Pragmatism vs. Idealism

I didn’t really want to bury this in a comment thread, so I’m posting.

Bo Kinney responded to my Buzzkill post with an excellent post on collection development and I’m actually not in complete disagreement with it. Bo makes a number of very valid points and uses the Charlie Robinson, “Give ’em what they want” campaign as an example of appeasement for the masses gone awry. But that’s not quite what we’re talking about here.

The issue at hand is whether, as libraries, we overrule the demand of our users with our own sensibilities. That’s a very dangerous path to tread. What if a group of librarians converged upon ’80s music and deemed it to be mindless noise, driven by rampant consumer confidence and cocaine? Should they then be allowed to weed it out of the collection or keep it from getting ordered? What if the target was material written or recorded by gay and lesbian artists? Perhaps it would be in the interest of the community to strike such material from the collection–especially now that gays and lesbians are gaining acceptance in popular culture. No, there needs to be a more objective criteria for ordering the bulk of our collection and that is the aggregate popularity (or anticipated popularity) of a given item. It’s a cold, impersonal, impartial, and unbiased process–just as it should be. That’s right up central management’s alley, if you ask me.

But Bo is correct as well. Librarians absolutely need to have a hand in developing collections. The librarian’s purview is a far murkier, far more interesting venue: the long tail. The problem with Robinson’s approach is that it docks it (of course, there was no understanding of what the long tail is back in the ’90s). Being able to embrace the long tail distribution is very much a key component to library 2.0. Maybe this is what the Sacramento administrators are not quite seeing. Without provisioning for the popular stuff, you get a lifeless, disembodied tail. Without the tail, you get a Borders.

Certainly there is a balance to be struck here and I certainly understand and appreciate the concern expressed by John Berry. I share it as well, but I see contemporary developments in our libraries as moving to address those shortcomings. Technology is a large piece of that puzzle as we use it to enable new methods of service and as we continue to expand our user base through it. But Library 2.0 is more than that. It encompasses major changes to our spaces, our policies, our programming, and our practices. I heartily disagree with Bo’s comment that we’re pursuing change out of fear. I believe most of us pursue change out of a knowledge that we can do better on all fronts and a desire to want to. The struggle between those who want to change and those who desire status quo indeed goes on, like it has for decades. And just like it always has, change inevitably overruns inertia.

In the meantime, otherwise normal and intelligent people act like idiots because change is scary and it’s anger that fear leads to, not change.  The easiest course of action is to do nothing at all and scorn those harbingers of change. It may be that yesterday’s Fireside Poets have become today’s Paris Hiltons, but that’s life and we have to cater to it. We can’t very well elevate the minds of our people without first getting them in the door. We won’t get anyone if all we do is build sky-walks between ivory towers. Is it an ideal representation of our grand vision to stock the shelves with Jackass? Not likely, but pragmatism is, in itself, a form of idealism when applied correctly toward a common good. You just need to stomach the sight of sausage being made.


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