Yesterday’s Odyssey on Chicago Public Radio was about the politics of popular culture. While I didn’t necessarily agree with the conclusions drawn by the show’s guests, they did do a fine job of mentioning a mid 20th century debate in political philosophy. Two thinkers, Benjamin and Adorno, took opposing views on pop culture. Benjamin saw it as a (potentially and in many cases actually) liberating and progressive force. For instance, he liked the idea of movie theaters because the masses and culturally elite could convene and enjoy themselves together. His essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is worth a read and has much to say, as you may be able to guess by the title, about current issues surrounding P2P file sharing, copyright, and creativity. More on that later.
While Benjamin realized that Hollywood (or Nazi propagandists) weren’t progressive or liberating forces, he still understood pop culture and the means by which it is produced to be good things. Adorno, though, loathed the entirity of pop culture, mainly because of the mechanisms of induction found in television and movies.
Anywho, you’re expecting to read about libraries, technology, and library users, but I think that this stuff is germane. Very similar things have been said about computer and web technologies. You know, some think it is bad for us humans, others see it as a democratizing force. Although I agree with Adorno more on the pop culture issue, I take a Benjamin-esque stance on technology. I think that these technologies are potentially (and in many cases actually) liberating things. And it so happens that some libraries are a great example of this. When we use an online database to find an article for a student, we’re using the web (and technological means of reproduction) in a positive way. When we make it simple for students to tap into the library on their own and get the article, we’re using the web in a very positive way. Why aren’t more public libraries doing this? It has become unsurprising, and saddeneing when I’m at a library’s website and they’re don’t offer a high degree of remote connectivity. Clearly this is due to financial, technological and time constraints in many cases, but not all of the time. Benjamin uses the term “aura” in his essay to talk about art, but it is useful in explaining why libraries are perhaps afraid of exploiting the web for all that it can do.
Let’s take a step back and hash out some of this aesthetic theory. Before things could be reproduced easily, pieces of art functioned as authoratative things. High Art was mysterious, and understanding of it came from contact with this aura. He thought that new forms of art, like photography and film, were interesting because there is no original physical piece of art, only copies. Mechanical reproduction made art available to everyone, conversations could be had, and people could derive their own meanings from the art. No more authority, no more aura.
Benjamin states that the desctruction of aura, “is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art.” Certainly it points to libraries and information. Historically libraries have been the keepers of information and in a certain sense, we were the Information Authorities. Technological reproduction, though has changed the public’s perception of this and it makes libraries nervous. By not guiding their patrons though the web as they should be, perhaps libraries are grasping on to the last bits of aura they feel they, or their buildings, have. This is short sighted, and confused because the authority of the library has little to do with its physical space. Does it matter if users access the library while in their skivvies at home? I’d much rather have people use the library from their homes, or mobile devices than have them use a search engine and still not visit the library building. Through actions like providing remote access of online resources, libraries provide more resources to more people while dispelling the myth of the authority of the library’s space.
Food for thought.