Chad Comello

Libraries, culture, typewriters

Tag: Summum bonum

A skeptic’s “Glance at the Public Libraries” of 1928, from H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury

Watch out, world: we’ve got ourselves a 90-year-old hot take!

In the June 1928 issue of The American Mercury, a periodical edited by the famous journalist H.L. Mencken, there’s an article by Fletcher Pratt called “A Glance At The Public Libraries”. I stumbled upon the issue while processing material at the Frances Willard House Museum. It was there because of the article about Willard in the same issue, but the library article was what first caught my eye.

Pratt, a writer of science fiction and history, worked at Buffalo Public Library for a time and used that experience to write this sardonic, dismissive, sexist contrarian take on the public libraries of that time.

Why read it at all? First, as a historical artifact, it provides valuable context from a different era. Second, even though it’s almost 100 years old and, to modern minds, retrograde in its view of library workers and their work, I think it’s important to read contrarian perspectives on issues close to one’s heart and mind. Librarianship is my career and one I love, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore criticisms of it.

It’s also just plain funny, in a tongue-in-cheek, insult comic kind of way. Pratt goes Don Rickles on the profession in a way only someone familiar with it could pull off.

So let’s consider what Fletcher Pratt tells us about how public libraries have changed since 1928 and in what ways they remain the same, if at all. I recommend reading the whole thing to get the full experience. But let’s take a look at some of my favorite parts:

It begins:

Every public library in the United States now places restrictions on the use of fiction.

Librarians, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. Restricting fiction seems laughable now, given how popular and dominant it is in the book and library worlds.

American librarians, in fact, have become obsessed with the idea that the national literature will go to the dogs unless they persuade their customers to read something beside fiction. Indignant papers in the library journals and long discussions at librarians meetings are given over to the great question of how to keep the public from reading what it likes and how to induce it to read the moldering stacks of books it doesn’t care about.

That’s what I mean about funny.

Three classes of books—travel, biography and history—are held in orthodox library circles to be the best antidote to this depraved fondness for works of the imagination. To these the best shelves are given, for them the special bulletins are printed, and on them the lady attendant spends the best efforts of her cajolery to make her percentage of nonfiction circulation high.

A favorite device for increasing circulation painlessly is to require every reader who uses a reference book to fill out a slip for it.… Another potent scheme is to take books into the schools; a third is to offer vacation libraries of twenty-five or fifty books for the summer. Are they read? Who cares? It makes circulation, and circulation, in the librarian’s mind, is the summum bonum.

Here is where things get a little more familiar to us moderns. Circulation remains the summum bonum of the profession, however much local value and subject matter still factor into collection development. If a book doesn’t circulate, it won’t last long in a space-limited library.

Nothing is more curious to the outside observer than the typical librarians’ preoccupation with the infinitely little. Recently, for example, an angry controversy raged through the library world as to whether Radio or Wireless should be the heading under which books on the subject were classified. … In the library where the writer once worked hours of discussion at a staff meeting were given over to the absorbing question as to whether it was better to hold a book in the left hand and insert the charge slip with the right, or vice versa.

Book in left, charge slip in right. Wanna fight about it?

This tireless energy over trivialities argues that small minds are at work, and sure enough, there is a certain lack of intelligence among librarians. The reason is not far to see; intelligence follows the cornucopia, and library work is probably the worst paid of all intellectual vocations.

In our defense, tedious discussions about trivialities are hardly exclusive to libraries. But if you’re mad about Pratt asserting a lack of intelligence among librarians, you’re definitely not gonna like his reasoning:

Since girls first discovered that it could furnish them with pin-money while they waited for someone to love them, library work has been a prime favorite with the female of the species. It involves little labor, and that of a highly genteel character; it demands no great mental ability and it places the husband-hunter who enters it on public exhibition, where she can look over and be looked over by all the nubile males of the district under the most refined auspices.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest Pratt would not have fared well in the #MeToo era. Next he tackles library school:

In no case does the course extend beyond two years, and the pedagogues have had to drag in such subjects as the History and Philosophy of Printing to make it last that long. Before the schools got under way the libraries trained rather better staffs than they have now on a month’s lectures with practical experience. The truth is that there is very little to teach; any literate person can learn all there is to a library system in a few weeks. Consequently the library schools have to drill their future B.S.’s and M.A.’s in the beautifully vague principles of “library economy,” and to impress them with the importance of such details as inserting the charging slip with the right hand, or lettering the title on a thin book in the proper direction.

I’ll save the discussion about the pros and cons of library school for another post. But “beautifully vague principles” mixed with arcane details is pretty spot-on—and why I love libraries so much. He then tips his cap to Andrew Carnegie, patron saint of library buildings:

There are never enough branches to go round, but the head librarians, pushed from below by their staffs and from above by aldermen anxious for pork, do their best, and so new branches are added apace. The fund established by the obliging Mr. Carnegie makes it easy; all the city has to do is furnish the books; the Carnegie fund will put up the imitation Greek temple and even the funerary vegetation around it.

Finally, Pratt touts the Newark library as the “highest peak” of effectiveness, unlike that of its neighbor:

Right across the Hudson is the great New York Public, in any one of whose vaulted corridors Newark’s whole collection would be lost. The contrast of striking. In the New Jersey institution one watchman is at the door and a whole corps of eager assistants stand ready to help the visitor; in the marble monument to the Astors one may count a dozen policemen in neat horizon blue idling about to enforce the library rules, while one poor boy struggles vainly with requests for information.

The God Of Freedom

Andrew Sullivan highlighted this post by a woman named Rachael, the daughter of Matt Slick, the founder of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM). Rachael is now an atheist, largely in response to what (at least according to her post) was a spiritually abusive upbringing at the hands of her fundamentalist father.

To sum up: For a long time, Rachael was the “perfect” Christian child. She memorized Bible verses, passionately debated esoteric theological principles, and even “spouted off” religious arguments in college philosophy classes. She was so certain of her beliefs and took solace in the strength of her intellectual prowess. But soon the arguments she would make turned into questions of her own. The one that particularly stood out: “If God was absolutely moral, and if the nature of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ surpassed space, time, and existence, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?” She concluded that there wasn’t an answer for this:

Everyone had always explained this problem away using the principle that Jesus’ sacrifice meant we wouldn’t have to follow those ancient laws. 
But that wasn’t an answer. In fact, by the very nature of the problem, there was no possible answer that would align with Christianity.
 [Emphasis hers.]

She felt a “vast chasm” opening up in her identity, hearing a voice that said The Bible is not infallible. If it’s not infallible, you’ve been basing your life’s beliefs on the oral traditions of a Middle Eastern tribe. The Bible lied to you. “

I was no longer a Christian,” she said.

I recount her story here because I think it’s important to see how Rachael has jumped from one religious extreme to another without considering that there’s a middle ground. I’m blessed to have been reared in a positive, spiritually loving Christian home, so I can only imagine how difficult it was for Rachael to have endured such a destructive and rigid environment, and then to have her long-held and cherished assumptions smashed. In that context, I can understand why she has swung so strongly to the opposite end of the spiritual spectrum.

But I don’t think Rachael ever understood the crux of Christianity. She certainly understood it intellectually (or at least her father’s version of it), but by being so thoroughly fixated on the word of the law she seems to have ignored its spirit and its embodiment in Jesus. Reason was her idol, her “summum bonum identity” that was so easily destroyed when it came under attack.

But she has a new idol now. When asked whether she would have traded her childhood for another, Rachael said she wouldn’t:

Without that childhood, I wouldn’t understand what freedom truly is — freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful. 

Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.

This is ridiculous. Again: she has an understandably emotional aversion to the concepts of obedience, purity, and God. To her, obedience equals blindly following orders; purity equals punishing oneself for one’s humanity; and God equals a distant deity. But God is not the one who has lied about these things, and worshipping freedom is just as destructive as worshipping religion. Lord knows we Americans love to worship the god of freedom, but that also means we’re enslaved to it. We must have our guns, sugary drinks, money, land, power, sex, and so many other desirable but worthless things. We’re so subject to our whims and selfish desires that anyone trying to fight against them — a politician, pastor, or Jesus himself — is shouted down and has the Constitution thrown in his face.

I believe in freedom just as I believe in beauty, love, grace, joy, and many other blessed things in this world, but I don’t want to be enslaved to them. Only when used in tandem with obedience to their creator can they be fully realized. Since she barely mentioned Jesus in her article, I’m guessing this is why Rachael has such a perverted view of Christianity. Good things alone will never satisfy without the will to obedience towards Jesus. This true obedience — not the abusive, authoritarian kind of obedience so many erstwhile Christians like Rachael have unfortunately endured — gives us the freedom to rely upon something bigger than our fractured selves.

Despite becoming an atheist (and kind of a smug one at that), Rachael is no less religious than when she was a kid. Now, instead of worshipping words, she’s worshipping the god of her own volition. That probably feels better for her than what she had before, but it’s just as misguided.

The Summum Bonum Identity

Someone on the Internet once said something to the effect of: “I’m not a writer; I write.” Writing, for example, is something you do, but it’s not who you are. You might really love writing and consider it integral to your life, but it isn’t your very essence–at least, it shouldn’t be.

I’m re-reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. In a section about the social consequences of sin, Keller argues that when societies and individuals cling too strongly to any belief or entity other than God, that ultimately broken belief will become the essence of their identity and will let them down. He quotes Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue, which argues that a human society fragments when anything but God is its highest love: “If our ultimate goal in life is our own individual happiness,” Keller summarizes Edwards, “then we will put our own economic and power interests ahead of those of others. Only if God is our summum bonum, our ultimate good and life center, will we find our heart drawn out not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general.”

The question then becomes: What is your summum bonum? What is your utmost identity? Our recently endured presidential election season provided ample proof that many people cling so tightly to their political views that it basically becomes who they are instead of merely what they believe. When that happens, civil discourse becomes impossible and anything approaching compromise is deemed impure and even cowardly. Keller sees the problem with this: “If we get our very identity, our sense of worth, from our political position, then politics is not really about politics, it is about us. Through our cause we are getting a self, our worth. That means we must despise and demonize the opposition.”

I think it’s especially easy for religious people to fall into this trap, despite good intentions. It understandably becomes hard not to transfer the ardent passion attached to a deep-seeded belief in God or whomever onto other less divine issues. But as Stephen Colbert said, the road connecting politics and religion runs both ways; if we insist on forcing our religious identity into our politics, our muddied and corrupt politics will come right back into our religion.

Walt Whitman was right: I contain multitudes. I act as a son, brother, friend, significant other; I study, I write, I read, I work, I create… I identify with all of these roles, but any one of them doesn’t define me because I don’t rely on one to give my life meaning. I can argue with people who disagree with my views on politics or music or religion because my views aren’t me. They’re just the tools I use to try to make sense of life. They can be beautiful, inspiring, enraging, or intriguing–but they can’t be everything.

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