Jenny's Library

Reading Russ: Part 1

Posted on: April 13, 2013

Chapter 1: Prohibitions

(In which I meander quite a bit and talk a lot about libraries.)

Now that school is out, I have time to read books that are not teen novels.  Books like: How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ.

Reading a Book by Ernst RudolphIn the first chapter Russ immediately tackles the false idea that hurdles must be codified into law in order to matter.  In fact, the prohibitions Russ focuses on first are economics and time, not even yet the cultural memes that women should not be spending their time on silly frivolities such as novel writing or painting.  In many ways I found this point, the one about women (and other non-dominant groups) having less leisure time in which to be creative, to be the more important one.  Perhaps because I was already familiar with the subtle and even overt ways in which women are pressured not to create art.  Perhaps because recent events – both in my own life and on a national and world-wide scale – have me thinking more about the right to leisure time.

Leisure time and affording the time to be creative are not the same thing, but they are inexorably linked.  It is not just that if one cannot afford the time to read one is less likely to be able to afford the time to write.  I think even more fundamental is the oft unspoken idea that if one cannot afford the time to read, one has not earned the right to be heard.

I am not nearly as nationalistic as I was several decades ago, but one thing I do still firmly believe that is that a democracy’s strength depends upon how many of its (different kind of) citizens participate in the process.  Not just voting, but in policy, debate, and even the creation of the culture that citizens are immersed in.  I am deeply worried about the trend I see, in my own country especially, that views the technology that is needed to access mainstream culture as being nothing more than a luxury.  Even putting aside for a moment the antiquated, classist, and ignorant idea that access to a computer and mobile phone are not necessary for such fundamental needs as finding work, the attitudes towards technology and class that many of my fellow Americans display is both appalling and frightening.

photo of baby with cell phoneThis is not just about the fact that easy access to technology means an increased ability to be aware of current events, and the digital divide means that many citizens are cut off from the mainstream conversation (and mainstream conversation is even less aware of their needs and opinions).  This is also about story and art, and how there is no real concrete division between works that “improve” readers and those that do not.  One of the things you learn in library school is how modern public libraries were not a response to the impossibility of everyone owning all the books ever, but rather about radically improving on the already existing and popular subscription libraries – both commercial, which were open to anyone who could pay, and private, which required one be approved for membership.  Public libraries are fundamentally democratic in history and nature not because they are about access to information, but because they are about equalizing access.  Furthermore, they are not just about facts and opinions, but literature and leisure time as well.  In asserting the right to read, public libraries end up defending not only privacy but also the idea that people of all classes and groups have the right to decide for themselves how their free time is best spent.  It is not difficult to see how chipping away at that right ends up implying that such people should not have the right to make other choices for themselves as well.

Angry Birds logoBy claiming that citizens have a right to access to paper books but not ereaders, novels but not movies, craft books but not pinterest, or even To Kill A Mockingbird but not Angry Birds, what the majority middle class culture is doing is denying both the art found in new, modern mediums and rejecting the long held belief that equalizing access to culture is a democratic necessity.  Budget decisions must always be made, of course, but public libraries have always struggled to balance the popular, archival, and informational needs and wants of their communities.  The difference now is that it is becoming increasingly unpopular to support the idea of the library as a place to go to obtain access to popular culture.

It is undeniably true that the internet is shaking public libraries up quite a bit, but we often miscast this as being the only trend rather than simply being the most visible symptom of a larger one.  It doesn’t help, after all, that for nearly half a century it was logistically, economically, and politically impossible for public libraries to provide access to mainstream culture in the form of television, thus habituating entire generations to the idea that libraries are about books and not stories and news.  Neither is it useful that so few people understand the historical parallels between the subscription lending libraries of old and their modern day Netflix and Hulu accounts.  Or even, really, their ability to purchase access to the internet.

If the rise of the internet, the increased use of google and wikipedia, and even shrinking government budgets were libraries’ only concerns they would still be in much better shape than they are now.  If changing technology were our only problem we would simply be reinventing ourselves to fit the new mediums and types of information storage.  Instead, we are constantly fighting for our right to exist, and usually losing the battle because even we often fail to realize that our main enemy is not technology but the idea that access to culture is a luxury and not a right.  In order to win this war we need to not only fight for ourselves, but for all the rights of the people we serve.  We need to highlight not only our job search workshops, but also our classes on Facebook and Tumblr.  We need to argue that access to technology is important not just in order to help people improve their short-term, personal economics – but to fulfill the original purpose of public libraries: to improve and strengthen democracy by encouraging participation in culture via providing more equal access to of Trinity College Library

It is tempting to focus on the resume classes and pretend that we also aren’t about people playing games in the internet.  After all, the latter sounds like a waste of taxpayer dollars – the kiss of death for any government service nowadays.  But pretending that leisure time is not also what we are about will mean losing the war in the long term.  It isn’t just that it will be harder to pull voter’s heartstrings when the economy picks up (assuming it ever will), the bigger flaw in this plan is we are accepting the argument that less wealthy do not deserve leisure or culture.  From there, as Russ has made clear, it is just a short step away to arguing that their voices are not worthy of being heard.  And what is a public library without the idea that citizens have a right to both read and write?

(originally posted at:


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