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Volume II, Issue 1, Jan. 1, 2003
January Book Reviews | 1 - 2
Feinberg, Renee (ed.). The Changing Culture of Libraries: How We Know Ourselves Through Our Libraries. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. 134 p. $39.95. [ISBN 0786411384]
As libraries evolve into the 21st century, do we cheer or do we cry? Is it a brave new library world or have only the curtains been changed? Although Renee Feinberg laments that libraries are “in tears,” her essay collection, The Changing Culture of Libraries, belies her pessimism, offering much hope for the future of the profession.
Admittedly, libraries have faded as churches of knowledge in an ordered universe. Essayist Geraldine DeLuca recalls libraries as “houses of reason,” as please-be-quiet places for people “who reverenced books.” Feinberg mourns that today’s students do not honor books as “profound and mysterious,” as “glorious and seemingly infinite.” But doesn’t Western civilization’s worship of reason now seem misplaced? Above all, hasn’t the twentieth century shown us we’ve been barkin’ for truth and value up a value-neutral tree?
More pragmatically, many of the 17 contributing librarians and academics paint an uplifting portrait of the library as a continuing center of empowerment and social change. Blind-patron-turned-blind-librarian David Faucheux hopes to serve others with disabilities. Gracelyn Cassell persevered through natural disasters in archiving historical documents in Montserrat. Faye Reagon describes the rise and fall of South African Resource Centers, anti-apartheid institutions that fostered community, democracy and education. The bond between library and community is primary, according to Bruce Jensen, who chastises ALA leaders in their ethnocentrism vis-à-vis Mexico. This bond was surely strong in Ruth Isenberg’s small Pennsylvania community where potential patrons joined to establish a public library. Recalling the University of Michigan library in the 1960’s as a “pot to cook anti-establishment soup,” Michael Kahan also observes that his 21st century students gather for “the same reasons as always” in a library the essence of which remains unchanged.
In Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality (ALA 1995), Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman assert as a premise that the fundamental tasks of libraries “are as true for a modern branch of a public library as they are for cathedral libraries of the Middle Ages.” The library has always existed to “acquire, give access to, and safeguard carriers of knowledge and information in all forms.” Given today’s centrality of the computer, with its chaotic, commercial Internet world, information may seem the central “good of the mind”; still, it has “no enduring meaning unless the information is fitted into an intelligible structure of knowledge.” Therein, assert Crawford and Gorman, lies libraries’ future of service which is “there to be seized by those with insight, realism, and yes, daring.” Ditto, say essayists Janet Freedman (Who better than librarians to insist on the Internet as an “instrument for education, participation, and empowerment”) and Carla J. Stoffle (Librarians can move via technology into education, knowledge management, and e-publishing, the “greatest opportunity for serving society since the invention of the printing press”).
Feinberg believes we have “lost our way” as we bid adieu to the “smell and feel” of books, to choosing them, sharing them, getting crumbs in them. But just as, contrary to prediction, movies coexist with theater and videos coexist with movies, so electronic publishing will coexist with books in part because of books’ visceral/sensory hold upon us.
Renee Feinberg recently retired from over 30 years of service as a librarian. In the Brooklyn public schools and then at Brooklyn College CUNY, Ms. Feinberg fulfilled her dual career objectives of working in New York City and social activism. As a conclusion to a full career, the present collection reflects her biases towards “enticing young people to the world of books and to the pleasure of reading,” and towards “proactive library service and social responsibility.” If she seeks to bring us to tears (“libraries in tears” is quoted out of context from Allen Ginsberg’s “America,”), she has failed by her own choice of content.
Nevertheless, this is thought-provoking reading, recommended for staff and patrons of public and academic libraries, or for any other librarian or lover of libraries.
Reviewed by Catherine Kamil, Student, Library and Information Science Program, Wayne State University, email@example.com.