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Bibliotecas para a Vida II

José António Calixto

Conceitos, técnicas e práticas da promoção da leitura em bibliotecas

Ignorance is not our heritage

Libraries and reading, a value judgement

Bob Usherwood


The public library has to be much more than a simple retail service and it should provide books, services and materials that commercial organizations will not. Moreover, it should seek to counteract the ignorance and prejudice engendered by a society that cultivates celebrity, cash and trash. This means that the politicians and professionals responsible for the service need to move on from the position of addressing agendas that have been suggested by others, to one where they argue for what is necessary and valuable. Some current professional debates about literacy, commercialised culture and the need for excellence are reviewed and it is suggested that as we enter a more serious age there are signs that Richard Hoggart’s arguments for “critical literacy” might be heeded and that librarians might use them as a compass to guide them in their activities. In promoting reading, the public library should seek to provide for all those who want to combat ignorance and intolerance and quench their thirst for knowledge

Note de l’auteur

In the questionnaire sent to library authorities, as part of the research for my book, respondents were asked if they wished to be identified or not. In the event there was a very mixed response to this request and in order to protect the identity of those who did not want to be named it has been decided not to identify individual respondents but to give a broad indication of the background and experience of the person quoted. Respondents have been divided into the following categories;
HoS [Head of Service or equivalent]
Dep. [Deputy Head of Service, Chief Assistant or equivalent]
SP [Senior professional] Each code is followed by a number indicating the respondent’s professional experience in years. These have been divided as follows.
10 + [10 – 20 years]
21 + [21 – 30 years]
31 + [31 – 40 years]
41 + [41 years or more] Thus a quote followed by [HoS 31 +] indicates that a current Head of Service with between 31 and 40 years professional experience made the statement.
Comments from respondents are included as supplied and not edited for grammar etc. except to aid clarity of meaning.

Texte intégral

1The view of the public library that is expressed in this paper is, as the title suggests a value judgement. That judgement is based on the research undertaken for a recent book and on a re reading of Richard Hoggart’s seminal text, The Uses of Literacy (1957). Almost by definition, a value judgement includes a large element of belief and the present judgement is rooted in a longstanding view that the public library has to be much more than a simple retail service. Moreover, it should seek to counteract the ignorance and prejudice engendered by a society that cultivates celebrity, cash and trash. In so doing, it needs to provide equality of access to excellent, socially beneficial, materials and services. Often these will be materials and services that are not provided elsewhere, or not immediately accessible to those without the ability to pay. Perhaps it is time to see libraries once again as places for education, self-improvement, learning and creativity. Places where people can be transformed as the result of access to good books, scholarship, and diverse cultural activities. Rather than embracing an easy populism the library needs to be a public space where excellence moves to centre stage and ‘the idea of learning infuses every issue and where individuals and organizations are encouraged to learn’ (Pachter & Landry 2001).

2Providing access to learning is one of the greatest contributions that the library can make. It is one that benefits individuals and society. Far from being bliss, ignorance excludes people from much that is important and valuable. Moreover, as a society, we are beginning to pay the price for the fashionable celebration of ignorance, and the modish dismissal of the value of education. This price can be high. For example, ‘Racism… is slumberingly integral to all ignorance… Not all racists are stupid, but all stupid people are at some level racists, cowed into resentment and mistrust by the enormity of their incomprehension’ (Jacobson 2007). Ignorance and intolerance go hand in hand and the library profession should set its face against both.

3It is in a library that people can make the connection between the value of education, in its widest sense, and the enhancement of their day--to-day lives. Just over a decade ago, Stainer (1997) found that:

All the evidence suggests a broad agreement that the purpose of library stock in the context of a public service is the enhancement of individual and public life by the use of recorded works. Stock is information; communication; equipment for citizenship; the unbiased representation of all recorded culture; a tool for self-education; a developer of critical thought and judgement; the source of recreation and pleasure through the record in any format of fiction, music, drama, comedy, sport and more.

4High quality materials such as literary novels, serious non-fiction, music, et al have always been the staple stock of excellent public library services. For an earlier generation of professionals they were seen as a self-evident good thing. Some of today’s librarians, at least in the UK, question if they should now be given this kind of emphasis. One argued that such material should only be kept if it ‘is used and meets local needs – not just because it is ‘worthy’ or ‘important’ or ‘best’ of its kind.’ (HoS 21 +). Another felt that, ‘to sink millions of pounds into minority interest areas is neither democratic nor value for money – rather it becomes a public subsidy of an activity patronized by people who could probably afford to pay for it. (SP 21 +). On the other hand, it was pointed out that:

Reference material and specialist material that may not be frequently used would not be available for the general public if not stocked in libraries. This material provides alternative sources of information and viewpoints, which would be lost if we stuck to popular material only. We need a range of literary styles to develop readers’ reading habits (SP 21 +).

5In the words of one commentator, the public library is ‘at a crossroads. The choice is one of resistance or conversion to a model of service that has its principles grounded in the private sphere. It is a choice of the public library maintaining its traditional uniqueness or, through its loss, inviting fragility into its future’. (Scrogham 2006) As part of the public sphere, public libraries should be able to operate without reference to the profit motive. As such, they have a duty to provide not just mainstream reading, but also books that are experimental and unfamiliar. In addition they:

precipitate the serendipitous pursuit of knowledge and the informal exploration of cultures and ideas past and present. To neglect this role would be a major failing. While public libraries do have an important role to play in literacy and social inclusion, they must not lose sight of their role as protectors, and perhaps promoters, of culture. By this is meant ‘high culture’ in which ‘quality literature’ is included’. (Phillips 2005)

6Some of you may find it rather anachronistic to emphasise this kind of activity at a time when so much prominence is given to the new, and not so new, technology. As a distinguished academic librarian argues:

networked information technology… has acquired an unprecedented prestige. For many, it supplies a fundamental cultural and ethical framework increasingly embraced by a wide variety of professionals who once looked to independent intellectual and critical models of our high culture. Intellectuals, and many writers as well, eagerly try to become businessmen, and many librarians seem bent on joining them. (Winter 2001)

7However, there are limits as to what the technology can achieve. It remains something of a paradox that, as Brown & Duguid (2000) observe, ‘despite all the rhetoric about the Internet “killing” the book and tailoring information, the first great flagship of Internet enterprise was a book retailer.’ By itself, information is not a substitute for knowledge and ideas. However, not everyone appears to be aware of this and, in the library profession as elsewhere, there is a danger that, ‘the devotees of information technology seem totally brainwashed, confusing a delivery system with culture’. (Drummond 2000).

8Moreover, in the same way that populist material is readily available elsewhere so in the future will be the products of information technology. That having been said, the public library will, for some time, play an important role in protecting and providing for those on the wrong side of the digital divide. It will continue to help citizens use the technology and navigate the information highways. However, it is likely that, in part at least, the importance of these functions will decrease. As time passes, the electronic equipment will come down in price and become even more commonplace in domestic settings. In addition, people will become more familiar with the use of ICT and require less technological guidance. As one respondent argued, ‘in the future most will have access in the home to IT, but they will still need the expert staff and collections. (HoS 31 +).

9Specifically there will be a need for public libraries to employ staff whom:

welcome the opportunity to discriminate between the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral, as librarians traditionally have done. They ought to regard themselves as not just experts in the arcane ways of the Dewey Decimal System, but as teachers, advisers and guardians of an intellectual inheritance.
The alternative is for them to morph into clerks who fill their shelves with whatever their “customers” want, much as stock boys at grocery stores do. Both libraries and the public, however, would be ill-served by such a Faustian bargain. (Miller 2007)

10Some authorities appear to have made that pact with the devil and, ‘the admission from a public library administrator that she is an entertainer but not an educator [is] a sign of a debased civilization’ (D’Angelo 2006).

11This attitude amongst some librarians is reflected elsewhere in society. The late Sir John Drummond, who was responsible at various times for the Edinburgh Festival, BBC Radio 3, and the Promenade Concerts, complained in his autobiography about the:

anti-intellectual laziness of so many of today’s leaders – not only in politics, but also in education and the arts – is for me a form of appeasement. Failing to differentiate between the good and the indifferent, while sheltering under a cloak of spurious democracy, is simply not good enough. It is a betrayal of all our civilization has stood for. (Drummond 2000)

12Although some contemporary practitioners express concerns about the next generation of library professionals, arguing that they, ‘don’t seem as interested in collection development or acquisitions, or find things without a computer’(quoted in Gordon 2006) many are rather more prosaic in their attitudes. In the recent past, the quality of library materials, particularly imaginative literature, was regarded as little more than an accessory to public library management rather than as an integral part of the process. Despite the fact that, ‘Managing the fiction service effectively is the most visible sign to a critical public of the success of a library’ (Kinnell 1991), it was with notable exceptions, not a major concern of writers contributing to the professional literature. In the late eighties, it seemed that books and other library material were hardly considered save perhaps as a way of boosting issues or cutting costs. At that time, Labdon (1991) observed that, ‘As a specialism, the art of selecting novels for adults is virtually dead in public libraries.’ Evidence of the priorities of that period can be found in the comment of a senior librarian interviewed as part of a joint Sheffield/Loughborough project on Total Quality Management. When asked if Quality Management had had an impact on candidates selected for employment the person replied, ‘we have moved away from requiring any knowledge of books for one thing.’

13Thankfully, in the last decade books and reading have returned to practitioner and academic agendas. This conference is a good example of this trend and it is clear from the literature, and the world of practice, that new skills will be required from staff working in future library organizations. In addition, research has also shown that established skills will be needed in new circumstances. There are implications here for those involved in professional education. In terms of the curriculum, the present author is attracted to the Scandinavian model in which; ‘Cultural consciousness, communicative ability and literary competence, [are] seen as the three main building stones of the cultural dimension in library education’. (Smidt 2005)

14If public libraries are to achieve their full potential the people who work in the service need to not only have the appropriate knowledge, skills, and personal qualities but also respect for professional values and the confidence to defend them. One respondent told the present author, ‘We have… lost confidence in our core business of books, and even in the word Library in some places’. (HoS 31 +) If, as some predict, libraries fade away in the next twenty years, it will be the final victory for what Finks (1989) identified as the “rival values” of ‘bureaucracy anti-intellectualism, and nihilism’. It will be partly the fault of the bureaucrats who cannot see beyond their spreadsheets, but above all, it will be a result of an anti-intellectualism that argues that all things are to be judged equal in the library world, and fails to distinguish between the good and the bad. Such are the consequences of a relativism which, in the words of Richard Hoggart, ‘leads to populism which then leads to levelling; and so to reductionism, to quality-reductionism of all kinds – from food to moral judgments.’ (Hoggart 1995)

15Richard Hoggart is regarded as one of the founding figures of British Cultural Studies but ever since the publication of his seminal text The Uses of Literacy in 1957 he has also been an important figure in the library world. In this book, Hoggart noted a “very great increase in the number of books issued from public libraries” (p332). He was encouraged by this but asked, “what proportions of the issues… are of worthless fiction or of that kind of non fiction which is really only a sort of fiction with the added pleasure of a ‘true life story’?” (p332) In 1957, he could argue that “most librarians would say… that much of the fiction is of a very poor kind” (p332) Today he would be unable to claim this as far fewer in the profession appear to be willing to make such judgements. (see Usherwood 2007) Indeed by 1992, he observed in the profession a ‘refusal to make judgements of value – which runs through open commercial society like dry rot through once sound timber.’ Interestingly, a few months earlier the Library Association President had quoted another Hoggart article and reached much the same conclusion. Librarians he said, ‘have always had to distinguish between the meritorious and the meretricious… but I am far from convinced that we are doing it very well at the present time.’(Featherstone 1991) Another librarian (Pateman1992) however accused Hoggart of ‘cultural elitism’ and it was left to Edward Dudley (1992) to advise public librarians to take his argument seriously.

16Those who read The Uses of Literacy closely will quickly realise that such criticism was and is wide of the mark. In a key passage, Hoggart writes: ‘The strongest objection to the more trivial popular entertainments is not that they prevent their readers from becoming highbrow, but that they make it harder for people without an intellectual bent to become wise in their own way.’(p338) He was concerned that the true popular culture, that devised by working people for and by themselves, would be swept away by the products of the mass media. Such products ‘belong to a vicarious, spectators’ world; they offer nothing which can really grip the brain or heart.’(p340) From a 2009 perspective that is an accurate description of much that is currently on offer from, broadcasters, publishers and others, who provide invitations to what Hoggart described as ‘a candy-floss world’.

17The Uses of Literacy remains relevant today. It reminds librarians of their responsibilities. It is pertinent to current professional debates about literacy, commercialized culture and the need for excellence. For example, relativism is a constant theme in Hoggart’s text. He writes of a society that has developed ‘the techniques of mutual indulgence and satisfied ‘ordinariness’. As traditional sanctions were removed or, in popular belief, proved irrelevant, so the popularisers with their great machines for persuasion occupied the open country left. They found their customers among all classes’ (p174). Among these are librarians whom he later reminded ‘cannot escape the need to make judgments of quality’. (Hoggart 1977)

18In a sense, the title The Uses of Literacy is misleading because the book says little about literacy per se. Hoggart’s major concern is what people do with it. As he writes, ‘[t] here might reasonably have been an improvement in the general standard of reading…. But… it becomes very doubtful whether we can claim that there has been any general improvement in the quality of reading. It seems, rather, as though people are held down at an appallingly low level…’(p233-4) Of course, similar arguments can now be applied to broadcasting, the press, and many would argue public libraries. Hoggart’s views were perhaps more directly expressed in his original title, The Abuse of Literacy. The book is an early example of his argument for “critical literacy”. A couple of generations later Barack Obama echoed these ideas when he told American librarians that, ‘(T) he kind of literacy necessary for the 21st century requires detailed understanding and complex comprehension.’(Obama 2005). Much later in his career, Hoggart, observed that such ‘arguments are not popular…; [because] they imply selection, a winnowing, that some books are poor and others better…’(Hoggart 1998).

19The lack of confidence in the intrinsic value of libraries is often demonstrated in the way that services are judged and evaluated. The success or otherwise of a public library should be assessed, ‘in terms of the quality of, and need for, the product rather than the volume of use’ (Raber 1997). In a target driven world there is a danger that library services will not be judged on the quality of material and services and the unique experience they can offer, but simplistically on how many people come through the doors. For instance, some British librarians interviewed by Hemsley (2003) mentioned the pressure placed on them by targets that hold them to account for the amount of stock issued. They suggested that this prevented them from following a more adventurous policy when promoting books.

20It is essential to go beyond the numbers and assess the value of the library experience once people are inside. In the UK, the profession has perhaps been too ready to judge libraries primarily in terms of their contribution to other people’s agendas. Public libraries can and do contribute to the government’s seven shared priorities for local government but they also provide much more. There is a need to consider what they actually do, in and for themselves. Just because the service performs important social and economic functions it does not mean that its wider cultural and educational activities should be ignored.

21Indeed, there are those who feel that these activities should be given greater attention. For instance, the Demos think tank in its publication, Capturing Cultural Value (Holden 2004) asks;

Having lost both a critical language, and also the Arnoldian, and indeed Fabian, idea that Culture improves people, how can we find a way of justifying state spending on the arts, museums, libraries and historic buildings? Can the idea of ‘intrinsic value’ be articulated in a new way that avoids the taint of either patrician judgement, or mystification, and yet allows us to take account of factors beyond the easily quantifiable?

22For this to happen, those responsible for the public library service have to have a clear sense of purpose, and must believe and ensure that they have the capability and capacity to be, and provide, the best. The best services are those that appeal simultaneously to many different interest groups without compromising the needs of any of them. The politicians and professionals involved will need to be committed to the integration of equity and excellence in the library service, and implement policies that balance the various needs. As Professor Stewart (1995) argues ‘One of the key roles of local authorities is to reconcile or to balance the aspirations, demands and the needs of communities…’

23That role involves deciding how and where resources are to be spent. In coming to these decisions, policy makers and library professionals must focus on the issue of excellence. Increasingly librarians are going to have to deal with conflicting, and sometimes contradictory demands. In an imperfect world of restricted resources, professional leaders taking account of community needs will be required to set priorities and make some difficult judgements. These may well include decisions to stop doing some things, before they arrive at a final portfolio of services.

24Such judgements will need to be based on an assessment of the impact of different aspects of the service on individuals and the community as a whole. The content of collections, and the services provided by the library, must take account of the cultures and needs of a diverse range of users. Library policies and procedures should encourage participation by all groups and individuals who will benefit from the service, and seek to remove any barriers that may prevent them from using it. Wide participation in library activities does not have to be at odds with the maintenance of excellence in services and collections. At its best the public library is a place of books and reading, of research, of librarians, of free thought, and of balance – balance between education and recreation, between print and electronic, between quiet and noise, and between parental concern and civil liberties.’ (Scrogham 2006). High quality public libraries can transform the lives of individuals and groups. They are one of a decreasing number of institutions that provide access to material that enables people to fully engage with their society, participate in democracy and enjoy new experiences. Accurate information and well-written works of imagination can help counter prejudice. Libraries are educational institutions that broaden minds and help people overcome the ignominy of ignorance. They provide an arena in which different cultures can be celebrated, debated and discussed.

25No public library can appeal to everybody all of the time but, it should go without saying that access to the service should be available for everybody irrespective of ability, age, gender, race, sexual orientation or any other diversity of human kind. The library must be open to anyone who is willing to use it. However, equality of access is different from equality of use. The audience for the public library will be drawn from all those who feel that they can benefit and gain enjoyment from the services offered. The service should seek to maximize the number of people who feel they can benefit. However, it is a waste of public funds, an insult to those with genuine needs, and a denial of the public good, to use scarce resources in order to provide trivial pursuits for those who, in the words of Howard Jacobson (2007a) subscribe to ‘a culture of wilfully embracing ignorance’. It is difficult to see how the public library can be enhanced by providing for people who do not appreciate the kind of services it offers.

26It will not come as a surprise to those public library professionals who are really in touch with their users that their clientele want, ‘Classics and literary fiction [to] be available as they once were’(Libraries for life for Londoners nd). Many in the general population recognize that some of our major achievements, be they as individuals or society, arise from a desire to be the best. Quality is appreciated and sought after in sporting performance, food, health care and many other human activities. In the same way, people are also conscious that excellence raises good literature above the mediocre. It is therefore reasonable to expect that the public library should provide everybody with the means to have access to such excellence. In the words of one Chief Librarian, ‘Library users are on the whole anxious to find new quality writing and will thank the service for bringing it to their attention.’ (Froud 1994). More recently, Shiraz Durrani has criticized those libraries that ‘keep buying Mills & Boon and stupid fiction’ (quoted in Goulding 2006).

27Although most library stock selection policies do include a reference to serious literature, it is not always evident that library practice reflects the philosophy suggested by such documents. In the majority of authorities examined for the Sheffield Checking the Books study (Toyne & Usherwood 2001), the number of book issues still seemed to be the major criterion for assessing the success of fiction selection. Of course, issue figures depend on what is made available in the first place and there is much evidence to suggest that some public librarians underestimate the needs and tastes of their readers. For example, one piece of research, undertaken in five local authority library services showed that while potential readers had a 50% chance of finding John Grisham’s Brethren in their library, they had less than 10% chance of finding Ian McEwen’s Atonement (quoted in Lister 2002). In one London borough readers have recently ‘deplored the lack of a decent supply of classics, mourning the loss of complete collections of Shakespeare, Dickens and Chaucer.’ (Gadelrab 2006) Similarly, a correspondent to The Times wrote of his disappointment at the lack of good novels in his local library. He said:

Taking a module in 20th Century American Literature, covering famous novels such as, As I Lay Dying, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Crying of Lot 49, and Slaughterhouse Five, I decided to save some money and search for the books at my local library. Not only were none of them in stock, most were not even on their computer database (New 2006).

28That having been said, there are some examples of professional initiatives designed to increase access to ‘the best’. A Scottish Library Association promotion called Now Read On set out to identify and promote ‘some of the best of recent fiction’ through leaflets and book displays in Scottish libraries. It recognized that, ‘as more and more titles join those already on the shelves the task of choosing a book becomes correspondingly difficult’ and aimed ‘to make selection a little easier by singling out some of the best of contemporary writing’. A Sheffield Masters student discovered that, ‘In some libraries circulating collections have been introduced with the intention of providing ‘wider access to literary fiction and minority interest books which would not be purchased for a large number of libraries individually’ (Hemsley 2003). In other places, libraries have sought to bring books to minority audiences. For example, the annual Essex Book Festival, which is managed by the County Library Service, seeks to involve those in prisons and sheltered housing. Excellence is not about elitism, neither is it restricted to what is sometimes characterized as literary fiction or high culture. It can be found in a popular novel and on the shelves of a small community library. However, it is important to be able to recognize the difference between excellence and the populist appeal of mass produced pap. This is a judgement that public librarians must be prepared to make.

29As we appear to be entering a more serious age there are signs that such arguments might be heeded. America now has a President who complains about ‘a general culture that glorifies anti-intellectualism’. As he told American librarians, ‘Children can’t achieve unless they raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white’. More recently, he argued, ‘if you live in a poor neighbourhood you will face challenges that someone in a wealthy suburb does not. But that’s not a reason… to give up on… education’. (Obama 2009) Neither, we might add should libraries. When promoting reading, as with all its services, the public library should seek to provide for all those, whatever their backgrounds, who want to combat ignorance and intolerance and quench their thirst for knowledge. As Lord Reith (quoted in Grayling 2002) once said, many horses taken to water might actually enjoy the drink.


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