Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Pop Culture and the Public Library

Dividing high and pop culture seems antithetical to true diversity and inclusion.

“Library lovers,” though they be small in number, are perhaps some of America’s most technologically savvy and socially connected individuals, according to Pew Research Center. They also represent a more liberal and wealthy class of Americans than the average.

The Pew report released Thursday showed that approximately 30 percent of the U.S. population are “high engagement” library users. Of this “high engagement” population, 20 percent are described as “information omnivores,” and 10 percent as “library lovers.” Library lovers, says Pew, are often younger and well-educated. “They are also heavy internet users,” Pew says, particularly via mobile devices. Information Omnivores had the highest levels of employment, education, and household income (35 percent live in households earning $75,000 or more)—and the highest technology use. Almost half (46 percent) own a tablet and 68 percent have a smartphone. These are the people, says Pew, that value public libraries most, and read most. But love of library is also indicative of some other trends:

Members of these high engagement groups also tend to be active in other parts of their communities. They tend to know their neighbors, they are more likely to visit museums and attend sporting events, and they are more likely to socialize with families and friends.

A picture of the library frequenter begins to emerge: a civic-minded, well-educated individual who has strong ties to community, culture, and information. Also, interestingly, both the library lovers and information omnivores tended to lean liberal or Democrat.

Many people are surprised by the level of connectivity—technological and communal—reflected in these numbers. The stereotypical bookish recluse no longer fits America’s average library user persona: rather, we see a group of people who are digitally savvy, connected, and often wealthy.

Nonetheless, it seems that those using libraries are somewhat homogenous: they’re mostly wealthy, well-educated, and well-informed. Yet the library ought to reach a diverse population: it ought to offer resources to those from lower incomes, without many community connections, or to those lacking technological or informational resources. Yet many such individuals are the library’s rarest frequenters—or never use it at all.

Perhaps one problem here is that American pop culture does not usually promote learning for its own sake. Whereas being “smart” or “well-read” used to be a coveted thing in American society, it is now promoted mostly within certain circles or cultural cliques. Otherwise, it’s treated as being “nerdy” or “snobby.” The people American pop culture awards the most attention usually fall within the entertainment genre—be it an athlete, celebrity, pop artist or TV star. While some of these jobs require a good education, not all do—and the pop star’s intellectual life is rarely broadcast to the general public. We fixate on their romantic life, physical appearance, workout regimen, diet, social engagements, favorite movies, etc. What they read, whether they have a favorite author, where they went to college—few ask these questions.

The bastions of “high culture” in America—libraries, concert halls, museums—have increasingly become the homes of an elite class. While this isn’t necessarily a problem, it reinforces a stereotype of separation and homogeneity that is false to the very nature of these mediums. Books are a diverse and scattered mass, with a wealth of knowledge at every reading level. They weren’t meant for one societal or cultural class. Music—even the classical sort—is incredibly diverse and beautiful. Museums have a wealth of information, history, and art that should delight and inform us all. Yet how many Americans  frequent them of their own accord? How do we make these things palatable and appealing to mass culture? How do we turn people from movie theaters to museums, from cable to libraries?

Perhaps it should start with the images, mediums, and role models we place in front of children. What do we encourage them to read and listen to? What sort of people are they striving to emulate? Mark Hemingway wrote a thought-provoking piece at The Federalist in defense of book-banning, calling on parents and authority figures to act “as responsible gatekeepers,” to initiate “more conversations about what constitutes an appropriate cultural climate for children in an era of information overload.”

While Hemingway was focusing more on modern literature’s questionable material, his points apply to this topic as well: besides monitoring what’s kept out of children’s minds, we should be giving some thought to what’s going in. There is no reason why the average American high school boy, who loves NFL football and How I Met Your Mother, can’t also love reading Hemingway and listening to Beethoven. Our social constructs, dividing “high culture” and “pop culture,” seem antithetical to true diversity and inclusion. Tweet: Our social constructs, dividing

While it is admirable that the library is still doing well in this digital age, it would be exciting to see its participants reflect a more diverse age, income, and political bracket. I don’t think it’s impossible to achieve that diversity—but much depends on how we market knowledge and information to our world.

(Bonus material for Saturday: The World’s 20 Most Stunning Libraries)