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Oh, Deary

If you have any interest at all in libraries, you’ve probably come across an article quoting children’s author Terry Deary’s opinion* on the future of libraries – namely that there isn’t one.  Unlike the glut of other authors who are supporting the campaign to save libraries, Deary believes that libraries “have had their day” and are  “cutting [the] throats” of authors and that this “is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature.”   Deary claims that he isn’t attacking libraries, but rather the concept behind them.  I would argue that he doesn’t understand the concept behind libraries at all or how they fit into a successful society.

 

1. Libraries introduce readers to new books, which is good for authors.

I would argue that very few people only find new books by buying them.  Many people end up buying a large portion of the books they own because they have already read that particular book or have already read a book by that author or part of that series and enjoyed it.  Books are expensive to buy, difficult to resell, and hard to judge based solely on a cover blurb.  If readers were forced to purchase every book they read blindly, there would be much more balancing of cost vs. potential enjoyment, which could lead to many readers simply choosing not to buy books.  When readers are allowed to “test drive” books first by checking them out in the library, they are able to explore and learn more about their own reading tastes, therefore making them more confident in buying books.  Deary was the seventh most borrowed children’s author in UK libraries last year.   That means that thousands of children were introduce to his books.  It’s likely that many of those children would not have heard of Deary or read his books without access to a library.  Deary might think libraries are the enemy of author’s profits, but he’s wrong.  Libraries aren’t the enemy, obscurity is.

2. Libraries offer more than books.

Deary’s argument seems to be based on a rather outdated view of libraries.  While the library might have originally starts to connect individuals with books, that is far from their only purpose now.  Libraries offer multiple items, including movies, magazines, CDs, databases, computer programs, and even items like seeds.   Additionally, libraries provide a myriad of services.  They offer job hunting seminars, tax prep, tutoring, crafting programs, movie nights, ESL classes, computer classes, printing and copying needs, access to the internet, game nights, and music programs.  They serve as museums, meeting rooms, art galleries, archives, study rooms, and cafes.  The roles a library can play in a community number in the hundreds and only a part of them have to do with lending books.

Additionally, Deary claims that we do not expect other entertainment subsets to give out their materials for free, but it’s  a faulty comparison.  For one, as I mentioned before, libraries do offer movies, music, and games for lending.  Also, when comparing books, songs, and movies on a strictly cost basis, books will lose.  If I want to see a new movie, I can do so for $5.  If I want to buy a new song, it will cost me $1-2.  If I want to buy a new book, most of them are going to cost me considerably more than that.

3. We do have a responsibility to offer access to information and literature.

Though some might not agree with this claim, I would argue that we do still need to fulfill our responsibility of allowing all users (“impoverished” or not) access to reading material and needed information.  For many individuals, the library is the only way they are able to access the internet, to find materials to read, or to get the information they need.  To deny anyone the ability to do this is incredibly classist.  An informed society is a better society and libraries are needed to keep society informed.  We can’t simply rely on the internet, because the internet isn’t curated or verified.  And, anyway, relying on the internet is pointless if individuals can’t afford to access it and not longer have libraries to do so.

In an era where literacy is much, much lower than it should be, libraries provide a vital service by connecting readers to books and offering tutoring and other literacy services.  American isn’t the only country with this issue; the UK has problems, as well. If 15% of the UK adult population is reading below the level expected of an 11 year old with libraries in existence, how do you think they would fare without them?  If only 40% of England’s 10 year olds have a positive attitude towards reading now, how many of them will have one if they have to pay exorbitant amounts to do so?  Reading and literacy are both linked to education, personal, professional, and societal success more than almost any other factor.  Why would anyone want to make it harder for individuals to do it?

4. The concept of receiving a service for tax money isn’t exclusive to libraries.

Deary argues that libraries are offering a service for free at the expense of tax payers and this is a negative thing.  However, that is the entire point of paying taxes.  We are able to use roads for free because we paid taxes.  The workers who built those roads are paid royalties every time I drive over them.  We are able to receive schooling because we paid taxes.  Teachers aren’t paid every time a student asks a question.  In the UK, citizens like Terry Deary are even able to receive healthcare for free because they paid taxes.  Society is getting a valuable service in exchange for a small portion of the money they make.  In the UK, authors are even paid a special royalty for the books that are purchased by libraries.  It isn’t as if the library is paying $20 for a book and the small percentage that goes to the author is all he will get.   The author receives 6.2p every time one of their books is borrowed, up to a cap of £6,600.

5. Libraries are not killing bookshops.

Deary attempts to back up his claim that libraries are harming bookshops by stealing their sales.  This argument holds very little water considering both libraries and bookshops have existed for hundreds of years side by side.  Independent booksellers are definitely hurting now, but that isn’t because of libraries.  It’s because of chain stores or internet sellers like Amazon.  It’s because e-books are becoming more popular.  And, ironically enough, it’s because book pricing issues caused by publishers and authors makes it difficult for small shops to compete.  Getting rid of libraries will not help those bookshops, but it will hurt the community.

 

Luckily, there are many other authors, bloggers, librarians, and politicians out there who do not agree with Deary and are willing to fight to preserve the much-needed libraries.  For more reading, check out:

Why Terry Deary is Wrong

An Open Letter to Terry Deary

Why We Shouldn’t Ignore Terry Deary & 5 Ways to Help Your Library Right Now
 

*Deary has since tried to “clarify” what he was saying, but I’m not buying it.  Those quotes were not mercilessly edited; they were pretty clear.  His response just seems like a lot of backpedaling now, coupled with a very, very outdated view of libraries.

Librarian 2.0

This semester I’m taking a class focusing on libraries and Web 2.0. This week, one of our readings was a paper by Helen Partridge entitled “Librarian 2.0: It’s All in the Attitude!” We were asked to reflect on our readings and I wanted to share some of my reflections here.

Last semester I took a Transformative Learning and Technology Literacies class where we addressed Learning 2.0. That class (and I suspect this one, as well) was an eye-opening experience for me, but not in the way I expected. I was in high school when blogging, Myspace, and personal websites began to become popular and college when Facebook, Youtube, and Wikipedia began. I, and those around me, integrated the idea of the read/write web into our lives fairly easily and I often have a difficult time remembering the time before it. Therefore, I often forget that this isn’t necessarily the case for many people involved in the library and information fields or many of the library users. Learning about the issues surrounding Web 2.0, defining it, and figuring out how to incorporate it into the field has helped me not only better understand Web 2.0, but also the experiences of those whose background is different from mine.
This is partially why I found the Partridge article so interesting. It was fascinating to read the various responses concerning “Librarian 2.0.” Seeing how professionals in the field defined it and viewed their participation in it prompted me to think about several things I hadn’t before. I could discuss the entire article easily, but for the sake of space I wanted to touch on a few items from it that really struck me.

The first was the section that stated “One participant commented on the fact that we do not insist that all librarians like to read, so why than [sic] should we insist that all librarians have a Web 2.0 presence?” (Partridge, 2011, p. 258). This is an interesting point and I both agree and disagree with it. I don’t think it’s necessary that every librarian have a large Web 2.0 presence. Though the field is evolving, Web 2.0 is certainly only one aspect. However, that’s greatly simplifying the situation. A lack of love of reading won’t necessarily negatively affect a librarian’s ability to do is or her job. For example the ability to sit down and enjoy a novel isn’t necessary to provide good reference service. Focusing solely on Web 2.0 would be to the detriment of the field, especially since a large part of the user population doesn’t need or isn’t able to access that type of service. However, the lack of willingness to adapt to Web 2.0 could negatively affect a librarian’s ability to do his or her job as we move towards a more digital culture. It’s not necessary to be an expert, but an attempt to understand is definitely a benefit not only to the patron, but to the librarian. After all “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less” (General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff, U. S. Army).

A second section that struck me was the idea that “Participants unanimously agreed that the 2.0 librarian should possess a complex array of personality traits. One participant even declared that personality traits were more important than skills” (Partridge, 2011, p. 260). While I certainly don’t agree that personality traits are more important than skills, the idea that Librarian 2.0 should be flexible, adaptable, and willing to try new things is something I agree with. In fact, the idea that the library and information field is one that is changing, and in many cases changing rapidly, is part of why I’m so excited to be a part of it. It’s one of the few fields where we have the ability to experiment with new platforms and different subjects, while still working with the users to best serve them.

Dead White Men Aren’t The Only Authors Worth Reading

Today, the fantastic Maureen Johnson linked to this article, the latest in the attacks on what kids are reading. The author’s argument is…odd, to say the least, especially for an educator of at-risk youth. The first thing that struck me was how this article was simply dripping with disdain for his students. Obviously, I don’t know Nazaryan or really know anything about him, but if I were to base my view solely on this one article I would guess that not only did he not understand his students, but he felt he was above them. This is not an appropriate attitude for a teacher to have. It’s a pretty harmful one, in fact. His disdain for his students isn’t the point of the article, however. He compounds this harmful attitude with the opinion that (with the apparent exception of Sappho) long-dead, white, male authors are the only ones worthy of reading. To quote:

We need less Myers and more Homer – and not in Cambridge and Oxford, but in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Southside Chicago. …Do I congratulate myself? Very well, I congratulate myself. I hit upon an idea – with plenty of help from my colleagues at the Brooklyn Latin School – and I want others to emulate it. I want them to put away the Walter Dean Myers and dust off Homer, Virgil, Sappho, all of Beard’s bemoaned lot.

I have two problems with this stance. First, while I agree that teaching classic and “literary” literature should be a part of the high school curriculum, why must primarily works by privileged white men be all that’s taught? There was no mention of the myriad of excellent writing by authors of color, authors without privilege, or other female authors. This could have been merely an oversight on his part instead of intentional, of course, but wouldn’t an English teacher who really valued those other works have made sure to mentioned them? Academia has a history of ignoring minority and female writers, but many schools are attempting to remedy this. Instead, it seems Nazaryan would have us move in the other direction. This would be bad enough in a school full of upper-class white students, but to do so in a school full of underprivileged minority students it’s pretty shameful. Actually, you know what, no. It’s shameful in either case. All students should be exposed to a variety of authors and their viewpoints, not just those of the privileged white male. By telling students that white males are the only authors worth reading, he’s telling every one of them who isn’t a white male that their own opinions and contributions and experiences are somehow less.

My second problem is with his view that young adult literature that mirrors the lives of the students is not worth reading. As I’ve written before, I believe that YA literature can and should hold an important place in the classroom. Since I’ve covered it recently, I won’t expound on that view again here, but, suffice it to say, his view that non-classic literature is not worth reading does not improve my opinion of his argument.

He also espouses the idea that literature’s sole purpose is to elevate. He says:

I think that because I am an unashamed, unapologetic believer that the purpose of literature is to elevate. Not to entertain, to problematize or to instruct, but to take what Hamlet called our “unweeded garden” and revel in its thorns. Not to make the world pretty, but to make it true, and by making it true, make it beautiful. All real art is high art.

This, in essence, makes him a literary snob. Having been an English major at a small liberal arts college, I am very familiar with this particular brand of literary snob. Now, despite disagreeing with their opinion, them holding said opinion isn’t a problem. Having high standards or preferring a certain type of literature is perfectly valid. To each his own. However, when that opinion is thrust upon another, particularly students who are still trying to form their own opinions, that’s when it becomes a problem. Nazaryan wasn’t lamenting that his students weren’t reading. He was pointing out that they were reading the “wrong” types of literature. Wrong, of course, being determined by his own standards. Standards which are seemingly based not on educational value, but by personal opinion.

The other problem with this is that he doesn’t seem to realize all that’s contradictory in his claim. He states that the purpose of literature is not to entertain, but then uses the fact that it entertained his students as reason for his methods to be valid. He claims that it shouldn’t instruct, but seems unaware that much of the classic literature he loves did have instructional purposes. He wants literature to make the world true, but doesn’t understand that the classics aren’t the only works that can do that. He seems to have a very narrow view of what is the truth of the world. Why couldn’t the truth of the world be the one the students are experiencing? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to read about their own truth instead of his? Why should their experiences be silenced, while those he believes are right are emulated?

One of the most common complaints of young non-white readers is the dearth of literature that imitates their own lives and experiences. I’ve heard and read time and time again of complaints by readers that there aren’t enough narrators that look, sound, or act like them. If there are books by a well-respected, award-winning writer that the students not only relate to, but devour, who is Nazaryan or anyone to tell them that they shouldn’t be reading them? That they’re not worthy? I am of the opinion that any reading is good reading. The fact that the students – some of whom, as he said, had “a 5-year-old’s command of the English language” – were reading at all is what’s important. To try to stop them from doing so simply because he thought the books they were reading were “insipid” (And really? Insipid? Is he serious?) is irresponsible. Encouraging them to expand their horizons and exposing them to more difficult literature is one thing. But claiming that it should only the classics and nothing else is ridiculous. Why can’t it be both? Why can’t a student enjoy Virgil and Meyer? Why couldn’t he, as a teacher and authority figure, show his students that literature is a diverse field to be explored and enjoyed, instead of yet another clique filled with only the “right” people?

I’ve not doubt that Nazaryan had the best intentions, but that doesn’t excuse his misguided viewpoint. I admire his drive to push his students to go beyond what was expected and beyond their situations, but, unfortunately, his methods in doing so just took them out of one box and put them in another.

 

The Literary Merit of YA

A few days ago I came across an article entitled Beyond Relevance to Literary Merit: Young Adult Literature as “Literature”.  In it, the authors argued that YA literature should be accepted as legitimate “literature,” especially by high school teachers. They state:

We have found, both in our teaching and in our personal reading, that a considerable body of young adult literature can withstand the test of close literary scrutiny. We consequently argue that the next move is to engage those who might otherwise question young adult literature’s literary merit in what Peter Elbow describes as a “believing game”, thereby helping them become more receptive to the possibility that young adult literature is not only about subjects and themes that are relevant to adolescent readers, but that its treatment of those subjects and themes reflects a level of sophistication that invites serious interrogation on the part of readers eager for a marriage of intellectual and affective engagement.

They go on to note a few examples that suggest that our definition of literature and what has literary merit is not clearly defined and often simply based on the fact that a certain book is canonical (and taught), while another is not.  The test one professor conducted asking literature students to identify whether quotes were from adult books or YA is pretty telling:

They freely admit that when they identify an excerpt as coming from a young adult text, it is usually a guess based on inferred clues about a character’s age or circumstances…What is important to note, however, is that they rarely make a selection based on style—that is, they do not argue that one excerpt is more simplistic in its portrayal of character, setting, or perspective.

As someone who has read, and loved, a great many YA novels, I’m often disappointed by the lack of respect they receive. They tend to be dismissed based almost solely on the fact that they are written for a teenage audience, without regard for any other facet.  It’s true that there are some terrible YA novels out there, just as there are terrible adult novels.  It’s also true that some of these terrible novels become inexplicably popular, again as with adult novels.  But, while fiction written for adults isn’t dismissed simply because there are a few books out there that shouldn’t have made it past the query stage, YA fiction isn’t offered the same treatment.

I’ve heard it said that YA novels simply do not lend themselves to analysis and that’s why they aren’t taught or used in schools more.  I would argue that perhaps the reader isn’t looking deeply enough in the text to see the possibilities.  Many YA novels contain the same themes that canonical literature do and can be more relatable for the students.  In Salon’s recent article asking readers which books they would ban from schools, the author suggests that some of the literature taught in schools isn’t effective because students can’t fully comprehend the context surrounding them. Whereas they can easily recognize Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother as commentary on Post-9/11 America and oppressive government, understanding A Tale of Two Cities and how it relates to the French aristocracy’s oppression of the peasants pre-revolution can be difficult for many students.  This isn’t to say that canonical literature shouldn’t be taught, but why only teach it?  Why not teach Doctorow and Dickens together?  Or Maureen Johnson’s Devilish with Faust?  Or Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games with Greek and Roman mythology?

Anyway, check out the original article for a really great argument in favor of teaching YA, as well as some good reading suggestions.