As a great opponent of a previous generation of book-burners, Max Liebermann, put it, "I only wish I could throw up as much as I have to swallow." The librarian in the Rare Book collection at the New York Public Library was telling me why I couldn’t have access to the medieval manuscripts, and why I couln't arrange for my students to access them, either: You see, she said, these are very, very fragile old books that are made of parchment, and they’ve been in a major exhibition, so the parchment needs to rest. Lady, I wrote the goddamn book on the preparation of parchment, you've got it in your own collection. So now you're telling me the widdle bookies need their rest? You gonna tuck 'em in at night and tell 'em a bedtime story? Fine, just don't tell me any fairy tales.
Don't get me wrong, I have the greatest respect for librarians who know their job, and this was not one of them. A fish rots from the head down; so does a cultural institution. The New York Public at its upper echelons has long been in the hands of the MBAchurian candidates, cultural zombies waiting for the right signal to make the place "productive," and their first step is always to make the place unproductive to begin with, and the first step towards that is making sure you hire ever more idiots. A capitalist, as Walter Benjamin might have put it, is someone who delivers cultural objects from the curse of having too much use-value and not enough exchange-value; so I don't really hold it against anyone for belittling my research or making books inaccessible to my students. Actually, I do hold it against them; I'm not surprised, is all. They had to destroy the Library in order to save it.
The same stunt was tried a few years back in Washington, DC when the Library of Congress moved to close down its European Reading Room, a much used, much valued access point for its enormous collection of foreign books. The same stunt was pulled when CUNY's School of Public Health moved to East Harlem: each time the zombies claim the new space is meant to "attract more visitors," "to better serve the Community." Then they turn around and use the space for fundraisers to entertain the community of their fat-cat friends, the bondholders who will get richer even from the tax free-bonds floated by the library, the museum, the school. CUNY, for instance, inserted a gallery into its new, ticky-tacky building uptown; it's used mainly for fundraising; the limos lined up on 119th Street are an inspiration to the Harlem community. Meanwhile, in France last week, a momentous change has occured: Nicolas Sarkozy lost his presidential immunity, and there's a glimmer of hope he'll be indicted, among other reasons, for a kickback scheme involving a new museum that never got built. In France at least, you sell off the Louvre and you've got a chance of getting caught. In America they put your name on the front of the building.
Daniel Boorstin, the late, politically conservative Librarian of Congress, noted with alarm that the mission of cultural, not-for-profit institutions was gradually shifting away from research and intellectual productivity towards providing an “educational” experience. What he did not note (being a conservative and therefore hopelessly naive in matters economic), was that this shift represented a movement todwards the monopolization of Culture. More and more, the new, "global" cultural institutions like to describe their functions as “educational,”and the educational experience they propose is not skills but an Experience: not knowledge but social capital; the stated mission of the institution is to help its audience acquire social capital through the consumption of the “cultural experience.” And the purpose behind that mission is to help finance capital seize control of libraries and other cultural institutions and exploit them for the only purposes they understand: consumerism.
As Boorstin put it in his retirement speech, The Librarian of Congress is supposed to help people learn, and not preach to them or even teach them.That’s what Boorstin must have meant when he drew the distinction between cultural preservation and cultural education; unfortunately, cultural preservation is not a growth business. Wasting taxpayer dollars to reward the construction industry, is. Boorstin also said, We must abandon the prevalent belief in the superior wisdom of the ignorant. He meant, presumably, the audiences who, would be “educated” by the magic of building bigger museums and turrning libraries into bars: I’d rather he had said, We must abandon the prevalent habit of rewarding bureaucratic and political incompetence that pose as a wisdom superior to the ignorant and educated alike.
3/31/2008 12:56 pm; revised 6/22/2012