they want” philosophy of Gawker, Pariser argues, is disastrous when applied on a big scale, because people tend to ignore things they know they “should” read in favor of something easy and fun right now. If you skim the paper to get to the sports section, you still see the headlines, he points out, but the chances you’ll see something of serious importance while clicking through a Gawker site are pretty slim.
Leaving aside the relative intellectual merits of Gawker and the NYT for a moment, the phrase “give ‘em what they want” grabbed my attention for a different reason – it’s the predominant philosophy in library collections at the moment, particularly public library collections.
There are good historical reasons for this. Back in the day, you had to check out two nonfiction books for every fiction book the librarian would let you have. Heck, back in the day, there were arguments over whether or not libraries should even carry fiction, because it was clearly just salacious nonsense. Patrons ought to be bettering themselves, after all. Eventually libraries became embarrassed by this attitude, and in the early 90s, the Baltimore County Public Library published about their “Give ‘Em What They Want” philosophy of acquisition: if people want romance novels and DVDs, give it to them! Library patrons are the people who vote us our salaries, after all.
It’s gotten to the point where, when the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado decided that since they were getting screwed so hard by the Big Six publishers over ebooks that they’d just buy a batch from Smashwords instead, they were accused of violating good practice by failing to give people what they want. (No, I don’t understand the argument, either. But they did have to rebut it in an interview in Library Journal.)
Look, I’m not saying that romance novels and DVDs and ebooks aren’t great. Of course they are. I get a lot of less-than-100%-necessary things from my library. But if we spend all our money on romance novels and DVDs and ebooks, where do the books about political engagement and green living and social change come from? Suppose that my library shows low circulation for books on women’s history and civil rights. Does that mean we shouldn’t bother with those topics at all?
I’m not saying we should go back to telling people what they should read, or even what they should enjoy. But another point Pariser made got me thinking. Pariser quotes a study finding that a lot of people will put movies they feel they “should” see, like Citizen Kane and Schindler’s List, on their Netflix queues, but keep bumping movies like The Hangover and Scary Movie 3 up to the top. Now, I haven’t seen Citizen Kane. But I straight-up love Orson Welles. Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil are up there at the top of the list of movies I watched on my film noir binge (so rudely interrupted two years ago when I had to move away from my film history library). I don’t feel like I “should” see Citizen Kane, I want to see it. I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy it. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.
And books? My god, I can recommend classics with the best of them. Jane Austen is almost a cliché at this point, but there’s always Dickens (any reader who loved The Sopranos needs to read Dickens), and Elizabeth Gaskell for all those Downton Abbey fans, Charles Maturin for horror geeks, and anyone who hasn’t read Shakespeare since high school really needs to give him another try. (I cannot wait for The Hollow Crown to come out on DVD here in the US, so I can start shoving 1 Henry IV at people. And Ralph Finnes’s Coriolanus has been surprisingly popular.)
I’m not pushing these things on people because I think they “should” read classics, although I do think that a firm grounding in the history of literature makes for a more rewarding reading experience all around. And I don’t think anyone should read classics out of a sense of obligation; I think that’s one of the things that destroys a love of reading. But I love Bleak House and North and South and Persuasion and Melmoth the Wanderer and Titus Andronicus, and if you like the kinds of things that make me like those books, you just might love them too. As librarians, especially those of us who do reader’s advisory, we spend a lot of time keeping up with new books so we can give our patrons the new big thing. But there are old big things that are great, too. Sure, Dickens is a harder sell than Robert Galbrath. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.