Wegierski: The Library and Modern Society

Author’s Foreword (2023): The author has decided to present here (with only very light retouching) an essay from over thirty-five years ago. The extent to which the essay still contains important insights may be quite striking. One need hardly add that the main notion voiced in the essay — of viewing the library as a “traditional institution” — has become ever more attenuated over the decades. This central idea of the essay, which arose out of the author’s own relatively happy experiences with “the-library-as-refuge” in his childhood and early adolescence – has now largely been abandoned by the public libraries themselves – across most of Canada and the U.S.

One recalls the “truth-telling” writings of a librarian working in a public library in the U.S. that one of the biggest problems for the library were scruffy clients viewing pornography on the public library computers.

To raise a more intellectual matter — one would especially wish to criticize the ruthless “weeding” of books which aren’t borrowed “enough” from the public library system. Recently, there was a mini-scandal in a local public library branch, when Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago ended up in the discard bin! On the other hand, some years earlier, that public library system saw fit to purchase Madonna Ciccone’s prurient photo-book, Sex, for which (according to media reports) a long waiting list of people wanting to borrow the book quickly formed.

Given these kinds of acquisition and “weeding” policies one can conjecture that in a few decades, if not years, public library collections will be culturally, historically, and intellectually almost worthless. So, one will be left with the academic libraries. While, at least in theory, academic libraries do acquire and keep a broad variety of serious works, they obviously do not have a mandate to be accessible to the general population.

In the future, one can conjecture that an academic “mandarinate” will increasingly promulgate a “received” version of history and politics – bringing any putative academic dissenters to heel — while the general populace will not have easy access to any serious works of history and politics which can challenge that “received” outlook.

There may be some reasons to be at least a little suspicious of the cultural Left’s inordinate praise and rhetorical support for public libraries. There is certainly something to be said for the truly liberating feeling of purchasing one’s own books without having to rely on what are today’s public library commissars. To paraphrase Mark Twain’s saying about schooling and education – I have (in my adult life) never let the public library interfere with my purchase of worthwhile books!

The Library and Modern Society in the 1980s – and Beyond: Responses to Mass Media, Mass Society, and Technology: A Warning

Mark Wegierski

(Original drafts of this essay go back to November 1985.)

The purpose of this essay is to sketch out certain key issues which the library and librarians will be facing in the immediate future, to describe possible approaches to those issues, and to tentatively suggest the directions in which the institution of the library should proceed in regard to these matters.

The main aim of this paper is to carry out a forthright description of the society or environment in which libraries operate today, focussing on those aspects which bear upon libraries and their future. More specific issues such as censorship and intellectual freedom (in the context of the library) will be examined in order to yield further insights into the nature of the library and of modern society. But it is the impact of technology and of a hyper-technological society on the library (in a higher, not specific sense), that will be the focus of the analysis.

It may be noticed that in the above statement, “the library” is used as a rather symbolic term, which may elicit a wide variety of feelings and ideas in the mind of the reader. This term offers a convenient shorthand to describe a totality composed of individual libraries, schools of library science, professional librarians, library associations, technical and auxiliary services, and library philosophy and theory. It could be argued that library philosophy and/or theory is the vital element which gives direction to “the library” as a whole, and which will determine whatever responses this institution will take towards various phenomena of modern society. It should also be noted that the attitudes and responses of modern society as a whole to the library, both on the level of power-elites and structures, as well as on the level of a more nebulous “public opinion”, will have a critical effect on the future of the library and on the formulation of philosophy and theory within the library.

Reading the above passage, a reader might think that the author has neglected an important part of the library scene today, that is, information science, information-networks, the impact of the computer, etc. This is in fact a question of the library’s relationship to technology, which is one of the main foci of the paper.

A more cynical person might also argue that library philosophy and/or theory is irrelevant to the practical existence and operation of libraries. In fact, the use of the term “the library” might be criticized for making a broad assumption about current-day realities that cannot be substantiated. But if the first criticism is accepted, it means that librarians will move into the twenty-first century with no idea of what to expect and what to do. It means that librarians will have no cogent way of defending their interests in modern society. If, in the second case, a person denies the concept of the Library as greater than the sum of all its parts, it seems that the various functions associated with the work of librarians are discrete entities with a purely accidental relationship. This may mean that when another grouping offers a type of service similar to those of a library, it will have an almost automatic right of superseding that library service.

It could be argued that without some underlying idea or concept of the Library (which library philosophy should elucidate), the work of individuals and individual libraries becomes virtually meaningless. The multiplicity of library and library-associated activities is an empirical fact, the question being, what do these various activities have in common? The wide disparity of these library activities itself suggests that the real unifying principle can be the Final End they aim for, variously called the Mission or Goal or Purpose in the literature. [1]

In fact, the use of the term “the Library”, which suggests an institutional totality, is the metaphorical kernel upon which the whole essay is based. One might notice that term is similar to other terms which express other modes of totality, for example, the Church, the State, the Academy, the First Estate, and so forth. The implicit suggestion is that the Library is an institution of society, perhaps even a so-called “traditional institution”, with all that implies for it in a modern, hyper-technological society, which tends to attenuate all such totalities.

The impact of technological society on the library, for good or ill, is so dramatic, that this can be seen as the primary issue facing all persons in this institution today. It could be argued that the refusal to properly see the implications of technology will lead to disaster for the Library, and probably for those societies as well. The ideas advanced below are based not only on library philosophy and theory, but also on a broader reading of philosophy and of studies of modern culture.

It is the author’s contention that there exist a series of deep-level tensions between various aspects of the library institution and the modern society in which it operates. One need not accept the notion of a Hegelian dialectic to know that contradictions may eventually be “resolved” – and not always in a painless way. One possible “resolution” would be the elimination of the traditional form of the library, and its possible replacement by some high-tech “information-bank” arrangement. Might it be possible that the end of the physical book or of the physical library would mean the end of the library as an institution?

In fact, a hyper-technological society might not perceive the need for attempting to preserve the so-called “dead weight of the past” – especially when it is perceived that this needlessly consumes vast amounts of economic resources, or continues to give intellectual aid and comfort to various premodern notions that are currently perceived as retrograde or odious. Libraries and their old books might indeed be perceived by some as an obstacle to a gleaming shiny future of perfect liberation. Thus, a core function, the archival function, of the library might possibly disappear.

In terms of the so-called “information revolution”, one could do well to ask: who “makes” or controls “information”; if information is equivalent to knowledge or wisdom; and whether the paralysis of information overload will in fact contribute to the decline of the advanced societies. One could indeed question whether the “information” focus of libraries is entirely helpful. The Library might find that it is, in fact, a finely carved Baroque galleon, riding the crest of the so-called “Third Wave”, with all sails flying, towards a rather nasty shipwreck.

When one compares the ideas expressed in the writings of the prominent philosopher of the library, Jesse H. Shera, with the current-day reality of some libraries and, indeed, of much of modern society, one is struck by a tremendous contrast. In the magnificent piece, “The Quiet Stir of Thought”, Shera provides a justification for the library which reaches the heights of metaphysics, mysticism, poetry, and metaphor. [2] Whatever the nominal political attachments of Jesse Shera  were, the spirit of this piece is strikingly “preservationist” almost in the manner of T. S. Eliot. The importance of tradition, of intellectual rigor, and of the pursuit of truth within the Library, constitutes the core of a possible argument for the Library. There is an almost aristocratic disdain for technology, the mechanical, the scientistic. Who can match the eloquence of Shera’s stand:

In this volume the hero, Aquila, bears within himself the conflict of darkness and light that so intrigues Miss Sutcliff… When he fires the beacon of Rutupiae for the last time, “as a defiance against the dark”, he is carrying the Roman virtus into the next age…”To keep something burning, to carry the light as best we can into the darkness and the wind”: that, good friends, is the apotheosis of librarianship; that is what librarianship is all about. [3]

One would do well to ask what constitutes “the darkness” in the modern-day world, where reason and science have apparently triumphed, yet modern societies are faced with problems of the soul and psyche seemingly far deeper than those which faced premodern societies.

In his essay, “What is Librarianship?” Shera makes clear his view that the library is under attack. Using the example of the fragmentation of philosophical thought in the modern world, he openly wonders if a similar future is not awaiting librarianship.

Now that the profession is confronted by a period of rapid change, both with respect to the demands made upon it and the invention of new mechanisms to meet these demands, librarians must come to terms with almost totally new vocational environment, or surrender to others the social responsibilities that they have cherished for generations. The once proud empire of philosophy lost by attrition its greatest domains. Scientists annexed the philosophy of science, historians the philosophy of history, mathematicians took over logic, aesthetics the philosophy of art, and psychology seceded. In a somewhat less spectacular, but no less real manner, librarianship is threatened… [4]

It may be noticed that a direct link is established here between technological change and the possibility of the “dismantling” of the field of librarianship, though not explicitly of physical libraries. The common threat to both the Library and the societies in which it operates may perhaps be subsumed under the category of “technology”.

The essays of Pierce Butler, Louis Shore, Guy A. Marco, and of earlier theorists, often invoke ideas similar to those of Jesse Shera. [5] The coda of the collection, “The Premise of Meaning”, by Archibald MacLeish, soars as high as the best of Shera:

No, it is not the library, I think, that has become ridiculous by standing there against the dark with its books in order on its shelves. On the contrary, the library, almost alone of the great monuments of civilization, stands taller than it ever did before. The city – our American city at least – decays. The nation loses its grandeur, becomes what we call a “power”, a Pentagon, a store of missiles. The university is no longer always certain what it is. But the library remains: a silent and enduring affirmation that the great Reports still speak, and not alone but somehow all together – that whatever else is chance and accident, the human mind, that mystery, still seems to mean. [6]

It could be argued that it is precisely by understanding where “the loss of meaning” originates that anything could be done to turn back the malaise and anomie of modern societies.

The essay of Jose Ortega y Gasset, “The Mission of a Librarian”, though first presented in 1935, already foresees the problems of the “information-explosion” in near-apocalyptic terms:

If each new generation continues to accumulate printed paper in the same proportion as the last few generations, the problem posed by the excess of books will become truly terrifying. The culture which has liberated man from the primitive forest now thrusts him anew into the midst of a forest of books no less inexhaustible and stifling. [7]

A particularly evocative image, doubtless drawn for the theories of Hegel and Spengler, is that of civilization turning in on itself. (An echo of the Master-Slave dialectic, which is itself based on the creator-creation or subject-object distinction.)

Economy, technology, all the facilities that man has invented, today besiege him and threaten to strangle him. The sciences which have grown so fabulously, multiplying and specializing themselves, surpass the capacities of acquisition which man possesses. They torture and oppress him like plagues of nature. Man is in danger of becoming the slave of his sciences. [8]

In this new situation of late modernity, the role of the librarian, according to Ortega y Gasset is to “give his attention to the book as a living function. He must become a policeman, master of the raging book.”

The prescience of Ortega y Gasset, thirty or more years before the “computer revolution”, is striking. The fact that he was speaking in a pre-television, pre-computer age does not seem to lessen the strength of his points. An argument might be made that the computer will help us to eventually overcome the “information explosion”. But this seems unlikely. As information grows logarithmically in the current age, the systems – and indeed the necessary intellectual faculties – for organizing information lag far behind. Thus, “information overload” would seem to be a permanent condition or syndrome of hyper-technological society.

In terms of the hymns to the “new information society” and the plethora of “user-services” and “information materials” which some librarians are dreaming about, Ortega y Gasset sounds a clear note of warning.

Man cannot be too rich; if an excess of facilities and possibilities are offered for his choice, he comes to grief among them; and confounded with possibilities, he loses the sense of the necessary. [9]

This might indeed serve a suitable epitaph for late modern Western civilization.

It could be suggested that most librarians have never really considered what the new hyper-technological society might mean for them and their profession. In “The Quiet Stir of Thought”, Shera quotes a colleague as saying:

This may sound old-fashioned, but an attractive room and wide-ranging collection of books, freely accessible, seems to me what a library is. [10]

Shera goes on to say:

In all of these statements, one finds implicit a picture of the library that is classical, conventional, conservative, and in many quarters today, thoroughly discredited. Yet the library, in a world that is growing increasingly raucous and cacophonous, is almost the last outpost of silence and the quiet stir of thought, even as it is, together with the university, the one surviving hope of intellectual freedom. [11]

Jesse Shera’s noble pronouncements and the ideas behind them seem to belong to an age which passed long ago, especially when one considers the “quiet stir” of Sixties’ campus protests – and the almost permanent revolution of incivility which has enfolded since then.

Indeed, looking at the passages quoted above, one might well wonder if the library is not, in its essence, a “traditional institution”, which will not survive too well its collision with the “new society”. It would be truly ironic if the library became “well-organized” and conscious of its function as a result of the technological advances of the 19th century, only to be superseded or abolished by the further technological developments of the late 20th century.

Three major phases can be seen in the history of the Library. In the first phase, “the book” was extremely rare and precious, something of extraordinary value to civilized societies. In the second phase, the invention of movable type and subsequent technological innovation made “the book” more accessible, yet still of great value. In the third phase, “the book” became totally accessible to anyone in the advanced societies, yet largely without high value. (Value is, of course, not only an economic category. It is the extent of meaning which a society places on its artifacts and those of earlier societies.) The above could be seen as a summary of Ortega y Gasset’s position. Now, it is argued, we may be facing the fourth phase, where “the book” will be perceived as worse than useless, as some kind of obstacle to progressive liberation. [12]

Jesse Shera and others like him could be seen as fighting a rearguard action against so-called “technological progress” in the Library. One may indeed question the idea of untrammeled “progress” (that is, change for change’s sake) as the supreme and unquestionable good. Why should change be almost always seen as something both good and necessary?

Apart from the mode of resistance, the library has articulated three other major responses towards the emergence of the “hypermodern” society.

The first of these is technologization. This is marked by a desire for all the latest gadgets and high-tech devices. Of course, some technological aids are extremely useful, especially in the area of locating material, keeping records, finding information quickly, etc. But this can quickly reach ludicrous excesses. If a library aspires to be a computer center, what differentiates a librarian from a computer or information scientist? No matter how “high-tech” you try to make a library look, all those antique books get in the way of a truly modern style.

The second of these responses is politicization. Some librarians feel that if they turn the library into a social advocacy unit promoting all the fashionable and “politically correct” causes, they will increase their “relevance” to modern society. Yet it is surely not the goal of the library to promote a highly partisan political position in the mode of social advocacy. It could be argued that the goal of the library should be to remain strictly neutral politically, unless it perceives that it is threatened as an institution by the society in which it exists. If someone asserts that, after all,

“everything is political” it must be said that perhaps the library would do well to re-examine its frequent identification with left-of-center and Left positions. It might not be as clear a choice for the library as it is usually made out to be. (If we assume that such a choice is unavoidable.) [13]

The third form of response is popularization. Here, the great goal is to get as much of the population as possible to use the library, without consideration of how the character of the library may be changed by such attempts. The fact that, roughly speaking, only 20 percent of the population uses the library causes great pain to some librarians. Yet it is clear that some people will not use the library no matter what you do. Those persons who are motivated enough to come to the library of their own free will, with no dubious inducements, are those whom the library should be interested in. To use an extreme example – if a library offered free alcoholic drinks, rock-videos, and table-dancers it would doubtless be very popular – but it would not be a library any more. If the library fulfills a specific social function, the number of people who will have this specific need will be relatively small. On any given day, few people from the total population visit their doctors or lawyers. One might well ask how many people go to museums, art-galleries, or classical music concerts, which although they charge an admission fee, are hardly “paying their way”. Indeed, some institutions are funded by the state because they are considered culturally edifying, not because they are wildly popular and successfully profit-making.

Of course, the concern over “unpopularity” arises from the fear that an institution which does not actually serve all the people is somehow illegitimate, as opposed to one which offers to serve anyone. If some librarians were not so enamoured of Left positions, the issue would probably hardly arise. To borrow a literary analogy: that which is popular is seldom aesthetically good; and that which is aesthetically good is seldom popular. For example, if a referendum were held and 60 percent of the people voted for the freezing of all library budgets for a period of twenty years, would the so-called “verdict of the people” be accepted by anyone if the Library community? But the real question remains: what effect does technologization have on society? [14]

It could be argued that technologization, politicization, or popularization, if taken to their extremes, would mean the end of the real mission of the library. Judicious use of technology and/or means of popularization should not be ruled out, however. Nevertheless, the rejection of the ultimate trajectory of these three trends would move a person towards the traditional vision of Jesse Shera.

There are other factors to be considered as well – the quest for professional status and the elucidation of a truly unified theory or philosophy of librarianship. If librarians were to gain full professional status on a level analogous to law or medicine (or at least teaching), their future (and by extension, the future of the library) would seem assured. However, concepts along the lines that “anyone can do the work of a librarian” prevail, the battle is clearly lost. However, the achievement of professional status should not be purchased at the price of a total absorption into the so-called “social services” of the modern state.

It has also been suggested that strictly scientific theory of library science, which would establish it as a so-called real science, would be the major step towards disciplinary and professional status. The prospects for the elucidation of such a theory are rather dim, however, not only because of a certain lack of interest in such approaches, but also because the library might be too humanistic in its nature to admit of such scientific rigor. However, it cannot be denied that the placing of library science on a scientific footing (or at least the strong appearance of so doing) would strengthen the hand of the library immensely in modern society. [15]

There is also the fairly naïve, optimistic position, that the impact of technology will not be as great as is commonly believed. Surely, it might be argued, the library was never stronger than it is today. It seems that every day a new library opens – therefore one should not worry about the institution of the library. This issue might be treated in various ways. For example, it might be argued that the existence of a large public library system does not depend on the existence of library science as a theoretical discipline, or on the philosophy of librarianship, or on librarianship as a profession. Certainly, libraries existed long before these criteria were met.

Yet one wonders how the library would fare if it were reduced purely to the level of “social services”. It would mean that popularity and frequency of use would become the almost exclusive criteria by which the success of the library is measured – as is largely the case today in public library systems. It could be argued that in the presence of undoubtedly greater “social needs” like those of unwed teenage mothers, the library would quickly find itself becoming an ever-lower priority in the welfare-state regime. And there would doubtless be suggestions that one could hardly have “overly-difficult” or “anti-democratic” books in a library that claimed to serve “all the people”.

If one looks unflinchingly at modern society, one may realize that many people today are just not suited by temperament to use a library, nor do they have any deep-seated need for it. How many fully modernized teen-agers would want to be in an environment where they must remain as quiet as possible, where there is no rock music, where they must read and think, where they must remain civilized and decorous? One is almost pushed to conclude that the essence of the library and the essence of the hypermodern society is a contradiction.

In the shadows, there is the question of the physical book, or even the printed word, becoming obsolete. One might use a metaphor from Marx’s theories of class-struggle here. There was a time when the printed word was “revolutionary” and “progressive”. But, in the face of the computer/media revolution, the printed word, it could be argued, just like the modern bourgeoisie, has become “reactionary” and “conservative”. This metaphor can operate on several levels, and can be fitted into the three phases of “the book” alluded to earlier. There is little doubt that the printed word, especially in the form of the newspaper and news-sheet, helped to destroy the premodern order. The question now becomes, however, whether the book or printed word is performing an opposite function, holding back the advance into the hypermodern society of electronic media and computers. If one considers the various dystopias that might emerge in that encroaching society, it might be argued that the printed word (and, by extension, the Library) is performing a necessary “preservationist” or braking function, rather than holding up so-called “progress”.

It is said again and again that we are heading towards a “new information society”. What does this precisely mean? If “information” is indeed a value-free element which any person can interpret in any way he chooses, this means that it is far from representing true knowledge, and certainly not wisdom. One assumes that every person applies his “critical apparatus” (however limited it may be in many cases) to bits of “information” he has isolated from the flow of sensory experience. (There seem to be different levels of a definition being worked out here.) The chief problem of the information society, which Ortega y Gasset foresaw (in a somewhat different form) already in 1935, is “information overload”. The filtering capacities of both the society and the individual are overburdened and overextended, thus resulting in societal and individual paralysis in decision-making ability. This is one possible way the hypermodern society may destroy itself or succumb to “less-advanced” societies which have no trouble in making up their collective minds.

Yet, if we consider the existence of the “media” for the transmission of information, it must be clear that the “information” filtered through the media, which is directed by human beings, cannot be value-free. On the one hand, there are theories of Marshall McLuhan. – “the medium is the message.” This suggests that the conveying of information through different technological methods changes the impact and meaning of the information conveyed. The non-print societies are different from print-based societies which are intrinsically different from electronic societies. [16]

The possible weakness of this theory is that it makes little allowance for the actual message. It would seem questionable to pretend that “the media” is a neutral, objective observer of reality. It is usually only from the vantage point of “the average person” living within liberal democracy that it seems an objective mirror of reality. Astute observers whether nominally of the Right or Left can easily discover the “filtering processes” which the media constantly applies to raw “information”. The possible socially totalitarian implications of the monopoly of the media over “information” is rarely realized by “average people”. It might be said that, with the effortlessness of gods, the media giants set the terms of nearly all political debate, create popular pressure (which they can turn on and off like a water-faucet), forge public opinion, and – not infrequently – crush those they consider “extremist” or “dangerous”. [17]

Indeed, the post-1960s technological advances might have locked Western societies into a certain pattern so that no movement from previous trajectories is possible, even though these trajectories might lead straight to disaster. Thus, it could be argued that the mission of the Library may become to hold back the onset of a world either like that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Orwell’s 1984, both of which would result in the destruction of the library as an institution.

To some social and cultural critics, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World looks distressingly like the approaching hypermodern society. Everyone is expected to have a fantastic standard of living, unlimited physical pleasures (harmless drugs, free sex, multi-media recreation), yet all that has ever had meaning is gone. Indeed, the “conservatism” of the corporations, and media “liberalism” have melded seamlessly into each other – at the expense of a rooted community.

“You all remember,” said the Controller, in his strong deep voice, “you all remember, I suppose that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford’s: History is bunk. History,” he repeated slowly, “is bunk.”

He waved his hand; and it was though, with an invisible feather whisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harappa, was Ur of the Chaldees; some spider-webs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Cnossos and Mycenae. Whisk, whisk – and where was Odysseus, were was Job, where were Jupiter and Gotama and Jesus? Whisk – and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome, Jerusalem, and the Middle Kingdom – all were gone. Whisk – the place where Italy had been was empty. Whisk, the cathedrals; whisk, whisk, King Lear and the Thoughts of Pascal. Whisk, Passion; whisk, Requiem; whisk, Symphony; whisk… [18]

One may indeed notice that today World War II is almost considered “Ancient History”, something of incredible remoteness to younger persons. It does appear that the past of humankind has largely faded out for many people today — even for intellectuals and so-called creative types (apart from some standard demonologies of earlier iniquitude). If the loss of rooted memory is indeed the ultimate trajectory of the hypermodern society, of super-technologization, of current-day liberalism, then the mission of the library must clearly be to stand against it.

As for the scenario suggested in Orwell’s 1984, it was probably most prominently instantiated by Stalin’s Soviet Union, and had continued in less virulent form into the 1980s.

What are the implications of these anti-Brave New World and anti-1984 stances in regard to the censorship and intellectual freedom issues which have so absorbed the library, especially in the post-World War II period?

It must be said at the beginning that the issues of censorship and intellectual freedom, though related, are not identical, and do not mean (should not mean?) the same thing for libraries and the general society. It must be said that the issue of censorship and/or intellectual freedom as presented in the literature is rather unrelated to the more serious issues and problems of late modern society. In the 19th century (or earlier), the censor was a Power to be reckoned with. The library was uninterested in this issue, or on the side of the censor:

A review of library literature reveals relatively few articles on intellectual freedom prior to the 1930’s, and many of the articles that did appear supported censorship and only quibbled over the degree and nature of it. Typical was the opinion of ALA President Arthur E. Bostwick, whose inaugural address at the 1908 Annual Conference included these remarks:

“Some are born great; some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them. It is in this way that the librarian has become a censor of literature… Books that distinctly commend what is wrong, that teach how to sin and tell how pleasant sin is, sometimes with and sometimes without the added sauce of impropriety, are increasingly popular, tempting the author to imitate them, the publishers to produce them, the bookseller to exploit. Thank Heaven they do not tempt the librarian.” [19]

The chuckles this passage probably evokes points to the sort of society we are living in today. In fact, we see in modern society an almost exact antithesis of the earlier. If we look at the situation outside of liberal polemics, we see that the censor in current-day society is usually a lonely and embattled individual, or a relatively unimportant group, which dares to challenge the status-quo on a particular item or issue, and gets massive criticism for it. Of course, such an individual or group will sometimes attack blindly and stupidly, driven to distraction by what they perceive as a seemingly insane society. That the desire for the removal of a few books should drive the media into a tizzy, with dire warnings of (their trivialized view) of 1984, shows only how insecure they feel. Of course, certain liberal groups are also in favor of censorship for their own reasons. The formula calling for “no fascist, racist, sexist, or homophobic materials” could be used as a pretext for the suppression of any more traditional works, including all the so-called Great Books of the West. However, the thoroughgoing enactment of such strictures in regard to library collections is hopefully relatively infrequent.

As far as intellectual freedom, there is a contradictory situation. The university and the library today are far from so-called politically neutral institutions where merit and competence are the only criteria for acceptance. It could be argued that the situation of so-called right-wing intellectuals is rather precarious. There is an inherent tendency in liberal democracy to impose a whole set of values on the so-called rightwing. A right-wing intellectual would call these egalitarianism, anti-elitism, denial of moral categories, secularism, and the total welfare-state. On the other hand, the situation of left-wing intellectuals is far more comfortable. In the 1980s, Cathy Laurier, then a member of the Moscow-line Communist Party, was elected as a student representative and continued to defend Soviet imperialism in print. Indeed, for some right-wingers on certain campuses, the phrase “intellectual freedom” has a rather bitter irony to it. They have long ago learned to keep their mouths shut to complete their academic studies without too much incident. Freedom of expression should mean freedom of expression for all. The making of a “politically incorrect” statement in some academic settings today is all too frequently followed by such things as character-assassination or slander against the “offender” – or sometimes even the near-destruction of one’s present or incipient career.

Thus, the issues of censorship and intellectual freedom as defined in the literature largely miss the central essence of what is really going on today, especially on certain campuses.

Let us quote one of the freedom of information pamphlets:

The sort of double-think, Newspeak, and reality control practiced in the Soviet Union and made famous in Orwell’s 1984 does not really work anyway. There is a limit to how much of this can be done even in a dictatorship; and the limit is lower in a society where enough freedom remains so that the individual can refresh their recollection from some unofficial source the government has been unable to expunge. Neither legislatures nor Congress really can undo a deed, unsay a word, or unwrite a line. They can put some obstacles in the way of those seeking truth. That, fortunately, is the limit of their power. [20]

It could be said this is an over-optimistic appraisal of the information situation of late modernity. The fact is that the current-day news and entertainment media constitute an incredibly powerful force for shaping reality and identity. What can possibly counter-act the various biases of the media?

In the book, Censorship: 500 Years of Conflict, there is offered a picture of a society, which, albeit with a slightly different emphasis, might well be accepted as the picture of the late modern, so-called “soft totalitarian” society.

One limitation, I think, is his [Orwell’s] incapacity to imagine a society which is not on the Stalinist model. Yet an American-West European totalitarianism would likely to be constructed on a very different model from the Stalinist model. After all, the principle of 1984 is simply that the state must become a highly efficient technological prison in which all the prisoners are reduced more or less to the status of automata. The essential requirement from them is that they hold no critical thoughts about the prison or its warders. Orwell’s description shows that so long as they fulfill this desideratum nothing else matters very much… [21]

Given the reality of the power-relations between those clinging to some forms of tradition, and the dominant forces in society today, the passage seems a rather accurate indictment of status-quo, “conservative” liberalism.

So, the question remains: “What is to be done?” Given the situations outlined above, it seems that nothing can arrest the arrival of the hypermodern society. As far as the issue of book selection goes, one should try to be rigorously fair. It means that books should never be rejected purely because they are “right-wing”. Also, a core collection should be created of a thousand or so Great Books of the West which no library should be without. It is on the level of scandal when a large branch public library has under the category of philosophy two or three works of real philosophy, the rest being items with such titles as “You and the Occult”, “The Bermuda Triangle”, or psychology self-help books. [22] This does not speak well to the intellectual level aspired to in our society. In direct contrast to the ideas prevalent in public library thinking today, the author hopes that even the public library system could be a bastion of intellect.

So, to re-capitulate the core of my argument: modern Western liberal technological society is moving into a hyper-technological, hyper-liberal, hypermodern, post-Western society. The extension of the trends of technologization, popularization, and politicization will tend to mean the end of the library as a place for the “quiet stir of thought”. The ultimate trajectory of the Library is likely to be as a computer center/social services center/social advocacy center, fully meshed with the corporate/media/social services network. Physical books are likely to eventually molder away or be used for so-called “socially-useful” functions (e.g., as an energy resource).

It is argued that this ultimate trajectory can be arrested only if there is a movement towards a society that can integrate the best aspects of premodern and modern society, not merely move into the extremity of the hypermodern. That is, not the Negation, but the Negation of the Negation. If this is indeed the moment of decision, people within the institution of the library must seriously and realistically think about the world around them, lest they find themselves and their institution highly attenuated, or abolished.

Mark Wegierski

Notes (refer to bibliography for full titles):

[1] see the “Plea for a Philosophy of Librarianship” in McCrimmon

[2] Shera, pp. 167-183

[3] Shera, p. 182

[4] Shera in McCrimmon, pp. 170-171

[5] see McCrimmon throughout

[6] MacLeish in McCrimmon, p. 235

[7] Ortega y Gasset, p. 150

[8] Ibid., p. 147

[9] Ibid., p. 148

[10] Shera, p. 168

[11] Shera, p. 169

[12] see Ortega y Gasset throughout

[13] What one would be referring to is the position of a cultural Right, not of the so-called corporate Right.

[14] The arguments against “popularization” have undoubtedly been made numerous times.

[15] Professor Lloyd Houser was the chief advocate of the scientific approach at the Faculty of Library and Information Science, University of Toronto, in the 1980s.

[16] The ideas of Marshall McLuhan are generally known. They have often been said to amount to an optimistic technological determinism.

[17] The broadly left-liberal outlook of most the media, especially in Canada, is obvious to most observers. The fact that the media sometimes champions a combination of social liberalism and economic conservatism might make their biases a bit less obvious to some observers. What has absolutely no positive register in most of the media, especially in Canada, is social conservatism.

[18] Aldous Huxley, p. 38

[19] Intellectual Freedom Manual, p. xiv

[20] Freedom of Information Retrospective, p. 48

[21] Censorship: 500 Years of Conflict, p. 126.

[22] This discovery was a disheartening moment for the author.


Works on Library Philosophy and Theory

Carlson, William Hugh. In a Grand and Awful Time. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1967.

McCrimmon, Barbara (ed.), American Library Philosophy: An Anthology. Handen, Connecticut: Shoe String Press, 1975.

Rawski, Conrad H., Toward a Theory of Librarianship: Papers in Honour of Jesse H. Shera. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1973.

Shera, Jesse H. The “Compleat Librarian” and Other Essays. Cleveland and London: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1971.

Works on Censorship and Intellectual Freedom

The New York Public Library, Censorship: 500 Years of Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association, Intellectual Freedom Manual. Chicago, 1974.

Freedom of Information Center, Freedom of Information Retrospective, Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri, 1978.

Jones, Frances M., Defusing Censorship: The Librarian’s Guide to Handling Censorship Conflicts. Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1983.

Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association, The Speaker, A Film about Freedom: Discussion Guide, Chicago, 1977.

Works of Philosophy and Cultural Analysis

Grant, George, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. Toronto: Macmillan Ltd.,  1965.

Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World. Penguin Modern Classics, 1975 [1932].

Brantlinger, Patrick, Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Ortega y Gasset, Jose, “The Mission of the Librarian.” Antioch Review, v. 35, 1963, pp. 133-154 [1935].

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