Three Cultures

By Tom Peters |

An opinion piece by David Brooks, which ran in the July 9th edition of the New York Times (, articulates a key challenge facing libraries in America today.  Of course, like many an utterance from beyond librarianship that touch on key library issues, this one doesn't actually mention libraries.    

Brooks focuses on the underlying assumptions of two cultures that currently are “at war” in America: Internet culture and Literary culture.  The overt bone of contention is how participation in these two cultures affects students during their formative formal educational years. 

Literary culture has reason to crow.  A recent study ( suggests that sending twelve books home with lower-income students over the summer months significantly improves their reading scores.  This and other studies suggest that having books in homes helps students not only with reading but also with other aspects of formal education.  I wonder if having a Kindle on the proverbial coffee table would have a similar impact. 

The link between Internet culture and the things we normally measure during the formal educational process is less clear.  Brooks cites a recent study ( that found that the spread of home computers and broadband access resulted in “…modest but statistically significant and persistent negative impacts on student math and reading test scores.”  Maybe broadband access will become the new television -- the thing we fear will turn our kids' minds to mush.  TV, rock and roll, drugs, and broadband access may form some weird continuum in the history of our collective fears.
While the effect of these two cultures on student performance is one public battle in this cultural war, Brooks points out – using a broad brush – some of the underlying cultural assumptions.  People who become literary readers enter a vast literary world which is essentially hierarchical.  There are classics, middle-brow lit, and beach reads.  When a student first awakens in the Literary culture, he or she quickly becomes cognizant of a sense of self as novice.  Perhaps with years of reading and study they too may become literate.  

Libraries always have been supportive of Literary culture, complementing the formal educational process.  Our respect for authority extends far beyond authority files.  Libraries are the dark side of this cultural moon.  Everyone knows we're here, even if we're rarely mentioned or studied.  Let's face it:  most students spend more time in classrooms and in homes than in libraries. 

Internet culture has no classics and precious little deference to authority.  It is egalitarian, youthful, and free-wheeling.  Internet culture tends to forget everything but the here and now.  When Charlie Hitt showed me an early web page, I remember commenting, “Wow, that's the best Gopher interface I've ever seen.”  Then we all quickly abandoned and forgot Gopher.  In contrast, when some new literary author comes to our collective attention, we don't promptly forget all the great and good authors who have come before.  It's a Powerball culture, where one good idea can lead to fifteen seconds of fame and a supersized check. 

Actually, I think three cultures are struggling for the respect and affections of librarians and library users:  Literary culture, Internet culture, and Gaming culture.  Gaming culture, the miniature dark horse in this race, seems to be situated between the other two cultures.  There are classic games, respect for rules, and a type of meritocracy.  If you play a game well, you achieve a certain recognition and respect among other players of the game.  But there's also a free-wheeling inventiveness to Gaming culture that intimates Internet culture. 

Sir Rodney, do librarians get any respect in these three cultures?  Publishers, the salon hosts of Literary culture, seem to see us as slightly daft, down-at-the-heels cousins with wild notions about freely lending materials with no out-of-pocket expense to anyone.  In this salon culture we librarians tend to gravitate to the hors d’oeuvres.  We harbor the crazy idea that information wants to be free (an idea that aligns us with Internet culture), and we couldn't monetize money if we formed a special task force to study all the costs and underlying policies and procedures of doing so.  In the past few decades, the publishers may whisper, librarians have allowed their literary tastes to slip, pandering to the need for increased circulation stats.  (Publishers, on the other hand, pander to sales, the true form.)
The movers and shakers of Internet culture probably either don't know about librarians or don't care.  If they give us a thought, they probably think of us as essentially not getting “it” – whatever it may be at the moment, Web 2.0, cloud computing, or the mobile revolution.
I have no idea how gamers see librarians, but the first image that comes to mind is of Sal's aunt in Jack Kerouac's novel, On the Road.  She's mildly suspicious and critical of Sal's friends and lifestyle, but generally patient and supportive.  Better yet, she gives them money, food, and a place to crash before and after their manic cross-country trips.  I bet she wore sensible shoes. 

Perhaps libraries will emerge from this current three-way cultural war as a welcoming, multicultural (in this sense), level playing field, where students and shamans of all three cultures feel comfortable. 

P.S.  There's a trace of snow (Snow) in this blog post, but soon it will leave us (Leavis).