Smile Politely

The New Champaign Public Library, Inc.

The Champaign Public Library has in its circulation exactly two copies of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian masterpiece Fahrenheit 451, a novel about book censorship, authoritarian rule and the negative influence technology can have on humanity. One would think that Bradbury’s novel, which champions the very existence of libraries and freedom of speech, would have a larger presence in the stacks of our brand-new, 30 million dollar library.

Yet, if you consider that one of the primary messages of the book, that technology can be one of the most destructive forces of our time, the paltry number of copies makes perfect sense. Consider the following statement, made in the 1950’s by Bradbury:

See quote after the jump.

In writing the short novel Fahrenheit 451 I thought I was describing a world that might evolve in four or five decades. But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. I stood staring after them, absolutely stunned. The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction.

Bradbury, I think, was accurate in his prediction: he might as well have been writing about how the gleaming architectural wonder that is the newly opened Champaign Public Library privileges technology from the moment you walk into the door.

There, you are greeted by a large built-in flat-screen advertising upcoming events. You then pass by the one-and-only book return where you can place materials, painstakingly one-at-a-time, on an electronically-activated conveyor belt, not-so-stragetically-located at the entrance gate. (And for those who can’t or won’t get out of their cars, the automatic drive-through book return conveys a recorded voice welcoming you to the library and and likewise asks you to deposit items “one at a time”). There are no flyers, bulletin boards or brochures available in obvious places. Instead, library information is provided online only, ample computer terminals spread out across the open room plan for such purposes.

Certainly, you can visit the library without ever having to encounter a staff member or librarian: check-out is accomplished via self-checkout scanners that will prompt you to swipe your credit card to pay fines or fees. The entire feel is high-tech, smooth and spare. And, as Bradbury lamented, disturbingly alienating and lonely.

But we’ve heard this all before. Technology is evil; blah, blah, blah. But what is at stake here, besides librarian jobs, isn’t the value of our technological advances, which have contributed greatly to human achievement, but something that has nothing to do with technology at all: the very notion that people are different and because of this, they acquire information in different ways. I am no luddite. I spend hours interacting with email, webpages and mp3 players. But I also read the newspaper, in fact making special trips to the corner store for copies of the New York Times. I read billboards, flyers posted on bulletin boards, and listen to the radio. I talk to people and acquire information in the age-old tradition of word-of-mouth, which any marketing executive will tell you may be the single most successful communication method of all time.

Certainly, library science research done by the Pew Internet and American Life Project confirms that while more and more people do indeed get certain kinds of information on-line, a significant many others will prefer hard-copy in certain contexts and for all sorts of reasons: resolving health problems, locating government documents, etc., and I will add: beach reads, posting flyers with a magnet on the refrigerator, flipping through the yellow pages in seconds to find a steam-cleaner, consulting a guidebook on the subway, etc. This same study cites that information searchers use 2 to 3 information sources to find answers to their problems. Yes, evidence suggests that we still are a society that gathers information in multiple ways, in spite of the amazing richness of information the internet provides.

But students of library science will tell you that information technology is the buzz word right now, with almost every library conference populated by proponents of computer information services and products. In this rush to adopt the newest and trendiest technologies, libraries and their boards of directors are losing sight of one of the most important purposes of public libraries (and this is listed on CPL’s website as the first bullet-point in their vision statement): helping the community discover “library resources and programs that anticipate and satisfy their needs for everyday information, enjoyment, and enlightenment.” By giving patrons only one choice for information “retreival,” the Champaign Public Library is overlooking their mission to anticipate and satisfy the diversity of patron needs (computer ownership and access is still a luxury for many, for instance). And most troubling of all, Bradbury predicted this technocratic big brotherness, and the image of piles of burning books begins to seem plausible, perhaps even inevitable.

Yet, I love this place because my children always find materials and programs that motivate them to read or explore their world. We are, as one librarian once told me with a knowing wink, “heavy users.” Indeed, the library spent thousands of dollars acquiring materials for the new library, most notably its extensive collection of DVDs, CDs and video games, and we benefit every day from this collection. In addition, I know the library provides valuable internet access to the 36% of its patrons who do not have computers at home. And the fact that the library was rebuilt close to its original central Champaign location instead of on the fringe of town, ensuring easier access to all its citizens, endears me even more to the organization.

However, when an acquaintance of mine complained to me that the Champaign Library no longer has a high-visibility bulletin board for community groups to post flyers, and doesn’t plan to ever get one, I am not surprised. She passes me an email from the director Marsha Grove in which she states: “With organizations able to advertise meetings and events for free on a number of local websites, the use of paper bulletin boards will continue to decrease”. Hmmm. Tell that to the coffeehouses and university buildings all over town with burgeoning bulletin boards. And I won’t even mention that other library over in the people’s republic.

In this same email, Ms. Grove continues: “Another goal was to make the building aesthetically appealing and highlight the beautiful limestone, brick and bamboo building material. We have many comments from community members about how they appreciate the clean, clutter-free lobby and building”. I wonder, then, whatever happened to the architectural motto “form follows function?” That is, according to Grove, if a community need imposes on the aesthetics of a building, then that need will be ignored for the sake of aesthetics. Another scary, but mostly just impractical, idea.

Sadly, I think most people are unaware of the implications of providing only one avenue of information in the name of efficiency or trendiness. This might be fine for a supermarket or a fast-food joint, but libraries are repositories for ideas. It is not a light matter to consider that many facist governments have been effective because they could control the machinery and conduits of information and ideas. They know that the pen is mightier than the sword. Once controlled, then it is just one step further to control minds and societies, just as Bradbury warned. This kind of control is much more difficult when multiple avenues of communication and information exist in different places at the same time, however. Like in books.

Finally, I grieve the lost opportunities to chat with librarians for reasons other than automatic check-out equipment failure (which happens more times than not). You can learn so many things from them! For example, a few weeks ago, when I was looking for a calendar of childrens’ events at the library, a librarian informed me that there was no longer a paper description of the programs available. My response to this was to turn and point towards the rows and rows of beautiful children’s books and say, “then I suppose you will no longer be needing these either.” And the librarian sadly looked away. But as a society, we can’t afford to look away. A library, like democracy itself, takes care and vigilance in order that it best serve the very diverse needs of an entire community, not just the needs that are convenient or palatable to those in power.

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