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A small battle over the nature of the public library is raging in the imaginary cyber-war that grips our country. This war seems to be conducted mostly by middle-aged folks as you may have noticed. Most of our cohort could care less. Our parents, on the other hand, moan about it and fondle it from one moment to the next. Some beg us to embrace the Internet as a paradigm of civic virtue, while others see it as a conduit of sin, the high road to pornography and all manners of smut.
Sallie Tisdale, author and contributing editor to Harper's, falls on the whiny side of this divide. No doubt she is well-intentioned, as most of the whiners are, but she comes off as selfish and old-fashioned, like some decaying actress caught backstage. Her argument in the recent Harper's runs smoothly enough: Libraries have gone over to entertainment, peddling videos and Internet access in the hopes of enticing people to use the library. This kind of instrumental programming, such as handicraft classes, social work and lectures, has always failed in the past and will continue to do so. Libraries should stick to what they are best at--silence and preserving the telling detail or odd fact.
At times, Tisdale seems right on target. Her critique of "weeding," the practice of throwing away little-used books to conserve shelf space, is both moving and intuitive. Most often, though, Tisdale sounds downright mean-spirited. She tosses off jibes at roller-blading kids without a trace of irony or understanding while blasting electronic catalogs in what appear to be nostalgic reveries.
You might think that Tisdale is a snob, defending high culture against the inroads of popular culture: "In a sense the library is made more popular by the addition of Internet stations and CD-ROM games. A free showing of Independence Day would bring a big surge in attendance, too," she jabs. But in fact, she does not want to replace Danielle Steele with Virgil. Tisdale's is not an argument for Great Books; it is a plea for silence.
Entertainment, she wants us to understand, is a noisy, rowdy affair better suited to the marketplace than the library. But Tisdale tacks this argument on at the end of her piece. She argues for silence as an antidote to the undemocratic nature of crass commercialism, which is embodied by the marketplace. This is the truly offensive bit of the piece because democracy cannot be silent.
As far back as Plato's Republic, democracy is described as a singularly bright concoction, nicknamed the many-colored regime. Many pundits this way and that have noticed that successful democracies often look like marketplaces with loud conversations and lively bargaining. Marketplaces and democracies are not identical, but they do look alike.
It's all the more galling, then, when Tisdale switches tactics at the very end of her piece and champions the Barnes & Noble bookstore as the ideal library. But what is Barnes & Noble but a quintessential marketplace?
Entertainment, then, is not opposed to culture in Tisdale's eyes but to silence. According to her, silence is democratic; entertainment is not. This is a perverse argument not only because Tisdale adjusts her arguments to suit her purpose, but because entertainment must be available to all in a democratic society.
Even such a stodgy fellow as nineteenth-century social philosopher John Ruskin knew this to be the case. Roaming about London one night, Ruskin observed working-class entertainment and concluded that after a tough day at work, entertainment must be available to everyone.
It is in this spirit that we should condemn Tisdale's piece, not because it is hostile to technology, nor because it is insensitive to kids. These are minor faults in the scheme of things, worth mentioning only for their widespread incidence. Tisdale should realize that while silence to her means retreat from a world of entertainments, silence to others means a world without any entertainment at all.
Noah I. Dauber's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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