Seattle’s iPad-loving librarian vs. books

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MarcellusTurner-30-145x200Washington will soon pick a new Librarian of Congress. May I zero in on an outrageous negative example—to show one risk of choosing the wrong person?

In the past, under Susan Hildreth, ex-city librarian for Seattle, the first goal of the system was to “Fuel Seattle’s Passion for Reading, Personal Growth and Learning.” She and likeminded people wanted the library to “build a community around books.” Exactly! You can love or hate Ms. Hildreth on other matters, but she got the basics right. Reading should be Job #1.

Now compare Ms. Hildreth to her bibliophobic successor, Marcellus Turner. As reported, in the Seattle Review of Books, Turner wants to spend thousands and thousands of valuable library-related dollars to change the name from “Seattle Public Library” to “Seattle Public Libraries.” The real issue, however, isn’t necessarily rebranding vs. none: it’s what kind of creature the reimagined library should be, and books don’t fare well. In a list of “Service Priorities”, the library omits the words “reading” or “books.” Instead Turner and friends go for such language as “Youth and early learning” and “Technology and access.” Turner just cannot grasp the importance of books themselves as a form of access to knowledge, and as a powerful encourager of sustained thought.

City librarians needn’t be reincarnations of Edmund Wilson, but Turner himself is hardly an intellectual Titan. His librarians say that on certain occasions he could not identify which book he was reading (he portrayed himself as more of a magazine fan).

How children and other library patrons suffer under a bibliophobe

Worse, Turner’s under-appreciation of books has influenced library policy. “Last summer, SPL’s popular summer reading program for area children was rebranded as the ‘Summer of Learning’ program,” write Paul Constant and Martin McClellan, cofounders of the Review, in “An open letter to the Seattle Public Library Board of Trustees about SPL’s ‘anti-book’ agenda.” “Instead of books, children were presented with iPads. Parents were livid, and understandably so; a program intended to promote literacy was transformed for seemingly no discernible reason and—this is important—without public input.”

Constant and McClellan did not say whether the program encouraged children to e-read on the iPads. But I wouldn’t count on it. While Turner loves iPads enough for those shiny gadgets to replace books in the Summer of Learning Program, he himself is hardly the biggest reader of e-books if you go by a 2011 statement to a Seattle publication called Real Change. This man just can’t connect the dots. About his own iPad, he said: “I don’t use it as much as I should. It’s very convenient for the quick lookups, for the Google-this, for the Wikipedia-that. I don’t do much with it in other venues. It’s just one more piece of technology to pack, carry. I have it sort of set up by the bed so that I can quickly Google something in the middle of the night. I have a couple books on my phone that I read, but I’m not a big reader electronically, either.

“What I’ve found is that people tend to check out more books electronically and it’s easier to say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to read this, I’ll just put it back.’ Whereas when you check out the physical copies, you think, I brought this big heavy book home, I better try to read it.”

To Turner’s credit, he was sympathetic elsewhere in the interview to self-publishing, which digital technology makes cheaper. But then he more than balanced that out with his lack of confidence in electronic tools and related in-person activities as avenues for the discovery of new books, the very stuff that would benefit self-published authors among others.

Granted, libraries need to go out of their way to remind the public of the existence of e-books—both as a medium and in terms of individual titles. That means everything from digital-smart family literacy programs to colorful posters pushing Book X or Book Y. Ideally, too, it can mean such innovations as cell phone book clubs for young people and their parents—efforts that could help popularize even paper books by associating words and stories with the gadgets that young people and their parents are most likely to carry around these days. Imagine all the new possibilities for highly trained librarians and family literacy workers in general if we want families to discover, enjoy and absorb books despite such obstacles as e-book price gouges by big publishers.

Instead, however, Turner appears to be moving in the opposite direction. “SPL is right now in the process of removing librarians from their role as moderators of book clubs and handing those moderator positions to non-librarian employees,” Constant and McClellan write.

As much as I want libraries to increase expenditures on books perhaps per capita—and I take it for granted they are high in Seattle because of the wealth of the city compared to others—we mustn’t forget the need for qualified librarians to help absorb them. School libraries with enough well-trained librarians fare better than those without them. The same concepts undoubtedly would apply to book club activities in most cases.

A roadmap for Seattleites who want Turner fired

Why is Turner so “actively ‘antibook’”—the Review’s language, based on interviews with SPL staffers? I don’t see any evil conspiracies here, just a mediocrity intimidated by his intellectual superiors in person and in print. Seattle needs to fix this and fire him.

The way the Seattle government is set up, the library board of trustees may be insulated from public sentiment. But pressure on the five-member board through a vigorous publicity campaign—complete with a petition circulated both on and offline, especially in poor neighborhoods—is at least worth a try. Already one library trustee has regretted not doing “a better job” in asking questions about the rebranding. It is also encouraging that when the library solicited options about the rebranding, the majority said no when they found out what the proposed change was about. Mind you, this was an online survey. To hell with low-income patrons who would especially suffer from less focus on reading and books.

Philanthropists and others funding the Seattle library will ideally join the public outcry for Turner’s firing. In fact, Constant and McClellan quote Gary Kunis, a former Cisco vice president said to be “the largest single benefactor,” as disapproving of the proposed changes. Perhaps Kunis can go on to use the F word.

Keep in mind the expected counter-arguments from Turner. He would say that libraries should be about much more than books—that they could provide other forms of text, along with reference services and maker programs and plenty else, including meeting spaces and other people connectors. And, in fact, I would fervently agree. The problem is that that books are so besieged nowadays—check out the 2011 and 2015 book-readership statistics from a recent Pew poll—that libraries need to go out of their way to promote them. And I don’t just mean e-books. Whatever the format, here’s to all kinds of books, even if E is the future! I’m especially keen on paper books for preschoolers who love their tactile feel (even though E should also be available for young mothers and their children).

Lessons for Barack Obama and others in selecting the next Librarian of Congress

So what are the lessons from Seattle for President Obama and Congress as he prepares to nominate a new librarian of Congress to as a permanent replacement for the luddite James Billington.

1. While I would love to see a professional librarian in the LoC job, Turner’s disgraceful record shows the need for the right one.

2. No bibliophobes, please! Librarian or nonlibrarian, this person should genuinely enjoy books in more than a superficial way, just as I’ve said before. Given all the obstacles books are up against these days from know-nothings like Turner, LoC does not need a bibliophobic technocrat or quasi-technocrat as librarian. Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle is a hero of mine for all he has done in the technical area, but I shudder at the thought of him as him as head of LoC.  I’m confident that this brilliant man cares far more about books than Turner does. But the library needs a full-strength book advocate, and instead would benefit most of all from Brewster’s valuable services in a tech-related position under a digital-savvy librarian. While the encouragement of reading is not among LoC’s official missions, I would love for Washington to fix this lapse. Such a book advocate should not mince words. He or she should be steadfast defender of the medium even at the risk of offending Turner-style librarians. I prefer civility. But Turner is inept enough to justify an exception. I’ll repeat my incivility again—three words: Fire this man.

3. If the next librarian of Congress can be an African-American or member of another minority, so much the better when we consider the role model potential here for young people. Librarians and executives in the publishing industry are not deliberately racist. But that, in effect, is what they are—given the disgraceful underrepresentation of black people and Hispanics and others in the book world. Appointing a book-loving minority person as Librarian of Congress would send a powerful message to librarians and publishers that that diversity counts. That said, let me note that publishers and librarians alike can do only so much when our top policymakers and educational institutions have so badly served the students who could become librarians, writers, editors and publishers.

In The K-12 and economic cases for a national digital library endowment, I call among other things for “scholarships and other assistance for African-Americans, Hispanics and other members of minorities to become librarians and serve as book-and-tech-hip role models for at-risk young people.” Remember, nonHispanic whites in the coming decades will be a minority in the United States, and the endowment could expand the pool of minority talent. In the search for diversity, there is no reason to settle for fifth-raters like Turner.

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