The Fetishization of the Library

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

The “fetishization” of books is something that Stephen Abram talked about a long while ago, during the CLA-SLA conference (and which Ryan has discussed more in depth here). You can see examples of this in the dismissal of e-books being less ‘real’ than published ones, or how non-librarians seem to think librarians get to read all day. That’s why topics such as the infamous BiblioTech in Bexar County, Texas provoke such discussion, because it’s a library with no books! No books! Can you imagine it?

But while all of those certainly are important, I’d like to focus on something else I’ve noticed lately that ties into that: the fetishization of the library. Specifically, what appears to be nostalgia for such items as the card catalogue and the due date cards.

For example, the blurb for the shirt above is, “Remember when men were men, librarians were women, and computers were the size of a room? Good times. Don’t let them slip away,” (Unshelved). To fully dissect this statement would mean a small essay, but we see the same sort of dismissal of the digital age as we do with e-books – online catalogues, while more convenient, don’t have the same “soul” as a card catalogue, and the library has ‘lost’ something by switching to digital. There is similar nostalgia for the due date cards: images of them adorn t-shirts and iPhone cases.

Note the dates on that second shirt – they’re all in the 1980s. This phone case is even more dated, with dates spanning from 1926 to 2000! (For what it’s worth, whenever I’ve checked books out at Weldon, the oldest date I’ve seen so far has been the early 1990s.) And while yes, those cards stuck around for a while, I find the deliberate choice of older dates very telling: it’s as if anything more recent isn’t as authentic.

Now, I’m not saying these things aren’t neat or interesting; I definitely think they are! And I’m not saying it’s wrong for anyone to like or want them. But what I do want to say is that it reflects a certain attitude about the library, similar to Abram’s “fetishization” of books – but instead, we’ve fetishized the library of our childhood, back before computers were big, when the librarians still stamped out the date the book was due back on a little card. To be honest, I can appreciate that; nostalgia is a big thing right now, and it would make sense that the bibliophile set has it as well.

However, my biggest concern about this is that is seems to neglect what the library can offer beyond books. Yes, “the library’s more than just books,” has become something of a mantra now, but in this case it’s a true statement. Libraries do a lot for their communities beyond simply giving out books, but focusing on books really diminishes those extra contributions. The library also contains a wealth of digital resources that these items overlook, possibly because having a database search page on a shirt isn’t as attractive. In shirt, the library has more than just books, and digital items don’t need to be shunned.

While I can understand the desire to remember the library of days past, there’s also nothing wrong with looking ahead to the future as well, even if it’s hard to make online catalogues look sexy.


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