Friday, January 25, 2008

Books as Social Vectors

Ursula Le Guin has a fabulous article in Harper's (Feb. 2008, v. 316, n. 1893) responding to the NEA report on Reading at Risk. That report states that there has been a sharp decline in the reading of books of "literature" (which I couldn't find a definition for in the report).

Le Guin's article is called "Staying Awake," which comes from one person's statement "I just get sleepy when I read." As Le Guin points out, there are "people who read wide awake," but the corporate culture of today's publishing isn't interested in cultivating anything except the "best seller" product. (Some books are art "And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed.")

She talks about what reading has meant to culture ("Books are social vectors..."), from the early use of books to spread a uniform view of religion, to the late 19th century serial books that had everyone discussing what would happen next. It is this aspect of books as social vectors that I think we in the library world need to come to grips with.

The public library of the 19th century was about bringing book culture to the masses. (See Dee Garrison's book Apostles of Culture for a good account.) Somewhere in the 20th century we swung the pendulum in the opposite direction and began aiming for maximum neutrality. But people don't respond well to neutrality. In fact, they are... well, neutral on it. It takes a certain interest, perhaps even passion, to stay awake.

There are obvious issues for libraries (many of them government agencies) should they become instigators of passion for books. However, I see a somewhat less problematic possibility, which is allowing the library to itself be a "social vector" by connecting the library, and in particular its catalog, to the world of social networking. This is starting to happen in a small way, such as links from web sites or social bookmarking tools to WorldCat, but I think it's time to really ratchet up our efforts in this area.

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