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Let’s take some Shakespeare out of context

March 8, 2011

This past week I had a rather frustrating phone call while on desk. A patron was looking for Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway, one of the top dead white men writers. Usually MCPL is really comprehensive about the classics, but for some reason we only had this book on CD. Upon hearing that we did not have the book, but Wells did, the patron went on a rant about the fact that we own full runs of whatever romance author, but we don’t have the classics. She wondered if we had some sort of arrangement with IU so that we could just buy the “crap” we buy. We don’t. Then she said that these days our shelves look like something she’d see at a gas station. Not even a book store. MCPL apparently collects on the same level as a gas station. Here’s my thing, though…what’s so wrong with a gas station?

There is nothing I hate more than the idea of “high art.” There was a time when I went in for that whole notion, but that was back in high school when I was just figuring out and embracing what it meant to have good taste. And yes, once I realized that I tended to like critically-praised things, I would sometimes lord my taste over people. Just people I didn’t like though. These days, I do still think I have good taste, but I don’t think that means that anyone else should necessarily be made to consume what I consume. My “good taste” is also quite inclusive. I adore my Faulkner and Yeats, Makavejev and the Maysles, but I also love zombie movies, really crap action and sci-fi movies, and America’s Next Top Model. Entirely schizophrenic taste, but still good. Certainly not something I’m going to use to lecture at people about what they should or should not consume.

You could probably trace the turn in my relationship with the term “high art” back to Oberlin when I decided to be a Film major. I had been on the, generally more useful, path of Anthropology, but Oberlin is not a great place for that major. Also, I didn’t enjoy it the way I enjoyed talking about movies, which is the key to rejecting “high art.” Going after what you enjoy. Not what’s smart or good, just what’s fun. It’s an interest I’ve had to defend, mostly against my dad who believes books to be a far superior media to anything contained on film, but not one I feel is a waste of my time. These arguments have also contributed to my distaste for “high art.”

I should quickly clarify that I don’t dislike the things labeled “high art,” just the label itself and the mentality that supports that sort of valuation.

When I got to SLIS, I was very surprised to find that many of my classmates really believed that, as public librarians, we should be trying to get patrons to read the classics instead of the latest Twilight book. Also, any media other than books was spoken of in entirely dismissive tones, as if there was something wrong with checking out a handful of DVDs rather than a handful of books. There are many problems with this mentality, top among them being that this attitude doesn’t fly in practice at public libraries and it ignores the fact that some people learn differently. It’s just a confounding opinion to hear coming out of the mouths of future public librarians. It makes me sad on the inside.

But yes, there is no such thing as “high art.” There is no place for such valuation in a public library. After all, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” right? If a patron asks for a general recommendation, then you can exercise your personal good taste, but generally they’re just going to want another book or author like something or someone they already like. Sure, maybe you could get away with recommending Frankenstein or Dracula to those looking for more books like Twilight, but they’re probably going to prefer a recommendation of The Vampire Diaries or the Sookie Stackhouse novels.

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