Essay on wave of sinister clown sightings and Orrin E. Klapp's 'Heroes, Villains and Fools'

In late August, residents of Greenville, S.C., began reporting to police that one or more clowns had been observed attempting to lure children into a wooded area. It was an odd moment in a year that had already seen more than its share.

Since then, reports of sinister-clown activity (e.g., threats, assaults, the brandishing of knives and standing in place while waving slowly in a menacing manner) have gone viral throughout the United States, with a few now coming in from elsewhere in the world. Professional clowns are distressed by the damage to their reputation, and Ronald McDonald has gone on sabbatical for an indefinite period.

Like many anomalous phenomena -- UFOs, for example, or appearances by Elvis or Bigfoot -- clown sightings tend to come in waves. The recent spate of them has been unusual in both its geographical range and its emotional intensity -- although I suspect that coulrophobia is in fact the normal, even default, emotional response to clowns in any context. A study of children’s response to hospital decorations conducted by researchers from the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Sheffield in England found that “clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them frightening and unknowable.” And over the past 30 years or so, a strain of pop-culture iconography has tapped into that basic anxiety and amplified it with a series of overtly horrific clowns.

Some of the recently reported incidents involved people wearing commercially produced horror-clown masks. Whatever deep psychological wellsprings may have driven the clown sightings of previous years, the current cycle is, at least in part, a performance of mass hysteria -- an acting out of uncanniness and anxiety, with some individuals playing the menacing part in an almost standardized way.

Trying to make sense of this funny business, I did a search of my digital archive of journal articles, conference papers and whatnot in hopes of finding a paper -- by a folklorist, maybe, or possibly a psychoanalyst -- that might help elucidate the clown question. The most interesting material to turn up was by the late Orrin E. Klapp (1915-1997), a sociologist, whose first book was Heroes, Villains and Fools: The Changing American Character (1962).

Sections of it originally appeared as journal articles; a few of them made passing reference to clowns and clowning. But in these pieces, Klapp is interested in something more general: the range of fairly informal labels or categories we use to characterize people in the course of ordinary life. Examples he gives are “underdog,” “champ,” “bully,” “Robin Hood,” “simpleton,” “crackpot,” “cheat,” “liar” and “big shot.” (“Clown” is one of them, of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

What intrigues Klapp about such labels is that they reflect, but also enforce, prevailing values and social norms. Some express a severe judgment (“traitor”) while others are relatively inconsequential (“butterfingers”). New labels or epithets emerge from time to time as others fall out of use; they are part of the flux of everyday life. But Klapp argues that the labels implying particularly strong judgments fall into three general categories that do not change much with time: the hero, the villain and the fool.

“The most perfect examples of heroes,” Klapp writes in one paper, “are to be found in legendary or mythical personages who represent in a superhumanly exaggerated way the things the group admires most.” Villains are “idealized figures of evil, who tend to countermoral actions as a result of an inherently malicious will,” prone to “creating a crisis from which society is saved by a hero, who arrives to restore order to the world.”

The contrast between hero and villain is clear and sharp, but not exhaustive. “If the villain opposes the hero by exaggerated evil traits,” writes Klapp, “the fool does so by his weaknesses, his métier being failure and fiasco rather than success. Though an offender against decorum and good taste, he is too stupid or ineffectual to be taken seriously. His pranks are ridiculed rather than severely punished.”

These three almost archetypal figures are seldom encountered in their purest form outside of fairy tales or superhero comic books. But most of the labels applied to people in the course of ordinary life can, in Klapp’s view, be subsumed under them. (The underdog is a kind of hero; the traitor a form of villain; the fanatic a variety of fool.) The symbolic figures and the everyday labels alike “help in the preservation of values” and “nourish and maintain certain socially necessary sentiments” -- such as “admiration of courage and self-sacrifice, hatred of vice, contempt for folly” and so forth.

Preservation of consensual values and the proper nourishment of socially necessary sentiments were major concerns of American sociologists of the Eisenhower era -- and Klapp’s framework was, in that respect, both normative and normal. But there’s more to his argument than that. He worried that mass media and propaganda techniques could exploit or corrupt those sentiments: Klapp’s papers on villainy and vilification in American culture concern, in part, the then recent success of Joseph McCarthy. He also deserves credit for paying attention to the significant ideological baggage carried by ordinary language.

The clown, in his schema, definitely falls under the heading of the fool -- but with a difference. As someone deliberately accepting the role, inducing ridicule rather than just succumbing to it, the clown exemplifies what Klapp calls the paradoxical status of the fool as “both depreciated and valued: it is at the same time despised and tolerated, ridiculed and enjoyed, degraded and privileged … He also acts as a cathartic symbol for aggressions in the form of wit. He takes liberties with rank; and as butt or scapegoat receives indignities which in real life would be mortal insult or conflict creating.”

Klapp draws close to an insight into a type of clown he doesn’t seem to have recognized: the menacing kind, in Greenville or elsewhere. For the clown, on these terms, has reason to want revenge, to wreak havoc as much as the villain does. (Here one also thinks of a certain political figure with an orange face, unnatural hair and a strange combination of extreme self-centeredness with no discernable self-awareness.) The stock of widely accepted heroic figures may be at an all-time minimum, while neither clowns nor villains are in short supply, and it’s getting harder to tell them apart.

Editorial Tags: 

Big 12 Decides Against Expansion

The Big 12 Conference will not expand beyond its current 10 members, the league announced Monday, dashing the hopes of several college programs that have been lobbying to join the conference over the past year. "Ten is the right number," Gregory Fenves, president of the University of Texas at Austin, a Big 12 member, said in a statement. "It promotes a competitive balance and allows for a round-robin schedule in the different sports, which is best for our student-athletes. This is the right way to ensure a strong conference moving forward."

The news likely came as a disappointment to several institutions that have increased athletic spending in recent years in hopes of receiving an invitation to one of the wealthier Power Five conferences, of which the Big 12 is a member.

“The Big 12’s decision in no way changes the mission of the University of Houston that began long before there was talk of conference expansion,” Renu Khator, president of the University of Houston, one of the colleges that had hoped to join the Big 12, said in a statement. “We remain committed to strengthening our nationally competitive programs in academics and athletics that allow our student-athletes to compete on the national stage. We are confident that in this competitive collegiate athletics landscape an established program with a history of winning championships and a demonstrated commitment to talent and facilities in the nation’s fourth-largest city will find its rightful place. Our destiny belongs to us.”

Ad keywords: 

Nike Co-Founder Gives U of Oregon $500 Million

The University of Oregon on Tuesday announced that it would receive a $500 million gift from Phil Knight, Nike’s co-founder, and his wife, Penny. Oregon said the gift, which may be the largest ever received by a flagship public university, will be part of a $1 billion project to create a new science campus in Eugene. The largely donor-funded interdisciplinary campus will train scientists while also focusing on entrepreneurship and ties with business, said the university.

The new campus will consist of three new 70,000-square-foot buildings, a conceptual rendering of which appears at right.

“This is a seminal moment for the University of Oregon, an inflection point that will shape the trajectory of the university and this state for the next century and beyond,” Oregon’s president, Michael Schill, said in a written statement. “Thanks to this amazing and generous gift from Penny and Phil, we will aggressively recruit and hire talented new researchers to join our world-class faculty to amplify what we do best -- interdisciplinary scientific research.”

Schill said the Knights will now be the university’s largest academic donor. They had been the second largest. Phil Knight also has been a serious benefactor to Oregon’s football program. In 2014, USA Today reported that he had given more than $300 million to the university’s athletic department.

However, Knight has in the past spurned Oregon, his undergraduate alma mater. He is giving $400 million to Stanford University, where he earned an M.B.A., to support a scholarship program for graduate students.

In an interview, Schill said the Knights would not have given the new money if the university was still part of the now defunct Oregon University System, which the state dismantled in 2015. Independent governing boards now oversee the former system’s seven public universities.

The system played a “leveling” function across its various universities, Schill said, which would have complicated the university’s ambitious plans for the gift. “We never would have gotten this gift if we were part of the system,” he said.

In addition, Schill said the Knights wanted to see “stable leadership” at a university that has recently seen frequent turnover at the top.

New presidents or provosts: Aquinas Central Piedmont DeVry Everett Joliet Macaulay Piedmont Sheridan Trident UWF

Smart Title: 
  • Stephen Barrows, program coordinator of the economics department at Aquinas College, in Michigan, has been appointed executive vice president, provost and dean of faculty there.

Competency-based education's business model offers promise, report finds

Smart Title: 

Competency-based education can save money for colleges and students, a new report finds, but the efficiency gains won't come easily or without worries about the impact on academic quality.

The importance of having diverse administrators on college campuses (essay)

It’s the gray chair. You know, the one across the desk or at the edge of the cubicle occupied by a financial aid counselor, academic adviser or other staff person on campuses everywhere. As colleges and universities have welcomed students back to school and freshmen have begun their much anticipated college years, these gray chairs have been in high demand. As an undergraduate then medical student, I occupied that chair more times than I can count, and more than a decade later, I still remember it well. More important: I remember the staff members who sat across from me.

Today I am an academic pediatrician at an Ivy League institution. When I retrace the path that brought me here, I recall my relationships with staff members as much or more than those with faculty members. In their own way, they were equally -- or even more -- important.

That was especially true for my undergraduate years, when as a female minority student, I watched the rapid decline of pre-meds who looked anything like me. During those years, you would often find me perched in my gray chair, talking to my favorite staff members about life, goals, relationships, clubs and organizations. They were the ones who supported me through the sorrow of my mom’s losing battle with cancer, the joy of planning my wedding and the excitement mixed with apprehension of having a baby. They were my academic family.

There are more than 1.7 million staff members at postsecondary institutions in the United States, a number that continues to grow. In addition to their core functions, they often serve as advisers to student clubs and organizations, teach students life lessons as they navigate their newfound independence living away from home, and serve as support systems as students deal with personal and peer conflicts. Often these additional activities require staff members to attend events or student meetings after business hours, cutting into their personal lives. Yet they still show up smiling.

The role of staff assumes added importance as colleges and universities make plans to increase diversity initiatives in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of these student-led movements across the country called for increased student support and a more diverse presence within the classroom. Staff members from a diverse range of identities are also integral to the overall student experience and the creation of inclusive campus environments. At many institutions, the staff is much more diverse than the faculty. However, that trend often dissipates when you look at senior administrators across college campuses.

To address that, some institutions are incorporating staff initiatives in to their diversity plans. For example, Brown University is starting initiatives to help foster the professional development and career growth of staff members. If other institutions are committed to changing the cultures of their campuses, they should acknowledge the vital role of administrative staff members and ensure their diversity plans incorporate ways to foster those staffers' career growth.

While we as faculty are experts in our fields, we are not the experts in all fields. As we ascend to leadership positions, it behooves us to keep a finger on the pulse of the larger campus community and to foster an opportunity-rich environment for all. Staff members have goals, career plans and ambitions that need to be supported. No one would accept a job if they were told from the beginning that they would have minimal to no potential for growth. But for many staff members at academic institutions, that becomes the reality. They often receive little, if any, career mentoring from supervisors and have to consider other job opportunities (often at other institutions) to advance or reshape their careers. Many of us have had annual reviews that simply serve the purpose of checking the box. While perhaps simple in theory, we should make these opportunities meaningful and substantive. Faculty or leadership development programs may be necessary to support supervisors in providing meaningful mentoring and career advice.

In recent years, inflated administration paychecks have come in for attack as one reason for the soaring cost of student tuition. But let’s be clear: few staff members are making impressive salaries, let alone the jaw-dropping seven-figure packages that have drawn the most attention. This is not an argument for or against increased pay or an increased number of administrators on campuses. Rather, it means to highlight the importance of diversifying the current staff and faculty at colleges and universities. If increased attention were given to current staff members, noting their skill sets and future ambitions, perhaps it could lead to more productivity, lower turnover and increased job satisfaction. All of which could save money in the long run.

In his last State of the Union address, President Obama asked, “How do we reignite that spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges?” I believe the challenges that many colleges and universities will need to address over the coming year as they create inclusive environments, valuing diversity of all types, will be solved by retaining and strengthening all members of the team. That includes the countless campus staffers who welcome students to their gray chairs.

Stephanie White, M.D., is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth/Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the Geisel Diversity Liaison for Student/Resident Advising. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 

U Miami Settles Philosophy Harassment Case

The University of Miami has settled with a former graduate student of philosophy who alleged long-term sexual harassment by Colin McGinn, a professor of philosophy. In her high-profile lawsuit, the student claimed that McGinn used his position of power to gain her trust and “groomed” her for a sexual relationship -- including by inviting her to his office, offering her a research assistantship and asking her to participate in a “hand ritual” that involved prolonged physical contact. McGinn then began to send numerous sexually tinged emails, with lines from the book Lolita and demands for “unlimited hand strokes and full body grips,” according to the complaint. He allegedly kissed the student's feet, to which she responded by wearing sneakers to their meetings to avoid the unwanted kissing, and began demanding sex. McGinn allegedly threatened her for limiting contact over his escalating demands, saying via email, “I am quite forgiving. But this refusal to even meet with me to talk is quite unhelpful. The last thing I want to do is think badly of you, and you are much better off with my support than without it. So please think carefully about your actions.”

The student reported the professor’s actions as alleged violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibit sex discrimination in education, according to her complaint. But the university allegedly did not follow protocol for investigations under Title IX, such as by diverting her report to an informal investigation channel, rather than a formal one that would have guaranteed transparency about the status of her case. She alleged that procedural inconsistencies contributed to McGinn’s “academic assault” on her in retribution for her report, which included an email saying he’d be removing her name and any acknowledgment of her significant editorial contribution to a book he authored. He also allegedly sent letters to renowned colleagues at various institutions, saying he was being falsely accused by the student, whom he named. McGinn signed a resignation agreement in early 2013, according to the complaint, but was salaried and employed through the end of year, during which time he was permitted to supervise another female graduate student.

McGinn has argued that “hand job” was philosophical banter. The plaintiff also alleged that the university helped McGinn preserve his reputation while damaging hers, including by submitting a false charge to the Faculty Senate that McGinn had failed to report a consensual relationship, rather than a charge of sexual harassment. The plaintiff's attorney said this week that the case had been settled, and that all parties were prohibited from talking about it. The university did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Advice to grad students for demonstrating career readiness competencies to employers (essay)


As many grad students approach the end of their academic programs, they realize they’ve forgotten how to talk about their strengths and skills to different types of employers. Joseph Barber provides advice.

Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
iStock/Rawpixel Ltd

Lumina Revises Plan for Completion Push

The Lumina Foundation on Monday released a revised strategic plan for achieving its goal of 60 percent of Americans holding a college degree, certificate or other high-quality credential by 2025. The foundation has released a new plan every four years since first proposing the goal in 2008.

The latest iteration provides a more detailed breakdown of the 16.4 million Americans who will need to earn a credential to meet the goal. About 4.8 million are traditional-age students who now are not likely to earn a college degree or certificate. Another 6.1 million are potential returning adult students, who attended college but did not earn a credential. The final group is 5.5 million with no college credits -- 64 million Americans fit this description, Lumina said.

"Through the work we’ve done under our first two strategic plans, we have learned what it will take to reach the goal. But we also have learned that the changes that must be made are not mere tweaks. Modest, incremental improvement will not suffice. Indeed, fundamental redesign is required," the report said. "We must move from a system that is centered on institutions and organized around time to one that is centered on students, organized around high-quality learning and focused on closing attainment gaps. In short, we must build a true system of postsecondary learning from the disconnected and fragmented pieces we have now."

How library and information studies research is shortchanging libraries (essay)

There is no holy book in which God tells us what libraries should be. Over the centuries, the contours of library services and collections have instead been mediated by humans, including founders, funders, managers and -- surprise, surprise -- users. That’s the conclusion I came to after researching and writing Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library. In it, I trace the history of this ubiquitous institution, largely by listening to the voices of those who have used libraries since the mid-19th century, to identify reasons why it has been loved for generations.

As I analyzed the data, I was surprised at how quickly those reasons organized into three broad categories. People have loved their libraries for: (1) the useful information they made accessible, (2) the transformative potential of commonplace reading they circulated and (3) the public spaces they provided. Examples abound.

Information Access

While sitting at a Cincinnati public library desk in 1867, Thomas Edison compiled a bibliography on electricity. “Many times Edison would get excused from duty under pretense of being too sick to work,” a colleague later recalled, “and invariably strike a beeline for the library, where he would spend the entire day and evening reading … such works on electricity as were to be had.”

In 1971, 10-year-old Barack Obama returned to Honolulu from Jakarta. “The first place I wanted to be was in a library,” he said years later. “One Saturday … with the help of a raspy-voiced old librarian who appreciated my seriousness, I found a book on East Africa.” Obama wanted information about Kenya, birthplace of his father, a Luo tribe member. “The Luo raised cattle and lived in mud huts and ate cornmeal and yams and something called millet,” the book noted. “Their traditional costume was a leather thong across the crotch.” Shocked by what he read, Obama “left the book open-faced on a table and walked out.”

The Transformative Potential of Reading

After her father died in 1963, 9-year-old Sonia Sotomayor buried herself in reading at her Bronx library and the apartment she shared with her mother and brother. “Nancy Drew had a powerful hold on my imagination,” she remembered. “Every night, when I’d finished reading and got into bed and closed my eyes, I would continue the story, with me in Nancy’s shoes, until I fell asleep.” Her mind, she noted, “worked in ways very similar” to Nancy’s. “I was a keen observer and listener. I picked up on clues. I figured things out logically, and I enjoyed puzzles. I loved the clear, focused feeling that came when I concentrated on solving a problem and everything else faded out.”

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan wrote the daughter-in-law of Harold Bell Wright, whose best-selling 1920s religious novel That Printer of Udell’s Reagan read as an adolescent in Dixon, Ill. Shortly after reading the book, he declared himself saved and was baptized. The novel’s protagonist, Reagan wrote Wright’s daughter-in-law 60 years later, served as a role model that shaped his life. It’s likely the copy of That Printer of Udell’s Reagan read came from the Dixon Public Library, which he visited twice weekly in the early 1920s, often reading on the library’s front steps.

Library as Place

In the 1930s at the Atlanta Public Library’s African-American branch, one of the few public places where blacks felt safe and welcome, 10-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. came to the library several times weekly. Director Annie Watters later recalled their interactions. “He would walk up to the desk and … look me straight in the eye.” “Hello, Martin Luther,” she would say, always calling him by his first and middle names. “What’s on your mind?” “Oh, nothing, particularly.” For Watters, that was the cue King had learned a new “big word,” and between them they had a conversation in which King used the word repeatedly. Another game involved poetry. Again, King would stand by the desk, waiting. “What’s on your mind, Martin Luther?” Watters asked. “For I dipped into the future, far as the human eye could see,” he responded. Watters recognized the Tennyson poem, and finished the verse: “Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.”

In 2005, The Washington Post carried an article by Eric Wee on a District of Columbia branch library in one of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods. In it, Wee reported that every Tuesday night a homeless man named Conrad Cheek entered the library and set up his chessboard on a table in the children’s room. Wee immediately noticed a transformation. “No more ignored pleas” for this homeless man, “no averted glances. During the next hour, people will look him in the eye. They’ll listen to his words. In this down-at-the-heels library he’s the teacher.” Among his students was 9-year-old Ali Osman, whose mother explained that her son’s confidence had soared after playing with Conrad, that he was now bragging to friends about being a chess player. “We owe it all to Mr. Conrad,” she said.

Information access, the transformative power of commonplace reading, library as place -- all three combine to explain why people have valued their public libraries for the past 160 years. By harnessing the literatures on information access, commonplace reading and public spaces to analyze the historical roles of American public libraries, Part of Our Lives shows that from their origins they have contributed to their host communities in multiple ways.

They have been places of performance where users displayed moral progress and achievement. They have functioned as centripetal forces to craft a sense of community among disparate populations and evolve community trust among its multicultural elements. They have acted as key players not only to increase literacy (tens of thousands of immigrants learned English by reading printed materials from their public libraries) but also to construct group identity through the stories and places they provided. And public libraries have also started neighborhood conversations, welcomed the recently arrived into their midst, and served as community anchors.

A Limited Focus

I could only come to those conclusions, however, by tapping deeply into non-library and information studies literature that addresses reading and place. For most of its history, LIS has focused instead on what in the 18th century was called “useful knowledge,” in the 19th and 20th was called “best reading,” and in the late 20th morphed into “information.” That focused term has given particular meaning to phrases like “information access,” “information literacy” and “information community” that not only tend to exaggerate the role of LIS in the larger world of “information” (see, for example, how much attention LIS gets in James W. Cortada’s All The Facts: A History of Information in the United States Since 1870), but also dominate -- and limit -- the profession’s thinking.

Take library education, for example. As professional education programs evolved from “library schools” into “schools of information” in the last 30 years, most have focused on “information” as defined by the professional discourse they inherited, and then incorporated into that discourse analysis of the storage and retrieval properties of developing communications technologies. In the process, however, they decentered the library as a subject for instruction and research. Thus, when the 17 “I-schools” (12 ALA-accredited) met for the first time in 2005, none had core courses analyzing reading and place from the “library in the life of the user” perspective that I took in Part of Our Lives.

That’s unfortunate, because my historical research suggests that not knowing more about the reading and places libraries of all types provide greatly limits our ability to understand more deeply what libraries actually mean to their host communities. My research has demonstrated that generations of users have valued the public library as a place by voluntarily visiting it again and again for multiple reasons, many of which had nothing to do with information access.

Although I-school curricula emphasize services leading to the kinds of information Thomas Edison and Barack Obama found useful, they undervalue the impacts of information products that guided the lives of Ronald Reagan and Sonia Sotomayor, and they overlook the importance of library as place so evident in the experiences of Martin Luther King Jr., Conrad Cheek and Ali Osman.

If Part of Our Lives proves that reading and place have been as important to the American public library (and other types of libraries) as information access, then not having a core course in either at ALA-accredited programs is the equivalent of an American Bar Association-accredited law school without a core course on the Constitution or civil procedure. Unless organizations like the Association for Library and Information Science Education and the American Library Association, as well as the ALA Committee on Accreditation, insist that reading and place are essential parts of librarianship’s “domain” that must be taught at the core level, LIS education programs will continue to manifest limitations.

Such limitations are also evident in prognostications. In BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, John Palfrey rightfully contends that library digitization can equalize access to education, jobs and information, but he worries that “bad nostalgia” for services like commonplace reading and traditional library programs will interfere with future planning. In a January 2016 Wall Street Journal article, Steve Barker lamented that because of emerging technologies “the role for librarians and public libraries is shrinking.” “Don’t mourn the loss of libraries,” John McTernan argued in a March 2016 Telegraph article. “The internet has made them obsolete.”

Ironically, unlike LIS educators and researchers, library practitioners intuitively seem to recognize the value of reading and place. The American library press abounds in reports of popular programs. Kathleen de la Peña McCook devotes much attention to library as place in her two editions (2004 and 2011) of Introduction to Public Librarianship. ALA initiated a “Libraries Transform” campaign last year to increase awareness of the multiple roles America’s academic, school and public libraries play in their host communities. Then there’s the “Project Outcome” initiative ALA’s Public Library Association (PLA) recently crafted to measure public library impacts, the report Public Libraries: A Vital Space for Family Engagement released in August by the Harvard Family Research Project and the PLA that calls on libraries to increase efforts to engage families in children’s learning, and the three-year study entitled “Bringing Home Early Literacy: Determining the Impact of Library Programming on Parent Behavior” that the Institute of Museum and Library Services is funding.

And regarding “library as place,” academic librarians especially have shown leadership in recent years by renovating spaces rescued from print collections now digitized and accessible online into group study areas that students use for a variety of class-related purposes. The sociability that reading has fostered for generations among students is much in evidence in these places. Many college and university libraries also installed coffee bars. The collective effect of these actions (sometimes referred to as the “information commons” movement) is obvious at my home institution, Florida State University, where students now call the main Robert M. Strozier Library “Club Stroz.” In recent years, turnstile counts have spiked.

For all of those efforts, however, researchers outside the profession and already overworked library practitioners have taken the initiative. Where is the LIS research community? Why aren’t members of that community conducting longitudinal studies evaluating library activities like the impact of summer reading programs on student reading levels as they move from one grade to another? Where’s the LIS research that identifies the community effects of programs like film festivals, book clubs, children’s story hours, English as a second language classes, literacy tutoring, art exhibits and musical presentations that thousands of public libraries have routinely been hosting for generations? Where are the LIS researchers to perform similar evaluation studies on the multiple community effects of library reading and library as place in all types of libraries across the country and over time that take into account demographic variables like race, age, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.?

Data generated by such research would not only benefit librarians struggling to define mission statements and justify budgets to city managers, council members and school and college administrators (many of whom are convinced the internet has made libraries “obsolete”), it would also help librarians identify which programs and services are providing greatest benefit to their communities and thus deserve additional resources.

Part of Our Lives shows that, over the generations, library users learned many things in multiple ways through the useful information libraries made accessible, the commonplace reading materials they circulated and the public spaces they provided. But until LIS educators teach library reading and library as place in their professional programs at the core level, and until LIS researchers ask questions about what users learn from their interaction with libraries and determine how that learning fits into their everyday lives, both are addressing only a fraction of what libraries actually do for their patrons. And both are falling short of their profession’s needs.

Wayne A. Wiegand is F. William Summers Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Studies at Florida State University and author of Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library (Oxford University Press, 2015). Between January and May 2017, he will be Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 


Subscribe to RSS - administrators
Back to Top