Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Future of Libraries

I was in Telis, listening to a patron claim SPL should not have sent his account to collections because we had neglected to send him a certified singing telegram to remind him his book was due in December, when I read the news.

Michael Jackson was dead.

At least that’s what TMZ said. When it comes to gossip, TMZ is your top source. After all, unlike media outlets with scruples, TMZ is willing to lower a cameraman from the roof Mission Impossible style if it means getting the scoop twenty minutes earlier than everyone else. So it was official. The King of Pop was dead.

And then things got a bit nuts.

Hundred of (likely unemployed, nonvoting) people swarmed the hospital. All the radio stations started playing his songs. Some songs I had never even heard before. I think they just pushed a CD in and let albums play straight through. Twitter crashed. TMZ crashed. Perez Hilton crashed. The LA Times site crashed. CNN almost crashed. Nancy Grace remembered that more than one person had died in the past year. MTV was so shocked they interrupted their regularly scheduled marathon of reality TV to show actual music videos. Michael Jackson was the top story in England, Australia and New Zealand. The whole freakin’ web slowed. MSNBC reported that even Iranians had taken time out to discuss his death. Most everyone was talking about Michael Jackson.

This didn’t make some people happy.

Columinist Tim Rutten stated, “Newspaper editors and TV producers undercut the value of serious news media when they let website hits and social media volume dictate their coverage.” Yeah, don’t pay attention to tags and clouds. Other people talked about how we need real news.


Okay, who is this we these real news people are talking about? Maybe they, the minority, wanted real news. Though I do not understand how the death of a cultural icon we have watched for 40 years, who broke through color barriers, who had the best-selling record of all time, who singlehandedly kept half the lawyers, plastic surgeons and paparazzi in LA employed is not considered real news. To me that’s pretty freakin’ real. The way they went on about it, one would have thought seeing news other than Michael Jackson was more difficult than unclicking the entertainment tab. While the real news people were pouting, the majority of us were watching pre-freakish behavior Michael Jackson and pre-tax-dodging Wesley Snipes successfully end gang violence through singing in falsetto voices and pirouetting around a garage structure. (Because nothing says you’re really, really bad like a pas de bourrée-plie-jete combination.) Or we were trying to figure out the dance sequence from Remember the Time. Or we were watching Filipino prisoners reenact Thriller. I was copying the choreography from Beat It so I could avoid another grueling workout with The Firm, when it suddenly dawned on me…

Librarians are the real news people.

Okay, we’re not them…

They dress better than us.

Well, better dress than most you. I’m snazzy 95% of the time.

Dressing aside, too often librarians’ attitudes are that in order for libraries to remain relevant we should only have real items. We get upset with people for not wanting what we want them to want, for not reading the books we say they should read, not watching the movies we say they should watch, not listening to the music we say is appropriate. No one ever goes into depth about what exactly real items are, though we know what they are not---not Manga, or comic books, romances, horror, westerns, science fiction, mysteries, fantasies, pop culture items, or anything involving vampires, werewolves or shapeshifters. In other words, 99.44% of what people want to read is trash, and the only fiction we should carry should involve serious heartache, torment, suffering and longing, and should have passages such as, “Then he touched my inner arm, the barest skimming of a single digit, lightly tracing my blue vein down to the erratic pulsing at my wrist. I flushed, blood racing to pale cheeks, infusing them with color. It was the only touch we would ever share, yet to this day I still shiver in the remembrance of the heat which flashed in the inky darkness of his eyes. In all my years with my husband Henry I never felt anything like it, Henry lacking the full capacity to feel this deeply, and yet I was content with the knowledge that I was loved.”

Should you not want to throw yourself off a bridge after reading a book, it does not belong in our catalog.

We shouldn’t purchase DVDs or CDs---we should only purchase non-fiction books, for movies and non-classical music are an abomination. Yeah, because despite the fact that knowledge doubles every 18 months, we all know that non-fiction books last forever. At least that’s what it looks like when you look on our shelves, where you can find:

---Useless real estate info. (“No money down!” Really? In 2009?)
---New York books from 1999 (Because nothing big happened in 2001.)
---Résumé guides from 1986
---Internet books written in 1994
---Business books from 1987
---Books stating Pluto is a regular planet
---Cookbooks so old the recipes make you nauseous just reading them.

When we talk about it being okay to keep old books, we should have clarified we meant keeping the dribble college students are forced to read like War and Peace and Macbeth, not the space book describing how one day man may go to the moon. Why do we still have Y2K items on our shelves? Why do we have 2005 California Driver Handbooks on our shelves? I can pick up a free 2009 edition at the DMV, but we’ve kept the 2005 editions? What, is there a time machine in the backroom I don’t know about? I was embarrassed to go through Kids’ Place and discover brand spanking new Eyewitness books sitting next to editions from 1989. Forget the weeding list of shelf sitters that allow us to override them and keep items as we see fit, lists that overlooks out of date yet checked out items we rarely see on our shelves to know to toss them. We need a these-are-so-obsolete-you-don’t-have-a-choice-we-will-tie-you-to-a-chair-and-remove-them-by-force-if-necessary list. On June 25th there were 500 corrections to Michael Jackson’s Wikipedia page alone because everyone else in the world realizes updated information is a good thing, yet librarians can decide to keep outdated shelf sitters because someone in 3012 might want need it???

Don’t give me this it’s-a-real-book garbage when it comes to keeping items no one checks out. Yeah they’re real all right…real old. Stop freaking out because there might be empty spaces on the shelves. We need empty spaces. What do we do whenever we need more money for the library? We send out a bunch of polyester-blend wearing librarians to talk to news crews, hair hanging lanky around our unmade faces, and we talk in front of a gazillion books about how we need more money for…books. Then we wonder why no one gives us money. If we really want money we need a well dressed person to stand in front of empty shelving and tell reporters, “You know all those books you thought we had? They were beauty guides written in the 1970s.”

And while we librarians talk about how we should put real stuff on the shelves, meaning something insightful and intellectual, are we actually bothering to check out all this real stuff? Because I sure as heck don’t, and to be honest, I don’t know who does. The people I know are singing Crazy For You on break and discussing how SPL copies of Zack and Miri Make a Porno are missing the Make A Porno line on their covers. We’re checking out Dean Koontz, Linda Howard, Mary Higgins Clark, and our sole reason for reading East of Eden was because we were hoping Oprah would invite us on her show. The only trash we're not checking out are dating books and items so trashy we won't put them on hold because the circulation staff would find out. We fuss at the public for wanting us to buy more copies of Scary Movie, but when we want to check out Paul Blart or Get Smart or Transformers we claim, “That’s different!”

So do I think the future of libraries is in making wikis when the public already has them? Do I think it’s in gaming or telling them to read all the boring books I pretended to read in college? Nope. The future is in realizing it’s okay to want popular items because popular is typically a synonym for up to date. The future is realizing everything we buy is trash and should be trash simply because the world is changing so quickly nothing published is going to last, meaning in the long run, it doesn't matter if we purchase some DVDs. It’s in understanding that entertainment can coexist with intellectual pursuits.

The future is in librarians getting over ourselves.


  1. You're a great writer--so funny.

  2. Ex-cuse me. I don't wear polyester!!!!

  3. Did I say your name when mentioning polyester? Nope, because I've never seen you in it, and I don't think they would trust either one of us to behave if they stood us in front of a camera. (Well, they wouldn't expect me to behave...)

  4. "Should you not want to throw yourself off a bridge after reading a book, it does not belong in our catalog."

    Wahaha. I would love to see this in our collection development policy!

    And I totally agree with you about library staff always making exceptions for the trash we personally like (it's a guilty pleasure), while scoffing at the trash the public likes.

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  6. Maybe every librarian should write two lists---one item listing everything we feel shouldn't be on the shelves, and another list containing everything we like to read and watch. Because claiming we listen to Beethoven while reading Jane Eyre sounds a lot better than admitting we're reading vampire romances and listening to Pour Some Sugar On Me.

  7. Regarding Michael Jackson...I found out about his death on Internet Movie Database. Since I catalog nearly all of SPL's DVDs, I was looking up something about a movie on IMDB when there was a 1/2" bright red ribbon across the screen right below IMDB's masthead: "Michael Jackson dead at 50"

    What?? The kid I listened to singing "Rockin' Robin" while in the car on the way to junior high school, or the guy in the Captain EO 3-D film at Disneyland? Dead? I quickly checked Sacbee.com, USAToday, and LA Times...all had the same headline. Michael Jackson, 1958-2009.
    I'll probably always remember where I learned about MJ, just as I heard about Elvis when I turned on the radio in my car as I headed out of the parking lot at Sac State.

  8. Several years ago when I was working the RA desk at Carmichael, a patron complained about the library owning books by Danielle Steel. I countered with, "It's Danielle Steel that brings people in the door, not Dostoyevsky. But go a little beyond Steel on the shelves, and you'll find Steinbeck and Stegner."

    Long live werewolf/vampire/shapeshifter paranormal romances!

  9. Yeah, I don't read Beethoven while reading Jane Eyre!
    But I do listen to Mozart while reading Jane Eyre.... :)
    But I agree with you 100%. And I've really tried hard to make sure there are no books in FAI Children's that still state Pluto is a planet.
    Rock on!