Improving the Patron

If you accept, as I do, that the library is not merely a depository or a portal, not merely a collection of books and newspapers and microfilm, an repository of externally produced ideas, thoughts, information and argument, but also a set of in-house services and information tools to support not only the collection, but also the universe of knowledge in general, you run into the question: how can the library best order and present that information and those services? If you’re not just a repository, what are you? What’s your mission?

Many librarians and many individuals believe in the value of objectivity. We must not, after all, collect with an eye to a particular political agenda or opinion. We must not gear our libraries to a particular brand of person. We should not highlight one book over another (though displays certainly do this), recommend one opinion over another (though surely this is, in the end, the primary task of the reference librarian), or appear to take a particular side in a political debate (though the ALA is often guilty of this). A library, these objectivity lessons teach us, is a place of universal knowledge, where the ideas, opinions, and values of the patron lead them to the books of their choice. The library is a unique resource for each person, viewed through the prism of their goals and preferences, tailored to their requirements. The library itself should not impose anything upon the patron. In this way, the patron shapes himself; the library helps the library to create his own views. The librarian and her wooly opinions do not shape the patron.

The flip side: reading the paper every morning makes me angry. Watching people who’s opinion differs so painfully from my own get so much air time and column space is enough to do that, but what truly angers me is the ignorance that’s ruling the day. Ignorance played such a significant role in the last American election (with such a large proportion of Republican voters hoodwinked into believing that Saddam Hussein, along with Osama Bin Laden, was responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001). Ignorance of history, the nature of our constitutional democracy, and the value multiculturalism and pluralism are currently leading to a lot of anxiety and fear mongering.

So I start thinking: what if the libraries addressed societal ignorance in a very upfront, in your face way? What if the libraries started putting together displays, speaker sessions, question and answer periods, countering the ignorance in the news with actual facts? Right now in Canada the history of marriage has become a hot topic. Most of the politicians don’t understand that history, but enjoy discussing it in colourful terms all the same. What if the libraries were to support counter-intelligence? Is that political? Is it political even if it’s just about correcting misinformation?

Of course this isn’t limited to the same-sex marriage issue. What about Islam? When suddenly “Islamic extremist” became the buzzword of the moment, isn’t it part of the role of the library to provide information on Islam, which is a peaceful faith with a vibrant intellectual history, right in the front of the library, as a display?

What if the reference question isn’t limited to the individual patron at all? What if the librarian were to listen to the community as a whole, and address the issues that are rising and attempt to meet them with real, supported, “unbiased” information? Should the librarian be listening to the radio, watching TV, reading the papers, and providing information where misinformation is clouding people’s judgment? In order to function, after all, a democracy needs an informed citizenry. Where the Muslims are being confuses with terrorists, provide displays, speakers, interactive tutorials, information for the community to help them sort out the difference. Put it in their face. Make it impossible to ignore. We will not let you become bigots, the signs will shout. We will provide you with the information you need to be good, caring, decent people. When the devout of a community are being rabble-roused by ambitious politicians with threats of a loss of church autonomy, a session explaining the nature of the proposed laws, how such threats are empty, would seem to be in order. While the classical sense of objectivity may be compromised, the goal of objectivity remains; the populace should have the whole picture, not just the propaganda. When the press, the politicians, and the preachers are spouting lies and misunderstandings, who must step up to add a modicum of truth to that mix?

Ah, righteous fury. How I enjoy getting riled up by it.

I’ve been helping to edit an article that my friend is writing that touches on these issues from a historical perspective. She writes about the goals of the librarian, and seen through her research, I’m lead to an uncomfortable place with my righteous ire. How is this different from the ancient idea of improving (or taming) the working class? They will read what we give them to read, we will mold and fashion these folks into something respectable. We accept the role of the librarian as an educator on some level; but how far should that teaching role go? We shouldn’t be aiming to “improve” the people, right? We turn our noses up at this sentiment. (Though, we accept that we are “improving” people by making them readers early on; we are “improving” the literacy of babies by providing picture books, aren’t we?) We’re supposed to give people want they want. We are resurrecting genre fiction, we will look down our noses at a librarian who avoids leading people to the Danielle Steeles or who hides the Sweet Valley High book truck from the tweens (we used to do this when I was a page at the public library). We shouldn’t judge people by what read. We shouldn’t presume to dictate “good” and “bad” fiction for them. And yet we still judge by filtering our collection with our respect for good scholarship and with our collection policies. Fiction is one thing. Non-fiction pushes us back out of postmodern sleepiness and into rock solid reality. Yes and no, truth and lies. There is still an element of “improving” involved, isn’t there? Is this a good thing?

And yet, and yet…there is a serious misinformation problem. People blame the internet, but I blame the people. It’s not just about misinformation; it’s about unchallenged misinformation. If we accept that each person has their unalienable right to be ignorant, does that prevent us from challenging the politician on his lies? We accept that a politician will lie; what about a preacher? If a preacher is rabble-rousing and fear-mongering, do we have a duty to provide information? If an activist is trying to draw some attention to an environmental issue in the area, and we have proof that his theories are grounded in local history and scientific research, do we have a role to play there as well? Are we leaving this sort of thing up to the content providers, because we claim not to be adjudicators of such matters? In that case, what sort of information providers are we, if we see an information need we know we can fill but opt not to fill it for political reasons?

Can information provision ever be non-political? Can it be objective? Can we ever avoid the spectre of “improving” our patrons?