As the widow of Murray L. Bob and as a library supporter for many years, I am expressing my deep concern for the new direction in which Prendergast library seems to be heading.
I realize that Ms. Linda Mielke is taking over a position that has been led by the same people for more or less 50 years, and I am not against change if it is in the best interest of the library. For example, I support any efforts towards restoring hours of opening to the previous ones. If Ms. Mielke can do that, given the current budget constrictions, I would welcome it.
However, other changes seem to me to be engendered by an entirely different philosophy of library direction, one that would make this library unrecognizable to my late husband, Murray Bob.
As most of you know, Murray, working together with Catherine Way as assistant director and a supportive, energetic and friendly staff built this library to be one of outstanding quality. This was his lifetime achievement over a period of 40 years before his untimely death, at which time Catherine Way, taking over as director, continued to be guided by the same underlying philosophy of the library and its mission of education, information and free life-long learning for all.
The collection of books and other materials always stressed that goal. Murray believed passionately that libraries are there for people of all ages and backgrounds to keep their minds growing and their civic awareness up to speed.
The philosophy guiding the James Prendergast Library was one of excellence, based on his strong belief in quality book selection. Though best sellers and popular fiction were bought, they were not obtained in quantity. To my knowledge, people did not complain that they couldn't find two or three copies of the latest Danielle Steele novel. On the contrary, if you asked people about the library, they would have told you that it is one of the best assets of this community, that they could find information and resources not found elsewhere, and, indeed those who contemplated moving here were made aware of the excellent library we had as one reason for relocating to Jamestown .
In a rebuttal to an article appearing in Library Journal, (November 15, 1981 ) entitled "Give 'Em What They Want", Murray wrote ''The Case For Quality Book Selection" (Library Journal, September 15, 1982).
Expressing his dismay with that "demand" philosoph, first introduced by Charlie Robinson in the Baltimore County Public Library System, and which emphasizes popular fiction and best sellers, he wrote: "(this is) the first justification I have seen in print by one of the savants of the current movement to turn public libraries into fast-food chains of the mind."
In case this may have left him open to the charge of elitism, he defined that term as follows:
"Elitism is when you hold people's capacities in contempt. As librarians we show our contempt for people's capacities by overemphasizing the lowest common denominator. In the book world, the lowest common denominator is very often the best seller."
In regard to book selection he said: "Popularity polls are poor guides to utility. And there is no way to avoid judgment in book selection - and selectivity. Judgment in this case requires extensive, in depth, ongoing book knowledge. "
Because his understanding and appreciation of books was profound, Murray received the 1982 Allie Beth Martin Award "given each year as a prize to a librarian who has demonstrated an extraordinary range and depth of knowledge about books." This was a proud moment for Prendergast Library as well as for him.
Those on the other hand who espouse the philosophy of pop culture or "Give 'Em What They Want" in libraries, cite circulation as their rationale for dumbing down the collection, though circulation is only one measure of a good library, and probably not the best one.
To quote Murray again: "Circulation is about as valuable for indicating usefulness as the number of Big Macs, fries and cokes sold is for indicating the general nutritional level of the population ... just as the increased sale of junk food weakens us physically, the increased circulation of schlock diminishes us intellectually. ...A strong case can be made that the most useful books are likely to be not those that circulate most, but those that make a real difference in our lives."
My fear about the future direction of the library is that the philosophy that guided Prendergast Library for years is being changed to precisely its opposite. That is, more copies of pulp fiction and best sellers are being added to the collection at the expense of quality books and materials. Moreover, "popular" books are ephemeral and have a "short shelf life," to use a market term. What role do they have in building a quality collection?
In economic times such as these, taxpayers and contributors who support the library deserve to have their money spent wisely. I am not saying that you should never buy these titles, but that you should not buy them in multiple copies at the expense of more valuable titles that can add to collection development.
Book selection is at the heart of a library. Excellence begins with the staff and its director. It begins with the mission that Prendergast Library has:
"To provide access to information resources, staff, facilities and services that respond to the pursuit of knowledge, lifelong learning opportunities and cultural enrichment of the city of Jamestown and Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties."