Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Equity and excellence

In my last post I summarised John Pateman's arguments in the SINTO debate. Here is a summary of Bob Usherwood's presentation.

Bob began by denying that in his book he was suggesting that some people did not deserve a library service. Not only do all people deserve a library service but they deserve one that does not underestimate their abilities. providing access to learning and combating ignorance was one of the greatest contributions that the library can make. For a library to provide an inferior produce is to exclude people from high quality material that they may not be able to obtain elsewhere. Bob drew a distinction between being populist - providing what people say they want - and being democratic - providing what people need.

Bob criticised the trend for other cultural service organizations to adopt a populist approach in order to attract larger audiences and suggested that once again it was time to see public libraries as places for education, self-improvement, learning and creativity. People who are are not afforded the opportunity to experience great literature or the work of great artists, writers and thinkers, are in danger of being deprived of the basic knowledge that will enable them to function in contemporary society. High quality materials were seen by an earlier generation of professional librarians as a self-evident good thing but today many librarians regard the quality of library materials as an not integral to library management. To counter this trend, libraries need to employ staff who are able to "discriminate between the the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral". Bob suggested that if, as some predict, libraries fade away in the next twenty years, it will be as a result of this kind of anti-intellectualism that argues that all things are to be judged equal in the library world.

The justification for public libraries being considered a public good deserving of public funding depends on their willingness to provide an intelligent and diverse alternative to the products of the mass media. To advocate social inclusion without being concerned about the quality and standards of the inclusive experience is dishonest. Excellence is not about elitism, nor is it restricted to high culture. It can be found in a popular novel and in the services of a small community library. However, it is important to be able to recognise the difference between excellence and the populist appeal of mass produced pap. This is a judgement that public librarians must be prepared to make.

Bob's presentation can be found here.

Following the presentation by each speaker their was a face-to-face discussion chaired by Sylvia Dunkley which explored some of the issues in more depth. At one point John challenged Bob's use of the term "good books", saying that good and bad were too subjective. Bob argued that most people are happy to make quality judgements about a range of products, services, television programmes etc and that when working within limited budgets librarians had to decide between populist books such as Jeremy Clarkson's latest and intellectual items such as Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason. Bob agreed that the former might attract more library users and higher issue figures but said that it was patronising to believe that people would not read an intellectual book. Such books contribute to the public good and add value to the community even if they are only read by a small number of people. John responded that the purpose of libraries should be to promote social change through sharing the power of knowledge but this was not the same as social control through limiting people to "good" books.

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