The Thinking 

The Modern Library — Enemy of Reflection

May 23, 2014


A new reading room

A new reading room at the St. Louis Public Library


ALAN writes:

Culture lovers will be pleased to learn that this week is “Hip-Hop Appreciation Week” at the central St. Louis Public Library.  This is the same library about which I wrote about four years ago and which re-opened two years ago after a big, expensive renovation.

An article afterward noted that visitors to the renovated building ooh-ed and aah-ed.  This is an example of what you once called “the superstitious veneration of technology.” Everything about the renovated building screams New, Now, High-Tech, The Latest, Cutting-Edge Movies and Music. If I were a cynic (which I am), I might ask:  Do those things make Shakespeare better?  Do they improve Aristotle, Milton, Aquinas, Burke, Franklin, Jefferson, Bronte, Browning, Carlyle, Scott, Dickens and Twain? Are language, philosophy, religion, history, and science made better by being shelved amid all that bright, shiny, high-tech décor?

The building is situated between a Christian home for vagrants and a Christian church that caters to them.  People who live downtown are sick and tired of the vagrants and want them out of the area.  One morning last week one of the vagrants knifed and killed another on a sidewalk between the library and the church.

If there is anything hip and cool, you may bet this Library will celebrate it.  Hip-Hop Week is the current example.

A slick flyer promoting this event features a young black male wearing a hoodie against a background festooned with spray paint.

We are to “honor the history and culture of hip-hop,” the flyer proclaims.  It is “a unique American art form.”  There’s no doubt about that:  Most people in other countries have enough sense to recognize vandals and frauds for what they are.  Only hip, cool Americans are stupid enough to call them “artists”, the noise they make “music”, and the vandalism they commit “art.”

When New York subways were defaced by spray-paint thugs in the 1980s, who could predict that their vandalism would be commemorated thirty years later in a movie to be shown during Hip-Hop Appreciation Week?  How many Americans in 1959 could have foreseen that defacing other people’s property with paint would someday be called “art” and celebrated in their libraries? Two days ago I walked past a nearby building in whose entryway someone had painted the words “Bum Scum.” Doubtless just a coincidence.

The Library is one of those institutions through which the Radical Left has been making its long march—with absolutely no resistance.  Its directors take it as axiomatic that Left is right. Anything hip, cool, feminist, queer, LGBT, black, iconoclastic, multicultural, Left-leaning, or not-so-quiet gets the OK. Whatever is not any of those things does not even exist.  A building dedicated to the achievements of Homer, Dante, Virgil, Shakespeare, and other eminent writers must now accommodate the pretentious junk promoted by “hip-hop artists.”

“Black History Month,” the “Civil Rights” revolution, Halloween, and Hip-Hop Week all get heavily promoted.  But there will never be any display—or even mention—of the achievements of patriotic black writers who do not genuflect to the Radical Left, like Elizabeth Wright, Clarence Thomas, Shelby Steele, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, George Schuyler, Ezola Foster, Larry Elder, Ken Hamblin, or the Lincoln Institute.

Among the casualties in the Library’s much-ballyhooed renovation were the historic identity of a library and the 7-story stacks tower which had stood secure for a century without any damage from earthquakes or fire.  Tens of thousands of books were discarded.

In an age when the interior voice is drowned out in shopping malls, restaurants, retail stores, supermarkets, and sporting events, one might think that a library would be one of the few places remaining where the interior voice could be heard and cultivated.  But one would be wrong.  The interior voice involves no cutting-edge glitter or technology.  So who needs it?

A showpiece of the renovated building is the so-called “Center for the Reader.” This is either satire or Orwellian Newspeak. The senior librarian who worked in the pre-renovated building thought the name was ridiculous.  She has since retired. She was right. No library department or room I have ever visited was less conducive to the act of reading. Entryways on all four sides mean that people are constantly walking through, asking questions, or chatting with each other or library staff or on their phones, in conversations including casual profanities.  People sit at tables and chat. The recorded words “Going up” and “Going down” from nearby automated elevators are heard throughout the day. How can the interior voice be heard in such a setting?

The department for children and the “teen lounge” are just down the hall.  There is cutesy furniture for children to climb and play on.  There are colorful computer terminals where children can sit and deaden their brains.  When groups of children are escorted on tours, it is plainly evident to the ear that the children are firmly in charge, having trained their adult guides to say “Shhhh!” at regular intervals.

The children’s department is weighted with hundreds of new, colorful books promoting every Leftist cause you could imagine.   The new, the flashy, the gadgets, the movies, and the music—this is what groups of children are taught the Library is about.  Library staff speaking to such children emphasize that it has “the latest technology” to make it easier for them to enjoy all those things.  The act of reading is seldom mentioned.  The interior voice is never mentioned.

The Library in 1959 did not offer comic books, but it does today.  Except that they are not called “comic books.”  They are called “graphic novels,” yet another example of Orwellian Newspeak.

Some of the Library’s literary attractions include books like Nasty Boys, Dark Duets, Pussey!, and The Big-Ass Book of Bling, all of which I am confident would have been treasured by librarians in 1959. Then there are hip and cool music CDs like Going To Hell [“Clean Version”] by the talented group Pretty Reckless.

This is the same Library whose directors a hundred years ago described it as “a place for serenity rather than excitement.  ….This structure is a library building—not an art gallery, a museum, or a place of excitement.   ….In addition to the education obtained from books is that which comes from surroundings of quietude and refined good taste.”   [ St. Louis Public Library booklet, 1912 ]

It is as if modern Americans are not willing to do one thing, do it well, and leave it at that.  The St. Louis Public Library has always functioned properly as a library. It still does. The senior librarians are knowledgeable and courteous.  It has a wonderful collection and offers excellent service.  But that is not enough, because enough is never enough for Do-Gooders or Leftists who are bent on making over every remnant of traditional America.  There must always be more:  More flash, more gimmicks, more “services,” more functions, more festivities, more concerts, more movies, and more fun for all.

People who use libraries for their traditional function do not demand that cafes, movie theaters, music stores, community centers, and playrooms for children be made over also to become a library.  So why must a library be made over into all those things?  A library was once a building purposely set apart from such places.  Now it has been worked over to become just like those places, replete with people hooked up to their trendy gadgets to show everyone how hip and cool they are.  Veblen would have a field day making notes on these new examples of conspicuous display.

What we have witnessed in the makeover of American libraries is a revolutionary act.  To read, to write, or to think requires the interior voice. To erase or minimize places where that voice can be cultivated and will be protected is, in effect, to discourage thought and promote mindlessness.  People who don’t or can’t think are easier to control than those who can and do.

A 1939 painting that hangs in the Library today shows men seated around a library table, each with a book, each intently engaged in reading or writing.  There are no toys, no gimmicks, no distractions, no one listening to music, no one speaking into a phone, no one sleeping at the table, no one annoying anyone else.  There is also no diversity.  In those years, people who ran libraries understood what the interior voice is and why it must be protected.  [ The painting can be seen here.]

American libraries once endeavored to uplift.  Now they pander to the lowest common denominator.  Is there a better example of this than the folderol called hip-hop “art”?


Part of the new additions to the St. Louis Public Library



The Great Hall of the St. Louis Public Library

The Great Hall of the St. Louis Public Library

 — Comments —

Paul T. writes:

Those photos of the St. Louis Public Library look as sterile and about as inviting as a microscope slide. Will patrons be encouraged to spray-paint the interior, I wonder?


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