Richard J. Severson

I wrote this essay in response to the Littleton school shooting in 1999.  It was originally published in American Libraries (August 1999).  I was a librarian at Marylhurst College in Oregon at the time. 

Amid countless distractions, too many young people are choosing their own engrossments without the notice of parents and mentors.  Building bombs and imitating Nazis are attractive to some teenagers who don’t understand yet what makes life good and worth living.  Perhaps this society has glorified the notion of consumer choice to such an extent that we neglect to realize that children can’t be expected to make the best choices.  Young minds need guidance, and they need time to develop the proper values. 

Also disturbing for me as a librarian—a believer in the power of literature to enrich us and shape our characters for the better—is the likelihood that young people are missing out on the opportunity to benefit from a good book.  They are confronted with so many distractions.  “Why read Dostoyevsky when I can turn on the TV or go to the movies and watch one powerful tale unfold after another?”  There’s no time to linger over a good story because another one of equal entertainment will present itself almost immediately.  In order to benefit from reading, we must become engrossed and captivated.  I wonder if children today have the time for that.

Perhaps it’s quixotic and presumptuous, but I’ve been thinking about what the library profession might do in response to Littleton.  How can we help stop this nonsense from happening again?  My suggestion is that librarians need to become stronger moral leaders.

Too much junk

The first thing we might do is to revisit one of our own classics: Helen Haines’s Living With Books.  Haines had no qualms about telling people what they ought to read for their own good; she saw it as a librarian’s responsibility.  But we live in a different era now, with new commitments to diversity and critical theory that make talk of a canon seem paternalistic, Eurocentric, hegemonic, or just plain silly.  Not only that, the sheer volume of literature in all genres and fields that has been published over the past three-quarters of a century makes the task of selecting the best practically impossible.  None of us can be as well read as Haines was for her time; there’s just too much being published now. 

Despite the difficulties, librarians must take a stand about what is worth reading and what is not.  Too much junk on the Internet and elsewhere is passing for good reading material.  Too many young people are floundering in a sea of babble.  We don’t appreciate politicians who take polls before making decisions; perhaps librarians should stop relying so heavily upon user statistics and surveys in deciding what’s good for the stacks. 

Another thing we might do is critique and revise our traditional moral commitments.  How appropriate is it to champion the issues of freedom and noncensorship at a time when the real cultural dilemmas center around the question of shared values?  The rights of individuals not to be interfered with have been pressed so strongly that we are in danger of losing many individuals—particularly young ones—to their own solipsistic horror films.  At some point, we need to stop believing that freedom is the only value worth upholding.  We need to do our part to ensure that all people share a core set of values, such as respect for others and do no harm.  Left to their own devices, uncensored and unguided, some young people become nasty murderers.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do morally is to get it right about what kind of crisis we actually face.  Librarians have been too willing to adopt the rhetoric of the “Information Age.”  We promote information literacy—how to sift through all the stuff available on the Web in order to find what’s helpful, for example—as if it were a skill that substitutes for what it meant to be a good reader once upon a time.  I question the value of reducing the library to an information center.  That’s not our mission.  What we really want to promote is understanding, and that’s the kind of crisis we face: a crisis of understanding.

Information and understanding

How many people live in Portland, Oregon?  That is an informational question.  Information is the bits of knowledge that we store in reference books and databases to answer straightforward questions about matters of fact.  How does photosynthesis happen?  That is a knowledge question.  It can’t be answered with a bit of information.  A process must be explained by someone with expertise in the field of botany.  How should we raise our children?  That is a question of understanding.  It can’t be answered with a bit of information, nor can it be explained fully by an expert in one field only.  It requires knowledge of many different things, such as nutrition, child development, the law, morality, and medicine.  More importantly, it requires that we be able to synthesize all of our knowledge and apply it wisely in everyday circumstances.

Understanding is the end product of reading; it’s what we read in order to gain—the personal enrichment of being better able to imagine and interpret what happens around us.

In the March 1998 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Edward O. Wilson suggested that we need “consilience” in order to combat the fragmentary nature of our incredible knowledge base.  Every discipline has its own burgeoning body of literature, and it has become impossible even for devoted scholars to master a portion of what counts as important in their chosen fields of study.  This is our crisis: how to communicate across the trenches separating our isolated interests, our ghettos of knowledge.  We have been blessed with so much sustained scholarly inquiry that we have lost the handle on how to hold it all together.  Wilson’s consilience is just a fancy word for understanding.  Understanding, according to philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, is the fusion of horizons that happens when different minds meet.

Which profession should be promoting the synthesis of all knowledge that comes from wide reading?  That’s what librarians should be doing.  It’s our moral calling to promote books and other materials that help us bridge the growing gaps between schools of thought, subcultures, even high school cliques.  The promotion of literacy is not enough anymore.  We need to promote a certain kind of literacy, one that will more surely build real understanding.  We owe it to our society.

1 Comment

  1. dougaverill says:

    As pointed now as then!


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