Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Regardless of what the barrage of advertisements tells you to the contrary – you will not find the best deal in any store or on any website this Black Friday. Certainly, there will be opportunities to save a sizable sum on various knickknacks and soon to be obsolete electronics – if you plan on rising before dawn, that is, only to have the privilege of realizing that you still had not gotten in line early enough. The start of the holiday shopping season has finally arrived – let us give thanks that we do not have to go to work by making life difficult for those who have had to be at work since before dawn. Nevertheless, the opening sentence still holds true, for the best deal this holiday will not be found in any of the stores that have been promising you the best sale.
Indeed, if you want to find a truly marvelous bargain – a place with prices so cheap it’s almost like stealing – than the place to go is the library. Yes, the library – where you will be greeted with shelves bursting with books, magazines, DVDs, and rows of computers – and while you may be expected to share these things with others, the price for use is fantastically low. Beyond the offers you may find at the mall or the big-box store – the deals at the library this Black Friday will really be the best. Granted, the so-called “deals” you will find at the library this Black Friday bear more than a passing resemblance to the same deals you would find at the library on any given Friday, or any other day for that matter…but still – a bargain is a bargain.
[Important aside – not every library will be open on Black Friday, it is recommended that you double check your local library’s hours before going. Nevertheless, if the library is not open on Friday it will likely be open at some point in the following days (and really, its best to just stay in—if you can—on Black Friday).]
It may be the case, in fact it likely is the case, that many people will find the library’s offerings pleasant but not sufficient for the purposes of fulfilling the holiday shopping imperative. After all, it matters little what a library has to offer if people will be expected to return the items to the library after they have finished enjoying them. To a certain extent it is tempting to reply to this with a reminder about gift receipts and about the likelihood of gift recipients returning the gifts they have been given, but there is a difference between returning a gift to a shop and returning a book to the library. Still, the point is a fair one: the things you might pick up from the library are not gifts that a person can truly regard as their own.
But is that really such a bad thing?
The holiday season provides a yearly brouhaha in which many people, for a variety of reasons, engage in the ritual of togetherness and gift giving. Frankly, at its best, there can be quite a lot to be said for the spirit of these times. For this is the time of year when we are culturally encouraged to give generously – even if this giving spirit is too often couched within an expectation of reciprocity. We may spend much of the year being directed to face inwardly and focus upon what we receive and how we can ensure we receive more – but even amidst the consumerist bacchanal of the holidays we are granted permission to think of others again. Granted, we are primarily told to think of them in relation to what we can buy them.
The sorry decline in our gifting capability, and the way in which it is turned into so much fodder for buying things, was mulled over, back in 1944, by no less a festive personality than Theodor Adorno, thus:
“We are forgetting how to give presents…Even private giving of presents has degenerated to a social function exercised with rational bad grace, careful adherence to the prescribed budget, skeptical appraisal of the other and the least possible effort. Real giving had its joy in imagining the joy of the receiver. It means choosing, expending time, going out of one’s way, thinking of the other as a subject: the opposite of distraction. Just this hardly anyone is now able to do. At the best they give what they would have liked themselves, only a few degrees worse.” (Adorno, 46)
At the core of Adorno’s invective is the consumerist euphoria that surrounds rituals like descending upon shopping plazas with the coming of the holiday season – wherein the act of giving gifts seems subordinated to the adventurous hunt for deals. While the simple fact is that many people must carefully adhere to a “prescribed budget” – the question remains whether a bout of shopping is really a suitable prescription for what is ailing us. Are we truly thinking of others as subjects when the best we can think to do is give them more objects?
Thus we return to the library – precisely because what we receive from a library is something that we recognize others will receive as well. When we enjoy, and return, a library item we are able to partake in an ongoing cycle that is a close cousin to gift giving – for we can imagine the joy (or other emotion) that these items will provide for others. By engaging with objects that continue to circulate we remain subjects ourselves within a broader network of similar subjects – we remain humans amongst whom objects move. In other words – a library is a location where the holiday spirit, the aura of convivial sharing and the ethos of mutual aid, extends beyond a couple of weeks a year. That one encounters this spirit in a library on the hottest day of summer in addition to the coldest day of winter is not to devalue the proverbial “holiday spirit” but to suggest that perhaps we have forgotten “how to give presents” because it has gone from being an integral part of our regular life to being part of a rather closed off yearly ritual.
So, when you think about what gift to give to your loved ones this holiday season – and as you gaze upon advertisements promising you the best deals that will certainly delight the receivers – take a moment to ponder what kind of presents will make their presence most powerfully felt throughout the whole year…and then skip the mall and take your family members to get (or renew) their library cards instead.
At least that way, when they bring things back to be returned, they will genuinely be keeping with the holiday spirit.
Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. London: Verso Books, 2005.