The Librarian as Filter, Part 1

Orwell wrote somewhere that unless one has some professional relationship to books, one has no idea how many bad books are actually published. The Internet multiplies bad publications a billionfold, but it’s still true of books as far as I can tell.

Besides the 100K+ books we buy every year, our library gets myriad book donations, and these donated books are diverted to the appropriate selector to decide whether they should enter the collection or be sold to used book dealers. Since I’m the philosophy and religion selector, I get most of the books that look too weird for any other category. Philosophy and religion between them are broad enough to encompass almost everything, I suppose, though if that’s the case my budgets should be much larger. So if someone relates their alien abduction and how it changed their life or is born again and wants all of us in library land to find Jesus, the book somehow gets sent to me.

The books that puzzle me the most are the ones from people on a mission from God, as the Blues Brothers might say. These are the self published ruminations of people who have a “philosophy,” for example. I put “philosophy” in quotes because of the nature of some of these books. These people aren’t “doing philosophy,” as philosophy professors would say; these are people who have a life philosophy or a philosophical system in the the old fashioned sense. There was a time when people outside the academy were considered philosophers. All one needed was to be brilliant and write compelling books engaging the perennial questions of life. In some ways academic philosophy has diminished this meaning of “philosopher,” since now anyone with a PhD in philosophy and an appointment as a philosophy professor somewhere is entitled to be called a philosopher. However, none of the academic philosophers I’ve ever met have ever claimed to be a philosopher in the older mode.

Not being an academic philosopher, but being somewhat philosophical, I’m perfectly happy to consider some of those outside the academy worthy of the formerly prestigious name of “philosopher,” but the old criteria remain. One needs to be brilliant and write compellingly and intelligently about the perennial questions of life. It’s not enough to self-publish your platitudes and send them off to a librarian, which is what so many people do with their books. They would all be “honored” if their book could be added to the collection of such and such library.

I got back to work today after a week off to find several of these earnest books. One is by a retired something-or-other who wants to tell us all about “his philosophy.” It’s a big, thick book, and so probably has the sort of detailed philosophical system that would have made Hobbes or Kant proud. Perhaps he just wants to share Jesus with me, but it looks like a book with a system. However, the author’s biographical blurb contains such an egregious and unintentionally comical grammatical error, that the effect of book’s thickness was lost on me. If I’m laughing out loud at the earnest biographical blurb, it doesn’t bode well for the material inside. Another book is by someone of indeterminable background who is doing his part, as he tells us, to make philosophy more accessible by putting it up on the Internet. Strange that no one has thought of that before. Whereas the first “philosopher” is obviously a systematizer, this second puckish fellow is an aphoristic “philosopher” a la Nietzsche who tells us plainly in one of his aphorisms that everything we need to know about life we can learn from reading his website.

Skimming through some of these books is one of the highlights of my job. I try to imagine what motivates the authors so much that they pay to have books printed up of stuff no one is likely to read. In my experience of these, it’s not the fact that the writers aren’t professional philosophers that will doom the books to obscurity. Most professional philosophy books are justly doomed to obscurity. It’s that the people can’t write well and don’t have anything original or interesting to say. I think of Dr. Johnson’s remark that someone’s book was both good and original, though unfortunately that which was original wasn’t good and that which was good wasn’t original. These earnest philosophical tomes are neither good nor original. I certainly understand the motivation to write, and I would love to publish a couple of the books I’ve written that languish eternally on my hard drive, but paying for them and shipping them around the country is the puzzler. It’s so easy to get information out in the world these days. Just publish a blog!

(Speaking of publishing books, I just finished revising a delightful comic novel about a young professor searching for love and a lost manuscript during a Canadian country house weekend. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll become a part of you. If anyone wants to hook me up with a literary agent, let me know.)

The fact that they want their books in research libraries shows part of the motivation. They don’t just want their work scattered into the indiscriminate winds of the Internet. They want to enshrine their work in the chapel of reason, the library. They want to be taken seriously and studied carefully, because after all they’ve written books. These are actual books, published by actual vanity presses, printed on actual paper. They’ve even saved the library the expense of paying for the books, which I’d be happy to do for anything good.

Here is where the authors are bound to be disappointed, because I rarely add these titles to the collection. It might seem that anything sent my way for free should just be thrown into the pile. After all, I could always send it offsite. But collection building is never indiscriminate, even at a big library. Space is still finite, though that’s rarely the issue. The question becomes, what is worth studying and what is worth preserving. Research libraries often become the last line of defense for collecting the human record, but choices must be made, and my choice is not to add things like this. Not everything in the human record is worth preserving, especially when you consider finite space and resources. You may think this sounds elitist, and you would be correct. If you consider the question, you will also probably agree with me.

Does this mean that I’m suppressing someone’s life work? Or that I’m censoring them? I don’t think so. I, along with all of my colleagues here and all of our counterparts around the world, are selecting what might be studied in the future. It’s a big responsibility, and part of the responsibility is to act as a filter.

In his address on “The Mission of the Librarian,” the philosopher Ortega y Gasset argued that librarians should act as a filter between people and books. In 1940, Ortega already feared information overload. One can only imagine how he would view the Internet. I think Ortega had a fine point, and I’ve been considering how librarians play the role of filter today. Librarians are champions of access to information, but we all, for whatever reasons, set limits on the information that can be accessed at our libraries. Choosing what will not enter the library is just as important as choosing what will; choice is inevitable and each choice effects the future of research.

5 thoughts on “The Librarian as Filter, Part 1

  1. You said, “However, the author’s biographical blurb contains such an egregious and unintentionally comical grammatical error, that the effect of book’s thickness was lost on me. If I’m laughing out loud at the earnest biographical blurb, it doesn’t bode well for the material inside.” Will you reprint the error in context?
    You said, “The question becomes, what is worth studying and what is worth preserving. Research libraries often become the last line of defense for collecting the human record, but choices must be made, and my choice is not to add things like [books from vanity presses]. Not everything in the human record is worth preserving, especially when you consider finite space and resources. You may think this sounds elitist, and you would be correct. If you consider the question, you will also probably agree with me. Does this mean that I’m suppressing someone’s life work? Or that I’m censoring them? I don’t think so. I, along with all of my colleagues here and all of our counterparts around the world, are selecting what might be studied in the future. It’s a big responsibility, and part of the responsibility is to act as a filter.” The mayor of Oak Lawn, IL, said, “There is a difference between censorship and sponsorship. If someone wants [Playboy], that’s fine, they can buy it at a store.” It appears you would agree with that mayor’s statement. Do you?
    Thank you for the very interesting post.

  2. “Will you reprint the error in context?”
    No, I have no desire to humiliate the author of the book, who for all I know is a kind and well meaning person. I’m merely making a larger point about these kinds of books. The error was probably one of inattention. The author began a long list of his attributes with the verb “am,” then switched verbs in midsentence, then finished the sentence as if the verbs hadn’t changed. The effect was very amusing.
    “It appears you would agree with that mayor’s statement. Do you?”
    I take it the mayor of Oak Lawn is responding to a censorship or banned books controversy of some sort. The censorship/sponsorship distinction doesn’t seem to me to make much sense. I don’t think that a library not buying Playboy constitutes censorship, if that’s what you’re getting at, though I also don’t see how a library buying Playboy constitutes sponsorship of its content in any usual sense of the word.
    However, I’m referring only to research libraries, which have a mission to collect and preserve the human and scholarly record and which do have some effect on what gets studied in the future. Except for a handful of large urban libraries, public libraries have a different mission. In either case librarians have the responsibility of choosing appropriate material for their users, whether the users are current community members or scholars of the present and future, and this responsibility entails making sometimes difficult choices that may have lasting consequences.

  3. I think you really made the point in your response to Mr. Kleinman when you write:
    “In either case librarians have the responsibility of choosing appropriate material for their users, whether the users are current community members or scholars of the present and future, and this responsibility entails making sometimes difficult choices that may have lasting consequences.”
    I think it is a point that people often forget: that librarians have that responsibility to be the filters, as Ortega y Gasset said as well. That is one of the reasons we get paid: to make those decisions as trained professionals that we are. As for Playboy, you are right, a library that selects to add it is not sponsoring it(or I guess we would say “it does not entail sponsorship?). If a reasoned decision was made to add it, and it is consistent with the collection policies and goals, what’s the problem? Sounds like the filter is working fine. If it is not selected, as long as it is done, again, consistent with the collection policies and goals, what’s the problem?
    Best, and keep on blogging.

  4. Thanks, Angel. I wonder if the larger issue is one of pornography in public libraries, and my awareness of that issue is more or less confined to what I read in the Annoyed Librarian. I don’t make it to my local public library very often, but I haven’t heard of any issues locally. My city’s main library probably has a bigger problem with drugs and violence than with Playboy.
    If pressed, I suppose I would argue that not buying something is a matter of selection rather than censorship, but one of the joys of academic librarianship is not being faced with the selection controversies that plague some public libraries.
    I wouldn’t want my young daughter hanging out in the public library reading Playboy or stumbling across Internet porn, but as long as the children’s section is kept free of pornography and creepy adults I don’t know that I have much of an opinion on the issue, though I suppose I wouldn’t want even the adult portion of the library to start looking like an “adult” bookstore.
    This is such a local issue, as collection development usually is. The public library I visit the most (the Ewing Public Library in Ewing, NJ) seems like a decent enough place to me with what seem to be appropriate collection choices for the community, though I’ve rarely ventured outside the children’s section.

  5. It appears we are all essentially in agreement.
    In the Oak Lawn Public Library, citizens, including individuals, 94-97% of surveyed citizens, and even the Village government itself, wanted to stop making Playboy available to children. Yes, children of all ages have access — just ask the librarian for a page range and it will be photocopied for you. But the leader of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the ALA President-Elect, and the library’s head who was an ALA Councilor worked together to thwart the community. They called it “censorship.” The ALA got what it wanted, and the community has lost control of its library.
    Those are essentially facts. (I can provide links for proof but for now just go with my word.) Given those facts, what further comments can you add?
    Here is another community that lost control of its library to the ALA or its followers, and does this change or strengthen your answer any? Adamson v. Minneapolis Public Library at http://www.safelibraries.org/adamson
    Thanks again.
    Warning, just as I did not want you to embarrass that author, I also don’t want you to jeopardize your own positions. So I’ll expect you to be very guarded in discussing this topic. The ALA does not take kindly to librarians not carrying the party line. I’ve known several to say one thing to me in front of their bosses then whisper something else to me completely different. Sad and telling, no?

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