This is the first post in a series that wishes to highlight important aspects of a public library’s collection that might go unnoticed. (You can read the introductory post here.) But before we start….
A public library doesn’t just have books, let’s be honest. It has music, often in the form of CDs or digital tracks we can stream or even download through a streaming service like Hoopla. It has movies, blueray and DVDs, often categorized by genres like drama, action, documentary, and comedy (but see our movie collection here at River, which also has a wonderful and unique foreign film section; and also definitely check out Kanopy, a free film streaming service offered by many public libraries (including River), which has an astonishingly high quality selection of films, especially in the documentary genre). Public libraries have magazines and newspapers, concerning a variety of interesting topics – everything from culture to technology to books to the arts to politics to psychology to business to cars to philosophy and beyond – and these are resources that are unfortunately often very expensive to subscribe to, but can be read at your local public library for free. And they have audiobooks and e-books and e-audio books and playaways, etc.
Now there is of course a very understandable emphasis nowadays in the public library world on digital collections – ebooks, e-audio books, e-magazines, film and music streaming, etc. And that’s fine and good – I know I sometimes feel I need a book very quickly, and the Internet (via libraries, Amazon, but most especially, for me at least, the wonderful, fabulous Internet Archive) gives it to me, lickety-split. But sometimes we forget that public libraries are also gathering places, in the physical world, where you can slow down, disconnect from the admittedly rather frightening, time-devouring monster-tentacles of social media, turn the pages of an actual book, and sit next to a neighbor who is also reading something. I mean, where you can actually see your neighbor, give him or her or they a nod – and maybe strike up a conversation about something you share in common, or (better yet?) something you don’t, but which he or she or they might find interesting, anyways. Everyone has heard about how so many social institutions in our country are being eroded – social clubs, unions, families, government, places of worship – and how this erosion frays the threads that bind us together as a community, culture and country. And that is troubling, no doubt about it, and we need to talk about this. But public libraries are places where we can practice each day to keep these threads tight and taut, and in doing so “talk about it.” Because, yes, of course it’s great and convenient to download a book on a Kindle. But it’s also great, as Sherry Turkle has pointed out over and over, just to see and talk to actual human beings.
In today’s post, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not going to focus on music, movies, newspapers or magazines, but on books, which are still (and I think should be) the bread and butter, the heart, of a library’s collection. And I’m going to focus on one of my favorite sections in the library, the 300s, which I’m guessing many people might not be totally aware of. What does “the 300s” refer to?
The 300s is a Dewey Decimal Number that stands for a very large category called the “social sciences.” In that sense, the 300s are exactly what they sound like – they are the numbers on the spines of books that start with 300 and end with 399. (When you look for a book in an online library catalog, the “call number,” which is the Dewey Decimal Number for most public libraries, will be what you use to find the book on the shelf.) Every single book in the 300s will be about the social sciences. Okay, so what are the social sciences?
Well, look at the phrase – “social sciences.” The social sciences are a bunch of different ways or lenses (“science” means “knowledge” in Latin) for thinking about and looking at society (“social”). Are they sciences, like hard physical sciences – physics, chemistry, astronomy? Well, not really. Are they like the humanities – literature, poetry, fiction, visual art, film, music, where people “make stuff up” and are super imaginative, we could say? Well, no, they’re not like that either. So what the heck are they?
The social sciences are more squishy that the hard sciences and harder than the humanities, let’s say. Or we could say, more philosophically (and probably contentiously), if the humanities are primarily concerned with beauty, the self, and subjectivity, and science is concerned with truth, nature and objectivity, the social sciences are considered with ethics, culture and inter-subjectivity. (The threads that bind us together.) But all this is too abstract. Here are the main topics within the 300s:
Customs and Etiquette
Okay, now that we’ve got that covered, let’s look at actual particular physical (and of course digital, since we are writing and reading this online) examples. But first, look at this:
What do you see?
This is a view of some shelves here at River. But that sticker on the shelf on the left – that shows us what call numbers can be found all down that row, starting with the 280s (religions) all the way through the 300s, ending at the 330s (economics). So what books can be found in the 300s?
Well, let’s look at one example (talk about pressure!). Here’s our example:
The first picture is the cover – and book covers I think are always fun to look at and wonder about, though bestseller covers (Patterson, Danielle Steele, etc.) can, let’s be honest, be kind of homogeneous and uninspiring – along with the title, author’s name, and the name of the author who wrote the foreword.
The second picture is the call number – 305.800973. And the 305’s are….”social groups.” Okay, so what’s this book about? Well, here’s an excerpt from a review from the NY Times. (Book reviews published by good sources of information, like the NY Times, for the most part, are great ways, probably the best ways, to help us make decisions about what to read and therefore what to spend our valuable time on and with; this particular review was written by a journalist from the Times named Lauretta Charlton, who is also an editor and music columnist):
In the essays, written between 1994 and 2018, Pinckney reports from the streets of Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown. He traces the ways in which the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s fiery sermons nearly derailed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. He charts, block by block, the gentrification of Harlem, and visits a recovering New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where he tells the story of the ham.
In “How I Got Over,” he reflects on black expatriates — from Richard Wright to James Baldwin, Pinckney’s lodestar — who left for Europe to escape Jim Crow, only to witness racism by another name: Islamophobia.
But what stands out in this collection are the moments when Pinckney turns his eye toward the contradictions of the black bourgeoisie, of which he is a longtime member. Pinckney grew up in a middle-class family, in the 1960s, when being black and middle class often meant being accused of “trying to act white,” he writes. His mother and father were civil rights foot soldiers who in their spare time would do things like sue their hometown police department to force it to desegregate. His father “hawked N.A.A.C.P. memberships in airport men’s rooms.” His mother’s cousin was lynched in 1931, while a student at Atlanta University.
This blog post is not exactly about the content of books, so much as just making one hopefully more aware that important content such as this is not only available, but free with a library card. But I should say that Pinckney is a novelist, playwright and essayist, and that I personally enjoy Pinckney’s writing, and sometimes read his essays in a magazine called The New York Review of Books. But also, and more importantly, the book has gotten good reviews, and would therefore not be a bad place to start if one wishes to explore the social sciences, race relations, racial discrimination, and African American culture.
Well, that’s our collection spotlight post for today. But just think about how many examples there are out there – many of which have received good book reviews from people who are experts in their respective fields – from all the various branches of the social sciences – politics, economics, law, education, true crime, criminology, military science, anthropology, folklore, etiquette, commerce, customs, statistics, sociology. I mean, basically, the sky is the limit. And public libraries are avenues, which cost no money at all, for rocketing right up there into the illuminating blue.