Life in the Library

My husband is a huge fan of public libraries. He’s been going to various public libraries in the NYPL system since he was a child. We still have his worn, paper library card dating back to his childhood. When people ask him where he got his law degree, he tells them, “the public library.” Once married to him, I started tagging along on his weekly library expeditions. And since our 17th anniversary is right around the corner, I have 17 years of library observations under my belt.

Back in the day (is 17 years really that long ago?) people were in libraries for books. There were few computers in branches, and most of those were use for word processing and printing. Somewhere around 2000 people began using the libraries for internet access, and within a few years there were stacks of laptops at checkout desks available for hourly use. Around 5 years ago I noticed a tipping point where there was far more internet/ laptop use than book browsing. In branches in poorer areas the patrons are there exclusively for access to the laptops and internet. In wealthier branches it’s about 70/30 in favor of laptops to books.

And what do people do on these laptops? Yes, I snoop, and it’s always one of three things: youtube music or movie videos; video games (even for the adults), and less often, facebook or a similar social networking site.

Today, at our local branch, which is one block down from a blighted area and housing project, there was not a single patron with a book (unless you count my family). Every last person was on a laptop (one person was asleep in a chair, but was later on a laptop). There were many children there– most of them unattended, and in fact I saw some very young children (age 3 or 4) with only slightly older siblings watching them. They hunkered down with the laptops watching rap videos and playing mindless video games. Everyone there looked either poor or homeless. Of course, I don’t know for a fact they were poor or homeless– appearances can be deceiving– when I first met my sister’s future father-in-law I thought he was a vagrant, but he turned out to own an aeronautics company. But I don’t think there were any stealth moguls in this crowd.

So when people complain of a digital divide, I do wonder, what divide exactly are they talking about, if poor people are using the computers for video games and youtube? It’s not that poor people don’t deserve to waste their time on youtube and video games, but I would think people without access to these mindless time suckers might actually be ahead of the game, intellectually speaking. In fact I’ve noticed an amazing thing with my kids: when I turn off the TV and forbid video games, they start reading.

One of the semi-attended young children at the branch today started crying over something her sibling-slash-babysitter did to her, so I made a point of sitting next to her with my own daughter and read a book out loud, thinking it might distract both of them. The little girl listened and stared at the book, entranced. There were lift up flaps and I asked her if she wanted to lift them up. The first few times I asked she looked puzzled, and finally she tentatively reached out a hand to lift up the flap for the picture underneath. I wondered if she’d ever looked through a flap book before (my little kids always love them), or even had a book read out loud to her, since she clearly found the experience so strange.

It reminded me of a time when I was younger– I had an interest in photography and would wander through the poorer parts of the rural town where I grew up, photographing abandoned mills. Once I came upon a small herd of children playing unattended. They came over to me, fascinated, asked about my camera, and asked to go through my bag where I happened to have a book of fairy tales (why I was carrying it I don’t remember). Feeling in a friendly mood I offered to read it to them, and I sat down on the ground to read out loud. They were transfixed and hung on every word, and I realized, while reading to them, that this was a very new experience for them, and they may well have never been read to before.

The irony here is that most of my seven children had no interest in being read to. Whenever I sat them down for a good book, they squirmed, sat upside down, grabbed the book, complained hysterically about who was sitting on which cushion, it was always a nightmare. The exception might be my 2 year old, who, despite not speaking, loves paging slowly through books and having them read to her. She’ll even page through books without pictures with a look of keen interest in her eyes.


5 thoughts on “Life in the Library

  1. I work for a library in the Kansas City area and can concur with your general observations, except that I would note that trashy novels, particularly pornographic “urban fiction”, still circulate in fairly high numbers. Libraries are the quintessential public sector fiefdom, with librarians always less worried about the dignity or the usefulness of their purpose, facilities, and services than about their job security. Consequently, they embrace the idea of themselves as providers of social services – in some cases even distributing condoms and free food to undesirables – so as to seem to be more necessary to the public than they really are. The librarian is invariably less interested in functions that are genuinely useful or appropriate to the traditional role of the librarian than in providing services or materials that will draw smelly bodies into the building so as to provide reportable statistics that give the impression of public demand. In “America’s Too-Public Libraries”, an essay published in the August 1939 issue of American Mercury, Albert Jay Nock called for the abolition of totally free libraries, pointing out that, “If you make anything cheap and common, you can’t blame people for thinking it worth nothing,” and arguing that public libraries therefore breed disrespect for books. Nock assumes the earnestness of the librarian’s desire to be useful, and that may have been true in his day; but today the public librarian is, in her petty, negligible way, just as enthusiastic a party to America’s decline as the food stamp peddlers and the Obamacare navigators. Nock’s essay, if you care to read it, begins on page 479 of this pdf:

    • Those are fascinating observations. What has always puzzled me is why they public libraries don’t create separate facilities for internet & computer use, or even put them in a separate room from the books. Not to mention the NYPL allows porn. Wouldn’t that be considered a sexual harassment issue for the female (or even male) librarians? I’ve heard some harrowing tales regarding this.

      • Fortunately, I don’t work in a public area of my library, so I’m spared first-hand observations of patron behavior for the most part; but visitors shouldn’t be viewing pornography on the computers. On the occasions I pass the computer labs, people are just playing video games. Even if hardcore pornography isn’t (yet) available to patrons, however, they still have a dandy array of salacious movies and books at their disposal. It isn’t unusual for people to be caught trysting in the restrooms, and recently a man was caught masturbating at a movie viewing station; but, given the low character of the sorts of people whose patronage is consciously courted through circulation-statistics-uber-alles materials selection decisions, staff should hardly be surprised if here and there an ogre finds he can’t control himself. The numbers are ultimately all that matters.

      • If, as icareviews suggests, circulation statistics that generate the impression of public demand are all that matters, wouldn’t separate facilities for books and computers/internet just emphasize that few people come for the books? Aren’t you worried that public discussion of that finding would lead to pressure on the libraries to jettison the books to make more room for computer users?

  2. Reading to your children is one of the good things the powers that be try to teach us. Why does it seem that it’s only the bad pieces of propaganda that really sink in? Does anybody read to their children because the government/schools tell them to do so? I think that, in the vast majority of cases, people do so because that’s how they were raised, or they realize the benefits on their own.

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