Tuesday, May 12, 2009

the problem with words

There was an ad on Facebook today for library gear which constituted of various mindless ‘stuff’ for people who work in libraries should theoretically find interesting but in reality actually reflect a rather archaic view of how libraries (should) function. This site features mugs, stickers, t-shirts, bags,etc. traveling ad infinitum into the fading obscurity of commercial blather. Regardless of the form one of the repeated designs was various riffs on the word ‘read’ including a riff on a t-shirt. There are actually several implications involved derived from the idea of a librarian wearing this shirt. These implications are based upon, I believe, logically provable assumptions. T-shirts are very much portable billboards so the idea of wearing this type of advertisement is for the librarian essential to their profession. There are certain ideas that are implied by a librarian wearing this type of ad.
1) The first assumption inherent in a librarian actually wearing this type of t-shirt is the underlying assumption is that the reading being done is in book form. For a librarian to think the word ‘read’ the historical assumption to connect with the particular word read is to ‘read a book’. Here the form of the book should be understood as a printed, bound, physical object. This first assumption is tied into a sub layer assumption to the first in that reading a book is a beneficial practice and not reading is an un-beneficial practice. This engages an additional sub layer assumption again to the first major assumption in which it is assumed that reading enhances the culture, both personally and corporately. The evidence of what books one claims to have read seem to affect individuals’ respect/interaction between one another whether it, the book-read-evidence, should or not.
2) The second major assumption, based on the first is that the type of book being read carries a certain cultural/intellectual weight, either negative or positive. A negative weight would be a pop magazine with a positive weight going towards works by Shakespeare. If a patron approaches the librarian wearing the ‘read’ shirt and asks should I read this 10,000 Best Tales of Erotica or should I read Tolstoy, upstanding librarian should, and based on the first assumption would, argue for strongly Tolstoy.
Why are these two assumptions problematic, thus, why is this shirt problematic?
3) Historically, going to the library was designed to provide the patron with the printed word. One went to the library to read or to bring works home to read. Now the library can function, and does function, from anything as various as an information commons or a job resource center or simply a place for free wi-fi and a cup of coffee. Based upon the two previous assumptions this t-shirt could very be feasibly read as an unhealthy clinging to a very dead, cadaverous past. The word ‘read’ is a signifier that has not shed its historical trappings. The number of books were read in the past X number of years has become the standard of our culture where a lack of reading books is a notation of the lack of culture. This is also illustrated by the fact that accreditating agencies look at the total number of books in a collection rather than gauging, or trying to figure out a way to guage the actual quality of the books in the collection. As libraries move forward to better embrace technology to serve patrons this idea of gigantic collections will hopefully be discarded for a framework of agility and flexibility to answer the patron’s need. This is not to say that books won’t be important but that maintaining a massive collection of everything simply is not the direction to be headed.
4) There is a certain ironic linguistic aspect at play, whether or not the marketing gurus meant it, in that one has to read the word ‘read’ and has to actually guess at the contextual meaning. The word ‘read’ by itself could be both a present tense imperative ‘I command you to read!’ or a past tense statement of fact in ‘I have read’ or even future tense ‘I will read’. The word ‘read’ on a librarian chest actually signifies very little once it is thought through. It may actually serve more to confuse the reader with context of the command then inspire them to checkout more books.
Truthfully, and this is my main issue with the shirt, the problem is not reading. The 21st century individual reads constantly i.e. text messages. In some ways we cannot help but to read. There is now more text available to us via emails, blogs, web sites, RSS feeds, e-books, webzines, online chats, etc. now than ever before. The current textual situation borders very closely on having to read constantly just to keep up with the flood of information.
5) To be entirely accurate the shirt should probably read ‘read well’. The idea of well is that critical thinking is directly applied to the choices of what is to be read. This is not to encourage cultural elitism or to represent Dee Garrison’s 18th century missional librarian but that the life of the mind actually matters. The life of the mind is fertilized by reading within a limited confine across genres and across media(s) or medium(s).
a. Reading should happen in the context of discussion and writing. Reading in isolation and only reading causes obesity of the mind. It is the encountering of the ideas of others that actually allows one to figure out why one read something in the first place. If a text cannot be connected to other texts, if one cannot make the logical/feasible mental connection to other texts, there needs to be a re-examination of the reading one is doing. Reading is a difficult practice because it is based on consumption. Even at this point the sheer amount of published materials encourages mental and intellectual gluttony. The desire to ‘read everything’ written by an author and then the commentary/biography/critical aspects of scholars on this author blossoms into an incredibly tangle and intricate web. And this is just one author. It is necessary than to limit the consumption, to guard is carefully and erect Sertillanges ‘zone of silence’ while at the same time genuinely interacting with other’s thoughts in the best Nietzchean fashion.
To be a ‘good’ librarian one cannot simply say Read. To embrace the ethos of the librarian service and then to command people simply to read, or to read what I tell you, is to commit a very severe disservice. Perhaps a better t-shirt would be ‘think’ as there seems to be a definitive surfeit of that action which seems to be crippling us culturally more than reading is and thinking is indeed a perquisite to reading. The problem, as Postman has stated, is that print culture as a prior driving force to American thought has changed. A command to read is perceived as an archaic command rather than to be challenging mentally. I’m not sure what role librarians should actually play in this pursuit of reading or how to approach it with patrons. One thing that I am sure of is the fact of wearing a $19.99 T-shirt is not going to positively affect the situation in the least.

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