Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library by Ed D’Angelo
D’Angelo, E. (2006). Barbarians at the gates of the public library: How postmodern consumer capitalism threatens democracy, civil education and the public good. Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.
In Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library Ed D’Angelo analyzes the effects of postmodern consumer capitalism on democracy. He uses libraries as a framework for his discussion because of their role in educating the public and promoting the reasoned discourse democracy requires to function well (D’Angelo, 2006, p. 1). D’Angelo provides a thorough review of the history of democracy and capitalism, arguing that capitalism was originally more concerned with promoting the public good than with generating profits. D’Angelo seems to argue that the shift in focus to personal gain through business rather than the good of all is the root of the current problem. While some early capitalists may have placed the public good over personal profit, D’Angelo does not convince that all Victorian businessmen subscribed to that attitude.
This book places a strong emphasis on the need for educated citizens for a successful democracy. D’Angelo repeatedly refers to Enlightenment philosophy with its conservative emphasis on a separation between the educated and the mob. While this book is a historical analysis of these ideas, D’Angelo seems to favor them by citing their demise as the beginning of the problem of our overly consumerist society. He harks back to the idea of the unwashed masses who don’t really know what is good for them. The library must provide them with education whether they want it or not, just like a doctor’s medicine may not be what a patient wants, but what they need. This paternalistic attitude is offensive.
D’Angelo makes several good points about libraries, though libraries really are not the focus of this book. Trends to outsource collection development are worrying. Libraries are frequently faced with deciding whether to ensure availability of the best-sellers patrons want or to divert some funds to maintain a well-rounded collection. Reference and readers’ advisory services need to remain at the heart of public libraries. Libraries also need to develop qualitative measures of their benefits to the community instead of relying on circulation numbers. However, D’Angelo’s denigration of popular culture and entertainment undermines his arguments. Libraries can not return to the role of gatekeepers of high culture. Whether or not consumer capitalism is a bad thing, libraries must operate in the world that is, not the world as they wish it could be. Further, with all of his emphasis on educating the public, D’Angelo never mentions the role of libraries in promoting information literacy, a program category that seems ideally suited to his emphasis on promoting an informed populace. (November 6, 2010)