ASSOCIATES (2013, July, v. 20, no. 1)


Return of the Living Gatekeepers: How Information Austerity Will Save Public Libraries

Brandon Hackbarth
St. Paul, MN

We see or read about it everywhere, in mainstream and even many alternative publications or broadcasts, at any time of day: the public sector seems to be in somewhat of a demonized tailspin. Anything from labor unions’ struggles with collective bargaining, to slashed hours of operation and reductions in personnel – the public sector is a moving target, and a wounded one at that. Incredulous as it may seem, libraries are also caught in this figurative cross-hair. Yet in spite of these drawbacks the public library continues on. However, this cycle of reproach will continue, for the issue isn’t strictly political but rather of philosophical import. It is one that has quite surreptitiously oozed and embedded itself into the collective consciousness of the public library. I am referring to capitalist “corporateering” in general, and how it has manifested itself within the public library. Defined as “prioritizing commerce over culture; one who prioritizes commerce over culture” (Court) this empathy, which has articulated itself in various ways – from outsourcing acquisitions and cataloging related tasks, to violations in patron privacy – has, at the very least, caused ethical confusion on behalf of library professionals, and at worst, created brainwashed automatons. After all, libraries have evoked sympathy for and actively sought after private sector/capitalist practices. But this decision is due to a misperception, a case of mistaken identity: their perception of what the public sector, and by extension, the public library was designed to be has been skewed – not only by pundits, but also by corporate influence.

I wish to persuade you that corporate tactics, specifically as it applies to collection development, is not a means to an end … at least not a mutually beneficial one. As a result, public libraries’ collections fail to accurately represent patron interests/values. Rather, they are simply an extension or conduit of mainstream “pop” information – largely misleading, uncritical and homogenized. Above all, many public libraries don’t feel particularly “local” any longer. Are we to provide what patrons “expect” or what they “need” in order to be informed citizens? But who decides what the public “needs”? And on what criteria? I also seek to illustrate an alternative solution to this information impasse; specifically, public libraries need to better integrate non-commercial voices/materials produced by local authors, community outreach workers, historians, artists, zinesters, musicians etc. into their collection. In other words, stop buying what your vendor tells you to buy and utilize the community itself for qualitative material.

A public entity or service is essentially an extension or manifestation of the social contract – it does not necessarily seek to uphold the status quo, but rather the common good. My concern is that “status quo” and “common good” have become synonymous, interchangeable terms. Unless the public librarian becomes more engaged in local, grassroots outreach and promotion – and yes, dare I say more discriminating in terms of what materials are acquired and offered to their patrons, the public library, as originally conceived, will be replaced with a business model akin to that of a bookstore. In fact, this transformation cannot be prevented – only reversed. Libraries are lightening rods for and disseminators of information. In terms of scope and content of materials offered, they are also highly influential in shaping public consciousness. But what happens if our understanding of what constitutes meaningful information has been impaired? Assuming that the very concept of librarianship is rooted education and self-empowerment, a librarian perpetuating lop-sided disinformation is guilty of a serious public disservice.

While no library can reflect their respective public’s every informational need, they certainly shouldn’t try to be so … bland, or, mainstream in their holdings. Despite their populist intentions/aspirations public libraries should be grounded in humanism and education: an endeavor represented via their holdings. And this aspiration shouldn’t be viewed as a sort of idealistic “sidetrack”; rather, is should be incorporated into any library’s collection development plan. Strangely, this urge may seem to go against the very essence of patron service, or at least a certain aspect of it. But surrounded by mainstream misinformation, libraries must aspire to offer an alternative to what their patrons have become accustomed to seeing and reading everywhere else. The seemingly regressive role of a “librarian as gatekeeper” may cause library professionals to gasp and shudder. But one must consider that this stance can be used not to prevent patron access, but to filter out useless, corporatized non-information; a kind of reverse-psychology. Is it crazy to suggest that measures of “information austerity” be implemented; that such measures will serve to reinvigorate, even strengthen the librarian’s position within their community? Not at all.

Many argue that the general public has less and less need for research or educational materials, but rather more for entertainment. In fact, I’m sure many see no need for a public library to carry a research collection at all. But “what people want is not necessarily the same as what people would want if they were sufficiently well-informed to know what their best intentions were.” (D’Angelo) In order to convince patrons that public libraries are not in the business of satisfying their desires for instant entertainment, librarian’s first need to reaffirm their roles as educators and re-establish the canon, so to speak – especially in terms of civic education. The resources we need to expand upon the possibilities of the social contract is already at hand. Although the widespread application of these solutions is admittedly a difficult goal, they are at least quite easy to recognize.

Primarily, it is of utmost importance for public libraries to partner with local special libraries, community colleges, as well as with artists, musicians, authors, cartoonists, performance artists, and the independent publishing community. Although many public libraries lack the staff and volunteers – not to mention the financial and networking resources to implement these changes alone – one way to attract such people and introduce locally influenced, objective and alternative publications is by being proactive in organizing and hosting various public festivals. For example, Utah’s Salt Lake City Main Library’s Zine collection, which was founded in 1997, and has since developed into a full-bodied alternative press collection. As of July of 2011, they boast 6,000 independently published materials – which, from the perspective of a public library is practically unheard of. In fact, it’s the first model of its type, and this development was largely influenced by the library holding an annual Alt Press Fest. Another example can be found in Saint Paul, Minnesota. About a month ago I participated in the Saint Paul Public Library System’s Maker Fair, in which local artists, crafters and technologists shared their creations at an all-ages gathering. I represented the Minneapolis Community and Technical College’s Library and promoted their Zine collection – the largest of this type in Minnesota. We instructed visitors on how to make a simple one-page zine and explained the history and social purpose of zine-making. But above all, it was an absolute thrill to see so many community members actively participating in a grassroots, community-driven campaign.

By regularly engaging the public with festivals and other platforms which reflect alternative viewpoints, libraries will send a message of social betterment and inclusion, not of “passive consumption”. But if libraries wish to be perceived almost exclusively as information hubs used merely to store and dispense books, periodicals, and DVD’s – and not as a living, breathing institution acting in concert with its patrons, supporters, and community at large then there is no need to reverse the trend of being implicated in our culture’s obsession with instant entertainment and zero objectivity. By staying the course, libraries will without a doubt become yet another blank monument to our destructive appetite for consumerism. Consequentially, any library attempting to offer alternative/educational material will be viewed as a “charming”, or worse – a potentially threatening “oddity”.


Brennan, Tracy. “Failures in Neo-Corporatism: A Random Walk through a University Library.” Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out. West, Jessamyn Ed. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., (2003):59-61. Print. MCTC Library.

Court, Jamie. Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom — And What You Can Do About It. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2003. Print. MCTC Library.

D’Angelo, Edward. Barbarians At the Gates of the Public Library: How Postmodern Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education And the Public Good. Duluth, Minn.: Library Juice Press, 2006. Print. MCTC Library.

Stringer, Jacob. “Alt Right There.” Salt Lake City Weekly: 22. Alt-PressWatch. Jul 07 2011. MCTC Library.18 April 2012.