Libraries & my Aunt’s Ex-Boyfriend

While I was in town, my aunt brought her new (now ex) boyfriend over for dinner to introduce us.

(A little context about the guy himself: he turned out to be an asshole in a lot of ways. He was like a rich white rocket scientist or something who spent his money jetsetting and his time shit talking his ex-wife for rescuing animals. He did a lot of business in Asia and saw that as a free pass to say a lot of racist shit. But I didn’t know any of that yet.)

He asked what I did, I mentioned I was in library school, and in what I can only assume was a pathetic attempt to be funny he said “Why? Libraries are basically dying out”.

It felt like I got the wind knocked out of me. I was used to people talking shit about the pointlessness of my undergrad degree (philosophy), but I’d always managed to get out of it without a fight by countering with “Yeah, well, I’m going to library school for my grad degree, so I just picked a major I liked.” And I guess people heard “library school” and thought “steady job” and the conversation was over.

(I honestly think philosophy is an incredibly valuable thing, and anyone who talks shit about it has either never taken a philosophy class or took one and it went over their heads. Or they are themselves a philosopher because we’ve earned the right to talk shit). 

But this was the first time I’d ever had someone question the validity of library school. My professors told us that part of the job of the librarian was to advocate for the value of the library and warned us about guys like him, but it was such a bizarre concept to me that I didn’t really get it. I just assumed they were talking about politicians who wanted to give more money to the police or right-wing fucks who didn’t want poor people to have a free place to exist. Like of course they knew the library was valuable, they were just intentionally devaluing it for their own sinister plans or some shit.

So even though I’d been warned, and even though in hindsight I was just naive and of course there are people like that out there, I didn’t fully believe it until that guy’s comment. And suddenly I found myself in the position of having to defend libraries, something I was woefully underprepared for in that moment. I stammered out something about libraries offering a lot of e-services or something. I definitely failed.

I’ve been thinking for a long time since then about how I should have responded. Nothing I’ve come up with has felt convincing. The problem is there isn’t a list of services or resources or events that would make the library feel valuable to people like him for two reasons:

  1. They buy everything they think they could ever need, and they think nothing free could ever be as valuable as something that’s bought
  2. They have no sense of empathy and will never understand how something they think isn’t useful to them could ever be worth preserving

If I were using this anecdote as the introduction to a speech or a paper or something, this is when I would give a big list of all the amazing things the public library does for its communities and as an institution. And I’d pretend little comments like his only add fuel to my righteous fire. And I’m sure I’ll get to that stuff at some point in this blog. But right now I just feel like I’m trying to get my breath back, even though this happened over a year ago. Because how can you even respond to that? 

Let’s be real, the library probably doesn’t offer him that much. The library provides physical and digital resources of all types for free (even zines, tools, seeds, games…), but whatever he wants to try out, he just buys on Amazon. The library hosts interesting events and serves as a venue for important speakers, but that guy can buy tickets to high-end events and gets mis/informed from Twitter posters. The library provides access to research papers, databases, and aid in searching, but he gets whatever scholarly information he needs straight from his company. The library provides a safe and welcoming environment for everyone, but he’s a rich, middle-aged, white, cishet man, so the whole country is safe for him.

The library does have potential benefits for him, and I don’t mean the practical services listed above. I think if he were simply there in the library, it would have an affect on his mindset. If this guy actually set foot in a library and looked around, not searching for something to make it “worth his while” but just looking and watching, things would start to shift in his unconscious. Simply being surrounded by, say, gay pride displays. Flyers for anti-racist speakers. Poor people reading at a table with their whole lives in their backpacks. Teachers leaving with their arms full of a hundred picture books for their students. The ebb and flow of patrons coming in with needs and questions and coming out with resources and answers. If someone is truly present and observant in that environment, how could you ever question its worth?

That’s the problem, though. How are you supposed to teach someone to be present and observant of other people? How are you supposed to explain to someone that just because they don’t think something is useful to them doesn’t mean that everyone else must feel the same? How are you supposed to teach someone that the world doesn’t revolve around them? 

That’s what they don’t teach you in library school. Capitalism has brainwashed him and I’m stuck with the deprogramming.

Image from English Book-Plates, Ancient and Modern (1893). https://archive.org/details/englishbookplate00castrich