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A sketch for a public library model.

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A sketch for a public library model. Part 1: a discussion of key educational ideas.


Concerning a basic model for the public library, especially for materials or “content”: two different public service directions are offered, as a way to frame key educational ideas. These directions are separate, yet clearly not mutually exclusive. Descriptions are mildly exaggerated for clarity.

  1. Providing popular or mass market culture. This shows a consumer culture stress, yet it is carried out by government agencies.
  2. A knowledge (or “information”) source for citizens, with actively engaged staff. This implies a particular, ongoing intellectual effort on their part.

These two contrasting service directions, although exaggerated, provide a basic distinction and starting point. For further orientation, we stress again the idea of the citizen and education. This is given as a question, an answer, and a partial interpretive conclusion. These key educational ideas are the basis of the discussion to follow.

  1. Knowledge and autonomy: do US public institutions, such as libraries and schools, pursue these goals (values) for citizens – as a clear and high priority? (We note citizens and thus citizenship, and their active participation in related institutions.)
  2. No, not really – or the effort is partial at best. (And the burden is on the individual to cope.)*
  3. Without real effort for (1) we have a control system of (institutional) power and money**, where citizens cannot act with knowledge required for autonomy; or face great (and often unnecessary) obstacles.

Two points should be noticed. One, public libraries and their services cannot be reasonably understood as isolated; as the term is sometimes given, in a “silo”. They are part of a complex national context, and this has important implications. (As variously noted by others.) The other idea is related to the first: the question and answer just given might be described in other forms, but the point is not debatable; and it cuts through much of the complexity with a basic idea.

From this, (3) stresses one nearly unavoidable conclusion, the linkage of knowledge and autonomy. This raises a far more difficult and controversial question: why is so little done in US education for substantive autonomy? There is little question the US educational model is almost overwhelmingly directed to narrow training for the economy, or job market; specialization is the order of the day. Yet fitting people for the market and preparing them for autonomous citizenship are hardly identical projects.

There are several possible responses to the “why is so little done” question. Yet it is extremely hard to see this lack of national educational effort as accidental. So the conclusion here is that it is not, and therefore the institutional control system is intentional. This does not require a conspiratorial outlook. It is not surprising the situation would be characterized (by many leaders) in ways to avoid admitting, in terms just suggested, the true purposes of US education. (Some Americans might react, further, by saying “of course”; was there ever any doubt?)

*This refers to the idea, or myth, that individuals have nearly all responsibility for outcomes: as if institutions, context, etc. are nearly trivial.

**One can substitute terms like “strong financial interests” or something similar, but money is more direct.

Noting the principle of intention is not describing, however, the structure and methods of this institutional control system. It is noting the principle that underlines US education, its primary intellectual purposes; which are economically directed (jobs) and not for developing autonomous citizens – or even better informed consumers. (The kind of intellectual versatility for either of these areas.) The awkward point is that the system structure, this clear omission of purpose, leads one to conclude that maintaining the pattern and outcomes – this kind of control – is, again, full of intention.

So the interpretive point of view here is the omission (of autonomy as a priority) is deliberate. This in no way overlooks the importance of a narrow, often technical education, and the virtue of specialization. The division of labor economy requires this, and the focused character suggests competence. But is it educationally sufficient? Is it an appropriate model for democratic education? These questions are not given to question the “technical”, “fit for a job” model per se – but to stress that the current system “answers” these questions by implication as yes — our model is adequate. The issue emerges, then, of what kind of “democratic” system this model supports.

As Bloom and other have noted, (national) educational systems are directed toward producing citizens of a certain type. Thus two basic features can be given: the primary intellectual purposes of the system, the substance of what is (essentially) taught; and the national context they are prepared for. (This suggests in part the “what” and “why”.) The great vocational stress has been given.

To describe the national context might seem an enormous task, and in an obvious sense it is. But again the complexity can be reduced by looking at the primary purposes of the educational system. The intensely vocational character has great implications, especially in its narrowness. One version of this national context can be drawn from Max Weber. The limits of this version are acknowledged. Yet this excerpt has interpretive power, and captures something critical about the US social design and its priorities:

“The capitalistic economy of the present day is an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him, at least as an individual, as an unalterable order of things in which he must live. It forces the individual, in so far as he is involved in the system of market relationships, to conform to capitalistic rules of action. The manufacturer who in the long run acts counter to these norms, will just as inevitably be eliminated from the economic scene as the worker who cannot or will not adapt himself to them will be thrown into the streets without a job.” (Max Weber, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. 1905. Chap. 2, p. 5. Translation by Talcott Parsons.) [Emphasis added.]

The point is not to see this as a mirror of the US, but to suggest what kind of social context a largely vocational-economic education system serves. It is a sort of “cosmos”, all-embracing, orienting the main intellectual purposes of public institutions like schools and libraries. It is a characteristic system one is prepared for; and in this case economically structured. Although effort might be needed to see past its familiarity, it is a highly controlling system. Again, Weber’s model is not offered for the US as complete, but as highly suggestive; it captures something of the scale and social pressure brought to bear on the individual, of the rather dissonant idea of the citizen in such a context.

This context is of course national. And although the main direction here is toward public libraries, this larger scope should be insisted on. If only in brief form, considering national level features for education provides necessary orientation for this area of library services.

This brings us again to the opening question, answer, and conclusion. National and thus contextual ideas are the focus. Concerning knowledge and autonomy for citizens: are these discernable as high educational priorities? Clearly not, or very little; the dominant system is vocational. This circumstance is hardly accidental. Thus the idea of intention is clear. An educational system is held, maintained – controlled – in order to serve a particular social design; with limitations, Weber’s “cosmos” gives a good indication of what this means.

On the level of public library materials and services, two directions were given: Mass Culture for consumers, or a particular educational effort for citizens — in support of knowledge and their autonomy. It was noted these are not mutually exclusive. The point to stress is whether the citizen’s educational needs, in this sense, will be attended to in addition to MC — or if current trends will continue, and “minority interest” materials will largely disappear.

And so, the libraries have certain options before them. A few are mentioned here:

If we take our national (educational) context and its clear implications seriously, public libraries have a choice. They can resist the dominant model, and promote balanced education, autonomy; social concern and active citizenship; or they can give in to the immense pressures to conform, and reduce their **public** mission to a far more “privatized” form. There is no doubt that (institutional) power and money interests will try to hold them within current dominant practices – emphasizing consumerism and vocational education.

So the difficult and awkward issue appears: do public libraries have, themselves, intellectual freedom and autonomy, or must they operate within Weber’s “cosmos”, as the only institutionally permissible model? The ALA and similar groups consistently stress intellectual freedom; so are public libraries permitted to have this independence, and cultivate this environment for patrons?

This overview merely presents a sketch or beginning. But the issues noted are quite real. It will take special attention and effort for public libraries and schools to regain the independence they need – if substantive citizenship, autonomy, and the knowledge needed for these are to be held and developed as important American values.

Edward Eggleston