[lbo-talk] A public square

Chuck chuck at mutualaid.org
Mon May 21 08:43:40 PDT 2007

joanna wrote:

> Get started. That's a very interesting topic. I would have guessed there
> would be a conflict of interest...."publishers sell less because I can
> get their books at the library...."
> Could you say more?

This problem is pretty much off the radar for librarians. It mostly has to do with library budgets being spent on buying multiple copies of popular bestsellers.

There has been this debate going on in public library circles for the past 20 years about what kind of materials libraries should collect for the public. The traditional paradigm supposedly has it that libraries should provide classics and quality books to the public. This is seen as an elitism by the currently dominant new paradigm called "give them what they want." This newer paradigm emphasizes providing popular materials that the public supposedly prefers.

Personally, I think both sides are right. The problem is that the balance has shifted towards populism which has been compounded by libraries shedding services and adopting a business paradigm. Instead of libraries being repositories of public knowledge and functioning as a public square, they've become centers for the propagation of mainstream, middle class, corporate values.

For example, go to the nearest large banch or main library of a suburban

public library system. You will often find a "business center" inside the library. You will not find a "labor center", although librarians may stupidly argue that their "jobs center" is in effect a "labor center."

The paradigm of "give them what they want" has led public libraries to spend more and more money on their bestseller collections. There are some good reasons for having a bestseller collection, mostly because a public library should adhere to a populist collection policy. After all, a public library is the public intellectual square.

Public libraries subsidize corporate publishers when they start offering multiple copies of the same title. You may see 2-3 copies of a bestseller in larg public library, but keep in mind that the library system is buying dozens of copies of that title for the entire system. This gets absurd with the Harry Potter titles. The public library is spending scarce money on multiple copies of Harry Potter books instread of similar titles, especially titles from small and alternative presses. The library is responding to the popularity of these titles by buying more copies and makig them available, thus reinforcing the popularity loop.

If people really have to read the latest Harry Potter right away, they should go out and buy the book themselves.

Meanwhile, alternative and small presses face an uphill battle getting their titles into libraries.


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