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Bibliophilia; Or, Your Tax Dollars At Work

The best things in life are free, and columnist Kevin Jones explains how public libraries are becoming the new taxpayer funded peep shows.

Money quote:

While acknowledging that library rules forbid overt sexual conduct from patrons, the administrator insisted sexual arousal does not violate regulations: "We offer lots of materials that patrons might use to arouse themselves; they range from romance novels to photographic works," she writes. Even in context, this reads more like a recommendation than anything else.
It all makes sense if you think about it. We aren't permitted to make moral judgements about the substance of things in the advanced liberal order, especially not when it comes to public services like libraries. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." So as far as the government in the advanced liberal order is concerned content is arbitrary, and public libraries have to cater to the needs of all content consumers equally. Anything else would be unfair, biasing one concept of "the mystery of human life" over another in the use of public funds, and we can't have that.

If that means you have to watch where you step and send your teenage daughter to the library with a bodyguard, well, that's just the price of progress.

Comments (15)

I know our local library's internet has some sort of pretty sensitive blocking software. The only thing I'm not sure of is whether it's on the upstairs, adult floor, too or only on the "youth" floor.

I once loved our local library; the computers are all placed out in the open, so one would think this would keep the downloading of offensive material at a minimum. Alas-- though the filtering software must block hardcore pornography, I can't count the number of times I have walked by middle-aged (and older) men staring at pictures of scantily clad *young* women (on "dating" sites, myspace, etc.) It really does seem to have affected the atmosphere, too. These same middle-aged men "flirt" with the library workers (a strange thing to see...) and have tried to engage me in conversation multiple times--one even asked me "How many people have told you that you look like Jenny McCarthy?" Umm... none, because I don't frequent the sort of bars where people say such things. But that's fine... because now I can experience that sort of behavior at the library! It's weird and unfortunate.

This all makes me very glad that we don't let our kids wander around the library alone.

But if somebody said that to me, I'd say, "Jenny who?" :-) Never heard of her.

There’s another aspect here besides just fairness or non-judgmentalism. It’s my experience that librarians, for whatever their virtues and the virtues of their profession, want to be wanted. They feel that libraries are capital-I Important. And so they are, or ought to be. But, facing a great apathy toward their precious institution (a symptom of other cultural ills), librarians have become utilitarians: Their mantra is “Whatever gets them in the door.” I think it used to be “Whatever gets them to crack a book,” but books are now the least promoted assets of a library. Come! Use our computers! Come! We’ve got the latest Hollywood film! Come! We have Coldplay CDs! I think the poor people have become so desperate to maintain their Importance that they have reneged on their responsibility to elevate their patrons; they are not unlike those despicable parents who want to stay cool and “relevant” and end up hosting sex parties for their children’s friends. You can hear that administrator saying, “If we’ve gotten a boy to open one of those ‘photographic works,’ well, at least he’s here at the public library!”

Having just gotten done reading A Canticle For Leibowitz, about monasteries guarding scientific knowledge through a post-nuclear stone age, I can't help thinking that it's frightfully nearing the time when libraries need to return to being preservers of culture in a world hostile to culture, instead of disseminators to a world hungry for entertainment.

That is so funny-- it's exactly what I said. Unfortunately, that led the man to explain that she was an actress who had posed for Playboy (which was apparently how he knew of her).I was not pleased.

Hi Everyone,

I'll just step in here and play devil's advocate for a minute. If we are talking about photographic works (perhaps less so romance novels), is that at all times going to be something that so lacks any intellectual or artistic value that it should not be in a center of learning? I'm not so sure about that. Erotic does not necessarily equate to something that should be banned. Viewed in a certain context, a lot of the ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were fairly erotic.

I'll say as a caveat that computers should have some fairly strong filters on them, because internet images by their very nature are going to be less easy to control than paper images. There's no reason for a library to have a bunch of dirty old men in there serfing for 20 year olds.

"Not having in a library" isn't the same thing as "banning." Taste and judgement should be exercised in choosing works to include in a library. I certainly wouldn't grant that a work's possessing intellectual and artistic value is enough all by itself to overcome its being highly inappropriate in other ways and to make a sufficient argument for having the work in a library.

"Taste and judgement should be exercised in choosing works to include in a library."

The problem, as always in these questions, is "whose taste and whose judgement"? Not so long ago, prevailing standards banned James Joyce's Ulysses completely--not just from the shelves of public libraries. As much as I do not want sexually aroused dirty old men being a conspicuous presence in the libraries I visit, neither do I want to see the establishment of a slippery slope that would eventually pull classics of 20th century literature from the shelves due to sexual or other content.

The taste and judgment of the community, that's whose.

Somehow I am not moved by the idea of some library here or there removing Ulysses or the Marquis de Sade from its stacks. Enterprising readers will not have difficulty finding these works elsewhere.

And why does the slippery slope only operate one way? Seems to me that the slippery slope of Free Speech absolutism has given us, in exchange for the sweet liberty of erotic art, dirty old men on the computer looking at porn, right next to schoolgirls researching the Bill of Rights.

Yes, that particular slippery slope that ends in making Ulysses unavailable at the library holds no terrors for me. Now, if they start making the Bible unavailable, that would bother me.

Rodak, Happy Thanksgiving.

"Seems to me that the slippery slope of Free Speech absolutism has given us, in exchange for the sweet liberty of erotic art, dirty old men on the computer looking at porn, right next to schoolgirls researching the Bill of Rights."

I, personally, would have no problem with removing computers from public libraries completely, if filters and privacy screens are insufficient to solve the problem.
In academic libraries, however, computers are necessary. Presumably a college freshman has reached an age where he can make his own choices in these matters.
The Nanny State also operates both ways. As I stated above, and as I'm sure you already know, Ulysses was not only banned from libraries. And it wasn't the case that readers could easily obtain it elsewhere.
The thing about community standards is that they are highly fungible across time, whereas the content of a book like Ulysses is not. Another thing about community standards is that they are local, whereas people in today's world are highly mobile. So community standards are fungible across space, as well as across time.
All I'm saying is that there are no easy answers to these questions in the gray areas that take up 99.9% of the range between sexually aroused individuals on public computers and book burnings in the public square.

whose taste and whose judgement

The true kind.

That it is difficult and contentious to do this is surely itself true, but irrelevant, since the alternative is to make the putatively true but self-contradictory assertion that there are no true assertions when it comes to taste and judgement in content.

That may make irrationalists dance around like a water droplet on a griddle, but watching them dance and then evaporate is all part of the fun.

That's all well and good in theory. But, on the other hand, libraries are managed by librarians. And librarians are not philosophers, theologians, or doctors of divinity. What they are is pretty normal people who thought a degree in library science would provide them with a comfortable living, based on generally pleasant problem-solving sets, in a pleasant milieu.
They just aren't equipped, whether by training, by inclination (necessarily), or by power (in reality) to be or do what you would like to see done. Enough community pressure brought to bear might empower the chief librarian of a public library (were he so inclined) to make those kinds of changes, perhaps. But in the University context, it would be considerably more difficult, I'm quite confident.

So why the hell are public libraries carrying romance novels anyway? I didn't think the point of having public libraries was to provide a low-cost alternative to Waldenbooks. I thought the point was to contribute to the enlightenment, education, and cultural enrichment of the public.

"So why the hell are public libraries carrying romance novels anyway?"

Apparently Thought Policemen like romance novels?

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